New Zealand prime ministers didn't find life in the top job easy

When Jim Bolger became prime minister, officials told him the country was broke.

When Jim Bolger became prime minister, officials told him the country was broke.

OPINION: I have just enough notoriety as a columnist to get free copies of books from time to time. In the past few weeks, I received two.

The first one is Own Your Future, by ACT Party leader David Seymour. It is a kind of political manifesto setting out his vision for the country. It's plainly intended to be an I've Been Thinking for the millennial generation.

The other is an advance copy of The 9th Floor, the book of the recent podcast series of the same name. The series was well received and the book is sure to become a valuable resource in its own right. RNZ's podcast supremo Tim Watkin, who was the producer, wrote the foreword.

Helen Clark doesn't back down from anything she did as prime minister.

Helen Clark doesn't back down from anything she did as prime minister.

It was interesting to read both books at the same time because they present two very different takes on Government.

The 9th Floor: Helen Clark
The 9th Floor: Jenny Shipley
The 9th floor: Jim Bolger
The 9th Floor: Mike Moore
The 9th Floor: Geoffrey Palmer

Own Your Future is infused with Seymour's political philosophy. It sets out in some detail just what he would do to cure what ails New Zealand. If you've ever heard him speak, you will immediately recognise its style. This is very much his own work written in his own voice.

David Seymour's new book should reassure ACT supporters about the party's direction.

David Seymour's new book should reassure ACT supporters about the party's direction.

I don't agree with all the contents of the book. That simply reflects the fact that I don't share David Seymour's world view. The Right is not a monolithic political orientation. The nuances may be lost on the uninitiated, but there are deep fault lines between various schools of thought.

What this book makes clear is that ACT has a distinctly libertarian flavour under Seymour. He would probably prefer the label, "liberal". His detractors, on the other hand, would insist on calling "neo-liberal". But whatever you call it, he sees himself as the inheritor of the work started by Labour in 1984.

That might seem obvious since his party was founded by the reformers of that era. For many on the liberal Right, however, ACT was derailed at some point by the temptations of populism on things like race relations, social issues and lock-away-the-key rhetoric on matters of crime and punishment. So for those concerned about things, Seymour's book should serve as a reassurance that ACT has found its bearings again.

Seymour is just 34 years old and has just completed his first term in Parliament. He has never held ministerial office – though he surely will at some point. But like many younger men with a world view, he has lots of ideas about how to fix our most intractable problems. And, not surprisingly, his prescriptions tend to fit neatly within his small Government philosophy.

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The interviewees for The 9th Floor, on the other hand, are not bright and bushy tailed. On the contrary, they all completed the cursus honorum of New Zealand politics by attaining the prime ministership. For the most part, the interviews dwell on their records, rather than their hopes for the future.

It takes a huge ego to seek or accept appointment to that office. This being so, it can be no surprise that there are few direct mea culpas in The 9th Floor. You need to read through the rationalising and justifying to see where their doubts lie.

Helen Clark sticks out as an exception here. Her unwavering confidence about the calls she made remains quite undented. For most of the others, you can detect a thread of frustration in how they tell their story.

But what all these interviews do confirm is that being prime minister does not make you master of events. It doesn't guarantee you the initiative. For the most part, these prime ministers found their destiny being controlled by things foisted upon them. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, for example, had to contend with a Labour Party tearing itself to pieces.

Mike Moore had to deal with his party's electoral mauling in 1990. Officials told Jim Bolger that the country was broke before he even had the chance to put his feet under the desk. Jenny Shipley had to deal with Winston Peters. For Helen Clark, it was the foreshore and seabed issue.

I'm sure they would all have liked more opportunity to seize the initiative. People don't get into politics dreaming of the chance to muddle through crises. But that's rarely the way things shake out – in politics as much as anything else. "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," as John Lennon said.

As the leader of ACT, it is unlikely that David Seymour will ever become Prime Minister of New Zealand. You might think that's a good or bad thing depending on your own point of view.

But I suppose some twist of fate could see him there one day. If it ever happened, it would be interesting to see how the stresses of governing affected his idealism. I suspect the perspective of Own Your Future would be much modified by a spell on the 9th floor.

 - Stuff


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