Wellingtonian Interview: Jon Johansson

Last updated 11:09 30/11/2012
Jon Johansson
Jon Johansson: "We're now really in our 28th year of Rogernomics."

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Political scientist Jon Johansson talks about New Zealand's best prime ministers, the Shearer- Cunliffe debate and living on the south coast.

Did you come from a family of political junkies?

Not quite, but there was a lot of political awareness in our family. My father, who was a Danish immigrant, ticked red his entire life, even during the Douglas days in the 1980s. His attitude was: "Son, you have to take the good with the bad." Mum was one of Rob's Mob. She was a foot soldier in Bert Walker's Papanui campaign when Mike Moore beat him in 1978.

And you? Were you always going to be involved in politics in some way?

Not really. I was aware of politics, but when I left school, I worked as a THC trainee manager at Mt Ruapehu and Milford Sound. Then I worked for the Department of Social Welfare and ACC. I worked with two guys who were high up and ended up in the dock. That cured me of the public sector. It wasn't until I was 30 that I started studying at university.

Do we view politicians differently these days?

Yes. They've been stripped of their mystique. We've found out they are just like us. The media attitude towards politicians is a lot more inquiring now, and there's a lot more media.

I notice you kept a close eye on the American election. They're strange about religion over there, aren't they?

They are. They could elect a candidate who is black, or who is a female, or who is a Mormon. But the voters would be far more suspicious of a candidate who was an atheist. That's very different to New Zealand.

Are you close to any particular party?

No. I've never had an affinity to any of the clubs. I regard myself as a centrist. In the United States system I'd be a Democrat, but then so would most of the MPs in the National Party.

Just going back a few decades, how do you regard Muldoon now?

He showed you can't give someone so much power. He was Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. There's not enough checks and balances when that happens.

What about the Lange Government that succeeded him?

There had to be change, but I abhorred the cynicism. They knew what they were going to do, but didn't trust the New Zealand voters enough to be honest with them. They could have tried to educate us, and didn't bother.

You and Stephen Levine have rated our greatest prime ministers. Who fares best?

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We've built on an earlier list that Simon Sheppard did. The criteria are lateral leadership ability, parliamentary skills, party leadership, ability in a crisis and legislative achievement. Seddon is top, followed by Fraser, Savage, Clark and Bolger, who has just nudged ahead of Holyoake.

Helen Clark at No 4?

Yes, at the moment. I think she'll drop in time. In the end you would question whether she used her nine years as Prime Minister well enough. She made some relatively minor social reforms around civil unions and prostitution law reform, but left basically intact the stuff that Roger Douglas and then Ruth Richardson pushed through in the 1980s and 1990s. We're now really in our 28th year of Rogernomics.

Any others you think might be too low?

Well, Holyoake is underappreciated, I feel. And certainly Julius Vogel from the 1870s doesn't get his due.

What about John Key?

Probably somewhere in the middle. People go on about his popularity, but he's had four years as Prime Minister and is no more or less popular than Helen Clark was at that stage of her Prime Ministership.

You and Stephen Levin have a book coming out.

Yes, it's called Kicking the Tyres, about the last election and referendum. We look at the impact of the social media, and a range of party strategists and academics have their say, too.

What about the latest Shearer-Cunliffe battle. Who would you support?

Shearer, though they could have framed him better as the person who could bring the party together. If Cunliffe was the answer I didn't know the question. Labour would lose two votes for every one they'd capture if Cunliffe took over.

Where do you stand on MMP?

I'm very pleased with it because it helps parliament better reflect the demographics of our population. MMP will keep us as a more inclusive society. I'm not too worried about whether the threshold is 4 per cent or 5 per cent, but I would definitely get rid of the rule that allows an MP winning a seat to bring more MPs into parliament.

What are your interests outside politics?

I used to play senior softball and rugby. Since those days, travel and reading figure highly. I love to get in a car and drive, and I really love travelling around the US. I read a lot, but only non- fiction.

Is Wellington home now?

Oh, yes. Wellington's just great. I live down by the south coast. I'm a pakeha, but feel an attachment to the land, like most Kiwis. I love looking out my window and having the sea there - the sight, the sound, the smell. Wellington is a multicultural and incredibly lively city. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

- The Wellingtonian


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