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AGENDA Transcript: Lisa Own IVs Jim Sutton


Hon Jim Sutton
15 July 2006
Presented by LISA: OWEN
Transcript ©Front Page Ltd 2006
May be used provided attribution is made to TVOne and “Agenda”:

LISA: First elected to Parliament in 1984 Jim Sutton was something of a rarity in Labour, a farmer. He's since served under four Labour leaders holding portfolios in agriculture forestry and trade. Jim Sutton will retire on August 1st, the first MP to leave this term as part of Labour's rejuvenation strategy. Once described as the Fred Dagg with brains Jim Sutton joins me now. Jim can we go back to the beginning what brought you to Labour in the first place because you started off in the National camp didn’t you?

Well I did but I was very young when I joined the National Party, I left school I'd really just turned 16 and went back to work on the farm, the family hadn’t been farming very long and there was a family enthusiasm for farming, it was all I was interested in and so I left school early and off I went, and I joined the Young Farmer's Club, the Rugby Club, the Tennis Club and the National Party was sort of right of passage, you know it proved that I was grown up at 16, but after a while I was sort of slightly surprised to find that the National Party didn’t after all stand for everything I believed in but it was a long time till I joined the Labour Party in the wake of the Muldoon landslide in 1975, I turned up at the advertised annual meeting in the Waimate branch and got elected to the committee, so I had to pay a sub then.

LISA: In those early days what was it like being a farmer in Labour?

JIM: Well to me it was a revelation because suddenly I was meeting a wide range of fellow citizens and I had only really socialised with people like myself, rural people, and this was the first time I was involved in an organisation with a great range of people in it.

LISA: But did your colleagues raise an eyebrow I mean did they suspect you, you know as a farmer?

JIM: Oh absolutely I mean within the Labour Party in those days a sheep farmer was a Tory almost by definition and vice versa and it took me – you know I had to live it down with each new circle of acquaintances I made in the party they had to find out that just because is earned my living as a sheep farmer didn’t mean to say that I had sort of revolting right wing views, and I must say lots of sheep farmers don’t.

LISA: Let's jump forward a bit to the Lange government tell me what was he really like?

JIM: Well David Lange was – to me he was a very exotic person, I met him of course before he was the Prime Minister when we were candidates and he was very large, you know he had long hair, he kept combing it, he was a very nervous sort of person that it was a while before they kind of got him presentable but he had this fabulous quick wit which everyone remembers him for now.

LISA: Were you ever on the end of that wit?

JIM: Not so much me as my brother, we went into Parliament at the same time, I think the first time full brothers had gone into Parliament in the same intake and my brother played a bit of a part at one stage in bringing to a head the dispute between Lange and Douglas that ultimately led to Lange leaving the Prime Ministership.

LISA: Well you mention your brother, did Lange – no offence Jim – but did Lange know who you were do you think?

JIM: Oh no I sometimes did wonder if he quite worked out which was me and which was Bill and lots of people of course have called me Bill from time to time, it's my brother's name obviously, it was also our father's name and so I never felt at all hurt by that, but no I think that David Lange didn’t always for some time know which of us was which and didn’t know much about us to be sure if it made any difference.

LISA: Lange's legacy has got to be the anti nuclear legislation, do you think that’s become a bit of a sacred cow for the Labour Party?

JIM: Well it's iconic, I think it's because a sacred cow for New Zealand and it doesn’t just stand, remember at the time it was partly about security, every nuclear capable capital warship was almost certainly a target for the opposite super power, so parking one in one of our ports surrounded by one of our cities wasn’t actually improving the security of New Zealanders, it was putting them directly at risk if anything were to happen between the super powers.

LISA: But now do you think it's a piece of legislation that needs to be ring fenced as it seemingly has?

JIM: No but I do think it is seen as representing New Zealand's right even as a tiny nation to make our own decisions that we are sovereign and we should make these decisions and you know it's a reasonable effective way of restating that. I think myself I've always felt this will be revisited but there are certain things need to happen first, one is they need to solve technically the issue of how do you deal safely with nuclear waste material and how do you deal with the problem of nuclear proliferation of the weapons. So when those two problems are solved I think New Zealand could pretty readily review the whole business.

LISA: Now let's move on to Roger Douglas, you described him as the greatest politician of last century, why?

JIM: Well probably it was a bit of hyperbole at the time and I wouldn’t repeat that, but to me Roger Douglas did provide, he was the sort of centre of the main thrust of policy reform at that time and supported by David Lange who was the marketing division I suppose of the business, but to me Roger was the only cabinet minister who once delegated to me and a couple of back bench colleagues a really worthwhile job which was supervising or liaising with several Treasury officials analysts, the issues of producer boards at the time, and we felt we were doing something really important and worthwhile and when you're a government back bencher you don’t get many such opportunities.

LISA: But for some people though within the Labour Party your admiration for Douglas would be considered to be sacrilegious.

JIM: Well maybe but in the cause at the time of course there was clear majority support for the thrust for those reforms, now we can all be wise looking back and saying well in some aspects we tried to go too far or too fast and everybody I second guessing it but the thrust was right it was essential and it's done us a lot of good and where we went too far it's been wound back and where Ruth Richardson carried on and went too far in some other respects and Jenny Shipley that’s been wound back and we've settled on kind of consensus positions on most of these major settings that I think by and large New Zealand is pretty happy with and that apart from anything else opens up the prospect with MMP of a long term Labour government which has pretty much captured the centre ground.

LISA: Well by the late 80s Douglas has gone right, sacked, Lange has gone and tell me what was really going on in the Labour Party at that time what was it really like?

JIM: It was very intense and certainly there was a big push back from many people in the party who felt betrayed by the Rogernomics reforms, they felt this wasn’t socialism which they'd joined the party for. I think there was probably something similar happened at the time of the first Labour government, I think driving a bulldozer over a wheelbarrow and claiming this symbolised the liberation of the workers from the drudgery of manual toil was seen by a lot of people in the Labour Party as the liberation of people from their jobs with only unemployment to look at and their being replaced by a f the workers from the drudgery of manual toil was seen by a lot of people in the Labour Party as the liberation of people from their jobs with only unemployment to look at and their being replaced by a bulldozer.

LISA: But those divisions appeared in the 80s around that time, are they now still evident in a party in Labour and are they causing to a degree paralysis?

JIM: No I don’t believe so, I think that it did face people individually and collectively to work out what they really thought about some of these issues, the result was we lost a splinter on the right, and Act was formed from Labour breakaways, we lost a splinter on the left the Alliance was formed went off with Jim Anderton and so on and the Labour Party now is much more unified and under Helen it has been essentially unified. There are not really effective if you like factions within the caucus now, it's remarkably unified, like minded, of course there's debate on all policy issues but it isn't bitter, it isn't personalised, it isn't along rigid lines.

LISA: Isn't it because some of the critics would argue that you know they're looking for bold policy from the Labour Party and some of them would say it's not happening because these discussions don’t take place cos there are these factions?

JIM: Oh that’s simply not true, if people say it's not taking place because the Labour government doesn’t come up with something they personally agree with, I mean people who call for bold policy decisions are always ready to give you a list of exactly what those decisions should be and maybe most people in the government don’t actually agree with that.

LISA: Okay well if things are running smoothly and you're doing a good job why does the Prime Minister want you gone?

JIM: Well because it is the matter of how do you form a long term government using the opportunities created by MMP that weren't there with first past the post. With first past the post governments decayed they got themselves hopelessly boxed in, the same old faces and when they got too old and tired the government was chucked out and now we have an opportunity to move people out, get new blood flowing through the arteries even between elections and this is the way you can have a government that morphs, modernises as it goes, I'm going because that’s part of the ongoing modernisation of a government in power that has every prospect of continuing in power but with some different people.

LISA: Jim I was asking you about why the Prime Minister wants you to go, I mean you defended her over speeding through your electorate, you’ve been universally regarded as an effective minister, why not somebody else who's dragging the chain within Labour why you?

JIM: Well of course that was the first question I asked myself but I am the oldest member of the Labour caucus and so that sort of puts you in the gun in the first place. There it is I mean that’s her call, leaders have to be a bit ruthless actually and so having thought about it and grumbled a bit to myself I realised that this gives me opportunity to go on to a new career before I'm too tired and you know I'm looking forward to it now.

LISA: But is the Prime Minister ruthlessly getting rid of people who are not around that nice centralist middle line?

JIM: Oh no I don’t think it's anything about nice centralist middle line, I don’t think the Prime Minister is uncomfortable with my political positioning, it might not be quite her own positioning, but I don’t think she is trying to surround herself with clones. No I don’t think that’s it, I think it is a need to keep new oxygenated blood flowing through the arteries of government and you can't keep on governing as if you were in first past the post where you let a cabinet wear out until it becomes immobile, people throw it all out and you start again with the new government.

LISA: Jim let's bring our panel in here, John your questions for Mr Sutton.

JOHN: ROUGHAN – Columnist, NZ Herald:
You came into the cabinet I think during one of these refreshing exercises in the late 80s, and it didn’t do any good for that government, it went out in the next election anyway.

JIM: Well it was later, it was still first past the post and Geoffrey Palmer was Prime Minister, it was only eight months before the election. I think the test is going to be are there going to be more changes and if so they need to be quite soon otherwise if it happens in election year it's sort of seen as a gimmick and discounted by the voters I think. Yeah and I did and I wouldn’t have stayed in parliament actually had I not got into cabinet, I'd had enough of being a government back bencher for six years almost, it's a terrible position in first past the post, no power, not even free to criticise the government and I thought oh blow this I'm gonna go off and study law and become a barrister, but having had a taste of governance in the cabinet I was re-enthused and I really wanted more so eventually I came back.

JOHN: You were in your early days part of the most reforming government that we've seen and one that put New Zealand on to a complete new path and set things moving, what is this government doing that gives you anything like that sense of thrill and the sense of purpose that you must have had in the 80s?

JIM: Well there's always things that need doing in government, we don’t live in a perfect world so therefore what's the government doing about it and in this government I've been able to do what I couldn’t do in that previous time which is reform the producer boards, the essential institutions of our great land based industries, do something about biosecurity, spray West Auckland even, and certainly the trade liberalisation, something I have seen always very clearly as an essential ingredient of New Zealand being able to continue to enjoy a first world standard of living, you know to me these are very important things and are the current issues.

JOHN: Producer boards reminds me that in the 99 election when Labour was coming in they set their face firmly against that kind of reform and I can remember them scoffing at the idea of getting rid of producer boards and all this stuff, when they came in they did it, and this government has got away with that sort of thing and in the 80s and 90s governments didn’t really.

JIM: I deny your interpretation, we had a very clear policy, I had to know it I wrote it, I've written it for several years and it was that we would facilitate reform of the producer boards in related institutions, we had three requirements, each reform for each sector had to have the broad support of the owners, the farmers, it had to be fair to those who were minority groups who were dissidents if you like and it had to be in the public interest and we worked through them industry by industry and got made to measure solutions for each industry with the support of the chief stakeholders and it has worked and the jewel in the crown of course coming from this is Fonterra which started off as the 13th biggest dairy company in the world is now I think the 3rd or the 4th and really on track to become New Zealand's first true multinational processing and distributing dairy products world wide.

LISA: Let's bring Andrew Holden into the discussion.

ANDREW: HOLDEN – Deputy Editor, The Press:
Jim at the last election you’ve been ousted by the voters of your electorate thanks to your government's policies, you’ve been shoved in the back now by the Prime Minister and your replacement's yet another urban member of the Labour Party, there really is no place for a farmer's voice in this Labour Party is there?

JIM: Well I think there is a place.

ANDREW: But it's leaving isn't it?

JIM: There are lots of members of the Labour caucus who have provincial roots, look at Damien O'Connor you know straight off a dairy farm West Coast, absolutely representative of heartland values, even a little conservative but I do think the Labour Party now just does need to take care to recruit people who come from that heartland background because it's been by tradition an urban party and it governs the whole country and it needs to be well plugged into the whole country.

ANDREW: That rejuvenation is not going to occur before the next election, I mean essentially Labour's going to go to the next election with even more of an urban viewpoint, its policies amongst the rural sector won't be seen as very favourable to them so it's going to be a long time before you get back to that heartland.

JIM: Oh well it's a great opportunity for Labour to correct that by putting if you like rurally oriented candidates into winnable electorates in the next election, election time is the main time when you can make such changes.

LISA: Australian Prime Minister John Howard has led his party for four consecutive terms, but according to his Treasurer Peter Costello Howard promised he would step down after one and a half terms paving the way for Costello to succeed him. Howard denies this but the tension between the two men should see the Liberal government slide even further in the polls. Bernard Lagan is a New Zealander, he's the Times Correspondent in Australia and the author of a controversial biography of former Labour leader Mark Latham, he joins me now from Sydney. Good morning Bernard can you tell us why this has all come to light now, it's actually the Defence Minister who's blurted this out isn't it?

BERNARD: LAGAN – Political Commentator:
Yes it was the former Defence Minister Ian McLachlan who was called as a witness to a 1994 meeting between Mr Howard and Mr Costello at which Mr Howard allegedly said I want to be Prime Minister for one and a half terms and you can take over that Peter, now that meeting occurred some two years or 18 months before Howard was first elected so it's a long time ago. Ian McLachlan has kept it a secret for the best part of 12 years he made notes on a business card and carried that around in his wallet for a decade and only when Glen Milne who's a columnist for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph heard about it six months ago and worked on it did Ian McLachlan finally fess up to Glen Milne and say yes this is what occurred. Now outwardly it looks like it was an accident that it came out but I like many others would be a bit suspicious that there was some orchestration especially given Peter Costello's willingness to use that information to advance his own claims on the Prime Minister's job.

LISA: Especially he's spent over a decade quietly being the bridesmaid hasn’t he, what would prompt Costello to come out and confirm this now?

BERNARD: Oh well I think he's reached the point where he clearly wants John Howard to set down a timetable for his departure. I think that was Peter Costello's intention all of this week to try and push the Prime Minister into saying look I'm gonna go on such and such a date, opinion is divided as to where the events of this week have left Peter Costello. It may well be that John Howard has had so much expression of support this week that if he was thinking about going he's not gonna go at all.

LISA: Well after several days of some serious name calling and it's gone pretty close to the wire there, they’ve said they're quite happy to work together can you see that working out for them, can you have the guy that wants to knife you in the back sitting next to you?

BERNARD: Oh I think they can maintain it a while, it's going to be a paper and braces kind of relationship, I mean Costello only now has really two choices either he meekly accepts to continue working as John Howard's Treasurer, and wait for John Howard to decide to go in his own time or he has to do what Paul Keating did which is quite ruthless which is actually to tear Howard down, split the party and create a situation where the party is in despair and just wants Costello to lead it, I mean I don’t know whether Costello is ruthless enough to do that but I think that’s what it's going to come down to.

LISA: I mean John Howard has described this whole saga as a bad look for the party full stop, doesn’t it make them both look bad that Howard was allegedly bartering with this position?

BERNARD: Well you're right, John Howard has been saying all week it is not for Liberal party to barter the leadership, the leadership is the gift of the 100 MPs who make up the Liberal Party, but John Howard has been quite prepared to barter the leadership as that 1994 meeting shows, so I mean I don’t think that’s a new thing and it will continue to happen.

LISA: Well since they're both wanting this leadership role what's the difference between these two guys?

BERNARD: One of the big differences would be Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Costello very pointedly marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2001 for the big Aboriginal Reconciliation March when John Howard told him not to, Peter Costello wants to take the remaining economic powers off the states and centralise those, so they would be the two big differences, the other one would be the republic, Peter Costello is a republican, John Howard is a monarchist.

LISA: As you mentioned this seems to have perhaps cemented Howard's desire to stay on, you know and people are saying that he'll be judged by a smooth transition of the leadership, is there going to be a smooth transition when it happens?

BERNARD: Well if Peter Costello was serious about becoming Prime Minister I cannot see there's gonna be a smooth transition. If he wants to take on Howard he's going to have to be absolutely ruthless, he's gonna have to tear him down, he's gonna have to do exactly what Paul Keating did to Bob Hawke.

LISA: What does this all mean for the Labour Party at the moment over there in Australia, what's it doing for them?

BERNARD: Oh I think they're very happy about, the Liberals have looked in a disunified fashion all week and it's probably been Kim Beazley's best week since he returned to the leadership.

LISA: Let's bring in our panellists here starting with Andrew Holden an Australian himself. Your thoughts on this.

ANDREW: The question I have for you Bernard is round my favourite quote from the whole spat which is Costello talking about his parents saying that if you tell the truth everything will be okay, has anybody ever asked John Howard whether that’s what his parents taught him?

BERNARD: Not that I've seen no, that’s a good question.

ANDREW: Certainly my impression of it is that the fundamental problem for Costello and the big question for the Liberal Party is around as you're saying the ruthlessness, is Costello ruthless enough to do this, because Howard's been an utterly ruthless Prime Minister in capturing the issues that will win him an election, if Costello's not ruthless enough now to tear Howard down how could be possibly be an effective Prime Minister to win elections, and I think really the ball's in his court if he doesn’t take the Keating path and step back and tear Howard down then he's a gonner.

LISA: Bernard your assessment is Costello ruthless enough to follow this through to the end?

BERNARD: I think he probably is, I think he's gonna be emboldened by his group of supporters who are probably about 25% of the caucus to do so. There's also some humiliation in his position at the end of this week because he's been loudly defiant of the Prime Minister all week and appears to have gone meekly back into the cabinet, it's about the third time he's done that and I don’t think he can afford to do it again.

LISA: Any chance he will storm off to the back benchers and if he did is that any great loss for Howard anyway?

BERNARD: Oh I think there's a big chance he could go to the bank bench, I mean I think if he is ruthless the way things will unravel is that he'll challenge Howard, he'll lose, he'll go to the back benches and then he will have to orchestrate a campaign to bring Howard down exactly the same way as Paul Keating did. Can the Liberal Party afford to lose him? I don’t think so, I think the Liberal Party would be horrified to lose Costello, I mean he has been the architect of these buoyant years under Howard, I think if it looked like Costello was going to walk out of politics I think the support within the party for the Prime Minister's job would increase overnight.

LISA: It smacks of the Blair Brown scenario in the UK doesn’t it, Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Brown, your thoughts on that?

BERNARD: Very much, yeah very much because I mean the issue there has there been a deal – for years it was denied in Australia I must say by Costello as well that there was ever a deal and that’s the one flaw in Costellos's argument here he has been saying for ten years there was no deal and this week he's say oh well look there was a deal. Same thing in Britain you know there was the famous restaurant agreement between Blair and Gordon Brown.

LISA: John Roughan your take on all this.

JOHN: Bernie these sort of things are usually solved by an election loss when a government finally runs out of time, the fact that we're talking in this way, the fact that you're looking at these scenarios suggests to me that despite the polls at present it doesn’t look like that John Howard's gonna win an election – is going to lose an election any time soon, is that true?

BERNARD: That he's not going to lose an election?

JOHN: It looks that way. Otherwise cos Costello would bide his time surely.

BERNARD: Yes that’s right, I think there's every expectation that barring some big accidents, and by that I mean the economy falls over or the security situation markedly improves around the world that the LIberal Party will be returned at the next election, I can't see Beazley pulling it off.

LISA: Thank you very much Bernie Lagan for joining us there from Australia.


LISA: Each week thanks to the pollsters at UMR Insight we're bringing you an insight into political trends in the country. So this week how is Labour doing with the rural vote. Perhaps predictably National is well ahead on 46.5% to Labour's 32.2%, the Greens get 7.4% and New Zealand First 5.4%.

FINAL THOUGHTS – Guest Commentators:

LISA: Back to our panel for their final thoughts for the day, let's start with John.

JOHN: Well it's interesting I thought in looking back on Jim Sutton's comments and the John Howard issue about where both governments have been in office a long time both are probably thinking about how do we refresh ourselves so we win yet another election, and Labour here is at least refreshing its lower ranks or its cabinet not the leadership but the cabinet, the Liberals there must be some thoughts there now about whether it's time to make a change but it looks like they’ll decide no. it's a question of whether it profits any government to really do this late in its time, does it just lose credibility or does it really impress the voters and I'm not sure it does.

LISA: Does it just start speculation about who else is on the hit list and who's gonna go next.

JOHN: Yes and it makes the government look like it's going out really.

LISA: Your thoughts on that Andrew?

ANDREW: Yeah I mean the interesting question really is in fact whether National's in a better position because they have a couple of options to take over as leader in Bill English and John Key whereas you look at Labour and you say well who takes over from Helen Clark. Effectively the way Labour's set itself up is Clark gonna run until a defeat that’s the sense I've had, it's gonna be a Clark government until it's booted out and they're then off on the back benchers gonna have to rejuvenate themselves, and I suspect the problem for Labour quite frankly even though there's an argument that there's problems within National because of the arguments in the background over who's gonna be the leader, at least there are options there, at least there is some real rejuvenation and potential new leadership to come through.

LISA: John what are your thoughts on that, I mean Helen Clark's described this as an exit with dignity kind of programme do you see here when the time actually comes exiting with the same sort of dignity as say Jim Sutton?

JOHN: No I don’t really, I think that she loves the job and she is enthused by it, hunger for it, I can't see here – all this talk about her going off to the UN sometime I find very hard to believe, I think she'll go on as long as she can.

LISA: What about over the ditch there obviously it's an area of interest to you Andrew any final thoughts on the Howard and Costello saga?

ANDREW: Oh I mean I think this has been going on for many many years, the problem for Peter Costello is he's had a knife hovered over the back of John Howard for a decade, his problem is it's a rubber knife he's never going to plunge it and I don’t believe he'll ever be Prime Minister.

LISA: Shot himself in the food do you think?

ANDREW: Well it depends where the leak originally has come from to Glen Milne, but the way he's played it out I mean I'm like Bernard Lagan I just don’t think he's got the ruthlessness to do what Keating did and to tear the Liberal Party apart to make himself the leader.

JOHN: I don’t really know Costello at all, but it would make no sense, the man's in his early 40s I think, Howard's in his late 60s why doesn’t he bide his time.

LISA: Thank you very much for joining us this morning.


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