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March 13, 2006 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Marian, you sly thing…

Marian Hobbs is running late. A scheduled 9.30am pow-wow saw me at work a little after 8, topping up the batteries on the dictaphone, brewing a fresh pot of coffee (plunger, not instant), giving the pool table a clean (well that was Jon, not me), and throwing some Labour red on the couch (Marian took the chair). She didn’t arrive, I tried to hide my hurt… but the let down was palpable…

An hour and a half later, we’re back on track and any disappointment is right in the back of my mind. Hobbs swept into the office like a sudden wave, excuses were made, but Hobbs is so engaging. She’d make you forget anything, and believe wholeheartedly in what she was saying. Over the course of the next three quarters of an hour she proved an entertaining interviewee. She is passionate, choosing to flay the conventional political sound bite that politicians will steadfastly rely on in interviews. I guess that’s why she’s such a successful politician, she’s so believable and devoid of an immediate agenda. It’s pouring down with rain outside, but Marian’s in a good mood. “The day before I flew in from England, good boring flights all the way in, but Auckland to Wellington, a 737 plane had an aborted landing and had to land in Auckland because of the weather. And I thought, oh god, welcome home Marian. But I love it really. Cleans the air.”

Hobbs is someone who doesn’t take her duties lightly and has an obvious love of the city she serves. “After the last election I thought, well 20,000 people have voted for me. I felt quite humbled – that’s real. It’s quite a lot of trust people put in you.”

Our talk continues about Wellington, its foibles and its peculiarities. I tell Hobbs that in my opinion there is no other electorate remotely like Wellington Central. New Zealanders are, on the whole, a fickle and hard to please bunch, so serving over the ranging needs of suburbia, city dwellers, students and civil servants (to name but a few), you’d imagine one would have their work cut out? “Very diverse. It’s so open and people will talk to you. If they see you on the street people will always nod and grin.”

“Richard Prebble used to say it, and I actually believe it, that Wellington Central is a very intelligent electorate. Not because they are brighter than any other people. They may be, but [more] because people are so used to being around the processes of government. You can’t get away with merely looking good.”

Presiding over many of your colleagues must be tough. “Most of them are also senior bureaucrats as well. And most of them earn more than me.” She cracks up laughing, telling me she has tried to never let this temper her behaviour- except she’s “never rude to civil servants. They are my voters. And word gets around.”
In recent years it seems that roading, and the ensuing protest has been very much on the mind of Wellingtonians: we all hate the traffic and want to find a way around it. “At the top of Cuba I think they hate my guts because I didn’t get the bloody bypass stopped,” Hobbs says referring to her withdrawing her opposition to the much maligned bypass. “I became converted by a Danish architect, who said we have to get the traffic across town. And if we didn’t have that there it would have to go between the city and the waterfront on that horrible road Jervois Quay.” The process took so long- “I decided to stop all my squealing and just go quiet. Though I probably couldn’t have done anything anyway.”

The bottom line for Hobbs is that Jervois Quay must also be lined with trees and turned into an avenue. “Will I be watching? You bet I will.” What of the recent coastal road/ Transmission Gully debate? “To be honest, I didn’t actually care. I will be watching very closely that rail investment is kept up because that’s important. Basically they made a decision that was painstakingly well informed. And I think they’ve done a very solid job in making a decision.”

Hobbs is happy with her time as an MP for Wellington Central. This would be the time in an article that a journalist would usually criticize, complain or judge. But what are the criteria in judging an electorate MP of such a vast area? Hobbs is rarely complained about, she is rarely seen ­ which almost in the vein of any good rugby forward, must be seen as a positive. Her reputation is good and her instant likeability wins you over. Hell, I thawed to Marian Hobbs instantly last year with one quip she made about Helen Clark texting in capitals that had me in hysterics. But what does she see her reputation as? “I think it is a reputation as being out there and being an activist.” As an MP Hobbs says it is the small projects that count, listing various schools and sanctuary projects as highlights. But when I push her to name one thing that’ll always make her smile that trademark chuckle comes back: “I was quite thrilled with what I did with the V8 race!” As was I, Marian.

Her margin has increased at each subsequent election ­– another sign of her success as an MP. Margins that have also increased in the face of high profile candidates, having defeated Richard Prebble, Hekia Perata, and Mark Blumsky in the last three elections. Marian Hobbs, a giant killer? “Nooooo. No she’s not. I’m just accessible and I’m around and I don’t think I’m scary.”

Her demise was never predicted more than with the injection of Mark ‘Eyebrows’ Blumsky into the Wellington Central race last year. Attempts by myself to get Hobbs to take the piss out of Blumsky’s characteristic eyebrows are met only with a smile. Hobbs says Blumsky’s demise was simple, “He wasn’t a strong debater. The media always says- ‘oh yeah there goes a high profile person, she’s out of here’. And then he had a run in with some stairs, which didn’t help either. But I’d been a cabinet minister for six years, and I know a hell of a lot things from that experience that help me debate. He might’ve flown in Otaki, but this is Wellington Central and people want an argument.” Subsequently Hobbs’ lead the race the whole way, and the predicted 2005 dogfight for Wellington Central turned into much more of a cakewalk.

The 2005 election, Wellington Central aside, was tight. Did they ever believe as a party or a government that defeat was possible? “As an MP at the beginning, yeah, I was very nervous. It was a very tight campaign. The 2002 campaign was short and fast, 2005 was very long. You made sure you were closely involved in everything, unlike other times when you do what you’re told.”

In a long and bloody campaign, naturally morale and energy levels naturally take a beating. “In Wellington, it was good and positive, in part due to the fact that we led the whole way. In the provinces some of them got a bit of a shock.” Traditional Labour strongholds fell, almost without warning. My home province, Hawkes Bay, went completely blue on election day last year, which given the socio-economic make up of the area is very had to fathom. “What worries me is that people didn’t know that the tide was turning against them, which is bewildering.” Labour’s decreased majority in the house means that MPs have a lot more heat down their necks. “It’s not going to be a pleasant term. There is no room to make a mistake.”

Above all else, elections are tough. “The week after them you just can’t get out of bed. The adrenaline has all gone.” Hobbs appears exhausted merely reflecting on the election. Her voice trails off –“if I stand on a street corner one more time…”

Whispers are already starting to come out about Helen Clark’s demise. Four election wins in New Zealand is seen as a near impossibility, and fresh blood may be called in, in all likelihood to go up against National party pin up John Key. Can Helen Clark serve twelve years as Prime Minister of New Zealand? “Personally I’m not so much interested in her being there as I am in Labour getting a Fourth term.” Hobbs tells me, somewhat harsh isn’t it? “If she comes back in that’s great. But if not, they’ll be other people.”

So what is the big dog really like? I realize it’s a bit star struck of me, but I’m curious.
“Scary. She’s so fit, brain fit and physically fit. If you are going to have an argument with her you better have your facts absolutely straight otherwise you’re screwed. And that’s a compliment, not a criticism. But she’s a human being who loves to be loved as much as anyone else.”

“She’s a tough leader, but she is focused on delivering for all New Zealanders. And if you want to be part of that delivery, you’ve got to live up to those standards.”

Hobbs’ time in parliament hasn’t been devoid of scandal, and a 2001 allowance dispute saw her dismissed temporarily from her post in cabinet (a post she gave up last year). Hobbs does not speak kindly of the media’s fascination with the ugly side of politics. She claims that the media ignores the actual issues in favour of sensationalism – a common criticism of today’s press. “When you are waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it, you aren’t thinking about your work at all.” When it’s your turn to cop a serve, there is no preparation for the sheer awfulness of it all. “It’s horrible. When they arrive around at your house and point their cameras through the window you just feel exposed and naked and ugly and horrible.” Seamlessly, our conversation moves into the Benson-Pope fiasco and the criticism of the press extends to the opposition. “It’s ugly and it’s not about politics and it’s totally useless. National could have used this to scrutinize actual policy, there are a number of issues they could have looked at and they haven’t.”
But it’s such an established part of politics, such a successful way of discrediting the opposition. “It’s easy for the media. It’s a part of politics, but it’s also a part of politics that is quite despicable.”

But enough about politics, the conversation was getting a little intense. She recently bought herself Amici, and, like all females with a pulse, likes ‘Pride and Prejudice’, or namely that charisma free strumpet Colin Firth. Not even me informing her of Keira Knightley’s Oscar nod will see her go anywhere near the new remake. “My daughter hated it.”

Hobbs’ great extra curricular love though is cricket. “Cricket is a wonderful game. It’s an hour by hour, session by session, team game of strategy. It’s like a big game of chess.”

Favourite players? “I’ve always been a fan of Stephen Fleming, he’s got a great style. But that guy with the curly hair… the spinner, who was a student, and was picked young…” Daniel Vettorri? “Thankyou. I love watching him.” (Marian, you naughty thing!) “And I love that spin bowling has come back in, in this country.”

Personally, I tell her, I’m a Lou Vincent man. Hobbs, like me, is stunned by his omission.
“It’s interesting. That happened while I was away. It’s quite an interesting debate as to what’s actual going on inside that team, and as to what the selection panel is actually doing.” Marian Hobbs, politician and cricketing tactician.

Marian Hobbs is a lot of fun to talk to, but she’s got an eleven thirty meeting and I’ve nearly run out of questions. I throw her the cheesiest finishing question I can muster. What’s it like to actually be Marian Hobbs? “Comfortable… Sometimes lonely… I’ve had a really interesting and good life.” It’s the only time she seems, almost wistful and lets that guard of enthusiasm down a little. She’s done a lot in her life, from student politics, to teaching, to serving on boards, to MP and cabinet work. So is the end nigh for Marian Hobbs, queen of Wellington Central? She merely throws me a cheeky grin and gives a textbook, politicians “no comment.”

And then, almost as suddenly and unexpectedly as she entered, she is gone.


About the Author ()

James Robinson is a university dropout turned journalist who likes to pretend he has an honours degree. Turn ons include soup, scarfs, a hot bath and some FM-smooth Kenny G-esque instrumental jazz. Turn offs include student politicians, the homeless, and people who pronounce it supposebly.

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