Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

King is the queen of Parliament's opposition seats

She's a veteran politician who has achieved that rare thing: respect from both sides of the house. Nicholas Jones reports.
Annette King's sense of humour has made her a favourite in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Annette King's sense of humour has made her a favourite in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Most weekdays before sunrise Labour's deputy leader can be found at her gym trying to do more burpees than her husband, Ray Lind.

The exercise, an up-down cross between a push-up and star-jump and favoured by sadistic rugby coaches, keeps Annette King, 68, fit for the rough-and-tumble of Parliament.

She's not just physically fit; politically she is one of the more active and successful Opposition MPs and one of the party's great survivors. Age has not wearied her efforts to take the fight to the Government every day.

That was demonstrated in Parliament this week during one of her regular jousts with Health Minister Jonathan Coleman.

Having been Health Minister for six years, she knows as much about the job as Coleman, who has had just 18 months at the helm.

MPs from both sides of the House howled with delight at the Coleman and King set-to.

King questioned the Health Minister's assertion that there was a difference between the number of patients who thought they needed surgery, and those who actually did.

Did Coleman think people woke up in the morning and decided they'd like to have an operation for no good reason, King asked.

Did they eat hospital meals of the sort being served in Dunedin and which Coleman recently declared "yummy" after accepting a Labour challenge to try it?

"It was a very good meal," Coleman responded. "Why don't you man up and do it yourself?"

Coleman leaned forward as if to jump over his bench and with eyes locked dead on his opponent. "Cos you think you're so tough."

King sprang to her feet: "Point of Order, Mr Speaker. It's impossible for me to man up, I'm a woman," she said to applause and laughter from opposition benches.

Speaker David Carter: "And a very capable one as well".

King has zeroed in on surgeries and Pharmac and is developing an obesity policy.

• Watch the video of the exchange between Coleman and King:

The Government has come under pressure from medical professionals to introduce a sugar tax, particularly after the British Conservative Government opted to do so in its latest Budget.

But although the Greens want a sugary drink tax, Labour does not, having decided there was not enough evidence. King now suggests that could change.

"I have said that we will base our decision on the evidence.

"But it is mounting, and I intend to announce the rest of our obesity policy by the end of the year."

King will celebrate her 70th birthday just before next year's election but the woman considered by many to be the glue that holds Labour together shows no sign of slowing down - and has already committed to standing again next year.

King is deputy leader for the second time. Straight out of Government in 2008, she became deputy to her old caucus friend Phil Goff.

It wasn't just a ceremonial role. When Goff was out of the country in 2010, she was landed with managing an A-grade scandal: the release of ministerial credit card expenditure showing that colleague Shane Jones had bought blue movies on the public purse.

David Lange introduces new MPs, including Annette King, in 1984. Photo / NZH
David Lange introduces new MPs, including Annette King, in 1984. Photo / NZH

She told Jones to take ownership of the issue and sort it out.

It was a message that few in the caucus could deliver, and carry enough respect and trust to be listened to in the heat of a crisis.

Jones front-footed it and stemmed the fallout, telling reporters, "I'm a red-blooded adult. It doesn't make me feel particularly worthy but I'm not going to hide from it."

Referred to as the ballast of the caucus, King helped MPs accept Andrew Little's leadership when most of the caucus had voted in 2014 for Grant Robertson to be leader. Her experience balances out Little's inexperience.

"She is good at hauling together groups and working out, on occasions, compromises," says long-serving colleague Trevor Mallard. "And on other occasions not compromises [but a] line to be taken. People respect her for that, and that job goes much further than just having the [deputy] role."

King says when voters get to know Little, they will see the qualities in him she admires: passion, authenticity and a sense of humour.

I might appear to be the friendly aunt. But I do have a tougher streak in me when it is required.
Annette King

"I can see some of Helen [Clark] in him. He has a big brain, she had a big brain. People when they meet him like him and say, 'You are different from what you are on TV'.

"Well, she had that for years, all through the 1990s. Until she became prime minister, Helen faced the same things."

King has a reputation for being approachable but by her own account, she is happy to pull a few ears when needed, not just to lend an ear. "I might appear to be the friendly aunt," King says. "But I do have a tougher streak in me when it is required. I prefer to look for solutions. But there are times when more is needed, and I don't shy away from that."

It's a no-nonsense toughness that can be traced to a childhood in Murchison in Tasman. King is descended on her mother's side from one of the first European settlers in Nelson, the same bloodline shared by relatives National MPs Chris Finlayson and Chester Borrows.

She also has Sri Lankan heritage - her great-great-grandfather was the first Sinhalese settler to arrive in New Zealand.

Her parents worked for the Post Office and were strong Labour supporters, and King remembers sitting with her two sisters as children and absorbing fierce political arguments between them and her National-supporting grandfather.

After training and working as a school dental nurse, King, who joined the Labour Party in 1972, combined work with raising her and her first husband's daughter, and studying for a bachelor of arts degree in politics and history.

With encouragement from former Labour MP Fran Wilde and former Prime Minister Helen Clark, King put herself forward for the Horowhenua seat and was selected.

Annette King is also able to control wayward MPs, such as Shane Jones, inset, during his x-rated movie scandal. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Annette King is also able to control wayward MPs, such as Shane Jones, inset, during his x-rated movie scandal. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Sir Robert Muldoon called the 1984 snap election shortly afterwards, and King found herself in Parliament.

She was faced with an early test - a conscience vote on Wilde's Homosexual Law Reform Bill - coming from a rural electorate with less than a 500-vote majority.

She was advised that supporting the bill would cost her her seat but she did anyway, and her majority increased.

After losing Horowhenua in 1990, King returned to Parliament at the next election after winning Wellington's Miramar electorate, which would become Rongotai, her current seat.

King is the sort of MP who is popular across the House, partly because of her sense of humour.

"She has a shocking sense of humour," says Mallard. "She can tell dirty jokes at a bowling club that I would end up almost in court for telling. She has a really good sense of audience and occasion, and a repertoire of marginal stories that is enormous."

So if King is so popular and so competent, why hasn't she been Labour leader?

She says she has never wanted the leadership, to spare time and privacy for her family - her husband, daughter, three step-children, and four grandchildren, aged 6 to 14, and father.

She has got a shocking sense of humour. She can tell dirty jokes at a bowling club that I would end up almost in court for telling.
Trevor Mallard

Last weekend King took the ferry to Picton to see her 93-year-old father.

"I'm happy to give up 90 per cent [of my life to politics], but not 100 per cent. Every leader I have ever worked under, there is a toll on either their personal life or their health.

"It is particularly hard to be the leader in opposition. Because you want to achieve something, you want to make a difference, but you really are on the sidelines because somebody else is running the show."

Phil Goff, who will be leaving Parliament, win or lose the upcoming Auckland mayoralty election, said the frustration of opposition will be felt by King herself.

"Parliament is a stimulating place, but if you spend a long time in this place without having the experience of being a decision-maker and running a ministry and a department, you get a bit frustrated with it.

"And 15 years as a Cabinet Minister, and 17 years outside. I wouldn't have wanted that to get much more out of balance. I don't doubt that Annette feels the same way."

- Herald on Sunday

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