Dr Marilyn Waring has just returned from the trip of a lifetime – a magnificent African adventure. It’s been a dream a decade in the making for the 62-year-old. While some of us might whip out the credit card, jump on a plane and pay it off later, the former National Party MP, who was made Chair of the Finance and Expenditure Committee at the tender age of 23, didn’t dare. Instead, Marilyn preferred to put aside $150 a fortnight until she’d saved up enough for the trip.
It was the death of her dearly loved dad William last year that finally made her seize the day. He was the one who had always encouraged her curiosity and thirst for knowledge, while she was growing up on the family’s Waikato farm.
“I had a dad who thought girls could do anything. That’s normal now, but it wasn’t back then,” she recalls. “We ran as a mob in Taupiri. Looking back now, though, some of the things we did make me feel a little horrified – like how we’d hammer pieces of corrugated iron to four-by-twos and call them canoes!”
In her seventh decade, Marilyn is still in demand, and she shows no signs of slowing down. She’s now more well known for her groundbreaking research and humanitarian efforts, rather than for becoming New Zealand’s youngest MP almost 40 years ago.
As a proud lesbian, she’s battled for same-sex marriage and she became a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to women and economics in 2008. She’s also one of 1000 women nominated so far for the Nobel Peace Prize. But she maintains it’s when she’s supervising PhD students at Auckland University of Technology that she feels at her most content.
“Every day, people come to discuss new knowledge with me. It’s such a privilege – they’re teaching me all the time,” she explains.
The Professor of Public Policy beams when she talks about her students’ accomplishments. As she gathers them together in the office foyer for their photograph, she fusses over the group, telling them they all look wonderful. It’s hard to tell if Marilyn’s their mentor, their mother or both. Smiling and dressed in vivid red, it’s a far cry from her darker days.
During her second term in parliament, she felt very lonely as the only woman in the National caucus, she admits. Later in her third term, she bravely went up against Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, refusing to give in to the party’s support of nuclear testing. Muldoon decided to call a snap election, which ended the party’s time in power, and with it, Marilyn’s political career.
“Muldoon was a bully and it was a very rugged kind of place to be,” she recalls. “But it was an experience that opened a lot of doors that wouldn’t have opened otherwise. I could never have written Counting for Nothing if I hadn’t had the experience of learning about national accounts on the public expenditure.”
The book, published in 1989, is now widely considered the founding document of feminist economics. This year, Marilyn’s taking up the pen again to write the story of her time in government, spanning from her selection by the Raglan electorate in 1975, to when she left Parliament Buildings in 1984.
“I knew I could write it now because I’m not angry anymore. You shouldn’t write when you’re angry – it’s like whipping the poor reader,” Marilyn laughs.
It’s bound to be a gripping yarn, and ticks off another dream on her list, as journeying to Africa did. Marilyn even took her mum Audrey (89) along with her on the trip, which included a 15-day safari.
“She was a legend,” Marilyn says proudly of Audrey. “The tour guides said the closest person to her age had been someone in their seventies. Mum was setting a record!”
The pair zipped about in four-wheel drives, flew over Victoria Falls in a helicopter and spent three days floating down the Chobe River in Botswana on a houseboat. They opened the curtains every morning to an array of elephants, crocodiles and even lions.
“It was very special being there with Mum. What made it more so was there was no Wi-Fi, no telephone, no texts. It was wonderful,” Marilyn smiles.
With Africa now a memory, Marilyn’s attention is firmly on her book. But one thing she won’t be doing is setting herself a deadline – she says they only make her miserable. You also won’t find her tuning in to Parliament TV or listening to talkback radio for a spot of nostalgia. “Neither of them are healthy,” she laments.
But there is a part of her former life that will always remain. “I don’t think I could ever turn the political energy or the energy for inquiry off,” she smiles.
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