Review written in September 1996 concerning Richard Prebble’s book I’ve Been Thinking, Seaview Publishing, Auckland, 1996.
Richard Prebble is not very well known outside of New Zealand. As a result of his recent bestselling (in New Zealand) book he deserves to be better known across the Tasman. Although Roger Douglas got most of the credit and the publicity for the Rogernomic reforms in New Zealand under the fourth Labour government of David Lange from 1984 to 1990, Prebble played just as important a role. Prebble was narrowly defeated in the last New Zealand election when he recontested his seat as a Labour member. Since then he has left the New Zealand Labour Party and helped form the ACT New Zealand Party, originally the Association of Consumers & Taxpayers, formed by Sir Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley. Prebble’s book is partly an account of his political development, including his period as a reform-minded minister in the last New Zealand Labour government and partly a political tract in favour of his new party.
The title of Prebble’s book comes from a phrase he was known for in Wellington. Just as Sir Humphrey Appleby, made famous in the “Yes Minister” television series, the idea of “that’s courageous, Minister”, Prebble’s phrase is likely to pass into political folklore.
On the strength of this book he has been doing a lot of thinking and reflection on his recent experiences. The book rivals Peter Walsh’s account of his time as Australia’s finance minister. Just as Walsh wrote a whimsical, hard-punching and racy account of his ordeals and adventures, full of mocking irony and self-deprecation, Prebble has done the same.
Ministers in the new Howard government and, indeed, anyone involved in politics across Australian political life should read this book.
Prebble’s theme is that politics is less about the old ideological certainties. It is more about values: “I had to find out why some succeeded and others failed. I made a simple but fundamental discovery; those who did well had what I call achievement values in common. Those who failed had failure values in common.” He goes on to comment that achievers have ten core achievement values or a ways of thinking. These were:
(ii.) a vision inspiring enough – or at least interesting enough – for others to follow;
(iii.) courage, including a touch of audacity;
(iv.) the habit of thinking in cause-and-effect terms, in other words working a problem through to its cause and analysing what the real effects of the policy might be;
(v.) thrifty, in the biblical sense of being a good steward;
(vi.) willingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions;
(vii.) honesty, including the courage to face reality;
(viii.) the ability to work cooperatively with others to an agreed aim;
(ix.) setting ambitious but realistic goals; and
(x.) knowing that one’s efforts can make a difference.
Prebble suggests that in the new multi-member parliamentary electoral system in New Zealand, the policies that political parties advocate, will not be as important as the values that underlie them.
The most interesting discussion in the book concern his experience as a minister, first as Minister for Railways and later as Minister for State-Owned Enterprises. When he became Minister for Railways, he found a letter from a farmer who complained that the Railways had lost his tractor. After weeks of fruitless complaining to the organisation the farmer wrote at length to the new minister. Of course Prebble ordered the Railways to find the tractor. Eventually they said: sorry, we know it left Hamilton but it failed to arrive at Taumaranui. The minister wrote apologetically to the farmer, but that was not the end of it. The farmer went and searched for the tractor himself. It took him a whole week. Eventually finding the submerged tractor in a railway siding leading into a lake, along with six other wagons that the Railways had lost. This experience taught Prebble a few important lessons. One man with the right incentive out-performs 22,000 state employees with the wrong ones. Sometimes what he writes seems a little unsophisticated and simplistic but often enough understatement reads powerfully as a result.
One gets the impression that Prebble feels passionately about many issues. For example, he describes how he had to pull across the road when he was listening to a radio program where a careers adviser was commenting about her experiences in a disaster area school: “It is my job as a careers adviser to put across values to kids who will live in a society where they will never get a job.” He felt that a “failure value” was part of the problem with the education system. He asked this question: Why do people sit in front of TV all day and decline to mow their own lawns, let alone the schools? If you don’t believe that your own efforts make a difference then of course you will not make an effort. If you believe that everything is the result of luck, chance and magic, there is no point in seriously exerting yourself.
When he became Minister for State-Owned Enterprises he became responsible, in 1987, for all the state trading activities in New Zealand. They included electricity generation, telecommunications, the post office, half of the country’s total forests, two banks, a finance company, an insurance company, two airlines, the railways, a shipping company, a construction company, two television channels, state radio stations, the country’s largest computer processor, the coal-mines and a printing company, as well as several others. Twenty per cent of the total investment of New Zealand was handled by those organisations. They employed tens of thousands of people but, in 1987, they produced only 10% of the country’s output and every one of them made a loss: As minister he set about making a lot of changes. He comments, for example, that with respect to shipping and waterfront reform, being new and naive to the job, he believed an Australian minister who came over to New Zealand to say that the Hawke government was about to initiate radical reforms of the Australian ports. He called a meeting of all of those interested in the ports, including the Harbour Board, the Stevedore companies, the unions and exporters and importers. He announced that as the Australians were going to be reforming their ports, urgent action was now required in New Zealand. What then followed went far beyond what was ever contemplated under the Hawke and Keating governments. In another case, he found that the post office had ordered a whole warehouse full of desks. This was because the Treasury, not allowing unspent money to be carried forward, encouraged wasteful spending of funds that might otherwise be returned. He found many cases of irrational behaviour given particular public sector rules and regulations. He liked asking the managing directors of the major state-owned enterprises, when they briefed him early in his term as Minister for State-Owned Enterprises: “Tell me about the computer system.” There would be a huffing in seats betraying discomfort. He would then follow up that question with: “Is it as bad as I’ve heard it is?” A full confession would normally follow. He found out that the post office had spent $37 million on a wasteful program to take into account of the billings on various telephone lines. That program was written in Swedish, “a language that few New Zealand linesmen were confident in.” In many other cases he found similar stories of gross incompetence.
He wondered why so many of the state-owned enterprises had been led by disastrously performing senior managers. He worked out the answer: many of them got there simply because they looked the part, many incompetent managers are handsome men with agreeable manners; rough out their careers they have been book followers; they have been “yes-men” to their superiors and proud of their reputation as “sound” men. They never take a decision for which, if it fails, they can be held to account. All decisions go to committee. Recommendations are circulated to everyone for approval.
Prebble explains that when he commissioned a report from the consultants Booz, Allen & Hamilton, he received a report that suggested that although the consultants had not looked at the Chinese railways, but were familiar with the Indian railway system, they could confidently say that the New Zealand railways were the worst performing and most inefficiently managed in the world. Prebble went about consulting with a number of the workers. He took the view that everyone can make a contribution to the problem-solving process. Giving railway people this information was a form of respect and their experience would help in producing a strategy for success. He comments that a conference of personnel in the railways, including union representatives, was the start of the turnaround. He states: “Early in my time as minister I accepted excuses for failure. I appointed my friend… a successful businessman, to the Shipping Corporation. The result continued to disappoint …the Seamans Union, the cooks and stewards and the guild were militant and stupid. In the end I had to fire the whole Board and I did not sell the Shipping Corporation, I had to put it in liquidation. Because of my indecision the taxpayer lost millions and everyone lost their job.” The usual course to political success is to take credit for successes and find someone else to take the blame for failure. Prebble says that he reversed this order. He therefore allowed the management to announce all of the positive news, including turnaround information. He would announce the redundancy and failure stories. In that way, he earnt the loyalty and respect of the managers that he appointed.
Prebble is sensitive to the oft-repeated charge that he was uncaring and unsympathetic. There is a moving account of how his stepson-in-law lost his job with New Zealand Post and then went on to work in the bus industry, and the painful reactions he faced when he was blamed for losing his job.
Prebble argues that effective decisions depend on the quality of the proposal, the acceptance that may be possible and the time that it takes to implement. It is here that he differs from his friend Roger Douglas. It is Douglas’ view that an effective decision is one that has 100% quality and that acceptance is not necessary because in time the quality will sell itself. He has a lot of sympathy for this view but he argues that if good quality decisions have poor acceptance, then they would be subject to sabotage in implementation.
My favourite quote is this one about air reform: “Everyone remembers how Air New Zealand served cold coffee, undrinkable tea, plastic cheese, with hostesses who looked as if in a previous life they had been Soviet dental nurses who ordered you to buckle in and put the seat upright half an hour before landing. Air New Zealand domestic services now equal to the best in the world.” The book is full of policy suggestions. For example, with respect to health, he provides the insight that if all New Zealand hospitals were as efficient as the most efficient hospital then there would be no waiting lists. He argues for reform in the New Zealand superannuation scheme and the unsustainable costs that are now involved. He argues for a national savings policy, which has some affinities with Australian experience (although some distinct differences as well).
He laments that the new electoral system has been cynically greeted by the electorate: “In fact, seeing MPs abandoning their party to set up new ones (often just after they failed to get a constituency nomination) is about the only sign of a political change the electorate has seen.”
A story not told in the book is one I directly heard from him in 1991 on a visit to New Zealand as part of an ACTU delegation to look at the Employment Contracts Act (which Prebble now says has not been the exploitative rip-off that he feared it might have been). Prebble said that he enjoyed teasing some of the confused and rambling speakers in the parliament. For example, when Dr Michael Cullen, Labour’s shadow spokesman for social security, would get up to speak no-one would exactly know what he was on about. He always seemed a bit lost and confused and never clearly articulated a question. When Shipley, the minister, would speak she also seemed a bit lost. When Cullen asked Shipley a question, the situation could be quite confusing. Prebble, from the Opposition benches would angrily interject “answer the question!” There would be a look of horror passing over the minister’s face, as she began to wonder whether the question was clear to everyone but her. Prebble had a reputation as a bit of a rogue and as a bruising parliamentary debater, in some respects, a New Zealand version of Paul Keating. But he has mellowed. He regrets some of his blustering behaviour. This not to say that he is apologetic for being tough or taking on critics or trying to push through reform. He does not think there is any excuse for failure and does not believe why anyone would be in politics, especially in a ministerial role, without wanting to be yearning with desire to make a number of achievements.
On the strength of this book Richard Prebble’s career in politics is not over. He has already made a major contribution to New Zealand’s public life. His book may be an inspiration for others to come up with some ideas, to say “I’ve been thinking”.
With cover notes, I posted the book to Bob Carr and Mike Egan on their election as Premier and Treasurer of NSW in March 1995 and to Peter Costello when he became the Treasurer of Australia in 1996. I cannot be sure any of them read it.
When I met Prebble (1948- ) in 1991, I thought that he could be an effective leader of the New Zealand Labour Party. He had been a Labour MP for the Auckland Central electorate from 1975 (losing the seat in 1993 to the leftwing Alliance party). But in 1996, disillusioned with Labour he joined Roger Douglas (1937- ) in the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (ACT) Party, which Douglas, a former New Zealand Labour MP (1969-1990) and Finance Minister (1984-1988), had formed in 1993. In 1996, New Zealand switched to the mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation electoral system and Prebble won election under ACT’s banner in 1996 to retirement in 2005, being leader of that party from 1996 to 2004.
On a visit to New Zealand with an ACTU delegation sent to extensively review labour law changes made by the then conservative government, I privately met Douglas (who impressed me less than his colleague) and Prebble. Here are my contemporaneous notes:
Recollection of Dinner with R. Prebble & R. Douglas, 30 April 1991
A. Re ECB
Douglas said he was broadly in favour of the Employment Contracts Bill (ECB). There is a need to ensure contestability of union coverage.
I commented on the weaknesses of the Labour Relations Act (LRA) – e.g., no enterprise awards. D. said he lost the arguments on that Bill, and he agreed with the assessment of the weaknesses in the outcomes.
Prebble thought the 1990 amendments did not have a chance to work. Felt unions were in great difficulties, however they handled the Bill.
Prebble was opposed to the Bill – it goes too far in attacking the rights of unions.
B. Re Flat Rate
Reflected on a December 17 (or the day before) meeting with Lange.
Usually Douglas, Prebble and David Caygill (who succeeded Douglas as Finance Minister, 1988 to 1990) settled economic ideas, then attempted to convince Palmer, sometimes Moore, then Lange. Concern that Lange may not be happy. Prebble argued a meeting should be organised. This happened. Lange wanted to take minimum income payment provisions removed from an announcement on the package. Douglas expressed surprise – but thought “okay”. Some minor technical issues raised. Lange raised no objection. Even said that he would cancel his holidays to sell the idea. Douglas went to Switzerland. Without taking the issue to Cabinet, Lange publicly attacked the whole direction. This was a complete surprise. There were some tensions, but no inkling of how the relationship was really going.
Subsequently, Lange demanded Douglas’ resignation. Prebble organised Ministers – saw Palmer; insisted that he tell Lange the reality. Lange could not be found or he insisted he needed his sleep. (Who knows where he was. Lange subsequently complained that Prebble caused him not to be able to sleep).
At vote of Cabinet, it was 18 1/2 to 1 ½. Russell Marshall (Cabinet Minister, 1984 to 1990) was the divided man – arguing for both Lange’s and Douglas’ positions!
Douglas believed that N.Z.’s economic problems were enormous, therefore no place for complacency. Need to do what is right. Confidence critical – especially for investment. That crashed with the splits.
Within the government it was significant that the Cabinet rarely, if ever, leaked. This too was shattered. Thus the Caucus had no idea of the divisions within the Cabinet. Douglas said “if Lange is still there by January 6th, I’m leaving”. He did. Prebble had been sacked over some minor issue.
Lange, in retrospect, was unhappy with himself. Perhaps being P.M. was not enough. He became Minister for Education as well (swapping the Foreign Ministry). He seemed to resent his economic ministers. A brilliant man, superb recall, but no attention span.
C. Ship Visits
Account given in The New Zealand Way (Lange’s book) false in many respects. Re ship visits, both Prebble & Douglas supported party policy. Prebble said: “it was my idea”. (He presented a Private member’s Bill to the Parliament prior to the 1984 election.)
Expectation was that a non nuclear powered ship would be invited to N.Z. and the issue would be killed off (while retaining policy). Cabinet did not know about the U.S.S. Buchanan issue until afterwards.
Palmer received request from the Americans. Could not reach Lange. (Maybe the circumstances described in the book apply here). Margaret Wilson then staying at Palmer’s residence (nothing improper here. All ministers have houses in Wellington provided by the state. Palmer’s also had a flat. Wilson was an academic lawyer and President of the NZ Labour Party). Wilson and a group of other lawyers concluded that it would be illegal and/or a breach of Party policy to allow the Buchanan into NZ waters. They pressed this view with Palmer who agreed. Probable that Palmer decided to ban the Buchanan anyway.
Nonetheless, Cabinet was not consulted. The whole thing was handled on the run.
D. Quality of MPs
Douglas thought that MP quality dropping significantly on both sides. The Left probably has a majority for some time in the Labour Party. Perhaps, in part, corporatisation has something to do with it. There is less for ministers to do.
Prebble thought that the current Caucus was evenly balanced 1/3 hard left, 1/3 soft left/centre, 1/3 right. Usually R has been able to win over many of the left. The left, however, now seems intent on a new tactic: they are sending to parliament MPs who are totally ineducable. They do not know anything much and cannot be convinced on the issues. This is especially so of some former unionists, now MPs. Recently there was a debate in the Caucus about pay. Treasury decided that the top echelon in that Department should get 5% and the rest 1%. The government overruled them and allowed everyone the same amount. Prebble wanted to make an issue of this and (somehow!) linked this to MPs salaries. Eventually the vote in Caucus was 14-12 against Pr.’s position. He said when it is the other way (the complexion of the caucus), he will know it is time to play a major role in policy formulation. Now, however, is not the time.
Douglas announced that if Lange was still around by January 6th (or some such date) he would not be. This brinkmanship led to Lange staying and Douglas going.
When Douglas challenged for the leadership he did not intensively lobby. In fact, he did not seriously canvass MPs. The situation was impossible.
F. Lange’s Performance
Lange obviously found the experience of P.M. exhausting.
Pr. Said that he heard one day in 1987 from the Whips that Lange was not speaking in the evening in the parliamentary sessions. Prebble insisted that they not mention a word of their concern to anybody – Ministers or other MPs. Surprisingly, the media scrutiny of Lange’s performance was not very intense.
Lange entered the parliament a non-smoking, non-drinking family man. His life by this time must have been in turmoil. That, and his mistress, explains a lot.
After Prebble’s dismissal (something which Cabinet was opposed to. Pr. also claims Treasury or some other authority had cleared him of any impropriety) he felt free to citicise L. He described the P.M. as acting irrationally.
(Nb: Lange could remember almost anybody’s name. Once he met someone at an airport in Pr.’s company – “You probably don’t remember my name” but L. did and even recalled the wife’s name and asked after the son. This was someone L. ran into prior to becoming an MP in a waiting room outside of Court!)
G. Tactics – Palmer
When Palmer became PM, Prebble suggested it was still winnable. He saw Palmer and urged that Douglas be given a senior portfolio. That might restore some economic confidence. Palmer should go to a Labour Party Conference and be seen to be standing up to them – and announce a few significant economic reforms. That might have been enough to win a snap election. But leaving things to drift would be hopeless.
Douglas told me that when Moore became PM (both thought it was crazy to change leaders. Pr said he voted for Moore against Palmer, but later thought it insane to change horses. Palmer seemed relieved that he could go and present the situation to himself as doing the honourable thing), his advice was to do a few bold things. People wanted leadership and for confidence to be restored. It was no use defending yourself and letting things slide. He wanted the reform agenda to continue: “Moore stared at the ceiling. I knew it was time to go”.
H. Cricket Analogies
Douglas said that he had recently given a speech on cricket to a function that (one of his sons was at?) was playful. Actually (one of?) his sons wrote the draft – it was marvellous.
Geoffrey Palmer [Prime Minister, 1989-1990] was described as the gentleman cricketer – always known to be fair. In fact, so fair that he sometimes walked even though he knew he was not out, but he knew it was the right thing to do! So proper was Palmer that he always kept his coffin (cricketer’s bag) so neat and tidy.
Michael Moore [Prime Minister, 4 September to 2 November 1990] was described as an erratic bowler – always licking his thumb and testing the breeze before bowling.
Prebble was 11th man. Also unpredictable. He was in and out of the side. Sometimes he would only bowl bouncers.
I. Current Caucus
Pr. thought it was possible that moderates would prevail in the policy debates.
No one good, though, came [into the Parliament] in 1984. Some MPs were an embarrassment.
For example, one of the MPs sitting near to me (at tonight’s dinner) had the reading age of an 11 year old. How can you begin to persuade someone like that? Michael Cullen is the social security spokesperson. He is intelligent (D. quipped that this means he can read a book, but little else), but very convoluted in his questions in the Parliament.
Prebble said that whenever Cullen asks a question it is always so vague and rambling – no one could possibly know what he was asking. The minister tries to guess what he means and attempts to answer. Pr. Likes to bark out the interjection “answer the question!” A look of fear passes over the minister’s face and she is flummoxed, looking helpless in reply.
J. Labour Court
Pr. thought the Labour Court was out of control. We appointed someone called Tydon [?] who seems to have no idea what he is doing. Recently he brought down a decision which defined what an employer needs to do to properly and legally dismiss an employee. The Court stated that these were certain conditions …but that the Court would not limit itself to that. An incredible decision. Also there have been some funny decisions on reinstatements.
K. Current Government
The Bolger government [in office, 1990-1997] seems to be hopelessly presenting itself to the public. In all likelihood it is because they do not know exactly what they are doing (as against the tactic of doing the hard things first).
Ruth Richardson, the Finance Minister [in office, 1990-1993], does not seem to command much authority. In Cabinet, it is the P.M. & the Finance Minister who have to be tough enough to say “no”.
More things seem to be referred to Committees than tolerated by the previous government. That is no way to run the country.
Muldoon was a superb tactician. He lived for the moment. He felt if he could solve today’s problems he was good enough to solve tomorrow’s. But the problems built up. He was riding one jockey then 2 then 6 – it was impossible. Peters is also a plausible populist. But he may not be a good leader for the country (as Muldoon was not either.)
Prebble commented that being a populist was not that easy. The government is dominated by farmers – only one Auckland M.P. in the Cabinet, none from Wellington.
Pr. has been [mischievously] saying that the Cabinet should be more broadly representative – we need someone there over 60 to also represent the pensioners. He suggested Muldoon! – and has been going around promoting this idea.
Pr. said that as Minister for Railways he used to get all sorts of stupid questions. Once he was asked when would this railway building be painted. He answered that he thought it was not a good idea to paint a rail building because experience showed that they were almost invariably pulled down soon after they were freshly painted. One M.P. put on the notice paper a Question about how many kms of track were used by the railways over the last week or month or whatever. His Department prepared a detailed reply (after a week). Pr. was annoyed: “That is not the answer I am giving – I’ll be saying ‘who gives a fuck?!!’”