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Chris Finlayson. (Photo: Nicola Edmonds / Design: Tina Tiller)
Chris Finlayson. (Photo: Nicola Edmonds / Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksAugust 20, 2022

‘I’m more of an on-the-record sort of a chap’: Chris Finlayson on his life in politics

Chris Finlayson. (Photo: Nicola Edmonds / Design: Tina Tiller)
Chris Finlayson. (Photo: Nicola Edmonds / Design: Tina Tiller)

Cerebral, sardonic and sometimes caustic, the former senior member of John Key’s cabinet recounts the good years – and the not-so-good ones.

Chris Finlayson’s new book is called Yes, Minister, in deference to the beloved BBC comedy of the 80s. There’s another line a few chapters in that would work as a title, too: “At times it was difficult to be polite.” A permanent member of John Key’s cabinet, and attorney general from 2008 to 2017, Finlayson never suffered fools. The erudition was accompanied with a chisel-sharp tongue.

In the book, and in an accompanying special episode of The Spinoff’s politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime, Finlayson recounts his time in parliament and his principled preoccupation with, for example, the rule of law, pausing regularly along the way to eviscerate those he disrespects, including many he shared a cabinet table with.

Follow Gone By Lunchtime on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

Finlayson is forthright, too. After agreeing to take part in an interview with Andrea Vance for her chronicle of National’s nightmare years, Blue Blood, he was asked whether he wanted to remain unnamed. His answer: “I’m more of an on-the-record sort of a chap.”

Of that period, he says: “I think that her thesis was right between 2017 and 2020, the National Party has stood for one thing, and that is talking about itself, and these rather unimpressive people, instead of talking about the issues that concern New Zealanders. We were getting it totally wrong.”

He has nothing but admiration for Key. “No one would ever accuse me of writing hagiographies,” Finlayson told The Spinoff. “And so my assessment of him, I can assure you, is pretty sober. And I wouldn’t praise unless I believed it.” While some might have criticised Key for tending towards the centre, that was a strength, he said. “Politics is not about the rigid application of dogma, but the management of prejudice and the reconciliation of interests. And that’s where I thought he was so good.”

As treaty negotiations minister, Finlayson was involved in numerous and settlements, and integral to early examples of co-governance, such as the Urewera and Whanganui river arrangements. In the fog of debate, how would he describe co-governance to, say, a visitor to New Zealand?

“Well, I’d start off by saying what it’s not. It’s not co-government. There’s one sovereign in this country. But where you have indigenous people who have a deep and abiding connection with, for example, a natural resource, then why not enter into a treaty partnership with them, so that they can bring their commitment and their interest and their learning to the table for the benefit of a particular resource, be it a river that needs to be cleaned up, or a lake or a national park? I see no problem with co-governance in that respect. I think it is a very good thing that responds to the particular aspirations and expectations of the indigenous people. And it doesn’t harm the situation for the general public one little bit.”

As for the Labour government’s handling of the three waters reforms: “It’s for the current generation of MPs to debate over. But I just don’t think people are getting out there and explaining just what co-governance is and is not … I just don’t think the current government gets out and articulates just what exactly it wants. And it’s really no answer for Willie [Jackson] to say to David Seymour – who raises questions, I think, in a very mature and deliberate way – that he’s a racist, because demonstrably he’s not a racist. Engage in the debate. Beat the person on the detail. But argument by epithet is not particularly effective.”

Asked about the extraordinary revelations across the Tasman in recent days around Scott Morrison, while prime minister, secretly making himself minister of a bunch of extra things, Finlayson was aghast. Had something like that happened on his watch as attorney general, he would have “blown his top” and looked to “trigger a resignation”, he said. “I was utterly dumbfounded … It seems unbelievably unconstitutional. I just can’t fathom it … The essential role of the attorney is to ensure that the business of government is conducted in accordance with the rule of law. Well, I would have thought that if you’re appointing yourself to those sorts of positions in that way, you’re undermining the rule of law.”

Among other topics covered on the podcast:

  • Living in terror of winning an electorate seat. 
  • Personality politics: “I’d be no good being like Paula Bennett on the front page of Women’s Weekly, or walking down the beach with my dog or anything, I just, I’m just not that kind of person. I am a private person. I found public life a somewhat difficult task.”
  • The Sam Uffindell saga: “I don’t necessarily think the errors of your youth should get in the way of you playing a part in public life.”
  • The impact of his Catholic faith on his politics: “I don’t think you don’t do Jesus in the New Zealand parliament.” (In the book he affirms the proposition that “Thatcher was greater than the Pope”.)
  • His love-hate relationship with Wellington.
  • The moments his colleagues considered him a “geek” and a “tosser”.
  • The catastrophic impacts of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump: “These are people for whom lying comes easily … They expect a blind, almost führer-like loyalty, but they never give it.”
  • Regretting backing Simon Bridges for leader, rather than Steven Joyce: “He would have provided maturity.”
  • Why his former press secretary and popular pundit Ben Thomas only got one paragraph in the book.

Follow Gone By Lunchtime on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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