Labour MP Annette King (L), carrying a 40-year-old photo of former Prime Minister Norman Kirk at Waitangi, and Titewhai Harawira (R) exchange a kiss as they arrive at the Te Tii Marae on February 5, 2014 in Paihia, New Zealand. Photo by Jason Oxenham/Getty Images

Review: An overly diplomatic biography of Labour grandee Dame Annette King

The authorised biography of New Zealand’s longest-serving female MP was co-written by her former press secretary. Unsurprising, then, that it focuses on her triumphs, says longtime Labour activist Shane Te Pou.

If you’re like me, and admire Dame Annette King the person and politician, you’ll enjoy this authorised biography. It offers an entertaining guided tour through a tumultuous and, in many ways, consequential career in New Zealand politics.

King played a central role in many, if not most, significant events over the past three decades of Labour Party history. As member of parliament for the marginal seat of Horowhenua in the 1980s, King mostly aligned with the prevailing reformist zeitgeist embodied by Roger Douglas – but fell short of being an ideologue in the mould of Richard Prebble or Michael Bassett. After losing her seat in the 1990 rout, returning three years later as MP for the safer Wellington-based seat of Rongotai, King was a Mike Moore supporter before making peace with Labour’s leftward tilt under Helen Clark.

A cynic might cast these machinations as opportunistic but – and the book does a decent job of conveying this – King is best understood as a pragmatist, motivated by what she perceived as best positioning Labour for government.

In a stinging section on the party under the leadership of self-styled leftist David Cunliffe, it’s clear Dame Annette is no fan of ideological posturing. To her mind at least, her support for leaders from Mike Moore to Clark to David Shearer and, triumphantly, Jacinda Ardern, is not usefully explained along a left-right continuum. Instead, she argues, each was best suited at the time to guiding Labour to electoral success. Those views happen to reflect my own – I served on the party’s governing New Zealand Council for much of the period covered – but there’s plenty to irritate others in the party.

In the 80s and early 1990s I sat on that council, Annette was also a member, as a Caucus Rep. She was always fiercely loyal to the leader of the day and would advocate for the caucus, often putting her own views aside for the greater good of the party.

Minister of Police Annette King, Defence Minister Phil Goff and Finance Minister Dr Michael Cullen are welcomed onto the stage as the New Zealand Labour Party lauch their election campaign at Auckland Town Hall on October 12, 2008 in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images

Besides loyalty and pragmatism, the book doesn’t dwell too much on Dame Annette’s guiding principles. In fact, the most satisfying sections of the book are when the authors focus on King in problem-solving mode, especially during her time as health minister under Clark. It’s there you get the sense of a politician in her prime, leveraging strong relationships with key ministers and demonstrating impressive command of her portfolio. Interviews with her colleagues are admittedly selective – and this is a weakness in the book I’ll touch on shortly – but it’s clear King was a fierce and effective advocate for her patch.

The problem the book never fully resolves is found in the subtitle – ‘Authorised Biography’ – which turns out to be an unsatisfying hybrid of ghost-written memoir and journalism. Reporters John Harvey (King’s former press secretary) and Brent Edwards (who covers politics for the National Business Review) are noticeably constrained in their craft, limiting themselves to perspectives favourable to their subject, never seriously challenging King’s particular worldview.

This is especially glaring when they recount episodes like the circumstances leading up to the resignation of King’s close friend and roommate Darren Hughes. (In 2011, an 18 year-old man accused Hughes of sexually assaulting him at King’s home. Hughes resigned as whip, although police never pressed charges.) Most insiders agree this is one case where her reliably good judgment slipped, blinded by personal and professional loyalties to Hughes. Readers expecting a clear accounting will come away disappointed. Instead, they will find no shortage of Hughes himself offering glowing testimony for his mentor, along with similarly flattering accounts from former chiefs of staff, friends and handpicked colleagues.

There are other sections that would have benefited from some old-fashioned reporting – in the Cunliffe case, for instance, what did the former leader and his allies think of Annette’s machinations, rather than simply the other way around? In what areas did she fall short as health, police or transport minister? Some insights into her failures as well as triumphs would have made for a better read, but ‘authorised biographies’ make for lousy history. Given the extensive reliance on lengthy quotes from King, the book would have worked better as a straightforward memoir, discarding any pretence of journalism.

As a former party hack I have a feeling that Annette King: The Authorised Biography could have delivered more. Perhaps there could even be another, grittier version in the future – once she’s no longer a diplomat.

Annette King: The Authorised Biography, by John Harvey and Brent Edwards (Upstart Press, $49.99) is available at Unity Books.

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