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How Marilyn Waring went from political prodigy to international influencer

Marilyn Waring at the door to her office in Parliament. Photo/Listener

Marilyn Waring is nearing the last chapter of an account of her time as an MP, which ended abruptly with the calling of a snap election.

It’s nearly 35 years since a young woman ended the political reign of one of New Zealand’s most controversial and divisive prime ministers. Marilyn Waring was, at 23, the youngest person to enter Parliament when she was elected MP for Raglan in 1975. From 1978, she was also the sole woman in a National Party caucus ruled by Rob Muldoon.

Waring’s nine years in Parliament didn’t end well for her on a personal level, or for Muldoon politically. Emotionally and mentally drained from the struggle to reconcile her personal beliefs with toeing the party line, she lit a fuse under Muldoon’s already struggling regime in 1984 by threatening to vote with the Opposition to support its anti-nuclear legislation. With a one-vote majority in the House, Muldoon called a snap election, and the rest is history.

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A worn-out Waring retired from Parliament, the fourth Labour Government, led by David Lange, came to power and, in 1987, the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act was passed. After vanquishing Muldoon, some of Waring’s best work, as a feminist economist, was still to come.

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Waring and her younger brother, Gavin, grew up in rural Waikato. Her mother, Audrey, is still alive and well; her father, Bill, a butcher, died four years ago. Waring was an upset choice when selected for the safe Raglan seat and she’s continued to disrupt. Her 1998 book If Women Counted analysed the ways in which work was valued and found that little or no value was attached to that done by women, or related to nature. The United Nations finally took note and GDP is now measured differently around the world.

Waring has, at various times since leaving Parliament, been a Listener columnist, an angora goat farmer and a consultant economist, and is now a public policy professor at Auckland University of Technology. A movie called Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics was based on her work. She was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008 for her services to women and economics.

Waring is working on two books. One is on GDP and the other – a more likely must-read – her time in Parliament, in which she will, for the first time, provide a detailed account of what happened in the lead-up to the snap election. She’s also supervising 22 PhD students, so spends most of her days at her Auckland home or office, reading or writing.

Waring in her Auckland home. Photo/Ken Downie

Your heart still lies in the country, doesn’t it, despite your moving into the city?

Growing up in Taupiri was fantastic, idyllic. It was a little village. Everybody roamed everywhere. We threw ourselves off rope swings into the Waikato River and everybody played everything – netball, tennis, athletics, rugby. Mum was a good tennis player into her eighties, and my father had to learn how to ride a horse to court her because she was such a good horsewoman. As a family, we skied together at Ruapehu for many seasons, and I have fabulous memories of that. If I needed new ski boots, I had to work in the butcher’s shop. You had to earn one boot from Dad and he would then pay for the other one.

When you weren’t enjoying the great outdoors, were you a bookish kid?

When I was a child, my parents and grandparents read to me and I have never stopped reading. I feel privileged now to be paid to read, obviously with particular skills and precision – whether in my research or my PhD candidates’ drafts – but it means I am paid to learn, which was also the case when I was an MP.

How do you manage writing along with reading the piles of academic drafts and all the novels and other books here on your table?

I tend to write flat out on, say, the final draft of The Cyclops Scenario [Waring’s latest book due out in October], and then I allow myself a reward. That might be four or five hours of a novel. I read novels to turn off from work. But I can’t spend much more time than that because I have to read the next thing. With all the PhDs, it is a bit crazy, but within a couple of weeks there will be three students under examination and two others about to submit.

Waring and her brother, Gavin. Photo/Waring family collection


There will be a lot of interest in your parliamentary autobiography – how difficult was it being the only woman in that caucus in 1978?

It was awful, of course. You’ll be able to read about it in the book before long. It’s taken me about as long to write it as it did to live it.

What state were you in by July 1984?

Shattered, totally shattered. I think there were a large number of people in the National Party caucus struggling from 1982 onwards with principle and conscience. It was just a bloody nightmare. I’m not the only one who would have said they were spent at the end of that period.

What was the hardest thing?

I could say the relentlessness, but I think being really self-contemptuous of what I was part of. That makes it hard to get up each morning. That was the worst part.

Performing at a National Party event in 1978. Photo/Listener

How did you do it day after day?

You rolled out of bed, put on the running gear and ran before you could think about it. That was the first thing you’d want to stop – thinking about it. Then, once you got to Parliament, there was no end of work to do and if you maintained a kind of physical and mental exhaustion, you just moved through the days. Then recouping by coming back to Waipā, which is so gorgeous – the environment and the people. I’d just try to run around Cambridge, and see my wonderful constituents, sit and listen to the birds, and go out to Aotea Harbour at Kawhia and try to recover. And then go back to Wellington and do it again.

How do you piece together events from more than three decades ago?

I have kept everything and it’s all been in the Turnbull Library, so I spent months over several years going down to Wellington. They would bring the cartons out, sealed as they had been when they left my office, and I went through all of them. Then I went through all my National Party papers from that time and some other archives. The book is a kind of socio-economic cultural history of feminism in that period. I have newsletters from every women’s organisation at that time, and it was also driven by things such as legislative changes. The edit has started and I just need to get through the last two years. The last year, 1984, won’t take long because it stops in July. I went to a conference on autobiography in Cyprus and academics who looked at what other people had written had a fervent belief that you can remember. But the truth is, even when you have 400 boxes in front of you, there is a lot of stuff you don’t remember. I decided that people wrote memoirs because it is too hard to write autobiographies – so much hard work.

1979 Parliament v US diplomats cricket match. Photo/Listener

Why take the harder path, and why now?

It’s the whole story of that period that no one has told, really, and my colleagues have been wonderful. I will get in touch with them and say, “Do you remember A, B or C?”, and they have been fantastic. They will either say, “Yes, I remember that, this is why I was there”, or they will come back and tell me a whole lot of other stuff I never knew. Most of them are saying, “Good on you, I don’t have the energy to do this, and somebody needs to.”

Have you kept in touch with many of your parliamentary colleagues?

No, the truth is we meet up at funerals. Katherine O’Regan’s, George Gair’s, David Beatson’s. I belong to the Association of Former Members of Parliament, but I am busy. For example, I have been writing the autobiography on and off for years, and then last year I accepted an invitation to speak at the Australian Conference of Economists in Canberra. I only said yes because I thought I would have finished my book by then. But I wasn’t finished, and in February, I had to put that aside and read up for the conference, which was only a few months away: seven years of the UN Statistical Commission on the System of National Accounts and GDP, OECD websites, and the alternatives people are doing to GDP. The more I worked on the speech, which was called “Are We Post-GDP Yet?”, the more despairing I got. What was supposed to be an hour-long speech, with a 30-minute question-and-answer session, turned into a small seven-chapter book that will be published next month. I have called it The Cyclops Scenario: the OECD and Well-being. It just popped out unexpectedly.

Photo/Ken Downie

What do you read for enjoyment?

I have recently read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, is amazing – it’s a multi-generational story of Koreans living in Japan. I was late to the party for White Teeth by Zadie Smith – it’s fabulous. Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie, is extraordinary. It captures so much that is happening now: disaffected, alienated youth, ISIS-like persuaders, complications with parents and what they believe and don’t believe. Peter Carey called it brave – and it is. I am drawn to books if people I love have reviewed them well. Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees is beautiful. It is a story across three completely different times and periods. It is brilliantly written and I am a sucker for something with good environmental underpinning. Arundhati Roy [The Ministry of Utmost Happiness] is one of those writers who you’ll be reading and, all of a sudden, you stop and think, “How did she do that?”, and you have to go back a page or two to find out. Toni Morrison is the same. There is something in the prose, the lyricism, the tension, whatever it is – the craft on the page is sublime. Susan Straight’s I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots is one of the older unread novels in my bookcase and I am trying to move them. She is fabulous. Last on my bedside pile of those still being read is Harriet Harman’s A Woman’s Work. I am keeping up with what other women parliamentarians are writing as memoir or autobiography. This is different because Harriet was there for a long time, she became deputy leader, didn’t have an archive to work off – she often did not have diaries to work off – so it is a different treatment. You learn lots of things from reading different styles of autobiography.

It’s 125 years since women, or most women, in New Zealand finally won the right to vote. Have you been to the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s exhibition Are We There Yet?, or any of the other events or exhibitions connected with it?

No, I haven’t. In the past many years of writing, and then looking after my dad before he died, and now looking after my mum, who is 93, movies, concerts, and overseas speaking engagements have all had to stop. Otherwise I would not have made progress on the book. I have quite a few years of the film festival and things like that to make up in the future. I have young people who, when I hand in my final draft, are going to come and discuss this with me and introduce me to Netflix or whatever. I can’t have it now; I need the time for my reading.

This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.