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PREPARATIONS IN HAND: Mahia electorate returning officer Garth Hibbert before the 1996 general election.
Garth Hibbert in the early 1980s. Picture supplied
Garth Hibbert in a photo taken to accompany a column in The Gisborne Herald. Picture by Liam Clayton

GARTH Hibbert was returning officer in Gisborne for the first three elections to have anything to do with the MMP voting system, but other issues sprang to prominence.

His first election as returning officer was in 1993, when voters could pick First Past the Post or Mixed Member Proportional as their choice for subsequent elections.

For Garth, that election was notable for the trip he made to Hamilton to have a stent put in an artery three weeks before polling day. He had collapsed during a stress test and been assessed as requiring surgery. He then drove to Hamilton, had the stent put in place, waited a day and drove home.

The 1996 election stayed in the memory for the furore that developed over the lack of a polling booth at Gisborne Hospital. Garth had sent a request for permission to use the hospital as a polling place. He made follow-up calls, too, but a response never arrived.

Polling booths could not be gazetted without this permission, and without that gazetting a place could not be used for polling.

It meant that on election day, Gisborne Hospital staff and patients had nowhere onsite to cast their vote.

Garth told them that political party representatives could take special votes.

The 1999 election was notable for the delays in final counts around the country. Helen Clark, who became prime minister as a result of the voting, was critical of the delays.

Garth recalled that returning officers had been given a counting system that was laborious, prone to error, and difficult to use. His people at one city school polling place contacted him at 11pm and said they couldn’t get the figures to balance.

“Go home, get a good night’s sleep and in the morning resume the count,” he told them.

Helen Clark’s comments about the chief electoral office, and the associated “media frenzy”, annoyed Garth so much that he resigned, effective a month after the election.

The electorate for which he was responsible was called Gisborne in 1993, Mahia in 1996 and East Coast in 1999. It was so big that electoral staff called it Texas, and Garth was the Texas Ranger. Playing on the joke, radio announcer Adam McLaughlin made him a wooden Colt 45.

When he resigned, Garth wrapped the Colt and his returning officer’s badge in oil cloth and sent it to Wellington with the message, “The Texas Ranger is out of here”.

The bulk of the returning officer’s work was in the six months before each election.

Outside that, Garth had held a variety of mainly clerical or administrative positions.

Born in Gisborne on June 22, 1938, Garth was the second-eldest of Joe and Eva Hibbert’s four children. Barrie was the eldest, Carole was younger and Rod was youngest.

At school in Gisborne

Garth attended Central, Gisborne Intermediate and Gisborne High schools. He was profoundly influenced by an overseas trip in 1954 to the Boys’ Brigade Founder’s Centenary Camp, held at Eton, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the movement’s founder, Sir William Alexander Smith.

The cost was £100 for fares and £100 for spending money. Garth raised £50 and his father provided the rest.

The boys were billeted in England and Scotland, although Garth stayed with his father’s cousin in Bolton for two weeks and saw the great Bolton Wanderers and England centre-forward Nat Lofthouse play football.

The trip, including the voyages by way of the Suez Canal, took about three months.

Joe Hibbert spent his working life at the Economic Butchery, rising to manager.

Garth’s elder brother Barrie went to university and theological college, and became a Baptist minister. Joe Hibbert hoped that his second son would join him in the butchers’ trade. (Carole and Rod became teachers.)

Garth had two spells in the butchery but the father-son combination in the shop “didn’t work out” and, besides, Garth was drawn more to clerical and administrative tasks.

Nevertheless, in 1959 when he travelled to Canada with Bernie Hambly — they sang together in a Gisborne group called The Four Squares — the job he had for a year was as a butcher in a Vancouver department store.

Homesick, he returned to New Zealand, and on the plane met Diane Gunter, on her way to Sydney, Australia, to meet a penfriend. Diane and Garth kept in touch, and Diane came to Gisborne. They married in October 1964, and had a son, Glenn, and daughter, Catherine.

From March, 1964, Garth had been personnel manager at J Wattie Canneries’ Gisborne factory. When he experienced the lay-off of seasonal staff — about 500 people — the first time, he started work at 7am, went through the day, the night and the next day, and finished at 6pm.

In 1966 he landed the job of production control and purchasing officer.

Plant manager Gordon Wattie, elder son of Sir James, wanted a diversified operation for maximum use of plant, and Watties in Gisborne was booming.

Garth’s job entailed preparation of production budgets, the purchase of ingredients and packaging, and liaison with factory staff.

Baked beans — perhaps the company’s most recognisable product — were navy pea beans that came mainly from overseas.

Beans from the USA

“I used to buy all the beans that were available, and the bulk of them came from Lansing in Michigan, in the US,” Garth said.

“We also bought beans from Ethiopia and any that were available in New Zealand. They didn’t grow very well here.”

Baked beans could only be processed in the off-season because the factory was already running at full capacity in the crop season.

“It started with green beans in late November, followed by peas and then sweetcorn and tomatoes. The last crop to go through the factory was peaches, in March.”

Garth was in the job till October 1971, by which time his family circumstances had changed dramatically.

Diane and Garth had been worried about Glenn, whose muscles seemed weak. After a diagnostic misstep, Glenn was found to have Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a genetic disorder characterised by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness.

Diane’s parents had visited from Canada and filmed Glenn’s movements, then shown the film to a professor at a children’s hospital in Toronto. He thought Glenn’s condition was worse than Garth and Diane had been told.

Garth’s inlaws paid for the family to visit Canada, where the professor confirmed the diagnosis of DMD, and said they could expect Glenn to live to about the age of 15. (Average life expectancy for those with DMD is around 25 now , but can be more with excellent care.)

Garth came back to New Zealand, agonised over what to do, then got his immigration papers organised and returned to Canada.

He found a job in production control with General Mills, the company that owned the Betty Crocker brand. But he struggled with the combined effects of his new life in Canada, Glenn’s condition and a job where he was dealing with warehouses with indigenous names he couldn’t get into his head.

Garth became depressed and, six months into his new job, had a nervous breakdown.

After a family conference, Garth returned to New Zealand. He decided he could not go back to Canada but felt his wife and children were where they could get the best treatment (for Glenn) and support.

A short spell back with Watties, as meat manager at the Gisborne plant, ended with another bout of depression.

Then came a series of jobs that culminated in fellow Wainui Lions member Chris Fenn asking Garth to join him at his shop across from the Regent theatre. The business crossed the road to 212 Gladstone Road, where the Salvation Army shop is now, then opened a video store further along — 228 Video.

A gold mine

“On Saturdays and Sundays we had queues outside our door waiting to come and get movies . . . it was a gold mine,” Garth said.

“Then we came a little unstuck. You had to buy multiple copies of popular movies. If you didn’t, the opposition would get all the trade.

“We started buying in multiples but you had to be careful because you had to rent a video 18 times to cover your cost.

“I approached my fellow directors and said if we wanted to maintain this business, we had to get a bigger shop and carry multiples.”

They decided to concentrate on home appliances, and Garth was asked if he wanted to buy the video business. He said no, and they parted ways.

In the meantime, he and Diane had divorced, and he was married again, to Jan. Glenn had died, at the age of 15. Garth continued to have contact with Catherine.

A spell selling advertising for a business directory — he did two editions — told him that selling on commission was not his forte.

And then came the returning officer job. When that ended, he bought a computer and began writing stories for his grandchilden. They were based on his life experiences, and he felt driven to get them down . . . every day.

His pen name was George Picrate. George was his childhood nickname; Picrate was suggested by Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, and the explosive nature of picric acid.

He wrote from 2000 to 2015, then stopped.

“I felt I had run my course.”

He had the stories bound into 11 volumes — eight for his grandchildren and three for his great grandchildren. Two manila folders of stories remain unbound.

On his return from Canada, Garth’s spiritual home became St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. He drew comfort and friendship there, and returned the favour where he could.

For years he set out, often before sunrise, on a daily walk. The people and sights he came upon were in many of his stories. He kept it up until failing health curtailed his activity.

GARTH Hibbert was returning officer in Gisborne for the first three elections to have anything to do with the MMP voting system, but other issues sprang to prominence.

His first election as returning officer was in 1993, when voters could pick First Past the Post or Mixed Member Proportional as their choice for subsequent elections.

For Garth, that election was notable for the trip he made to Hamilton to have a stent put in an artery three weeks before polling day. He had collapsed during a stress test and been assessed as requiring surgery. He then drove to Hamilton, had the stent put in place, waited a day and drove home.

The 1996 election stayed in the memory for the furore that developed over the lack of a polling booth at Gisborne Hospital. Garth had sent a request for permission to use the hospital as a polling place. He made follow-up calls, too, but a response never arrived.

Polling booths could not be gazetted without this permission, and without that gazetting a place could not be used for polling.

It meant that on election day, Gisborne Hospital staff and patients had nowhere onsite to cast their vote.

Garth told them that political party representatives could take special votes.

The 1999 election was notable for the delays in final counts around the country. Helen Clark, who became prime minister as a result of the voting, was critical of the delays.

Garth recalled that returning officers had been given a counting system that was laborious, prone to error, and difficult to use. His people at one city school polling place contacted him at 11pm and said they couldn’t get the figures to balance.

“Go home, get a good night’s sleep and in the morning resume the count,” he told them.

Helen Clark’s comments about the chief electoral office, and the associated “media frenzy”, annoyed Garth so much that he resigned, effective a month after the election.

The electorate for which he was responsible was called Gisborne in 1993, Mahia in 1996 and East Coast in 1999. It was so big that electoral staff called it Texas, and Garth was the Texas Ranger. Playing on the joke, radio announcer Adam McLaughlin made him a wooden Colt 45.

When he resigned, Garth wrapped the Colt and his returning officer’s badge in oil cloth and sent it to Wellington with the message, “The Texas Ranger is out of here”.

The bulk of the returning officer’s work was in the six months before each election.

Outside that, Garth had held a variety of mainly clerical or administrative positions.

Born in Gisborne on June 22, 1938, Garth was the second-eldest of Joe and Eva Hibbert’s four children. Barrie was the eldest, Carole was younger and Rod was youngest.

At school in Gisborne

Garth attended Central, Gisborne Intermediate and Gisborne High schools. He was profoundly influenced by an overseas trip in 1954 to the Boys’ Brigade Founder’s Centenary Camp, held at Eton, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the movement’s founder, Sir William Alexander Smith.

The cost was £100 for fares and £100 for spending money. Garth raised £50 and his father provided the rest.

The boys were billeted in England and Scotland, although Garth stayed with his father’s cousin in Bolton for two weeks and saw the great Bolton Wanderers and England centre-forward Nat Lofthouse play football.

The trip, including the voyages by way of the Suez Canal, took about three months.

Joe Hibbert spent his working life at the Economic Butchery, rising to manager.

Garth’s elder brother Barrie went to university and theological college, and became a Baptist minister. Joe Hibbert hoped that his second son would join him in the butchers’ trade. (Carole and Rod became teachers.)

Garth had two spells in the butchery but the father-son combination in the shop “didn’t work out” and, besides, Garth was drawn more to clerical and administrative tasks.

Nevertheless, in 1959 when he travelled to Canada with Bernie Hambly — they sang together in a Gisborne group called The Four Squares — the job he had for a year was as a butcher in a Vancouver department store.

Homesick, he returned to New Zealand, and on the plane met Diane Gunter, on her way to Sydney, Australia, to meet a penfriend. Diane and Garth kept in touch, and Diane came to Gisborne. They married in October 1964, and had a son, Glenn, and daughter, Catherine.

From March, 1964, Garth had been personnel manager at J Wattie Canneries’ Gisborne factory. When he experienced the lay-off of seasonal staff — about 500 people — the first time, he started work at 7am, went through the day, the night and the next day, and finished at 6pm.

In 1966 he landed the job of production control and purchasing officer.

Plant manager Gordon Wattie, elder son of Sir James, wanted a diversified operation for maximum use of plant, and Watties in Gisborne was booming.

Garth’s job entailed preparation of production budgets, the purchase of ingredients and packaging, and liaison with factory staff.

Baked beans — perhaps the company’s most recognisable product — were navy pea beans that came mainly from overseas.

Beans from the USA

“I used to buy all the beans that were available, and the bulk of them came from Lansing in Michigan, in the US,” Garth said.

“We also bought beans from Ethiopia and any that were available in New Zealand. They didn’t grow very well here.”

Baked beans could only be processed in the off-season because the factory was already running at full capacity in the crop season.

“It started with green beans in late November, followed by peas and then sweetcorn and tomatoes. The last crop to go through the factory was peaches, in March.”

Garth was in the job till October 1971, by which time his family circumstances had changed dramatically.

Diane and Garth had been worried about Glenn, whose muscles seemed weak. After a diagnostic misstep, Glenn was found to have Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a genetic disorder characterised by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness.

Diane’s parents had visited from Canada and filmed Glenn’s movements, then shown the film to a professor at a children’s hospital in Toronto. He thought Glenn’s condition was worse than Garth and Diane had been told.

Garth’s inlaws paid for the family to visit Canada, where the professor confirmed the diagnosis of DMD, and said they could expect Glenn to live to about the age of 15. (Average life expectancy for those with DMD is around 25 now , but can be more with excellent care.)

Garth came back to New Zealand, agonised over what to do, then got his immigration papers organised and returned to Canada.

He found a job in production control with General Mills, the company that owned the Betty Crocker brand. But he struggled with the combined effects of his new life in Canada, Glenn’s condition and a job where he was dealing with warehouses with indigenous names he couldn’t get into his head.

Garth became depressed and, six months into his new job, had a nervous breakdown.

After a family conference, Garth returned to New Zealand. He decided he could not go back to Canada but felt his wife and children were where they could get the best treatment (for Glenn) and support.

A short spell back with Watties, as meat manager at the Gisborne plant, ended with another bout of depression.

Then came a series of jobs that culminated in fellow Wainui Lions member Chris Fenn asking Garth to join him at his shop across from the Regent theatre. The business crossed the road to 212 Gladstone Road, where the Salvation Army shop is now, then opened a video store further along — 228 Video.

A gold mine

“On Saturdays and Sundays we had queues outside our door waiting to come and get movies . . . it was a gold mine,” Garth said.

“Then we came a little unstuck. You had to buy multiple copies of popular movies. If you didn’t, the opposition would get all the trade.

“We started buying in multiples but you had to be careful because you had to rent a video 18 times to cover your cost.

“I approached my fellow directors and said if we wanted to maintain this business, we had to get a bigger shop and carry multiples.”

They decided to concentrate on home appliances, and Garth was asked if he wanted to buy the video business. He said no, and they parted ways.

In the meantime, he and Diane had divorced, and he was married again, to Jan. Glenn had died, at the age of 15. Garth continued to have contact with Catherine.

A spell selling advertising for a business directory — he did two editions — told him that selling on commission was not his forte.

And then came the returning officer job. When that ended, he bought a computer and began writing stories for his grandchilden. They were based on his life experiences, and he felt driven to get them down . . . every day.

His pen name was George Picrate. George was his childhood nickname; Picrate was suggested by Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, and the explosive nature of picric acid.

He wrote from 2000 to 2015, then stopped.

“I felt I had run my course.”

He had the stories bound into 11 volumes — eight for his grandchildren and three for his great grandchildren. Two manila folders of stories remain unbound.

On his return from Canada, Garth’s spiritual home became St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. He drew comfort and friendship there, and returned the favour where he could.

For years he set out, often before sunrise, on a daily walk. The people and sights he came upon were in many of his stories. He kept it up until failing health curtailed his activity.

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