Amicus Curiae: The Ninth Floor: Reflections on Former New Zealand Prime Ministers

BY JAMES ADAMS

In less than two months, New Zealand will be having a General Election, and New Zealanders will decide who will lead our country for the next three years. Here, as elsewhere, the cacophony of sound-bites can make it hard to understand exactly what it is like to be Prime Minister. How easy is it to effect change? What skills are needed to hold the highest office in the land?

These questions are at the heart of Radio New Zealand’s recent series The Ninth Floor, which features former New Zealand Prime Ministers. Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark were extensively interviewed by Guyon Espiner, resulting in five one-hour audio or video clips. Throughout these unusually meaningful discussions, three themes stand out: each of the ex-Prime Ministers spoke of the importance of leading public opinion, rather than following it; each of them (except Helen Clark) complained about the state of nation’s finances; and each portrayed themselves as pragmatic, even as they espoused ideological views. Perhaps, in the lead up to this year’s election, New Zealanders should reflect on these ideas.

Leading Public Opinion, Not Just Following It

Geoffrey Palmer, Prime Minister from 1989-1990, opined that the role of a leader is “to lead public opinion, to show them the vistas of Mount Olympus rather than the lowlands of where we are now.” Coming from a politician who was instrumental in several key reforms, this rhetoric is unsurprising. Yet at the time of his Prime Ministership, Palmer may not have been following the polls, but others in his party were; he was demoted merely two months before the 1990 election. Today, Palmer is still thinking ahead of the curve, with his campaign alongside Andrew Butler for a superior-law constitution.

For all her differences to Palmer, Jenny Shipley (Prime Minister 1997-1999) essentially agreed, that the leader should be ahead of the crowd, rather than among it. She says that, from a young age, “Father expected us to lead” and, as Prime Minister, “we did not poll every five minutes” but focused on doing “the right thing.” This attitude curiously allowed Shipley to severely cut welfare spending during her tenure as Minister of Social Development, but also to attend the LGBT+ Hero Parade in an unexpected show of support for that community by a National Party leader.

On one hand, perhaps the emphasis on opinion polling is but a passing phase. History is full of leaders espousing the value of doing what is right, rather than what is popular. Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations (A.D. 180), famously commented that “The opinion of ten thousand men is of no value if none of them know anything about the subject.” Even Prime Minister Bill English has implied that his predecessor’s reliance on focus-group polling will not be followed in favour of a “data-driven” approach. On the other, perhaps politicians should be aware that overseas, technocratic leaders are swiftly being toppled in favour of populist ones. Appearing too dry or academic risks a repeat of what happened to Palmer.

The Permanence of Financial Crisis

Jim Bolger (Prime Minister 1990-1997) was elected one Saturday night. The Labour Party had previously collapsed into infighting, while its core, lead by Finance Minister Roger Douglas continued with their “neoliberal” economic reforms. Bolger promised to restore the country to being a “Decent Society,” but on Sunday, the Treasury called. He was told that Bank of New Zealand would crash “by Friday” unless he put together a rescue package. In general, one gets the sense Bolger would agree with J.F. Kennedy’s phrase that “when we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.”

Financial crises loom large in many of the interviews. The poor state of the nation’s books is frequently used to excuse any suggested deficiencies: Mike Moore (Prime Minister for two months in 1989) describes the country in 1984 as “stuffed…just dreadful” and says that, with the changes that the Fourth Labour Government were wanting to make, he pretty much knew that they would only last one term. As it happened, that government restructured and privatised its way through another election, before being defeated by Bolger in 1990. That incoming government would have been taken aback that the books were in such bad shape, given the six years of reform that the country had come through.

However, Bolger’s argument that we should not blame his government for the rise in inequality invites contemporary comparisons. The current government has often said that their performance should be viewed in light of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis; Bolger blames his government’s cuts on the necessity of getting government spending under control. A charitable explanation is that decision-makers have less influence over events than might be commonly supposed. The Prime Minister is not all-powerful: Shipley describes Bolger as “wrestling with every difficult decision” for often, he felt, there were no good answers. If this is representative, then voters seeking change should have lower expectations. Conversely, those who fear change should be perhaps be less concerned: as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (allegedly) commented, what really determines policy, once in government, is “events, dear boy, events.”

Ideology in the Land of Pragmatism

In the final paragraph of Michael King’s History of New Zealand, he writes that “most New Zealanders…are good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant.” He is not alone in suggesting that pragmatism is part of our culture, yet despite this front, The Ninth Floor interviews abound with suppressed ideology.

This is clearest in Shipley’s controversial comments about middle-class welfare – she says that she “feels sick” about receiving state-subsidised healthcare on the basis that “if you’ve got income of assets, use that before you ask your neighbour.” This, apparently, is definitely not ideology, but “fairness.” Yet, a simply dictionary search will reveal that ideology is just a system of ideas, like fairness, that form the basis of political theory and policy. Shipley’s revulsion to subsidised healthcare is clearly not grounded in fact, else she would see that health outcomes are typically poorer when healthcare is left to individuals.

In contrast to Shipley’s current taxpayer-funded affluence, Moore grew up in the sort of community that benefits most from state provision of certain necessities, but went on to lead the World Trade Organisation. His is also a story of ideology: in the 1970s, he researched the Closer Economic Relations agreement that Muldoon was soon to sign with Australia. Moore says he went in trying to find fault with the agreement, but came out a great believer in free trade. That being said, he found it hard to stomach Rogernomics, recounting dry-vomiting after voting to privatise the railways. The Finance Minister himself is described as “demonic” by Moore for his ardent neoliberalism; Palmer similarly criticises Douglas’s approach as “theological.” Yet Moore similarly is not without his blind-spots, especially when he remarks that many of the negative effects of the reforms are “manufactured history.”  This flies in the face of the data – the unemployment rate climbed throughout Fourth Labour’s second term to levels not seen since the Great Depression. So politicians, as ever, are willing to point the finger but are less keen to examine their own beliefs.

Looking towards September

In the lead-up to the election later this year, voters will again be considering the merits of various candidates. No doubt the housing crisis, the Budget, and other pressing concerns will loom large in people’s minds as they decide for whom to vote. Yet, while the problems and the proposed policies of present are important, listening to New Zealand’s former Prime Ministers should encourage us to take a longer-term view.

If you cast your vote for a pragmatist, think twice about whether they will compromise on what you hold dear. If you cast your vote seeking a change, make sure that the change that would come about is the one that you were wanting. Either way, scrutinise the rhetoric of each of the parties, for they may tell you that they are merely “evidence-driven,” but ideologies are sure to lie close to the surface. However, our Prime Minister should be more than a robot. When unexpected issues crop up, which it seems they often do, the country does need a leader who can articulate a vision and values. The five individuals interviewed for The Ninth Floor series can certainly do both. For better or for worse, they were instrumental in getting New Zealand to where it is today.

Come September, it will be incumbent on us to choose who will join their ranks.

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