Michele Hewitson Interview: Steve Maharey

By Michele Hewitson

Steve Maharey, a one-time politician and now university boss, has his sights firmly focused on this country's future

Steve Maharey says he's a bit of a workaholic but he also likes to spend time in his garden. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Steve Maharey says he's a bit of a workaholic but he also likes to spend time in his garden. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Steve Maharey, the vice-chancellor of Massey University, said: "How come we never met in the old life?" He meant his old life as a Labour MP. This was one of many unanswerable questions. This was almost the first thing he said - and really, it was a very odd and awkward thing to say.

I muttered something about perhaps I only ever wanted to interview him when he was acting up and that politicians never want to do interviews at interesting times. Did he ever act up? He once said, "F*** you", to Jonathan Coleman in the House, but beyond that? I can't remember.

There must have been some reason we didn't meet in his old life. Perhaps I had an inkling that it wouldn't be a terrifically good idea. If I had, I'd forgotten. A PR person at Massey asked if I'd like to interview him because Massey was putting on a forum, called New New Zealand, which involved the Economist's executive editor, Daniel Franklin, coming to Auckland to talk at an invitation-only event about The Future. It is on December 3.

There, that is a big plug so he can't complain that I haven't mentioned what was, according to him, the only reason for an interview. The PR person said in her email pitch that this was Maharey's "baby". He is still, she wrote, "a sociologist at heart".

I've never actually been sure what a sociologist is. I did ask. It is to do with studying "social order and social change and why societies work the way they do and why they change". I did ask why he wanted to be a sociologist. He seems to have just fallen into it. He left school, Freyberg High School in Palmerston North, when he was 15 because his parents, Scottish immigrants, said: Right, that's enough education.

He never resented this because he was bored and he says he wasn't particularly bright, anyway.

He likes "regaling" people - I don't know what people; random people on the street perhaps, or perhaps babies, when he was a politician; I can't imagine him kissing them - with his stories about how when he left school in 1967 you could just walk in to any old job. There were hundreds and hundreds of jobs and you could pick and choose. He chose to join the Valuation Department (now Quotable New Zealand). All of those jobs and he chose the most boring one in the country! "No! It looked very interesting." It was so interesting that he lasted two weeks.

Then he became a shoes salesman. He sold shoes at the posh Ashley Ardrey shop in Wellington. Was he any good at selling shoes? He had to think about this for quite a long time before deciding, that, yes, he was. He was a bit interested in shoes but he was more interested in his own look. He had his clothes tailor-made - he was 16 - at a place called Lordships. Golly. Was he a dandy? "No, not really. I don't think so because the clothes I wore I actually think would be fashionable in most cases today because I like classic clothes." His specs might be a bit dandyish, but other than that he just looks like a bloke in a nice enough off-the-peg suit. (Vance Vivian, in case you're interested.) He started hanging out with students and looked at them and thought: "They're going to university and things are going to be different for them. They're going to do things that I can't do. And I didn't like that. I wanted to have the same opportunities." So he went back to school, got his UE and then university, which he is now the big boss of.

But that is all in the past. "We haven't talked about the future," he said, twice. He meant his forum. We had talked about it enough for me and I was very fair and polite and asked about it first thing. I also asked, later, where you could get tickets to it but of course you can't. I'd missed that invitation-only bit in the email, which was my own stupid fault, but I can't now think why I was offered an interview with him in the first place.

Oh, I can, really. It makes Massey, and him, look, to use that awful phrase, "forward-thinking" and visionary. The forum is about what the world will look like in 50 years. After about half an hour with the sociologist I was looking forward to the future too. I ordered another glass of wine.

We had got into a row over the interview rules and we were both grumpy. He said he didn't want to talk about his "private" life, in particular the death of his wife Liz, in 2004.This was fair enough but he has talked about it in the past. If he'd just said that he didn't like to talk about this part of his life now and would I mind if we didn't, I'd have said, of course, that's fine and moved on. But he made such a silly mystery of what it was he wouldn't talk about that I honestly didn't know what it was we weren't to talk about. He mentioned his "sort of step-children" so of course I asked what that meant. He eventually said that his wife's death was "extraordinarily painful" and that was why he didn't want to talk about it. That is entirely understandable; he should have said so from the start. Instead we went round and round in circles, for ages, on a topic he didn't want to talk about.

He said: "I don't do interviews around anything other than my job." Which is about when I began to feel very grumpy. I had made it clear that the interview would be about him. He says this wasn't passed on, but that is hardly the point.

He had said he knows this column. Did he really think we were going to talk about his job for an hour? Also, he was a politician for 18 years! You'd think he'd be better at this particular game. "You overstate the idea that just being a politician cures everything. It doesn't." I hadn't stated, let alone overstated, any such thing so that made me even more bad-tempered. And it isn't quite true that he only talks about his job. He talked happily enough about Bette Flagler, his partner of five years, and their dog.

I asked if he had a bad temper - because of that "f*** you" in the House - and he said he doesn't. I could have sworn I saw steam coming out of his ears but perhaps that was the second glass of wine. He regrets that swearing in the House incident but what I think he regrets is publicly losing his cool. He made it a rule, years ago, never to have a drink at any work event because he'd observed politicians saying things they shouldn't have after a glass or two, and he has stuck to it.

He says he is not a shouty boss. He might be capable of being a bit sarcastic. It probably depends on what you ask him. He was telling me about the garden he and Bette have made, which is all natives. They have a worm farm, so they might be a bit green. Is his garden organic? "What else are they? You mean like growing things?" No, of course I didn't mean that. "Oh. You mean no pesticides? Oh. Sorry."

Was he really? I was thinking about that John Tamihere line on him: Smarmy, clever. He says, by the way, that he doesn't think that did either of them any harm because they both went on to do things they enjoyed doing. Which wasn't quite the question.

The other best-known thing about him is the bizarre Christine Rankin spat which ended up in the Employment Court. During the case, she said that he had once said he lived a life of "blameless excellence". He denies ever saying this so you have to believe him, but it doesn't mean you can't imagine it is the sort of thing he might have said. He also denies ever having been offended by her short skirts. His Wikipedia entry says that during the case his "personality publicly surfaced".

He says that anyone can write anything they want to on Wikipedia, which is of course true, but I thought it possibly said something about the public perception of him. I think he is very aware of his public profile but not much interested in analysing it.

I suggested, as a joke, that Christine Rankin might have written his Wikipedia entry but he didn't think that was very funny. He had had only half a glass of wine.

He really didn't think being asked what he spends his money on was amusing. He gets paid a whopping 500 grand a year, or thereabouts, as vice-chancellor. He said: "I think that's my business, Michele. What do you spend yours on?" I don't earn $500,000 a year, for one thing. For another I wasn't the one being interviewed. He doesn't buy art or wine, or shoes or tailor-made suits these days. Does he squirrel it all away? "What I do with it is my business." Property, then. "That's my business, what I do with my money. Ha, ha."

Yes, it probably is; it was just a throw-away question and I didn't really care what he did with his money. But he made such a meal of not answering that now I really did want to know. Because what could he possibly spend money on that was such a secret? Shares in a fag factory? First edition copies of the works of Ayn Rand? We will never know. But I'll put my money on the squirrelling away. "Basically," he said, "as you probably know, I'm a sort of workaholic, really."

He lives between Palmerston North, in a house he and Bette built, and Wellington where he has a "small cottage". He met Bette when she interviewed him for a science article, when he was Minister of Science. I'm trying to imagine how on earth that happened, but of course she wasn't asking him pesky questions about his private life. Still, did he fancy her during the interview?

He says no he did not and that they ran into each other later and he asked for her phone number. She runs a couple of "virtual" communications companies from home and they have a wheaten terrier called Hazel whose dog house is a miniature version of a bit of their house. So perhaps he spent all the money on a kennel.

He is very good around the house and cooks and cleans. So he probably does live a life of blameless excellence. I wouldn't know.

He was a good MP and is widely held to be a good vice-chancellor. Both of these jobs involve some degree of charm, surely. He must be able to get on with people. He seemed to belatedly remember how to do this. He decided to ask me a question: "What hobbies have you got?"

"Mind your own business," I said. That was a good note on which to end. It was rather the theme of the interview.

- NZ Herald

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