Life spiced with variety continues
Russell Marshall has a CV longer than most. The Paremata resident spoke to KRIS DANDO about politics, education and his crack at the Porirua mayoralty.
You were going to be a teacher before politics came along?
I finished school in 1952 and it was a case of ‘what do I do now?’ There wasn’t much in the way of secondary schooling back then. I had an interest in education so I went to teachers’ college in Christchurch and turned up to my first school in [my hometown of] Nelson when I was just 19. My dad was not impressed but I enjoyed the training and made friends for life.
Your father was heavily involved in the Nelson arm of the Council of Trade Unions and the Labour Party – was it inevitable that you would get into politics?
It wasn’t inevitable but I guess politics was in the genes. I was a Methodist Minister in Christchurch [1960-67] and Masterton [1967-71] and I met Norman Kirk and one or two others in the congregation who talked to me about life in politics. When Labour lost Wanganui in 1969 I was asked if I would put my hand up in 1972. I thought if I don’t now, I never will.
You held the Wanganui seat from 1972 to 1990 and were senior whip and held ministerial posts including foreign affairs, environment, conservation and education in successive Labour governments. What were some of the issues you were involved in?
Protesting against what was going on in South Africa and Vietnam were important to me and I’d like to think I was proactive with Maori around that time too. I was in Opposition with the education portfolio but when we were in government this was something I was hugely passion- ate about. Tomorrow’s Schools were put into action under Labour and I think you’re still seeing the ramifications today.
David Lange famously relieved you as Minister of Education, taking the role for himself. That must’ve been difficult to take?
My relationship with David was an interesting one. I have memoirs coming out one day and I’m going to talk about that in more depth then.
What state is education in today, in your opinion?
I don’t think teachers are wellrespected enough and a lot of people who run education don’t have the experience. There needs to be more accountability towards low decile communities and how they can cope — this is something that has been occupying my mind for some time. I think it’s great that special needs children have more opportunities but I would like to see updated policies for disabled people at all levels of education.
Along with helping to monitor elections in Africa in the 1990s, you were chancellor of Victoria University (2000-02), High Commissioner to the UK (2002-05) and chairman of the Tertiary Education Commission (2005-07). Busy, busy.
It has been a busy time and I’ve held a number of fulfilling jobs in my life. The most I’ve had is five at one time but you just get on and do it. I think I was even acting manager of Page 90 [the forerunner to Pataka Museum] once. The most riveting three days of my life was monitoring elections in Johannesburg in the mid-1990s but helping to get Whitireia Polytechnic off the ground was also one of the most rewarding.
The High Commissioner gig must have been a plum one.
I was talking to Helen Clark at a book launch a few years before I got the role and the subject came up. I told her I was busy and I was 66 years old, after all. But Phil Goff called me and it went from there. I loved it, especially when you get to do things such as meet the 1971 British Lions players in Cardiff, go to a test match at Lords – I got up into the commentary box with Henry Blofeld – and Wimbledon. It was an interesting time to have the job with things going on in the world like the buildup to the war in Iraq. It was all about meeting people and New Zealand is well-regarded overseas.
You gunned for the Porirua mayoralty in 2010 – why?
I was pressed to have a go and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I have been in Porirua more than 20 years and, by the end of the election, I had learned more about this city than I had before. More than 1000 people [ 1356 votes to Nick Leggett’s winning tally of 6336] were silly enough to for vote me. You can’t take anything away from Nick, he is doing a great job.
How are the memoirs going and what else are you up to?
The memoirs are happening in fits and starts but I need to get more focused. I’m 78 and want it out by the time I’m 80 in February, 2016. There’s a family reunion in January that is going to be quite a big deal. I set up the Porirua branch of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists in 1993. I went to my first meeting this century with the society recently, so am keeping up appearances.
Quieter: Paremata resident and former Labour Party minister Russell Marshall.