This was quite a difficult book to review, with the election campaign all over bar the shouting. I almost feel like we need to know who the next Prime Minister is, to put it all in context. It is also quite difficult to assess the book as a book, because the ‘conversations’ with the former PMs are also running on Face TV at the moment, after playing on RNZ.
So do we really need to read the book, given that the conversations are still available on-line at RNZ’s website, and playing on a TV channel? The short answer is no. While the introduction to the book adds some context, the reader does not get the same amount of information about the interviewee as the visuals provide. And some of us may feel that we have already heard enough from the former PMs anyway.
Another issue is that the conversations are effectively verbatim, with some tidying up of the transcripts, and are mostly opinion. In other words, there is no attempt to clarify any points involving detail, or expanding them with the help of statistics. Then there are the interviewing and personal idiosyncrasies: Guyon Espiner knows most of the subjects from being a press gallery member for TVNZ, which meant reporting in soundbites rather than lengthy interviews, and his approach to radio is similar.
But the main problem is with the former PMs themselves. Only two out of the five were elected as Prime Minister. Both Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore were effectively caretakers, and Moore’s tenure was so brief he rarely made it into the office. Palmer is quoted as saying the whole thing was a nuisance for him, and Moore’s opinions remain scattered and often risible. By contrast, Jenny Shipley was the first female Prime Minister, but it is difficult to find the substance in what she says, and the rhetoric is often completely adrift from the substance of what actually happened. The central part of the conversation remains what she did to welfare policy before becoming the Prime Minister, in a rather unseemly move to unseat Jim Bolger.
The Bolger conversation is the most interesting, even to those who don’t wish to recall his tenure in office. It is obviously the most significant to Espiner, who has used one particular comment in his campaign interviews with the current leaders of the National and Labour Parties. Bolger is probably the only political leader, and perhaps the only right wing politician, to confess to having adhered to the neo-liberal doctrine. This seems interesting but does not accord with the facts, particularly since the term was not invented when he was elected. He actually won a massive majority under the previous electoral system, and therefore got to implement his party’s agenda without any impediment. This was not simply a case of following a theoretical doctrine.
Some of what Bolger talks about is significant, even while unconvincing. The key part, perhaps, is the question of the fiscal hole creating by the BNZ losses up to 1990. The issue seems important, as the journalists state that they also interviewed the previous finance minister, David Caygill, about the BNZ debacle. But none of this information is presented in the book, and nor is it related to the Winebox saga, which was the biggest story of the 1990s. So, while Bolger comes across as sincere and something of a maverick as a conservative politician, not much new is being added. This also applies to the conversation with Helen Clark, which is disappointing in not providing much insight, perhaps because she is still active in public life. All in all, this book highlights an era of unstable government, and rather mediocre political leaders.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
The 9th Floor: Conversations with five New Zealand Prime Ministers
Edited by Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin
Published by BWB Books