A prime ministerial primer, Simon Upton

New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key
Michael Bassett
David Ling Publishing, $50.00,
ISBN 9781927305294

New Zealand’s Prime Ministers is a very large volume. It is also an extremely ambitious one that is challenging as a through-read. Twenty-four prime ministers (PMs) dispatched chronologically, from Dick Seddon to John Key, is not an easy assignment. Many will, I suspect, explore this celebrated roll call randomly. You might pick out a shadowy, short-lived incumbent of whom you know little (like Thomas Noble McKenzie, whose three and a half month reign in 1912 brought the curtain down on the great Liberal era that began in 1891); or ferret in the (voluminous) footnotes to tie down the manoeuvrings of a contemporary survivor like Michael Moore or Jenny Shipley.

Michael Bassett is a master of cameo verdicts. Many are memorable and not without a certain wry brutality. Keith Holyoake was “no more far-sighted than the farmers he represented”. Norman Kirk’s “aggression, impatience and solicitude blended with curious ease”. Bill Rowling is described as “competent, sometimes feisty, occasionally insightful and always energetic”, but possessed of “a mighty if misplaced belief in his own talents.” His nemesis, Robert Muldoon, is “certainly the most cynical PM New Zealand ever had”.

These, of course, were all leaders Bassett knew personally. He has, he tells us, been on first name terms with every PM since Walter Nash, and served in parliament on the watch of 11 of the 24 PMs covered. That sort of proximity gives him the confidence to judge earlier office holders with equal incisiveness. Of George Forbes, we are told that “no other holder of the office has had so little sense of his place in history”. Joseph Ward “didn’t possess a political nose”. And, as for Gordon Coates, he “lacked a ruthless streak without which few leaders succeed.”

Beyond his own judgements, Bassett draws on a wealth of insight from equally shrewd observers. We have John Beaglehole’s verdict that Walter Nash’s premiership was “an addendum to a once creative Labour era”. Gary Hawke nails Muldoon as “an inveterate meddler with a demagogic streak”. And there is Jane Clifton’s priceless encapsulation of David Lange as “a gushing hydrant of one-liners, elliptical sentences and philosophical profundities”.

It is also a volume filled with quirky facts of a “did you know?” flavour. Did you know that for 35 years of the 20th century, New Zealand was led by four farmer PMs? Or, that Holyoake sat on the results of the ballot for deputy leader of the National Party for six days (unimaginable today)? Or, that Ward was the first PM with a recognisably kiwi accent?

And then there are elements of delicious gossip. Bassett claims that some of Helen Clark’s judicial appointments weren’t made on the basis of merit, resulting in “several being relegated to ‘gardening leave’ because they couldn’t cope”. To whom does Bassett owe this nugget? “Details supplied to the author from a credible source.”

But a reviewer is called upon to digest the work as a whole, and I encourage readers to do the same, because only a through-reading of the book will reveal the depth of insight into the nature of the office that Bassett sustains and develops through nearly 600 pages. This is a tour de force which brings together the rigour of a professional historian with the sympathetic intuition of a political practitioner.

It becomes swiftly apparent that Bassett has distilled – over a lifetime – a keen sense of the physical and psychological traits that can make or break the highest political office-holder in the land or, to put it in different terms, determine whether a PM will be an “institution” who dominates the landscape, or merely an operative who surfs the waves of political opportunity only as long as the tide of events runs in her favour.

First among vital attributes is a retentive memory – Bassett labels it the sine qua non for success. Richard Seddon, Muldoon and Clark score here. Sidney Holland lost his.

Physical energy counts. Few of the line-up seem lacking on this score, although Lange is described as having been prone to lethargy and easily bored (and poor health drained whatever energy he had as time went on). Whatever their initial endowments, the impossible demands of the job seem to have mined the health and energy of many leaders. Seddon, William Massey, Michael Joseph Savage and Kirk died in office, Ward very soon after. Peter Fraser, worn out by office and the war, barely survived a year.

Ambition features less than political myth might have it. Forbes is described as “an accidental Prime Minister”, Geoffrey Palmer a leader whose “head was always in law reform and academia rather than politics”. Rowling and William Hall-Jones were thrust into the job through the death of the incumbent. But Muldoon, Kirk and Key appear to have been single-minded in aiming for the top.

Then there is optimism and self-confidence – or its opposite: a craving for affirmation and acceptance. Savage and Key shine as being completely at ease with themselves. Rowling emerges as consumed with self-doubt, though stubborn for all that. In Muldoon’s case, towering self-confidence masked insecurity. Bassett describes “Old Pussy” as “less personally secure, more brittle, prone to take offence and often unpleasant”. These are shades of Trump, a generation in advance.

A lack of education seems not to have been a disqualification. In commencing with Seddon from 1893 to 1906, Bassett chooses the moment at which New Zealand democracy became popular and its leadership drawn, not from the educated classes, but from determined battlers who educated themselves on the job. Five of the twenty-four had no formal education beyond primary school. Most others lacked tertiary qualifications.

And, finally, there is luck – an elusive commodity. Bassett identifies election against the tide as luck. It certainly thins the competition as Holland, Jim Bolger and Key discovered. But who is to say that this wasn’t inspired timing on their parts? Arrival in a by-election seems to have been an even bigger advantage but, again, this is scarcely luck. No fewer than seven of the PMs surveyed here (Hall-Jones, Massey, Fraser, Holyoake, Rowling, Lange and Palmer) enjoyed the national spotlight that is trained on an electorate which would, in a general election, pass largely unnoticed. Budding PMs out there should pay attention: wait until your party is in the doldrums and seeking to rejuvenate itself through a by-election. You may be surprised where you end up.

As Bassett makes very clear at the outset, PMs are creatures of their time and must be judged in that context. An examination of the relationship between leaders and the backdrop of social and economic forces at work during their term raises the knotty question of whether high office-holders are ultimately a decisive influence on the course of events. Do histories focused on “great men” – and all but two of these were afflicted with a Y chromosome – risk overestimating the power of individual agency?

PMs certainly exercise huge influence on the team of people called to form a cabinet. And, as Bassett notes, close allies are vital for leadership longevity. But the way that team is then leveraged varies enormously. In my own experience, Bolger was a good listener. He didn’t presume that he knew everything. Muldoon, by contrast, was tyrannical and withheld vital information from colleagues. In their different ways, all those PMs who held office over sustained periods did so by maintaining a clear sense of mission.

But even the most overbearing have been unable to resist social evolution beyond a certain point. At best they could delay change. So Seddon’s broad church liberal populism could not halt the social fracture that rapid urbanisation was bringing. It was left to Ward to cope with – ultimately unsuccessfully. The Holland who arrived in office in 1949 is, in comparison with the hugely accomplished Fraser he replaced, an unappealing character who had read nothing and returned books lent to him, unopened. But a world in which war and rationing had been the rallying point had become a cage of frustrated demands and militancies. Holland could respond to a strongly running tide as Savage had in the depths of the depression in the mid-1930s and as Lange was again to do in 1984.

Some PMs were clearly incapable of responding to the (grave) demands of the epoch. A good man, Forbes was clearly not equipped to understand, let alone respond to, the outwash of a global economic crisis. Others, like Holyoake, had the good fortune to preside over benign times. Here the inevitable charge is that opportunity was wasted.

So do PMs merely preside, shoe-horned into office by strength of personality and a measure of luck? Clearly, the best of them measure above their peers. As Bassett notes, “the skills required to be a successful PM have always exceeded those needed to be a good Minister.” Ward, Jack Marshall and Palmer, all good if not excellent ministers, fail to clear the hurdle here. But even the most gifted performer may not attain greatness if the temper of the times is banal. Clark and Key were both hugely effective – and successful – in different ways. Yet, events like the Iraq war or the Christchurch earthquakes notwithstanding, neither was called to embody their era.

This was the fate of Fraser, whom Bassett clearly ranks above the rest – even more so than Seddon, who indeed embodied an era, largely of his own restless creation. Fraser had the questionable luck of being a wartime leader, simultaneously charged with delivering universal health care, education and social security. While the limits of the social contract have been debated ever since, no one challenges the essential egalitarianism they enshrined. And no one has doubted Fraser’s management of New Zealand’s part in the war. Very simply, he rose to and embodied the challenges of the day.

What didn’t survive was the economic model of regulation and stabilisation that Fraser and Walter Nash nurtured. It didn’t disappear overnight. Indeed, it was kept alive for more than three full decades after the first Labour government’s demise. Its last defender, Muldoon, virtually brought the temple down upon himself in an effort to prolong it. It was the fourth Labour government that dismantled it and that, of course, was the government in which Bassett served.

There is absolutely no doubt that, for Bassett, this was a moment in which a PM rose to the occasion – and then flunked it. It was Roger Douglas who embodied the age. And that age was disrupted before it could be brought to whatever logical conclusion its authors had in mind. It is clear that, in Bassett’s view, none of those who followed – Bolger, Shipley, Clark and Key – finished the job.

But what would finishing it have entailed? ACT eventually took the Douglas revolution in a libertarian, small state direction. But Lange – and Rogernomics – were wrecked on an ethical reef. While economic efficiency and productivity will determine the size of the cake, its distribution is always political. And, as the instincts of virtually every single PM in this book reveal, the notion of widely-shared opportunity has never been absent from New Zealand in modern times.

Moderate, progressive egalitarianism and an almost total absence of ideology provide the unbroken leitmotif of this volume. As a social progressive in his political career, Bassett must have had a vision of how social progress and opportunity could have developed in tandem with Rogernomics. At the time, many New Zealanders felt they stood on the edge of a vertiginous precipice that could lead only to a jungle of private health care and food stamps as in North America.  No PM has ever gone there.

It would be fascinating to read Bassett’s account of what might have been. The only hint we get is his concluding verdict on Clark: “Clark was a multi-talented Prime Minister who left KiwiSaver to posterity. It has been a huge success.” I’m not sure Clark would measure her premiership in these terms. But it is a glimpse of a Singaporean toiler-saver state that might have emerged.

Simon Upton is a former member of parliament and minister whose career spanned seven of the 24 prime ministers in the book reviewed here.

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