Believing in Mike Moore

Michael Kenneth Moore, who died on the 2nd of February 2020, was New Zealand Prime Minister for just 59 days in 1990. But his influence on New Zealand far exceeded that brief stint, he was a figure akin to the likes of Whitlam, Hawke or Keating in Australia.

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Pic: Mike Moore at the 59th Annual Labour Party Conference Source: Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore

Following his retirement from politics, Moore was Director-General of the World Trade Organization from 1999 to 2002 and served as Ambassador to the United States from 2010 to 2015.

"If you want something badly, it seems to move from you.” - Mike Moore

I worked for Mike Moore for three intoxicating, exhilarating, hard-working, stressful and fun-filled years. I hated that period in my career and I loved it.

He never seemed to sleep or stop thinking about getting one over the National Government. He was always impatient and in a hurry. Everything was about now. There was no pause or off switch.

I learned more about politics, the media, public relations and the psyche of everyday New Zealanders from Moore than I ever gave back to him.

Moore returned to New Zealand in 2015 after the years as US ambassador, having suffered a stroke near the end.

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Pic: Yvonne Moore, Michelle and Barack Obama, and Mike Moore at the White House during his time as NZ Ambassador to the US Source: Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore

That was when I - hesitantly - pitched the idea of this book. I’m sure he only accepted because his many ailments had left him unable to use his own hands properly. If he’d been fully fit, he would have spent those hours stuck at his new desk writing instead of reading.

So every second or third weekend over two and a half years, I’d spend afternoons at Mike and Yvonne’s home in Omana, the beach suburb in Auckland’s south-east.

Having experienced some of the giddy days observing the fourth Labour Government, I was in awe of a generation of politicians who profoundly changed New Zealand. It was more than the saving of the country from “Piggy” Muldoon’s near bankruptcy of it, taking a stand on being nuclear free in the middle of the Cold War, actively opposing apartheid South Africa or standing up to colonial France’s arrogance in the Pacific.

That period marked the changing in the country’s political guard. It was the generational change every administration hopes it is. Moore was at the centre of much of that period.

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Pic: Mike Moore (centre in navy) pictured outside Parliament having been elected as NZ’s youngest MP at 23 years old in 1972. Picture also includes Prime Minister Norm Kirk Source: Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore

The fourth Labour Government’s demise was just as spectacular, just as news-filled as its rise and, again, Moore was in the middle of it all.

I tried not to be a chronicler of every minute of his life and career. Instead I tried to pick key moments. There are the things most politicians normally never own up to - the ambition, the failures and the upsets. But Moore was always hopeful about what tomorrow would bring - for ordinary Kiwis, the Labour Party, New Zealand and global politics.

I hope this book captures not only another glimpse of this important time in New Zealand’s political, economic and social history but the essence of the man: the boy from rural Northland who once thought the pinnacle in life would be to own the local petrol station, who with no formal education went on to be probably New Zealand’s last working-class prime minister, the country’s highest-ranking international figure.

Peter's book "Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore" was launched in August 2020.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke at the launch.

The following is the epilogue of Peter Parussini’s book: Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore (Upstart Press), NZ$39.99 RRP on sale now.

September 2019

The laptop is still open. But now it’s on a tray hovering over his waist, as his head is propped up by two carefully placed pillows against the elevated end of his hospital bed.

There are tubes poking out from under the sheets.

The meeting place has moved upstairs to his bedroom.

His dimple rises and he hangs his hand out to shake. Now, no muscles engage.

‘Gidday mate,’ he whispers, his lips hardly moving.

Yvonne brings in the savouries, sandwiches, slices and coffee.

The routine is the same, but everything is different.

There’s a gritting of teeth, a sharp intake of air and a closing of eyes. Yvonne squirts a syringe of morphine into his mouth.

‘How do you think they’re going?’ he asks, widening his eyes.

I scribbled it in my notebook at the time but never ended up using the quote.

He wasn’t quite yet sworn in as Prime Minister by the Governor General on 4 September 1990 when I heard Mike let slip at his first press conference as Labour leader something that, looking back now, seemed to be overly reflective.

‘If you want something badly, it seems to move from you,’ Mike told journalists. I thought it a strange comment at the time, wrote it in my notebook, and with the rest of the herd got distracted by the craziness of the remainder of the day.

I reflected on it, almost 30 years later, and he said, almost in a melancholy way, that it had been the story of his life.

Maybe it was the medication or the fact he knew he was dying, but he didn’t seem satisfied with his many achievements. In one of our last conversations he suggested we write a book about dying, so that at least he could be useful again to someone.

Throughout his extraordinary life Mike was ambitious - for himself, for his electorates, for the government he was a part of and then briefly led, for the World Trade Organization’s agenda, for New Zealand and US relations, for his health and for his relationship with Yvonne.

He wanted the best for all of them, yet almost everything he ever really desired he didn’t quite get his hands around - from having a loving father in his childhood, through to enjoying a long-overdue retirement with Yvonne at the end.

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Pic: Mike in his father Alan's arms with his siblings Source: Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore

Imagine what his life would have been if he’d been able to push on with the many achievements chronicled in the book. The truth is he probably wouldn’t have been the complex, driven, interesting, funny and thoughtful person that was Michael Kenneth Moore.

The eulogies from across the political spectrum, on the announcement of his death on 2 February 2020 and at his funeral 12 days later, were fulsome and generous about his global and local contributions. He shouldn’t have fretted.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern remembered him as a ‘true believer’ and lifted him into the pantheon of Labour leaders like Norman Kirk. Former Australian Labor Leader Kim Beazley recognised his achievements on the world stage. Former South Australian Premier Mike Rann, and former Cabinet ministers Bill Jeffries and Clayton Cosgrove, shared anecdotes of Mike the politician.

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Pic: Nelson Mandela with Mike and Yvonne Moore Source: Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore

But it was nephew Nick Moore and neighbour Scott Williams who unveiled him as an ordinary human being who was kind and fun to be around, great with young people, and who did simple acts like give away hundreds of swan plants in the neighbourhood so there would be monarch butterflies for the children to see.

Many will remember Mike as a complex person, possibly with contradictions. That’s what I thought when I first interviewed him. But I came to see him in simpler terms in the final weeks of his life.

People who follow politics talk about conviction politicians. They’re the ones who campaign around their core values and beliefs and centre all their policies and thinking around being pure to them. To be labelled a conviction politician is a grand compliment indeed.

Mike was a conviction New Zealander. He was convinced that everything he did in his political career was around the core values and beliefs of ordinary New Zealanders - the same as those created, promoted and defended by the New Zealand Labour Party. That’s why he believed he owed his very being to the party.

In Mike’s mind he was always a defender of New Zealand and Labour core values and beliefs. He was a socialist because he believed a government’s role was to create foundations like public health and education, social welfare and other collective provision to ensure ordinary people got a fair shot at life.

He didn’t believe in equality of outcome - it was equality of opportunity - because he also believed in aspiration and the human spirit to do better.

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Pic: Mike and Yvonne Moore with his mother Audrey when he was elected the Labour Party’s first junior Vice President in 1975 Source: Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore

But throughout his political career he was polarising. Some saw the best of Labour and New Zealand in him, while others saw a party and a country they needed to change.

Most people project themselves onto the politicians they like. They see the best of themselves in their representatives and Moore was that to many voters. That’s why he was popular. He represented what it was to be a Kiwi battler.

But, for some, Mike also represented the worst of New Zealand — uncouth, uneducated, unrefined and plenty of other ‘uns’.

Mike was never part of the chattering classes. He didn’t go to art gallery openings or host fancy dinner parties. His idea of a party involved alcohol, charred protein and hopefully someone with a guitar. He thought tomato sauce was the perfect accompaniment to most meals.

I’m not sure whether he went out of his way to thumb his nose at them, but they certainly knew he didn’t like - no, rate - them.

While he easily mixed with kings, queens, presidents and captains of industry, I sensed that deep down he felt awkward and shy, and was far more comfortable in the Returned and Services Association pun smoking Peter Stuyvesant Red and drinking jugs of Canterbury Draught with Kiwis who used their hands rather than their minds to make a living.

Mike certainly showed up and embarrassed some in Labour. It wasn’t so much his down-to-earth tastes and habits but the fact that he was more Labour than them. He was one of the people the middle-class members of the party were supposedly trying to save and they hated the idea that one of those people was telling them they weren’t good enough to do that.

Mike saw them as part of the privilege he’d spent his life trying to smash. He saw them as no different from the ‘white coats’ at the Moerewa freezing works, surrounding themselves with the spoils while pretending to care about others.

Maybe that’s why some people forgot his many achievements. And maybe that’s why some were quick to label him as the man who came up with the lamb burger idea, as though that was his greatest contribution.

Mike was part of the ‘fish-and-chip brigade’ that helped give New Zealand the remarkable David Lange whose government forever transformed the country.

He helped grow the New Zealand economy by opening up international markets for the country’s talented producers and innovators.

He helped repair the relationship with the US after the ANZUS split and, in so doing, helped create anti-nuclear consensus among New Zealand’s political parties.

He helped put an end to the runaway free-market approach to economic management of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, without going back to centralised planning of the economy.

And his greatest achievement saw China join a rules-based global trading system where the law took precedence, for the first time, over the Chinese Communist Party and, in turn, saw millions taken out of poverty - something Beazley described at the funeral as a significant event in world history.

But his story was part of something broader than that.

Moore and those who were key players throughout his political life - the likes of Jim Anderton, Michael Bassett, David Caygill, Helen Clark, Michael Cullen, Roger Douglas, David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer and the many more of that generation - came into politics at a key juncture in the history of the New Zealand Labour Party and international progressive politics.

In their time the New Zealand Labour Party became an awkward coalition of trade unionists, blue-collar workers, academics, middle-class liberals, interest groups and professionals. It had been fragile for some time because the commonality of interests wasn’t always aligned.

Left-wing politics was at a fork in the road for that generation. And it wasn’t so much the debate about open versus closed economies. It was about who would rule and impose their values on these parties, what some now describe as the culture wars.

Was it a party that would continue to represent the mostly socially conservative aspirations of working-class people or the combined variety of interests of the middle classes?

I believe Mike and his colleagues fundamentally got caught up in that battle, one that he was always going to lose given how Labour and progressive parties were moving from their bases. Education, globalisation and technology changes were shrinking the manual working class, their core support.

Interestingly, Mike wasn’t bitter about this. He was glad Labour policies enabled the children of the working classes to go to university and get professional jobs, and be socially mobile. He saw that as a measure of Labour’s success.

But he was equally sad that many of the remaining working class also left Labour and became the swing voters that populists and nationalists are now targeting with their bigoted and isolationist rhetoric.

In an earlier era, Mike would have been the perfect Labour politician — a red meat-eating, jug-drinking and ‘packet-a-day’ man. But he became caught in this transition going on in the party. Many of the new members in Labour came from National Party-voting families. He couldn’t be any more different from them and so his and their starting positions couldn’t be any more divergent.

That’s why he variously felt ‘his’ party was leaving - or was being taken away from - him.

The irony was that he was probably better-read than many of those who had been to university and he had no reason to feel inferior. His huge appetite for books meant he continued to learn, which was in contrast to some of his colleagues who had come to their conclusions about life upon graduation.

There were constant disconnects between Mike and some of the new people in Labour. Lifting import restrictions on second-hand cars, for example, meant working families could for the first time afford a decent car. He instantly got that. But to these new people in the party it meant more pollution and a lack of focus on public transport.

Each just couldn’t - or didn’t want to - see the other’s point of view.

A number of former colleagues talked about his many funny, often self-deprecating, quips: “A lawn-mowing democracy”, “I’m going to do something completely unheard of in the Labour Party - I’m going to praise someone behind their back”, and “The public are starting to wave at us with five fingers instead of two”. There are even lists of them in circulation.

Some of his colleagues used to laugh at him rather than with him when hearing the quips. But throughout his career Mike was able to get to the nub of an issue and communicate its essence, often with humour, so that ordinary New Zealanders could understand. Surprisingly, that’s a rare skill for politicians.

One of the constant themes in our conversations was Mike’s impatience to get things done, to make change. His three bouts of cancer clearly informed this view. This made him confronting and, at times, come across as brash and arrogant.

But there was something else, I noticed. He loved the workload. It was never a burden or an obligation.

The more he had to do - the busier he was and the higher the stakes - the more he seemed to see and understand. It was as though the screen widened for him and he saw something more than others did. Many former colleagues talked about this insightfulness. He enjoyed this clarity, the sense of purpose behind what he was doing, and it gave him personal fulfilment and happiness.

The downside of that was that politics became addictive and any slowing created a narrowing blurriness and banality he wanted to avoid in his life. The pace and adrenalin was his drug. The smaller and insignificant matters - like polite small talk with small-minded or ignorant colleagues - bored and annoyed him.

Mike joined Labour to be part of a movement of change. Some of the others joined it, he told me, for their own personal advancement and social status. They thought they were saving the party from itself and they were doing it a favour and that’s why their loyalty was fleeting. He always thought he was lucky Labour would have him.

Even in its darkest hours he was never embarrassed about being Labour and for those who deserted it for NewLabour and then the Alliance he reserved the working class’s greatest insult - scab.

The constant theme that came through in our conversations was that Mike always seemed insecure and, because of that, deep down - in the place where all politicians have to visit at some stage - he actually lacked confidence. He was never sure if he was quite good enough.

That’s why he was first in the office in the mornings and last to leave at night. Hard work, he figured, would overcome any of his shortcomings.

If he’d managed to conquer that insecurity, who knows what giddier heights his remarkable life might have reached?

For a man as well travelled and experienced as Mike, it became clear to me he only ever really loved two places - Parliament’s debating chamber, where his background wasn’t judged, only his contribution when he took a call, and where he grew up in the Far North, where his soul was always replenished by its down-to-earth residents. In these two homes of his, he was everyone’s equal.

Many people at home and abroad talk affectionately about Mike. He judged people simply and, despite his tribalism, not by their political affiliation. As with many New Zealanders, it was whether the person was ‘a good sort’ - friendly, interesting, enjoyed a laugh and, importantly, was loyal.

Politics for Mike was often intertwined with friendships, sometimes with people from the other side of the House.

But for much of his life he was a loner and introspective, he admitted once to me. He had the ability to withdraw himself, to hunker down, and not bother with the networking and small talk at which some politicians excel. That may have cost him at key moments in his political career.

The most influential people in his life, the ones he could be honest with, were few - his boyhood friends Bryan Gregory and Terry Bayley, his Eden campaign gang Warren Goff and Mike Rann, his mentors Matiu Rata and Joe Walding, his Socialist Youth International roommate Loo Chong Yong, the preacher who helped him close death’s door Bill Subritzky, his numbers man Bill Jeffries, his Aussie mate Kim Beazley, and his protégé - some say son he never had - Clayton Cosgrove.

Then there was mother, Audrey Goodall Moore Webber. Mike just wanted to hear and see love from her.

But the most important was Yvonne Dereany, the trainee school teacher from Blockhouse Bay - the person who pushed him forward when he was shy, scared or unsure, hugged him when he lost, made the sandwiches for Labour housie evenings, held up his election hoardings as he hammered them in, absorbed all the personal abuse at candidates meetings, held his vomit bag when he had cancer, consoled him when his mother died, wanted to have his children, shook the hands and smiled politely, held his grudges and in his final years bathed, cleaned and tucked him in at night.

It was not the life she probably envisioned when they met almost 50 years ago, but it was one devoid of the exaggeration, outrage and false modesty of politics. It was authentic and real.

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Pic: Mike and Yvonne Moore on their wedding day in 1975. It was the celebrity wedding of the year in New Zealand Source: Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore

Mike said he never wanted anything in return for his lifetime in politics.

I could tell in our conversations that, growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, all he ever really wanted was what all working-class people ever want - respect: acknowledgement of who he was, his skills, contribution and achievements.

That would have allowed him a simple retirement sitting on his balcony, comfortably and contentedly like the kuia used to outside the old Star Hotel, and to gaze across to the Cavalli Islands from the deck of his Matauri Bay beach house in the Far North.

There he would have imparted his wisdom - and his old stories on repeat - about all things politics and life to a younger generation of would-be believers.

Peter Parussini is Head of Corporate Affairs New Zealand at ANZ, former Parliamentary Press Gallery reporter and former staffer for Prime Minister Mike Moore. He is the author of Believer: Conversations with Mike Moore (Upstart Press), NZ$39.99 RRP on sale now.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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