MPs love to decry media focused on sound bites and the combative interviews that go with them. But few take the opportunity to explain themselves at length. Henry Cooke thinks they should.
When I was a political reporter, new colleagues in the gallery sometimes asked for a reading list.
Was there a book, or series of books, that would give them a basis on the political events of the last decades? As the median age of journalists seemed to be falling, this question only gained in relevance – there were simply fewer and fewer journalists working in the media during the Key years, let alone the Clark or Bolger years. .
I’ve always had trouble giving a good answer. It’s not just that there isn’t “one big book” – of course there isn’t – it’s that there are virtually none. I ended up half-heartedly recommending the few bits of good political history easily watchable online (Revolution and Country), which are passed down as relics from POLS 111 student to POLS 111 student, then maybe a book by Colin James or Rebecca Macfie.
Instead, New Zealand’s recent political history is widely scattered in the broken archives of news websites, misquoted Wikipedia articles and Hansard. If you are, like me, a real sick person who wants to understand more than the general achievements of a government that ruled before you were a conscious adult, you’re usually out of luck.
This ahistoricism is a failure of many institutions in our country. Professional historians prefer the comfort zone of the not-so-recent past, which means we get interesting articles on tax policy in the 1980s published in 2015. Journalists only tap into the past when they need to for a story, and even then they often forget to do so. And politicians are never happy to remind you of how many different positions their party may have had on a political issue – they’ll post a portrait of Michael Joseph Savage, but they won’t tell you what they think of the debate on the foreshore and the seabed.
My solution won’t solve this problem entirely, but I think it will help: politicians need to write more books.
The last prime minister to write a book about his tenure was Jim Bolger in 1998. John Key not only didn’t write a book, he didn’t even meet Guyon Espiner for his 9e Floor interviews that other prime ministers have used to review their tenure. Even Bill English, who is dauntingly intelligent and clearly felt he was leaving politics with unfinished business in social investing, couldn’t find the time to write anything.
I’m not saying that any of these books would be really good. The recent crop of books by former politicians – I’m thinking of Christopher Finlayson Yes Minister, by Michael Cullen Labor saving and Marilyn Waring The political years – all lacked the narrative tension and zoom-out pursuit that true non-fiction demands. Instead, these books all essentially acted as lists of political events and issues, with context given by the politician – whether it was the mood of the cabinet at the time, what he regrets or does not regret a decision, or how his thinking may have changed. overtime.
But while these books are not fantasy literature, they are valuable. Giving a politician the space they’ll never have in an interview or a press release to really explain their decision-making, with the wisdom of hindsight and without pressure to toe a party line can get results. which should be of interest now and to future historians.
Often what is most intriguing is what is left out. In David Lange’s memoir, the most talented writer to ever reach the ninth floor simply glosses over his own role in allowing his government and party to crumble, resorting to hilarious insults instead. Barack Obama, another talented writer, simply seems to accept that the pharmaceutical industry’s demands for his health care bill must be implemented, even with a filibuster-proof majority in Congress. These omissions give us a real insight into the brains of both men.
It’s not just prime ministers or even elected MPs who should write more, it’s all political actors. Tony Blair’s years in the UK are perhaps best understood through the diaries of his collaborator Alastair Campbell, just as Margaret Hayward’s diary of her years as Norman Kirk’s secretary is invaluable.
If these people at the pinnacle of power keep enough notes, they can open a series of rooms that the New Zealand public deserves to enter. What were the discussions like in the hours following the Canterbury earthquakes? What was the first thing Clark thought of when she heard the news of 9/11, or the Israeli passport scandal, or Tariana Turia leaving to start a new party? How did Bill English deal not only with the grim economic picture he inherited as the new finance minister, but also the news of John Key’s resignation? We get glimpses of it in excerpts from journalism or oral history, like Andrea Vance’s excellent book Blue blood or the Inner stories Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon’s book on Helen Clark – but the story deserves a fuller account.
It’s easy to see why those books have dried up. Publishing a book brought in revenue (which people like Lange needed). These days, social media offers former politicians like Clark a much more direct way to make their views known, and none of them really seem to be running out of money.
But nothing beats a book to explain at length. And if we want to fix the ahistoricism that pervades our country, excluding so many from detailed knowledge of the recent past, we should start at the top.
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