Palmer’s foray into pol­i­tics

Joseph Romanos talks to for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Sir Geoffrey Palmer about stu­dent news­pa­pers, be­ing a min­is­ter, and MMP.

Kapi-Mana News - - FEATURE -

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.’’

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