The PM Confessionals

 I watched Radio New Zealand’s Guyon Espiner’s interviews of past prime ministers on the computer to check out the body language as well as the words. I took notes of the  show (The Ninth Floor),  but with my prejudices it’s just as well I didn’t try journalism as a career. So let me state from the outset  that Jenny Shipley is far and away my least favourite PM. She reminds me even now of a bossy head girl who’s never had a moment’s self doubt.

She stated in the interview that she saw leadership as her most valuable quality. She had no ideology, she said, apart from social fairness and she thought the gap between left and right narrowed when she was in charge. The leadership challenge (to Jim Bolger) “was not about me but about the country.” Watching and listening to her I had the sense she was more like a General than a democrat, like royalty born to rule. Not that I’m prejudiced! Mind you, she seemed a very capable person, and anyway, who’d be a prime minister?

Geoffrey  Palmer still has that detached almost robotic delivery. He claimed to be more concerned with democratic principles than ideology. It seemed from what he said that democracy was his only commitment in politics. But his admission regarding the Douglas ‘reforms’, “Maybe we went too fast,” was his only concession. Given his concern with democracy I wish he’d been asked how he felt about bringing in policies in direct opposition to the wishes of the people he was representing. But I accept these were necessarily gentle conversation rather than hard political interviews. Palmer came across to me as a perfect example of a good man weakly going along with policies he would have protested about had he not been in power.

Mike Moore did not look well and he has been very sick. His delivery reflected this. But after watching and listening to him I saw the same old Mike, his thinking all over the place. Perhaps too restless a mind to have a clear political commitment. He said he’s still a member of the union but his “People should be allowed to do what they want to do,” comment served to reinforce my view that he could equally be a libertarian. I was not surprised when he said he and all of Lange’s cabinet were against MMP. And Mike is still.

Helen Clark accompanies statements with a characteristically disconcerting chuckle. A nervous or  droll mannerism? You’d never know except that she is deadly serious. She demonstrates a clear, principled attitude to foreign policy (would that we had that now). But she thought the pre-1984 NZ economy with its state assets ‘strange’ and seems to have been at least half inclined to agreeing with Roger Douglas’s ‘adjustments.’ And while she agrees with public housing, she did not see it as her government’s job to intervene in the private housing market.

Helen Clark thinks she lost the election not because of her performance or policies but because “people like the smell of a new car.” On the one hand I fear she is right, on the other hand I hope she is. But typically, she has no regrets. “Never look back. Never agonise about decisions once made. Move on.”

I would never have expected that Jim  (Spud) Bolger would be the pleasant surprise. He came across as a pragmatic politician who thought the tough reforms brought in by Roger Douglas were a ‘gift from God’ because the country was broke. However, he now regrets breaking the unions because in their absence workers have not been adequately represented or treated fairly. He accepts that the neo-liberal approach to governing promoted inequality and he thinks fairness should be valued above freedom.

Bolger was the only one of the five past prime ministers willing to voice his regrets and admit he was wrong about some things. He came across as a wise, honest, humane man. A pity he’s not still on the Ninth Floor…

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.