Book Review: The 9th Floor, edited by Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_9th_floorThis 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
ISBN 9781988533223     

Book Review: Helen Clark: Inside Stories, by Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_helen_clark_inside_storiesHelen Clark needs little introduction, but for those reading this blog from the far side of Mars, let’s recall that she was NZ’s first elected female Prime Minister, before that a politician, a political activist and is now a high-ranking United Nations official.

There are many events in her career which are still matters of controversy. And just how was she so effective? What’s the ‘inside story’? This book seeks to answer many of the questions about Helen Clark, and the events that she was part of, in the words of those who know her, and were part of it all. This is a worthy aim: much of that period is still quite murky. What really happened in the 1984 Labour government to send it lurching off in an unexpected economic direction? What about ‘paintergate’? How was the foreshore and sea-bed furore managed?

The book has its origins in Pond Eyley and Salmon’s documentary Helen, which has been on TV a couple of times, and screened at documentary film festivals. Claudia Pond Eyley is a visual artist and film maker, and Dan Salmon is a documentary director and producer. While putting Helen together during 2012-13, they interviewed many of those who know Helen Clark best. This book is formed from transcripts of these interviews, with short linking passages introducing each chapter.

The range of participants is astonishing: from Clark’s parents and sisters to political colleagues and foes. They include friends, her husband, teachers, mentors, staff, journalists, lobbyists and commentators. I was very impressed by the range of participants – it must have taken a tremendous amount of work to get all these people to cooperate.

The coverage is obvious: Helen Clark’s life, from birth in the Waikato to the UN in New York. The organisation is, for the most part, simply chronological. Chapter titles tell the story: Chapter 1: Country girl to left-wing liberal; Chapter 2: Getting extremely involved in politics; Chapter 3: Meeting Peter; Chapter 4: MP for Mount Albert, and so on to Chapter 18: New York City.

Helen Clark is renowned as not only a skilled politician, but a very private person. The greatest contribution of the book is to get inside these protective barriers and reveal something at least of her ways of thinking and working, her relationships with people, and her motivations. Naturally some contributors verge on hagiography, and some have political axes to grind, but neither tendency is so powerful as to detract from the interest in what they have to say.

The book lives up to its sub-title – there are inside stories here. But this genre of recorded oral history has some limitations. There was a nagging doubt at the back of my mind about how much editing the interviews had been through. These are not verbatim transcripts, and there isn’t any indication of how much has been omitted. There’s some repetition of course: the 1984 Labour government rejection of its assumed economic policy features in several stories, but the stories don’t form a coherent picture and the reader is left perhaps with more data, more insight into Clark’s role, but not a lot more insight about the big picture.

This book is interesting, in places amusing and often enlightening. By design it doesn’t attempt to interpret, analyse or synthesise. We still don’t have the sort of analytical, independent biography that Helen Clark, and the events she has been part of, deserve. This book may be part of that later volume’s source material.

Helen Clark: Inside Stories
by Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408381