- Jeremy Agar

The Parliamentary Years
by Raymond Richards, Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2010

In 1960, during his first year at Victoria University, Geoffrey Palmer went to the Mexicali, a Wellington hangout for the young and would-be hip. He wrote to his mother in Nelson that the experience was a jolt. “The sound of teenage girls blaspheming is not very pleasant”. In another of his regular letters home, young Geoffrey noted that his roommate went often to the movies. “This does not seem to me the way the way to derive any benefits from the university subjects”. Quite right, Geoffrey. There are a legion of Palmer stories like this. He might sound naive, but so were the blaspheming girls and the movie-going flatmate. Palmer was always self-disciplined and not a little self-righteous, and unlike most of his contemporaries, he didn’t lack self-confidence or the willingness to deal with the legion of errors that he has always had to correct. Once given out LBW (leg before wicket) by a cricket umpire, Palmer boomed down the pitch, “I was not out”.

Palmer’s father was Associate Editor of the Nelson Evening Mail, where Geoffrey worked as a reporter in the holidays. He seems never to have found life anything but serious. It needed to be sorted. So early on he became interested in politics, choosing the Labour Party because it was led by Bill Rowling*, a fellow Nelsonian whom Palmer knew, though possibly a more important reason was that, by the time Palmer had finished law school in the US, National was led by Rob Muldoon*, the personification of what was wrong with public life in New Zealand. NZ needed an alternative, which meant Labour, and, as he put the matter in some of his first words on the subject: “What the Labour Party needs is organisation”. *Murray Horton’s obituaries of Piggy Muldoon and Bill Rowling are in Watchdogs 71 (November 1992, and 81 (April 1996, respectively. Ed.

At the University of Chicago Palmer had pondered free trade, dairying and no fault insurance. It was his work on designing ACC that brought Palmer to the attention of the leadership, but few aspects of law and government escaped his remorseless attention. No other person is so closely associated with the reforms of the last 30 years. “We New Zealanders,” he once declaimed, in possibly the least accurate statement to have ever been made by a politician, “have a love of law-making”. But the next sentence will resonate with critics of the Clark government: “We seem to believe laws can cure our innermost ills”.

Raymond Richards, a historian at the University of Waikato, would seem to be Palmer’s ideal biographer. Richards also studied in the US, and a previous book compared American and NZ social policy, a thoroughly Palmerian endeavour. Like Palmer, he is rigorous and detailed. If you’re interested in NZ politics, this account is invaluable. It’s especially revealing on the big foreign policy issues of the 1980s. We’re given a running commentary on nuclear issues and the Rainbow Warrior affair*, much of it from Richards’ access to Palmer’s papers. There’s plenty here on other watershed controversies stemming from the Think Big years: the Aramoana smelter, the Clyde dam, the Springbok tour. *For an amusing, but also revealing, little story about Geoffrey Palmer and the Rainbow Warrior affair, see Murray Horton’s article “What You Didn’t Read In The Listener”, in Watchdog 60, December 1988, Ed.

“Spiritual Poverty” & “Elected Dictatorships”

Palmer wrote “Unbridled Power?” in 1979, the year he was first elected to Parliament in a Christchurch Central by-election. The book set out Palmer’s themes of Parliamentary and constitutional reform. In a later edition, Palmer dropped the question mark. “There is spiritual poverty”, said the campaigning Palmer, “and people are moving to the North Island” (this was around the time when Jimmy Carter was chucked out of the US Presidency partly because the punters over there didn’t care for his downbeat talk of spiritual malaise). The book set out many of the proposals which were subsequently enacted when Palmer was Attorney General in the Lange government. Palmer’s basic issue was that the NZ single house system was effectively an “elected dictatorship”. Recurring themes in his career were the need to restrict the power of the Government, the need for a Bill of Rights, and for a more consistent respect for the rule of law.

Palmer’s ideas have become part of the furniture. Roger Douglas, the other main architect of the reforms, liked to say that he had a complete lack of interest in how Government worked. He claimed to be concerned only with what it did, and then only with financial and economic policy. The intended implication was that he got on with the real work while Palmer played academic games. This is disingenuous. In “Unfinished Business”, his account of the Lange government, Douglas made much of his tactical awareness of how to rush through Rogernomics. In his own way, he was as aware of process as was Palmer. The consequence, as Richards points out on several occasions, was that Palmer was rarely associated in the public mind with the excesses of neo-liberalism.

A paradox remains, passed over by both Palmer and his biographer: the Fourth Labour Government was perhaps the most arbitrary and the least concerned with procedural democracy of any in modern NZ history. As Opposition critics enjoyed pointing out, its power was in fact unbridled - with no need for a question mark. An unkind observer might think that this inconsistency marks Palmer as a hypocrite, but it might be more likely that, bent over his statutes and laws, and certain of his logic, he never considered the matter. He was doing the country a favour. There’s no sign, either in his career or in this sympathetic account of it that Palmer thought analytically about economics in other than legalistic terms. In 1984, the year Labour won its first election and decided bankruptcy was days away, Palmer saw it as “common sense” that neo-liberal deregulation was necessary. The basic problem, he repeatedly remarked, was “mad dog” debt. Cut the spending, sell assets. It’s all so 2011.

Here too Palmer seems not to have paused for reflection. He never bridled his faith in his own “common sense”. Common sense though is not the virtue of the constitutional lawyer. It’s more commonly the virtue of the populist or the pragmatist. It’s the quality that a Muldoon would claim. Certainly Palmer’s views about debt read as simplistic. Neither he nor his biographer indicate that they have noticed that NZ’s foreign debt has ballooned in the years since Palmer and Douglas claimed to be bringing it under control. In 1984 NZ total public and private debt was $16 billion. Now we owe the world $252.529 billion, the bulk of it, $220.898 billion’s worth, being private debt. This is 115.7% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). To point this out isn’t gratuitous. The blowout in private debt is the result of the policies brought in by Palmer and Douglas. So the principles that ostensibly motivated Palmer, the need for accountable and restrained government, were not realised. Details were achieved, many of them good and useful. Laws and regulations become tidy and neat, the battles were won. Meanwhile, unnoticed, the war was lost.

Obsession With Procedural Purity

Palmer’s obsession with procedural purity (or, put another way, his stubborn determination not to compromise or acknowledge some of New Zealand’s deepest conventions) enabled him to claim that neo-liberal orthodoxy (or common sense) and social equity were compatible. It was just a matter of putting the right words in statutes, and cutting waste and duplication. Along with Douglas and Richard Prebble, Palmer was the ideological liberal in the Cabinet, but he was the only minister who could connect the dots. The usual view of the Lange years is that the Government’s social and foreign policies were at variance with its economic policies. This seems to have been the view even within the Government, but Palmer saw, correctly, that the major themes were in fact complementary. It was he who provided the coherence that popular opinion usually sees as confusion or betrayal (depending on whose “common sense” is involved). Palmer came back from the University of Chicago resolved to instil American precision into the land of number eight wire. That was a new experience for both Labour and National.

He got National’s backs up even more than did Labour’s social workers, teachers and union officials. Opposition Leader Jim McLay complained of a Government of “quasi-intellectuals with a grievance against society”, while the defeated Rob Muldoon mused in his column in Truth that “I have a particular aversion toward bent academics”. Petulant grievance-mongering of this ilk has always marked the good old boys in the NZ Right but in awkward Geoffrey Palmer, the target of the innuendo, the geek who had probably never shorn a sheep or run a business, Labour’s Nanny State primness was personified (for more on Truth, see the review below). Yet the pragmatist, the man of “common sense”, popped up when he needed to. When Hong Kong was being absorbed into China, Palmer offered a complacent verdict that to hope for democracy was “foolish” and wouldn’t do anything to help trade. In another context, and properly spun, might not this expediency be seen as Muldoonist?

Of all Palmer’s initiatives, issues to do with the Treaty of Waitangi might well be most characteristic, the most clear expression of his sense of law. He would have enjoyed the academic intrigue of looking at other jurisdictions with the same issues, in particular North America, and he would have relished the chance to devise a contractual model. But the political deal maker was not far away. Responding to Nationalist claims that placing Waitangi at the centre of the constitution would lead to “uncertainty”, Palmer agreed, arguing that the alternative was the risk that New Zealand would “explode”. An explicit search for compromise to allow peace and quiet is a theme throughout Palmer’s career and his frequently repeated claim has been that laws should be shaped to avoid controversy. He implies that Waitangi legislation was introduced to placate an incipient Maori radicalism and to play to the gallery that opposed the 1981 Springbok tour.

So a question looms: had it been convenient to ignore Treaty talk or nuclear free aspirations, would a series of elegant legal principles have been produced to justify such stands? A politician, even a Palmer, needs re-election more than he needs the approval of academics. Is the modern history of NZ the product of principle or convenience? And in what way is the wish to keep the lid on popular discontent different from the manoeuvrings of a Muldoon - or of our last two prime ministers?

Made Us Nuclear Free But Also Gave Us Waihopai

Why ban nukes? Because “[t]here would be widespread civil disorder if ships with nuclear capacity visited our harbours”. Yet when it came to the Waihopai spybase, Palmer’s anti-nuke peacenik credentials went missing in action. Couldn’t people see that the nuke stuff wasn’t the real point? The Americans would surely appreciate that it was a sop to domestic needs, not an indication that NZ was about to drift from the US shield. In Palmer’s view: “We are probably the primary source of intelligence in the Pacific region, especially in relation to the United States”. Topic over. There was nothing more for the normally garrulous - and principled - Attorney General to say. He’s saying that if Kiwis really want to be nuclear free, they need to put on bigger demos because otherwise they’re just a sideshow to a Palmer or a Lange.

Along with many others around the liberal world, Palmer heaped praise on Robert Mugabe, at a time when the Zimbabwe dictator had already been known to butcher his people. In contrast with the Hong Kong version of his realpolitik, this would have been a hangover from Palmer’s student days, when Westen progressives wanted to like Mugabe because of who he was. He was the black nationalist. He was not Ian Smith, the white racist. Like most of us ordinary muddled citizens, Palmer has been able to substitute wishful thinking for reality.

The white Rhodesians might well have reminded Palmer of Rob Muldoon, who came across as plain unpleasant. Palmer was not the only observer to note that Muldoon’s autocratic style contained more than a hint of fascism. As others have noted, this undoubtedly made Palmer’s job easier, the prevailing mood being that any alternative to the Muldoon autocracy looked attractive. This obscures the wider context. Muldoon’s policies were not all that different from those in other Western countries, where governments stumbled in the face of a declining world economy - and Palmer’s neoliberal revolution was similarly part of a global trend.

Legacy Of A Weakened Public Authority

Richards’ title is indicative. Not many individuals need only a one word identification. Words like Hitler, Churchill, Stalin come to mind. But Palmer? The subtitle hints at a second volume, which might be “Palmer: The Constitutional Lawyer Years”. Palmer has contributed a great deal to New Zealand’s public life and Richards’ biography is unlikely to be bettered as a thoroughly researched account, but he can’t hide his admiration. Indeed, in his conclusion, Richards is happy to abandon the appearance of scholarly detachment and say that in all his responses Palmer was “right”.

At the time, a lot of voters thought Labour was getting things wrong, and with Lange and Douglas sulking and an election looming, the Government panicked. They needed a new look, and chose Palmer, probably because of his reputation as a non-combatant in the fights over the economy. Palmer’s brief career (1989-90) as Prime Minister was anti-climactic. He carried on much as he had always carried on, a leader devoid of charisma. His geeky image was not going to change any trend, so Labour panicked again, dumping Palmer for the determinedly folksy Mike Moore (who lasted all of two months. Ed).

That didn’t help either. Six years after the electorate had plumped for anyone but Muldoon, the mood was for anything but Rogernomics. But having promised a retreat to less frenzied government, National gave the country Ruthanasia. This was when the retreat from political engagement gathered steam, citizens having concluded that politicians were all a bunch of rascals. Richards conveys none of this mood, because in his telling there was no call for disillusionment, Palmer being an honest, sincere, and even endearing chap. This is misleading. To take one example: the secret US-controlled “New Zealand” spy bases at Waihopai and Tangimoana are not mentioned, yet Waihopai remains one of the major legacies of the Lange government and it was during his brief tenure as PM that Palmer officially opened it in a secret ceremony. This from the champion of transparency and due process, the scourge of unaccountable public servants? The author is too enamoured of his subject and too certain of his ideology.

What is Palmer’s legacy? It was one thing to take on the “elected dictatorship” by enmeshing it in procedure, but it’s a different matter if the (intended) outcome is a weakened public authority. Now, a generation later, Palmer’s ideological successors want to render central government impotent through another secret deal. The US inspired Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is a negotiation that combines the worst of the Palmer-Douglas tendencies. At the University of Chicago (and at Victoria) you can bet it all seems like common sense.

The Rise And Fall Of The People’s Paper
by Redmer Yska, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 2010

Older readers will remember Truth as a weekly from the days of the six o’clock swill and short-back-and-sides. It offered scandal, often to do with politics or sex, or both, with a heavy coverage of racing and rugby. Aimed at working class males, Truth once enjoyed a wide circulation. In this brisk, entertaining account, Redmer Yska points out that it in its day it was New Zealand’s only national newspaper. He makes the case that Truth warrants serious interest. This it hasn’t previously achieved, probably because the type of people who otherwise report news never took Truth seriously. Some might well have read it, but few would admit to having done so.

Yska, a versatile writer, was himself once a Truth reporter. The book’s biographical note says he’s also spent time as a “Beehive spin doctor”. He would seem to be well qualified for this history. He argues that Truth was an agenda setter, influencing public opinion. This would be true if only because Truth’s editorial policies decided what its readers would talk about that week, there being few alternative sources of information. NZ has never had a strong tradition of tabloid journalism, and Truth followed the pattern of its more established counterparts in Australia and Britain in serving up titillation and conservatism.

For Common Man: Against “Wowsers”

This bias was not at first obvious. Truth was founded in 1905 by Australian John Norton, a product of anti-authoritarian Sydney. Norton worked with Robert Hogg, described by Yska as a Scottish socialist. The result was beat ups on the police and attacks on “wowsers”, a term that Norton apparently coined. In the strikes of 1912-13 Norton sided with the workers, and during World War 1 he sympathised with pacifists. These positions sound progressive but it’s deceptive. A man of random prejudices, Norton usually mirrored the worst of the times. Truth’s racism was crude and unremitting, aimed mostly at Fijians and Chinese, who were seen as threats to the Kiwi bloke and his standard of living. The Maoriland Truth exempted NZ’s founding culture from its grubby tirades. Maori were awarded a “noble savage” stereotype.

As a self-defined defender of the common man, Norton backed the first Labour government (1935-49), but only so long as it could be cast as a blokish outfit. When John A Lee went after the extremely popular - but mild – Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, Norton backed the rough diamond Lee (who was eventually expelled from the Labour Party). He conducted a long and vituperative campaign against Savage’s only rival when it came to public affection – “Uncle Scrim”. Colin Scrimgeour’s radio talks rallied support for progressive social policies in a way which in a more diverse society would not now be possible. Norton hated Uncle Scrim, possibly because he seemed to be not just a wowser, but a wowser who challenged Norton’s hold on the popular imagination (in an early autobiography, “Rise And Fall Of A Young Turk”, Rob Muldoon - see the review above - says that he was good mates with Uncle Scrim, who had retired to the beach near Muldoon’s bach. Muldoon claims that he, the Young Turk, and Scrimgeour had the same take on life. Had Scrim mellowed?).

Wowsers were more than just wet blankets. In the public mind, the temperance movement and the campaign that won female suffrage were aligned, and in the reformist Liberal government of the time, Protestant sobriety and reform were similarly linked. Some of his ministers might have been dour but not “King Dick” Seddon. Savage aside, Seddon was probably NZ’s most successful PM (1893-1906). He’d owned a West Coast pub and was always careful to give the impression he’d join you for a pint. Truth thought he was OK, mainly because Seddon was a pragmatist who seemed to favour democratic reform - but only when it had become expedient not to resist it. The Savage government was itself inspired by politicians in the Christian socialist tradition. We hear the echoes of this Kiwi theme song still in National’s default position vis-a-vis Labour, said to be the party of the Nanny State. To abuse wowsers is to align yourself with the Right, Truth’s real target being the democratic tradition.

Overtly Reactionary

After World War 2 America led NZ into the Cold War era, and Truth, with new owners, became overtly reactionary. This part of the story, where Yska sketches symptoms of a sick State, is intriguing. Peter Fraser, Savage’s successor, spied on his civil servants. This intensified with the National Government of 1949-57, when bureaucrats were enlisted to “counter propaganda”. The Tourism & Publicity Department put out “stories”, a role which Yska compares to the propaganda activities of the US Information Service and the UK’s Information Research Department. The Armed Service and Press Committee, the Prime Minister’s Department, and the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, Yska writes, “chose sensitive subjects to be kept from the public. Off limits were topics like submarine technology, details of the Russian defectors involved in a spy scandal across the Tasman and ‘heavy water’ used in atomic bombs. After the committee agreed on a topic ‘for which publicity was undesirable’, a ‘D’ or Defence Notice was circulated to newsrooms”.

The full nature of Truth‘s involvement in this murky stuff is still debated. Yska relates an episode when Truth, the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Police contrived to try to discredit the 1972-74 Norman Kirk government, apparently so that it would shy away from enacting a stronger economic policy. Truth served as rabble rouser; its favoured method - as is often the case when dishonest people rely on spreading ignorance - being conspiracy theory. Truth ran a big story on “the plotters” and their “sinister scheme to socialise NZ”. Sometimes conspiracists rely on a kernel of reality and distort it, but In this case, the “plot”, sadly, was all fiction. That we’d have been better off if the sinister scheme had existed is suggested by a cartoon Yska reproduces. It depicts an octopus (the “sinister scheme to socialise NZ”) grabbing the good guys - labelled as “banks and finance companies”. If only a real conspiracy had materialised 40 years later....

SIS Mouthpiece In Smearing Bill Sutch & Labour Government

A target of the ‘70’s conspiracists was the legacy of civil servant and historian, W B Sutch, a man reviled for his sympathetic and patriotic intellect who had recently been accused of spying for Russia*. While no socialist conspiracies were hatched, Yska points out that this was an era of real life conspiracies - by the powerful against potential opponents. This was when the US Central Intelligence Agency instigated the murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was threatening to bring democracy to Latin America. In the UK Harold Wilson.was being watched, as was Gough Whitlam in Australia. The full story of these events is yet to be told. Was the 1975 sacking of Whitlam by the Governor General an entirely Australian affair? Was Wilson destabilised by British secret police, as has been alleged? Doubt persists as to the role of the various spy agencies - and the history of spying within NZ is even less known. * See Watchdog 113, December 2006, “Speaking Ill Of the Dead: The Vicious Smear Campaign Against Bill Sutch & Jack Lewin”, by Murray Horton, Ed.

Another factor is wryly amusing. The Minister Of Broadcasting in the Kirk Government, in the era of State controlled broadcasting, was a young man by the name of Roger Douglas. Douglas thought that independent news departments in an expanded role would encourage competition and boost circulation. Editors might well have been trying to model themselves on the Watergate journalists, Bernstein and Woodward, who brought down the US President of the time. Richard Nixon had turned out be another (real) conspiracist. Douglas’ reform encouraged a search for sensation. An election was due, and another possibility is that Truth and its mates wanted to get rid of Labour. They had their wish. In 1975 the Muldoon government was elected. A sad footnote: Kirk died in 1974, and Sutch died the next year, before the election. Vindication for both came later (for more on the Muldoon years and their aftermath, see the review above of “Palmer”). Publishing trends were inhospitable and Truth’s circulation kept declining till it put out its last issue in 2009. It has a sort of half-life in a look-alike weekly guide to sex services, tempered with a bit of sport.

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Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. August 2008.


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