The Travails of Big Jim

Anderton: His Life and Times, by David Grant. (Te Herenga Waka Press)

Published in READINGROOM Book of the Week: Oh, Jim. On Jim Anderton, the best PM we never had (October 27 2022).

Despite the country being dominated by dreary politicians, two of the most charismatic of the last fifty years did not quite make it. David Grant describes the trajectory of Jim Anderton (1938-2018) who, despite the promise he showed in the 1970s, only became deputy prime minister and that for just three years from 1999 to 2002.

Winston Peters, from a rival political background but also who one left his home party, became DPM for almost five years. Throughout Grant’s book is the question why such talented politicians do not do better. (Peter Dunn is another who left his party and tried to start his own – repeatedly. He is likely to be remembered only for holding his seat for 33 years. Anderton did 24 years; Peters 36 years and he’s still counting. Tariana Turia also left Labour to form the Māori Party; her other memorable achievement was to found Whanau Ora. She spent 18 years in Parliament.)

Anderton, like Peters, grew up in deprived family circumstances (they also both went to teachers’ college and loved rugby). He proved to be a talented organiser, not only as an outstanding president of the Labour Party (1979-1984) but earlier in the Catholic Youth Movement, having converted to Catholicism in his mid-teens. It was there he honed his fierce commitment to social justice. (He did not adopt all Catholic tenets being pro-abortion and pro-divorce.)

Grant writes of him

“While being enmeshed in leftish ideology, and emotional with it since he was a very young man, he was also level-headed and pragmatic. He was never a cloth-cap socialist, as his right wing detractors, but a businessman with a social conscience. [I interpolate here, his father who adopted him was a storeman.] His early political inspiration came from Vatican II and Pope John XXIII’s belief in social justice, rather than from ideological collectivism. Politically, the most accurate description of him was as a social democrat.”

Anderton’s organising ability was a major contribution to Labour’s huge electoral success in 1984, and he also got himself elected to the red-ribbon Sydenham (later Wigram) seat in Christchurch. But he did not appreciate that whatever one’s record outside Parliament, a newbie is at the bottom of the pecking order in an institution notorious for its strange rituals, hierarchies and culture (something Gaurav Sharma has yet to learn). His lowly status was nicely symbolised by his office being located far from the Beehive and from the debating chamber in a wing called ‘Siberia’.

Anderton was faced with two challenges. First, while every MP may have a prime minister’s baton in his backpack, Jim’s baton rather stuck out. Second, already as party president he had clashed over economic policy with the ‘Rogernomes’ with their neoliberal policies, so very different from those of Labour traditions.

The clique of Rogernomes – David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer, Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and David Caygill – commanded the heights of the new government. What were the rest of the caucus to do?

Some acquiesced. Anderton was greatly depressed that so many of those who, as party president, he had selected in 1981 and 1984, so easily surrendered. Some bided their time, perhaps working on non-economic policy areas where the Fourth Labour Government retains a creditable record. Most notable among the group were Helen Clark and Michael Cullen. Anderton chose to continue the public confrontation of his presidential years; trying to run Moscow from Siberia.

Could such an approach succeed? At this point a key character defect became evident. Anderton’s leadership style was to be out front, expecting the troops to follow. He made no attempt to build a coalition in caucus, merely assuming that because he was right, others would accept his leadership.

Because there was no security on a back door of Parliament Buildings, I saw a lot of Jim at this time, trying to explain to him that the traditional Labour economics which the party supported no longer worked; that Labour needed a modernising social democratic economics (a decade later Cullen would deliver one). A major weakness of the anti-Rogernomics coalition was that while they were excellent critics of Rogernomics, they had no modernising alternative.

I was also seeing a group of nine Labour MPs most of whom had been first elected in 1987, and who had been selected for their anti-Rogernomic ideals. Like Anderton in 1984 (and Sharma in 2022), they were struggling to come to terms with Parliament’s alien culture, particularly how to use it to oppose Rogernomics and its privatisation policies.

The obvious synergy was for Anderton and the nine to work together and absorb other dissidents. The group was reluctant to be led by Anderton; I recall raising this with Sonja Davies and her reply ‘Oh, Jim …’, as if that said enough. Anderton’s strategy could have been to offer to assist them without imposing upon them, but at the time he was as incapable of building a coalition as was Lange (who, by now deeply concerned about the direction of Rogernomics, had ignored the group’s offers to help).

Anderton became so isolated that he left the Labour caucus and formed NewLabour. Allow me the fantasy that had he stayed and built a coalition in caucus, Labour might have won the 1993 election with Anderton at number three or four in cabinet.

Instead, Anderton says that he never left Labour, the party left him. Other dissenters from Rogernomics joined him, including David Grant. Many were as strong-minded as he was, all saw themselves as more loyal to Labour’s traditions than the Rogernomes, even if there was little consensus as to what those traditions were. But Anderton’s NewLabour won only 5 percent of the vote in the 1990 general election and his Sydenham seat; he was a very conscientious local MP – in his younger days he had been a social worker.

Anderton had to broaden the coalition; this led to the formation of the Alliance Party which included the Democratic (Social Credit) Party, the Greens, the Liberal Party and Mana Motuhake. (Brian Tamaki take notice; alliance creation is damned difficult.) It won 18 percent of the vote but only two seats in the last Frontrunner election in 1993; in 1996 it won only 10 percent of the vote but 13 seats in the first MMP election. In 1997 the Greens left the coalition.

Every political party is seething with factions reflecting different ideologies, strategies and ambitions. One tension is between those who will compromise principles in order to get things done and those who would cleave to principles even at the price of never being in power. (Recently we saw similar ructions among the Greens, but the tension is found in all the parties.) The Alliance, combining five disparate parties and some very strong-minded people who were principled, ambitious or both, was even more chaotic. Anderton became more pragmatic about pursuing his principles in the long run, learning the art of coalition-building which would have been so valuable to him when in the Labour caucus. Even so, Grant reports that there were still occasions in which he led out front.

So in 1999 the Alliance was in a coalition with the Clark-led Labour Party to form a government with Anderton as deputy prime minister. His performance was very different from Sonja’s ‘Oh, Jim’. The enmities with Clark and Cullen from the Rogernomics period were forgotten as they reversed many of the neoliberal policies and introduced progressive and more socially sensitive alternatives.

This was a more mature, more compromising, less personally ambitious Jim Anderton. Both a dreadful personal tragedy and overcoming some health problems seem to have mellowed him. Perhaps he knew it was his last chance. Certainly, he had learned from his Alliance experience a lot about compromising.

Even so, the Alliance fragmented in 2002 while in government. Superficially, it was about policy towards Afghanistan but Grant reports the divisions were deeper and more fundamental, including those of personality and ambition as well as of policy and principle. Only Anderton and one supporter (Matt Robson) survived the election.

Anderton proved an able minister; a good minister has to lead from the front. Grant records a long list of Anderton’s policy achievements. Even so, some are missing. Here was one of the two I was involved with.

Reviewing alcohol taxation for the Alcohol Advisory Council, I identified an anomaly in the excise tax system which meant that a bottle of light spirits (21-percent-proof flavoured industrial alcohol) cost only an hour’s wages. A bottle was lethal enough for its drinker to kill themself; while I worked on the report, two young men did. Shortly after the results were submitted to the government, Anderton, as the minister with responsibility for drugs and alcohol, abolished the anomaly. Light spirits disappeared off the shelves. The head of ALAC, smiling, told me that was the fastest policy turn around they had ever experienced.

That was the Anderton the public servants who worked with him – the most informed judges of ministers – told me about. He would quickly grasp a policy issue, intelligently implementing it with political acumen; their complaint was that he did talk for far too long. Same thing when he became Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. He was a townie, but he is still remembered by the sector as one of the best ministers it had.

Grant’s final chapter asks who Jim Anderton was, concluding that he

… was a unique figure in New Zealand’s political history. His career traversed many changes, more than he was able to deal with. One could argue that he lost more than he won in terms of the highest political offices both nationally and locally. Yet after the capture of the Labour Party by an alien ideology, as he saw it, he bravely set out with like minds to preserve the doctrinal bastions on which the Labour Party has been founded and give the left a presence in an unforgiving climate. … While his most tangible success was the founding of Kiwbank, his legacy as a fighting humanitarian concerned primarily about the poor, marginalised and mentally ill will endure just as long.

The book – the third of Grant’s biographies of the ‘left’, following those on Norman Kirk and Ken Douglas – is not just about Jim Anderton but an account of the turmoil of the left. It is also a wider portrayal of the difficulties of operating in a party; the Green upheavals are but the most recent example. I can hear Jim saying, ‘I know all about it, son.’