He was a political veteran and a senior minister in the previous National-led Government – then Tony Ryall walked away. The former Health Minister and Bay of Plenty MP talks to Carly Gibbs about life after politics, his new role in early childhood education, and the secret to his infamous shirt-tie combos.


All that's visible are the bottom of Tony Ryall's pants, his polkadot socks, and brown dress shoes.

The rest of him is hiding inside a yellow tunnel at Montessori Bethlehem.

The former National MP is posing for his first press shot in four years, as the new chief executive of the country's largest provider of early childhood education, BestStart Educare.

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He's kept a low profile since his departure from politics, but that's what he wanted.

He was in Parliament for 24 years, as a young backbencher, an opposition spokesman and a minister of six portfolios. He left because "I'd done my time".

He doesn't miss it, has zero regrets, and isn't convinced anyone is interested in what a former MP has to say on political matters.

"It's the time for other people now," he says.

"I felt that I had made the contribution that I could, and also, I looked at my age and thought: 'Yeah, I can do a few more things to make a difference'."

He left Parliament in September, 2014 and became head of public policy at law firm Simpson Grierson in February, 2015.

He started at BestStart in August, taking over from Tauranga founder Wayne Wright.

Wright remains chairman of the board.

In 2015, Wright and wife Chloe transferred the business to the registered charity Wright Family Foundation, which supports organisations focused on educational development.

Their head office is in Manukau, Auckland, but Ryall spends two days a week visiting some of their 265 centres serving 18,000 families, including in Tauranga, where BestStart's IT and national support office is based.

Wright has previously said he was "excited" to have Ryall on the team bringing his "long and successful" track record.

Tony Ryall is now Chief Executive of BestStart Educare. He's pictured with BestStart pupils Miko Southall (left) and Megan O'Donoghue. Photo / John Borren
Tony Ryall is now Chief Executive of BestStart Educare. He's pictured with BestStart pupils Miko Southall (left) and Megan O'Donoghue. Photo / John Borren

Ryall in turn, says the Wrights are "incredibly generous and community-minded".

"They're making such a positive difference in the lives of so many people."

The pair have partnered with former New Zealander of the Year Dr Lance O'Sullivan, who created the iMoko app, allowing BestStart teachers to get a remote diagnosis and script for a child's health issue online.

"Wayne has really driven this with passion because it's so good for the children," Ryall says.

He wants to focus on his new job, rather than his former life as a politician, but it's hard to get away from the fact that politics is what most people will know him for.

He turned 54 on November 19, and is embracing new things.

He is the Ryall family genealogist and is chipping away at their family tree.

He's helping out with council-led "dune restoration" at his beach house in Ōhope.

He enjoys walking, and from time-to-time sees his Parnell neighbour, and former prime minister John Key, who is also "really enjoying his post-Parliament life".

With Christmas approaching, Ryall's in the thick of planning a January getaway to Hokianga Harbour, where his family will be joined by another former prime minister Bill English, former National deputy leader Roger Sowry and Cabinet minister Nick Smith, and their families.

It's a New Year tradition spanning more than two decades, with each family taking a turn to plan the holiday at a different location.

Ryall predicts political talk around the campfire will die out quickly this summer.

"This holiday, Nick Smith will be the only one in Parliament, and we probably won't be that interested in hearing his views on things."

Ryall did an accounting and finance degree and diploma, and then worked at BNZ bank before running for Parliament.

He was instrumental in Jenny Shipley's leadership coup of National in 1997 and again when his close friend Bill English ousted the country's first female Prime Minister.

He, English and Smith entered the House at the same time, in 1990, and became known by the rather Hollywood name of the Brat Pack.

Asked what Ryall is like to holiday with, English, who nowadays is doing some directorships and running his own advisory business, says Ryall's fussy about his coffee, and doesn't like getting cold.

His legacy, he says, particularly in the health space, was he had a strong focus on what mattered to patients and the community.

Tony Ryall and his caucus colleagues dressed in their bright attire before his valedictory speech in Parliament in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Tony Ryall and his caucus colleagues dressed in their bright attire before his valedictory speech in Parliament in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"He set targets for waiting times in emergency departments that were shown to save hundreds of lives, and he drove the effort to lift immunisation rates and reduce rheumatic fever to levels we hadn't thought possible," English says.

It took Ryall about a year to disconnect from politics, calling it an "all-consuming career".

"It does take over your life, and one of the good things about leaving is you get a much greater sense of proportion, and you've got something else that you focus on.

"The further you get away from political life, probably the less interest you take in all the minuity of it."

He's feeling healthy, positive and less stressed. He didn't find it weird when his phone stopped ringing insistently, he says.

"I've been through that experience before when we lose elections. That's when you really notice your phone stops ringing."

He was first made a minister under the Jenny Shipley-led National Government in 1997, holding the portfolios of Justice, State Owned Enterprises, Local Government, Youth Affairs and Housing New Zealand Ltd.

He represented the Bay of Plenty from 1990, and from 2008 was Minister of Health.

Of what he believes his legacy will be in politics, he's not sure, but he says he enjoyed the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others, something his new role in education is allowing him to continue.

He was never a controversial MP, noting that the public were "very kind and generous, and actually not very confronting at all".

"I never really had any aggro on the street talking to folks."

He still gets stopped by the public, but not as much as he used to.

Taxi drivers will occasionally give him a lecture on the political news and activities of the day, completely oblivious to the fact he hasn't been in Parliament for four years.

Of the impact that politics had on his family, he says there are downsides to what is mainly an upside role.

"It's always difficult for families if you're travelling, but that's not unique to politics."

In 2008, he and wife Kara, and children Maisie and Llewellyn, now aged 20 and 17, moved from Tauranga to Wellington for the parliamentary terms.

Tony Ryall in his former Beehive office, at the time of announcing his retirement from politics. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Tony Ryall in his former Beehive office, at the time of announcing his retirement from politics. Photo / Mark Mitchell

After leaving parliament, they had a year in Wellington before moving to Auckland in 2015.

Ryall feels the public's expectations of their relationship with their elected representatives is more demanding in 2018.

"When I first started in Parliament people were pleased if they wrote a letter to their MP and they got a response within three weeks. They thought that was really fast.

"Now with social media and email, if people waited three days for a response they get quite cross.

"I think this new generation of MPs has quite a lot of challenge around people's expectations of how quickly they respond to things, but they seem to do a good job of it."

Politics takes grit, and locals, Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller, and National Party and Opposition leader Simon Bridges, are doing a great job in what is a challenging time to be involved in political life in New Zealand, he says.

"This is a very uncertain world, with rapid change in technology, trade and the environment."

Voter apathy and turnout remains an issue. People should take more interest, but he accepts that they lead busy lives.

"New Zealand is one of only eight countries in the world that has changed governments by ballot boxes and not bullets for the last 170 years.

"That is a huge legacy for the country to be proud of, so it is important that New Zealanders do understand how special our democracy is," he says.

On his thoughts on the MMP electoral system, the big challenge is that our structures need to reflect the increasing diversity of our country, as do our workforces, boards and management. It's slowly happening, he believes.

Ryall grew up in Kawerau and the family moved to Whakatane in the 1980s. He was a "nerd" at school and had an ongoing interest in politics.

His father worked for Tasman Pulp and Paper and his mother owned a garden centre. His mum and mother-in-law used to send him "feedback" texts on how well he answered questions in the House.

He is married to Kara, who designs bespoke carpets and rugs at SF Design in Parnell.

Tony Ryall was the MP renowned for his flamboyant shirt and tie combinations. Photo / John Borren
Tony Ryall was the MP renowned for his flamboyant shirt and tie combinations. Photo / John Borren

Despite Kara being a designer, Ryall does shop for his own clothes, including the paisley shirt he's wearing: "But I do get firm guidance," he says.

He was the MP renowned for his flamboyant shirt and tie combinations, and Bill English says it's "disappointing" to see him more corporate these days.

What makes for a good shirt-tie combo?

"Oh look, really, I just think it's the combination of contrast and one unifying colour, and your suit. It's quite multifactorial.

"If you ask some other people they'll tell you I had absolutely no idea what made for a good shirt-tie combo, which probably just produced a bit of the interest."

He doesn't have to wear a suit any more, unless it's to an event.

Ryall loves his new job, calling it both "motivating and amazing".

"Every day you get a huge buzz out of what teachers are doing and the difference that they're making.

"Some of our centres are in the most challenging environments in New Zealand, and the tranquillity, the haven, the learning environment that our centres have been able to create, really are wonderful for the families.

"They help make a difference, and when you visit those centres you come away quite inspired about the contribution they're making.

"I'm just having a great time."