Jenny Shipley: Death threats and dealing with Winston Peters

Former Prime Minister Dame Jenny Shipley has talked of how the pressure of political life seeps into her personal one with a moving story about her son's reaction to death threats against her.

Dame Jenny spoke at length about her two years, between 1997 and 1999, as the first woman to hold office as New Zealand Prime Minister as part of the Radio NZ series The 9th Floor. The series documents the experiences of five former prime ministers.

In a wide-ranging interview, which also included the inner workings of a coalition with New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, Dame Jenny recounted a moment in which images of a protest on the 6pm news had her questioning whether the leadership role was "worth it".

She'd come home along with her Diplomatic Protection Service detail from a day's events in Ashburton and Christchurch as Social Welfare Minister in which there had been protests aimed at her.

"Everybody and the children were in the dining room and the television was on and we'd had a difficult day of protests and so on and we're gathering around the television as leaders would want to do at 6 o'clock…[the protest] was very vicious 'Kill Shipley Kill' these sorts of slogans and things.

"[My 12- or 13-year-old son] Ben, I remember him being physically alarmed and I was deeply anxious when I saw his reaction. Ben turned around after watching this and was quite rigid in his face and he was a very able and relaxed boy and he said to [the lead DPS] 'Will you look after my mummy?'

"It's enough to break your heart. It wasn't because I was at risk, but his anxiety."

Dame Jenny said after dinner that night as the sun was going down, the DPS officer went outside where Ben was playing.

"I remember watching him take his jacket off and peel his hardware off and hang it on this tree and let Ben see and said 'don't worry Ben, we'll look after your mum'.

"Those are hard moments for a woman leader, they are the hardest moments when you think 'is it worth it?' and you understand the protesters right to protest, some of it was what it was, some of it in my opinion was very excessive, but protesters need to understand  the unintended consequences of what they say."

Dame Jenny also had praise and criticism for Mr Peters in recalling working with him in a coalition government.

She'd sacked him as Treasurer in 1998 as the first MMP government started to crumble.

"Winston could have been Prime Minister but for want of himself. His complexity often got ahead of his capability. Watching him on a good day he was brilliant," she says.

"He was an 85 percent outstanding leader; the 15 percent absolutely crippled him because he would get so myopically preoccupied with a diversion that it took away his capability and intent on the main goal."

She recalled Mr Peters, who was Deputy Prime Minister between 1996 and 1998, would be great at taking information in, but on some days he hadn't done the required reading.

Dame Jenny would make a call if he'd done the work based on whether the envelope containing the documents was open or closed.

"Often would tell me the extent to which he had read what we were then going to discuss. I learned to both respect and manage it and on those days the meetings were short."