Career

Dame Annette King opens up about her new life in Australia and finding love second time around

Annette King never intended to stay in politics as long as she did, but there are no regrets and she has led an interesting life along the way.

By Judy Bailey
A slow slide into a quiet retirement was never going to suit the woman who is arguably one of our most popular politicians.
2018 was quite a year for Annette King. She was created a Dame.
The endorsement of her nomination came not from the Labour Government, but from National, something that makes the honour, as she says, "even more special".
And the fact that she is so widely respected across the political divide made her a sitter for our most important diplomatic post – High Commissioner to Australia.
It's a role she's settling into now with characteristic vigour, plunging straight into a new life in Australia. She's sold her long-term home in Wellington's Hataitai to embrace life in Canberra.
"Australia is incredibly important to us, we have so much in common. There is no more enduring relationship between countries than that between Australia and New Zealand," she tells me.
She sees her role as building on the work that others have done before her to nurture that relationship.
Dame Annette King after her investiture ceremony at Government House in Wellington in May 2018.
Now 71, Annette is one of our longest-serving politicians. She is a legend in her former seaside electorate of Miramar in Wellington, holding the seat for 20 years before she stood down at the last election.
She is a warm, generous, outgoing woman who is quick to laugh.
It's easy to see why Jacinda Ardern asked her to travel with her during the election campaign. The two have been friends for years.
They met in London when Annette, as Health Minister, was staying with our then High Commissioner to the UK, Jonathan Hunt. He asked Jacinda over for drinks.
"She was so vivacious and bubbly," Annette recalls.
When Jacinda later entered Parliament on the Labour list, the two became firm friends, with Annette very much in the mentoring role. They share a love of children's policy and worked hard on it together.
Annette is a West Coaster through and through.
She was born in Murchison in 1947 to Olive and Bill Robinson. Olive worked in the Post Office and Bill was a linesman.
The middle of three girls, Annette is very close to her sisters. They're best mates and often travel overseas together with their husbands in tow.
The Robinson girls had a magical childhood and, typical of country children of the time, they would roam at will. Annette remembers swimming unsupervised in the Buller River at age seven or eight.
"Freedom" is how she describes her youth. "We'd disappear in the morning and be out all day."
She once nearly burnt down the Murchison grandstand. She'd decided to try cooking potatoes over an open fire, right next to a stand of pine trees… the fire brigade was called, and serious trouble ensued!
Annette has always been a performer. She loves an audience and loves to make speeches, so she was right at home in Parliament.
At school, she remembers a lot of performances.
One in particular sticks in her mind – singing Davy Crockett. Of course you couldn't just sing Davy Crockett; it had to be staged properly. She needed a tree.
"There was a beautiful little conifer by the War Memorial, so I chopped it down," she says, in that matter-of-fact way of hers.
Her father was ropeable. She was made to apologise in person to the Town Clerk. (She did, however, hear the two men laughing about it afterwards.)

Annette's first marriage

Bill was strict with his girls.
"If he said you had to be home by 11 you would be, otherwise he'd be standing on the doorstep waiting for you."
The visiting school dental nurse would always stay with the Robinson family. She seemed impossibly glamorous to the young Annette.
"I was captivated by her starched uniform and her veil; at the weekend I would dress up in the uniform and take one of the nurse's cigarettes out of her pocket and walk around with it (unlit!)."
So, no surprise that she went on to train as a dental nurse in Christchurch.
Annette as a young dental nurse.
It was there she met her first husband. He was studying horticultural science at Lincoln. "He was tall, slim and good looking with 'good prospects'." Perfect husband material.
They married as the 1960s came to a close and their daughter Amanda was born soon afterwards. The family moved to Hamilton, where he had a job with the Ruakura Research Station. But the marriage didn't last.
It turned out her first husband is transgender.
"I remember him telling me one Saturday morning. He sat me down and told me he'd always felt like a woman."
What was her reaction? Did she feel betrayed?
This warm-hearted woman says, "I felt really sorry for him. It's not an easy choice. I immediately thought, 'We'll fix this.'"
But of course, sexuality is not something that can be "fixed". They decided to stay together while he finished his PhD. His mother was dying of cancer so it was an enormously stressful time.
The split came in 1980 and Annette would be on her own with Amanda for the next 20 years, although her first husband continues to be part of the family.
After years in Wellington, Annette is now embracing life in Australia.
Annette first became involved in politics in 1972, the year Norman Kirk was elected Prime Minister.
"He was a larger than life politician. You could see he meant what he was saying. It was so exciting. It gave you such hope."
Her eyes widen, full of the anticipation and energy of that time. You get the sense she feels it again with this new Labour government.
After the 1972 election she joined the Hamilton branch of the Labour Party and although she'd never been involved before, she was immediately made secretary.
"That's the Labour Party," she laughs.
She was working full time and, like most working mums, was torn about leaving her daughter in daycare.
"I felt guilty but I was never going to be a stay-at-home wife and mum," she says.
She and daughter Amanda would soon make the move to Wellington, where Annette became involved with the Mount Victoria office of the Labour Party, working with Trade Union stalwarts Pat and Cath Kelly and their daughter, the late Helen Kelly. It was to provide a springboard for her entrance to Parliament.
"I was sick of being a tea lady… I wanted to make policy."
She put her name forward for the Horowhenua electorate in 1984 and won the seat.
From the beginning, she was a force to be reckoned with; the then Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, infamously christening her "The horror from Horowhenua".
It was a baptism of fire for the fledgling MP.
"I was a lost soul to begin with. One day I was drilling teeth, the next minute I was in Parliament. I really had no idea what I was in for. I probably spent the first three years in a daze. There's so much to learn… simple things, like you can't leave the building without the whips knowing."
But she was in her element.
"I love the cut and thrust of debate, the theatre of politics, being in a team. It's a really enjoyable way to work."
Annette has held many of the most demanding portfolios as a Labour Minister – Health, Justice, Social Welfare, Police, Immigration and Employment.
She relished the challenge of learning as she took responsibility for different fields.
"I knew nothing about Transport but I really enjoyed that portfolio."
Among the achievements she's most proud of are the reorganisation of the health system, rebuilding provincial hospitals from Kaitaia to Invercargill and increasing the mental health spend.
When I ask what she doesn't miss about life inside Parliament she's quick to single out the media focus on the private lives of politicians.
"It's one of the big downsides," she says.
"There used to be an unwritten rule that politicians' families were off limits. It's particularly distressing when families are dragged in because of your job. Social media has accelerated the hatred and vitriol out there."
Annette and her second husband, Ray Lind.
Two decades after she and her first husband separated, Annette met the man who is obviously the love of her life, Ray Lind.
Her conversation is peppered with references to him.
They met on a blind date set up by Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel. There was an instant attraction. Early in their relationship they crossed Australia's Nullarbor Desert in a campervan.
"He was so quiet I thought he didn't like me," the naturally chatty Annette confides with a grin, "but I've come to understand that's what he calls a companionable silence!"
Ray has brought a love of classical music and art to her life.
"Ray is a wonderful singer. He has a beautiful baritone. He wooed me with his singing."
At her 60th he sang Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes – apt, since Annette doesn't drink alcohol.
The pair are keen on keeping fit and regularly hit the gym together early in the morning. They have bought themselves mountain bikes so they can enjoy the many trails around Canberra.
"Ray is an incurable romantic," Annette says. "He's always coming home with little gifts for me."
As a family, they love playing cards and scrabble. It's highly competitive.
"Ray's great with words but I'm more strategic – I cut him off from the triple letter scores," she laughs triumphantly.
She has no regrets about standing down at the last election.
"I spent almost a year talking to Ray about giving up my seat. Once I'd made the decision, then I felt I could let go. There was pressure on Jacinda to step up as Deputy Leader [a position Annette held] so I went to the then leader of the Labour Party, Andrew Little, and told him the time was right for me to go.
"Besides," she says, "I don't think I have the enthusiasm to start again with a new portfolio; I've done my time. I was there [in Parliament] for 30 years. I never intended to be there that long. It's the best job I've ever had. I've met different people every day, I've travelled. What's not to like?"
There are new challenges in her role in Canberra, which she's relishing.
But aside from the work, the move also means she's closer to her daughter Amanda and her eight-year-old grandson William. They have a particularly close relationship.
"He calls me Grammie… he's so sweet, he's always sending me things he's made."
The new posting is a plus for Ray too. He has two sons and four grandchildren living across the Tasman. He has resigned his chief executive role at industry training organisation, Careerforce, in New Zealand so he can be there to support Annette.
"I couldn't do it without him," she tells me frankly. "It's so necessary to have that support."
The role of High Commissioner to Australia isn't a sinecure. There are a number of thorny issues to be negotiated between our two nations.
Top of mind for Annette are the issues of deportation of New Zealanders, a number of whom have called Australia home for their entire lives, and how to improve the pathway to Australian citizenship for Kiwis keen to build a life there.
She is also eager to build on a co-operative approach between Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific region.
Dame Annette is a safe pair of hands. She is well placed to smooth those tricky diplomatic waters.

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