She first entered Parliament over 30 years ago, has represented the Miramar and Rongotai electorates for the last 21 years, and was Minister of Health, Transport, Justice and Police under Helen Clark. Either side of that spell in government has seen long periods in opposition, despite her personal popularity in Wellington’s southern and eastern suburbs. Graeme Tuckett met her to find out more. Photography by Kane Feaver.

The Interview: Annette King

Portrait by Kane Feaver

Portrait by Kane Feaver

Portrait by Kane Feaver

Portrait by Kane Feaver

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.

About Graeme Tuckett

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

About 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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