BOOK EXTRACT: September Showdown – Booze is News

John Terris

John Terris spent four terms in Parliament, entering in 1978 at the height of the Muldoon era and leaving as the reforms of 1980s petered out with the demise of the Labour government in 1990. In his final term he was deputy Speaker of the House at a time when David Lange resigned and the government was divided. After that, he was elected to three terms as Mayor of Hutt City until 2004.

Mr Terris, who was a former TV producer and is an ordained minister, has just published his memoirs, which take the form of letters to a nephew, Basil, who wants to become a Labour MP. In this chapter, Mr Terris examines the effects of alcohol on politics as well as how Sir Robert Muldoon aided electoral success, why broadcasting should not be a government monopoly and support for Rogernomics..

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Book extract from September Showdown 

By John Terris

Members are all honourable members, and need to be recognised by one another as such. So a member may not be said to be ’as pissed as a newt’ but he may be said to be 'tired and emotional' – Anonymous Speaker of the House

Dear Bas,

Even though members may be seen on occasion to be drunk – Sir Robert Muldoon was seen to be so more than once, and his colleague, Keith Allen, was captured on National television weaving along in a decidedly disoriented state – it is against the Standing Orders to say so.

Really? Yes really. You may remember my own embarrassing brush with the law in this context Basil, which is embedded in our family’s memory though long forgotten by everyone else. For a couple of days at least, the fact that, while an MP, I was booked for drink-driving was a big news story. While normally every MP, as their last act before sleep, prays to whatever God they worship to give them a front page headline, they don’t usually have this particular headline in mind. 

Just thinking about it brings me out in a hot flush, though, when prompted by the papers of the day to state that this was highly inappropriate behaviour for a politician who was also an ordained clergyman, several members of the public rather disappointingly (from the newspaper’s angle) gave it as their view that my inebriated state made me seem more human.

As with their sexual preferences, extra-marital relationships and similar straying from the straight-and- narrow, bad behaviour while on the booze is not something which members are allowed to talk about in Parliament or, for that matter, would ever wish to. The reason is simple: it is because, for every alcohol-fuelled indiscretion which might be raised on one side, the other side has a dozen in their Dirt Files which might be brought forward, if and when necessary. 

As Jesus Himself said, in relation to The Woman Taken In Adultery, punishable back then by stoning to death, Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone. I can hear a distant voice, coming from the office of the Mayor of Auckland, echoing a heartfelt Amen.

So liquor plays a part in the colourful annals of our Parliament, Basil, but you’d best shut up about it. Let’s not talk about Walter Nash, who was never seen at functions with anything stronger than orange juice, although there are some prepared to swear that these were regularly spiked by a trusted aide with a liberal measure of gin.

In more recent times, it was once the habit of a couple of Christchurch MPs, with safe seats and no particular respect for the institution to which they had been elected, to alight from the plane to Wellington and head straight for the nearest bar. Later, much later, they might appear in the chamber, but more often were seen, but briefly, in the division lobbies when a vote was being taken, before returning to the real job in hand – the manipulation of a glass to their lips.

Secret drinkers
Some go to some trouble to hide their favourite indulgence.  Apparently, [David] Lange was a secret drinker. This is not necessarily a great surprise, given his strict Methodist upbringing, and his occasional slighting references to his mother, who was presumably the cause of all that denial. People who are not happy in life (was David ever happy, do you suppose?) often turn to alcohol in the mistaken belief that it will deliver them the high that ordinary existence doesn’t.

There is an understandable assumption too, that MPs, under the liberating influence of a fast-lane life style, will readily succumb to an unlimited supply of alcohol, which is on hand at every function they attend. And hospitality at that level of generosity is hard to resist, especially since our binge culture equates drinking alcohol with kicking back and having a good time.

Since MPs may go to three or four gatherings in a single evening, it quickly becomes apparent that they are but a small step away from a big headache, on a regular basis.

Alcohol does strange things to people, as we all know. Muldoon was, of course, a ferocious debater but, after a gin or three, would take on the mien and temperament of a cuddly old teddy bear.

David Thomson, a minister in Muldoon’s Cabinet and one time Leader of the House, from Stratford, a gracious man with impeccable manners, once came back from a formal function when he was needed to make up the Government’s numbers, in a dress suit, complete with black tie and dickie, and proceeded to disarm all criticism about his possibly inebriated state by rendering an obsequious imitation of a waiter.

One well-known member (well known, that is, for his ability and inclination to imbibe large quantities of alcohol) used to appear regularly around the corridors of Parliament and in the Chamber in a 'tired and emotional' state. The scion of a prominent South Island political family, he had a great future in politics.

Losing control
He was bright and articulate, gave memorable speeches and enjoyed the respect, even the adulation of his party’s membership. He was predicted to lead his party one day (although the person making the prediction was Bob Jones, who may well have had his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek) and could have done so, too, except for his addiction to the booze.

Under its influence, he became erratic and unable to control himself. When discipline was applied, he fought it like a spoilt child, and it was sad to see the slow deterioration of this talented individual. His political demise was also hastened by his opposition to the anti- abortion legislation, not because it lessened his support among his colleagues but because he seemed unable to resolve the complexities of the issue in his own mind. He was “deselected” and departed the scene, an example of the “might have been.”

Winston Peters is one MP known to be fond of a tipple. It’s been recorded elsewhere that one of his favourite drinking buddies, when they shared the responsibilities of government, was the Prime Minister of the day, Jim Bolger, and that their alcohol of choice was whisky. Although Jim Bolger was often chided by the likes of big brain Geoffrey Palmer for being thick, he was actually, in my observation of him, a very astute man indeed. So he likely found a drink a very useful way of rendering Winston more accommodating than he was perhaps naturally inclined to be, in matters affecting the National-NZ First coalition’s affairs.

Of all the things which Sir Robert Muldoon has been remembered for, it is unlikely any of them will surpass his announcement of a snap election in July 1984 while deeply in his cups. What has troubled historians and commentators to this day is, just what proportion of this momentous decision, one which changed the course of history in this country, was attributable to his state of in vino veritas rather than any rational thought processes?

We will have to continue to wonder, because he is not around to tell us, and the people standing next to him at the time, of the ilk of Don McKinnon, are unlikely to spit the dummy. In politics, perception is more important than reality, and who wants to be associated with the decisions of a PM who was as tired and emotional as a newt?

Here was a man with a heart condition who, with the various medications he was taking, should not have been drinking at all, but who nevertheless called a snap General Election while visibly out of his skull. His biographer, Barry Gustafson, informs us that before he “went to the country” in July 1984, Sir Robert had downed two gins before dinner and another seven drinks (mainly brandy and ginger ale according to others in the room) before appearing before the nation to divulge his intention to call a snap election.

Eerily, or perhaps in mutual desperation (who knows?) he was propped up by the likes of Senior Government Whip Don McKinnon (presumably after being ordered to pour the drinks) and the Governor-General, Sir David Beattie. These could be said to have been stirring times indeed, especially when it came to the use of a swizzle stick. That Muldoon could have functioned at all with that amount of alcohol and prescription medication on board is pretty remarkable.

To have accomplished as much with the active encouragement of his closest advisers seems bizarre. To have been able to do so through some of the most momentous days in this country’s history is nothing short of amazing, especially as he subsequently, around 2am the next day, fortified by another drink or two, tried to drive himself home and they had to let his tyres down on him to prevent him spinning out onto the motorway, in no state to withstand a breathalyser test.

Debt to Muldoon
Having spent an inordinate amount of time, Basil, in slagging off Muldoon to you, it is time to fess up and admit that I actually owe him a considerable debt.

Sir Robert is indirectly the reason why I stayed around in politics in a National held seat, for all of 12 years. The Western Hutt seat, which had been solidly Labour for many years, was extensively redrawn, to become a National seat on paper before the 1978 election which was when I first stood. I won by less than 200 votes, purely because of the growing unease among the urban National-voting liberals there, with the knock-em-down- and drag-em-out Muldoon method of dealing with critics.

This anti-Muldoon vote was heightened by the fact that he lived smack-dab in the heart of my electorate, in the stately home known as Vogel House, and from there he would issue forth, to deliver his famous put-downs of his opponents. This was electoral gold for me, even more so because Rob actively campaigned against me in the 1981 election (which, most readers will recall, even if our current Prime Minister does not, coincided with the Springbok Tour – that’s right, the Blood-In-The Streets Tour, which while provincial voters loved Rob for it, was not a sight my urban voters cared for one little bit).

The majority of voters in Western Hutt, were God-fearing, law abiding, well-educated, liberal-leaning National voters, who did not want to see photos of bashed-up protesters on the front pages of their papers. To this was added the PM’s contempt for me personally. He went so far as to cast his vote at the Hutt courthouse on the eve of voting day, a moment captured by all the nation’s media, and where he made the announcement, carried to the four corners, that he had voted for my opponent.

Hallelujah, and Praise the Lord.  My majority went up to 2000 in 1981. Rob’s political career might be one, which in retrospect generates mixed feelings with most people but not with me. I owe him 12 years of majorities.

Once in Parliament I found that the best way of defending my seat was to attack and one of the press gallery named me Terris the Terrier because of my reluctance to let go with a piece of Tory trouser-leg between my teeth. I made the life of the then Minister of Broadcasting Hugh Templeton a bit of a misery, as he sought to roll up the separate radio and television services into one entity.

Falling out over broadcasting
I think that Muldoon thought they might be more tractable that way, and since I had had a long career in radio and telly before getting into parliament, I had the advantage of knowing at least as much as Hugh did about what was going on there. For the first time but by no means the last, I also fell out with my own party over the future of Broadcasting, because it was my view that to provide the necessary spirit of competition and creative diversity, there needed to be a privately run channel at a time when the State owned two.

This sent the Left into a fine old fit of fury, with Fran Wilde, then the darling of the Left, leaping up at a Party Conference and denouncing me for what she called “political incorrectness” (the first time, in the early 1980s, that I had heard the term but not the last) which was meant to imply a serious departure from Socialist orthodoxy.

Jim Anderton, President of the party at the time, saw to it that I got sacked from my job as the Party’s broadcasting spokesman and I was allocated Internal Affairs instead. This was a shadow portfolio generally reserved for caucus down-and-outs. There I made the life of another very nice man named Alan Highet, who was the Minister, thoroughly miserable by pestering him about the state of the protection of our National Bird, the Kiwi, which back then was pretty dire.

After Labour became the Government and I missed out on Cabinet selection, I was given the consolation prize of Deputy Speaker; not exactly a sinecure as it involved trying to control a now defeated and indeed humiliated former Prime Minister and current Leader of the Opposition, Robert Muldoon. That part of my parliamentary career I did not especially enjoy, but I had other interests, including the protection of the young and the vulnerable whose welfare is not always taken into account for the simple reason that they don’t have a vote.

Starting with the successful promotion of fireworks safety legislation, I went on successfully shepherd though a private member’s bill fencing private swimming pools, and with the cooperation of Michael Cullen as Minister of Social Welfare and the support of Sonya Davies, succeeded in getting established the Commissioner for Children, which continues to be a very useful check on government agencies supposed to be responsible for children’s welfare. 

I also dabbled in electoral reform and gave strong support to the Government’s economic reform programme. Those changes, while there were certainly casualties, have served the country well in that we have survived the recent Global Financial Crisis in better shape than most. The political education I received at the hands of people like Roger Douglas, Bob Jones, and the good voters of Western Hutt, was what they call these days, transformational. 

I went from being a wide eyed leftie, inoculated against self-criticism and overdosing regularly on hubris, to being much more tolerant of others' political beliefs and tending more to the conservative end of the political spectrum. They say that a person is not fully rounded unless they’re a socialist before 40 years of age and a conservative after 40.

That may or may not be, but for me, politics, if it taught me anything, educated me in the understanding that your relationship with your voters is a bit like a love affair. It starts out hot and heavy; it matures into something more companionable and deeper, and like all intimacy, finishes up being a process where you find you have changed each other. Actually, the people I have represented in elected office, taught me far more than I ever taught them, about the ordinary person’s capacity to see fair play, about the destructiveness of ideology of whatever brand, and about the common decency at the heart of every New Zealander’s take on the things that really matter in life.

© John Terris. September Showdown is distributed by Greene Phoenix and is widely available only in bookshops at $25

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