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Maggie Barry's election-year engagement

Now To Love logo Now To Love 11/09/2017 Nicky Pellegrino
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While she’s been out and about on the campaign trail recently, eagle-eyed members of the public might have noticed something different about MP Maggie Barry: A beautiful ring, emerald and rose gold, worn on her engagement finger. It was put there by longtime partner Grant Kerr following a romantic marriage proposal.

“We were walking through a park,” explains Grant, who’s a traditionalist about this sort of thing.

“It seemed the right time to ask Maggie to marry me. So I told her I think she’s a wonderful, strong woman and she’s someone I’d like to go into the future with, holding hands. Then I asked, ‘Will you marry me?’”

He felt pretty confident he would get the answer he was looking for as he and broadcaster-turned-politician Maggie had been talking about their future.

Grant (68) has been married once before but Maggie has reached the age of 57 without ever being tempted to walk down the aisle. “I didn’t really see the point until now,” she admits. “It didn’t seem important.”

What changed her mind was the events of late last year when Grant had a scary brush with ill health. It was a busy time, with Maggie overseas, first to Antarctica, then to a biodiversity conference in Mexico.

“While I was away, Grant thought he’d give me a nice surprise and clear up a pile of compost that’s been under a phoenix palm in our garden for years,” explains Maggie.

Grant, who’s generally very fit, hired a truck and spent a day with his pitchfork shifting the compost into it.

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“A couple of days later, I didn’t feel so good,” he recalls. “I thought some vitamin C and a couple of early nights would fix the flu-like aching. Instead, it got worse and worse.”

Returning from Antarctica, Maggie was concerned. “He looked like death warmed up, to be honest. And he was finding it difficult to breathe.”

Having extracted a promise that he’d go back to his doctor, Maggie hurried to Mexico to meet her work commitments.

She kept calling Grant and, even when he could barely croak down the phone, he insisted everything was fine. “This is the Kiwi southern man,” she says, rolling her eyes at his stoicism. “He’s from Dunedin and made of stern stuff.”

Grant has been Maggie’s constant companion and he was “pretty confident” she would say yes when he proposed. © Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd Grant has been Maggie’s constant companion and he was “pretty confident” she would say yes when he proposed.

Grant has been Maggie’s constant companion and he was “pretty confident” she would say yes when he proposed.

Fortunately, Grant’s friends recognised he was far from fine and got him to the doctor. It took several visits to work out exactly what was wrong and the eureka moment for medical staff was when Grant mentioned he’d started feeling bad after shifting the compost.

Blood tests confirmed he had Legionnaire’s disease, a severe form of pneumonia that is caused by inhaling bacteria commonly found in soil and potting mix, and can be fatal if left untreated.

By then, Maggie was on her way home. While catching a connecting flight in Houston, Texas, she turned on her phone to find two text messages.

“One was from Grant saying he’d been hospitalised, with no other details,” she recalls. “The other was from John Key saying he’d decided to resign as Prime Minister. I was so deeply shocked I had to sit down.”

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Arriving in Auckland early in the morning, Maggie had a difficult choice to make. Did she rush to Grant’s bedside or fly to Wellington for the most important meeting of her political career so far, to decide on the National Party’s new leader?

“I rang Grant and was relieved he sounded a lot perkier,” she says. “Once they’d realised it was Legionnaire’s, they were able to act quickly and the medication was working.

“I’d have gone to him if he’d asked but Grant takes a very close interest in politics and made it clear he would be disappointed if I didn’t go to the meeting.”

“I’d have been very upset if it had been any other way,” confirms Grant. Only once she had told Bill English he had her full support as the new leader and backed Paula Bennett as his deputy did Maggie catch the last flight back to Auckland to be reunited with Grant.

“By then, I’d been awake for about 40 hours and was running on adrenaline,” she recalls. “But I had to see for myself that he was all right.”

Grant’s health scare forced the longtime couple to reassess their future. © Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd Grant’s health scare forced the longtime couple to reassess their future.

Grant’s health scare forced the longtime couple to reassess their future.

The whole experience prompted Maggie to do some deep thinking. “We all have friends who have been taken before their time,” she says.

“It did make me think life is precious, your health is everything and it’s important to spend time together – all those clichés your mother tells you. And I love Grant. We enrich each other’s lives and make each other happy.”

Ironically, Legionnaire’s disease is something Maggie regularly warned viewers about in her former career as host of TV’s Maggie’s Garden Show.

“We did an item on it every season, with me demonstrating opening a bag of potting mix in a well-ventilated area with the bag facing away from me – all those little tips.”

Grant used to watch the show so he knew about Legionnaire’s and that the bacteria could be inhaled from potting mix. “I just didn’t realise I was at risk working on a compost heap outdoors.”

He is now back to his good health and the couple have enjoyed embarking on some of the rituals of getting ready for a wedding, such as having Maggie’s engagement ring and their wedding bands made to a design by their favourite contemporary jeweller, Kobi Bosshard.

Most weekends,the pair don their helmets and cycle up Devonport’s North Head. © Provided by Bauer Media Pty Ltd Most weekends,the pair don their helmets and cycle up Devonport’s North Head.

Most weekends,the pair don their helmets and cycle up Devonport’s North Head.

“It was fun popping into the jeweller’s on a Friday afternoon and trying on the ring,” says Maggie. “I won’t be getting married in white and flouncing down the aisle in a church, but I think some of the traditions are worth keeping.

“I’ve never worn a ring before because I’ve always been a gardener, and I wasn’t sure about the idea of wearing one day-in and day-out, but I like it more and more.”

The wedding date has been fixed for around Christmastime as that’s when it’ll be easiest for Grant’s two grown-up children, Jonathan and Imogen, to fly from their homes in London and for Maggie’s son Joe (19) to return from university in Sydney.

It’ll be a small ceremony for close family and friends – Maggie would love a garden setting and perhaps a bigger party afterwards – but beyond sending out a few invitations, not much progress has been made firming up the details as there’s been the small matter of the September 23 General Election to consider.

Maggie, who is MP for Auckland’s North Shore, is spending every waking hour campaigning. “At some point when I have some brain space, I’ll go and have a frock made,” she says.

Grant understands her commitment to her job as he’s been a high achiever all his life too.

He has had a long career as a lawyer, plus he played competitive cricket and chess, co-founded the hugely successful Taranaki Arts Festival, ran the province’s former rhododendron festival and Womad, and has trekked through Nepal and Peru.

The couple met in 2003 on an Outward Bound course, and got together about nine years later.

“Doing the hard yards tramping in the rain in below-freezing temperatures for 16 hours, you get to know the character of someone,” says Maggie.

They both believe the secret to a later-life relationship lies in supporting each other’s separate ambitions and passions, and making sure you carve out time to be together.

Grant has been involved in all of Maggie’s political campaigning – he’s in charge of maintaining the hoardings this time around – and he takes a particular interest in the work she does as the Minister for Conservation, Arts, Culture and Heritage, and Seniors.

Every Thursday when she flies home from Wellington, they chat about their week. “We help each other along,” says Maggie. “Everything we do is easier and better because we have each other.”

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On weekends, they’ll often be seen cycling up Devonport’s North Head together on their electric bikes. And Grant is a regular by her side at the many events and functions she has to attend as an MP.

“It can be a brutal business, politics, as well as lonely, so I’m very fortunate to have someone who takes an active interest.”

“And I’m very proud of her,” adds Grant.

After six years in Parliament, Maggie is pleased with what she’s done so far. She feels her push for a predator-free New Zealand by 2050 and her work to prevent elder abuse are among her most significant achievements.

“I came into politics to make a difference and I think I have, but it’s not over yet,” she says. “That’s why we’re fighting so hard and leaving the wedding on the backburner till the end of September.

“After that, I’m sure we’ll be able to devote ourselves to some plans.

“I’ve got October, November, December. That’s three whole months. That’ll be fine. I’m determined I’m not going to be Bridezilla!”

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