Annette King could well have coined the phrase “girls can do anything”. As one of New Zealand’s longest serving politicians, she has been there, done that in a career that has spanned 30-plus years. The former dental nurse entered parliament in 1984 as the MP for Horowhenua.
She was 37, just a year older than Jacinda Ardern, the woman replacing Annette as Labour’s deputy leader following her shock resignation.
Over the next three decades, she juggled motherhood – her daughter Amanda is now 46 and a financial investigator living in Sydney – with a life less ordinary, one that would see her move from backbench MP to cabinet minister within the space of just a few years.
Portfolio responsibilities have included Youth Affairs, Police – the infamous Urewera raids happened under her watch – Transport, Justice, State Services, Immigration and Food Safety, but it was as Health Minister that she feels she made the greatest contribution, introducing free doctor visits for children under six, reshaping the delivery of affordable primary healthcare, doubling the mental health budget and putting a palliative care strategy in place.
“One of the highlights was being able to attend the world health forum for six years in a row. It was a fantastic opportunity, and I’m proud I was there to negotiate the framework around tobacco control in New Zealand and to ratify it,” she tells the Weekly just hours after announcing she was standing down.
Equally happy turning up to charity quiz nights or the local bowling club BBQ as she is meeting with world leaders, Annette, the middle sister of three – younger sister Pauline (65) lives in Sydney and older sister Raelene (71) in Picton – has always made it a priority to champion women, whether working mothers, career singles or stay-at-home mums.
“The older I get,” she says, “the more determined I am that women should be able to make whatever life choices they wish without judgment and bigoted criticism.”
It was a sentiment she fully supported with her actions – right down to the team of staff she helped employ.
Says a former senior private secretary, “Annette [then Minister of Health] offered me the job as SPS the day before I had my second child. She supported me as a full-time working mum who went back to work when my kids were four and five months old. I would never have been able to do it without her practical advice and can-do attitude. She was, and is, a real role model to me.”
Known affectionately as “Aunty Annette” – or “Annie” to those closest to her – she has been MP for Rongotai for 24 years and is credited by many as being the glue that’s held the Labour caucus together in recent times.
Annette’s standing as parliamentary “matriarch” has been acknowledged across the political spectrum, with Prime Minister Bill English describing the 69-year-old as “a longtime, stabilising influence” while her political nemesis, National’s Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, has called her “a worthy opponent”.
She has, on occasion, been labelled New Zealand’s own Hillary Clinton, and here Annette’s sense of humour comes to the fore; she reckons she raised the comparison after being accused of being “too old” (she’s the same age as Hillary). To her seven-year-old grandson William – a regular visitor to her third floor office when he’s in Wellington for holidays – she’s “Granny Annie”.
While her career – and the reasons behind her decision to step down – will continue to be dissected and discussed in political circles for weeks, if not months to come, the decision was easy, she says.
As well as her daughter, she also has three adult stepsons with husband Ray Lind (64) and it is that large extended family that will become Annette’s focus after the September election.
“I wouldn’t swap the career I’ve had for anything. If I have regrets, they are personal ones.
“Our five grandchildren live in Australia and we see them when we can but they’re growing up fast. The eldest is 15 now – and grandparents will be of less importance to them soon.
“I love being a grandmother, it’s one of the joys of my life. I want time to spend with them.”
She is also looking forward to spending more time with her partner of 17 years, who “has put up with so much”.
“I know everyone gives the same reasons for retiring, but if you’re a politician, it’s true. As Ray says, it would be great to actually have a weekend where we could go to dinner and a movie instead of me having to rush off to an event, and then to a meeting, and then flying somewhere to do something else! Ray has always played second fiddle to my career. Now it’s time for me to support him.”
Her dad Bill, now 94 and living in a rest home, will be getting a bit more attention too.
“My older sister Raelene looks after him and I get to ring him now and again. He tells me he’s never been better. He can’t walk, he’s in a wheelchair, but he still thinks life’s worth living.”
It’s a sentiment not lost on his daughter.
“I’ve still got eight months and I’m going to be campaigning right up until the election. I’ll probably take a bit of a break and then look around for another job. I’m not ready to retire from life just yet.”
Words: Julie Jacobsen