The Ninth Floor – Inside the Prime Minister’s Office
Penguin Books, Auckland, 1991, $24.95
The first few chapters of The Ninth Floor amazed me. I’m used to books about politics that hedge their bets. If they say something good about someone they balance it by pointing out a weakness. Harvey McQueen wears his heart on his sleeve. David Lange is described in glowing terms, as a warm caring man, an amazingly resilient man, a courageous man – ‘every speech I saw him deliver was a delight’.
McQueen worked in the Beehive for 18 months, first on the eighth floor as a political executive assistant and then on the ninth floor as education press secretary. His relatively short time in the Beehive means he has a fresh eye for detail and is still able to be amazed by the long hours put in by our political leaders, by their accessibility and by the media’s demands.
His style is at times journalistic, at times old fashioned with a ‘gentle reader’ approach. He takes the reader into his confidence, but also preaches. And sometimes he can’t restrain himself from defensive comment. An example, describing how David Lange involved Caucus in Tomorrow’s Schools: ‘Changes were made by Caucus right up till the end. So much for the folklore that the Boss didn’t involve others in the changes’. in another place, ‘So much for those who say David Lange lacks a political philosophy’.
David Lange and Phil Goff as Associate Minister of Education were well-drawn but fuller pen portraits of Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble, even from The Ninth Floor viewpoint, would have added tension – and given greater understanding of both men. In his preface McQueen says the book revolves around the Lange/Douglas feud and the massive educational reforms. Although it’s valuable to have such an authoritative record of the educational change this record often detracts from the drama unfolding.
The Ninth Floor raises many of the issues that all Prime Ministers have to face: how to keep a balance between the economy and social policies, how to retain the support of MPs from the top of the Beehive, how to keep in touch with the electorate through a cushion of officials. The first term of the fourth Labour Government was devoted to Rogernomics and Lange had planned that the second term would be devoted to social policy. But Roger Douglas and treasury pushed further along the monetarist path. McQueen’s thesis is that by the manner of his going Lange halted the New Right policy initiatives of the Labour Government.
This is a valuable book, the first of many to be written about a Government which has changed the direction of New Zealand. It will probably be the least embittered, and certainly the most perceptive on David Lange. More, it’s a book to cheer those who jeer at our politicians as being interested only in feathering their own nests. McQueen describes Lange as a ‘good’ man and shows that the conflict in which the protagonists became ‘a living death to each other’ was not a power struggle for the top job. Rather it was over policy and vision; over what was best for the country, best for the people. If, in the future, David Lange again puts his name forward for the leadership this book will have enhanced his stature.
Margaret Hayward wrote ‘Diary of the Kirk Years’ from her experiences as a Parliamentary Private Secretary for eight years. She tutors at Wellington Polytechnic.