The scarlet-coloured door at the entrance of her home, perched high over Wellington, is flung open with gusto as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Annette King welcomes the New Zealand Woman's Weekly inside enveloping us in a warm hug and a comforting waft of Estée Lauder’s Knowing.
This is her sanctuary, just a 10- minute drive – and yet a whole world away – from the Beehive.
It’s the place where she and her CEO husband Ray Lind (63) have lived for the past 13 years, and is where they binge-watch Netflix, cook, entertain guests and listen to music.
“We love this house,” says Annette. “It’s comfortable and quiet. I am so lucky to live slap-bang in the middle of my electorate.”
Annette’s 30-plus year political career was a change from her original profession, as a dental nurse, and has seen her go from MP, to Helen Clark’s protégé to Health Minister and currently, Andrew Little’s 2IC.
Some Kiwis are calling her our own Hillary Clinton – and certainly, as both are female politicians aged 68, parallels can be drawn. But to her friends and her large, close-knit extended family, she’s known simply as Annie. And more specifically, to her six-year-old, Sydney-based grandson William – her only grandchild and the apple of her eye – she’s “Granny Annie”.
“He’s a hoot!” she beams, holding up a picture of an angelic-looking blond boy. “My husband reckons he’s a chip off the old block. When he was a bit younger, he was dragging his rocking horse up the hallway and it hit the wall, taking a big chip out of it. He looked at the horse, then looked at the wall, then kicked the horse and said, ‘Naughty horse!’ So he’s very like his grandmother, needing to find somebody responsible! He’s unfazed by my job. When I told him where I worked, he just said, ‘Can you play Lego with me?’”
She was there for William’s birth in Sydney, and says that she fell instantly and madly in love the moment she saw him.
“He’s the most beautiful boy in the world, but I’m probably a bit biased,” she tells. “I’m totally indulgent! I think grandparents should be.”
She pauses for a moment, and then admits, “I’m probably a better grandmother than I was a mother.”
Her daughter Amanda, a 45-year-old financial fraud investigator, who has lived in Australia since 2001, might disagree. But Annette is candid about her transition from dental nursing to politics in the early ‘80s, which she admits came at a cost.
Back then, her marriage to scientist Doug King had broken down, and a good female friend and colleague who lived in the house would babysit Amanda – then a talented teenage water polo player – when political obligations took Annette away.
“Sometimes I look back with guilt and think I should’ve been there for more of those [school event] things,” she sighs. “But when I talk to Amanda, she doesn’t feel that. Yes, we had our ups and downs, but she wasn’t rebellious, she was assertive! She’s been a fantastic daughter and is a wonderful mum – so patient and caring. I wish I had been as wonderful as she is.”
But Annette’s dedication to the job paid off. Despite losing Horowhenua to National in 1990, she took Miramar in 1993 and by the 1996 election, was ranked sixth on the Labour Party list.
In 1999, when Labour won the election and Prime Minister Helen Clark – who Annette describes as an “icon” and is still a firm email buddy – needed a health spokesperson to replace Lianne Dalziel, Annette was a no-brainer. It was also Lianne, the current Christchurch mayor, who was responsible for her meeting Ray.
Annette smiles at the mention of the “kind-faced” man she was introduced to back in 1999.
“It was a blind date,” she laughs. “I’d lost all faith! I had been on my own for 20 years and I wasn’t interested in dating. Lianne’s husband worked with Ray at the engineers union and took me along for a dinner at his house. He cooked scallops that he’d got the week before in Golden Bay, and some fancy sauce and salads. My first impression was...” she pauses, grinning“...that he was a great cook but that he was too nice!”
Ray persisted, so she relented – and told him to come to Parliament and he could take her out to dinner.
“So he arrived at my office on a Thursday night to find me and my colleagues sitting around watching the news.”
Unluckily, or maybe luckily for Ray, her cheeky comrades decided to tag along.
“His whole manner really won me over that night,” beams Annette. “My colleagues would sidle up to him, ask him questions to see what his intentions were, but he took it all in his stride. After that, we started going out to the movies or to dinner. We just really clicked.”
They married at Easter, a year after they had met.
Even though Ray is away in Vanuatu when we visit, his presence is everywhere – in the stacks of CDs and the huge works of art, which cover most surfaces of their home, including the kitchen.
Jars of homemade chutneys and kitsch teapots jostle for space while, in the corner, a black painting with white daubings – “Plums $3.00 a bag; Apples $3.00kg” – looks remarkably like one by Kiwi pop artist Dick Frizzell.
It looks so much like a Frizzell, it even bears the signature “Dick F”.
“It’s a joke,” explains Annette. “A fake Frizzell. Ray saw a real one in a gallery. It was just like that one – but it cost $10,000. He went back the next day but it was gone. So he told his secretary about it and she told her teenage son. He painted it overnight and presented it to Ray the next day!"
“Ray chooses all the art,” says Annette proudly. “He’s also a musician and he’s got the most amazing voice. The clincher was when he cooked me dinner on my birthday and then at the end of the meal, sang to me, Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.”
It became a fitting song because, while Ray is a whisky connoisseur, Annette’s been teetotal for 11 years now.
“I decided I wanted to lose weight but I didn’t want to give up food” she laughs. “One day, I just woke up and thought, ‘I’m not drinking any more.’ It wasn’t hard. Years ago, when I was a student, I used to smoke – and I quit that in one day too. I’m an all or nothing kind of person.”
Which might also explain her decision to have her eyebrows tattooed a year ago – her only real beauty extravagance apart from a love of Dior make-up.
“I recently went to visit Dad at his nursing home in Picton, and one of the nurses came up and said, ‘You have such great eyebrows.’ Next thing, I had a crowd of nurses around me to check them out – and a group of them booked in to have theirs done.”
Her older sister Raelene (70) lives next door to their 93-year-old dad Bill and visits him three times a day.
“She’s the family chief,” says Annette.
Her younger sister Pauline (64) lives in Sydney and there are many nieces, nephews, great nieces and nephews. She and her siblings are a 32nd Sri Lankan and she visited the small island nation for the first time three years ago.
“My great-great- grandfather on my father’s side was the first Sri Lankan settler to New Zealand,” she explains proudly.
The whole family – including Ray’s three adult sons, their children and her former husband – are very close and all celebrate Christmas together.
Wellbeing is still a priority for the former Minister of Health. Three mornings a week, she and Ray leave the house at 6am for a session with their personal trainer.
“We tease each other and we’re very competitive over burpees,” she laughs. “We’ve been going for a few years – Ray talked me into it. I used to think gyms were boring, but once I joined and found out I wasn’t the fattest or the slowest, I was okay! Ray doesn’t get the high I do, but we really spur each other on.”
Another rival she has great affection for is Corrections Minister Judith Collins. Despite being political opposites, the pair, who met when they used to regularly appear together on The Paul Henry Show (Annette now appears with Paula Bennett), have what Annette says is “great synergy”.
“We’d talk about our lives, laugh and joke together. And then go back to parliament and argue our politics!”
Between family and political obligations, there’s very little down time – which is probably just as well for the woman who reckons she’s a tad hyperactive. The one thing that can force her to sit still is binge-watching US political drama House of Cards with Ray. Rugby is another passion – with Wellington lads Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith among her favourite players.
“I always say that the core of the All Blacks comes from my electorate,” she grins.
Just occasionally, a book will also sucker her in. In pride of place on her bedroom shelf, flanked by an encyclopaedia of erotica and an Ian Rankin novel, is the autobiography of her US counterpart, Hillary Clinton.
“It was actually my fault, I started that joke,” she confesses. “People were writing that it was time I gave up politics because I was too old. And so I said, ‘Well, hang on a minute. I’m the same age as Hillary Clinton and she wants to be President of the United States'.
“But honestly, I’m very happy to be deputy [Labour] leader. I’ve never, ever wanted to be leader because you have to give up so much. I really value the life I have put together with my family and Ray. And now that I am a grandmother, I am especially happy to be 2IC. They’re both roles I really, truly love.”
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