Monday, October 27, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“REFORM – A Memoir” by Geoffrey Palmer (Victoria University Press and the Law Foundation, $NZ80)
Geoffrey Palmer’s memoirs were released a number of months ago and have already been reviewed in all the literary and professional magazines, not to mention the shorter notices in newspapers. Why, then, have I taken so long to produce a review of them on this blog, when I pride myself on (often) getting my word in before most of the print media have fired a shot?
Incredibly simple, really.
Reform – A Memoir is so long that it took me a great deal of time to plough my way through it, and I met weekly deadlines with other books while I was doing so. A heavy hardback, Reform – A Memoir comes in at 800 large and closely-printed pages, with the very occasional illustration. That’s 750 pages of text before the index. Its sheer weight would make it a lethal weapon if thrown across a room, or an excellent doorstopper.
I wax facetious here when I shouldn’t. As you may have noticed, I am always ready to review biographies of, or autobiographies by, New Zealand prime minsters because, regardless of their quality, such books will always tell us something about how this nation has been run. [Check the index at right for my appraisals of A Great New Zealand Prime Minister?, a symposium on William Ferguson Massy; The Mighty Totara, David Grant’s biography of Norman Kirk; and Tom Brooking’s magisterial Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own]. So I was anxious to see what Geoffrey Palmer, deputy prime minister for five years and [unelected] prime minister for 13 months, had to say about himself.
And the first and most obvious point is that he has plenty to say.
After an opening introduction, it takes a chapter of fully 33 large and tightly-printed pages to establish all of Palmer’s ancestors and his parentage. Then there is another 33-page chapter on Palmer’s Nelson upbringing and education, which Palmer begins with the words “Here I try to analyse the education I received and my reaction to it” (p.50) as if he is preparing a legal brief. He proceeds into a long account of Nelson College, but it is mainly in the form of a general critique of the school’s values, which now seem quaint. Of course young Geoffrey comes across as a studious and likeable young man – but one wonders whether he had to produce the whole text of a schoolboy speech he gave in a speech competition to show us the values that had been instilled in him? And so (Chapter 4) to a 30-page chapter on his time as a student at Vic. Yes, we hear what he studied and his interest in politics and in law and in literature and how his ideas were formed – but goodness, once again we have to ask if we really have to have Aristotle’s philosophy summarised for us over three pages as if he is reproducing old lecture notes. And there is a not a great deal of raffish student life, but once again the sense of a thoughtful and dutiful young man who keeps his nose to the grindstone, although we are touched to learn that he lost both of his amiable parents by the time he was 21. We cover (Chapter 5) his time as a law clerk and being admitted to the bar in 1965 and marrying and buying a house. We are told in great detail (Chapter 6) how he won a scholarship to study in Chicago, and went off with his wife Margaret and their infant son in 1966; and how he won a Doctor of Law cum laude. He dutifully discusses how he became interested in the whole American concept of the maintenance of free speech and how this influenced him as both a government minister and a prime minister when conceiving a Bill of Rights for New Zealand. Then it’s on (Chapter 7) to lecturing in law and politics at Vic and gaining a tenured academic position at Iowa. And here he insists on plodding through the textbook cases his students studied in the matter of property. However, at pp.179-180 he does at least tell how he was drafted into protecting university property at Iowa when anti-Vietnam War protests on campus got out of hand. Then it’s back to a chair in law at Vic. and he wraps up by telling how his legal training had an impact on his later political life and the causes he espoused. So (Chapter 8) to an account of how he became interested in the whole topic of accident compensation, about which he later wrote a detailed book and upon which he helped legislate in 1990 when he was a government minister. This includes a 23-page thesis on what can be learned about accident compensation from the last 40 years of New Zealand history.
Now I am not for one moment saying that there is nothing revealing in this book up to this point. There is the occasional interesting anecdote as when Palmer tells us that as a child
“On Sundays I was sent to the Cathedral Sunday School and later Bible Class. I was not happy about this because my parents usually stayed in bed but insisted I go. They seldom went to church and I suspect my mother was a non-believer. She was certainly opposed to organised religion; she believed only the Salvation Army did any good because they were practical.” (p.59)
This chimes very much with the common belief, among church historians, that Sunday schools were one of the reasons Protestant church attendance dropped off so quickly in New Zealand. Many Protestant kids wised up to the fact that their going to Sunday school was simply an excuse for Mum and Dad to have a Sunday snooze – so they gave up any church attendance once the childhood compulsion of Sunday school was past. Church was seen as kidstuff.
I am also interested in Palmer’s contrasts of New Zealand and American student life, as when he writes of his first impressions of Chicago:
“I could not believe how hard the students worked. It was very competitive. The weekend before classes started I went along to the Law School to have a look and was amazed to see the library full of students hard at work. I had never seen such a thing in New Zealand. I had to take a very heavy load of courses and I had never worked so hard as I did at Chicago. The fact that the year was organised in quarters meant there were examinations and papers due at the end of every quarter and this added to the pressure.” (pp.134-135)
Given that he is writing of a time about half a century ago, he is really encountering That system of semester tests and regular course appraisals that has now become ubiquitous in New Zealand universities too.
Interestingly, in the matter of teaching methods he later remarks:
“I taught in both the United States and New Zealand by the case method, also known as the Socratic method. Teaching New Zealand students by this method was something of a challenge in the 1970s when students were not selected and the classes were big. Students often found it intimidating to be questioned in a big class, and they were not as verbally dextrous as the Americans nor as confident, though they wrote better English.” (p.186)
But what I do find questionable is that it takes Palmer 226 closely-printed pages – the equivalent length of many other eminent peoples’ entire memoirs – to at last get to his launching into politics, seeking selection as a Labour candidate and finally being awarded the prize of a safe Labour seat.
The book is called Reform, is it not? And surely the promise it holds out to readers is that it will focus on Palmer as the public political figure who was in a position to bring about some reform. When we do at last get to his political life, Palmer’s style is to discuss general issues and legislative responses to them, not personalities or the rough and tumble of politics. Palmer was an early signatory of the “Citizens for Rowling” campaign before the 1975 election. He spends some pages (pp.232 ff.) telling us (reasonably enough, I think) why Robert Muldoon offered the country very little; but alas, he does not examine why, therefore, Muldoon still proceeded to win the election handsomely. This is one of many instances where it seems to me that Palmer’s essential decency and his academic bent are at odds with the brute realities of politics and how appeals are made, for good or ill, to the general electorate.
In the event, Palmer was elected to Christchurch Central in 1979, and launched into some years in opposition and attempting to argue against the type of resource management the Muldoon government promoted. He produced his book Unbridled Power on how parliament alone [i.e. the prime minister and ruling party] pushed through too much legislation without adequate time for it to be considered, and how cabinet often ruled by regulation rather than legislation. He notes how Muldoon personally attacked him as a “trendy-leftie” academic and how “the most mournful and dispiriting time I spent in politics” (p.274) was during the 1981 Springbok Tour.
We are up to the Page 296 mark, well over a third of the way through this long book, before Palmer is Attorney-General in the David Lange government which, given the book’s title, is what we have been waiting for.
From this point on, most chapters begin with a neat Introduction to the issues with which Geoffrey Palmer grappled, and end with a neat Conclusion summing it all up, like a well-wrought sophomoric essay.
Palmer tells us (Chapter 12) what the functions of an Attorney General are and what his relationship with the judiciary is and what his recommendations regarding judges were. He narrates (Chapter 13) his time as Minister of Justice and reforming prisons after the Roper Report and supporting the Homosexual Law Reform Bill and redefining rape to include rape in marriage. He discusses (Chapter 15) reforming parliament and bringing in MMP. He devotes Chapter 16 to the Treaty and Maori and the constitution, Chapter 17 to the Resource Management Act, climate change and opposition to drift-net fishing when he was Minister of the Environment, and Chapter 18 to foreign affairs. He was never Minister of Foreign Affairs but sometimes deputised in that role for David Lange. Much of this chapter is light globetrotting and glad-handing. It includes mention of Robert Mugabe’s thanks for New Zealand’s strong communiqué against apartheid (Palmer quickly notes, on p.451, that this was before Mugabe had reached his “extremist phase”) and encounters with that old charlatan Rewi Alley, whom Palmer sees as an “asset” in New Zealand’s relationship with China. The Fourth Labour Government’s anti-nuclear policy and its repercussions for ANZUS and relations with USA are the subject of Chapter 19. This includes Palmer’s part in dealing with the fallout from the “Rainbow Warrior” affair in 1985. To me at least he seems altogether too detached and phlegmatic when he declares of this affair that “while intrinsically interesting, [it] was also a fertile field for the application of dispute settlement techniques. It was in the end completely resolved and put behind the nations involved…” Was it really? Palmer praises Mitterand’s prime minister Michel Rocard for the reconciliation between France and New Zealand.
Least revealing about what is down and dirty in politics is Chapter 20, concerning Palmer’s role as Deputy Prime Minister for five years and his brief (13 months) tenure as Prime Minister.
After he leaves parliament, the remaining chapters (over 200 pages of them) chronicle his continued involvement in law (he is now a Q.C.). Chapters 21,22 and 23 cover his interest in free speech and reforming libel laws; his time in private practice; the work of the Law Commission and the abolition (which he heartily approves) of the “provocation defence” in criminal trials. Chapter 24 concerns laws pertaining to alcohol. Palmer has very mixed feelings about the drinking age having been reduced to 18, he wants alcohol policed the way tobacco is, but says real reform (despite the binge-drinking culture that is clear for all to see) is blocked by alcohol interests and the Business Roundtable. When he covers the International Whaling Commission in Chapter 25 he gives it a negative report, claiming it is essentially not doing the job it is set up to do. The final chapters are on the long-term project of reforming local government.
By this stage you are probably as weary as I am of this bland and mechanical summarising of the book’s contents. But there is reason in my blandness. I have faithfully presented Geoffrey Palmer’s memoirs in the way he himself presents them – rationally, methodically and one topic at a time. If it is a chore to read a book review written in this style, then believe me it is even more of a chore to read a whole book managed thus.
I do not dismiss the moments of insight that Palmer provides. Note, for example, his rather cautious comment on the difficulties of running enterprises in partnership with iwi:
“Then there were problems with the control of money. Maori projects had a habit of causing political embarrassment to central government due to what appeared by Pakeha standards to be lax financial administration. Somehow the New Zealand government has never been able to run things in a way that is both sensitive to Maori cultural needs and satisfactory from the point of view of Pakeha financial practices. Sir Apirana Ngata had to resign as a minister in 1934 because of this and little has changed in that respect. I also had occasion while a minister to investigate a couple of Maori Trust Boards for irregular financial administration.” (p.412)
A whole chapter, which Palmer doesn’t venture, could be written about this issue.
But, while appreciating Palmer’s methodical and legalistic approach, I am annoyed that he devotes only ten pages in this extremely long book (pp.500-510) to the Fourth Labour Government’s economic policies. Surely that government’s turn to economic neoliberalism was its most lasting legacy? Not only is Palmer’s account brief, but it shows him trying to perform the impossible task of both dissociating himself from Rogernomics and claiming that at first what Roger Douglas did was necessary and non-ideological. Later, he presents himself as the moderate voice between Douglas and those who wanted to maintain the welfare state. Whether it was his intention or not, the impression he creates is of a Labour front-bencher quite out of touch with the main thrust of what his government was doing. Similarly, Palmer rushes in a page or so past the matter of his being, pre-election, rolled in the party leadership by Mike Moore and resigning as Prime Minister. This is another instance of these memoirs avoiding the rough and nasty side of politics. It means that Palmer does not have to analyse in any detail why so much of the party saw him as unelectable as prime minister and as a liability.
The nearest Palmer comes to a general political credo in Reform is this:
“As I contemplate my political career in retrospect I should try to sum up what my political philosophy is. I do not think it changed much over the years. I am very much in the middle of the political spectrum in terms of the range of New Zealand politics. In many ways I am close to being a classical liberal of the John Stuart Mill variety. I do believe in social democracy and the state being used to advance the common good and the public interest. The state can be a great force for social good but it must not become too powerful and abuse its power over people. Freedom and liberty are very important democratic values. So are tolerance and freedom of expression. I have always been sceptical about economic theory, and I supported the economic changes made by the Fourth Labour Government not for ideological reasons but because I thought the New Zealand economy was seriously out of balance with the principles of orthodox and mainstream economics. No country in the free world was being governed like New Zealand at the height of the Muldoon ascendancy. I am a strong believer in the doctrine that constitutional lawyers call the rule of law. I prefer comprehensive and carefully thought through reform policies as opposed to fiddling, which seems to be the current fashion.” (pp.237-238)
There are so many internal contradictions in this statement that it falls very flat. A classic liberal AND a social democrat? A man sceptical of economic theory AND supporting economic change in the name of economic orthodoxy? In spite of his legal training, Palmer’s statement is more an expression of vague goodwill than anything else.
It would be wrong to say that Palmer was a man entirely without a sense of humour, but he is certainly not the man for one-liners, aphorisms or pithy witticisms. I chuckled at the pungent comments (pp.312-313) he makes on the politicised judiciary in America, where judges are elected. I smirked at his pale attempt at a joke when he compares the New Zealand constitution to Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark because it is “both imaginary and illusive” (p. 338). It somehow seems typical of this author that he methodically shoehorns all his amusing anecdotes into a final chapter called “Some Lighter Moments”.
How, in the end, do I judge this overlong and solid tome?
Reading it has not in any way changed my basic impression of Geoffrey Palmer – that he is a decent, intelligent and honest man who genuinely wants what is best for the community. I deeply regret his evasions (about his government’s economic policies) and his failure to engage with the tougher and more personality-laden aspects of politics. I applaud him for writing a very readable prose, which may have been honed by years of reading and commenting on legal cases. The best lawyers are, after all, very clear prose stylists. But I am sorry that his tone is often that of a textbook, explaining things to us and drawing neat conclusions about issues. One has the sense that he is methodically ticking off topics, like the dutiful schoolboy that he once was, producing a watertight argument for a speech competition. In this sense, and despite its subtitle, Reform is not a memoir as we are rarely given what Palmer felt (as opposed to thought) about any matter. He is professorial. He is explaining things to us and expecting us to be good students.
I can honestly say that this book will be a great resource for historians and other researchers – but then you see that in saying that, I am really damning it with faint praise. Inadvertently, this book by a thoughtful academic tells us why the public could never elect Palmer as prime minister.