The Moore-Palmer coup, 30 years on

On this day 30 years ago, Mike Moore replaced Geoffrey Palmer as Prime Minister weeks before the general election in a desperate bid by the fourth Labour Government to stay in power. In his book “Believer Conversations with Mike Moore” author Peter Parussini outlines the audacious coup.

In March 1990 External Relations and Trade Minister Mike Moore visited Washington DC to try and break the ANZUS impasse with Secretary of State James Baker. What few knew was that Moore was also on another mission.

Moore was introduced by his old friend and later South Australian Premier Mike Rann and Australian Labor Party pollster John Utting to Craig James, a young strategist from Squier-Eskew Communications.

Squier-Eskew was founded by Bob Squier, who had worked on presidential campaigns for Hubert J. Humphrey and Jimmy Carter, and he would later be involved with Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Labour was in serious trouble and unlikely to be re-elected later that year, Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer wasn’t a good campaigner and there was real concern that the swing against the party might be so severe that it would take another generation before it was back in government.

Moore was already in the early stages of his ‘Think It Through’ campaign, an aggressive approach that was comparative and designed to put pressure on National and make the public hesitate instead of automatically voting for change.

Moore was worried that Labour might win fewer than 20 seats and that NewLabour might pick up a handful. Then, post-election there would be a ‘unity conference’ between the parties and a potentially leaderless Labour — without Palmer, Clark and possibly Moore — would do a deal with NewLabour and install Anderton as leader of the Opposition.

James told Moore the government was ‘terminal’. He was concerned that Labour might follow the British Labour Party which had been out of office since 1979. What had compounded Labour’s misery was its 1983 election loss under the leadership of Michael Foot where the party had less than 28 per cent of the vote, its worst performance since 1918.

‘Every iota of polling data indicates that people are fed up. They want the government that’s been causing them all this pain to feel a little pain themselves on election day.

‘So, instead of trying to convince voters that Labour is so good, why not convince them that National would even be worse?

‘To achieve this, Labour must take the offensive and define National before it defines itself. By being aggressive, by being comparative and by providing the information and evidence to prod voters into “Thinking It Through”, Labour can make National an unacceptable alternative.’

Moore’s goal should be to have voters say to themselves on election day: ‘Why isn’t Mike Moore the PM?’ or ‘Why isn’t Mike Moore leading Labour?’ But to do this he had to create some room between himself and the rest of Labour’s leadership not to be impacted upon by the upcoming defeat.

Moore’s life set him apart from others in Labour and should be his positioning. James summed up Moore’s narrative succinctly:

‘Mike Moore is a common man who has become an uncommon leader. He has dealt with political victory and defeat with equal ease.

‘He has confronted and conquered the most feared disease of our generation — and through the experience, gained a deeper appreciation of what is truly important in life. He has proven he can communicate with a hard-working New Zealander or the United States Secretary of State with equal ease.’

James visited Christchurch and Wellington for six days in early August 1990. James’s post-trip report was bleaker than expected.

The election wasn’t about who would run the country but whether Labour would survive as a political entity in the 1990s and into the next century.

Party head-to-head polling, adjusted for undecideds voting, showed what many other polls at the time were saying: National 56 per cent and Labour 34 per cent. That meant if the swing against the government was uniform across the country the election result would come close to wiping out Labour with even its safest seats in jeopardy.

But the results were interesting when respondents were asked if they thought Labour’s Geoffrey Palmer or National’s Jim Bolger or ‘someone else’ was best as prime minister. ‘Someone else’ on 46 per cent beat Palmer (28 per cent) and Bolger (12 per cent) combined.

‘The only reasonable explanation for the move to National is that they are not the government. Voters seem to want to cause some pain in the lives of the people who have been causing them pain for the past six years. National appears about to become government by default.’

The polling then tested Moore’s appeal. Many people didn’t know much about him but when they heard his story, 50 per cent found him ‘very appealing’ and another 33 per cent ‘somewhat appealing’.

Those who were positive thought he was in touch and understood the needs of working people and was himself hard-working, experienced and an effective representative of New Zealand.

Importantly, people thought Moore understood Kiwis and their needs.

‘Do these results mean that if Mike Moore were prime minister that the Labour Party would win the election? No, they do not. Do they mean that with Mike Moore as prime minister, the Labour Party would perform better in the election? Yes, the results strongly indicate that.’

Changing leaders this close to an election was unprecedented. The only similar case was Bob Hawke taking over the Australian Labor Party in February 1983 and defeating Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser just over a month later. The major difference was, though, that Hawke and Labor weren’t the disliked incumbents.

It was one thing to test the notion of a leadership change with the public, and how a Moore campaign would run, it was another to go through the practicalities of removing a prime minister so close to an election.

Moore was also nervous about the idea. He always wanted to be prime minister but doing it now looked incredibly desperate and opportunistic. The easiest option would be to wait until after Labour’s defeat in October when Palmer would fall on his sword and take over in Opposition.

There were two scenarios, in particular, that he feared. They were labelled ‘disaster number one’ and ‘disaster number two’.

Under the first Palmer would be rolled, then Caygill would quit and other ministers would follow in protest. This would be positioned in the news media as Labour melting down and Moore’s election campaign could never get off the ground.

The second one had Moore narrowly beating Palmer in a caucus vote. Then the rest of the election campaign would be consumed by the Moore and Palmer/Caygill factions fighting each other publicly.

He determined that the only way a change in prime minister should be considered was under four critical conditions.

The first was Moore being guaranteed a near unanimous vote in caucus. The second was that no more than two top ministers quit in protest but that they were able to be quickly muzzled. The third was that all MPs — those for and against Moore — were willing to get behind him in a show of unity. And, finally, that Moore be given a reasonably free hand to define the campaign message and reduce it to a choice between himself and Bolger.

Unless these conditions were met, it wouldn’t be worth it for Labour or Moore to attempt a challenge. In fact, an unsuccessful challenge could do unnecessary damage and cost the government more seats than it was already destined to lose.

At the 27 August Cabinet meeting, Labour pollster John Utting didn’t show ministers leadership numbers but gave them a blunt general briefing on the electorate’s mood. Utting told them that at this stage only 18 seats out of a caucus of 57 were winnable with little prospect for improvement.

Panic set in with some MPs in that last week of August. Delegations and memos headed Moore’s way. He agreed with a small group of supporters that Palmer had to go and that they should try to see if he’d fall on his sword at the following week’s Cabinet and caucus meetings.

Helen Clark had also been asked by her Cabinet colleagues to discuss the leadership issue with Palmer.

Clark was asked later on TVNZ’s Frontline story ‘A very New Zealand coup’ by journalist Linda Clark if she considered she’d been a loyal deputy in what had transpired.

‘I do. But I’m also a loyal deputy prime minister to the government and for the party and in the end, I cannot suspend judgement about what is happening,’ Helen Clark said.

‘I think prime ministers who have a bit of spark, character, a lot of ideas — some may be good, some may be bad. But there is a life and energy about Mike Moore that is very appealing.’

But on the morning of Cabinet, on Monday 3 September, Palmer seemed resolute and had no intention of giving up the prime ministership. Speaking to news media before the meeting he said: ‘I want to make it absolutely clear to every New Zealander that I am not quitting,’ he said.

The Cabinet was shown a slide presentation of how badly Labour was trailing National and how far behind Palmer was from Bolger. The numbers confirmed what many had known for a long time.

Then they were shown data that startled all of them. It became the final straw.

It was a slide that translated the swing against Labour into a pendulum graph that had all the seats in Parliament named on it. Its swing was so extreme that had an election been held that day, most of those sitting around the Cabinet table would no longer be there, including Moore and Clark. It left only 16 or 17 seats, including the four Māori ones.

The conversation around the Cabinet table was restrained and reflective in tone.

Despite his best efforts, Palmer wasn’t getting cut-through with blue-collar New Zealanders, some said.

So depleted of seats would they be — anywhere between 10 and the low twenties — it was unlikely Labour could become the government again possibly for a generation.

Some thought it was unfair to put the blame on Palmer, while others said it was unfair on Labour people not to give them the best fighting chance against National.

There was no threat during the meeting of having a leadership spill at the following day’s caucus and no ultimatum. Some ministers walked out of the Cabinet discussion thinking Palmer was staying on.

Later that day Moore tried to force Palmer into fronting the news media to talk about the leadership by hosting his own press conference that afternoon, making sure the Press Gallery and most others in the Beehive knew well ahead of time that it was happening.

Palmer’s office postponed his usual Monday-afternoon post-Cabinet press conference until after Tuesday’s caucus meeting. Instead, he gave a lunchtime speech at the Wellington Rotary Club where he avoided the ongoing rumours and spoke about international relations before heading back to the Beehive without taking questions.

Palmer appeared to be hanging on. Moore wanted to avoid a head-to-head vote with Palmer at caucus the following day. News media speculation continued, with the afternoon newspapers saying the prime minister’s resignation was as a fait accompli.

Moore thought the numbers would be tight if there was a vote, but a ballot was not the strategy.

If there had been a showdown in caucus between Moore and Palmer, the prime minister may well have squeaked home. But a caucus vote, even if Palmer had won it, would have severely wounded him and would have made his election chances even worse than they already were. Conversely, if Moore had won such a battle, the stench of the contest would have handicapped his election campaign from the start.

If Palmer hadn’t stepped down, Moore wouldn’t have challenged him in caucus regardless of the numbers. The mere discussion in Cabinet that morning appeared to have made the leadership change possible.

While the leadership was the prerogative of the caucus meeting the next day, Palmer had made his mind up to leave that evening. This was unknown to Moore.

In the lead-up to a possible change Moore had also been thinking about his deputy. He and many others in the caucus rated new Cabinet minister Annette King. He’d even jokingly suggested to her when they were on a flight together from Hamilton a few months earlier that she should be deputy to him.

But he reluctantly concluded King would struggle to hold her seat and unless he kept Clark as his deputy, moving Palmer would be impossible. Any kind of caucus unity wouldn’t hold.

For some caucus members the goings-on were unacceptable and they were happy to try to break the façade of unity. Eden MP Richard Northey made a brief statement of anger and stood against Moore on 4 September in protest. It’s thought by some that the caucus vote was Moore 42 and Northey 12.

At 41 years old Moore was now one of New Zealand’s youngest ever prime ministers.

Excerpt from “Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore” by Peter Parussini (Upstart Press) RRP $39.99

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