Bryce Edwards: The extraordinary yet tragic political life of Mike Moore

Bryce Edwards: The extraordinary yet tragic political life of Mike Moore

“We may never see his like again” wrote Richard Prebble following the death of Mike Moore in the weekend. Moore was certainly an extraordinary politician. He made some remarkable achievements, had an inimitable style, and was a mass of contradictions.

Mike Moore’s place in New Zealand political history is complicated. He has been described by many as “tribal Labour”, and yet the Labour political establishment largely shunned him in later years. His working class background and populism was out of place in a Labour Party increasingly characterised by social liberalism (although ironically much celebrated in tributes since his passing). And his role as a central player in the neoliberal policies of the 1980s and 90s meant he was an uncomfortable reminder of a period Labour would rather not dwell on.

He was more in line with Chris Trotter’s fabled “Waitakere Man” – socially conservative and concerned with the economic advancement of ordinary people. And yet many saw Moore’s politics as a betrayal of the very people he sought to represent.

There have been some very good obituaries that nicely sum up the remarkable life, colour and contradictions of Moore. One of the best is by RNZ’s Tim Watkin, who says Moore “deserves his prominent place in New Zealand’s political history”, and details his “voracious, eclectic, indefatigable” political nature – see: Mike Moore – Working Class Hero 1949-2020.

Watkin describes Moore’s career as “littered with frustrations”, but he also “reached the very top of global political structures” becoming the WTO boss, and therefore “arguably New Zealand’s most powerful political figure internationally.”

Watkin addresses Moore’s central role in implementing the neoliberal reforms: “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.”

For anyone who doubts Moore’s role as a disciple of Roger Douglas and David Lange, it’s worth reading John Roughan’s obituary for Moore, which points out that he was “the third-ranked minister in the most radical New Zealand government of our lifetime. Arguably he did more to create that government than either of its leading figures, prime minister David Lange or finance minister Roger Douglas” – see: Mike Moore obituary: New Zealand’s shortest-term prime minister (paywalled).

Moore’s role in Rogernomics is also discussed in a very interesting obituary by Richard Harman: “He was forever proposing ‘ideas’ such as his lamburger, but more particularly he was an ardent advocate of the free market principles that were driving Roger Douglas, David Caygill and Richard Prebble to reform the New Zealand economy radically. Maybe because he was overseas a lot or perhaps because he was not so comfortable with the long drawn out policy development process, he was not a central player in the reforms. A cheerleader, yes; but a policy wonk, no. And sometimes it seemed he was not really a true believer. He didn’t join Act, and he was the only Rogernome to stay on to play an active role in the party for the rest of his life” – see: Labour’s last working class hero.

Journalist Pattrick Smellie, who was a press secretary for Roger Douglas in the early years of the Fourth Labour Government, paints a picture of Moore as a political centrist, pointing out that some in the government and party regarded him as having a “moderating influence on the Douglas reforms”. Smellie says Moore “railed at times – both publicly and privately – against the crash-through radicalism of Roger Douglas’s economic reforms” – see his obituary: Mike Moore, NZ’s ‘most promising Prime Minister. Smellie suggests that Moore was neither on the left nor right of the party, and described himself as an “extreme moderate”.

He also records one-time Moore press secretary Paul Jackman arguing that Moore was “a hero” because his strong performance as Opposition leader, especially in the very close 1993 election, moderated the National Party in the 1990s, preventing them from introducing a more rightwing programme.

Misfit within the modern Labour Party

There’s now a consensus that Moore performed very well as Labour leader, preventing the party being more heavily defeated in 1990 and then coming very close to winning in 1993. Yet he was immediately replaced by Helen Clark and, despite staying on as an MP for another six years, his relationship with the party soured.

According to friend Richard Prebble, “Mike himself admitted he was by the 1990s out of step with the modern, university educated Parliamentary Labour Party”, and “Helen Clark famously complained he was incurably macho” – see: Michael Moore was lucid, funny and kind – former MP Richard Prebble remembers his lifelong friend. His social conservativism reportedly “put him offside with the new Labour MPs whose agenda was social engineering.”

Tim Watkin also discusses the differences between Moore and his increasingly middle class party: “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.”

According to Pattrick Smellie, it was at this stage that Labour split “rancorously along cultural as well as economic policy lines”. Moore was therefore “abandoned by much of the Labour hierarchy”, which meant when he gave his valedictory parliamentary speech in 1999 it was “sometimes bitter”.

And Richard Harman reports that as an opposition MP he would “lecture journalists on the cabal of feminists and left-wingers who had taken over the party and ended his career.” Harman concludes: “in a way Moore’s analysis was right. Whereas another Northland working class politician, Winston Peters, had recognised that the urban middle class now captured the mainstream parties, Moore resisted the urge to leave Labour.”

Moore did spend some time contemplating and planning a breakaway centrist party, which was rumoured at the time to involve Winston Peters or a merger with NZ First. But he could never take the plunge, being too tribally loyal to his party, even if the party itself no longer returned the sentiment.

According to Stuff political editor Luke Malpass, Moore would have been a better fit in Australian politics – see: Mike Moore: Former PM better understood in Australia? And he argues that the schism between Moore and Labour typifies the contemporary problem that leftwing parties have with working class politics.

Here’s Malpass’ main point: “Moore’s background is also a challenge to modern Labour. Fairly or not, around the world working class voters are slowly but surely turning towards conservative parties as social democrats are seen as parties of the elites. This has happened in the US, Australia, UK and France – among other countries. Labour needs to try to fight this trend in New Zealand. It could do worse than asking itself if there would be a room for a Mike Moore in today’s party. And if not, why not?”

The rightwing embrace of Moore

Although the Labour Party’s relationship with Moore and his legacy is fraught, for the political right the former Labour leader is more easily celebrated. David Farrar points out that Moore “understandably remained bitter about his treatment by Labour for decades. In fact National treated him far better by supporting him to become WTO Director-General and later Ambassador to the US” – see: More on Mike Moore.

Farrar also points to the class problems symbolised by the former PM: “Moore was the last working class leader of the Labour Party. He may be the last one ever, considering more working class voters support National than Labour now.”

Business leaders and rightwing figures are praising Moore whole-heartedly – see, for example, Chris Keall’s Mike Moore remembered as a passionate defender of trade. In this, Taxpayers’ Union chairperson Barrie Saunders is quoted saying, “Mike Moore was a great self-educated New Zealander, who was able to re-think traditional Labour Party mantras.”

Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking declares Mike Moore was my favourite politician. He expresses sadness that Moore is likely to be the last blue-collar PM, and adds that he was “a brilliantly nice, entertaining, and erudite man.”

The leftwing evaluations of Moore

The tributes celebrating Moore’s working class background – and somehow by extension, politics – are galling for some on the left, who regard Moore’s career as dominated by the pursuit of an anti-working class agenda. In Chris Trotter’s Looking back at the political career of Mike Moore, New Zealand’s 34th Prime Minister, he paints a picture of Moore as anti-idealistic, extremely pragmatic, as well as being ruthless and cynical.

According to Trotter, “For pretty much the whole of his political life” Moore was concerned with “the grim task of dismantling many of the New Zealand working-class’s most important achievements”, especially those of previous Labour governments. And he suggests that Moore’s working class background was cynically used by both the politician and his party to further the Rogernomics revolution: “How useful it was to have someone who could defend radical free-market capitalism in the absolutely authentic accents of a working-class Kiwi bloke?”

Similarly, although he salutes Moore’s achievements, leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury briefly tells a story of a working class leftwinger who became a neoliberal leader and an apostle for the globalisation project – see: Mike Moore 1949-2020: Working class battler to neoliberal architect. Bradbury says Moore’s career was tragic because he was caught between his working class origins and his refusal to admit the damage he caused to working class communities in his time in government.

Finally, for one of the best and most insightful accounts of Moore’s political career, it’s well worth watching Moore’s one-hour interview from 2017 with Guyon Espiner for RNZ’s The 9th  Floor series – see: The Trader – Mike Moore.