Hanging out with the political Wags

02:58, Nov 02 2011
Spouses of leaders
Arapera Sharples says of her husband Pita: "He's brought a whole new dimension to my life. It's been 20 long years. I'm exceedingly proud of him."
Spouses of leaders
Hilda Halkyard-Harawira on Hone: "I think that Hone would have been the ideal leader of the Maori party probably in the next three years. But that's changed circumstances and I still hope they work together in the future."
Spouses of leaders
Katya Paquin, partner of Russel Norman. "We do all the normal stuff. We talk a lot - we are quite talk-y people."
Spouses of leaders
Mary Goff gives it straight to her husband of more than three decades, Phil. "I'll tell him what I think and not what people might think he wants to hear.''
Spouses of leaders
Warwick Stanton on his marriage to Metiria Turei. "We talk about politics all the time but I wouldn't think as myself as an adviser."
Spouses of leaders
Peter Dunne's wife Jennifer Mackrell says of political life: "It is absolutely vital to have a life of your own.''
Spouses of leaders
New Zealand's first couple, Prime Minister John Key and his wife, Bronagh Key.

It's less fun than being a footballer's wife, but as polling day looms our politicians' better halves are joining the campaign.

Andrea Vance talks to our election Wags.

Green party co-leader and economic policy heavy weight Russel Norman has a secret guilty pleasure.

He watches ''really bad'' TV, his partner Katya Paquin reveals.

After long days pressing the flesh and pushing the party message, Norman, 44, comes home to their home in Wellington's Hataitai, chats through his day with Paquin and then switches on some rubbish telly. Quite how bad, she won't say. ''There's no way, it's too terrible.''

Paquin was the party's political director until she left to have their first child, Tadhg, earlier this year.


''We definitely talk about politics. We were colleagues and we shoot stuff around at home.

''We do talk about other stuff,'' she laughs.

''We talk about what happened at playcentre.

''We also watch TV, sometimes really bad TV. It's the thing [you do] when you are finished with your ability to have a sensible conversation.''

Norman also gets to do the laundry.

''He finds it really therapeutic. No, I'm kidding,'' she says. The couple met in 2002 when he was working for MP Sue Bradford and she was Sue Kedgley's intern.

Unsurprisingly, she's charged about the upcoming election.

''I think they are really fun. It's high-energy.''

Rongotai residents might spot her dropping off leaflets, or doing a bit of campaigning, but she will be low-key. ''I probably wouldn't identify myself.''

Guarded, Paquin is interviewed and photographed reluctantly.

Her famous sister, True Blood star Anna Paquin, is off limits. Norman is careful not to exploit the Hollywood connection.

Also not up for discussion is her health, she suffered a brain tumour in 2008, other than to say she is well.

''I'm happy to do bits and pieces if it helps get a better understanding of who Russel is. But he's the one standing for election,'' she explains.

The young family are ''in a good spot,'' she says. But asked if they will be expanding the brood she gives a curt ''certainly not going to comment on that'' reply.

Although she misses ''the close knit team'' at Green HQ: ''I'm not divided about what I'm doing now.''

And she's not fazed by Parliament's long hours or the relentless campaigning which keeps her partner away from home.

''We are close to Parliament and it makes it easier. It probably puts us in the same camp as heaps of families who are doing the best to get time together.''

Besides, she wouldn't have it any other way.

''I think what he is doing is great. He's got a really conscientious dedication to be a really strong spokesperson on the economy and I feel like he's achieved that. He's really shone.

''He's someone who does the hard yards and deals with the detail to make it happen. And a side people don't see, because you always see politicians talking, is he is a good listener. I could go on, but ...!''


Labour party leader Phil Goff has been an MP almost as long as he has been married. But for his wife Mary, 55, the last three years have been the most testing.

''Before I was an MP's wife and now, being a leader of the Opposition's wife, it's a whole new ball game.

''You are out there more. I was actually interviewed after one party conference which blew me away. I didn't know what to say but you can't appear to be too stupid.''

Childhood sweethearts, who met when Mary was 15, the couple married in 1979.

They have three children, Kris, 28, Sara, 27 and  Kieran, 25.

Goff was first elected in 1981, aged 27, and ascended to Cabinet three years later. That means Mrs Goff has seen an awful lot of elections.

''Campaigns are always hard. I pretty much take a back seat. I do sort of campaign with him around Auckland but I won't be with him throughout the country.

''I always deliver pamphlets and do the other administrative stuff.

''That stuff I don't mind, it's the canvassing I'm not too fond of, knocking on doors, talking to people, that's always a little scary.''

She admits the life of a politician's wife is ''sometimes lonely,'' with her husband often working a 90 hour week. But it is also ''sometimes fun and sometimes hard work.''

Working part time at a local school keeps her busy, along with watching drama and films with friends. And then there is the couple's enormous garden on their south Auckland farm.

''The last three years it hasn't been a particularly sociable time because he's been working...we'll blob in front of the TV and watch a rugby game or whatever's going. We do try and get out to have a meal with our kids every so often when we can all be there. He loves walking, we live close to the Hunuas so we'll do a bushwalk. There's no such thing as lying down and reading a book.''

Over the last 30 years, she's seen her husband become more at ease in the public eye - ''before he had to think about writing a speech and now he'll get it off the cuff. He just amazes me.'' 

But she says his passion for ''making things better and fairer for everyone'' hasn't waned. ''I can't believe that it's still there. He hasn't grown stale which I thought he would.''

Even three years out, when he failed to get elected in 1990, ''didn't slow him down in the least.''

''He's never going to change, whether he's in politics or whatever he is doing. I've learned to accept it, that he's going to be going at 100 miles an hour and I'll just keep keeping up, taking a nap when I can.''

With gloomy polling and relentless questioning of Goff's leadership, his wife says she ''tries to be positive most of the time and not be too downhearted. Sometimes I'm probably more blunt than people would be but I think he appreciates that.''

Election night is always very tense.

''He's working as hard as he can and if hard work is what gets you to something then he should win. I don't think anybody could do any better and he's given it his best shot.''

For Jennifer Mackrell there is no such thing as a quick trip to the shops with her husband Peter Dunne. 

He has represented Ohariu since 1984, the year his eldest son James was born, so the family have grown up with Dad as an MP.

''You know if we go to Johnsonville mall, or if Peter pops to the supermarket, it's not going to be a five-minute hop. .

''He's always worked hard..''

The couple have been married for 35 years and met through Canterbury University student politics.

''That was probably about enough for me. It certainly wasn't something I would have intended career wise.''

Instead she has devoted her life to education, first as a chemistry teacher and for the last six years as a national assessment facilitator with NZQA.

The secret to a successful political marriage is independence, she believes. "It is absolutely vital to have a life of your own.''

The election clashes with a busy exams period. ''We'll make it work,'' she smiles.

She applies the advice she gives to teenage students to her husband's career. ''I wouldn't say I took [criticism] to heart ...Sometimes I'll think it is unfair or unreasonable but that's life. I've told enough students that life isn't fair so I can hardly turn around and complain.''

The Ohariu contest is a pundit's 'one to watch,' but Ms Mackrell says the campaign is ''much nastier'' than in previous years.

However, the family believe they have the ultimate campaign strategy.

''I'll tell you a secret,'' she laughs. ''One of our sons thinks he has the ultimate campaign grabber for Peter to shave his head. He has assured the son that he will not be going there.''

Mackrell, who sports a sleek bob, insists she has no say over her husband's famous hairstyle.

''It's his hair! I have never suggested how he should cut it. But I have always said that I wasn't in the least bit attracted to bald men.''

Following the old adage couples that play together, stay together, Metiria Turei and her husband joined a ukulele rock band. 

Covering old punk hits with Kill, Martha (''as in an instruction to Martha not kill her'') is a distraction from politics and a chance to spend some time together.

''We're not rock and roll stars,'' Mr Stanton says.  ''It's a good hobby and it's got nothing to do with politics. It's quite a long way from the day job.''

A computer programmer when he met Turei in 1994, he turned house husband when they moved from Auckland to Dunedin eight years ago.

As Turei's daughter Piupiu is now 18, he is studying for a masters degree in finance.

''There are various names you get called, like a political widow,'' he admits.

''But politics has been a bit of a joint venture for us, we met through campaigning.''

As a former activist, and one-time member of the party's executive, he will take a keen interest in the campaign which is always ''very tense.''

''I remember reading once [about] Ray Davies of the Kinks. [When] his wife left him she said every time they put out an album he was just absolutely impossible to live with.

''We have been through a few elections now and I haven't left Met, our marriage has survived.''

He will ''make her food, rub her feet, all perfectly normal things,'' during the campaign. But the key is ''making sure you really do make time for each other and use that time properly.''

He doesn't give advice. ''It's a real trap to take advice from people who are always going to back you up.''

But he adds: ''it's important to be around someone who is ALWAYS on your side.''


Arapera Sharples is ''counting the days'' until the election is over and she and her husband, Maori party co-leader Pita Sharples, can take a holiday.

A debilitating kidney illness, which puts her in hospital three mornings a week for dialysis, prevents her from campaigning by his side. She is ''waiting, waiting'' for a kidney transplant.

Sharples, 70, juggles punishing work commitments with travelling back to Henderson to be with his wife of 18 years.

''I try to be with him as much as possible, at the markets, functions, hui. People like to see that I'm behind him, supporting him,'' she says. She was at this weekend's party campaign launch in Wellington.

''Sometimes he has to be at one end of the country and he'll make an effort to come and be at home with me. And then he has to leave early to go to another part of the country - instead of going where he could easily.

''It makes me feel embarrassed because I'm supposed to be looking after him. I'm humbled by the way he looks after me. He's always ringing me up, just to see how my day is going.''

The couple met in 1976 through a kapa haka group but didn't get together until more than a decade later.

The age gap, she is 55, is no issue.  ''People don't realise how old he is. He's driving me aged!''

A second marriage for both, they have nine grandchildren between them. 

''Because I'm ill I like to have them around me.''

Over the last three years, they have weathered not only her illness but a bitter feud with Hone Harawira.

''It's been a low point for me particularly. He's my second cousin, his grandmother and my grandfather were brother and sister. It was really distressing.''Any criticism of her husband wounds her deeply.

''That's my problem, I take it to heart. And I'll ring him and say 'everything is all right, isn't it'?''

Up against Labour's Shane Jones, Sharples faces a fierce contest in Tamaki-Makaurau.

But Arapera Sharples has every faith in her husband. ''We all lag in the background when it comes to his energy. He might look tired but he's got enormous inner strength.''

Politics is left at the front door when Sharples gets home ''unless something is really rarking him.''

''It is up to me to squeeze something out of him. And he'll go 'can you just leave that  come on, let's just have a good time together.''


Not even Hone Harawira's wife of 33 years can ''chill him out.'' She leaves that to their seven grandchildren.

But surprisingly, being married to Parliament's most outspoken MP, is ''easy, life is easy.''

''You can't do a haka all the time. He'll make a point when ever it needs to be made, but it's not all the time.''

Halkyard-Harawira is just as driven as her husband. Last week she stepped down as principal of Awanui's Te Rangi Aniwaniwa school near Kaitaia, but she's not taking her foot off the gas.

She'll still teach, as well as completing a PhD and running her husband's Te Tai Tokerau campaign.

All at the end of a tough year.

Harawira forced a by-election in June when he quit the Maori party, and now leads the Mana party.

''When Hone told me there was going to be a by-election, I cried,'' she admits. ''Sometimes you think 'oh my God, does it always have to be this hard, does it get easier'?''

An activist when they married, Halkyard-Harawira has no desire to enter the parliamentary fray.

''Oh God, no, who'd want any of that crap? You get all kinds of responses from people like great admiration, to death threats, somebody yelling at you and your kids, who the hell needs that kind of stuff?

''For me the real issue is what we do outside Parliament, it's more important. It's about strengthening communities and making our own people strong.''

The pair do relax, when Harawira is not playing with the grandchildren, they like to go to the lake or beach and read a book.

''Our whole home is smoke-free, alcohol and drug free and, you know, people say we are boring but that's what we want to be. When Hone wins an election they think there is going to be a party. Well, there isn't. We are ready to go to bed for half past nine and planning for the next day. He's very motivated.''

But he still has to do the chores:  ''I make him get out there with the Weedeater.''

''Sometimes I'm so busy he has to come home and cook for us. His main dish is chicken and rice. That's all he does.''


New Zealand's first lady and women's magazine cover darling declined to be interviewed. 

In an emailed response she said: ''I appreciate the opportunity to take part but really would prefer to leave this election to the parties, the politicians and the policy. As you know my preference is to try and keep a lower profile and I've always preferred to do interviews alongside John rather than on my own. At the moment more than ever I see my main job as being a mum while Max completes his exams.''