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Shane Te Pou: Reflections of a former Labour activist

Shane Te Pou reflects on the way the Labour Party has treated Mike Moore over the years 

It's customary these days to criticise politics as too tribal but, the case of the New Zealand Labour Party, at least, it's the wrong analogy: in practice, it's less tribe than sect.

Whereas tribes tend to protect their own, and forgive individual sins in service of the collective good, a sect is unforgiving of perceived heretics. In Labour, this manifests nowhere as clearly as in the case of Mike Moore.

The elites who have largely comprised Labour Party since the turn of the century long since deemed Moore, along with most of his former colleagues from the Fourth Labour Government, as persona non grata. An obvious exception is his successor in the labour leadership, Helen Clark. Whatever complicity Clark demonstrated during her first outing as minister, her emergence as a competent and comparatively orthodox Labour Prime Minister more than compensated for it. In any event, the party had already embraced as doctrine that, between 1984 and 1990,  Mike was a dogmatic Rogernome worthy of scorn, while Helen was a rebel in the ranks who saved the party from his clutches. Helen's ruthless toppling of Mike, despite his nearly stealing the 1993 election, was a noble act of political courage; efforts three years later to restore the party's flagging fortunes by returning Moore to the job were evidence of scandalous disloyalty. Anyone even associated with Mike has been unceremoniously shunned ever since. 

For those of us who lived through it, there is a lot in the account above to quibble with - until you remember you aren't dealing with history, but theology. The Clark v Moore battle royale, cast in starkly sectarian terms, is a founding myth of modern Labour; one that allows the party to safely absolve itself from the Fourth Labour Government's ideological adventures.

In reality, Mike was a pretty conventional Labour politician of his era. Over his 24 years in Parliament, he assembled a record of advocacy for working Kiwis that would put most current MPs to shame. In fact, for the early part of his parliamentary career, Mike was admirably progressive on social issues at a time when Labour’s Old Right were unapologetically  conservative – remember Gerry Wall? Geoff Braybrooke? Labour, bound by common working class identity, was more like a tribe back then. 

As for Moore’s role in the 84-90 era, he was no more an architect of Rogernomics than Geoffrey Palmer was. Sure, both supported a raft of reforms, but his ministerial focus was mostly elsewhere – notably on free trade, an entirely uncontroversial stance within Labour ranks at the time. It's highly anachronistic to judge Mike’s record as a free trade evangelist – as MP, Minister and director-General of the WTO – by the standards of today's new lefty protectionism. He was seen back then as a champion of NZ exporters and producers. He was pragmatic and patriotic, certainly no ideologue. For those of us resisting the extremes of Rogernomics within Labour at the time, Mike barely rated a mention next to Douglas, Pebble, Caygill and others. And yet, among the Clark era faithful, he has come to embody the sins of the era. And, as such, he has been shamefully neglected for his considerable contributions to the New Zealand labour movement over nearly half a century. Jim Bolger, by the length of the straight, enjoys greater respect and adulation from Labour than Mike does. 

The contrast with the more ecumenical Australian Labor is striking. There, former state and federal leaders are granted exalted  status – even in cases where they failed to win an election, such as Kim Beazley, or are otherwise tough to love, like Kevin Rudd. Every year, at the ALP national conference, these former leaders take pride of place. I doubt Mike would make it past security if he showed up here. 

Moore gave his career to our movement. Few have put more skin in the game, pounded more footpaths, endured more branch meetings, or raised more money for Labour than Mike Moore. But, in the process of laundering the eighties from our history, his legacy has been distorted beyond recognition. At a time in his life when he deserves our gratitude, the party to which he sacrificed so much treats him like an embarrassing relative. Mike deserves so much better.

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