Down a long driveway in a quiet Devonport street in Auckland lies Maggie Barry’s private retreat. This seaside house, with its pretty garden, is one of the few places she is able to totally relax with her partner Grant Kerr and her 16-year-old son Joe. It’s where she can switch off from the job that has taken over her life for the past three years.
Being a politician isn’t for the faint-hearted, as Maggie (54) is the first to admit. The former broadcaster-turned-National MP has never known a workload like it. And yet, as we head towards another election, her face is on billboards once again and she is looking forward to representing Auckland’s North Shore in parliament for many years to come.
This election, her campaign manager is Grant, her partner of four years. The pair met on an Outward Bound course and share a can-do attitude and strong work ethic. The former lawyer is very hands-on with her campaign, even getting out early in the morning with his bottle of methylated spirits to scrub graffiti off Maggie’s image on the aforementioned billboards as well as knocking on doors and telephoning North Shore voters to get them onside.
“Grant’s such a nice person,” says Maggie. “Although I’m not sure he quite knew what he was letting himself in for!”
During an election campaign, a politician’s work/life balance tends to go out of the window, so Maggie and Grant have had to make a conscious effort to keep their personal relationship separate from their passion for politics.
“One Saturday night around midnight, we were still talking about work and I decided that was it, no more,” says Maggie.
“I want to be able to come home and unwind and with Grant the campaign manager, it’s hard to do that. So now we’ve got rules – there’s no talking about electioneering in the bedroom, over the dinner table or when we’re relaxing.”
She is equally resolute when it comes to spending time with son Joe. During the week he boards at his school, but on Friday afternoon, when he comes home on the ferry, Maggie is there to meet him. And she sees him off again on Monday morning.
“Those are my set-in-concrete things,” she explains. “It’s difficult finding time for family and fitting it all in, so Joe and I always ring fence time on a Saturday and Sunday too. I’ll take him to football or to the movies. Often we’ll play badminton and boy, do I need the exercise!”
The 80-hour working weeks and the snatched meals in the parliamentary precinct have taken their toll on her figure and her fitness, admits Maggie. “The Prime Minister told me in the first three years I should expect to put on three kilos. I’d put that on within three months! The trouble is you don’t get much exercise and there’s not a great range of healthy food available.”
When she’s down in Wellington, Maggie shares a flat with two colleagues.
With the average working day in parliament running from 7am till midnight, she says she’s never even lit the gas stove in their apartment, never mind prepared a meal. “The oven is used for storage,” she says, and she’s not joking.
But when Maggie returns home to Auckland, with the Hauraki Gulf and Devonport’s beaches on her doorstep, she seizes any chance to get active.
“Exercise is one of the ways Grant and I spend time together,” tells Maggie, whose preferred activity is for them to get out on their bikes. “Then, of course, we can go to a café and have a treat afterwards.”
The couple take part in local fun runs and are aiming to do the Auckland half marathon for the fourth time this year. They may not be the fastest runners out there, “but I’m not particularly competitive – it’s just about doing it”, says Maggie. “And I couldn’t manage a full marathon, it would finish me off.”
Grant was once a professional chess player and he’s been teaching Maggie and Joe to play. He’s also an avid collector of New Zealand photography and the walls of their home are covered in art. The outdoors, though, is still mostly the former Maggie’s Garden Show host’s domain.
“I come home on the weekends and cut things down, shift them round, deadhead and replant,” she says. “I enjoy that.”
Maggie reckons she’s always had a lot of energy and stamina, and with an MP’s schedule, she’s found she needs it more than ever. She has staff to manage, committees, parliamentary debates, functions and meetings to attend, and people with problems who need her help.
“I’ve learnt a phenomenal amount in the past three years,” she admits. “It’s hard work and full on, but it’s been better than I thought it would be because it’s stimulating on so many levels. There’s not a dull moment in the day, ever.”
Among the issues Maggie has focused on in her first term as an MP is a cause that’s close to her heart – the welfare of elderly people.
"I’ve been doing lots of rest home visits around the country and talking to seniors about their issues. I didn’t come into politics to do that, but I couldn’t let it go,” says Maggie, who had personal experience of how important good care is over the many years her mother was suffering from dementia.
Staunchly anti-euthanasia, Maggie stood up against a proposed bill and has set up an all-party group to work on better end-of-life care. But the part of her job she loves the most is working with the people of her electorate.
“That’s really rewarding,” she says. “Someone will come to me with a really unpleasant situation and I can do something to make a difference.”
Admittedly there are other sides of the job that aren’t so gratifying. For instance, during debates in parliament there is often a lot of mud-slinging and personal insults – they call it sledging – and Maggie has had to learn to deal with it.
“People are very, very rude sometimes,” she says. “Some of my opponents told me I was toast in the first fortnight and it took a lot of swallowing a dead rat to be insulted by people I don’t respect very much.
“It used to annoy me. Initially, I responded in kind and then I figured out it was poor form and there was no point. It’s all part of the game. Fortunately, I’ve developed the hide of a rhino because if you were a sensitive soul, you wouldn’t survive five minutes.”
Maggie’s also become used to having people approach her in the supermarket to share their opinion of what the government is up to. “Sometimes they say ‘good on you’ and other times they don’t. But you don’t die wondering! You know what their views are. And that’s good because I wanted to represent a community I was part of.”
Seeing her name in headlines is something Maggie became accustomed to during her career as a broadcaster, but back in July she hit the news in a rather more dramatic way when she spoke up about having been groped by the entertainer Rolf Harris, who had been convicted of indecent assault.
“I got a bit of flak for that,” she says. “Some people implied I was doing it for publicity, which of course I was not. I’d watched the case go through and been completely horrified at what he’d done to those young girls.”
Maggie was in her twenties and working as a radio presenter when she experienced a little of what Rolf was capable of.
“I was stroppy enough to have him on about it,” she recalls.
Within half an hour of talking about it on the radio, the emails and phone calls started coming in from women who had also been violated by the entertainer.
“Not only did this man do horrible things to them but some of them weren’t believed, not even by their own families. I think through the years that has been corrosive. I was pleased to be able to help those women and give them a chance to get some assistance,” she says.
Maggie feels many of the jobs she has done over the course of her career have given her the skills and mental robustness for the one she is doing now. This is the life she is meant to be leading and she’s thriving on it.
“It can be tough and it can be isolating,” she says. “It’s hard to keep up with friends. But it took a lot of time, effort and financial sacrifice to get here and I’ve always seen myself staying for three or four terms. I love it.”
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