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Mary English on the burden of politics and life after husband Bill's retirement

While she and the kids are "still processing" it all, they are excited to finally have their husband and dad all to themselves.

By Kelly Bertrand

With one supportive arm curled discreetly around her husband, Dr Mary English stood alongside her partner of three decades, the outgoing Leader of the Opposition Bill English, as he announced his retirement from politics after 27 years.

As cameras clicked and reporters furiously scribbled notes, Mary felt every emotion under the sun as she stared into shocked faces and camera lenses. Most palpably there was relief, followed by loss, sadness, happiness and the sense of a new beginning.

With her husband choking back tears as he described the toll political life has taken on Mary and their six children, Mary briefly turned towards him and offered a small smile and sympathetic squeeze, silently encouraging the former prime minister to get through the toughest part of his speech.

Talking to the Weekly just hours after the announcement was made last week from their cosy Karori home, Mary says Bill's emotional tribute to his family meant everything to her.

"I was really moved by that," she tells. "I think what it said to me is that he's never taken the duty that it's imposed on all of us for granted.

"He's never just expected it or taken it without a sense of acknowledgement and gratitude – and for my boys who were there too, I know they got the sense of that as well."

As politicians love to say, at the end of the day, Bill realised that the time had come to hang up his political battle gloves, preferring instead a life outside politics and with his family.

It was a day Mary always knew would come, but she jokes it's happened a lot later than she ever imagined.

"In my case, it's come 27 years after we first started and 17 years after the 10 Bill said he'd be doing when we first started all this," she says with a light laugh. "But when he was speaking, I realised that I should make sure I could enjoy the moment, but at the same time acknowledge how we're feeling."

So how is the English family feeling? After enjoying a bottle of wine with some extended family members who have just popped over to offer their support, Mary says she and the kids are "still processing" it all, but they are excited to finally have their husband and dad all to themselves.

"The kids will be jumping on this opportunity!" she laughs. "For every one of my children, except for our eldest Luke, who was two-and-a-half when Bill first entered politics, it's been their entire lifetime experience.

"One of my sons said to me today that he suspects it will be easier to go from being a politician's child to being totally anonymous, rather than the other way around, which is the more common situation."

The entire family was involved in the decision for Bill to resign, which he made just weeks after speaking to the Weekly in December last year. While on their summer break, Bill informed the rest of the English clan that it was time to go and asked their opinion.

"He led us, and we were all just very calm and happy to support him," Mary shares.

"There was no big, deep discussion – it was a decision he'd made. And I guess, for the kids and myself, it gives us the opportunity to reflect on our gratefulness and our gratitude for being able to be a part of the history of New Zealand."

Indeed, a generation of Kiwis simply don't know of a Parliament without Bill.

Having first entered politics in 1990, the softly-spoken Dipton farmer – representing the Southland region of Wallace – spoke of his love of his hometown during his maiden speech in March 1991. He also foreshadowed the inevitable effect his new job would have on Mary and their two children at the time.

"I come to the House with my own baggage of prejudices and I have discovered a considerable amount of ignorance in many things," he told Parliament.

"I come to the House with a conscious formed by a Christian upbringing – by values that, no doubt, I shall struggle to maintain. But most importantly, I come with the blessing of and support of my family.

The National leader, then the MP for Wallace, is seen in 1993.
The National leader, then the MP for Wallace, is seen in 1993.

"Without them, it would be impossible for Mary and me, with a young family, to do this job. No-one can ask more of a spouse than to go into politics with a young family. I hope that one day I can return Mary's generosity of spirit."

Since first entering the doors of the Beehive, Bill has held many roles – health minister, finance minister, leader of the opposition and deputy prime minister, before taking the top job when Sir John Key resigned in 2016.

Credited for being a strong, stable hand through the 2008 recession and Christchurch's devastating earthquakes, Bill made a name for himself as the reliable and capable backbone in the previously enduring National government.

But following one of New Zealand's more surreal election campaigns last year, Bill decided last week to end his time in politics on his terms.

Flanked by his wife Mary, and sons Bart, Xavier and Rory, at Parliament, Bill was tearful as he spoke about leaving politics, "after talking it over with my family", in order to embark on new personal challenges.

Mary and Bill with newborn son Xavier in 1999.
Mary and Bill with newborn son Xavier in 1999.

At one point, Bill had to stop to gather himself as he thanked Mary and their children for their support over the years.

"For all our time together, we have lived with demands of public service," the emotional National Party leader said.

"Your strength and tolerance has enabled my career. You have been my inspiration and pride, and I now look forward to a new life together."

Mary, a GP with her own practice in Wellington, admitted earlier this year that there was a part of her that wished he would give up politics in favour of a less public, more stable job.

"I've been saying that for years," she told the Weekly.

"It's nothing new. But I've learnt that he's a man for all seasons and I leave it at that."

When Bill was considering putting his hat in the ring for the role as National's leader – and therefore prime minister – after John Key resigned, he talked to his family about what taking on the job would entail for them all. Mary had reservations, as she revealed to us last year, because it would put an even brighter spotlight on the family.

Being in the public glare has never come naturally to Mary, who much prefers to remain on the sidelines and focus on her career.

"At times in the past, the burden of it has been a lot heavier than it has been lately. At times, it certainly felt like I was more in survival mode, rather than being able to enjoy it," she says now.

"But as I said in the interview we did just before Christmas, I was surprised at how much I was able to enjoy it this time and how I relaxed into the role. I think one of the biggest joys for me was this last campaign. He was absolutely able to be himself and be relaxed, which is how he actually is. Sometimes I think he shouldn't be relaxed with some of the things he's had to deal with! But I felt we got to share the 'real deal' Bill with everyone, as we see him."

While Bill finishes up on February 27, it's "business as usual" for Mary, with 2018 earmarked as a year for her to finally give her practice, Kelburn GPs, her full attention. However, a holiday with her husband might be on the cards if she can swing it, patients permitting.

"We'll definitely try to make sure Bill has a break," she says. "I think he's worked incredibly hard for such a long time and I know it's going to be a big change for him, changing the pace so dramatically. I think he'll enjoy it. I know he wants to get into a lot more exercise and fitness."

So perhaps we'll be seeing more of his famous "walk-runs"?

"We'll step it up to 'run-runs', perhaps!" Mary laughs.

While there's a sense of excitement about the unknown – after all, as Mary points out, Bill is only 56 – the couple acknowledge they're about to embark on a big change. And with the end of an era comes a natural period of reflection.

In his maiden speech 27 years ago, Bill remarked, "When the time comes for me to go – probably well before that – my people will judge me as, of course, I have judged every other politician.

"They will ask, 'Was he a man of courage who stood up to those he opposed and, when necessary, stood up to his friends? Was he a man with the courage to resist public pressure and private importance? Was he a man of judgment, with perception of what mattered... and with the wisdom to know what he did not know and the courage to admit it, even in public? Was he a man of integrity who never ran out on the principles he believed in?

"None of us can be right enough to earn respect simply for being right. It is the human qualities in us that will be judged, it is the human qualities that, at last, determine the respect we gain from others."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seemingly answered those questions last week in a tribute to her frequent opponent.

On the campaign trail in 2017.
On the campaign trail in 2017.

"He has always stood for what he believes in," she says.

"He is a man of clear convictions who has always had a genuine concern for the wellbeing of New Zealanders, and gave a huge portion of his working life to serving on their behalf. The impact of public service on a politician's family cannot be understated. In the 27 years Bill served as an MP, with the support of his wife Mary, his children were born and grew up. They have made great sacrifices so he could do his job to the best of his ability. "I wish Bill and his family all the best for the future." As do we – thanks, Bill.

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