Jenny Shipley: 'Leadership is a life sentence'

SNAPPY IN STRIPES: Former PM Dame Jenny Shipley is busier than ever.
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ
SNAPPY IN STRIPES: Former PM Dame Jenny Shipley is busier than ever.

Former PM Jenny Shipley is as driven as ever, from improving her own health to shaping the future for others. 

I've always liked Jenny Shipley's exuberant confidence, her slight air of being privy to a humorous secret that hovers behind even her most serious utterances.

It was there when she first entered parliament in 1987, a well-rounded, hearty-looking farmer's wife, a former primary school teacher with shirt collars pertly up.

Her interest in politics was ignited, she recalls, by the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme. Already there was talk of her being a future prime minister. Back then she was fresh from involvement in early childhood education, the cut-and-thrust of the sandpit, the bring-and-buy, and the cake stall. There's possibly no better training ground for patience, determination and strategic thinking.

She was already a buddy of Finance Minister Ruth Richardson, also a mother of young children, who encouraged Shipley in her bid for the Ashburton electorate, and continued to be a friend throughout Shipley's predicted climb to becoming our 36th prime minister (from December 1997 to December 1999).

I watched Shipley become the master/mistress of the brooch, the female power insignia notably sported by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, now Baroness Thatcher, in her day, and also by Madeline Albright, when she was American secretary of state.

Now Shipley is a Dame, and a mere slip of her former self. She greets me with that slightly ironic smile of hers, snappy in stripes. Thin becomes her; she looks damn good for 59.

I'd intended to ask her what it's like to wake up the day after you've given up being prime minister, whether you lie in bed wondering if life will ever be as challenging again, and if you'll ever look quite so successful. You go from being the first New Zealand woman prime minister to – what, exactly?

It would have been a dumb question, and I'm glad I didn't ask it. Shipley is busier than ever.

But first, the weight loss. Soon after she retired from politics Shipley suffered a heart attack. With characteristic determination she listened to medical advice, changed her diet, and began to exercise in earnest. Four years later she developed diabetes; a combination of these conditions killed her father at 52, when she was just 18. A gastric bypass in late 2007 cured the diabetes overnight – her blood sugar level was back to normal the next day – and she became even slimmer.

"It was completely life changing [the operation] and has probably bought me significant time," she tells me. "I walk a lot. I stay within a 2kg range now, which requires a lot of discipline. Having taken control, I'm sort of under control." Her experiences also made this former minister of health focus on what she could do to help other women with heart problems.

"A third of all first heart attacks for women are fatal," she says, "and usually there are no symptoms before the event. When women do report symptoms they are also less likely to be recognised as heart conditions." Men and women, she explains, present with different symptoms.

To date she has helped, as chair of a fundraising campaign, to raise $5 million towards endowing a professorship in heart health at the Auckland Medical School. Over the next five years the campaign aims to raise $20m to fund research that must be geared toward benefiting a significant number of women.

"I was brought up in a family of leaders, and I think leadership is a life sentence," Shipley says. "I like changing things that will shape the future. My father was a thought leader, definitely."

Shipley alludes to debate over the family's dinner table on what were then controversial matters, such as former Presbyterian minister Lloyd Geering's 1967 heresy trial (her father was a Presbyterian minister) and sex education.

"We were a very oral family," Shipley says. I think she means verbal. "He was a very skilled orator with a deep, beautiful voice, and my sisters and I developed those qualities."

One of Shipley's sisters is an artist; the other two are health administrators. She speaks of growing up in a constant and stable environment, with the unquestioning, continued support of her mother after their father's death.

By now I'm remembering her ability to express herself in fluent sentences that seem to emerge fully punctuated from her lips. Once again I'm asking her to slow down, as I did when she was in politics, and once again she calmly repeats herself, word for word.

Altogether the effect is strangely colourless – there are no frisky, facetious riffs, and no self-deprecating jokes. Maybe this effect is what's meant by the term "statesmanlike". Shipley tells me, in her measured language, that "I track megatrends at the global level". I think I possibly know what this means.

She is chairman of the board of Mainzeal and Genesis Energy, of Seniors Money International (which, as Sentinel, deals in reverse mortgages here), and also of human relations company Momentum. She has her own consultancy business, and is on the public speaking circuit. She's one of five European directors of China Construction Bank, which is listed on the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges, and travels to China every two months or so to attend to business there. "Shaping the future is what drives me," she says. "Since I left politics I'm very much interested in emerging markets."

In any remaining time – there may be some – she is patron of Basketball New Zealand (husband Burton is deeply involved in the basketball world, she says) the Alliance of Girls' Schools, the Stellar Trust, which is committed to reducing the use of P, Go Red For Women, a Heart Foundation initiative, Global Women, and the Council of World Women Leaders. She's also vice-president of the Club of Madrid, a rather exclusive crowd of former prime ministers and presidents who have led democracies.

And Shipley is on the review panel the government set up to monitor the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority's activities. The $1000-a-day fee members are to be paid was briefly a subject of controversy. I suspect that money is peanuts in the Shipley picture, and "Nobody has asked if I've accepted fees," she says, from which I take it that she hasn't. Burton runs the family business, which is pretty well Jenny Shipley NZ Ltd, and also runs his own consultancy.

"My Burton is a lovely man," says Shipley. "He keeps me on my feet and in good humour." They married young, and seem to have a solid marriage; in their snatches of free time they now take to their yacht, moored at Auckland's Westhaven marina, for a sail and a swim.

The children have grown up and left the nest. Anna, 35, is communications manager for Nokia for Japan, China and Korea, and based in Beijing. Her husband is currently in a total immersion Mandarin language course "because he feels his generation is going to need to understand both markets". Son Benjamin lived in Shanghai for five years and is currently a creative director for Hill & Knowlton in Sydney. "They're fine young New Zealanders and I'm very proud of them," Shipley says. We can be forgiven, surely, for marvelling at such seamless family success.

But time moves on, impressed by no one. We've shared space in her hotel, as we talk, with a group of young women who've gathered for some kind of women and leadership programme, and I can't help noticing that not one of them gives Shipley, whose success must surely be the ultimate aspiration, a second glance.

Sunday Star Times