A certain political autism, Simon Upton

Palmer: The Parliamentary Years
Raymond Richards
Canterbury University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877257926


For Geoffrey Palmer, politics was a serious business. It was about legislating for a better society and demanded the serious-minded attention of elected politicians. This sense of vocation can only be described as admirable, and there is nothing in Raymond Richards’s account of Palmer’s political career that detracts from that assessment.

Palmer was not a particularly original thinker. Several in David Lange’s cabinet could lay better claim to that. But the ruins of the post–Muldoon era provided the justification for comprehensive surgery that called for large scale, production-line reform. Palmer’s organising intellect and energy made it possible. Moreover, his inability to conceive of any issue in terms other than legal ones requiring statutory rectification became, for a period, a uniquely useful asset. Someone more inclined to reflect and less impressed with conceptual tidiness might have achieved half as much when the crisis of the moment – and the ambitions of his colleagues – required action.

But the quantity of reform came at a price, both in terms of the manageability of the programme and the quality of what it generated outside of core legal areas suited to Palmer’s training. Richards is clearly impressed by a politician who leaves behind him 235 linear metres of paper archive. He records Palmer as predicting that his principal challenge as a biographer would be to know what to leave out. It is a pity that Richards did not reflect more deeply on the implications of that warning. By pursuing a doggedly chronological account of a short but hyper-active parliamentary career (and academic apprenticeship), the portrait Richards draws in Palmer: The Parliamentary Years is two-dimensional and breathless.

In truth, Palmer himself did not know what to leave out – and Richards follows him into the breach. The account of the disastrous post-1987 crash period reveals Palmer up to his eyes in an almost hallucinatory frenzy of reform. He is overseeing major legislative reforms covering the sale of liquor, criminal records, trustee law, securities law, Maori fisheries, imperial laws application and more. A Royal Commission on Social Policy is in overdrive, shadowed by no fewer than 17 working groups set up by Palmer to study the implementation of the Government’s social agenda. All this while the cabinet is falling apart over Roger Douglas’s flat tax proposals.

In these circumstances, how could anyone with any sense of political priorities be devoting mental space to reforming the law of defamation or grinding on with a Bill of Rights for which there was simply no appetite? Despite his enormous capacities, Palmer simply failed to appreciate the extent to which the skills needed to implement far-reaching changes are much rarer than those needed to dream them up. Having myself been entangled in the next round of wall-to-wall, conceptually-driven reform (the ill-fated attempt to impose a perfectly rational system of targeted access to social services), I know something about out-of-control policy processes. Palmer had the misfortune to wash up as deputy prime minister having never seen the inside of the cabinet room. Unsurprisingly, he lacked the political experience to know how many irons he could safely have in the fire at once.

Richards’s narrative style does not help his subject.  His favoured technique is to distil from the voluminous archive tracts of Palmer’s pronouncements and deliver them as indirect speech. The result is a text that amplifies the moralising hyperbole that accompanied Palmer’s genuine passion for policy. Any discriminating views the author may have had are frequently submerged in the repetitive clichés with which Palmer conducted his policy advocacy. So thick and fast do the “affronts”, “outrages” and resorts to “first principles” and “political courage” become that large sections of this biography start to sound like Palmer’s parliamentary speeches.

They were nothing if not predictable. Richards cites a wryly mocking observation from Jim McLay in the House, noting that Palmer only had one speech on law reform: “Before he started to speak, I wrote down a list of words such as fundamental, substantial, extensive, unsatisfactory and basic, and marked them off as he used them.” The problem for the reader is that the same sort of anaesthetising litany suffuses the text as adjectives like dictatorial, draconian, principled and courageous make repeat appearances. Palmer’s seminar-room style is contagious.

Despite Richards’ apparent admiration for his subject, the effect is unflattering. Palmer could frequently be unwittingly patronising. Collected together in one place, the cringe-making weight of so many pronouncements from on high is overwhelming. To have reminded New Zealanders that “ordinary people find it difficult to absorb change” or that legislation needed “a large degree of esoteric knowledge” required a certain political autism.

Richards harvests some biting editorial commentary in support of this conclusion. The most devastating has to be The Evening Post’s verdict that “the lantern-jawed Geoffrey Palmer and severe deep-voiced Ms Clark are a pair of Easter Island statues that make Opposition Leader Jim Bolger look positively animated. Mr Palmer is a righteous man with a prefect’s manner.” Yet Richards is an admirer, and it is a pity that his book does not do more to assist the progressive, enlightened man who is its hero. We are treated to the trivia of Palmer’s salary increases as he climbs the ladder of office (this is a truly Kiwi obsession). And references to “prestigious Columbia University”, “esteemed Yale University” and “Wellington’s magnificent Michael Fowler Centre” seem to belong more to a guide book. But the big problem is that its simple chronological approach allows the undifferentiated mass of politics and law reform to preclude a more searching engagement.

The interesting questions about the prairie fire of reform that engulfed the fourth Labour Government remain to be asked. In the first place, how was it that so many convinced egalitarian social democrats swallowed undiluted market liberalism? Had they reached a reluctant but deeply held conviction that the pursuit of social progress through active management of the economy and the redistribution of its surpluses was intellectually bankrupt? Or was their radical break with the past simply a reaction to anything associated with Muldoon’s crippling managerialism? Or were they simply naive about what they were embracing?

Richards quotes Palmer as complaining that lawyers needed to be more economically literate. But there is little evidence that Palmer understood the economic ramifications of many of his grand schemes. Richards deals with the Resource Management Act in a couple of paragraphs simply labelling it “visionary”. The reality is rather different. The Act made (and continues to make) heroic claims on the skills of locally elected officials and frequently imposes economic costs without securing environmental gains. The idea (enshrined in the Act) that you can, by legislative fiat, require those exercising powers under the Act to assess the costs and benefits of their proposals is delusional. Palmer had little idea about the economic incentives he was setting up.

The RMA was only one of his attempts to bring order to the messy business of human life. Social policy, fired by his early exposure to accident compensation, was clearly a fascination throughout his career. Richards records Palmer complaining about New Zealand’s social welfare system as being “a Heath Robinson type of Appliance” and drawing attention to at least three different sets of principles governing different types of need. Only someone hankering for a single organising principle could be surprised by this. The roots of this desire to simplify and clarify are not explored.

My hunch is that Palmer and some of his fellow non-economists in the Fourth Labour Government were seduced by the seeming theoretical perfection of market economic models. If egalitarianism was the source of their social idealism, the theoretical efficiency of markets supplied an equally idealistic economic pillar to the temple of progress. These are possibilities on which Richards sheds little light. His Palmer simply stumps the country talking about New Zealand living beyond its means and change being inevitable. There is no sense of any intellectual struggle going on in the mind of this super-efficient administrator.

The same goes for the Treaty. Richards correctly describes Palmer’s response to the Treaty as that of a lawyer. But he gives no sense that this was a limited and problematic response with consequences for the country that remain unresolved to this day. Like an entire generation of public intellectuals, Palmer had little understanding of the administrative and constitutionalising codes of British imperialism. The Treaty was a simple document for which the Chicago-educated lawyer felt no qualms inventing principles to guide government action. It is almost embarrassing to read Palmer’s sesquicentennial declaration that “the Treaty gave us the rule of law and democracy”.

In this, as with so many issues, Richards portrays Palmer as a boundlessly energetic sort of chief operating officer with a predilection for legal panaceas and high-minded declarations. His core judgments about Geoffrey Palmer the man seem sound enough to me. But very little new light is shed on this crucial period in recent New Zealand history. Perhaps Palmer is less interesting, and less crucial, than Richards believes him to be.


Simon Upton followed Geoffrey Palmer as Environment Minister in 1990. He is now living in Paris.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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