SIMON Twenty nine years ago Richard Prebble beat Murray McCully to become the Labour MP for Auckland Central, that makes him the second longest serving current MP after Jonathan Hunt, but he's probably best known as Roger Douglas's loyal lieutenant during the Lange years and more recently as one of the founders and first leader of ACT. Now there's widespread speculation that he's about to retire.
Hullo Mr Prebble, let's start by clearing that up are you going to retire?
RICHARD Most certainly yes.
RICHARD Oh this election.
SIMON So you won't stand?
RICHARD I don’t have any intention to stand, I've told the ACT party that I'm not intending to and they’ve asked me to carry on.
SIMON It sounds like you’re allowing room to change your mind.
RICHARD Oh no no no, but you always allow a tiny bit but what I've said to them look I've been in parliament for what's the equivalent of three life sentences and surely that’s enough.
SIMON Let's look back at your career it'll always be dominated by what you and Roger Douglas did during the Lange government years 84/90. when Labour won't the 1984 election could you foresee just how radical the changes would be that you would make to the New Zealand economy?
RICHARD Oh no I don’t think anybody did. One of the things I didn’t know was just how bad the economy was. I went through the 84 election campaign saying things are terrible like opposition politicians do or than I thought the margin of sort of exaggeration and when I got there found things were actually far worse than our wildest imaginations, and that was not just a shock to the Lange government it was actually a shock to the Muldoon cabinet because Sir Robert Muldoon had actually hidden how bad things were even from his cabinet ministers. We came very very close to calling in the IMF you know being in Argentina.
SIMON How much further did you go then than you originally intended?
RICHARD Oh enormously, I mean if you were gonna say did I think that I was gonna be the minister who was gonna privatise Telecom I'd have said you were certifiable.
SIMON Why were you and Roger Douglas unable to convince not just the left of the party but even moderates like Michael Cullen and Helen Clark of the wisdom of the reforms?
RICHARD Oh that’s not true, that’s absolutely not true. Helen Clark voted for those reforms she voted for the Telecom privatisation, so did Michael Cullen and even today they actually think that the government is hopeless at running businesses. The only reason the Labour government said it's not going to privatise further in the energy area for example, which is still a mess, is because the polls say that the public don’t like it, but if you were to get Michael Cullen and Helen Clark privately as I have and to say look is the government any good at running business they'd say no it's hopeless, and that is something I didn’t know before I became the minister. I thought look all they need is an efficient effective person like me and yes we can get the Post Office to work properly.
SIMON So it was just the left you couldn't convince?
RICHARD And that'd be the far left, and even there I don’t actually think that Jim Anderton now believes that the government's any good at running businesses. I mean the government is hopeless at running businesses, I can give you heaps of stories.
SIMON Why did you lose David Lange's support though, what lost you that support?
RICHARD Oh I don’t think he or Roger Douglas can even answer that question even today properly, I think it's a variety of things I believe it was partly personalities, I think in retrospect both of them now bitterly regret what happened and realise that they should have resolved their differences and from my point of view yes they should, and it doesn’t reflect well on either of them or me being part of a cabinet that couldn't resolve what was in many ways their personality conflict.
SIMON How far into that government then did you finally realise that what you were doing was never going to be accepted by the Labour Party?
RICHARD Oh no no I don’t accept that.
SIMON By the whole of the party I mean.
RICHARD No, people are rewriting history now, the party conference actually endorsed – I mean we had some wonderful debates but the reformers like myself we never lost any one of those major debates and the reason we didn’t lose them is the arguments were overwhelmingly on our side, people now forget just how bad things were, they forget how bad the telephone system was. I mean when I was first elected one of my jobs was to help people get a telephone, you know people used to go to their member of parliament to get a telephone because the waiting time in Auckland Central was six months. Some places it was three years and of course waiting time for a new car that was three years, you know we're talking about an age that was so different from today that young people just can't believe that you couldn't go overseas to spend money, no, you needed Reserve Bank approval and they often turned it down, had to write to the Reserve Bank for my grandmother to be able to subscribe to the Manchester Guardian and they wrote back and said why can't she read it at the library.
SIMON All this upheaval though that you say that you had to do upset the public didn’t it, they couldn't accept the economic upheaval was that why you lost the 90 election or was it the infighting?
RICHARD No no I don’t accept that either, I mean the big reforms were done 84/87 and the Labour government actually got an increased vote in 87 but in 1990 here was a government that had lost its Prime Minister, lost its Finance Minister, it had had a public row, I'd gone on television and said that Lange was nuts, how could we possibly get re-elected and we were quite properly by the electorate fired. One of the things that the electorate does not like in a political party is when they are feuding and unable to sort out their differences and quite properly the voters say you’re fired get a new bunch in.
SIMON So that was the reason they got rid of you in 1990 was the infighting?
RICHARD Well I think so yes I mean the – well I think Helen Clark still talks about the failed policies of the past, you never hear Michael Cullen say that, and if you read the IMF the World Bank our own Treasury's reports they all say that the prosperity in New Zealand is enjoying today goes straight back to the reforms that you say I was part of.
SIMON Your own party put you under pressure in your own electorate was that why you jumped ship, or did you really share Roger Douglas's vision for ACT?
RICHARD Oh okay, no look my leaving the Labour Party and the ACT Party are quite separate, and I left the Labour Party the day Helen Clark challenged Mike Moore, I thought that that was at the time totally treacherous and I sent my resignation in in that day. Mike Moore's a friend of mine and I thought that the party had set him up, I still think that, and then when Roger Douglas said he was gonna form his own party I said to him well that’s all very well but I'm doing very well thanks I'm enjoying myself look Rog I'll take a party ticket but I'm not going to be a participator any more than that.
SIMON So Derek Quigley had this question for you, we spoke to Derek Quigley earlier in the week. Did you ever see ACT becoming the main centre right party or only being a niche player, what was your vision for it?
RICHARD Me personally? No I never thought we would be a main party, I know Roger did and I said look you’re dreaming and I also said to him I think there's a place under MPP for a political party that is going to be very pro free enterprise, that's going to be in favour of the rule of law.
SIMON Can you reconcile those politics?
RICHARD Oh absolutely I mean rule of law and free enterprise have to go together you can't have them
SIMON Coming from Labour?
RICHARD Oh I can do that for you in a second, but can I just answer that question for you. I think and I thought then I still do, that having a group of independently minded MPs who are gonna stand in parliament and hold both the old parties to account that parliament would be better for it, I even thought that when we had a first past the post, always thought look wouldn’t it be great to be on the cross bench and to fearlessly say what you think and that’s the vision I had for ACT and I think more or less that’s what we've managed to do. I still say regardless of who wins the election the New Zealand parliament will be miles better if there's ten ACT members of parliament who are on the cross bench who say that doesn’t add up, you two parties might like it but that doesn’t add up it's bad economics.
SIMON That’s a nice vision but it hasn’t worked out that way has it, I mean ACT has become a divided party like the Labour that you left.
RICHARD Oh I don’t think that’s so.
SIMON It's not driven by the egos of the individuals?
RICHARD No, no no, the ACT Party – we're in an interesting situation that we're a party that believes in individual responsibility, so we have strong individuals in the party but that’s part of our bread I mean that’s what we are we're not like the – what's another – oh Winston's party, you know it's very hard to think of another New Zealand First MP because Winston's party's Winston, but the ACT party it's got nine strong individuals, but that’s its brand and then you asked me a different question which I'm not trying to avoid – can I reconcile that with being in the Labour Party the first thing I've gotta say to you is that I have changed my mind on a number of issues. So I used to think that the government could run a post office, you know I used to think yes the government can run power stations and I also thought that it would be good for it to do it that that would be good for the country, so when I run into people who think that I don’t criticise them because that’s the view that I held, and they haven't had my opportunity of being in charge of every government business in the country. When you’re in charge of every one you know hey the government can't and why it can't is because politicians can't help playing politics and to just give you a small example, when I became head of Telecom I found there were a hundred thousand free telephones in the country. Top of the list was the MPs, then there was the staff, and then there were all sorts of other groups that politicians had given out because there's no such thing as a free phone, you and I were paying for them.
SIMON Let's bring it into the present, why doesn’t ACT simply do an electoral deal with National?
RICHARD Because we're not the same as them, the National party's a conservative party. Yes they are more in favour or free enterprise than the Labour Party but they don’t actually hold the classic liberal views that the ACT Party holds, I mean ACT actually says that the government should do the minimum and that you ought to be able to make your own choices. Trevor Mallard shouldn’t be deciding what school you children can go to, you ought to be making those decisions and in that sense ACT is a different party and indeed in some ways we have a more important job keeping National honest than Labour. Labour's a hopeless task but National yes we've got some chance of being able to keep them honest.
SIMON Well let's look at National then currently how do you rate Don Brash's leadership?
RICHARD I rate Don, I think he's actually better than his own team gives him credit for, I think he's better than he gives himself credit for.
SIMON So you think he has the potential to be an effective Prime Minister?
RICHARD Oh absolutely. I would like to see him speak more on the economically, he's a guy who's been a great Reserve Bank Governor. The issue that could turn this election is actually interest rates. I think if the Trade Union Movement carries on with its campaign and the New Zealand dollar comes off we could see more interest rate rises this year. Don Brash should be crucifying the government on interest rates, there are Auckland families who've got 400 thousand dollar mortgages that if house prices fall they’ll find they’ve got no equity in the house and the interest rates are rising…
SIMON How much does Brash rely on Murray McCully?
RICHARD I've no idea.
SIMON Does it matter that Don Brash seems to struggle in the debating chamber is that important these days?
RICHARD Ah no because it never has been. If you know what you’re saying and you’re sincere in saying it you can still get it across. I mean Helen Clark is not a great parliamentary debater in fact she very rarely debates. What Don's gotta do is to stick to his guns, what he shouldn’t do is what he was doing earlier this year and that’s sitting in parliament watching the rest of us debate, no he's the Leader of the Opposition he can't be an observer in parliament he had to get stuck in and be the lead National Party speaker and he's still not doing that enough. I'm saying to him come on Don have a go, put your notes down and just tell us straight what you think.
SIMON Where then has National lost its way, why is it no longer the socalled natural party of government?
RICHARD Oh I don’t think they’ve ever totally adapted to MMP. The second problem they’ve got is that Helen Clark on a lot of issues is very conservative so that she's moved across. I personally think that in fact the Labour Party is not as conservative as Helen Clark says and so we've got some polling that shows that if you look at the values that the Labour Party's got against the values of middle New Zealand the National Party ought to be able to really roll up the vote, but they haven't done that and I think Don Brash flip flopping on the Civil Union Bill that didn’t do him any good, hey he's the leader of the National Party, the National Party's in favour of marriage or it used to be.
SIMON We've run out of time but briefly before you go you said you’re not gonna be standing in the next election, or alluded to that, what are you going to do. What comes next for Richard Prebble?
RICHARD Oh I've been retired by the voters before, thank you very much, and last time I had a ball, I expect to again. My wife and I – my wife comes from the Solomons and we've always had a continuing interest in that country that’s crying out for help and so the Prime Minister up there has asked me if I will do some things in the Solomons so I'm intending to do a bit there, and here in New Zealand any good job offers, people got difficult problems …
SIMON They know who to call.
RICHARD Soon to be unemployed
SIMON Richard Prebble thank you very much indeed for joining us on Agenda today.
Labour Party President Mike Williams is here now to discuss all of the above, Mr Williams welcome. First what did you make of what Richard Prebble had to say.
MIKE What did I make of it? What a loss he’ll be to parliament. That’s a good brain, it's a huge amount of parliamentary experience that the ACT Party really needs, and putting aside political differences I'll be sad to see him go.
SIMON Can ACT survive without him?
MIKE I don’t think ACT will survive whether he was there or not, although I'd qualify that by saying there is a dynamic which could happen mathematically which causes ACT to survive.
SIMON Let's look back at what he had to say about the Labour Party in the 80s, to what degree has the Labour Party yet to get over the ructions of the 80s, will it ever accept that those economic changes were necessary and beneficial?
MIKE Well I'd say the Labour Party has got over the ructions of the 80s, it's left behind one very important lesson for us and that is that we've gotta settle our differences internally before we present programmes to the voting public, the public punishes disunity and you’re seeing that happen I think now with the National Party the Catherine Rich business, immediate dip in the polls for them.
SIMON Which raises the question of the Labour list was there any disunity over that, was everyone happy with it?
MIKE I wouldn’t say everyone was happy, there are always people disappointed and particularly this time because there was such intense competition for winnable slots. The moderating committee really had a big problem with so many good people offering themselves and there will be disappointment but that just goes with the territory.
SIMON How unhappy is George Hawkins, has he been told he won't be in cabinet after the election?
MIKE I haven't spoken to George, he withdrew his name from the list by ringing Mike Smith the general secretary so I don’t know how disappointed he was.
SIMON There is a noticeable lack of business people on the list, why is people having trouble attracting business people?
MIKE I would have said the reverse, we've done better in terms of getting business people in this time. Shane Jones I would in fact classify as one of the most successful businessmen in Maoridom, that’s a very difficult knot that he's untied, the Fisheries Commission. We've got quite a number of people who've been successful in running large enterprises.
SIMON These people aren’t in the top 25 though are they, I mean they're quite a way down there.
MIKE Yeah but you've gotta build your way up.
SIMON On Agenda last week John Tamihere said and I quote 'our party has always granted us the right to have at least one in the top five, a high flyer, and that'll be Shane'. Shane Jones number 27, why was John Tamihere so far off the mark.
MIKE I think you were talking at cross purposes with John, I think what he meant was the top five out of parliament, and I've checked that and that’s what he meant.
SIMON It's a pretty confusing statement though. What about the Maori MP situation, not a single Maori MP dropped down the list, is this the reward for staying loyal or the price of keeping the support?
MIKE It's merit, we think they’ve all done a good job. There is an element of rewarding loyalty under fire, but there's also the workings of our constitution which tend to push – we'd expect to have a Maori person every five and that’s exactly how it's worked out.
SIMON Let's look at the next election now when will it be?
MIKE We're planning on sort of September 24th, September 17th, that’s when we think it'll be.
SIMON As for the rumours of an early election in July?
MIKE Well there's been no discussion of that within the party and I think I probably would have heard about it, I would say it does have a benefit to us, every time there's speculation about an early election the National Party comes out with some half baked policy that they haven't quite thought through and that happened again, there was speculation last week and we had something about finding parents which nobody thought was viable so I wouldn’t say we encourage speculation but we don’t mind the effect.
SIMON There's also been speculation that you don’t want to go to the poll early because you feel averse to a winter election that you feel it's damaged your polling chances …
MIKE You've got to weigh all of these things up when you make your decision. Certainly the turn out in the last election was low. Now that is somewhat artificial because enrolment levels were very high, whether you can put that down to being a winter election I don’t know my memory was that the weather on election day across the country was actually quite good.
SIMON Let's bring the panel in here at this point what would you like to ask?
FRAN O'SULLIVAN, NZ Herald
MIKE From my point of view the longer I've got to organise the political party the better, I'll have more money if it's in September I'll have more members I'll have more activity on the ground, that’s what influences my decision.
SIMON But so will the opposition though.
FRAN You told me last year in fact that you would have all your election money for this year all your main funding in by December of last year so you've really been ready to go for some time.
MIKE That’s correct yeah, we've been particularly fortunate with our fund raising programme and I think that the big variable in fund raising of course is the help of the business community.
FRAN What happens if that prospect which Richard Prebble raised with a hike in interest rates and a slump in the property market putting people into negative equity, what if that starts to roll off in the next few months would you bring the election forward.
MIKE It wouldn’t be my decision Fran obviously but I can't see that happening, these things have got quite long lead in periods and when you examine the mortgage market most people are on these fixed ones which take some considerable time to feed through.
FRAN Aren't they though the most compelling reasons to go early, the economy, you saw a weak GDP number out, you’re seeing a ballooning current account deficit and you’re looking at economic confidence dropping off, wouldn’t that be the most compelling reason to go a bit early?
MIKE It could be but again you’re coming off a very high base and as I go round the business community the one mantra that I keep getting is we can't get workers. What was a skill shortage last year has turned out to be a straight labour shortage this year so as I said you’re coming off a high base and it would take a considerable precipitous decline for that to get into your political consciousness I think.
FRAN Third terms are quite hard to win I mean what sort of issues and policies could you put out there to captivate voters when stable government seems to be the mantra out of the Beehive, what's new what's captivating, what's visionary?
MIKE There's a lot of countries that where governments are going into third terms and we've been trying to distil what are the commonalities there and I think first of all you've got to have a record to defend and I think lowest unemployment in the OECD, a lot more people in education, health indexes rising, that’s the sort of thing you talk about but you do have to some vision of what's over the hill, but I think your point is a good one. People do seemingly crave stability at the moment, that was a very strong element in John Howard's win in Australia and indeed the win in West Australia. I think people got scared by all the change in the 80s and 90s and this decade is sort of a bit like the 50s.
SIMON You’re putting all these things that are very favourable to Labour at the moment, if so why do you think you deserve a bigger slice of the electoral funding pie?
MIKE Because of the nature of the act, the act specifies a whole lot of trigger points and the act says how many MPs have you got, well we've got nearly twice as many as the next biggest party, what's been happening in your polling, well we've been leading National by around 10% for six months, so all of these things add up to a bigger share of the pie, and I would point out Labour by its nature has to communicate with a much broader group, we're a broad church party, we need to talk to people who don’t talk English for example, so that’s the sort of arguments we put to the Electoral Commission.
SIMON So if an immigrant party came into the mix you'd favour them getting a bigger slice?
MIKE Oh possibly yes. I mean we don’t really have any position on what the others should get we're just saying that if you make a formula out of what is in the Broadcasting Act then that really favours Labour as it did National in 1993 I think where they got more than we did.
FRAN Do you expect to win any of the Maori seats?
MIKE We expect to win all of the Maori seats.
FRAN What are you gonna put forward to bring Maori on side?
MIKE Well I think we've got an exceptionally good track record as far as Maoridom's concerned.
FRAN But you've had a split you've got a new Maori Party as a result of the track record with Maoridom.
MIKE We've got a new Maori MP, I'm not even convinced there is a party there Fran, it seems to be failing badly lately, I haven't heard anything from them and we haven't seen them on the ground.
SIMON So you think Maoridom's forgiven you for your handling of foreshore and seabed?
MIKE I think that there was only ever a small element, a very noisy element in Maoridom that thought we were doing it the wrong way. Our research showed us that the bulk of Maoridom actually thought that the formula we came up with was fair to both parties.
FRAN How important was the recent hui for consolidating Maori support for Labour?
MIKE Hui Taumata. I think it was important, it enabled us to strut our stuff, we've got some pretty impressive Maori members of parliament and it also focused on just how much the debate has changed since the previous hui.
FRAN There was some discussion about whether John Tamihere would get back into cabinet before the election whether that would affect his challenge in his seat, do you think that he would need to be a cabinet minister to stave off that challenge by Hone Harewira.
MIKE I don’t think so John is hugely popular in his own seat.
SIMON And we're gonna have to leave it there. Mike Williams Labour Party President, thank you very much for joining us on Agenda.
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