9th Floor book: 'We're all in this together'

4:31 pm on 25 August 2017

Get a sneak peek at an excerpt from the soon to be released book based on the acclaimed 9th Floor podcast series.

The 9th Floor

Photo: RNZ

Time is a potent force.

Earthquakes and oceans, wind and weather change the world, but ultimately time outdoes them all. Perhaps most significantly, time changes minds and alters perceptions.

And in politics, as we well know, perception - if not quite everything - is vital.

So what has time done to the perception of New Zealand's living Prime Ministers and their moment in charge?

For Helen Clark it was three weeks short of nine years. For Mike Moore, 59 days, and most of those on the campaign trail. But, long or short, what do they remember of those days when they ran the country? What is that like? What, in hindsight, do they make of the 'captain's calls' they made? And how did they shape the country we now inhabit?

Those were the questions that in 2016 drove Morning Report presenter Guyon Espiner and me to make the RNZ podcast series, The 9th Floor - deceptively simple questions about lessons learnt in hindsight.

Helen Clark after her interview with Guyon Espiner in 2016

Helen Clark in 2016 Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The five Prime Ministers saw the country through one of the most turbulent periods in our political history: 1989 to 2008.

It's common for every generation to assume their moment in the sun was the best or worst, the most this or more that than any other time. But given the economic revolution we underwent - not to mention the social, race relations and foreign policy upheavals - I think 'one of the most turbulent' is fair comment.

We begin just as Rogernomics has come to a head and end it as Clark's social reforms are being accepted by a new National-led government.

In between, we punch and parry our way through nuclear-free policy, the Mother of All Budgets, breakthrough Treaty settlements, the arrival of MMP and so much more.

It's not something New Zealanders have been especially good at, remembering. We lurch and tinker and U-turn with little memory of where we've come from.

The day David Lange (left) steps down as Prime Minister. His successor Geoffrey Palmer (right) sits beside him, 1989.

In Parliament on the day David Lange, left, stepped down as Prime Minister, with Geoffrey Palmer sitting beside him, 1989. Photo: National Library / Ray Pigney / Dominion Post

So I talked to Guyon and we set about adding our own contribution to memory. Looking back at the notes from that meeting, we stressed that this wasn't biography, it was about the prime ministership and the choices and responsibilities that come with power. We wondered how long the interviews should be and where they should be held. And we fretted about how to get the five former Prime Ministers - Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger, Dame Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark - to agree.

Mostly fittingly, we wanted time. Time to research and time with the Prime Ministers. Neither were easy to come by. But we started reading, broke each interview down into themes, wrote copious notes, rang their colleagues, wrote lists on whiteboards and debated questions to ask.

Jenny Shipley

Jenny Shipley Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Most questions were specific to the person, but we also came up with a set list that we asked each one, such as any regrets, how the role has changed, their bravest decision and the biggest challenge New Zealand faces.

While the 'what' of history is well trodden, we became increasingly fascinated by how each Prime Minister made decisions.

Bolger was usually consultative, but used the glow of victory to push the new museum of Te Papa through an unwilling Cabinet.

Palmer spoke out publicly on the prospective visit of the USS Buchanan before Cabinet voted on it, because he judged party policy didn't permit equivocation.

Shipley made decisions with her eye more on what future generations might think than on the views of voters at the time, while Clark was prepared to use the prime ministerial bully pulpit, confident that colleagues - and officials - would swing in behind.

A portrait of Jim Bolger at his home in Waikanae in 2016

Jim Bolger at his home in Waikanae last year. Photo: RNZ

Perhaps the most discussed comment from the series was Bolger's belief that neo-liberalism has failed. Other assertions were less noticed, such as Palmer's that, if he had known the details of Lange's negotiations with the Americans, he might not have been so firm in his preference to deny the Buchanan access to New Zealand waters.

Yet for everything time gives, it remains stubbornly finite. We still had to make a choice of what we asked and left out. But it was the Prime Ministers who chose their answers. And it's you who choose how to interpret them ... and, with luck, to remember.

These interviews, after all, are our attempt to recall where we've come from and how we got here. Ultimately, we're all in this together.

The Ninth Floor bookwill be launched at Te Papa on Friday 8 September.

* The above, abridged, excerpt is taken from the introduction to the new book, The 9th Floor, Conversations with five New Zealand Prime Ministers. Published by Bridget Williams Books and RNZ, it is based on the top-rating and critically acclaimed podcast series the 9th Floor . It is available in stores from 28 August.

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