Historian, author and former Labour politician Michael Bassett has some pointed things to say about Jacinda Ardern and the new Government.
Bassett has studied, taught or practised politics for more than 60 years. He’s written or co-written 15 books; the most recent, New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key, was published last year. He’s a fierce critic of political correctness, big government and politicians who he perceives are ignorant of history or poorly read.
Bassett’s mother, Clare, was a second cousin of Dr Roy Lange of Mangere. Michael, the oldest of Clare and Edward (Ned) Bassett’s three children, was delivered by Lange, whose son David became Prime Minister of New Zealand in July 1984. Bassett, Lange’s third cousin, was Minister of Health and Minister of Internal Affairs in the Lange Administration, and his 2008 book Working With David records and analyses the rise and fall of that Fourth Labour Government.
Bassett was only eight years old when his father died. His mother ensured he had a good education: he went to Dilworth School and Mt Albert Grammar, before getting an MA at the University of Auckland. In 1961, he won a fellowship to Duke University in North Carolina. It was a time when the US was riven by the turmoils of the battle for civil rights and the uncertainties of the Cold War.
Having completed a PhD in American history, he returned in 1964 to teach history at his old university. After unsuccessful campaigns in 1966 and 1969, he entered Parliament as a Labour MP in the Kirk Government in 1972, lost his seat in 1975 and was returned in 1978. He retired at the 1990 election.
Bassett and his wife, Judith, also a historian, and a member of the Auckland District Health Board, have two adult children. They moved into their Auckland apartment only after checking that it would accommodate their library. For Bassett, who turns 80 in August, politics and books have been constants throughout his life.
Your father died at 37, which was a blow emotionally and financially to the family. What do you recall about life at home when your father was still alive?
It was a close family. We didn’t have a huge number of books at home because there wasn’t the money. But when I was seven, the year before he died, my father bought us the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was our bible, and he had a bookshelf built especially for those volumes. As I was going through school, I decided we needed more books. I worked on a Friday night at a bookstore and used my pay to buy books. They became a part of my life, and through university I bought books more than borrowed them.
What aspect of US history did you study for your PhD?
My thesis was on the Socialist Party of America, which, in the election of 1912, got 6% of the national vote and looked as though it might grow and develop like similar parties in New Zealand, Australia and Britain. Instead of moving onwards and upwards, it virtually died. America’s states enjoyed too much individuality to accept the centralisation necessary to introduce socialist policies, and when World War I came, tensions between ethnic groups almost destroyed the party.
How do you rate the new Government’s performance so far?
The sorts of issues that have faced this Government haven’t been extraordinary, but what exacerbates its problems is that it is a jerry-built government: the three groupings make it hard to manage. The Greens and New Zealand First are not able to sit in Cabinet together, but they sustain the Government, all the while watching the polls to check their standing, which isn’t improving. That’s hard enough, but add to it Jacinda Ardern, the youngest and least-experienced leader of a government we have ever had, and this Government may not even last one term.
That’s a harsh call, isn’t it?
Yes, but as I’ve just said, it isn’t just Jacinda. She has considerable talents, but she has a knowledge deficit. It shows in foreign policy. Jacinda doesn’t know much about international affairs and doesn’t understand the historical relationships between New Zealand and the Pacific. She certainly doesn’t understand Russia, which is emerging as the next best thing to an international rogue state. Put her alongside Helen Clark, the last Labour Prime Minister, and Jacinda looks like a rank amateur. She desperately needs to know more, but when you are Prime Minister you don’t have time to go out and learn: you are meant to have done that already. A bachelor in communications from Waikato University is not quite the same as a first-class honours degree in politics and history, which is what Clark had, plus the better part of a PhD.
Do you give her points at least for saving the Labour Party?
She took over the party at 37; that shows you how desperate Labour was. She certainly gave the party a lift. She took them up to 36%, not an inconsiderable feat. Winston [Peters, NZ First Leader] was going around this time a year ago with expectations that New Zealand First might supplant Labour as the second party. That would then have been the point where New Zealand First and the Greens would have jointly gobbled up what remained of Labour. So, yes, she plucked them back from oblivion, but does it look like it is going to be a roaring success? No. This Government is in deep trouble.
It has over-stoked public expectations. [Phil Twyford, Minister of Transport and of Housing] is an accident in slow motion. The extraordinary phrase he used this morning in the Herald, along the lines of “we are changing the world” regarding transport and then a whole series of wishes and hopes about transport – that is fantasy stuff. Cycling as the future for Auckland? Gimme a break – they’ve taken away road space and poured resources into cycling that no one uses other than on Saturday mornings. I can see that cycle path heading out west from my apartment and there’s usually no one using it. They are social engineers without any sense. Whenever Labour shows that tendency, the voters deal with them in short order. They should read Public Spending in the 20th Century: A Global Perspective by Vito Tanzi and Ludger Schuknecht. It would help inject some sense into their thinking and policies.
Do you have anything relevant to say to the party you belonged to for 35 years?
What I say is relevant, but [the Labour Party] doesn’t like me at all; it regards me as a holdover from the wicked Fourth Labour Government. It has created a savage view of that Government but neither it nor any other government has dismantled the reforms of that time. Modern Labour has become a religion based on inadequate reading and thinking and wishful thinking. Sometimes I say pleasant things about it and sometimes unpleasant, so it dances around me a little apprehensively.
You were a member of the Waitangi Tribunal for 10 years (1994-2004). What, in your view, is the current state of race relations in this country?
We have this rather extraordinary liberal preoccupation with everything Māori while we push Pakeha culture aside. Māori are having a whale of a ride on the back of the Treaty. What the Treaty doesn’t say they make up, and the liberal intelligentsia are “yes, yes, rah, rah”. The courts chime in from time to time. So you won’t see much movement on monarchy, for example, from Māori, who want to maintain the link with the Crown, or from the wider New Zealand public. There will be a splutter when Charles takes over from the Queen, but after Charles there will be William – the monarchy manages to produce young stars from time to time. A lot of people feel happy seeing young George and Charlotte on the pages of the Woman’s Weekly.
Aren’t you concerned you’ll be labelled a racist?
Why should I be? I’m only jumped on by ignoramuses – people who believe in big government and people who think te reo and separatism are the answers to Māori problems. After World War II, we were empowering Māori, but then we slipped into welfare mode, and Māori have been the biggest and most conspicuous of the losers from modern policies. That is what worries me. I didn’t attend integration rallies in the United States in order to come home to find Māori pushing for separatism and separate treatment. What irritates me most of all are the liberals who marched alongside me when we wanted to stop rugby contact with South Africa because of apartheid; those same people now say, ‘Let’s do some separatism, just a little bit”. If we want to ruin this country, that is the way to do it. Not only because it’s wrong, but because it is proven not to help Māori.
Which books have influenced you most?
Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition and The Age of Reform, C Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow and WJ Cash’s The Mind of the South were seminal works for me. Race relations have always interested me. When I was a student in the US, I had to be careful of my involvement in the desegregation movement, because one of the cries from those opposed to change was that it was only outsiders who wanted to bring about change, and I was an obvious outsider. When the movie theatres in Durham were desegregated and the blacks no longer had to sit in their designated area, I organised a lot of people to come along and patronise these theatres so they stayed in business and their fears of desegregation were allayed. I stayed on the edge of these things, but I lent moral support where I could and gave money if I had a little. There are two key books on South Africa’s history, Leonard Thompson’s A History of South Africa and Allister Sparks’ book The Mind of South Africa, that have influenced my thinking about separatism. In terms of British history, Roy Jenkins is my hero – I loved his Asquith and Churchill biographies. As for Australian history, my favourite is Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia, by Geoffrey Blainey.
Is there room in your reading life for fiction?
Yes. I am a huge fan of Maurice Gee and I have read several of CK Stead’s books. I am also a big fan of English and American fiction – Philip Roth, Mary McCarthy, and I have read everything of John Updike’s. I have read all of Thomas Hardy’s work. Anthony Trollope wrote about his travels in New Zealand and I have used those in my writing. Some of Trollope’s books I have re-read – Barchester Towers three times. I love the range of personalities and the types of people and the fact that ecclesiastical politics is so similar to ordinary party politics. Archdeacon Grantly – what a prick of a guy: but politics has its Archdeacon Grantlys.
This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.