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Maggie Barry


In a 1986 North and South profile, Maggie Barry’s high school career advisor was quoted as saying, “No-one will be able to tell Margaret what she’s got to do. She’ll find her niche in life…there’ll be no stopping her”. At the time Barry was the youngest host of Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, and the first woman to hold the position. She would reinvent herself several times over, finding niches in television current affairs, as TV's pre-eminent gardener, and as an MP.

Born in Wellington in 1960, Barry was the only child of an accountant and a florist. Primary education posed few problems but Erskine College involved many detentions (“I was always a talker,” she later recalled). Exasperated teachers sought to channel her vocal abilities in more productive ways. Elocution lessons led to a Trinity College ATCL qualification in speech by the time she was 16.

Victoria University seemed an automatic choice, but she only lasted a year studying English, Classics and Psychology. Instead she drew on a childhood love of gardens to pursue a diploma in horticulture at Lincoln. After surviving “the young redneck farmer types in their Toyota Landcruisers that Dad bought them”, she set up shop as a gardener/landscaper in Masterton. The shortcomings of her new profession became obvious as a wet winter limited work, but left plenty of time for radio listening. 

Confident she could do better than local announcers, she offered her services to 2ZN as a newsreader. An announcing contract almost ended before it started. Turning up for work with facial injuries from a Springbok Tour demonstration, she was warned by station management about mixing work and political views. 

Following more formal training, Barry worked for RNZ in Taupō and Palmerston North (where she later revealed Rolf Harris had groped her before an interview). 

A job in Wellington producing a current affairs round-up for RNZ’s commercial network provided a springboard to one of local radio’s most high profile jobs. In 1986 she took the seat vacated by Lindsay Perigo on National Radio’s Morning Report, opposite Geoff Robinson. At 26 she was the show’s youngest presenter  and the first woman to hold the position. Acceptance took time. Her voice lacked the BBC edge some expected, while others felt denigrated at being interviewed by “the woman”.

Over three and a half years Barry's popularity soared. But the hours took a toll. After spending her late 20s in bed by 9pm and up at 4am, she moved to the more forgiving timeslot of the weekday Nine To Noon show.

A stint of TV continuity announcing in the mid-80s seemingly confirmed radio was her medium. She told the NZ Listener she preferred “the anonymity of it and the fact it doesn’t matter what you look like.” That reluctance disappeared with the opportunity to present TV One’s Palmer’s Garden Show. She relocated to Auckland, beginning at TVNZ in February 1992. 

Barry hit TV screens with a vengeance. NZ Listener journalist Gordon Campbell argued she was being used like Polyfilla as she also hosted the current affairs show Counterpoint, stood in for Judy Bailey on the 6pm News and Anita McNaught on Tonight, and visited Gore for Heartland. He also concluded that she was “that rarity not glimpsed since the glory days of Ian Fraser in the 1970s - a current affair interviewer whom people actually like”. 

With Barry at the helm, the Garden Show became an unlikely primetime hit. But juggling gardens and current affairs work proved increasingly difficult. She hosted the nightly news show Primetime in 1993 but, with election year approaching, had to choose one or the other. Gardening won.

By 1996 it was called Maggie’s Garden Show – a top 10 hit with an audience of 600,000 viewers a week. She was voted Woman Personality of the Year by The Listener, opened the Ellerslie Flower Show, had a rose named for her and established a successful business hosting overseas garden tours.

She was appointed to the NZ Order of Merit for her services to broadcasting in the 1996 Queen’s Birthday Honours, and gave birth to a son in 1998.

The show continued to evolve and diversify, with Barry anchoring an ever changing roster of segment presenters (including Ruud Kleinpaste, future mayor Dave Cull, and Mark Leishman). But she was unhappy about increasing pressure to do garden makeovers. When TVNZ announced in 2003 that it was looking for a fresh format, she opted out of tendering for the replacement show. After 12 years, her tenure dispensing no-nonsense advice as screen gardener to the nation was over. 

Stoic about the loss of her “dream job”, she took up freelance journalism. Her Listener interview with Sir Edmund Hillary was his last before his death, helping her win 2009's Qantas Award for Senior Magazine Feature Writer.  That year a stint as Radio Live's drivetime host marked her first fulltime job since the birth of her son. 

In March 2011, an unsuccessful bid for the National Party candidacy in a by-election for the aptly named Botany seat took some by surprise. Although publicly apolitical for decades, she could point to her upbringing in a “true blue” household with 'Rob’s Mob' parents, who took her canvassing from age 10. 

She also talked of a desire to “make a difference rather than report from the side-lines” after her cousin’s son Michael Monk died at the Pike River mine.

Electoral success came for Barry in 2011 in the North Shore seat; she was re-elected in 2014. John Key, who had previously dubbed her “Minister of Roses”, appointed her Minister for Arts, Culture & Heritage, Conservation, and Senior Citizens in his third term cabinet. 

Profile written and researched by Michael Higgins. 

Sources include
Gordon Campbell, ‘Maggie Barry: In at the Deep End’ - NZ Listener, 19 September 1993
Mary Crockett, ‘Say It With Flowers’ - NZ Listener, 23 April 1994
Lindsey Dawson, ‘Campaign Maggie’ – Next, March 2011
Michele Hewitson, ‘An audience with gardening queen Maggie Barry’(Interview) – NZ Herald, 17 January 2004
Michele Hewitson, ‘Michele Hewitson Interview: Maggie Barry’ NZ Herald, 4 June 2011
Douglas Jenkin, ‘Maggie Barry in Person’ - NZ Listener, 9 September 1989
Sara Kate Lynch, ‘My Dream Job is Over’ (Interview) - NZ Woman’s Weekly, 30 January 2006
Pamela Stirling, ‘Maggie Barry: A Growth Industry’ - NZ Listener, 11 November 1995
Jane Tolerton, ‘Good Morning Maggie Barry’ - North and South, June 1986