Comment

The common man with a fire in his belly

Tracey Bridges worked and travelled with Mike Moore daily as a press secretary when he was Labour’s Opposition leader. She writes of a driven and generous man with a common touch who feared being right too soon.

Mike Moore had been Prime Minister for just eight weeks, and Labour had just taken its worst ever election defeat in the 1990 election, when I joined the Office of the Leader of the Opposition as a young press secretary.

Walking into the Opposition offices on that first Monday felt like walking into a ghost town, where what ghosts there were, were tired and dispirited.

But then on the Tuesday the boss arrived, and brought with him an energy field, big enough to power us all. He was focused, he was enthusiastic, he was firm and he was purposeful.

Mike often spoke of people having “the fire in their belly”, and over the years I’ve come to understand how important that fire is, to achieve change in the world.  

Mike had more fire in his belly than all of us put together.

In the early 1990s the Office of the Leader of the Opposition was a smallish team, at first just three press secretaries working with the whole Labour caucus.  In those years we travelled a lot with Mike, spending time with him in planes and cars, and over snatched meals in hotel restaurants, and watching him operate in public meetings and one-on-ones, and walkabouts. Small chats and radio talkback and big speeches and – his least favourite of all – formal launches and press conferences.

Travelling with Mike was a revelation.  In the provinces especially, people loved him.  He would talk to anyone, he made genuine connections with people, and people would cross the street to shake his hand.  He genuinely saw, and listened to, the people he met; he strove to understand their perspectives; he remembered them next time he saw them.

But it would be a mistake to say (as some did) he was just a glad-hander, a people-person. Because he was brilliant. His brain never stopped working, he read voraciously, and he had an intense intellectual vitality.  Working with him, you had to think, you had to pay attention, you had to keep up. He was kind enough to include anyone in his thought processes and discussions, even the youngest and most naïve member of his team. Working with him was always invigorating, challenging and exciting.  

Although he was brilliant, he was not always structured in his thinking, and his tendency to make what could at times seem like random connections between points made him a great target for the media. I recall him going off-piste in a policy launch media conference, and knowing as he spoke that we had ahead of us days of fending and defending while the more vicious members of the press gallery made sport of his faults.  They weren’t entirely wrong but the ridicule did him – and them – a disservice, and missed the point of his vision and his immense abilities.

He could be cryptic at times. Perhaps in other cultures or other times that would be recognised as wisdom, a reflection on complexities that reveal a deeper truth.  Unfortunately in the media environment of the early 1990s this way of thinking was just dismissed. But as he once said, “it’s wrong to be right too soon”.

It’s popular at the moment to discuss the importance of purpose in the workplace context. On this like so many other topics, Mike was ahead of his time. He believed that meaningful work defines us and gives us purpose, pointing out that when people meet each other, one of the first questions they’ll ask is “what do you do for a living?”. He said if we deprive people of meaningful work, we deprive them not just of livelihood but of self-definition and self-respect.

He was driven by his own sense of purpose and a sharp understanding that our time on earth is short – and he worked tirelessly to make good use of his time.  I still have copies of the books he wrote while he was Leader of the Opposition, setting out his vision for our nation, our economy, our place in the world. Read those books now: on many topics he was right. Just too soon.

He worked harder than anyone, and working for him inspired his team to work hard too.  During the election campaign especially, it wasn’t entirely unusual to work an 18 hour day, but it was enormously rewarding. I still remember just one time being in the office before him, and will never forget his words of acknowledgement to me when he arrived that morning.

He was genuine in his care for the people he termed “the battlers”, and unswerving in his desire to serve their needs. He didn’t hesitate to ask people to check their privilege, and never flinched from examining the inequalities and the realities of life in New Zealand for people without.  

Others will write more knowledgeably about the political history of that time; about Mike’s contributions to the Labour Party and movement and later to global trade and development. My recollections are more personal and specific: what he was like to work with and for.

I loved working for Mike.  What incredible good fortune to work for such a brilliant, kind and visionary leader.  He swept people up in his vision and his sense of mission. His wit, energy, generosity and, above all, his decency will always be remembered by those who worked with and loved him.

Tracey Bridges worked as a press secretary for Moore when he was Leader of the Opposition from 1991 to 1993. She co-founded public relations firm SenateSHJ and is now the co-founder and a director of The Good Registry. She is also a professional director and Chair of the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency.

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