Michael Bassett reveals the colourful lives of our nation's leaders

by Jane Clifton / 12 April, 2017
Robert Muldoon. Photo/Jane Ussher

Jane Clifton reviews a new political history book on New Zealand's prime ministers.

You don’t make it past page one of the introduction of Michael Bassett’s New Zealand Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key before being hit with the first resonant factoid: the term “prime minister” was originally intended as a put-down.

Coined by critics of Britain’s 1721-42 leader Sir Robert Walpole, it disapprovingly underlined his being the first First Lord of the Treasury ever to operate from the Commons rather than the Lords. As the Executive’s power continued to rise and the monarchy’s abated, the term later became a neutral descriptor. But as historian Bassett’s chronicle shows, even in our young democracy, it has described a rich variety of disparate personalities.

Surprisingly few knew early on they wanted the job, such as John Key and Robert Muldoon. Gordon Coates was so ambivalent he could sometimes not bring himself to admit he was running “his Government”, referring to it as (a predecessor) “Mr Massey’s party”. His mother quoted him as saying of the job, “If it comes to the worst, I shall have to face it.”

David Lange. Photo/Jane Ussher

David Lange also had to be talked into politics – including by Bassett – and appears never to have actively campaigned for a single vote. “I lacked the temperament for it.”

Some were bookish; Walter Nash’s “most vicious trait” is said to be his fervent desire to be left reading undisturbed. But unlike her husband Sid, Florence Holland “read books and no doubt passed on information that might be of use to him”.

Eminent lawyer Sir Francis Bell spoke Maori and Latin. Jim Bolger left school at 15, attaining office without so much as a thrift essay prize to his name.

Some have thought Key unfittingly larky in office, but he was a dilettante compared with Holland, who at dinner once re-enacted landing a prize marlin by using the British High Commissioner’s wife as the fish and “landing” her on a sofa. He also used to whip gentlemen’s waistcoats off from under their jackets, and perform other schoolboy party tricks.

We think of the Muldoon era as the scrappiest for Government-media relations, but under Keith Holyoake, there was effective state censorship, with the Government “constantly embroiled in … trying to censor news and views that ministers didn’t like” (including Listener editorials).

Helen Clark. Photo/Jane Ussher

Past decades’ PMs had routinely to contend with senior colleagues who were losing important faculties, were chronically ill or had died.

Having frequently declared the wheels to be coming off this or that Cabinet, this reviewer can only marvel at the last days of Muldoon’s, which he refused to rejuvenate despite three ministers being hospitalised at once, two vowing to retire at the election and a sixth having drunkenly collapsed in the street.

As well as being a valuable resource, this colourful, detail-packed treasury of our past leaders cannot help but crystalise a few eternal truths about our governance. The same themes emerge time and again as different leaders steered us towards or away from protectionism; tried to pick winners in the economy; asserted sovereign independence but hoped not to alienate allies; played off or tried to avoid playing off cockies against townies.

One of Coates’ Waterloo episodes came when the Dairy Board disastrously tried to jack up prices in Britain in 1925. He neither backed its actions nor tried to stop it, citing its independence – meaning all the warring vested-interest groups became equally annoyed with him. As Fonterra, the dairy giant causes exactly the same political paralysis to this day.

Today’s furore over mandatory iwi participation in town planning? Princess Te Puea told Coates she feared his solicitude towards Maori had cost his party votes.

Presidential campaigning and an unhealthy focus on personalities and identity politics? Coates, who hailed from trade, bought a little farm and posed with an inert sheepdog to court the rural vote.

Seasoned politicos will have pre-existing views about Bassett’s take on more-recent history, given his outspokenness following his years as a minister in the Lange and Palmer governments. But his waspishly nuanced writing provides much incidental pleasure. On Muldoon’s vainglorious first autobiography: “More than 30,000 copies were bought – more than were read.”

New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: from Dick Seddon to John Key, by Michael Bassett (David Ling Publishing, $49.99)

This column was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

Latest

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles
103805 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automa…

by RNZ

Ms Ardern pledged the day after the terrorist massacre that "gun laws will change" and would be announced within 10 days of the attack.

Read more
No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 years of GCSB & SIS public docs
103770 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Politics

No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 y…

by Jane Patterson

There is not one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in 10 years of security agency documents.

Read more
Deirdre Kent: The woman who faced down the wrath of Big Tobacco
103798 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Profiles

Deirdre Kent: The woman who faced down the wrath o…

by Joanna Wane

As the face of anti-smoking lobby group ASH, Deirdre Kent played a vital role in the smokefree New Zealand movement.

Read more
Māori leaders say acts of terror nothing new in NZ
103766 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Currently

Māori leaders say acts of terror nothing new in NZ…

by Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Māori leaders are calling on New Zealanders to reject the notion that 'this is not us' in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

Read more
Cynthia Millar and the strange beauty of the ondes martenot
103723 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Music

Cynthia Millar and the strange beauty of the ondes…

by Elizabeth Kerr

The sci-fi sound of the ondes martenot is playing a key part in the upcoming performance of an epic symphony.

Read more
Christchurch gunsmith warned police about white supremacists last year
103662 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Crime

Christchurch gunsmith warned police about white su…

by RNZ

A Canterbury gunsmith living and working says he told police less than six months ago they needed to look at the rise of white supremacists with guns.

Read more
12 moments that show how New Zealanders have united in the face of terror
103665 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Social issues

12 moments that show how New Zealanders have unite…

by Vomle Springford

In the following days after the Christchurch terror attacks, New Zealand has come together to support the victims of the shootings.

Read more
How modern art inspired the music of Anna Clyne's Abstractions
103649 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Music

How modern art inspired the music of Anna Clyne's…

by The Listener

The works of the English contemporary composer feature in the NZSO’s forthcoming The Planets series.

Read more