Book Review: New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key, by Michael Bassett

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

Michael Bassett is a former university lecturer in history, who was first elected for the Labour Party in 1972, and became a cabinet minister in the 4th Labour Government in 1984. He should have some unique insights into the careers of the Prime Ministers in New Zealand, both as an historian and as an insider. But during his career, Bassett has moved from the left of the Labour Party to become the main defender of the faith for “Rogernomics” – so, associated with the ACT Party.

The book begins as mostly elite political biography, moves into some sharp personal polemics during Bassett’s era as a politician, and ends up cheer-leading for John Key. As an elitist historian, Bassett’s text for the early Prime Ministers is based on some classic historical works, without accounting for recent scholarship from university history departments. And as an elitist, Bassett continually name checks retired right wing economists like Gary Hawke, and Don Brash, who regularly appear for their anecdotal accounts of politicians. Bassett himself often slips into the first person, and goes from the past to the present tense.

One of the idiosyncratic aspects of this book is the amount of text given over to caretaker Prime Ministers, like Harry Bell, who gets almost as many pages as days he spent in office. Bassett’s use of initials for Bell can also confuse him with his politician father, F.D. Bell. The reason for this focus on Bell is his influence on the likes of Coates and other key figures in the interwar period, which is Bassett’s main area of knowledge as an historian. But the post-war period has an underlying narrative based on economic transformation, and its apparent link to academic theorising. He digresses to talk about Don Brash’s view on the role of Canterbury University (p.335) in the chapter on Bill Rowling, who was apparently gripped by Keynes’ thinking.

For Bassett, after Kirk, the Labour leaders do not shape up. Most of the invective is reserved for R.D. Muldoon. This is where Bassett gets particularly petty, including referring to Muldoon as “Old Pussy”, based on a schooldays anecdote. He repeats this term a number of times in the Muldoon chapter, as well as other unattributed anecdotes, like when the Treasury secretary, Henry Lang, waited outside the minister’s office all day to get his point across. This is portrayed as an example of the Treasury officials’ views being overridden, but Bassett misrepresents their relationship with the finance minister.

Bassett’s book includes a lot of black & white images, some from library sources, and others from his own collection or offered by recent Prime Ministers. The caption on the photo for the first page of Jenny Shipley’s chapter states that it was contemporary, when it’s obviously taken recently. Indeed, with no photographs in colour, other than the cover photo of John Key playing golf, it is hard to justify the $50 retail price tag. But then this book is only really for the political conservatives in the current debate.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key
by Michael Bassett
David Ling Publishing 2017

NB: The views in this review do not necessarily represent those of Booksellers NZ as an organisation. All of our reviewers are independent commentators.

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