Jim Anderton: An ordinary extraordinary man

Opinion: Over the last few days I, like many others, have been thinking about Jim, his legacy and what made him the political force he was.

Much of the public commentary has rightly focused on his enormous sense of principle and the major contribution he made to our country. Jim was an absolute giant of New Zealand politics, and his life and accomplishments are already turning into legend.

But one of things that I keep coming back to with my memories and musings is what an ordinary extraordinary man he was. For Jim, politics was first and foremost about people. At the heart of his career and everything he did in public life, was a strong sense of compassion.

Jim approached every decision in public life through the lens of what would it mean for the people he represented. At the height of the often lonely battles of the 1980s against Rogernomics, Jim told me he was driven by stories he saw of people he knew in his community, including people on his electorate committee who lost their jobs, and along with it their hope and their dignity.

Politics never seemed overly theoretical or complicated for Jim. Rather, he was a man who had a hardwired political compass that knew right from wrong.  What mattered to him was what happened to people - to their lives and their aspirations.

Jim became my local MP when I was nine years old. I can still vividly remember watching him hold a street corner meeting outside our house in 1984. I was curious and captivated by what I saw. Growing up in 1980s South Christchurch, it seemed to me that there was a magical figure that if something went wrong people went and saw him and he fixed it.

When the Christchurch City Council wanted to chop down the trees in our street, my mother and some of the neighbours called in Jim. The trees remained. He didn’t treat that small local issue any differently to how he treated major events like setting up KiwiBank. All politics were local for Jim.

When it turned out that I was the only nominee for the Wigram seat, I made the mistake of suggesting to Jim I thought that maybe I’d over-organised. I can still hear the silence on the other end of the phone when I uttered those words. It was broken a few seconds later with a firm rebuke that “there’s no such thing as over-organising!”

I consider myself immensely fortunate to have been taught by Jim about being a local MP. A day or so after the February 2011 earthquake, I hadn’t been elected yet and was still just a candidate, helping out Jim deal with local issues. There was a council housing complex who we had visited and there were a number of elderly people there without bread or milk. It was getting late in the day, and I suggested we just go to the supermarket and buy supplies ourselves.

Jim looked at me and said “There’s not enough money in the world for you to do that for everyone who’s going to come to you when you’re an MP. Your job is to find structural solutions that actually fixes what’s wrong.” So instead, Jim called around local organisations and businesses until he found someone who was willing to donate food and regularly help the people in the flats until things were sorted.

Megan Woods and Jim Anderton having a chat in Christchurch. Photo: Supplied

Combined with that approach was Jim’s famously phenomenal organising abilities. Especially when it came to politics, Jim was meticulous about every detail. This was something he really pressed into me when I was thinking about running myself.

When it turned out that I was the only nominee for the Wigram seat, I made the mistake of suggesting to Jim I thought that maybe I’d over-organised. I can still hear the silence on the other end of the phone when I uttered those words. It was broken a few seconds later with a firm rebuke that “there’s no such thing as over-organising!”

I’d seen him put this philosophy into practice countless times. After his experiences in the 1960s when his modernisation proposals for the Labour Party were voted down at annual conference, Jim became a fiendishly determined counter of votes. It was never enough to assume you had the numbers for something, you had to know.

I remember in 2010 where there was a vote around his endorsement as mayoral candidate by the People’s Choice, the left-leaning council ticket in Christchurch. One of Jim’s most loyal trusted lieutenants who had been with him through many years of political combat was on the committee. Jim still had me call him to confirm he was a yes.

It’s sometimes said that the mark of a good leader is devoted followers and Jim is great proof of that. In Wigram, he had an incredibly loyal team of people who had been working with him for years.

Jeanette Lawrence, his campaign manager and electorate agent, for example had run every campaign for him since 1984. She and a number of others became an extended family to Jim and all of them worked incredibly hard because they believed in him and what he was doing. I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of this group.

The last thing to mention is that Jim was someone who utterly loved music, movies and sports. I remember visiting him last year in the middle of what was quite a heated and busy election campaign. He was tuning his radio to listen to a game that was coming on, and I made the mistake of asking him what game it was. “What kind of MP for Wigram doesn’t know when the bloody league’s on?” he asked incredulously.

He did concede that maybe I could get a pass given I was in campaign mode. This was after all the man who would not let me attend his investiture last year, as he thought my time was much better spent holding street corner meetings.

Jim’s funeral is today. We will gather to remember him, tell stories about his amazing life, and reflect on the wonderful friend, mentor, father, husband, and New Zealander we’ve lost.

For me, what I’ll always remember is what a kind, caring and giving man he was. Our country is much better off for the role he has played in shaping it, and like so many people, my own life is so much better because I knew him.

Megan Woods worked on many of Jim Anderton’s campaigns. In 2011 she succeeded him as MP for Wigram.

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