Mary English is one of those rare creatures who does make a roomful of people sit up and take notice. Even among this crowd of dusky, exuberant women with flowers tucked behind their ears at a Pacifica breakfast in Grey Lynn, English, with her tallness, steady smile and quiet poise causes an almost-imperceptible ripple.

Maybe it is the Samoan pale, or wreath, of trembling orchids on her head and lei round her neck.

Maybe it is because of the tenderness with which she shepherds in her elderly companion in the mannish hat, who turns out to be the other Mrs English - Norah, mother of Bill.


But it is when she gets up to speak that Mary English's real charm began to work on these Pacific Island women, who come together to provide opportunities for Pacific women in New Zealand. Within a couple of minutes her quiet voice has reduced the room to silence.

"In the end," she says, "it all came down to where the boat stopped."

For Mary English's father, one of the Samoan Scanlon family, that port was Wellington, where he met Jean, an Italian girl from the island of Stromboli, whose boat had also ended up in Wellington.

The couple went on to have 13 children. Mary, the eldest, is one of seven daughters and six sons.

Mary English's personal story, with its memories of hardship, a mechanic father with two jobs, and eight paper rounds between the four older kids ("we had two each ... the money went to buy shoes"), is one this audience has heard before.

What is different is that it is being told to them by the wife of the Leader of the Opposition - a woman who, with her beautifully manicured hands, understated, gleaming beauty, rings and trappings of the middle class, has educated her way to the top of the heap.

Mary English speaks well and fluently. After a couple of minutes the quavers in her mellow voice (so much better than Helen's or Jenny's or Bill's for that matter) starts to steady.

The message, too, is well-pitched for this Pacific audience, which is interesting, given that Mary English has not exactly emphasised her Samoan side.

As she freely confesses, she was not brought up with fa'a Samoa, speaks French rather than Samoan, and has never even visited Apia. What she did learn early on were the old National Party values of self-reliance, thrift and pushing ahead.

"We owned our own home [in Lyall Bay]. Dad's big plan was to pay off the mortgage," she says. "My parents were very passionate about God and their faith and their 13 children. They were also passionate about education ...

"We might have thought about being selfish but we soon had that knocked out of us. Supporting my husband fits with me, fits with our values."

The close of her speech would sit neatly at the end of a National Party manifesto: "A lot of us aspire to more than living in a state house and living on a benefit - that's not what our parents got on the boat from Apia for."

When she finishes, her mother-in-law leans forward: "You spoke beautifully, Mary." "Thank you, Grandma."

Dr English works four half-days a week as a GP in Newtown, Wellington. She also helps out at an inner-city practice and runs a school clinic at a predominantly Pacific Island student school in Porirua.

As well, she raises their six children, attends serious numbers of official functions with Bill, and, more recently, speaks in her own right, as she is this morning.

But it is probably the mother role with which Mary English seems most comfortable. Without wishing to play the family card and so annoy Helen Clark, she is a genuinely family-based woman, her speech woven with family anecdotes about her brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, in-laws, children.

Throughout our talk, an undertone of the selflessness that comes when two high-achievers from big Catholic families converge (Bill is the second-youngest of 12), is as pervasive as the scent of flowers from her lei.

The couple met, fairytale fashion, when she was 18 and in her first week at Otago Medical School, and he was 19 and working on a BCom BA. As she says now, smiling, "I struck the jackpot. Bill - he's my best friend".

It was obviously a disciplined upbringing. Mary was "strongly encouraged" to finish her degree before marrying. By that time she was studying at Wellington Medical School and visiting Bill, who was managing his farm in Dipton, halfway between Queenstown and Invercargill, during university holidays. Although she thought the enforced long engagement was hard at the time, "now that I'm a mother I can fully understand it".

When English had decided she wanted to become a doctor, at age 12, her father had been keen. She recalls his words: "No one's been to university in our family. But if you want to go to medical school we'll make sure you get there."

The nuns at her convent school (St Catherine's in Kilbirnie) added their efforts. "One, a West Coast Irish nun, managed to pinch a PhD chemistry teacher from the local boys' school - that made a really big difference," she says.

As the eldest, Mary was also the family example. Her brother Peter is a doctor. "Patrick's a BSc who came first-equal graduate at Victoria University. We have an accountant and dietician, an architect and an accountant-to-be in the family ...

"When my sister Catherine wanted to become a physiotherapist, dad was really down on that - 'it's only a diploma!' When AUT made it into a degree course she was really happy."

The big families and Catholic faith is probably why Mary English is rumoured to be the chairman of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child in the South Island. And is she?

The soft brown eyes widen momentarily and then she smiles. Of course, as I know already, neither she nor Bill is based in the South Island, which makes the rumour rather unlikely. But still, predictably, she gives me the courtesy of an answer.

"We're both conservative on anti-abortion issues - and I'm always keen to see groups like Pregnancy Help supporting mothers who are finding it difficult. For me, one of the biggest lessons in my life is when I've met the children of mothers who've changed their minds - the most glaring truth is that there are a whole lot of people missing from families."

But is she involved with Spuc? "No."

What Dr English is involved with is "an outfit called the Family Education Network" - a programme which was partly sparked by teenagers who express regret at early sexual involvement and its consequences. Working through schools, the programme is aimed at sexuality, health "and plugging, in part, the postponing of sexual involvement message".

Dr English is worried about more than unplanned pregnancies. "The chlamydia - all that stuff - is going through the roof," she says. "We're really trying to encourage 14 year-olds who are not sexually active to stick with that. One of the programmes uses peer presenters and is very effective - teenagers listen more to people closer in age to them."

Not surprisingly, Mary English also firmly favours traditional families over looser-knit relationships.

"My concern has always been that young people are supported, especially by their families, and that parents be encouraged," she says. "Because it's the hardest job out.

" That's why I'm really keen on the marriage thing, why I support people who are married ... because that stability is important, especially for a child.

"At the same time, sole parents do a heroic job. I hope they have good extended families because it is a struggle ... The research is clear. Married couples starting at the same level find it much easier than a sole parent to overcome financial obstacles because they're both pulling in the same direction - you do dig your way out of it."

When they did get married at last, at the family parish church in Kilbirnie, Mary was delighted. "No, I didn't cry at my wedding. After our long engagement I couldn't wait!"

Fourteen years later, Mary, Bill and their six children - Luke, aged 13, Thomas, 11, Maria, 10, Rory, 8, Bart, 4 and Xavier, 2 - live in Ngaio, across the city from Kilbirnie where Mary grew up.

The house was bought more for its size (when her husband's work commitments stepped up the couple hired a live-in nanny to share the chores), sprawling back garden ("we have to have a cricket pitch and a trampoline - essential equipment, I've decided") and proximity to good schools than for real estate values.

Luke, the couple's eldest son, goes to St Pat's town, where, says his mother, "He says he's the only kid who wants to join the Poly club who looks really white, has glasses and doesn't have a six pack [of abdominal muscles]."

Despite the sometimes-minuscule age gaps (13 months between Thomas and Maria) Mary has enjoyed her children, taken time off when they were babies, breastfed them all. She still tries to see everyone off to school in the morning and takes in as much Saturday sport as possible.

The most important thing for building a big, relaxed happy family, she says, is attitude. "For everyone in your family to enjoy it [being part of a big family], you have to enjoy it yourself - to live beyond survival mode ... As dad says time and again, 'Remember Mary, blood's thicker than water'."

Despite the Southland farmer label, Mary English reminds me that her husband has been in politics for well over a decade. Their last year on the farm was in 1996 and political life is embedded in the family culture.

"If one person goes into politics, the whole family goes in as well," she says. "And after 10 years we're sort of veterans."

At the same time there is a strong commitment to keep the children out of the public eye, which is part of the reason they hired the nanny. "We've made a commitment, they haven't."

Despite the serene smile and measured tone, there cannot have been much time for Mary English, the woman, in all of this. For example, although she accompanied Bill to Italy on government business a few years ago, she has never made it to the south, or her mother's island of Stromboli. And if there is a little Latin temperament in there too, it is impossible to spot.

Instead, as she puts it, she has sat at the centre of "a fusion of lava lava, Liberty prints and gumboots" produced by the English and Scanlon blood. "I thought all my children would have black hair, but the old English genes are very strong," she laughs. "They're brunette, though all with brown eyes. The fairest is sandy blonde."

Even if you are the wife of the Leader of the Opposition, six kids keep you busy. The last time we speak Mary is on her way to a series of end-of-year plays and prizegivings that will go on until late in the evening.

First thing tomorrow she will be on her way to Australia - and still the voice down the phone is firm, careful, correct. But then, being the eldest of a family of 13, mother of six, a doctor and wife of the Leader of the Opposition - probably in that order - obviously helps a woman to focus.