Jun 21, 2008

The Bassett Book

Thanks to severe fog disruption on Monday and Tuesday we were able to complete our read of Michael Bassett's book Working With David quicker than expected. We have been pondering what to say about it. Here goes

At the most general level, we enjoyed the work and it squares pretty much exactly with our own recollection - we worked in Wellington, in or close to the Beehive for pretty much the entire period of the Fourth Labour Government (but we were overseas for the end of Palmer, rise of Mike Moore). Lange was a good leader for three years. Then he lost the plot. We certainly knew about him bonking Pope very close to the 2007 election and there was no doubt that she and others in Lange's office were becoming increasingly disruptive to the policy process, and increasingly unilateral in determining policy position from soon after that election. Interesting that Bassett targets Helen Sutch so frequently.

We are not so sure about the fine detail. There were some issues covered in the book - Rainbow Warrior, Fiji Coups, Budget Preparations, Asset Sales - where we were intimately involved. On these we have to say that Bassett has been less than thorough and maybe a bit too simplistic or prone to generalisation. Maybe it just reflects that Bassett was not fully in the loop.

But what interested us most was the comment contained in Bassett's book on people who remain politically active. We had been unaware that the sane Lange (in his first three years) confided to Bassett that he saw Goff as his logical successor. We had been unaware how much Charles Chauvel was associated with the far left in his younger days. There is little new about the PM, although it is a good history of her rise through the Labour ranks also, but the strong leftist ideology followed by Cullen (who cries when he doesn't get his way) is revealing. Margaret Wilson and Ruth Dyson come in for plenty of criticism. Fran Wilde will hate the book, as will Mallard. All up the Bassett views on these people make it a concern that so many are in positions of power and responsibility right now. The militant tendency achieved a pretty spectacular take over of the Labour Party from the 1987 election onwards.

In summary, we found Bassett's account a sad reminder about a Government that did great things in its first three years. We have benefited greatly as a country from the reforms forced through in that period. But there could have been much more achieved. We constantly wonder whether we would have fallen so far behind Australia in the wealth stakes if it hadn't been for Lange's break for a cup of tea. And in that regard, we think all the senior players bear some responsibility for failure. It was clear that Lange had lost the plot. Palmer should have done something about it earlier. And both Clark and Moore were guilty of allowing things to run for too long so that they could advance their own personal political agendas.