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Portrait by Kane FeaverTeeth. If you had asked me yes­ter­day, before I sat down to talk for an hour with Annette King, just what we would spend half our time dis­cuss­ing, then I doubt I would have guessed that the answer would be teeth.

But con­ver­sa­tions have a funny old life of their own, and I like very much that my brief for these inter­views is to talk about the per­son that the press releases and the media don’t address. Admit­tedly, I’ve nev­er actu­ally dis­cussed this policy with Fish­Head, but the assign­ments keep com­ing, and the cheques keep clear­ing, so I fig­ure someone must like what we’re doing.

But… teeth.

I was born and raised in Murch­is­on. My fath­er star­ted his life as a miner, as did his fath­er — in fact, it goes back to my great-grand­fath­er. They worked in Gran­ity and Den­nis­ton, so I’m basic­ally born Labour.

            On my mother’s side they were farm­ers, and through them I’m cous­ins with [Nation­al Cab­in­et Min­is­ter] Chris Fin­layson. My moth­er was always Labour her­self though. There was polit­ics around the din­ner table, and I loved that. For me it was polit­ics, sports and ponies. Boys came later, of course, but grow­ing up I was sports-mad, and I was always fas­cin­ated by polit­ics. Still am. Not the infight­ing and all that, but policy, eco­nom­ics, health. Ways you can actu­ally make people’s lives better.

Annette King trained as a dent­al nurse, back in what we call ‘the day’. That day was the late 1960s and mid-1970s. She was — it turns out — a school dent­al nurse in Hamilton at the exact same time that I was a ter­ri­fied and reg­u­lar habitué of the murder house at Insoll Aven­ue Primary, only a miles away. I wanted very much to ask King wheth­er the old con­spir­acy the­ory that dent­al nurses would pick the kids they didn’t like very much to ‘prac­tise on’ was true, and wheth­er I, hyper­act­ive, lippy and Eng­lish as I was, might have been one of those kids? But the time nev­er seemed right, and so I con­ten­ted myself with ask­ing how it was that the school dent­al nurse became one of New Zealand’s longest-serving MPs. 

In the 1960s my grand­par­ents lived next to us in Murch­is­on, and the dent­al nurses would always board with them. And I knew that was what I wanted to be. I loved the starched white uni­form, and the stock­ings with the seams up the back, and the veils. So I got the job of clean­ing the dent­al clin­ic. And on a Sat­urday I used to go down there, put on the uni­form, and smoke the nurse’s Du Maur­i­er cigar­ettes, and I used to prac­tise with the old foot-ped­al drill on bits of stone… drilling holes and put­ting fillings in. I didn’t know what I was mix­ing up… all that mer­cury… ter­ri­fy­ing when you think about it now, but it was hil­ari­ous at the time.

          Portrait by Kane Feaver  Even­tu­ally I trained prop­erly, and then I met Doug. We mar­ried in Nel­son. Doug is a sci­ent­ist, and he was offered a pos­i­tion in Ruak­ura, just out of Hamilton, so we moved up there. I went to uni­ver­sity at Waikato. That’s where I first became prop­erly act­ive in the Labour Party and I became the school dent­al nurse at Knighton Nor­mal School.

There’s a moment in the inter­view here while we laugh and swap stor­ies about Hamilton in the 1970s. Hers as a work­er, wife, moth­er. Mine as a short-arsed primary-school kid with a pommy accent. Need­less to say, King has hap­pi­er memor­ies of it than me. Mostly. 

Doug and I sep­ar­ated in 1980. I packed our daugh­ter, the TV and the dog into the car, and drove down to Wel­ling­ton. I’d been offered post-gradu­ate study and teach­ing at the Dent­al School in Wil­lis Street. I drove down the Ngaur­anga Gorge in the even­ing, and saw the city across the har­bour, and I just fell in love. And that love for the place has nev­er left me. I bought a funny little house in Evans Bay, put up scaf­fold­ing and painted it myself, though I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was doing, and I’ve basic­ally lived in this neigh­bour­hood ever since. I’m in Hataitai now [with cur­rent hus­band Ray, who she mar­ried in 2000 and with whom she shares four kids and five grand­chil­dren], not even a kilo­metre away.

On the day we’re talk­ing, King has just become the Labour Party’s care­taker Deputy Lead­er. Grant Robertson and Dav­id Cun­liffe are about to start cam­paign­ing for the lead­er­ship. It’s an inter­est­ing peri­od, and by the time this inter­view is in print, it will prob­ably all be over. But today, in King’s sunny Kil­birnie office, with what must have been a pretty fraught caucus meet­ing barely behind her, she is affable, quick to laugh, keen to talk about all man­ner of stuff, and gen­er­ally just plain like­able company.

I came into Par­lia­ment in 1984. I’d been work­ing on Fran Wilde’s cam­paign, I’d been a Labour Party mem­ber for ever, and I’d been act­ive at all levels, and the party was look­ing for more women to stand. We really wanted to show that up as a point of dif­fer­ence between us and the Nats; that Labour was act­ively speak­ing to, and form­ing policies that would bene­fit, women, and I was one of the new can­did­ates. I stood in Horowhen­ua, which was a Nation­al seat, and had been for a long time. I was a real novice, and I didn’t expect to win, but we had a land­slide and I came in on that. And I lost it six years later when that tide went out.

King defeated the incum­bent Nation­al MP Geoff Thompson in Horowhen­ua, and went on to hold the seat until 1990. She won Miramar for Labour in 1993, and when Miramar became Ron­go­tai in 1996, she won it again. King has now rep­res­en­ted the Labour strong­hold for 21 con­sec­ut­ive years. The elect­or­ate takes in the Wel­ling­ton south coast, Brook­lyn, Morn­ing­ton, New­town, Hataitai, Miramar and Kil­birnie, and then stretches across the ocean 680 kilo­metres to include the Chath­am Islands, a place that King is rhaps­od­ic about.

Portrait by Kane Feaver 

Have you been? Oh you have to. You would love it. Every­body would love it. I get out there as often as I can. It’s anoth­er New Zea­l­and. In fact, the loc­als don’t talk about ‘the main­land’, they talk about ‘going to New Zea­l­and, as though they live in a sep­ar­ate nation, and when you’re there you can see why.

            They’re tough, prac­tic­al, inde­pend­ent people, and you would have to be. They’ve got the fish­ing, and some agri­cul­ture, but they are also ter­ribly under-rep­res­en­ted. They are one of the groups in New Zea­l­and that pay far more into the nation­al eco­nomy than they ever get out. Just the fact that the islands are a part of New Zea­l­and extends our eco­nom­ic zone over thou­sands of kilo­metres that we would oth­er­wise not have. Before 2008 we had put aside a budget of $20 mil­lion, all for Chath­ams infra­struc­ture: a new wharf, road­ing. But the Nats got in, and the money went else­where. That wasn’t right.

King looks almost wist­ful for a moment here, and it occurs to me that a couple of weeks hik­ing and fish­ing around Rekohu/Wharekauri must be pretty appeal­ing right now. But, King has seen good and bad times come and go polit­ic­ally. She cer­tainly isn’t one to get gloomy or des­pond­ent about Labour’s present crisis. As she says, Nation­al was in a worse state than this in 2002, plum­met­ing to barely 20 per­cent in the elec­tion, fol­lowed by a bit­ter lead­er­ship struggle, even­tu­ally won by a man who proved divis­ive, and who might have led the party into com­plete his­tor­ic­al irrel­ev­ancy had he stuck around. Labour’s present situ­ation is pretty healthy by com­par­is­on, no mat­ter what the daily papers and the talk­back hosts might be saying.

Parties always get behind the lead­er the party is sup­posed to have.. It’s just a pro­cess. I’ve seen it more times than most now I guess, and it’ll work itself out. All suc­cess­ful parties are big­ger than the indi­vidu­als. That’s when you know a party has matured into some­thing that will be around for a while. Us, and the Nats, and the Greens now, we can see off indi­vidu­al problems.

I’m not sure here, wheth­er King means ‘indi­vidu­al prob­lems’, or any ‘prob­lem indi­vidu­als’, and I don’t ask. I hon­estly don’t know wheth­er King is back­ing Cun­liffe or Robertson (or any­one else who might have thrown their hat in the ring between me writ­ing this, and the day it comes back from the print­ers). I don’t want to know, and King seems very happy to be talk­ing about some­thing oth­er than the events of Septem­ber 2014. 

You know, we were talk­ing about dentistry before, and that’s as good an example as any­thing. Bad oral health is linked to heart dis­ease, men­tal health issues, all man­ner of really severe prob­lems. I love that I was a dent­al nurse. I’m still friends with people I worked with back then, and I still run into people who I taught nurs­ing, even people who were patients of mine when I was at Knighton School.

            We were at the fore­front of pub­lic health then. And now, well you can go to Eng­land and get free dent­al care, but here in New Zea­l­and, we’re fight­ing to get sub­sid­ised dent­al care exten­ded to the poorest and most vul­ner­able people, and to expect­ant moth­ers, where we know there are proven health risks to the baby.

Teeth. I wasn’t expect­ing to be talk­ing so much about teeth, but I’m glad we did.

I leave King’s office at around lunch­time and drive home via the new Arras Tun­nel. Intend­ing to go straight onto the motor­way, on a whim I turn into Wil­lis Street, past the old hos­pit­al where two gen­er­a­tions of dent­al nurses trained. The hos­pit­al shut in 2002. A developer turned the empty build­ing into apart­ments. They leaked.

Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writing, broadcasting and business ownership between his many and varied leisure activities.

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