Hard News by Russell Brown


Mike Moore: A pretty ordinary rooster

RNZ's video and audio podcast series The 9th Floor, a series of in-depth interviews with five former Prime Ministers, is a good idea well executed. Guyon Espiner's interviewing skills transfer well from the immediacy of morning radio to the longer format. It's deeply researched and it certainly hasn't been rushed: the interviews were being done last year while I was making From Zero.

The first of them, with Geoffrey Palmer, was interesting, but the second, with Mike Moore – Prime Minister for 59 days in 1990 – really struck a chord with me.

I could see a connection between the older man Guyon talked to – he describes the experience here in a Spinoff piece – and the one I spent some time talking to in 1991.

Moore was the first politician I ever interviewed: up until that point in my life, I hadn't been that kind of journalist. The story ran in issue five of Planet magazine, the first one I edited after arriving back from London in 1991, and the audio was the basis of the first Hard News slot on 95bFM (I changed the format to straight-up commentary in week two).

I interviewed a couple of other MPs for Planet. One was Helen Clark, who was open, articulate and discursive (she'd become Leader of the Opposition, but hadn't yet put up the shutters). She was also kind, and readily invited me round to her place in Mt Eden for a do-over after my first recording failed. The other was Philip Taito Field, who I really wanted to like but found arrogant and surprisingly cold.

Moore wasn't like either of them. My intro to the Planet story captures the memory:

Planet's profile on the Karangahape Road Retailer Opinion Index has never been higher. You'd think the Prime Minister had popped in for a cup of tea. But Bolger has, wisely, been staying off the streets lately – and he'd never have impressed the neighbours half as much as Mike Moore. Even as leader, Moore was the great survivior of Labour's election debacle. The public vengeance visited on his party has been stayed in his case. Joe Bloggs knows he's clever – and going by the polls, thinks he should be Prime Minister.

The big surprise about the face is the discovery that that those dark, sunken circles are largely a fiction of the camera. Instead, you fix on a remarkably intense pair of blue eyes. They're there, those eyes, they're not darting away to hide, and when he hits peak flow, he really does strike a leader's profile. When he relaxes or swears, he's like some sort of hi-octane ordinary bloke.

He's in Auckland to do a radio talkback ("soft – very kind for a change"), deliver a speech to the Manufacturers' Federation – and speak to Planet. Like any good politician, he's done his homework and launches virtually unprompted into a sincere but slightly self-conscious statement about pop music, art and youth. He covers nuclear-free, the kids of today ("admirable"), music quotas, the environment, gender equity, and 'Aims and Values' without a question being asked.

The interview ran as a double-page spread with a superb series of photographs by a young Darryl Ward.

It records his remarkable popularity in the wake of Labour's election calamity, but also notes the tendency to ramble that manifested in his weird "long, dark night" speech on election night 1993 (itself an odd omission from the RNZ interview). He was both compelling and wayward on this visit.

I've excerpted some of the interview here.


On his previous statements about Treasury being full of zealous young ideologues.

Well, the person with the paper wins. We are responsible. I can't blame officials, but there is an ideological fashion that came out of Chicago and other places in the 80s. You just do not find economists or economic writers who challenge this basic theory. From the 40s through to the 60s and 70s, Keynesian economics was generally accepted, but it was perceived to have failed during the 70s.

I think it will change. I've just been to the States to pick up some of the new books. I regard myself as part of the lucky generation. We missed the war and and the Depression, you could leave school at 15 and get a couple of jobs before you were 16 – there was always a job somewhere. We had it really good, our parents had it ratshit and young people have it ratshit now. We were greedy and and consumed more of the world's resources between the ages of of 20 and 30 than all the other generations put together.

The 60s and early 70s was a time when we said anything is possible, we've arrived on the moon, we can cure cancer. We had charistmatic leaders: Kennedy, Kirk here, Willy Brandt, even Wilson in his first term. It was a time of progress. But I think the press was that the State can't provide everything, resources are narrowing, the planet can't survive, government can't do everything.

We over-reacted and went into the 80s where the market could do everything – which it bloody well can't. I think we'll move to a democratic centre-left in the last half of the 90s. For social democratic and labour parties, it has to be as much free market as possible and as much social responsibility as is necessary to provide secrity and safety at home.

On the difference between Labour's "negotiated economy" and old-fashioned Keynesianism.

Well, Keynesianism is still valid. Not totally valid, we have a global market, but if it does work, it works for people on modest incomes. If you give them a break, put more money in their pockets, they're going to buy local, they're going to buy couches, not piss off and buy overseas wine or take foreign trips. That's why the Budget took out two months' retail spending this year.

Globally, you're talking about the post-Reaganomics era of economies trying to pump up together. The G7 and the economic ministers are getting together and trying to get some co-ordination and it's working. The great crash we had in '87 did not throw the world into depression. It should have, but we had the Federal Reserve in America, we had GATT, all these new instruments we've invented since the Depression. The Americans pumped out money and saved the world from depression.

On being in thrall to the markets.

There is a tyranny of the market and the market is nervous and listens to rumours. The idea that [Ruth] Richardson gives a speech in London and interest rates drop ... it's partly true, but they'll grow up and realise as other money markets do that politicians don't actualy matter as much as you think – fortunately.

You've got to keep your eye on the market, but there's also a social market. There'll be a change. I was talking to telecom people and who are seeking investment in New Zealand. They had listed reasons why people should invest in New Zealand and top of the list was Accident Compensation.

We've never had that debate in in New Zealand in the last 50 years – public health, public education, ACC and that kind of thing – a lot of the business community has forgotten why we set those things up in the first place. The US spends twice as much of its GDP on health as we do and it's not as efficient. In Massachusetts they have more health employees not directly associated with health care than in the whole of Canada, where there's a socialised health system, because you have to sell it. All the contestability stuff is expensive.

Over the next few years we'll try and show that our ACC is cheap. South Australia pays more and doesn't get the coverage. Bcause we are the status quo, the arguments have't been put up. And also there have been rip-offs – some ratbag in prison who blows their hand off, they shouldn't get ACC, that's rubbish. But it is a very cheap system and we should guard it jealously.

In the US, the papers are now starting to say this. If you're building a car in Detroit, the cost of private health is a bigger input cost than the steel. But our bsuiness people haven't really thought this through – yet. They keep thinking, oh yeah, let people buy, user pays, cut tax – but let's not say it's cheaper. I think there's an intellectual lag and we're guilty in the labour movement of not asserting these things strongly enough. But there are battles we didn't think we had to fight. I may have been guilty in the last campaign of not fighting enough on these issues – but nobody would have believed me anyway.

On whether things might have been different if it had been Mike Moore who took over from Lange and not Geoffrey Palmer.

I didn't actually want to take over when I did, when people came to me. But I did because I could see us going through a British labour Party syndrome if there wasn't strong leadership and strong direction. One of the reasons we're doing well as opposed to them is that our Tony Benn has left us. People will think that's a smartarse flick at Anderton ... which I suppose it is.

I would have gone into the growth agreement and negotiated strategy earlier, rebuilt my concept of a social wage. In a way, you do need to lose, you do need to be elected with a mandate from the people. Whenever people introduce me as 'the next Prime Minister' I feel slightly bloody embarrassed, because it's not true. You don't lead the country unless you have a mandate from the people. I had no mandate.

On being seen as a decent bloke.

Yeah, I think people see me as a pretty ordinary rooster. I'm ordinary, I've got an ordinary background and my basic instinct is to be on their side. We share the same values, but I've yet to convince them that our direction will be better, different and credible. That has to be done, but you can't do it in in the year of an election. Respect and trust is something you've got to earn, you don't just get it for being there.

On honouring Labour's alliance with Ratana.

... Michael Joseph Savage goes up and negotiates with old man Ratana about the four corners of the Ratana movement. In one corner there's a feather for peace ... it's interesting, Te Whiti and his mates used a  feather for peace before any of it, right? I sent Richard Attenborough Dick Scott's book about it, telling him he did the wrong bloody movie! The whole lot was done here first. So there's the feather for peace, the potato for agriculture, the watch, technology ... it's a very sacred compact with Māoridom and I think we're going to have to start talking again about our compact.

On whether New Zealand is suffering a spiritual malaise.

I think New Zealanders have been told they're useless and they're not. Richardson had her press people saying that we're all a pack of idiots – you go around saying that they're hopeless and they will actualy become hopeless.

There's a whole lot of areas where you've got to reassert a New Zealand way without cheap nationalism. It doesn't mean you've got to put the flag up in every household – after all, one of the earliest, most symbolic acts in our history was someone cutting the flagpole down.

Two things haunt me. First, that Uruguay, Argentina and Chile had a higher living standard than New Zeakand in the 1920s – there is no God-given right. The other thing, and it sounds pretentious, is that about a year ago I was talking about the Kirk government and I realised that we have not had in this country a leader that the kids can look up to for a hell of a long time. Maybe you've got to die – that dream of dying in office at the right time, it's a great career move.

But it's a matter of them feeling that somebody's on their side, that you share their values. It's not poll-driven, they've just got to know that you cry at the right moments in the movie. You don't laugh hysterically when Bambi dies. That's a sort of spiritual thing. Have a look at the prophecies ... the prophecies will come true. The labour movement, we'll go back to Ratana and do it ....


And there, right there, ended the interview. I concluded the story thus:

Sensing the beginning of a long story, Moore's press officer, who has been gazing at a metaphorical wristwatch for the last 20 minutes, jumps in on the pause and they're off down the stairs within minutes. The man who should be King departs with the same words with which he entere:

"We've got to spend more time time in Auckland ... Christchurch is all very well, but hell, I don't even understand grafitti!"

I thought afterwards, and still do now, that Moore's press secretary was wary of the boss pitching into another round of enthusing about Ratana and fulfilling "the prophecies". But that's how he was that day: friendly, forthcoming, fizzy – and just a little wayward.

Quotes excerpted from 'A pretty ordinary rooster', by Russell Brown, issue 5 of Planet magazine, 1991.

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