BOOK EXTRACT: In the cross fire: Helen Clark, Winston Peters, Rob Muldoon and me
Extracted from Leighton Smith: Beyond the Microphone (HarperCollins, $39.99; Kindle $13.99)
An invitation to a birthday party in 1990 appeared to be geographically and philosophically misdirected. Why would Helen Clark invite me to her 40th birthday party function? Why on earth? It was held in a backyard in Auckland’s Herne Bay on a Sunday afternoon.
I lived at the time a couple of streets away in Wanganui Ave. If this was because I lived in her electorate, it could be understood; but it wasn’t and I didn’t.
It was a relatively small gathering of what might have been called her “clan,” and if you want an idea of my “out of zone position, I’ll give it to you. Cath Tizard and I had verballed on a couple of occasions. She wasn’t, I felt, a fan. At a function one night when Cath was still mayor, she arrived — she seemed to have had a good time somewhere else — and proceeded with a tongue-lashing on my political leanings.
I recall thinking that feminism and femininity were very distant relatives. Anyway, Cath walked into that yard that Sunday and with customary volume exclaimed, “What are you doing here?” Memory fails me, but I hope my response was witty. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, I have some affection for Dame Catherine.
It’s maybe because she reminds me a lot of my Auntie Ev. Brian Rudman, the left-wing columnist for the New Zealand Herald, was at the party also. It is the only time in 27 years I’ve been in the same vicinity as Brian. Possibly we move in different circles.
That invitation, by the way, had an effect on me for a long time. It was a few years later, when Helen was Leader of the Opposition, that I had a second social event with her. A close friend of mine who was on favourable terms with her thought we should get to know and understand each other better. David had been in Helen’s lectures at Auckland University and took us both out to lunch at that well-known “socialist” hangout, Antoine’s.
It was a pleasant lunch but here is another example of the dangers (if you’re in the media) of socialising with politicians. The culmination came when Labour (read Helen Clark) won the 1999 election. I had extracted a promise from Helen to appear on Leighton Smith Live on Sky TV if she won.
The show was on Monday nights and after a run of two years, this was to be the last programme, 48 hours after Saturday’s result. Having the new prime minister appear was something of a small coup for a show with a relatively small but politically astute audience.
After a panel discussion for the first half (we were totally in Helen’s hands for the second half ), Helen fronted. There were many reasons she might not have appeared, pure expediency being one, but she kept her word. I was suitably impressed.
The Sky programme had a mysterious founding. The 1996 election was the first fought under MMP and the fun started immediately. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters was centre stage and making every spotlight his own, even to the extent of staging a fishing trip while delaying the announcement of which party would “enjoy” the blessing of his balance of power.
Matters were approaching a point of absurdity verging on farce. During my ZB programme one morning, Carolyn took a call off-air and passed me a message during an ad break. Tony O’Brien from Sky wished to talk to me on a matter of mutual interest. I returned his call during the next news break.
“Would you be interested in flying to Wellington this afternoon
to do an interview for Sky?”
“Can only tell you it’s the interview everyone wants.”
“That would be Winston Peters and why would he give Sky that privilege? Sky doesn’t do a news programme.”
“It’s not guaranteed, but it’s probable and it’s top secret.”
When we arrived at the Lambton Quay building that housed the Parliament overflow offices, the mainstream media were camped in the ground-floor lobby. For us it was back-door entry and a ride up in a goods lift — Tony O’Brien, a couple of local camera crew we’d arranged and me.
We waited at reception near the New Zealand First offices. People came and went, disappearing behind closed doors where the caucus was meeting. Time passed. They kept meeting and we kept waiting.
Downstairs the media pack, oblivious to being trumped, waited. The whole country waited, not knowing who would be the next government.
Word somehow reached us that there was some discontent in the caucus room with the arrangement with Sky over the interview. But Winston was determined to stick it to the mainstream media and then, as always, Winston ruled.
As for us, we waited but were never certain. We knew things were closer when we set up the cameras in an office. Then Winston Peters appeared.
After a few words the cameras rolled. The result was later described as two old friends having a chat (you have to tailor your interview approach to the subject).
We discussed why he had decided to go with National when the common belief thought Labour; what the terms of the coalition were; ministerial appointments; and so on. Once the interview was completed it was out the back door, to the airport and home to Auckland — the briefest visit I’ve ever had to Wellington.
The agreement with Sky and New Zealand First was that the interview could not be played until after the official announcement by the leader in the Beehive theatrette. That happened when we were in transit. Sky played the interview immediately following and it was the only interview Peters did.
To this day I have not seen it. However, Sky decided to enter it in the annual television awards under “Best Current Affairs.”
When it won I’m told there was silence in the theatre, followed by grumbling noises from the TV One and TV3 camps.
Sky was very keen to establish a news and current affairs presence, so following this little exercise we collaborated over a couple of special debates on superannuation that led to the two years of (weekly) Leighton Smith Live.
There was one small problem. Sky had no budget, so it was a case of self-funding. Sovereign Assurance was a radio client of mine and they were very enthusiastic. For the next two years they injected a not insubstantial amount into the programme. It was only when ASB bought Sovereign that things changed. However, I was grateful that they continued funding for the election period of 1999 which, of course, culminated in that Helen Clark interview.
In that appearance Helen was, as you can imagine, enthusiastic, even elated. It was a totally different environment nine years later when I interviewed her in the Newstalk ZB studios for the last time. Leading into the 2008 election, things had soured to the point that we hardly spoke during the ad breaks.
The PM busied herself by texting, while I reorganised papers and printed emails. The history of those nine years is an example of the “decline and fall” that so often befalls politicians.
But let me retreat to the politics of the 1980s. PM Muldoon called a random snap election on 14 June for 14 July. The result was a rout for National, thanks in part to the Bob Jones New Zealand Party. If we’d had MMP, Jones would have been deputy prime minister, perhaps. Labour romped in, discovered the dire financial straits the country was in and under the influence of Roger Douglas proceeded to restructure New Zealand Inc.
Almost everything they did was alien to traditional Labour philosophy. It was an extraordinary period in which to be part of the media. It was in this four-week period before the election that I first met Roger Douglas. We recorded, early one morning, a 10-minute interview which I played later in the programme.
Word from Douglas’ office, via my producer Mary-Anne Ahern, was that the 10 minutes was more productive than an hour on Radio Pacific. I was mildly flattered (always dangerous if it comes from a politician).
What is important is that Helen Clark, elected to Parliament in 1981, was part of the government that departed radically from her philosophy, to which she moved to return the country, in many respects, over the three terms of her administration.
The difference, as much as any, was that Clark was part of, and represented, the new, progressive, academic Labour. And it has become only more so. The dominant politicians in the Labour Party since the 1980s have come from academic or government-related employment: school, university and politics in one form or another. Such was Helen Clark.
During her three terms there were a number of telling and contentious issues. There was great controversy over what became known as “Paintergate,” involving a charity auction of a painting she did not paint but signed for the auction. Those politically opposed to Clark utilised this as “fraud” and maybe a character flaw. There was a police complaint, followed by a police inquiry and the painting being destroyed by her supporters. To me it was a beat-up and of little relevance, but it got “legs” and was constantly referred to by callers.
While I wouldn’t claim to be leading her defence team, I saw it as a charitable act to raise money for a worthy cause. It was a cheap painting which had added value because the PM of the country had signed it. By comparison, an All Black jersey signed by the PM would, under similar circumstances, have increased in value. No one would assume the PM was an All Black. But one thing leads to another, and so to “Speedgate.”
A couple of years after “Paintergate,” the PM was being driven by police escort from Waimate to Christchurch to catch a plane to Wellington to attend a rugby match between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. They were running late and the 205km journey was covered at an average speed of 128 kilometres per hour. It took 96 minutes.
The PM’s driver and four police officers were charged and convicted of dangerous driving. Fine: $675. The story came to light through 17 complaints lodged by witnesses. Prime Minister Clark denied ordering the drivers to speed and claimed she was unaware of exceeding the limit. Give me a break. As they were doing as much as 170km per hour, it would be impossible not to notice. Impossible. Clark was reading papers in the back seat.
The Prime Minister of New Zealand had every chance to suggest a more sedate, if not legal speed. The driver and the police were hung out to dry. Cabinet took up a collection to aid their legal bill — wasn’t that nice? Now the voices critical of the PM had more volume.
Muldoon always claimed that governments were elected to govern, and he was right but not entirely. I would add — within certain parameters and in conjunction with public consultation and approval outside those parameters. In the sacking of the Privy Council as New Zealand’s final appeal court, the Clark government fell short of those parameters. I don’t believe the PM or her fellow traveller Margaret Wilson had the authority.
It is an example of how unprotected the country is from the whims of politicians, particularly the progressive kind.
Considering the number of contentious private member’s bills that come through from the ballot, you would be entitled to query just how many were there in the first place. One such bill of great dissension was the Green MP Sue Bradford’s Crimes Amendment Act (s59) which removed the right of parents to physically discipline their children. Commonly known as the anti-smacking bill, it was adopted by Labour, and Clark pushed it through Parliament, denying her caucus a conscience vote.
Despite massive opposition from the public (over 80% against), the bill became law in 2007.
For many years I have been sent, by various listeners, opinions and “evidence” of Helen Clark’s ambition, particularly regarding the United Nations. For years I disregarded them as nonsense — no longer. In my opinion, the anti-smacking bill was endorsed to enhance her post-political career; the same for the adoption of the Emissions Trading Scheme with which New Zealand led the world. Based on political science rather than scientific fact, Clark’s government made a name for itself and further advanced her reputation in UN circles. New Zealand’s sovereignty suffered.
Two would be the number of petitions I’ve signed in my life. Two is a random number because I don’t recall what they were on; or if in fact I even signed them. I don’t do marches either, but in 2007 the exception finally arrived. The government’s Electoral Finance Bill was responsible.
The New Zealand Herald called it an attack on democracy. The pity is that the Herald came to this realisation so late in the piece. Democracy had arguably been treated shabbily for some time. Nevertheless, the Herald went on a full assault and so did about 5000 people down Queen St.
The march was organised by John Boscawen, who later joined the ACT party and was elected in 2008. I had not spoken to Boscawen prior to that Saturday march, but I developed a respect for his willingness to take such a public stance, which I think was against his natural instinct. So I corralled my basic dislike of demonstrations and attended, finding myself called on to speak at the end. On that day I met any number of listeners.
The dislike of the incumbent government was noticeable. I had not witnessed such agitation since Moscow in 1989. I didn’t much enjoy “taking to the streets” and hope never to feel the necessity again. To her discredit, the PM ploughed ahead. Said the Herald, “The bill is an insult to our intelligence as well as our rights. The country should not stand for this.” But this was the distance the government and its PM had travelled — an assault on democracy. Fortunately, National repealed the bill in 2009.
While there are more examples, it is the 2005 election that deserves a special mention. Labour was looking precariously close to being defeated when in the closing campaign stages they pulled two rabbits from their hat. Actually, both were very clever in a calculated way and resulted in Clark winning her third term.
Working for Families and Interest-Free Student Loans were both designed to buy the election as well as tie middle-class voters to Labour’s apron strings. Working for Families, of course, increased welfare dependency, and the loans ensured the families of students voted with their kids.
I believe both have contributed to the socialising of New Zealand. Certainly, they bought a further three-year term, until the electorate finally had had enough.
But “credit where it’s due” is a sentiment that should not be subject to political bias. Clark deserves some credit for her achievements. She took over a party in defeat and disarray, managed it to the top and kept it there for three terms of government.
In that time she weathered numerous storms, rarely showed a weakness and when defeat finally found her she had the strength to resign on the night.
I might agree it was the most dignified of resignations in comparison to others. She had faced her challengers and seen them off. By comparison, Muldoon’s 1984 election battle was a disaster. Bolger was dumped by Shipley, who in turn has the embarrassment of never having been elected. PM Lange’s government disintegrated tragically. Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore as prime ministers are difficult to remember, if not best forgotten.
Unintentionally, I have written more about Clark than any other politician. I can only attribute this to the nine years she was in power at a time that was important to the country and to me personally, along with the change of political philosophy that I didn’t appreciate. Couple that with this: those few social occasions softened my approach in my dealings with her. I ended up feeling frustrated with myself for allowing that to happen.
Extracted from Leighton Smith: Beyond the Microphone (HarperCollins, $39.99; Kindle $13.99)