Friday, July 29, 2005

Prebble's Retirement

One of the great sadnesses of Richard Prebble's retirement is the instititutional knowledge he takes with him. In many ways, the nostalgic history of Parliament and its characters have little to do with the realities of politics or day-to-day life in New Zealand. But the rich tapestry of Parliament and its traditions--and some of the more peculiar people who have had their fifteen minutes of fame in public life--deserve to go on record.

Of those who mixed and mingled with both the lions and monkeys of the legislature of the 1960s and 1970s, now only Winston Peters remains. And unlike Winston, Prebble's recollection of the years of Muldoon is accurate in both substance and detail.

Of course, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen both entered Parliament in 1981. But they were not active in Wellington during the heady years of 1975-1978, when Muldoon was still brilliant and single-handedly dominated the political landscape. By the time Clark and Cullen arrived in Wellington, Muldoon's disastrous policies had caught up with him; he was a decadent creature of post-war New Zealand, suffering from alcohol-induced diabetes, and had lost a grip on modern life.

And unlike Prebble, Clark and Cullen have never been larger than life: they have always been policy wonks far more interested in the science of politics rather than the people of politics. From the moment Prebble entered Parliament, he revelled in sparring with Muldoon. Nobody managed to irk Muldoon more than the upstart young MP for Auckland Central. Prebble admits now the high respect that he had for Muldoon's essential instinct, which was never stronger than when Prebble first arrived in Wellington. Muldoon, too, probably saw in Prebble the Young Turk that Muldoon was when he entered the House fifteen years earlier. Both were brilliant, young, of a later generation than all of the incumbents, and were prepared to challenge the rules. Prebble went after Muldoon because Muldoon never gave an inch.

In the later years of his premiership, Muldoon was not nearly as devastating as he had been when Prebble arrived in Parliament, but was still capable of a quick retort and the raw cunning that had held him at the top of public life for so long. And both Muldoon and Prebble were deeply creative thinkers. Before Edward de Bono developed his lateral thinking theories, both men were already applying it in practice. Prebble recounted, in his valedictory speech yesterday, a favourite story about Muldoon which typified the man. The original story I heard about Muldoon's ray gun solution was somewhat longer. It went like this:

Muldoon received a briefing from officials upon being elected Prime Minister. At the end of the meeting, Bernie Galvin, then head of the Prime Minister's Department, said to him: "Prime Minister, just so you know, there are a few crackpots around who tend to call up and write to you. They're all very harmless, and we do our best to make sure that they don't interrupt your work."

Muldoon was intrigued. "Crackpots, eh? What kind of crackpots call up?"

"Well," said Galvin, "there is one guy in Auckland who calls up every couple of weeks, complaining that there is a ray gun above Parliament, which is trained on his head, and sucking out his brain."

Muldoon chuckles, and asks: "How long has he been complaining about this?"

"About fifteen years, Prime Minister."

"Right. Next time he calls up, put him through to me."

So about a week passes, and Muldoon is having a private discussion in his office with a senior Australian politician. There's a knock on the door, and Bernie Galvin walks in sheepishly, and says: "Prime Minister, I'm sorry to interrupt, but you did say that you wanted to take this call."

"What call?" Muldoon growls.

Galvin looks at the Australian politician, and suddenly feels extremely silly for interrupting the meeting. But he says it anyway. "Ray-Gun Man."

"Right. Put him through," Muldoon answers.

Muldoon picks up the phone. "Muldoon here."

The caller is shocked that he's finally managed to reach the Prime Minister personally, and stammers out his story. "Mr Muldoon, thank you so much for taking my call. I'm calling to complain about a ray gun on top of Parliament, which is trained on my head."

"What's the problem with it?" Muldoon asks.

"It's sucking out my brain," the caller responds.

"Not very comfortable then, is it?" Muldoon probes.

"No, Mr Muldoon."

"Right then. Let's see what I can do." And the Prime Minister scares the pants off his Australian dignitary, by shouting: "TURN OFF THE FUCKING RAY-GUN!"

And then Muldoon speaks back into the phone: "Problem fixed." And hangs up. And the caller never called again.

Likewise, Prebble applied ground-breaking strategies--but very simple strategies to the reform of state-owned enterprises--which nobody had thought of doing before. His direct, simple, no-nonsense approach made him an outstanding contributor to the Fourth Labour Government.

Prebble's record as a reformer made him one of the few great achievers in political life of the 1980s. And he achieved it--as Muldoon made his achievements--through dogged self-belief, and force of personality.

In later years, Prebble himself has been an anachronism: a dinosaur in surroundings that have an air of familiarity, but populated by new species who have new ways of operating. Prebble has retained his formidable wit and intellect--and still is capable of tearing apart even the toughest opponent. But he has lost the passion and will to make a difference in New Zealand. He deserves our applause both for the contribution he has made, helping redraw the way that New Zealanders understand their relationship with Government. And he deserves a second clap for understanding that it is time to bow out--before he became an embarrassment to himself, and Parliament itself.


Anonymous said...

Hi Prick

Seen this?

Anonymous said...


Been away all weekend?

I am still waiting for the story about Miss Coromandel Peninsula.

Anonymous said...


Back yet? Was it a stunning long weekend with Miss Coromandel? No? What then? You can't go AWOL like this on us. Looking forward to hearing from you again.

A Non