Mike Moore - Working class hero 1949-2020

7:38 pm on 2 February 2020

When Guyon Espiner and I arrived to interview Mike Moore for The 9th Floor, he was sat at his kitchen table behind a stack of books 10-12 high. The titles covered topics from Islam and globalisation to architecture. It spoke volumes - literally - of the Mike Moore I knew; voracious, eclectic, indefatigable and always curious.

Mike Moore.

Mike Moore with his 'beloved books'. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

This was late 2016 and his struggles with a body badly damaged by a stroke were clear as he took minutes to cross the room and make it to his library, where we took the photograph you see here, in front of his beloved books.

I don't claim to know Mike well, but we crossed paths many times over the past 30 years. I met him first when I interviewed him for Radio Massey in, I think, 1990; worked for him briefly in the 1993 election campaign; hosted him as a panellist on Q+A; watched the 2012 US election results unfold in his office at the NZ embassy in Washington DC; and then dealt with him again regarding The 9th Floor.

That series was a study of power and although it's easy to dismiss Moore as barely a PM, given his mere 59 days in the top job (most of them on the campaign trail), he deserves his prominent place in New Zealand's political history. Sure, a combination of politics and health meant Moore's career is littered with frustrations - a short stint as PM and coming within a few hundred votes in Waitaki of winning three years later what should have been an unwinnable election; a half stint as WTO boss, shared with Thailand's Supachai Panitchpakdi; and his term as New Zealand man in DC cut short because of his stroke.

Yet Moore was arguably New Zealand's most powerful political figure internationally. Jane Clifton had the great line that Moore was New Zealand's political anti-L&P: 'world famous, just not in New Zealand'. Peter Fraser's influence at the creation of the UN and Helen Clark's role as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme are notable, but Moore reached the very top of global political structures. As director-general of the WTO he rose higher than any other New Zealander, leading (albeit for only that half term) the organisation that sets the rules for global trade.

His commitment to trade showed, whether you agree with him or not, that he was a man willing to follow where his mind and experience led. He'd got interested in trade as a back-bencher looking for ways to score points against National and Rob Muldoon as they negotiated CER with Australia. But he came to see it as the right thing to do; he saw trade as the best way to help the working family improve their lot in life.

He came from a humble working class background himself; raised by a mother who raised him and his siblings on her own in Northland after his father died when he was just five. Their home had holes in the floor where the rain came in and he left school at 14. Most politicians on the left today are defined by what is often called identity politics. That was not for Moore; he saw the world through the lens of class. That was the devil that needed to be exorcised.

To make his way in politics he went to swing seats - Eden and Papanui. With the Christchurch seat he went down and spent a year working to get to know the electorate, making money by selling kumara and running housie nights (amongst other things). He held meetings, listened, argued… this was the retail politics he loved and admired. And he feared that MMP meant some MPs were losing their tight connection to their communities.

He was the kind of political figure centre-left parties are desperate for these days. He was an authentic working class hero who pulled himself up through hard work and willpower, educated himself, and became a political and policy leader in his party.

Remember when political leaders wrote books laying out their thoughts and vision? Moore wrote several. He believed in politics as the battle of ideas and always went looking for new ones.

That sometimes led him to some curious places for all his home-made intellect. When I booked him for panels I always knew there would be a startling insight somewhere along the way, but in between he could wander off down any old tangent. I've written before that he had a hummingbird mind. David Lange famously said it worked like it had been wired by a Ukrainian electrician.

Think about those lamb burgers. Moore could seem eccentric and a bit potty at times, but these are ideas and images that stayed. His message was about doing what we're good at, but diversifying and looking for new products and new markets. And looking back, he was bang on.

Moore was only Prime Minister because he took over from Geoffrey Palmer to "save the furniture" as the party sank in 1990. He could have let Palmer and Labour sink and come in clean after that election. Maybe 1993 would have been very different if he had. But he feared Labour was "terminal" and if nothing else he was a loyal party man.

Yet the party had mixed feelings about him. Figures loyal to Helen Clark were happy for him to lose in 1993 so that she could take over and rebuild. In The 9th Floor he told the story of him and Yvonne sweeping up the hall after the loss that election night in 1993. Can you imagine any other political leader in your lifetime doing that?

He was damned as a Rogernome and deserves some the mix of flak and praise due everyone in that fourth Labour government. But that label was always too simplistic for Moore. It's great to read that Jacinda Ardern saw him only last week, because he was too often ignored by other leaders, who missed out on his profound - if quirky - political wisdom.

Moore had plenty of tragedy and frustration in his life, but he'd hate for that to loom large in discussion of his legacy. He was an ideas man. A trader. A working class hero. A grass roots politician of the old school. A magpie mind that never stopped.

One of the things he said in his The 9th Floor interview is that "The greatest betrayal we can make of our people is to not care". He never made that betrayal. For all that he stuffed into his head, he was a heart man who never stopped caring.

This article first appeared on Pundit.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs