Dogged by the past

by Amanda Spratt / 04 November, 2006
Boredom and ego are what make him write, says Labour bovver boy-turned storyteller Richard Prebble, whose latest book looks back at a life in politics.

The handshake has barely gone cold and he's crying.

It takes a second to register, but there's no mistaking the fat tears rolling down to his collar. Richard Prebble - ferocious politician, Labour bovver boy, the original Mad Dog - is openly weeping, and the interview is not even 10 minutes old.

We've seen Prebble's waterworks before, when he gave his valedictory speech in Parliament last year. He's telling the same anecdote he did then.

You can see his Adam's apple bob and the ripples in his coffee as his hand shakes. Prebble is close enough to touch, but as he sits wearing the Crash Fire Service jacket he was given by a department he so happily restructured two decades ago, crying in front of strangers, he seems alone.

Prebble doesn't know why the tears come so easily. The story - about a relative who died in World War II - means a lot to him, he says.

He does break down at funerals, but otherwise thinks he's fairly "emotionally anchored". He's been through some very stressful times - divorce, especially - and discovered he is strong. Even flooded with emotion, Prebble is in control. There's no flush in his cheeks and when his voice breaks, it's only slightly. The handkerchief is ready.

Minutes later, he's laughing again. When Richard Prebble tells a story, he delivers. He speaks in anecdotes and can talk for hours. He puts on voices, from old schoolmasters to David Lange. Lange had a great voice for politics, says Prebble. It's important: "That's why William Rowling never stood a chance next to Sir Robert Muldoon. You could hear Muldoon's whisper down the hallways." He's pleased Helen Clark is sounding less like a banker these days.

Since he retired from politics, Prebble the storyteller has been busy. He has just released a book on the "world-standard turnaround" of state-owned enterprises he was part of in the 80s. The self-published Out of the Red is his fifth work and a product of boredom and ego, he says. "It's all vanity. You don't make any money out of books. You have to be a bestseller."

His first three, he says, laughing at his immodesty, were all number ones.

"Writing books is extraordinarily addictive. The sheer egotistical pride of seeing your own name on a book! If you've got as many opinions as I have, putting them down in 220 pages is very good for your self-confidence."

Publication of his latest book has brought us here to Prebble's Lake Rotoma home, where he lives with his partner, former Press Gallery radio journalist Ngahuia Wade. A strong, statuesque Tuwharetoa woman, Wade is nowhere to be seen; she's very media-wary, says Prebble. Wade will later come back to the house and stretch out on a velvet cushion to watch DVDs, but doesn't want to talk.

The house has taken a bit of finding: we call Prebble to check we have the right place.

"Can you see an alsatian?" Prebble asks as he appears on the lawn. He means Gus, the pedigree dog originally the property of Act MP Muriel Newman. She didn't have time to look after him, so now he's taken up a post as Prebble's wing-man.

An abject A-frame, the house overlooks the main road and a snip of the estuary. Inside, books and papers are piled in little order, the pre-loved furnishings are "minimalist", says Prebble. The toilet door doesn't shut properly. It has no handle.

"It's just a bach, really." He sounds apologetic. He didn't find the place; it was found for them by Wade's aunty. The leopard-skin print gumboots by the front door aren't his, he says. Nor is most of the decor: on the television, a bunch of fake orange tulip flower-lights is switched on. The photo of 1950s children on the wall is not his family.

Prebble is living in the borrowed flotsam of someone else's life. But he never did care much for his surroundings. "I don't feel the need to put up paintings and leave drawings like a caveman."

It has been more than a year since Prebble walked out of Parliament and into retirement. He's very busy, he says, though he supposes most retired people say that.

The book took him a year. "New Zealanders hold authors in high esteem. MPs are at the bottom of the totem pole. People looked up to me, they respected me, when I was an author. When I went back to Act, I was back at the bottom, looking up at child molesters and car salesmen."

He's on several company boards and has been involved in some Tuwharetoa dealings after elders asked for help. "The conversation went a bit like this: 'You ran off with one of our wahine. You owe us.'"

And so the man who used to complain about the Treaty gravy train is advising the Tuwharetoa Trust Board.

Prebble has also been in demand by the media as the go-to guy for comment on the recent mongrel antics in Parliament. An incongruous choice, perhaps, given his wahine-stealing ways and reputation as a larrikin. But to break the rules, he says, you have to know them first.

Prebble is "appalled" by the carry-on. The House has been "completely out of control", and he blames most of it on Speaker Margaret Wilson. "It's not a difficult task. You just need to be inherently fair, listen carefully and firm. The average primary school teacher would make a good Speaker. I think you'd do a better job."

In fact, Prebble wouldn't have minded the job himself, and general opinion was that although MPs might have disagreed with his political views, most respected him.

But it is the personal attacks that really bother him. As someone who has been married twice, first to Nancy Cocks, a Fijian woman 19 years his senior, then to Solomon Islander Doreen Kuper, the woman he left for the much younger Wade, Prebble would not want to be in the House at the moment.

In his day, says Prebble, MPs were savage, but there was an understanding in Parliament that their families should not be involved. "Why would decent people come into politics otherwise? Most families have got a black sheep. What's it got to do with the running of the country?"

He recalls the night Sir Robert Muldoon accused Colin Moyle of unsavoury sexual behaviour.

"I don't even want to be fair to Muldoon, but that was just one statement on a Wednesday night after he'd had a few. What's going on at the moment is different. It's a premeditated attack on people who had nothing to do with politics. It's not on."

The public seems to have rallied behind Brash; allegations of an affair humanised him, says Prebble. People were impressed that the grey-suited accountant had it in him. Prebble likes Brash, but thinks the debacle might be his undoing.

His caucus would be doubting their leader's ability to defend them in a crisis, he says. It is something Helen Clark, who always comes out with artillery blazing, does well. Brash "provides most of the ammo himself and his guns are so badly aimed there's more likely to be smoke".

Brash made two crucial errors, says Prebble: he put out a press release, leaving the media no choice to spread it; then he chose to leave Parliament and spend time with his family.

Prebble: "The best place to ride out a crisis is when Parliament's meeting. It sounds ironical but once you're in the chamber you're completely protected. You look as if you're working, the media can't talk to you." Not that the incident will affect National's election chances. It will be difficult for the party regardless, says Prebble, because they've "worked very hard" to ensure they have no coalition partners.

You need thick skin to survive. Shameless bravado also goes a long way. Prebble remembers how one MP reacted when his embarrassing love letters ended up in Truth. "He turned up to Parliament as if nothing had happened. The story disappeared in a week and it's only people like me who have the memory of an elephant who still remember it. My advice to anyone would be: Just don't react."

Prebble has followed that advice himself to good effect. His affair with Wade was by all accounts well-known in Parliament. Staff in the newsroom of at least one Sunday paper discussed whether to print the story long before it made it to the papers. Prebble still says he doesn't believe anyone knew.

The affair started in 2003. He will not comment on what made him fall in love with Wade. He says he's the perfect partner because he's happy to give up his share of the muttonbird and kina. Some say it was the wahine who stole Prebble.

By the time Prebble made public speeches about honesty and personal responsibility and told reporters he planned to spend his retirement with Kuper in the Solomons, it was all on.

But he won't talk about it: "My family weren't in politics and I wasn't going to bring them in." He doesn't think he's been hypocritical. He did a lot of work in the Solomons after he retired, he says.

He makes an exception to the "no private lives in public" rule: if private behaviour affects someone's work, it needs to be addressed. Lange's affair with Margaret Pope is a case in point; MPs were finding it increasingly difficult working with the Prime Minister's office not knowing on what basis they were dealing with Pope, says Prebble.

Eventually Prebble confronted Lange. "We fell out over Margaret Pope. I don't even feel bad about telling this story, because he lied. He looked me in the eye and said, 'No, mate, it's not true.' And like an idiot I believed him. Then I told him he should fire her."

Prebble was closer to Lange than anyone else in Cabinet, he says, but their friendship couldn't survive that. Prebble does not know why Lange lied to him. He looks as though he might cry again. Lange was lying to himself as well, says Prebble.

Almost 20 years later, it was Kuper who confronted Prebble about his own affair. His confession devastated her. Her concern for the man she spent 33 years with is clear. Speaking from the Solomons, she asks how he is doing. She loved him, she says, and they are still in contact, but she remembers the angry phone calls from Wade saying she was not going to back down. Kuper decided she wasn't going to fight another woman for him.

She thinks Prebble was lying to himself. It annoys her that he has never accounted publicly for his actions.

Prebble: "I take personal responsibility for the break-up of my marriage and I still do and I've never said otherwise. I haven't gone round blaming others. I believe that I'm accountable to her and the family, but to the rest of you, quite frankly, it's none of your business."

Both wives believe Prebble's philandering is motivated by a desire to have children of his own.

Mad Dog will not confirm whether he wants puppies. But he says that clearly, with as many foster children as he has, he must be fond of them.

He chalks it up as a victory that he managed to keep his private life out of politics. Beaming, he says: "It is a great source of pride that to this day, not one single article accurately reported how many children I have. They keep speculating.

"And you can continue to speculate."

He has great difficulty acknowledging aloud how long he has been in politics. It was all he knew for 30 years. "I don't miss politics," says Prebble. "I'm probably in complete denial. I still dream about it: last night it was about the railways."

He considered standing down before the previous election but thought it would be disastrous for the Act Party. Not that he would be doing a better job than Rodney Hide, he quickly adds. He won't criticise Hide; it's hard enough to be leader without has-beens weighing in.

Friend and political commentator Simon Carr says he was surprised Prebble stepped down from Act of his own accord. Prebble denies he was rolled. Some commentators suggested he'd finally discovered fear.

"There's an element of truth in that. I'm less certain about things now. But really, I got sick of it. Far too many politicians have stayed too long." Winston Peters is one, he says. And if Helen Clark doesn't improve, he'd dump her, too.

But Prebble plainly remains proud of his achievements. There's no regret or apology for what he did with SOEs in the mid-80s. He did what needed to be done.

Out of the Red is full of anecdotes about how various government departments welcomed the changes: he has railway workers coming up to him today, says Prebble, angry they weren't made redundant.

Carr says he thinks of Prebble as "something of a genius". Colleagues say he could turn the opinions of a board around with his intelligent persuasion.

He was always a leader: at Auckland Grammar, he objected to being threatened with the strap if he failed the weekly maths tests, so in protest he would submit a blank piece of paper. Each time he got soundly strapped. His skin wasn't so thick then: he would wear four pairs of pants to school every Tuesday. But eventually so many boys were turning in blank papers it became a joke.

"I am an inveterate do-gooder," he says. "I've spent my whole life trying to improve things. I can't leave well enough alone."

Many who lived through the mid-80s would baulk at the idea of Prebble as political boy scout. First wife Nancy once commented that he believes he is perfect. His answer to that is rote Prebble: a joke, a pause and a considered answer.

"They must have got Nancy on a very bad day," he says. "To be in politics you do need to have a substantial ego. If she's referring to that, I plead guilty. You have to believe you have the ability and the vision to make a difference to a country [though] the likelihood of that seems improbable. If a politician claims to be humble, it shows they've got no self-knowledge at all."

How else would this clergyman's son with no business knowledge have been able to take control of 20 percent of New Zealand's investments? "I walked into the PM's office still pretty green and walked out New Zealand's biggest businessman. I was completely unprepared for the task."

Now he enjoys the recognition he gets as an author, and still hasn't finished writing about himself. He knows he should start writing his autobiography before he forgets everything. He has a photographic memory, but "the photos are starting to blur". He doesn't want it to end up like Lange's: "He deserved a much better book than that. There were quite a few things in the book that were just wrong. He just wouldn't have got them wrong. Lange deserved a remarkable biography."

He has the title though: "Learning To Live Backwards", because "my brothers always said he was 40 when he was born". He figures he must be about 18 now.

In many ways, he's always been the cheeky schoolboy. He lived alone only once, for three months, and hated it. It's not uncommon for Sophie, the owner of the only café at the lake, to choose his lunch. Today, a baby burger with fries.

Friends wonder how he is coping in the relative isolation of Rotoma.

But Prebble says he enjoys sitting in his sun-trap of a study, merrily selling his book on the internet in the home's only room that holds parts of his own life.

Wade is with him most of the time, and he's not bad company himself, thank you very much. She makes an appearance at the café while we are having lunch. "Are they still here?" she asks Sophie. Wearing violent turquoise trackpants, with her face obscured by oversized sunglasses, she walks past and smiles, but doesn't come too close. She sits outside with a relative.

As Prebble poses, mock complaining about the number of photos being taken, he wonders out loud what the caption will be. He tidies the collar of his Fire Service jacket and laughs: "Here's Richard Prebble: retired and washed up on the shores of Lake Rotoma."

OUT OF THE RED, by Richard Prebble (the Letter Limited, $29.95).


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