Perseverance and poetry, Barry Gustafson

Reform: A Memoir
Geoffrey Palmer
Victoria University Press, $80.00,
ISBN 9780864739056

Sir Geoffrey Palmer had a distinguished career as a law professor in both New Zealand and the United States and as deputy prime minister and then prime minister in the Labour Government 1984-90. This memoir is a detailed 800-page account of that career.

Palmer’s first love is the law and the bulk of the book deals with law reform. He states in his opening chapter that “this book is not an attempt to chart the history of the Fourth Labour Government … . nor … to tell some sort of inside story” and he warns that “the reflections are not as personal as one might reasonably expect”. Nevertheless, when he gets to his 11 years in parliament, Palmer throws considerable light on the life of a member of parliament and a cabinet minister and of the government in which he was so influential.

Palmer says he always tried to reform things, notably the law and the legislative process, because he believes constant change makes things better.  He concedes reform can be controversial and not welcomed by everyone. An early admission is that he and his generation did not get right the central question of when to intervene in the economy and failed to make progress in achieving social justice, so that there is “more inequality in New Zealand now than there was fifty years ago”.

The first 200 pages of the book are heavy going. Palmer is often wordy and seems to use five pages of detail when one page might well have sufficed. For example, chapter two, which recounts his family background, has almost 43 of its 45 pages devoted to a rambling discussion of his great-grandfather, John Palmer, who arrived in Nelson in 1843.

A chapter on Palmer’s own early life in Nelson is three-quarters spent on Nelson College. He moves on to Victoria University College and mentions the lecturers he had, the texts he read, and summarises the content of nearly every course in which he enrolled. The reader is introduced to Plato, Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, James and John Stuart Mill, John Locke, Leslie Lipson, Rousseau, and Edmund Burke, among others. Palmer also studied, but was less impressed by, Marx and Engels and, although admitting that he found Milovan Djilas’s The New Class “devastating”, reveals no awareness of the New Left socialist humanism and the debate over alienation and the young and old Marx that was, in the 1960s, starting to rage throughout leftwing circles in the West and in Eastern Europe.

A short chapter dealing with Palmer’s early career as law clerk and young lawyer is followed by his year gaining a doctor of law degree at the University of Chicago. Again, this is largely a summary of courses and the names of teachers and fellow students. After two years back in New Zealand teaching political science at Victoria University, Palmer returned to the United States to teach law at the universities of Iowa and Virginia.

During that time, Sir Owen Woodhouse, whom Palmer describes as “my friend, mentor and sponsor in many things”, invited him to draft a commentary on accident compensation, which Palmer describes as “the most exciting and the most important … . reform with which I have been involved”. He looks at the establishment of accident compensation and its history over the past 40 years and suggests what reforms still need to be made to the scheme.

A quarter of the way through the book, Palmer turns to his political career. He was motivated by a growing belief that “as an adviser I often thought [ministers] made the wrong decisions and that it would be better to be the minister than the minister’s adviser.” He discussed with National Party people the possibility of standing for National in Nelson, but disliked Robert Muldoon and was one of 12 people who initially became Citizens for Rowling at the 1975 election. The Labour MPs Bill Rowling and Jonathan Hunt encouraged him to stand for Labour. After missing selection as Labour’s candidate for Nelson at a 1976 by-election, he won nomination for the much safer seat of Christchurch Central, also at a by-election, in 1979.

From the time Palmer arrived in Parliament there was an ongoing campaign by a group of Auckland MPs to replace Rowling with David Lange. Palmer was, throughout, a strong Rowling supporter. In 1982, when Rowling was finally ousted, Palmer became deputy in an effort to reunite the caucus. Lange, according to Palmer, was “neither gifted at nor interested in administration. Neither was he a very good judge of people to help with those tasks”. So Palmer largely hired the staff and ran his and Lange’s joint office in opposition. The partnership continued after Labour won office in 1984.

In the latter part of the book, Palmer changes from the earlier chronological structure to deal with themes. The office he coveted most was that of attorney-general, which he fought for successfully after Lange initially decided it should be given to Frank O’Flynn. As Attorney-general, minister of justice and deputy prime minister, Palmer, in his own words, “commanded the legislative heights”. In subsequent chapters, he discusses judicial appointments; his reform of prisons, courts and justice; constitutional matters, including the Bill of Rights; parliamentary, legislative and electoral reform, including MMP; the Treaty of Waitangi and Maori issues; and the environment, conservation and the Resource Management Act.

Although not primarily his responsibility until he became, for a brief time, prime minister, Palmer devotes two chapters to “The Fine Art of Diplomacy” and “The Anti-Nuclear Policy”. The first is a short and superficial travelogue which names everyone accompanying him or whom he met, but has little analysis. The second is a much more substantial and interesting account, especially of the decision to reject the visit of the USS Buchanan and of negotiations with the French over the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.

Many readers will find chapter 20, “In the Cockpit of Government”, the most interesting. It starts with a textbook-type discussion of cabinet government. Palmer then discusses and compares the roles Lange and he played, and examines the growing conflict within the Labour cabinet and caucus. Although Palmer had heard Milton Friedman lecture at Chicago and was aware of the views of the Chicago School of Economics, he did not have an ideological attachment to them and “did not accept that there was no alternative to the policies that we adopted”, although some of his colleagues certainly did. Palmer places himself between Roger Douglas and his critics within the party in the economic policy debates, and concedes that Lange’s instincts about Douglas’s flat tax might well have been correct. He concludes that the battle between Lange and Douglas, which Palmer did everything he could to resolve, “destroyed the Fourth Labour Government”. Both men were, he says, “too proud or too stubborn”, but concludes that, although “there were faults on both sides … David had serious weaknesses that in the end destroyed his government.”

Most of Palmer’s comments about Lange are negative or lukewarm. Lange was a “loner” who “had an uncertain hand when it came to decide how to develop policy” and “never liked difficult meetings with colleagues and frequently avoided conflict by not telling them how profoundly he disagreed with them”. Even his uplifting speeches and devastating wit, Palmer suggests, lacked substance and “did not linger long”. When Lange died in 2005, Palmer was in Iowa. He wrote a poem, “Three Geese at Dusk”, which is one of a number Palmer reprints throughout this book. It is about geese and ducks and winter and reminds Palmer of “the day I learned that David Lange died”: “geese stay together in formation … They seem to value the collective as Cabinets should.”

In his final chapters, Palmer discusses free speech; the birth of the very successful public law firm, Chen and Palmer, which made him a lot of money and helped private citizens and corporations to more successfully influence policy outcomes; his five years as president of the Law Commission; his time as New Zealand’s representative on the International Whaling Commission; his appointment to chair a United Nations inquiry into the Israeli boarding of Turkish ships; and the reform of local government. In what should have been his last chapter, he looks to the future and at reforms still needing attention. The book, however, concludes with “Some lighter moments”, and an “Epilogue” listing his current domicile, family status and interests, both of which could have been included in earlier chapters.

There is much of value and interest in this book for those interested in politics and the law, whether a specialist or general reader. Reading it requires effort, but those who persevere will certainly be rewarded.


Barry Gustafson is Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at The University of Auckland.


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