Chris Trotter looks back at the political career of Mike Moore, New Zealand's 34th Prime Minister

Chris Trotter looks back at the political career of Mike Moore, New Zealand's 34th Prime Minister
Geoff Dale, New Zealand Herald.

By Chris Trotter*

There's a story about Mike Moore. What am I saying – there are hundreds of stories about Mike Moore! He was the sort of man who generated stories wherever he went. And if enough stories weren’t being generated, then he wasn’t above generating a few new ones on his own account. This story, however, concerns the powerful Australian television series “The Dismissal” – which dramatized the sacking of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government in 1975. Whether or not it’s true, I cannot tell you. But if it isn’t – it ought to be.

Mike Moore was determined to remind his colleagues about the dangers that lay in wait for Labour governments. He wanted them to understand the power of the forces that could, at a moment’s notice, be mobilised against them if the interests of the people who really mattered were threatened. How vital it was to keep business on your side. How much damage the news media could inflict upon a government it didn’t like. Most importantly, he wanted to remind them of the dangers posed to labour governments by stubborn idealists: politicians who refused to be guided by principled pragmatism and common sense. Demonstrating unity of purpose and remaining a team – that was the trick.

So he sat all his caucus colleagues down and made them watch every one of The Dismissal’s six, hour-long, episodes.

Apocryphal or genuine, the story is telling. Not least because, as the 1984 general election loomed ahead of it, the New Zealand Labour Party was riven by division and dissension. Labour’s young president, Jim Anderton, was rallying the party’s left-wingers against the caucus faction which had made David Lange the Leader of the Opposition, and which seemed to be preparing to pull Labour sharply to the right.

One of the most arresting photographs ever published of Mike Moore dates from around this time. It features the notorious “Fish-and-Chip Brigade” – Lange, Moore, Michael Bassett and Roger Douglas – tucking into takeaways in the aftermath of their first (unsuccessful) attempt to topple Lange’s hapless, but much loved, predecessor, Bill Rowling.

Moore’s face is a picture of nervous guilt and tightly-controlled fear. His expression is reminiscent of a child caught with his hand in the biscuit-tin. Moore knows that what he and his co-conspirators are planning will transform the Labour Party – and New Zealand – forever. He’s aware that the policies Lange is being primed to introduce are being field-tested by those industrial-strength left-wing bogeypersons, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. (Which is why neither he nor his companions will openly declare their true intentions until it is too late for anyone to stop them.) Moore doesn’t care. Which is why, behind the guilt and fear, it is possible to also detect defiance.

Moore in the early 1980s was convinced there were no other viable alternatives for keeping Labour in the political game. The policies of the Fish-and-Chip Brigade were the only policies the powers-that-be would accept. If the party attempted to lead the country leftwards, then it would suffer the same fate as Whitlam.

Hence the screening.

Moore may have preached principled pragmatism, but the pragmatism he practiced was utterly ruthless. For pretty much the whole of his political life he was willing to apply the hardness and cynicism acquired in the course of an unsentimental working-class upbringing in the dirt-poor North, to the grim task of dismantling many of the New Zealand working-class’s most important achievements.

He did it for their own good – of course – because the world was changing and what had worked in the 1930s and 40s could no longer be made to work in the 1970s and 80s. Did he understand how important this uncompromising working-class persona was to the success of Roger Douglas’s revolution? How useful it was to have someone who could defend radical free-market capitalism in the absolutely authentic accents of a working-class Kiwi bloke? I suspect he did – especially when so many of the opponents of Rogernomics were university-educated “socialists” from the professional middle-class – with the vocabulary and diction to prove it!

God, how Moore loathed these people! Certainly, his contempt for left-wing intellectuals inspired some of his most memorable quips: “They’re the sort of people who tuck their singlets into their underpants!” And, “You never saw any of these people when it was time to stack the chairs and sweep the Trades Hall floor after a union meeting.” (He liked to tell people that was how he got to know the gruff old trade union boss, Jim Knox.)

But that animosity was also the product of self-loathing. Because the same intellectuals and university common-room socialists he derided never attempted to hide their own cold contempt for this pudgy little panda-bear of a guy, who had left school at the age of 14, and yet was willing to sell his soul for the opportunity to fly business-class and sip expensive whiskey with the Devil’s Armani-suited henchmen in the low-lit lounge bars of the world’s best hotels. To say Mike Moore had a chip on his shoulder was a considerable understatement. More like a bloody tree-trunk!

Even the eight weeks he got to spend as New Zealand’s 34th prime minister (not bad for a former printer and freezing-worker!) must have been tainted by the knowledge that the likes of Geoffrey Palmer and Helen Clark had only encouraged him to take on the job because they needed a “working-class battler” to save the Labour Party from being completely wiped-out in the 1990 general election. It is easy, therefore, to imagine Moore’s fury and feelings of betrayal when, three years later, Helen Clark and her allies, in the days immediately following the election he came within a few hundred votes of winning, unsentimentally slit his political throat.

It makes you wonder what might have happened had Moore followed a different path. If, instead of taking a sobering lesson from Whitlam’s fate, he’d been enraged by it. If, instead of helping Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and Michael Bassett dismantle the achievements of the First, Second and Third Labour Governments, he had joined Jim Anderton in taking up the cudgels against them. There were occasions when you got the distinct impression he was thinking about it – like the party conference where he elicited left-wing cheers by mischievously urging delegates to: “Vote Treasury – and cut out the middle-man!” Or when, far too late, he threw his weight behind an Aussie-style “Compact” with the Council of Trade Unions.

It’s all the things that didn’t happen for Mike Moore that makes him a tragic, rather than heroic, figure. Encapsulated in his career is the perennial dilemma of all intelligent and ambitious workers under Capitalism. Strive too hard and too successfully on behalf of your class, and you will be destroyed. Pursue only those things most likely to bring your personal advancement and influence, and you will be despised.

Always a champion of export-led growth and trade liberalisation, Moore rose to become Director-General of the World Trade Organisation – only to preside over the “Battle in Seattle” and the failed Doha Round. For five years this former Labour Prime Minister was New Zealand’s Ambassador to the United States – but only thanks to the National Party. Had he allowed himself to be knighted, his motto would undoubtedly have been, “World Peace Through Free Trade” – if only that arch-capitalist, John D. Rockefeller, hadn’t already made it his own.


*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com. He writes a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz.

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19 Comments

“left wing intellectuals” my those three words really explain everything, but the last one is the killer. All our politicians and senior bureaucrats it seems are now largely intellectuals and academics. Who can come up from the lower deck these days? Only met Mike Moore once and briefly. Energetic and enthusiastic and in application, charming and considerate and a good listener. Easily able to connect with all the people on the social ladder, from the lowest to the highest rung. We haven’t really had one like that since.

Ethically bankrupt and shortsighted to go with it. Oh I lament where our country could actually be socially and economically had Moore and the rest of those in that photograph had not been allowed anywhere near government. I suspect we'd be far wealthier and have far fewer social problems. Instead we've been turned into a source of wealth extraction, conveniently so thanks to everything that Moore and his neolib short thinkers have done. I hope we see a better class of politician in the years ahead.

Your view of where the pre Lange/Moore/Douglas NZ economy and social landscape may have gone is revisionist tosh. The country was staring into the abyss and the negative social cost of not making urgent and drastic structural changes, potentially catastrophic. It's accepted by most that the Douglas pirate crew made multiple missteps but to propose that we would somehow have morphed into a Cindy style 'kinder, fairer, more prosperous' NZ world if they 'hadn't been allowed anywhere near government' is speculative wishful thinking. The NZ body politic at that time wasn't blessed with talented long thinking alternatives.

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'The country was staring into the abyss and the negative social cost of not making urgent and drastic structural changes, potentially catastrophic.' is way more than a stretch; by vested interests like yourself I suspect. Have a look at the government debt levels at the time, and you'll see what I mean.

Thatcher & Reagan wrecked the social fabric of society, for which we are paying a hugh price in social unrest. There's not many people that say positive things about these people, and the NZ brigade which followed were just as (if not more) economically illiterate; all caught up in their own egos.

We had the opportunity to follow the likes of Norway; all largely destroyed over a period of 6 years being lead by a bunch of clowns. Ironically, the same people who voted these clowns in lost most of their wealth in the sharemarket crash of 1987. You could say they got what they deserved; reflecting the level of economic literacy they had.

My and future generations are now paying the price.

Yup. Nailed it.

Lament away 4thE ... you could well be right but Change is inevitable. Unfortunately we went from one extreme under Muldoon to another under Lange and now another with Ardern. When you implement a change of course then there will be big mistakes.

What extreme is Ardern? This Labour gov't is moderate on every big issue, as far as I can tell; what drastic swerves have we seen away from the policies of the Key gov't?

Houseworks. Agree with your Muldoon/Lange oscillation point but not convinced Ardern can be categorised the same. I hear lots of anodyne state the obvious blathering from her and aspirational sounding rhetoric about years of delivery etc but significant change of course for the country a la Lange... not really. Her former life shrilly ominous che Guevara style fist pumping 'comrading' across the world stage seems to have evolved into more a John Lennon style wishing for a better world.

Dear me, you've well and dived right out the Overton window if you think Ardern is anything other than an extreme centrist.

Agree her publicly expressed politics are centrist - but I suspect only because the kiwi political psyche demands it.

Moore was a product of his time.

The world - unrealised by the majority even yet - was starting to become small enough that unfettered growth-for-all was no longer a possibility. The result was the power-mongers (both business and political) moved to divest the lower-orders.

All Moore's trajectory, including the efforts at global free-marketry (which has resulted in global corporates of no fixed abode, with acquisition rights but no obligations) was part of a temporary window. Whether he realised this, I doubt. You tend to hang on to your life-story, particularly when it's too late to re-write it. It doesn't matter really - what matters is that we are about to endure a period of consequences which we could have avoided, given that all the needed info was available pre-'84

You come closest to summing it up PDK. In my view CT captures the big problem in politics in this statement; "..if the interests of the people who really mattered were threatened. How vital it was to keep business on your side." In other words suck up to the money or else! hence the mess today.

In fact CT shows his true worth in this article, having reported on politics in NZ for so long his insight and analysis today are invaluable (although I thought his analysis of emotions in the photo to be a little OTT). However the description of self interest and who must be appeased (at the expense of everyone else, and even the country) is telling!

Yes, great insights by CT and PDK.

I saw Jim Bolger interviewed on breakfast today, speaking on MM. I thought it typical. MM in his interview for the 9th floor series, claimed the country was about to go under when Labour took on the TSY benches - and 'there was no alternative'. Then this morning Bolger said when he/National took over the TSY benches the country was about to go under and 'there was no alternative'.

These neolibs need to get a new slogan for their eternal excuses.

Almost as bad as 'there is no society' Ms Thatcher said that didn't she!

Mike Moore was the last Labour leader I voted for .... he was a regular guy , a worker ... a big hearted patriotic kiwi ... a man skilled at diplomacy , and trade deals .. he reminded me of Norman Kirk , a big cuddly bear ....

.. and , we can only wonder how our country would've been had he gotten a fair crack at being PM , not just 59 days .Sometimes things just aren't fair , but that's the way it is ...

Good stuff Chris. I think you should get a book out. I'm sure it would be an interesting read - especially noting the changes in the views of the writer himself over the years. Certainly a little more philosophical these days. I liked Mike. He always seemed a practical type of person who eventually grew up in the end, like most of us have to do.
But not all of us sadly. The urban intellegentsia teaching our young minds what to think is a real problem. They would do well to focus on teaching them how to think, as that's the only way to reverse the current decline we seem to see everywhere today. Everyone is out for themselves. Our relationships are falling & failing left, right & centre, and nobody trusts anybody any more. Too much wealth? Perhaps. Too much capitalism? Perhaps. Not enough personal responsibility? Absolutely everywhere.

If they were taught how to think, there would be mayhem.

They would understand that their resource-chances had been taken from them by a prior generation.

Luckily, the religion of growth-forever is still being placatorily taught.

"yet was willing to sell his soul for the opportunity to fly business-class and sip expensive whiskey"
There we have it, poorly educated though intelligent Mike Moore was taken in by the 'baubles of office'. His allegiance to Lange and co was no doubt influenced by the very persuasive yet fragile David Lange.

Election 84 was not a choice between the 4th Labour government and whatever political notions take Chris Trotter's fancy. Always rubbish about social harmony and valued institutions (and Norway?) is trotted out about this election. Chris Trotter and his ilk are keen to suggest that the 4th Labour government was a mistake. But they screw the framing to imply if someone left wing had been in charge of the Labour Party it would have won against Muldoon.

The election was between Lange and Muldoon. Chris Trotter can point out all the flaws he likes in the policies of Lange/Prebble, as he has been for 30+ years so far. But unless he is willing to offer fulsome praise of Muldoon/Birch, he is not talking about reality.