1990: The Birth of a Self-Styled, No-Holds-Barred Hard-Arse
Now that I am 40, I feel entitled to a touch of nostalgia. This goes part way to making up for the involuntary grunts when exerting even modest physical effort, not to mention the hair sprouting from my ears which leaves the palms of my hands and a few square inches of my forehead as the last holdouts.
This abysmal Australian federal election campaign has also prompted in me a sort of sighing and wistful impulse, causing to me to gently shake my head, chuckle knowingly and hanker for simpler times as if I had, on the very same day, witnessed Don Bradman score a century at the SCG, married my childhood sweetheart, overcome Polio, and received an interest-free government loan to buy a house for $8.
Campaigning for the NZ Labour Party in the early 90’s was my Normandy (or, in the case of the 1990 campaign, Pearl Harbor). I had just entered my twenties, fired with passion for all things politics, loyal and doting to the Labour luminaries whose orbit I entered with surprising ease.
In late 1989, I was woken from a teenage slumber by my Mother to tell me Jonathan Hunt was on the phone. Hunt was a famous Labour politician, something of an icon. At the time, he was Minister for Internal Affairs which — amazingly — is a less interesting portfolio than it sounds. Mostly, he was known as Minister for Wine and Cheese, reflecting his propensity for, well, doing nothing remotely useful in politics or policy, preferring to gorge on the perks of office while expertly nuzzling the balls of whomever happened to be more powerful than he. I think he is now New Zealand’s High Commissioner to the UK, which will come in handy if the Queen is on the look out for a crisp, mid-priced Sauvignon Blanc or tickets to the Rugby World Cup.
Hunt offered me a job as archivist at the Labour Research Unit, perfect for the months before I started Uni and smack to my political veins. This gave me box seat for the 1990 election, where my enthusiasm — combined with the absence of anyone else in NZ willing to be associated in any way, shape or form with the Labour Party or its shameful record — landed me the role of marginal seats coordinator for the Auckland region. This was a stupendous job for a 20-year old since, in 1990, every single Labour seat was considered marginal. In fact, much of my time was spent in Otara, the setting for Once Were Warriors, suggesting that even Jake the Muss was voting National that election.
There was polling that suggested Labour was in for a shellacking of historic proportions, perhaps leaving them with fewer than ten seats. The Prime Minister at the time was Geoffrey Palmer, a stupefyingly dull and socially awkward constitutional law professor who was infamous within Caucus for his strategy of “working the backbench” by visiting them in alphabetical order. In desperate straits and not before time, the Party ditched Palmer (who went on to become a lobbyist and incorrigible media blow-hard who has been sent recently by the UN to sort out the Gaza flotilla mess, presumably by boring the parties into agreement). His replacement was Mike Moore, a popular former Trade and Foreign Minister, who later became Director-General of the WTO. Mike was the yin to Palmer’s yang, a typhoon of unfocused energy and a masterful retail politician. His high-voltage campaigning helped Labour lose with a modicum of respectability (28 seats rings a bell), and he went on to take the party to within a whisker of victory in 1993.
That’s all ancient history, but what I will never forget about the 1990 campaign was the joy of it. Amateurish, messy and futile: it was a blast. At one point, Mike Moore and I drove around Auckland late at night putting up election posters because the local candidate — in the PM’s words, “a lazy piece of shit” — had failed to do so. I banged up countless hoardings over the course of those weeks, outnumbered only by the number of National Party ones I pulled down. Once, I was caught in the act by patrolling cops on — thinking quickly, I put on my best Parish Council voice and insisted I was simply cleaning up after Labour Party vandals. I may have used the word “rascals”.
That was in the seat of Auckland Central, and the National Party candidate’s name was Arthur Anae. He was a successful Samoan businessman, so his candidacy was something of an eye-opener for New Zealand’s conservatives, for whom diversity usually meant candidates offering differing shades of pink.
But Anae was the enemy, ethnic tokenism aside. So I hatched the most brilliant plan yet in my nascent campaigning career, an act that would help enormously in my efforts to build a reputation as a no-holds-barred hard-arse. It went like this:
Pot of white paint and black marker. Add the letter “F” to ARTHUR, erase HUR. White out the top two horizontal lines of the letter “E” in ANAE.
Front page, NZ Herald.