Tina Symmans talks politics, America's Cup and whitebaiting in the Tukituki

by Clare de Lore / 10 December, 2017
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Tina Symmans.

Whether wielding a whitebait net or political influence, Emirates Team New Zealand board member Tina Symmans is a force to be reckoned with.

When the whitebait’s running, chances are you’ll find Tina Symmans waist-deep in water at her favourite spot on the Tukituki River. Hawke’s Bay-based Symmans spends hours with friends in pursuit of the slippery, glistening little fish.

For a few months earlier this year, Symmans was in Bermuda chasing other fish – sailing’s biggest trophy – as the only female director on the Emirates Team New Zealand board.

Her father, Gerry, was a Press Gallery journalist, whose career included a period as press secretary to Rob Muldoon, both before and during his time as Prime Minister. Her mother, Jo, was an accomplished interior designer who could turn her hand to just about any job around the house, a talent passed on in varying degrees to their three daughters, Tina, Anna and Julia.

As Gerry’s journalism career took off, the family moved around. Tina, the eldest, attended 13 different primary schools. She left Wellington Girls’ College halfway through her final year, jumping at the chance to join an advertising agency.

Symmans whitebaiting.

How did you land the advertising job?

It was nepotism, because my father, through Muldoon, was a client. This was the 1975 election, with Muldoon and the Dancing Cossacks. I loved politics, I had grown up in a house with politics, so the job had everything I thought would be fabulous to work in. This was roughly the end of that Mad Men era [of high-pressure 1960s advertising agencies]. Luckily, I couldn’t type. My father had said if you want to get on in this world, avoid two things. One was typing, because you would end up a secretary. Clearly, he hadn’t anticipated the internet and that everyone would use a keyboard, which is ironic because he started the country’s first electronic news-transcription service, Newstel.

What was the other thing to avoid?

He said never learn to iron a shirt. When I was young, I thought this was good advice. I didn’t want to be typecast as a secretary or a housewife. I later became a housewife and loved it.

What was your role in the 1975 election campaign?

Radio Windy ran something called National Party Line, which was paid for by the National Party. Prospective ministers were interviewed by someone at 10pm as if it was a genuine news show. I was chosen to be the interviewer, but at 18, I had no idea what I was talking about. I remember interviewing Brian Talboys, who was always known to me as Uncle Brian, and I said on air, “Uncle Brian, what do you think about blah blah?” Talk about patsy questions.

The Symmans family: Gerry, Tina, Jo and Anna, with Julia (sitting).

What’s your best campaign story?

Two nights before the election, I wanted to have something to ask questions about that night on the radio, so I went to the [Labour leader Bill] Rowling meeting. Someone recognised me as a Young Nat, and some brute threatened me. Unfortunately, the Dominion photographer was there and took a snap of me actually protecting myself from this guy with my arm. Lo and behold, it was on the front page of the paper the day before the election. All hell broke loose, with my father yelling, “Christina, you have lost us the election!” Totally overblown, but everyone is tired during an election campaign. He ordered me out of the house. My poor mother threw some clothes at me and told me to go away for a while. She had to field calls from Mrs Bucket types from the National Party ringing to say they felt for her with her daughter’s behaviour. Dad wasn’t speaking to me, so Muldoon picked up the phone on election day and said, “I would like you to come down here. I don’t think it is good for you and your father to be estranged at this time”, and he effected a reconciliation.

Your late husband, Mike McCabe, was a creative director at the advertising agency Colenso. What happened to your career, your marriage and Mike?

Mike was a bit old-fashioned and didn’t want me to work, so I set about becoming like [celebrity American homemaker] Martha Stewart. I stripped the biggest villa in Herne Bay by hand, using a toothbrush to get paint out of the curly bits. I was eight months’ pregnant up the top of the scaffolding, and I started a garden. I had our daughter Jessie when I was 24, I entertained clients and I tried to be Mrs Superwoman. I remember reading Shirley Conran, who wrote a book called Superwoman, and coined the phrase, “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom”, all about how to do more faster, and I followed that.

Tina with her father on election night 1975.

Unfortunately, Mike got sick and couldn’t work, because the drugs he was taking – which were not as good as those available now – killed his creativity. He committed suicide at 35. I was 28 and Jess was only four. It was tough. On my 29th birthday, I got a letter from the Widows & Widowers Association, asking me to join. I thought, “This is like a Jane Austen novel. I’m all washed up and on the shelf, and now I have to go to these appalling meetings with old people.” So I went to work instead, and joined up at [PR company] Communicor with Simon Walker, who was very close to Labour, who were in government then. When I eventually bought Simon out, Roger Douglas launched my business – it was even covered on the TV news.

Once you returned to the workforce, was there a plan?

I have just got on and done stuff. I haven’t saved children’s lives or discovered a cure for cancer. I saved a beach, though. Not singlehandedly, but I chaired a team who campaigned to save Ocean Beach in Hawke’s Bay. I took four or five years out of corporate life to be an activist. The day after 9/11, I bought a house in Hawke’s Bay and moved there. I wanted to be able to grow my own food, grow vegetables and make marmalade. I thought the world was heading into an unstable, precarious state. Jess was also unwell, and I wanted to support her, so I took time out from my career.

You don’t have a history with sailing, so why take on an America’s Cup directorship?

I get a real kick out of a huge challenge, particularly if it seems almost insurmountable. But with the cup, there were times when even I felt like giving up. It was hard. The battles we faced were so draining and so intense. But you can’t be meek, and you can’t put things off until another meeting. No one will ever die wondering what I think about something.

Symmans holding the America’s Cup after New Zealand’s win.

Are you staying around for the defence of the America’s Cup?

Yes, and it will be a better cup. The reaction to the protocols from all the different stakeholders, particularly potential challengers, has been positive. The return to monohulls was greeted positively, for the most part. More importantly, the rules around the protocols return the cup to a basis of fairness and the principles that were in the original Deed of Gift. The New York Yacht Club has announced it will put up a challenge, which is fantastic, and we are confident there will be a lot of other challengers.

In terms of the planning, are you worried about the hurdles with Auckland Council and the Government?

We worked hard in Bermuda to win the cup, to bring it home. Yes, there are challenges, but the council and the Government are working together to find the best options for staging the cup and the best financial structure. Bear in mind, everyone is strapped for cash, but as we proved in Bermuda, that is sometimes not a bad thing, because you come up with innovative and winning solutions.

In your personal life, what’s been the biggest challenge?

Being a solo mother, bringing up Jess. From her mid-teens through to her mid-twenties, Jess fought a huge battle with alcohol addiction. It was horrendous. It took her to hell and back, and me, too, to be honest. She’s been in recovery for nearly a decade. I’m immensely proud of her courage, determination and intelligence. Now, Jess is a counsellor, working with at-risk youth. She can relate to them, because of her own experience. She has huge passion and empathy.

Symmans in 2017.

What’s life like in Hawke’s Bay?

When I get home from work, I go straight to the compost and put my hands in it. It grounds me. I love foraging and fossicking for mushrooms, fishing, whitebaiting and growing stuff. I have two gardens, down the road from each other, which is slightly obsessive. I love doing stuff in the house. I think I inherited this house-and-garden stuff from my mother. One of my greatest treasures is my toolbox. My favourite tool is my power drill. If you have a power drill, you can do anything.

You mentioned Shirley Conran and the influence of one of her books. What else do you read?

The last books I read were Rick Gekoski’s novel Darke and I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. Over Labour Weekend, I read Joan Withers’ biography [A Woman’s Place, co-written with Jenni McManus]. I devour gardening books and love garden catalogues.

What’s next in your sights?

In the past 15 years, I have seen the degradation of the Tukituki River, and it makes me cry. When I finish a day’s whitebaiting, my hands now feel as if I’ve had them in buckets of diesel. Fifteen years ago, they were fine. Now I have to pile stuff onto my hands to protect them before I even go into the river. In my next career, I will be an environmental activist, no doubt about it.

This article was first published in the November 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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