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A DICTIONARY OF NEW ZEALAND POLITICAL QUOTATIONS Edited by: Desmond Hurley Published by: Oxford University Press, Auckland, 2000, 130pp, $24.95.

The quotations and anecdotes given in this book, and intended to display wit, are decidedly uneven in quality. Political humour has not been in either great supply or great demand in New Zealand. Pember Reeves once wrote, of his own political times, that the last legislator known to have made a good joke had died quietly some years before. In that respect we seem to have been more fortunate in recent years with some sharp-witted commentators, notably Rob Muldoon, Mike Moore and especially David Lange.

Some of the point scoring excerpts from the earlier part of the twentieth century, while possibly amusing when spoken at the time, are not when read in retrospect. Some, especially those in later years, are still genuinely funny on the printed page. Some are spoilt in the telling. (I shall return to that.) But the most serious criticism of the book is that in its various introductory sections it is sprinkled with historical errors.

Here are some examples. Sir Robert Stout is described only as `teacher and surveyor' before he became Premier (p. 15). So he was, in his earlier days, but it is unmentioned that years before his premiership he practised law with great distinction -- and indeed later he was Chief Justice, from 1899 to 1926.

Later it is stated that the term `Prime Minister' was introduced in Seddon's time (p.22). It was not. The head of government of the Colony of New Zealand was designated `Premier' and Seddon died in 1906, before the granting of Dominion status to New Zealand in 1907, which brought with it the elevation of the office of Premier to Prime Minister. Seddon was never Prime Minister in all his 13 years of office. The first Prime Minister of New Zealand was his successor, Sir Joseph Ward, and Ward was Premier for around a year before acquiring the new designation.

Further it is stated that `Walter Nash was a minister of religion at one time' (p.55). He was not, although an ostentatious Christian and Anglican layman. (Perhaps he has been confused with his colleague Arnold Nordmeyer, who was a practising Presbyterian minister from 1925 to 1935.) John A. Lee is reported in an editorial introduction as having `left the Labour Party in disgust'(p.61). He did not. He wanted to stay. He was expelled at the party's 1940 annual conference by a vote of 546 to 344. He made it clear in later years that he would have liked to re-join but the party (or certainly its national executive) would not have him.

Keith Holyoake is described, in another editorial introduction, as `the first New Zealand-born Prime Minister' (p.72). Holyoake was not even close. The first was Gordon Coates (Prime Minister 1925-28), who was born in Pahi, Kaipara, in 1878. Holyoake was fourth behind George Forbes and his own immediate predecessor, Sid Holland.

On the same page it is said that Holyoake `was popularly known as Kiwi Keith'. He was not. Although he claimed to have been so called in his youth and rugby days, this label was essentially an attempt by National Party PR to popularise that reserved, sometimes arrogant, though immensely able, political personality, whose speech had been trained by some elocutionist to sound extraordinarily pompous, despite his superb voice. Holyoake was never popular. Respected, yes, and feared too at times by his ministers and officials. But popular, no. The attempt to label him `Kiwi Keith' backfired and earned as much derision as anything else. His four general election victories owed much to the troubles of the Labour Party in the 1960s.

One other interesting and rather unfair term referred to in the text -- `the curse of Jim' -- is no fault of the editor but rather of the New Zealand media, which in coining and using it showed both their anti-Bolger bias and their short (or non-existent) political memories. This term was hung on Jim Bolger by the media because during his prime ministership, in an unfortunate number of cases, distinguished visitors invited to New Zealand by the government to help advance our interests lost their positions of influence, one way or another, shortly after returning home. Alas, this blight predates Jim Bolger and might well be labelled `the Kiwi curse'.

Three examples. Some years ago President Walter Scheel of Germany visited New Zealand with an important entourage of ministers and officials. It was a very successful visit. Scheel was approaching the end of his first term but was widely expected to be re-nominated, and re-elected. Unfortunately, because of changes in German politics after his return, he was not even re-nominated and soon retired.

A second example -- Finn Olav Gundelach, EEC Commissioner of Agriculture and, despite his first name, a Dane. He accepted an invitation to visit New Zealand soon after his appointment to this critical position for New Zealand's access to the EEC market. He had a most successful visit, establishing an excellent rapport with ministers, officials, the producer boards and all. We recognised the political pressures he would come under but doubted we could ever expect to get a more understanding and sympathetic official in that position. He returned to Europe. Within a few months, though only in his 50s, he died of heart failure.

Finally, we have Michel Rocard, Prime Minister of France, who visited New Zealand to apologise for the Rainbow Warrior affair and help to rebuild Franco-New Zealand relations. Another successful visit. He returned home, soon fell-out with President Mitterand, ostensibly over proportional representation, and resigned -- or in effect was dismissed. None of this sorry saga leaves anything to pin on Jim.

I turn now to the telling. The best -- or perhaps worst -- example of an anecdote being spoilt is of one of David Lange's quickest and most brilliant one-liners, that involving Fran Wilde. The protest movement was then becoming agitated about what they suspected were links between the Black Birch observatory in Canterbury and US nuclear deterrent forces. Fran Wilde was Minister for Disarmament. At that time also Prime Minister David Lange was still giving lengthy press conferences after Cabinet meetings, and verbatim transcripts were faithfully faxed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its overseas posts. In Ottawa I read them every Monday morning -- they were both informative and often highly amusing. One such transcript contained a gem which clearly convulsed the press conference and stopped a potentially awkward line of questioning in its tracks. My recollection is as follows:
   Question: Prime Minister, did you know that Fran Wilde has gone to Black
   Birch? Prime Minister: No. I didn't even know she was seeing him.

(Compare that with the version given on p.95.)

To sum up, there are some good stories in this book, particularly in the sections on Rob Muldoon, David Lange, Mike Moore, and also -- it may surprise some -- Warren Cooper and Trevor de Cleene. But many are not there, particularly around the period of the first Labour government. There is no mention in the bibliography of Ian McGibbon's two edited volumes, Undiplomatic Dialogue and Unofficial Channels, which contain -- especially from the sharp pens of Carl Berendsen and Alister McIntosh -- some fascinating anecdotes about Peter Fraser and other politicians.

All in all, the book leaves one with a feeling of disappointment, about some of what is in it, and much that is not and might have been. And the historical errors are regrettable

Bruce Brown is the Chairman of the NZIIA's Research Committee and a former diplomat.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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