Geoffrey Palmer talks to RNZ about overturning the 'elected dictatorship' of Robert Muldoon, Rogernomics and finding being PM a 'nuisance'

Geoffrey Palmer talks to RNZ about overturning the 'elected dictatorship' of Robert Muldoon, Rogernomics and finding being PM a 'nuisance'

This is part one of The 9th Floor, an RNZ series in which Guyon Espiner talks to five former New Zealand Prime Ministers, starting with Geoffrey Palmer.

By Guyon Espiner*

Imagine a country where the Prime Minister set the price of basic goods. Where the Cabinet, without having to even put it to a vote in Parliament, decided the wages you get and the taxes and interest rates you pay.

That was the country Geoffrey Palmer was determined to change when he entered Parliament in 1979. It was an economy, he told Tim Watkin and I for the RNZ series The 9th Floor, that no young New Zealander would recognise.

The young New Zealander who helped us transcribe the Palmer interview - we spent much of the day with each Prime Minister and captured many hours of video and audio - proved his point perfectly, if unwittingly.

“We even had a thing called Carl’s Days at one point,” she wrote, typing it up as she heard it. Palmer actually said Carless Days. But fair enough. Who today could imagine a country where the government regulated which days you could drive a car, or at least forced you to decide which days you would leave it at home?

Palmer, a constitutional lawyer, describes Prime Minister Robert Muldoon as running an elected dictatorship between 1975 and 1984. It’s a big claim. Sometimes it’s the small stories that illustrate the point. Palmer recalls that when he became deputy Labour leader to David Lange in 1983 they ordered a couch for their offices but the request was denied - not by some bureaucrat but by Muldoon himself. The Prime Minister would decide the level of comfort to which his opponents could become accustomed.

Palmer would change all that. He established the Parliamentary Services Commission, an independent body to provide services to MPs. He introduced regular sitting hours to Parliament. Who cares? Well, the Official Information Act 1982 - supposed to give greater transparency to government actions - was passed just before 4.30am. A lot of legislation -from the important to the self-serving - was passed in the dead of night, when some MPs were asleep, drunk or insanely tired. That is if Parliament sat at all. When Palmer first arrived Parliament would sit for four or five months a year. The rest of the time, well, the Prime Minister ran the country.

Ultimately of course Palmer would get his chance to run the country too. He was Prime Minister for 13 months sandwiched between David Lange and Mike Moore, who a desperate Labour Party turned to just two months before the 1990 election in a bid to save the furniture.

Doing a series like this and spending hours with the former Prime Ministers you get the chance to ask the simple - even the stupid - questions as well as getting down into the detail. So what was it like to run the country? What is it like to be Prime Minister? “I found being the leader a nuisance,” Palmer told us. You found being the Prime Minister of New Zealand a nuisance? “I did.”

He outlines his full reasons for this in the interview but essentially he saw being Prime Minister as a superficial job, part of a celebrity culture which pandered to the media (which he is also scathing of).

If that was his view of political leadership circa 1990 what does he think about it now in the age of Twitter, daily opinion polling, fake news and Donald Trump? You certainly don’t die wondering with Palmer. We talk about his concerns for our democracy today and his role in Rogernomics in the past. Did he think the privatisations and deregulation were radical, neo-liberal ideas or just conventional economics? Did Labour MPs even know what Roger Douglas was going to unleash? Part of the joy of this series is that we could put those same questions to all the key players, so over five weeks you’ll be able to get a sense of where these key figures agree on what they did and why and where history is still very much disputed.

Palmer also had a much more critical role in making New Zealand nuclear free than is commonly acknowledged. It was him - not David Lange - who turned back the US warship, the USS Buchanan, at the critical moment; Lange wasn’t even in the country.

How leaders make those kinds of calls, how the decision process works and how power is wielded: that was at the heart of our mission when we researched and interviewed the five Prime Ministers for this series.

Palmer is an essential voice on what it means to exercise power - precisely because he never wanted it and remains highly sceptical of those who do.


*This is part one of RNZ's The 9th Floor series and first appeared here. It is used with permission.

Interest.co.nz has run this series in reverse order. The interview with Mike Moore is here.
The interview with Jim Bolger is here.
The Interview with Jenny Shipley is here.
And the interview with Helen Clark is here.

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An academic alright but a pretty honest, pragmatic and forthright one at that. It's interesting that he confirms that David Lange was not initially anti nuclear. In fact he did not personally support the ban but it just goes to show how emphatically he then changed his position and then brilliantly advocated against nuclear full stop. It was simply his job to do that because it was what the electorate demanded and he sallied forth accordingly. Cannot think of one PM, after this Labour government that is, who had the bottle and integrity to act as such.Appreciate that while this column is about Dr Palmer & all the other PM interviews, but it is obviously not correct that "all the key players" are being interviewed here. The sad absence of David Lange deprives the series, as interesting and well intended as it may be, of the one real big personality, enigma and statesman, of those times.

Yes, a bit like Kennedy in the US - it will be a long time coming before NZ sees another phenomenon like David Lange. And the brilliant thing about NZ is that he didn't need to be a dashing, good looking sort of statesman - just a brilliant mind and a personality you could trust and relate to. Palmer is much the same only his brilliance more subtle and his dedication and work ethic perhaps even more pronounced than Lange.

Very interesting that he sees his greatest failure in politics as his inability to save Lange and Douglas from their own egos. Shame that, as I suspect had that second term Labour caucus not fallen apart - they might have worked out an economic formula that held true to their constituency and managed the socially progressive re-build necessary after the 1984 and 1987 shocks.

I accept Palmer's point about privatisation of the nations assets as a potential misstep - but that isn't what I think had the most impact with respect to growing inequality in both income and opportunity - I think the Employment Contracts Act did that. And once NZers wages stagnated and went backwards - the only answers were to privatise more and to set the regulatory environment for wholesale foreign ownership, not just of public assets but private ones as well.

All too true. I recall standing in line in the duty free at Madrid airport about 1987 in the company of a little squadron of Lufthansa hostesses who on discovering I was a NZ'r congratulated me quite "germanically" on having David Lange as the leader of our country. People nowadays are inclined to say Mr Key put us on the world stage,well in my opinion of course, compared to that, Mr Key is still in short pants! There it is.

the Employment Contracts Act was a sledgehammer to open a walnut solution to the union award system.
and since it has been in we have never found the medium between making sure all workers are compensated fairly for there labour, I would argue it is one of the contributing factors towards greater inequality as those at the bottom have very little negotiating power to get a fair share of the company pay packet.
as you rise through the ranks it becomes much easier to negotiate remuneration and conditions, but we can not all do that.
and so now we have WFF, accommodation supplements, to compensate for the low wages

Nice Job Guyon. Really enjoyed that!

Palmer. - delivered great twaddle with impressive self regarding delivery. And stuck us with hugely problematic destructive proccesses. ie. RMA ie. Tribunal.