Interview: Rodney Hide

by Guyon Espiner / 24 March, 2012
What next for the indestructible former Act Party leader?

Rodney Hide looks lighter as he strides down Auckland’s Ponsonby Rd in short sleeves, a cellphone stuck to his arm. It’s not a physical thing, although he has kept up the gym work since leaving Parliament four months ago. It’s a lightness of being. Despite being shunned by his party and the voting public, he seems at peace with the past.

Unlike other rejected MPs, he’s not talking about a political comeback. He didn’t even vote at the last election. His separation from politics is almost complete. But he still feels the need to tell the story from his side: how a personal friend robbed him of the Act Party leadership, turfed him out of his job and ended his political career.

The moment Don Brash went public with his ambitions over the Easter break last year, Hide realised the game was up no matter what the result. “Once he’d announced the attack on me, I was toast,” he exclaims, relishing the chance to finally tell the story. “Even if I won I was toast, and so I thought, ‘Oh well, I’m toast, and I need to work this through in the best way,’” he says, edging closer to the table as the late sun falls across the street.

“I had to line up the board, line up supporters, line up the Prime Minister, walk them all through it, work out how to handle it. And of course, Don was such a klutz that I ended up organising his coup!” Hide’s final task was a phone call to Brash, whose absent-minded-professor voice he mimics as he relays the story.

“I said: ‘Don, you and I are having a press conference at 11am.’
“‘Oh really?’
“I said: ‘Yes and at this press conference I will be announcing that I am standing down.’
“‘Oh really? Oh, that’s very good of you.’
“‘The board will support you and I’ll bow out gracefully.’
“‘Oh that’s very good. Where’s the press conference?’
“‘I said: ‘It’s blah, blah, blah in Newmarket ...’ and all the rest.
“‘Where will I park my car?’
“I said: ‘Don. I have organised your f---ing coup for you. You can figure out where to park your f---ing car.’”

He erupts into laughter. It’s just a few spurts at first and then a full lava flow, accompanied by high-pitched hacking and hysterical cackling. His eyes are manic, he flashes his suspiciously white teeth and throws his smooth head back towards the heavens. The effect is demonic. But there is joy in this laughter. It’s the laugh of a man set free. Rodney Hide is a new man. Again.

It is quite possible Rodney Hide is not human but some other indestructible life form that is constantly shedding its skin to adapt to hostile environments. There was the canary-yellow jacket. There was the wetsuit. There was the power-lifter’s sing­let. He turned himself from a slothful, shabby politician into a shaven-headed, shiny-toothed muscleman.

In his latest incarnation he’s a doting dad who lives in Wellington and flies to Auckland now and then to host the Drive show on RadioLive. “I turn up and I don’t know what I’m doing so I have to learn a whole new job and a new craft and be humble.” Does that come easily? “I’ve got so much to be humble about.” He laughs his 100% Impure laugh. He is still working out exactly what he will do next, and isn’t ruling out a permanent job in radio if they decide they want him. But as far as the past is concerned, he has no regrets.

“I thought I would miss Parliament dreadfully, because when you are in something you never quite know what you’ll do afterwards. And it’s a one-way street – unless you’re Winston or John Banks,” he says of the two retreads who have returned to Wellington after spells in civvies. He agrees it is fear that stops people leaving Parliament. And all of us, he acknowledges, can fall into the trap of getting complacent about our careers. He considers himself blessed to be starting again, but admits he’d still be a politician if he hadn’t been shoved out. “I fought like hell to stay, and that’s the funny thing,” he says. “So here I am. I’ve been given the arse, so make the most of it. I am not going to sit at home and cry.”

He is at home more often. Home is in the Wellington suburb of Northland, where he lives with wife Louise and baby Liberty, who’s nearly a year old. He’s done “a total renovation” there now. He’s talking about the house, but he could be talking about himself. Hide hasn’t decided what skin he’ll inhabit next. But he knows what he won’t do. “I have never seen a comeback in politics that was successful. I actually feel sorry for Winston that he’s back.” He broadens his pity to include current Act leader John Banks.

“It’s never going to be the same. There’s a new generation of politicians. It’s now John Key and Bill English and Steven Joyce and Hekia Parata, and opposite them it’s David Shearer and Grant Robertson and it’s a new generation – and it should be. And then there’s Winston and you’re thinking: ‘Haven’t we had enough of him already?’”

Unlike many former MPs, he hasn’t been offered an ambassadorial post. He says at 55, he’s too young. Besides he’s not even sure he’s diplomatic enough to be a host for RadioLive. A question during his radio cross to Paul Henry in Australia probably confirms his suspicions. “Is Kevin Rudd the pompous git that he appears to be?” He notes with a chuckle that he probably understands the dynamic of the Rudd-Gillard leadership battle better than most interviewers.

Hide hasn’t spoken to Brash since the coup, which he believes was doomed from the start. “Even as I was organising it I knew it wouldn’t work, but in a funny way I had to let people find out. And that, to me, was the heartache and that, to me, was the hard part. Don is a friend but I know he doesn’t understand people,” he continues. “You only have to see how he treats his wife – so I thought I got out quite lightly,” he laughs, with mischief more than menace in the timbre this time.

But it turns out he is serious. “I was very close to that – you know, to his wife and him and his son and his personal circumstances and I couldn’t believe that a person could behave like that,” he says of Brash’s very public marital woes. If there’s a little voice in his head calling him a hypocrite, Hide doesn’t hear it. His own marriage also ended with dirty laundry being aired in public. His ex-wife, Jiuan Jiuan, told the media that the divorce papers came “out of the blue” and it was a “disgusting way to end a marriage”.

As for John Banks, Hide continues to doubt that Act is Banks’s natural home. “I bumped into Michael Cullen at a wedding. He said: ‘Goodness gracious me, Banks is to the left of me!’” There are a few more bursts of the devilish laughter, but it settles quickly this time. Sure, he gets on fine with Cullen. “All successful parliamentarians get on with each other, and it’s only the unsuccessful ones who don’t get along.”

When Hide came to Parliament in 1996, he knew next to nothing about politics. He’d voted only once – in 1987, for Jim Anderton, in Sydenham, and now wonders which man is more ashamed of that.

“I didn’t know that there was such a thing as parliamentary question time. I didn’t know there were select committees. I didn’t know people could be so rude to each other.” He soon became one of the most brutal people in a brutal place. I liken it to turning up to a school and getting bullied,” he says. “I like to give as good as I get and so I thought, ‘Well, if these are the rules, I’ll play [by] them.’” It was a personal transformation born of necessity – he was a shy person who lacked confidence, and Parliament scared him. Looking back, he doesn’t like that version of himself.

“I always despised politicians, because I thought they were useless. All they do is talk and they talk bullshit and be rude to each other. Then I became one, and I had no intention of staying there long, and I ended up loving it and getting involved in it, but actually despising what I did.” But what he did, he did incredibly well. In his first term as a high-impact MP he lifted the lid on the cosy world of politicians’ perks – only to be hoist with his own petard in 2009 when taxpayer-funded overseas flights with his partner hit the headlines.

His first big hit was exposing Labour MP Jonathan Hunt’s taxi bill. He still remembers the exact amount: “Twenty nine thousand, one hundred and seventy dollars,” he says with pride. But ultimately he didn’t feel proud of what he was doing. “It’s not like if you are a truck driver you can do a good day’s work and do a good job and think you’ve made a difference. As a politician I always felt dirty. So that’s where I fell, I think, into a bit of a slump mentally and I got very depressed.”

By 2005 he was on the ropes. He was tired of his scandal-mongering, and his marriage was falling apart. “I was a very tough person to be married to,” he chuckles, with mild self-deprecation. What lifted him back up was winning the Epsom seat in the 2005 election. Representing a distinct community, rather than being a wayward list MP, gave him a new sense of responsibility. “I felt I had to be better and be someone who could go to the local schools and not be a shit, actually, and I worked very hard … and redefined myself.”

This time the rebuild was total: emotional, attitudinal, physical. “I felt you couldn’t be this brawler and be the MP for Epsom, and I felt you couldn’t be this overweight slob and be the MP for Epsom, and so I set myself the task of being the best MP for Epsom,” he says, the repetition revealing his obsession with his task.

However, it wasn’t just a personal transformation – it played out in Parliament and also on national television as he took to the stage on Dancing with the Stars. “I got asked to do it. I’d never seen the show and I agreed on the phone because it was the scariest thing that had been put to me ever, because I have never danced. I have only danced at a party, drunk.” It was far tougher than he imagined. He dropped the girl and didn’t win the prize, but left with a big reward. Nothing in life would ever frighten him again.

Hide was born in the small North Canterbury town of Cust. The family moved to Rangiora when he was five. Dad was a truck driver, and Rodney wanted to be a truck driver too. “I only went to school to eat my lunch and go home again. I didn’t understand school, actually, and I couldn’t wait to get back in the truck with my father and get working,” he says.

He wanted to leave school at 15, but his father insisted his son learn a trade. Rodney reluctantly began what was then known as the sixth form, with the idea of becoming an apprentice electrician at the end of the year. Until then, he had never really tried at school but had never failed, either. Terrified of flunking University Entrance, he took the textbooks home and fell in love with learning, especially about science.

Even now, he says, he always has to work hard and nothing comes easily to him. “Being intelligent isn’t enough. There are plenty of people in Mensa who are losers, actually, and there are plenty of not-so-bright people like me who can make things work.” The kid who hated school went on to be an academic success. He has a BSc in zoology and botany from the University of Canterbury, an MSc in resource management from Lincoln University and an MSc in economics from Montana State University. Along the way, he also completed his OE, but rather than the usual trip to London, he worked his way around the world, including stints in Romania and India, and as a labourer in the Shetland Islands.

He then lectured at Lincoln before moving to Auckland to work for businessman Alan Gibbs in 1993, and during that time he met Roger Douglas. “He said he was writing a book … about what we should do next.” Hide helped Douglas write Unfinished Business, which became the manifesto of the New Right. Once the book came out, Hide figured his job was done, but Douglas had other ideas and wanted to start a political party. “I had no intention of going to Parliament. I never used to vote. I didn’t support any of them.”

In his own book, My Year of Living Dangerously, published in 2007, Hide explained how he had once been warned his political career would be like that of a shooting star. “It’s amazing in politics how you can be an important MP one minute and wheelie-binned the next,” he observed. Inevitably, those words have proven prophetic.

Hide didn’t vote in the last election, either. He describes this as a “glorious pleasure”, before pausing for the first time in our interview. “I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for Act and I felt bad about it, actually,” he says. “I have never said this, but I didn’t.” He was enrolled in the Epsom electorate where, of course, every vote was critical for Act to get back into Parliament. “I just couldn’t do it and then I couldn’t be disloyal and vote for someone else – that was the weird part.” He laughs at the irony of it and there’s a hint of sadness and frailty in the laughter this time. Although only a hint.

He can’t resist a final story about his political death at the cold hands of his former friend. “I rang Don to say, ‘Look, all the media are outside headquarters. It might be better if we turn up together rather than get picked off one by one, so I’ll meet you in a cafe,’” he recalls, again playing the characters of Hide and Brash.

“I’m sitting there waiting for Don and he rang up and he said: ‘Oh it’s Don.’ And I said: ‘What is it?’
“‘I’m running late.’
“I said: ‘Oh yeah, I notice that.’
“‘I’m three minutes away.’
“I said: ‘Well, just get here. Why are you ringing me?’
“‘I am ringing up to apologise for being late.’
“I said: ‘Don, if you start to apologise to me for what you’ve done you’ll never stop, so just get here!’”

He can barely finish the sentence before the laughter engulfs him, first his mouth, then his head, then his whole body. Being dumped from your job and publicly humiliated by one of your mates is just the funniest thing in the world. When the laughter subsides and the table stops moving, he rests back in his seat looking content, as the last of the sun warms his back.

This must be the real Rodney Hide. At least for now.
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