Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

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Chaotic Leadership in New Zealand?



When Liz Truss announced her resignation as British Prime Minister some wag observed that she'd achieved a lot: she had buried the Queen, buried the pound, and buried the Conservative Party. And all of it in fewer than 45 days....

I started thinking back about whether New Zealand had had anything in our recent political history to compare with the current British farce. The answer is we haven't had anything on the scale of four prime ministers in six years within the governing party. Here is our nearest equivalent:

In May 1930 Sir Joseph Ward, who had been Prime Minister 1906-12 and who came back to office half blind and with a dicky heart at the end of 1928, was hoping for a cure from the warm mineral waters of Rotorua. In my biography of Ward there's a press photo of the Prime Minister being pushed across the road to the Ward Baths (named after him) in a bath chair. Instead, his cabinet turned up to Princes Gate Hotel where he was staying and informed him his time was up. Ward resigned, and died six weeks later. George Forbes took over as Prime Minister.

The next Prime Minister to be forced out was Sidney Holland who clearly hoped to fight the general election in 1957. But he was losing his memory. His cabinet ministers visited him and obliged him to announce his retirement in August that year. However, Holland took so long to depart that Keith Holyoake, his successor, had only a few weeks as Prime Minister before losing the election to Walter Nash. Three Prime Ministers in less than three months.

Having been Prime Minister for another eleven years, in February 1972 Keith Holyoake was nudged towards the exit door by his colleagues. Jack Marshall replaced him, but lost an election to Norman Kirk in November that year. Three Prime Ministers within ten months.

Restless colleagues attempted to push Prime Minister Robert Muldoon out of office in October 1980. But their chosen replacement, Brian Talboys, refused to run. Muldoon eyeballed the "colonels" who had instigated the attempted coup and it faded away, leaving considerable bitterness within the National caucus.

In June 1989 a motion of no-confidence in Prime Minister David Lange failed to topple him by four votes. By then he was sick, unpredictable, and desperately in love with a woman who wasn't his wife. He chose to resign a few weeks later when his caucus voted to reinstall his bete noir, Roger Douglas, to cabinet. Geoffrey Palmer replaced Lange as Prime Minister in August 1989. Thirteen months later, Mike Moore threatened a no-confidence vote in Palmer who stepped aside for Moore. His Prime Ministership came to an end 59 days later when Jim Bolger won the 1990 election. Four Prime Ministers in sixteen months.

In late 1997 Prime Minister Jim Bolger discovered when he returned to New Zealand from an overseas trip that he no longer had enough numbers in caucus to support his continuation in office. He resigned in favour of Jenny Shipley in December that year.

There have been plenty of votes aimed at toppling Leaders of the Opposition, as Marshall, Muldoon, Bill Rowling, Shipley, Bill English and several later Labour leaders could attest.

We have had some brief Prime Ministerial tenures over the last century: Sir Francis Bell, our first Kiwi-born Prime Minister, in May 1925 following Bill Massey's death, held the fort for sixteen days while the Reform Party selected a new leader, Gordon Coates. Three Prime Ministers in less than three weeks.

But we haven't ever had the sustained chaos enjoyed, if that's the word, by the current British Conservative Party. And none of our Prime Ministers has ever been seen off by a lettuce.