Week in Review

Books of the Week: Portraits of two Prime Ministers

Legend of the press gallery Ian Templeton assesses two new studies of former Prime Ministers Jim Bolger and Mike Moore

As the 2020 election looms, Fridays with Jim by Wellington writer David Cohen is a timely book. Three-time Prime Minister Jim Bolger's reflections on leadership are insightful. More controversial may be those on imposing a capital gains tax because of what Bolger sees as the ever-widening wealth  gap.

A fatal flaw in Bolger's prime ministership was that he thought he could handle Winston Peters as a coalition partner, after having sacked Peters as a minister  in 1991.

The paradox of his career is that having swept to power with the largest majority in New Zealand's modern history, he was unseated in a caucus coup by a lesser politician (Jenny Shipley) who promptly took the National Party to crushing defeat.

Equally paradoxically, he drove through the adoption of MMP, though he personally opposed the concept, both in theory and practice. He has been an ardent republican, despite his party being vigorously monarchist. Curiously, he seemed delighted to share photographs of himself with Queen Elizabeth.

Almost from the moment he entered Parliament in 1972, Bolger managed reforms that transformed the industrial landscape, including the end of compulsory unionism. Throughout the early 1980s, he was often extremely frustrated by the entrenched and hard-nosed positions union negotiators adopted. He was advised to go on TV and give voice to his frustrations. It would have gained him huge public understanding, and he acknowledged that while it might make him feel better, it would do nothing to resolve the particular dispute.

He was, however, not past showing his frustration in other, less public ways and for a period was known to have pinned a large poster on the inside of his office door which showed three monkeys holding a spanner, a wrench and a hammer respectively, along with the caption "You can't sack me, I'm part of a union". It drove visiting union delegations to distraction.

It was Bolger's practice for anyone passing to share a dram (usually Bushmills) while watching the evening news

Leaders have diverse characteristics, but the essential one is an iron constitution. Without the charisma of a David Lange or a John Key, Bolger nevertheless inspired a loyalty among his key staff and advisers that few others have done. While stories of Bolger's back office whisky consumption have been greatly exaggerated, it was his practice for office staff, advisers, parliamentary colleagues and anyone passing to share a dram (usually Bushmills) while watching the evening news. He intuitively sensed that a good whisky enhanced the building of convivial and productive relationships.  

Within 24 hours of moving into Premier House in 1990, ready to capitalise on an electoral triumph, he had to confront the pending collapse of the  Bank of NZ. It was the first of several economic shocks to come, many of them bequeathed by the outgoing Labour administration. 

Bolger, having campaigned on the policy of creating “a decent society”, discovered the government’s first priority was to stabilise a sinking ship of state.

Yet the stabilisation, when it came in the form of his Finance Minister’s first budget, was (as Cohen notes), “decidedly indecent”. Ruth Richardson, so impressed with her own skill in delivering the Mother of all Budgets, was oblivious to the political impact, not least among her own colleagues. It left the Bolger government teetering on the edge of defeat in 1993. 

  

Richardson created a political crisis when Bolger decided he could not risk another term with her as Finance Minister, offering the Justice or Police portfolios: she refused in high dudgeon, left Parliament in a huff, and precipitated a byelection, which threatened National’s single-vote majority.

These were the events where Bolger displayed the true mettle of leadership, calm, focused, staunch: giving some depth to how he  wore “The Great Helmsman” title, and drawing support from his wife Joan, family of nine, and strong Catholic faith.

His lasting legacy fell in another field: race relations. Under his encouragement and leadership, the first of the big Treaty of Waitangi settlements, with Ngāi Tahu and Tainui, were negotiated. 

“The best decisions involve courage … Treaty settlements were the issue that divided the National Party, and New Zealand, more than anything else," Bolger tells Cohen. “People tend to forget I campaigned on creating a decent society in 1990 and that certainly includes fair and equitable redress for the wrongs our colonial forbears imposed on Māori. That approach wasn’t mainstream, but if you’re just going to take a mainstream position, then anybody can do  the job. The whole purpose of leadership is to do things differently and to produce a better end  result."

The work of Treaty settlements set the country on the course of a new and more balanced path in race relations. It goes on, and Bolger singles out the one with Tuhoe (completed under a later National government) as being perhaps the most unusual. Tuhoe’s Tamati Kruger, recognising what Bolger did, will be one of those who launches Fridays with Jim this month in Wellington.

In exploring the life and times of  Bolger through his conversations over the best part of a year, Cohen ranges widely. Besides its  political content, and its reflections on leadership, his fine book journeys into Bolger’s past, his family origins in Ireland, the strength he drew from his upbringing in Taranaki, and his fervent Catholicism. This, together with the extended speeches he delivered in places as far apart as Mumbai and Georgetown University in Washington, gives the book real depth.

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Mike Moore was a remarkable man. Yet even at some distance from when he strode the political stage, a puzzling enigma emerges from his career. What precisely is his political legacy?  

The new book Believer by Peter Parussini sits alongside Fridays with Jim, with its focus on the  same era of New Zealand politics - but from the other side of the fence. 

Parussini (who worked for  Moore in an important phase of his political life) makes the case that Moore played a “crucial role in the  transformational fourth Labour government, became Prime Minister, and then the highest-ranked New Zealander on the global stage as the director-general of the World Trade Organisation.”

But Moore was Prime Minister for just 60 days in a parliamentary career spanning three decades. In those 60 days in the run-up to the 1990 election, the Labour government that had crushed National just three years before, slumped to its worst defeat. He then pulled Labour off the floor, but was consigned again to the Siberia of Opposition in 1993. His period at the head of the WTO featured the Seattle conference disaster which stifled any further advance to freer world trade, and his term as Ambassador to the US never quite brought off the rapprochement with the US he worked so hard to achieve once New Zealand had lost its active ANZUS membership as a result of the Lange government adopting its anti-nuclear stance.

Through this particular lens, Moore barely qualifies for the New Zealand political hall of fame. His career failed to push out the boundaries of the better society as he envisaged when he set out in the journey in politics. Indeed is this the stuff of a political tragic?

An element of potential tragedy first appeared in 1977, when Moore (after serving a term in Parliament as a Labour backbencher from 1972, only to be defeated in the marginal seat of Eden in 1975) was  diagnosed with testicular cancer. As Parussini records it, Moore “could use his sickness as an opportunity to retreat, recover and reset his political career. It was a legitimate excuse to take a break from politics and aim for the 1981 election. But he knew that’s what his enemies would have expected and vowed that not even cancer would stop him from getting back to Parliament."

For those who believed in the Rogernomic reforms (as I did) the disintegration of the Lange-Douglas partnership was rather like Ruapehu erupting when skiers covered the slopes

Moore had surgery to remove the cancerous growth and then as an outpatient had radiotherapy for three months. At this point, Parussini writes, “Most of what he'd tried politically, up to now, had failed. He had been diligent and worked hard. But he knew he wasn’t part of the in-crowd and calculated that no matter what he said and how much he tried to fit in they would ultimately reject  him."

Strange that the youthful, gregarious Moore should be so sensitive to his so-called “enemies” - not  his political opponents - and see himself apart from the “in-crowd”. Labour always seemed to have as many reactionaries as progressives.

Having won the Papanui seat in Christchurch in the 1978 election, defeating the incumbent National MP Bert Walker, Moore had no time to celebrate: medical advice revealed the cancer had returned, only more seriously. The doctors told him he might have only six months to live. The cancer had spread to one of his lungs so part of it had to be removed. Then followed months of intense  chemotherapy.

Perhaps because of his rugged upbringing in Northland, Moore survived, a living testament to raw courage. He tells Parussinni, “It was like a new lease of life coming back to Parliament. I remembered why I loved it. It is one of the only places in life where you’re a true equal and judged solely on your performance."

Well, not quite, but you get the drift.

Battle-hardened, in more senses than one, Moore eventually rises to the top. But the government he  steps up to lead is riven by political rivalries so intense, support for Labour has virtually evaporated. Even Moore’s skills in campaigning cannot revive it. The party crashes to defeat. Surely it would have been more strategic to wait until after the disaster to take up the reins?

Whether ambition over-rode intuition, or whether he believed he could resuscitate the party, puts tantalising queries against Moore’s political judgment. Or was it in the weave of being a political  tragic?

Among those he worked with, Moore inspired deep loyalty.There were those who saw themselves as disciples. Many became lifelong friends. Clayton Cosgrove first met Moore as a college student aged 14, supported him in his election campaigns and then entered Parliament himself, more than an acolyte, a true Moore aficionado.

For the Press Gallery, then in a highly competitive phase before the decline of the print media, it was both the best of times, and the worst of times: stories walked in the door as the rival lobbies fought their corner. For those who believed in the Rogernomic reforms (as I did) the disintegration of the Lange-Douglas partnership was rather like Ruapehu erupting when skiers covered the slopes. At that time, I was reporting for the Star group of newspapers, as well as for the Guardian of London, writing a weekly column for the Sydney Bulletin, and editing the then burgeoning newsletter Trans-Tasman for the Australian and New Zealand business markets.

There was never any dearth of material: Bevan Burgess, serving as chief press secretary in Roger Douglas’s office, kept me briefed. Peter Tapsell, who shared a flat in Otago University days, alerted me to the Margaret Pope influence in the  PM’s office, and another Cabinet Minister, Bill Jeffries, gave me the background when Lange broke with Cabinet solidarity in his speech at Yale University, pronouncing ANZUS a “dead letter” when the ministerial majority had determined New Zealand should still seek to negotiate a way through the impasse on the anti-nuclear policy with the US       

In the epilogue to his book, Parusinni sums up: “Throughout his extraordinary life, Mike was ambitious - for himself, for his electorates, for the government he was part of and then briefly led, for the World Trade Organisation’s agenda, for New Zealand and US relations, for his health and his relationship with Yvonne. He wanted the best for all of them, yet almost everything he ever really desired, he didn’t quite get his hands around”.

Here, the author supplies one answer to the enigma: “Imagine what his life would have been if he’d been able to push on with the many achievements chronicled in the book. The truth is he probably wouldn’t have been the complex, driven, interesting, funny and thoughtful person that was Michael Kenneth Moore."

When Moore fell to Helen Clark’s challenge, he couldn’t  understand it. “I’ve had many disappointments in my life but losing the leadership like that after all I’d done hurt me the most …. It took me a long while but I do admire Helen as a politician ... As for her henchmen and women, they thought they were doing the correct thing like the fish-and-chip brigade did with Rowling, I suppose.  But with the fish-and-chip brigade we didn’t hide who we were. We stabbed Rowling in the belly."

Is this then the essence of Moore as a political tragic?

Perhaps it is more in the fact that where he wanted so much to carry out the will of the people in governing the country, it was the will of the people that denied him.

Fridays with Jim by David Cohen (Massey University Press, $45) and Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore by Peter Parussini (Upstart, $39.99) are available in bookstores nationwide.

*ReadingRoom book reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *

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