Friday, June 20, 2008

WORKING WITH DAVID
Michael Bassett - Hodder Moa - $59.99


I wrote about this new title last week and since then have had the chance to put some questions to the author:

Bookman Beattie:This is one very large book coming in at more than 600 pages. How long has it been in the making?

Michael Bassett: I started collecting material that eventually became relevant to the book in 1972 when I was first elected. I decided that if I had a successful political career then I'd write about it. At that stage I didn't dream that my distant cousin would be my prime minister. Nor did I have any inkling of the magnitude of the crisis we would face. I continued taking notes in caucus and then cabinet from 1984-90 and accumulated an enormous amount of material. After retiring from Parliament in 1990 I started interviewing my former colleagues, several of whom also gave me unfettered access to their personal and political papers. Writing from such a huge resource took a lot of time. In my view the book benefited from not being rushed.

Question: You clearly have a huge collection of caucus and cabinet notes from your days in the Lange Government. Can you tell us something of how you file such substantial quantities of documents and how easy or otherwise it is to access them. Will you be lodging these papers with the Turnbull Library at some stage?

Answer: Yes, I have a huge amount of material. The notes that I took in caucus and cabinet were locked in my bag after the event, then taken home and locked up. In 1992 they were microfilmed and the reels are kept in the Turnbull Library. They will be released shortly, and the originals will eventually be available too. Virtually all of my cabinet and personal papers stored in the Turnbull Library were opened to researchers several years ago.
I still haves boxes at home which will shortly join them, at my wife's
insistence: she wants the storage space.

Question: In chapter 10 you say at one stage (p.251) that "Nothing ever moved quickly on the Ninth Floor". Was that peculiar to that particular government or might that be said about all or most governments?

Answer: Because some issues in any government go to the Ninth Floor there is always some delay. But because of the inefficiencies in Lange's office there were longer delays with written submissions than usual. Fortunately he seldom intervened in his ministers' portfolios, and as a result reference to the Ninth Floor was often done verbally rather than having all the paper work being sent to him - sometimes not to re-surface for months. Bearded in his den, David could give a quick steer when an issue was explained, and he willingly allowed issues to be raised as oral items at the end of the cabinet agenda. That enabled any minister in doubt about how to handle an issue to get a quick response from his/her colleagues. If further discussion was thought worthy then the matter would go to Tuesday's Cabinet Policy Committee for a less formal discussion.

Question: You cover in significant detail the "rupturing" of "the Lange-Douglas partnership, which had been so successful to date". And you lay the blame to quite a large degree on the increasing influence of Margaret Pope. Is this fair?

Answer: I believe it is. During the 1984-7 period David's health held up, although he seemed to have more illnesses than the rest of us. He was able to relate closely to his ministers, and to Douglas in particular, and to represent collective decisions in an effective, sometimes brilliant manner.
Even if he was receiving advice from an un-elected source he was in sufficiently good shape to realise that his ministers' views came first. But even before the election of 1987 Lange was experiencing more and more health problems and by election day (15 August) was sicker than his ministers realised. He became increasingly lonely, and the new found love of his life discovered that her influence was increasing. It was to her that he turned for solace and advice, moving away from his ministers for whom he tells us in his autobiography he developed an intense dislike. However, under our system of cabinet government, they were elected to govern, not her. In relation to Margaret Pope the editor of the Herald asked on 19 December 1989 "Who elected her?" That was a legitimate question. Lange realised that what he was doing was wrong constitutionally, and admits in his autobiography that he should have resigned in January 1988.

By the way, in at least four long published interviews, Margaret Pope has told us all about the strong advice she as his speechwriter was giving the Prime Minister. At the time Lange unilaterally scrapped aspects of the 17 December 1987 package without reference back to cabinet, Pope has told us that she was urging Lange to fire his Ministerr of Finance for insubordination! Amazing stuff! Cabinet ministers from that time have been able to work out that her advice kept running directly contrary to decisions made by the Prime Minister's elected colleagues. In interviews with ministers of the time which will shortly be available for perusal, several told me they thought Ms Pope was the biggest factor in the collapse of the government, although, as I argue, there were other factors too, particularly the Prime Minister's health.

Question: One of the policies that Lange scuttled and that you deal with in some detail was the combination of a flat tax rate with a guaranteed family income. In hindsight do you think this quite revolutionary policy would have worked to the general benefit of the country?

Answer: I'm not sure. It wasn't given a chance. I have cross questioned Roger Douglas carefully about this. He is adamant it would have worked. The wealthy would have had their income taxes reduced, but a raft of other taxes that they, more than others, would have been liable to pay, would have reduced the net gain they made from a lower flat tax. There can be no doubt that the GMFI would initially have been hugely helpful for the working poor.
Interestingly, Michael Cullen's targeted tax arrangements for lower waged people are rather similar to those proposed by Douglas twenty years back. I, and many others, have argued recently that Cullen's tax benefits are quickly eroded when someone chooses to work harder, and that they mean an effective tax rate of 60%+ for any recipient who chooses to earn extra income. That was a danger, too, with Douglas' scheme. The abatement rate from the GMFI was quite high. In the end we didn't get a chance to try out Douglas'
scheme. In fact, Lange's scuttling of the GMFI in January 1988 proved to be very tough on the working poor who didn't get a substantial increase in their take-home pay for several more years to come.

Question: Do you think your book may have any influence, positive or negative, on Labour¹s polling in this year¹s election?

Answer: Neither I nor the publishers wished there to be any plusses or minuses, and the release was sufficiently far away from the election's anticipated date that we thought there was unlikely to be any effect on the election outcome. However, there has been some frenetic effort in the Beehive with poison against me and the book dripped from at least one ministerial office, and much contact with journalists believed to be friendly to Labour. This suggests that some in the Beehive fear that the book could be hurtful to their re-election chances. Frankly, I doubt it. I wanted only, after so many years on the job, to publish what I and many of my former colleagues believe to be a balanced account of developments during those vital years. The modern economy largely rests on the changes we made in the 1980s: the public is entitled to understand how they came about.

Question: Do you miss being in politics?

Answer: No. I made a conscious decision to retire before the 1990 election.
I learned a huge amount from my time in the House, more than I learned from all my other academic studies and teaching. But once one decides to retire, that's it. I still think politically, and I monitor the political process carefully, weighing the likelihood of success from decisions made, and the probabilities of failure from many decisions. But I have no yearning to return to active politics, believe me. I haven't belonged to any political party for fifteen years.

Question: Are you working on another book?

Answer: Yes. Having written biographies of four prime ministers and sketched out the life of a fifth, I am interested in the people who get to lead New Zealand. There are similarities and differences between them. Many have shown amazing skills, while others have blundered around. I am writing a reflective piece on the 23 individuals who have held the office of prime minister since the term was first officially used under Richard John Seddon.
As yet I have no completion date. ______________________________________________________________________

1 comment:

Keri Hulme said...

Simon Cunliffe (ODT, 'Smoko', 11.06.08) had the best
review/response to Bassett's latest work that I've yet come across.
Suffice it to say, I will not add to the 'venomous' Doctor's income by buying a copy of the thing.