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.

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