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Maggie breaks new ground

North Shore MP Maggie Barry reflects on her growing passion for politics and her biggest year yet

She’s a politician now and her days of presenting a garden show on television are well behind her. But tending to her own backyard is still one of Maggie Barry’s greatest pleasures. And that is exactly where she was just over a year ago, when she received the call she’d been hoping for from Prime Minister John Key.

“It was my birthday and we were having a working bee,” she recalls. “My partner Grant looks after the lawn, and we even had my son Joe on the chipping machine. My phone was in my back pocket and just after 1pm, it rang. I pulled it out and saw it was the boss, and he told me the great news that he was making me minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, Conservation and Senior Citizens.

“It truly was a wonderful birthday present – even better than Joe offering to cook dinner that night… now I think of it, I don’t know if he ever did that. He may have got out of it in the excitement of the moment!”

What followed was a pretty intense period as Maggie got up to speed with all her new responsibilities. “It’s a heavy workload,” she admits. “I’m someone who has always liked being busy, but for the first eight months, I worked 100-hour weeks getting to grips with it all. And that’s not sustainable in the long-term – you lose touch with friends for a start – so I decided I did need to cut back a bit.”

Maggie (56) is fortunate that her partner, lawyer Grant Kerr (65), is semi-retired and takes a keen interest in her work. “He comes to a lot of events with me and is really interested in politics so it’s great to have someone I trust to talk to about some of the thornier issues. As I said when I was first selected, the North Shore was getting two of us for the price of one.”

Maggie’s son Joe turns 18 this month and is increasingly independent. “We always try to spend the weekends together, at least Sunday night dinner,” she says. “He follows everything I do, and parliament and its debates. I’m not sure if he’s keeping an eye on me but I know it does annoy him when people say negative things about me.

“He’s become accepting of the fact it’s part of the deal and you can’t take things personally. It’s been a valuable lesson for him. We’ve had some very good discussions about how to approach people who are openly rude to you or don’t share your beliefs.”

In her own electorate, the National Party MP is usually greeted with a friendly smile when she’s out and about. But her new ministerial portfolios have exposed her to people who are so impassioned about their beliefs, they lose all civility. She singles out those opposed to controlling pest animals with the poison 1080 as being among the more unpleasant.

“I have had the nastiest emails from some of the anti-1080 campaigners – ‘eat 1080’, ‘feed it to your children’ – really ugly stuff,” she admits. “To me, it’s been one of the most surprising things in politics – that people are so extreme in their views and so convinced they’re right, they will stop at nothing, including threats to put 1080 into infant formula.”

Thankfully, all her years of working in the media have helped Maggie develop a thick skin. “I genuinely don’t care if people are nasty to me. If it got me down and I lay awake at night, then I couldn’t do the job.” And Maggie does love her job. She has a strong personal link to all three of her portfolios. Her passion for the outdoors connects her to conservation issues and both she and Grant have an active interest in arts and culture. Senior citizens are close to her heart because of her experiences with her late mother Agnes, who suffered from dementia.

Since she entered parliament, Maggie has spent a good chunk of time visiting seniors around the country. She sees loneliness and elder abuse as serious issues, and recently launched a website, SuperSeniors, packed with information on staying connected to communities, and eating and living well (as well getting the most out of the SuperGold Card).

Where possible, she likes to find crossovers in her work. For instance, she wants to get senior groups involved in helping with a Department of Conservation War on Weeds initiative to tackle the dirty dozen plants that, if allowed to grow uncontrolled, will smother our native natural habitats.

“I have four of them in my garden: English ivy, climbing asparagus, wild ginger and wandering willie,” she admits. “I pull them out to keep them under control and that’s absolutely fine, but the problems start if they get over the fence. Once they escape the garden, they can become a threat to the environment.” As Conservation Minister, Maggie is responsible for a third of New Zealand’s landscape. “That’s a really big backyard,” she says. “And then there is the big blue backyard up to our 12-mile nautical limit, which is really our new frontier as a conservation challenge. We have the Kermadecs now being extended as the biggest ocean sanctuary we’ve ever done. So we are really making sure we can protect our marine environments.

“I feel a real sense of urgency about protecting our native plant and bird species from possums, rats, stoats and feral cats,” adds Maggie. “If we get onto it now, we will save them, but if we hesitate, all is lost. We can’t afford to wait any longer.”

Maggie is proud to be the first person in the history of our parliament to simultaneously be minister for both Conservation and Arts, Culture and Heritage. She says John Key gave her both portfolios because he wanted New Zealanders to consider nationhood more widely than emblems and flags.

“The silver fern, kauri trees, kiwi – they define us in our natural landscape and make us distinct on the world stage, but so do our writers, artists and photographers, sculptors and performing artists,” says Maggie. “It’s been an incredible opportunity to learn more about things I’ve been interested in for a very long time.”

With her weekdays spent in Wellington and lots of travel around the country to speak at events – she topped 300 in 2015 – there isn’t a lot of me-time in Maggie’s schedule. She tries to get enough exercise with the help of an app on her phone that tracks the number of steps she takes.

“I aim for 5000 to 10,000 a day. My office in the Beehive is on the fourth floor so I try to take the stairs and on the rare occasion I’m up early enough, I love to go walking before work in the Wellington Botanic Gardens.”

On weekends, she and Grant make the most of the natural landscapes near to their home in Devonport. “I enjoy getting out in the fresh air, so we like to catch the ferry over to Rangitoto and walk up to admire the panoramic views of Auckland. Or we’ll cycle to North Head.”

Maggie reckons that politics will be her home for a number of years yet. “I would like to give it a 15 to 20-year run,” she says. “Any more is tricky at my age. But I don’t ever see myself retiring completely.” Still, she’s been looking forward to her summer break. Weather permitting, she and Grant are planning to do some tramping. “I’ve done four of the nine Great Walks and my aim is to do them all.” Naturally some of Maggie’s holiday will be devoted to her tried and true way of switching off – pottering in her garden.

“Politics is a very full-on job and coming home to a safe haven where you can enjoy being quiet with your family and friends is precious,” she says. “I come back to my garden and weed and cut things down. It reconnects me with what’s worthwhile in life. I’ve always felt peaceful in a garden. Other worries, stresses and thoughts disappear and you concentrate on what you’re doing, making it look good and nurturing the plants. I always come away feeling much more focused and refreshed.”

From seasoned gardener to Conservation Minister: Maggie’s new role took her south in November when she discussed environmental issues with Prince Charles at Dunedin’s Orokonui Ecosanctuary.

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