Palmer’s foray into politics
Joseph Romanos talks to former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer about student newspapers, being a minister, and MMP.
Was it law or politics in your family as you grew up?
My father was editor of the Nelson Evening Mail, but from the age of 7 I wanted to be a lawyer. I had the gift of the gab – I won the Anthony Eden Cup for public speaking in my last year at Nelson College – 1959.
How did you enjoy Victoria University?
It was terrific intellectually. I liked it very much, reading Greek, studying law, debating. I was the editor of Salient.
What sort of a newspaper was it then?
We had some pretty interesting pieces. Rob Laking got an interview with the head of the SIS, which was a great scoop. I reported on Averell Harriman, the under-secretary of state. We reported student politics fully.
You had a very successful career as a lawyer. What got you thinking about going into politics?
My experience with the ACC. I met Sir Owen Woodhouse, the chairman of the Royal Commission on Accident Compensation, when he visited Chicago, where I was doing postgraduate honours. When I came back to New Zealand he got me to write the White Paper for the Government in 1969. Then I went to Australia to advise on the introduction of an accident compensation scheme there. My experiences in ACC made me want to be the minister rather than the minister’s adviser.
You got into Parliament in a by-election in 1979. Did you have ambitions to be leader?
Not at all. My goal was to take an interest in things with a legal bent – law reform, constitutional law.
You’d been involved in the 1975 Citizens for Rowling campaign.
Yes. I liked Bill Rowling. I’d worked for the Nelson Evening Mail as a reporter in my holidays and had done some stories on him, as the local MP. But my involvement with Citizens for Rowling was more anti-Muldoon. I’d also been active with the Democratic Party in the US and had helped Whitlam in Australia.
Were you supportive of the turn to the right engineered by Roger Douglas?
We didn’t regard it as a turn to the right. We simply took decisions that were born of economic necessity after inheriting the position left by Muldoon.
How much notice did Lange give you before he resigned in 1989?
Almost none. I was in the Cook Islands working when he rang and told me he was standing down. I didn’t want him to go, absolutely not. I would rather not have been leader.
Did you know it was on the cards?
Well, there’d been the split with Douglas and he’d lost a lot of Cabinet support in 1989 after his nuclear speech at Yale. Also, he was in a relationship with Margaret Pope. That would have been hugely damaging politically if it had got out. He was starting to have health problems, too.
When you became Prime Minister what were your goals?
I knew we couldn’t win the next election. I just wanted us to complete our second term in an orderly fashion. Getting the leadership was a hospital pass from Lange. Leadership was not a burden I wanted and I was happy when Moore took over as prime minister.
You later set up the Royal Commission that recommended MMP.
Yes, I’m very proud we have MMP. It was precipitated by Muldoon winning two elections without winning the overall vote. Then Lange misread his notes and committed us to MMP. I’m glad he did. It’s the most important constitutional change in 100 years.
What do you think of the changes to MMP being suggested now?
I’d prefer to keep the threshold at 5 per cent. I’ve seen the damage very small parties have done in Israel. However, I can live with 4 per cent. I support getting rid of the coat-tails rule, whereby MPs winning a seat can bring other members of their party into Parliament.
You’re writing your memoirs. When will they be ready?
Hopefully at the end of next year. I’m used to writing and am well into the project.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer: ‘‘Getting the leadership was a hospital pass from Lange.’’