Labour’s love lost

A life­long ob­server and some­time prac­ti­tioner of pol­i­tics, his­to­rian and author Michael Bas­sett has some pointed things to say about the new Gov­ern­ment.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Clare de Lore

A life­long ob­server and some­time prac­ti­tioner of pol­i­tics, his­to­rian and author Michael Bas­sett has some pointed things to say about the new Gov­ern­ment.

No one will die won­der­ing what Michael Bas­sett thinks about pol­i­tics. Or the per­for­mances of our na­tional lead­ers. Or the state of race re­la­tions. Bas­sett has stud­ied, taught or prac­tised pol­i­tics for more than 60 years. He’s writ­ten or co-writ­ten 15 books; the most re­cent, New Zealand’s Prime Min­is­ters: From Dick Sed­don to John Key, was pub­lished last year. He’s a fierce critic of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, big gov­ern­ment and politi­cians who he per­ceives are ig­no­rant of his­tory or poorly read.

Bas­sett’s mother, Clare, was a sec­ond cousin of Dr Roy Lange of Man­gere. Michael, the old­est of Clare and Ed­ward (Ned) Bas­sett’s three chil­dren, was de­liv­ered by Lange, whose son David be­came Prime Min­is­ter of New Zealand in July 1984. Bas­sett, Lange’s third cousin, was Min­is­ter of Health and Min­is­ter of In­ter­nal Af­fairs in the Lange Ad­min­is­tra­tion, and his 2008 book Work­ing With David records and analy­ses the rise and fall of that Fourth Labour Gov­ern­ment.

Bas­sett was only eight years old when his fa­ther died. His mother en­sured he had a good ed­u­ca­tion: he went to ­Dil­worth School and Mt Al­bert Gram­mar, be­fore get­ting an MA at the Univer­sity of Auck­land. In 1961, he won a fel­low­ship to Duke Univer­sity in North Carolina. It was a time when the US was riven by the tur­moils of the bat­tle for civil rights and the un­cer­tain­ties of the Cold War.

Hav­ing com­pleted a PhD in Amer­i­can his­tory, he re­turned in 1964 to teach his­tory at his old univer­sity. Af­ter un­suc­cess­ful cam­paigns in 1966 and 1969, he en­tered Par­lia­ment as a Labour MP in the Kirk Gov­ern­ment in 1972, lost his seat in 1975 and was re­turned in 1978. He re­tired at the 1990 elec­tion.

Bas­sett and his wife, Ju­dith, also a his­to­rian, and a mem­ber of the Auck­land District Health Board, have two adult chil­dren. They moved into their Auck­land apart­ment only af­ter check­ing that it would ac­com­mo­date their li­brary. For Bas­sett, who turns 80 in Au­gust, pol­i­tics and books have been con­stants through­out his life.

“Labour re­gards me as a holdover from the wicked Fourth Labour Gov­ern­ment, but it has not dis­man­tled the re­forms of that time.”

Your fa­ther died at 37, which was a blow emo­tion­ally and fi­nan­cially to the fam­ily. What do you re­call about life at home when your fa­ther was still alive?

It was a close fam­ily. We didn’t have a huge num­ber of books at home be­cause there wasn’t the money. But when I was seven, the year be­fore he died, my fa­ther bought us the En­cy­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­nica. It was our bi­ble, and he had a book­shelf built es­pe­cially for those vol­umes. As I was go­ing through school, I de­cided we needed more books. I worked on a Fri­day night at a book­store and used my pay to buy books. They be­came a part of my life, and through univer­sity I

bought books more than bor­rowed them.

What as­pect of US his­tory did you study for your PhD?

My th­e­sis was on the So­cial­ist Party of Amer­ica, which, in the elec­tion of 1912, got 6% of the na­tional vote and looked as though it might grow and de­velop like sim­i­lar par­ties in New Zealand, Aus­tralia and Bri­tain. In­stead of mov­ing on­wards and up­wards, it vir­tu­ally died. Amer­ica’s states en­joyed too much in­di­vid­u­al­ity to ac­cept the cen­tral­i­sa­tion nec­es­sary to in­tro­duce so­cial­ist poli­cies, and when World War I came, ten­sions between eth­nic groups al­most de­stroyed the party.

How do you rate the new Gov­ern­ment’s per­for­mance so far?

The sorts of is­sues that have faced this Gov­ern­ment haven’t been ex­tra­or­di­nary, but what ex­ac­er­bates its prob­lems is that it is a jerry-built gov­ern­ment: the three group­ings make it hard to man­age. The Greens and New Zealand First are not able to sit in Cab­i­net to­gether, but they sus­tain the Gov­ern­ment, all the while watch­ing the polls to check their stand­ing, which isn’t im­prov­ing. That’s hard enough, but add to it Jacinda Ardern, the youngest and least-ex­pe­ri­enced leader of a gov­ern­ment we have ever had, and this Gov­ern­ment may not even last one term.

That’s a harsh call, isn’t it?

Yes, but as I’ve just said, it isn’t just Jacinda. She has con­sid­er­able tal­ents, but she has a knowl­edge deficit. It shows in for­eign pol­icy. Jacinda doesn’t know much about in­ter­na­tional af­fairs and doesn’t un­der­stand the his­tor­i­cal re­la­tion­ships between New Zealand and the Pa­cific.

She cer­tainly doesn’t un­der­stand Rus­sia, which is emerg­ing as the next best thing to an in­ter­na­tional rogue state. Put her along­side He­len Clark, the last Labour Prime Min­is­ter, and Jacinda looks like a rank am­a­teur. She des­per­ately needs to know more, but when you are Prime Min­is­ter you don’t have time to go out and learn: you are meant to have done that al­ready. A bach­e­lor in com­mu­ni­ca­tions from Waikato Univer­sity is not quite the same as a first-class hon­ours de­gree in pol­i­tics and his­tory, which is what Clark had, plus the bet­ter part of a PhD.

Do you give her points at least for sav­ing the Labour Party?

She took over the party at 37; that shows you how des­per­ate Labour was. She cer­tainly gave the party a lift. She took them up to 36%, not an in­con­sid­er­able feat. Win­ston [Peters, NZ First Leader] was go­ing around this time a year ago with ex­pec­ta­tions that New Zealand First might sup­plant Labour as the sec­ond party. That would then have been the point where New Zealand First and the Greens would have jointly gob­bled up what re­mained of Labour. So, yes, she plucked them back from obliv­ion, but does it look like it is go­ing to be a roar­ing suc­cess? No. This Gov­ern­ment is in deep trou­ble.


It has over-stoked pub­lic ex­pec­ta­tions. [Phil Twyford, Min­is­ter of Trans­port and of Hous­ing] is an ac­ci­dent in slow mo­tion. The ex­tra­or­di­nary phrase he used this morn­ing in the Her­ald, along the lines of “we are chang­ing the world” re­gard­ing trans­port and then a whole se­ries of wishes and hopes about trans­port – that is fan­tasy stuff. Cy­cling as the fu­ture for Auck­land? Gimme a break – they’ve taken away road space and poured re­sources into cy­cling that no one uses other than on Satur­day morn­ings. I can see that cy­cle path head­ing out west from my apart­ment and there’s usu­ally no one us­ing it. They are so­cial engi­neers without any sense. When­ever Labour shows that ten­dency, the vot­ers deal with them in short or­der. They should read Pub­lic Spend­ing in the 20th Cen­tury: A Global Per­spec­tive by Vito Tanzi and Ludger Schuknecht. It would help in­ject some sense into their think­ing and poli­cies.

“Māori are hav­ing a whale of a ride on the back of the Treaty. What the Treaty doesn’t say they make up; the lib­eral ­in­tel­li­gentsia are ‘yes, yes, rah, rah’.”

Do you have any­thing rel­e­vant to say to the party you be­longed to for 35 years?

What I say is rel­e­vant, but [the Labour Party] doesn’t like me at all; it re­gards me as a holdover from the wicked Fourth Labour Gov­ern­ment. It has cre­ated a sav­age view of that Gov­ern­ment but nei­ther it nor any other gov­ern­ment has dis­man­tled the re­forms of that time. Mod­ern Labour has be­come a re­li­gion based on in­ad­e­quate read­ing and think­ing and wish­ful think­ing. Some­times I say pleas­ant things about it and some­times un­pleas­ant, so it dances around me a lit­tle ap­pre­hen­sively.

You were a mem­ber of the Wai­tangi Tri­bunal for 10 years (1994-2004). What, in your view, is the cur­rent state of race re­la­tions in this coun­try?

We have this rather ex­tra­or­di­nary lib­eral pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ev­ery­thing Māori while we push Pakeha cul­ture aside. Māori are hav­ing a whale of a ride on the back of the Treaty. What the Treaty doesn’t say they make up, and the lib­eral

­in­tel­li­gentsia are “yes, yes, rah, rah”. The courts chime in from time to time. So you won’t see much move­ment on ­monar­chy, for ex­am­ple, from Māori, who want to main­tain the link with the Crown, or from the wider New Zealand pub­lic. There will be a splut­ter when Charles takes over from the Queen, but af­ter Charles there will be Wil­liam – the monar­chy man­ages to pro­duce young stars from time to time. A lot of people feel happy see­ing young Ge­orge and Char­lotte on the pages of the Woman’s Weekly.

Aren’t you con­cerned you’ll be la­belled a racist?

Why should I be? I’m only jumped on by ig­no­ra­muses – people who be­lieve in big gov­ern­ment and people who think te reo and sep­a­ratism are the an­swers to Māori prob­lems. Af­ter World War II, we were em­pow­er­ing Māori, but then we slipped into wel­fare mode, and Māori have been the big­gest and most con­spic­u­ous of the losers from mod­ern poli­cies. That is what wor­ries me. I didn’t at­tend in­te­gra­tion ral­lies in the United States in or­der to come home to find Māori push­ing for sep­a­ratism and separate treat­ment. What ir­ri­tates me most of all are the lib­er­als who marched along­side me when we wanted to stop rugby con­tact with South Africa be­cause of apartheid; those same people now say, ‘Let’s do some sep­a­ratism, just a lit­tle bit”. If we want to ruin this coun­try, that is the way to do it. Not only be­cause it’s wrong, but be­cause it is proven not to help Māori.

Which books have in­flu­enced you most?

Richard Hof­s­tadter’s The Amer­i­can Po­lit­i­cal Tra­di­tion and The Age of Re­form, C Vann Wood­ward’s The Strange Ca­reer of Jim

Crow and WJ Cash’s The Mind of the South were sem­i­nal works for me. Race re­la­tions have al­ways in­ter­ested me. When I was a stu­dent in the US, I had to be care­ful of my in­volve­ment in the de­seg­re­ga­tion move­ment, be­cause one of the cries from those op­posed to change was that it was only out­siders who wanted to bring about change, and I was an ob­vi­ous out­sider. When the movie the­atres in Durham were de­seg­re­gated and the blacks no longer had to sit in their des­ig­nated area, I or­gan­ised a lot of people to come along and pa­tro­n­ise these the­atres so they stayed in busi­ness and their fears of de­seg­re­ga­tion were al­layed. I stayed on the edge of these things, but I lent moral sup­port where I could and gave money if I had a lit­tle. There are two key books on South Africa’s his­tory, Leonard Thomp­son’s A His­tory of South Africa and Al­lis­ter Sparks’ book The Mind of South Africa, that have in­flu­enced my think­ing about sep­a­ratism. In terms of Bri­tish his­tory, Roy Jenk­ins is my hero – I loved his Asquith and Churchill bi­ogra­phies. As for Aus­tralian his­tory, my favourite is Tri­umph of the No­mads: A His­tory of Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia, by Ge­of­frey Blainey.

“Put her along­side He­len Clark, the last Labour Prime Min­is­ter, and Jacinda looks like a rank am­a­teur. She des­per­ately needs to know more.”

Is there room in your read­ing life for fiction?

Yes. I am a huge fan of Mau­rice Gee and I have read sev­eral of CK Stead’s books. I am also a big fan of English and Amer­i­can fiction – Philip Roth, Mary McCarthy, and I have read ev­ery­thing of John Updike’s. I have read all of Thomas Hardy’s work. An­thony Trol­lope wrote about his trav­els in New Zealand and I have used those in my writ­ing. Some of Trol­lope’s books I have re-read – Barch­ester Tow­ers three times. I love the range of per­son­al­i­ties and the types of people and the fact that ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal pol­i­tics is so sim­i­lar to or­di­nary party pol­i­tics. Archdea­con Grantly – what a prick of a guy: but pol­i­tics has its ­Archdea­con Grantlys.

Bas­sett with wife Ju­dith and chil­dren Emma and Sam in 1979. Far left, the cou­ple at home in 2010.

From far left, a few months old with mother Clare, Christ­mas 1938; aged three; aged 10.

Gov­ern­ment min­is­ters in the Fourth Labour Gov­ern­ment in 1984, with Michael Bas­sett be­hind Prime Min­is­ter David Lange (both in glasses), Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral David Beat­tie on Lange’s left, and now Auck­land Mayor Phil Goff in the cen­tre of the back row.

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