July 15, 2022
Gardens

Carrie and Christopher Pyne’s new landscape

With their public political life behind them, Christopher and Carrie Pyne and their family are enjoying a slower pace in their beautiful Adelaide Hills home, where gardening is a shared love.

The Pyne children, Eleanor, Felix, Barnaby and Aurelia, are enjoying more family time now that their well-known dad has retired from politics. They are pictured with their beloved dogs, West Highland terriers Scout and Daphne, and Labrador Matilda.

As they stroll around the grounds of their beautiful Adelaide Hills property, Christopher and Carrie Pyne stop at the chicken coop.

“We call this the Cable Tie Hilton because it’s held together entirely with cable ties,” Christopher explains, showing off the wire structure, which was built by their son Felix.

“We used to have three roosters in here and we named them Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, and Mitch Fifield. One day I heard this terrible commotion and there was Tony Abbott and Mitch Fifield trying to kill each other, covered in blood; it was ghastly.

“Mitch was wobbling around and I thought, oh no, he’s in terrible strife here. And there was Malcolm Turnbull, strutting around the chook yard being very clever and staying out of all this.”

“Doing his numbers, he was,” Carrie laughs.

An ability to see the funny side has served this couple well over the years as they’ve negotiated another blood sport: Federal politics.

In 1993, at just 25 years of age, Christopher burst onto the national political scene as the Member for Sturt. He was young, ambitious and learning on his feet – sometimes stumbling.

An early misstep was famously telling John Howard that his days were numbered. Howard went on to become the second-longest serving prime minister, banishing Christopher to the backbench for years.

It was all part of the political game for this former St Ignatius College student, who studied law at University of Adelaide in the 1980s and started his career as a research assistant for Senator Amanda Vanstone, who remains a close friend.

A well-known South Australian figure, Christopher’s public persona has seen him described variously as unpopular, prissy and plummy, as well as witty, engaging and entertaining.

What is undeniable is that this lawyer-turned-politician has forged a reputation as a shrewd operator and savvy survivor of Australia’s political landscape.

A ruthless determination and tough resolve have fuelled Christopher’s success in Canberra, rising to such senior positions as the Leader of the House, Manager of Opposition Business and, as a minister, with the powerful portfolios of education and defence.

Christopher as a young boy at St Ignatius College.

Unavoidably, the demands of political life meant Christopher was often absent on the home front, leaving Carrie to raise the couple’s four children: twins Barnaby and Eleanor, now 21, Felix, 19, and Aurelia, 14.

Looking back, Carrie admits it was a heavy load, compounded by the political highs and lows of her husband’s demanding career.

“He would come in the door from Canberra and he’d be almost hot to touch,” she says. “He’d just be so tired. Even though he was here he was really busy and it just never stopped.”

Perhaps one of Christopher’s most notable moments was during an awkward interview with journalist David Speers, who pushed the then-Minister for Education about higher education policy changes.

“I’ve cleared it away, I’ve fixed it. I’m the fixer,” Christopher said in the now-infamous interview. The encounter earned Speers a Walkley award, and endless mocking memes and cringing criticism for Christopher, forever more known as “the fixer”.

He laughs about it today, as he walks past a broken wooden bench in the garden. Perhaps he can fix it?

“That was an embarrassing interview,” he says, picking up on the reference. “What a nightmare.”

So, after a quarter of a century in the political spotlight, Christopher announced his retirement in March, 2019. His funny and emotional valedictory speech elicited plenty of laughs in the House, as well as tears, but Christopher says he knew the time was right.

“I loved it for 26 years. It was very rewarding and enjoyable to do all that public service but I definitely left at the right time,” he says.

“I didn’t retire from politics because I wanted to have a quiet life, I retired from politics because I was 51 and I’d been in Parliament longer than I hadn’t been in my whole life. I thought, if I’m going to do something else, I have to do it now.

“Otherwise, I’ll never leave and I’ll be here at 65, after 40 years, and that’s a little bit unimaginative. It was time to do something new.”

Central to that idea of doing something new was the family’s move from the electorate of Sturt in the eastern suburbs to a new home in the Adelaide Hills. Carrie had always wanted to live in the hills, drawn by the sense of community and friends in the area.

The family had tried the move once before, but things didn’t go so well.

Enjoying a laugh in Parliament with Labor MP Richard Marles
Christopher with HRH Mohammed bin Zayed, ruler of the UAE, at his weekly Majlis in Abu Dhabi in 2019

“When we lost the Howard election we rented a place at Summertown, just so I could have a bit of a Hills experience,” Carrie says. “I loved it but Christopher hated it.”

“I felt like I’d been exiled,” he says. “We went back to the plains and stayed there until 2019. I was very happy in the eastern suburbs.”

But, with her husband’s political retirement imminent, Carrie found a beautiful Hills property comprised of a historic 1880s home, a pool, tennis court, teenagers retreat and more than a hectare of lush garden.

It was perfect for their needs, which included wanting more space for their adult children, so they didn’t feel compelled to move out of home.

Carrie says she also wanted to draw a line in the sand marking the end of Christopher’s time as the member for Sturt.

“James Stevens had become the new member and I just wanted to get out of his space,” she says.

“Not because we don’t like him; we love him,” Christopher adds. “But because everywhere we’d go in the electorate people would talk to me and I’d talk back, and of course that wasn’t going to stop.

“I’d be there for hours chatting when I was just trying to pick up a chicken. I’d lived in 5066 my whole life, so this move to the Hills was a very sharp and clear delineation, which was actually a very sensible idea by my wife.”

The family moved in three years ago and, while respectful of the history and heritage of the property, as well as its previous owners, Carrie was keen to make her mark, particularly outdoors.

A keen and knowledgeable gardener, she immediately pulled on the gloves and got to work. Her big picture plan was to clear away congestion and create more definition and design.

The first job, with the help of professionals, was to cut down or cut back at least 12 trees, lifting the canopies to allow for more sunlight and rain.

“When we first moved in Christopher kept saying, ‘You don’t need to do anything much to this garden, we don’t need to spend a lot of money’,” Carrie says.

“I said, ‘No, of course not’, and  then I went out and bought two chainsaws.

A younger Christopher early in his political career
Shaking hands with French President Emmanuel Macron, watched on by now-Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne, former MP Julie Bishop, former SA Premier Steven Marshall and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

“Felix’s friend was looking for work so I said, ‘Send him up here’ and we hired huge trailers and filled them up over and over again.

“I’ve also got a fabulous drilling digger – I’ve already been through one of them. It drills holes in the ground that are exactly the same size as a Lambley Nursery pot.”

Significant trees remained untouched, including a 70-year-old rhododendron, a full-size forest pansy and a rare hornbeam, plus walnut, persimmon, ginko, elm and Japanese maple.

Having researched the history of the property, Carrie believes a former owner, Abe Ketadromo, planted many of the existing trees.

“He was a gardener at the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden, and I think he is the one we can thank for the beautiful trees,” she says.

“I found history was a hook to get Christopher interested in living in the Hills; he loves history.”

Three-metre-high camellias and huge viburnums that were “out of control” have also been cut back, and Carrie also planted hundreds of salvias, roses, clematis, peonies and dahlias.

Another priority was establishing a substantial vegetable patch constructed from huge apple crates. Current produce includes eggplants, tomatoes, chilli, Thai basil, coriander, zucchinis, beans and capsicum.

It’s clear that Carrie is a gifted green-thumb with a can-do attitude, but she insists her technique is all about trial and error.

“I might plant 100 dahlias hoping maybe 25 would pop up, then all 100 do,” she says.

Christopher with Australian troops in Afghanistan during his time as Minister for Defence

“The lady who used to live here came back for a visit and I was beside myself. I didn’t want to upset her with all the changes I’d made to the garden. But she was fantastic and said, ‘This is a beautiful garden, who did you get in to do it?’, and I said, ‘Just me’.”

Christopher says his wife of 28 years “undersells herself” when it comes to her gardening talents, saying, “She could put a coathanger in the garden and it would grow”.

Carrie admits she loves her gardening books and has a library of Paul Bangay titles. She is also a regular at the workshops run by [celebrity gardener] Sophie Thomson who lives nearby in Mount Barker.

“I go to all her courses about summer fruit-tree pruning and establishing good soils and I do all those sorts of things,” Carrie says. Her love of gardening is enhanced by listening to audio books as she toils away.

“If I’m into a good book, I often can’t drag myself away; I’ll stay out there for hours. I love early morning gardening, then I come in and have a quick nap, then I head back out.”

“That’s the first I’ve heard of the nap,” says Christopher, who also enjoys a spot of gardening, but is usually relegated to more menial tasks.

“I can do the lawns – I’ve got a ride-on mower – I can chop and leaf blow and the pool is allowed, but I’m not allowed to do any planning or deciding of anything,” he says dryly.

“He does the tennis court because I couldn’t care less about it,” Carrie adds. “He keeps it in good nick and thinks Rafael Nadal is coming at any moment.”

Nadal hasn’t made an appearance but politico mates including former Premier Steven Marshall, Federal Minister for Finance Simon Birmingham and James Stevens are all regular players on the manicured grass court.

A formidable team in the garden – Carrie is the gifted gardener with incredible know-how, while Christopher takes charge of the lawns, the leaf blowing and the pool
Carrie is not afraid of the heavy lifting in the garden and is completely hands-on with all aspects of planning, planting and upkeep

These days, while he may no longer be in the high-powered world of federal politics, Christopher’s life remains fast paced.

In 2020, he launched lobbying firm Pyne and Partners, with his former chief of staff Adam Howard. The business has taken off with offices now in Adelaide, Canberra and Sydney.

Other roles include as an industry professor at the University of South Australia, and the 53-year-old is also on numerous advisory boards and not-for-profit organisations, as well as maintaining his media work and corporate appearances.

It’s a busy life but nothing compared to the pressure cooker existence of politics, which he says he’s not missing.

“The only thing I miss about Canberra, which people find hard to believe, is the team,” he says.

“That community in the capital, while it’s very unusual, is its own community; its very own ecosystem. As I said in my valedictory speech, the chamber is my natural habitat.

“So, I do miss that wider feeling of going to work with a purpose, which is to serve the people and keep Labor out of office. And then, in our own team, despite the fact that everyone seems to be very fractious and at each other’s throats, there is a certain football team analogy.

“There are people on the team you like, people on the team you don’t like, but you know if someone’s in a better position, you pass the ball to them and hope they kick a goal.”

Carrie says the timing of Christopher’s political retirement has worked well for family dynamics and the day to day demands of raising older children.

“Now, we’re making adult decisions, not discussing what’s in their lunch boxes. We’re helping make decisions about what they should study, or trying to understand the war in Ukraine, and Christopher is here and has time,” she says.

“It’s lovely when they have a question or they want a hand buying their first car or whatever. I can literally say, ‘Go and ask Dad’.

Some of Carrie’s handiwork in the garden including the veggie patch created from disused apple crates

“The kids are just loving having Dad back – just Dad, not the Member for Sturt or the Minister for Defence. He doesn’t need to be on all the time, he can just be quiet which is nice for them.”

“As quiet as I can be,” Christopher laughs.

“When I first came home it took a while for the children to realise that I wasn’t going away again. It was like, he’s not just here for summer, he’s here to stay.

“I hadn’t really had enough time with them or Carolyn and so I can now become a bigger part of their lives before it’s too late.”

Currently, son Barnaby is studying construction management at University of SA and also works part-time for Sarah Constructions. Eleanor is in her third year of business law and works part time at an East End law firm, Felix is studying commerce as well as working at a local accountancy firm, while Aurelia, a keen horse rider, is in year eight.

“At the moment it’s that lovely time when they’re working out who they are and what they want to do with their lives,” Christopher says.

“I’ve also had lots of good ideas about how to run the house after politics which have been very unwelcome and none of them have been adopted.”

With a more low-key lifestyle, Christopher also has more time to his see his extended family, including his beloved mum, Margaret, 92, who lives close by, and his older siblings, Remington, Nicholas, Alexander and Samantha, some of whom live interstate. Christopher’s father, Remington, an ophthalmic surgeon, passed away in 1988.

There are regular Pyne gatherings at Carrie and Christopher’s home, which is perfectly designed for entertaining, particularly in the spectacular glass conservatory and deck area which overlook the sweeping green surrounds.

The next phase of the garden makeover is the construction of Carrie’s greenhouse, bought by Christopher as a Christmas present last year.

“I was told it was a do-it-yourself arrangement but I walked out there yesterday and we’ve had to get three-foot concrete foundations going down into the ground to support it,” Christopher says.

Not afraid to get his hands dirty, Christopher has the chainsaw at the ready when needed
Carrie often listens to audiobooks when she’s gardening and can be out there for hours

“These things happen to me all the time; it’s like a sting operation.”

It’s clear the entire Pyne clan are enjoying life in the Hills and the time and space it has afforded them together.

Christopher says he starts to unwind as he’s driving up the freeway and, once he gets home, he’ll often, “Just sit on the verandah and contemplate with a negroni”.

Carrie says that Liberal Party leadership battles, in particular, took a toll on the family over the years and she knew that stepping away from the political turmoil would benefit everyone.

“We’d gotten to that point with Tony [Abbott] being in and then Malcom [Turnbull] left and that was very challenging because Christopher and Malcolm were so close and that was a torrid time,” she says.

“We felt, after that one, that was probably enough. You try to support a leader and things happen that are so out of your control and I think that when Malcolm left it was a really hard period for Christopher.”

“It’s good not to leave politics bitter, but a lot of people do,” Christopher adds.

“You can see people who can’t let go and that’s not good for them. You’ve got to know when to leave and leave when people want you to stay.”

Having said that, Christopher admits he recently had a dream that he was running for the seat of Mayo, which takes in the Adelaide Hills. He woke up and immediately called good mates Simon Birmingham and James Stevens and said, “I’ve had this horrendous nightmare”.

“I know it could happen though, because when I went to the dry cleaners in Stirling, I noticed I started talking to the lady behind the counter. I asked why she didn’t have a lovely stool to sit on instead of standing up all day. I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m doing it again’.”

Carrie says it’s the perfect time for Christopher to be around more for the children now that they’re making adult decisions about their lives. “I can literally say, ‘Go and ask Dad’

However, Christopher is adamant there will be no political comeback. Instead, he, Carrie and the children will continue to embrace their rustic Hills abode away from the glare of public life.

“It’s very peaceful,” he says.

“The best thing about the Hills lifestyle is the space, watching all the seasons and the sense of community,” Carrie says.

“When you go overseas and see one amazing thing, you think, ‘I could just pinch myself, I can’t believe I’m here.’  Well, that’s what it like all the time; I just can’t believe I’m here.”

This article first appeared in the May 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.

 

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