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The 9th Floor does the impossible: makes NZ political history urgent and revelatory

The best New Zealand production of the year isn’t TV or radio – it’s a podcast and online video which uses hindsight and our former prime ministers to produce a series of lasting power, says Duncan Greive.

While it mightn’t seem so on Twitter during Question Time or in the comments sections of any semi-popular Facebook post covering proposed Māori place names, New Zealand is mostly in possession of a shockingly reasonable political discourse. Compared to the outside world, with its parade of cartoon super villains either vying to or actually leading all the fancy grownup countries, we seem like a South Pacific oasis of agreeing to disagree.

Mostly. The six months or so surrounding our too-regular elections are when we tighten up. Not because the gap between us is too large, but because the stakes are too high. These spasms of meaning generally cause us to forget what binds us in favour of how grotesque it is that one side favours maintaining the corporate tax rate at 28%, while another advocates lowering it to 27%, and various other marginally larger policy gaps.

One of the very many great gifts of The 9th Floor, RNZ’s new podcast / video series, is that it strips our recent political history of much of the distracting rancour which accompanied it in real time, and allows the key participants to speak with precision and hindsight about what drove their decision-making. That is, in a season during which we’ll commence our triennial insulting and caricaturing process for our leaders, it shows their essential humanity, and the heat of the oven which baked their decisions.

Jim Bolger, photographed at his Waikanae home by Rebekah Parsons-King.

The show consists of longform interviews with every living former New Zealand prime minister – a group which numbers just six. (Actually, all except one: the most recent. In the spirit of the series I’m going to assume it was respect for the electoral process rather than contempt for the platform or broadcaster which drove John Key to decline to participate. Interviewer Guyon Espiner has said he hopes Key will participate in future, and it seems likely he will be added to it in time.)

The four we have heard from to date ran the country from 1989 until 1999, with experience working alongside Norm Kirk and Rob Muldoon – respectively New Zealand politics’ greatest what-if and cautionary tale.

Palmer, Moore, Bolger and Shipley. All come with baggage: three served for periods of less than an electoral cycle; Mike Moore for just 59 days. Moore and Palmer were key pieces of the fourth Labour government, one which it has become fashionable in certain circles to characterise as the worst thing to ever happen to New Zealand. And Bolger was prime minister and Shipley the overseeing minister during the huge cuts to social welfare which accompanied the mother of all budgets.

Jenny Shipley. Photo: Diego Opatowski

So: all hate figures to some. Yet all emerge almost reborn from the series, thanks to Espiner’s determination to place their decisions in a historical context. The fact that both Palmer-Moore and Bolger-Shipley inherited government accounts which were – according to the participants – on the brink of ruin clearly weighed very heavily on every person’s mind. Listening to these podcasts, it’s hard not to imagine the alternatives – New Zealand becoming an Antipodean version of Greece or Argentina, mired in crisis and submerged by debt. The paths not taken but which were right in front of our leaders don’t loom large in the national political memory – but they do in this podcast.

The potted narratives are constructed from long sections of speech, with occasional guiding or diverting interjections from Espiner, interspersed with little sections which frame the political reality of the time. Music comes in, Espiner narrates and suddenly we’re plunged back into leadership coups and constitutional crises. The technique is most impressive in the way it makes even more ponderous speakers like Palmer and Bolger seem urgent.

Mike Moore photographed at home by Rebekah Parsons-King

Each leader emerges with a fascinating post-prime ministerial character. Palmer obsessed with the framework of government and how to avoid it slipping into the wrong hands and ruin. Bolger wise, thoughtful and impressively cogent in his criticism of our current politics, while also deft in the way he sidesteps his own role in its construction. Shipley convincingly argues for the strength of her record and professes self-doubt without ever really displaying any. She’s at her best offering trenchant critiques of others – particularly Winston Peters.

The most fascinating and moving is Mike Moore. His 59 day tenure makes him our fourth-shortest serving Prime Minister, yet he seems the most open, guileless and moved by the process of remembering. Helen Clark’s move to take over the party is an unhealed wound, while his memories of the purpose behind Rogernomics, and affection for the current Labour party might seem contradictory but sit easily within him.

It’s a truly inspired project, easily the best piece of New Zealand broadcasting of the year to date, and reflects very well on RNZ, Espiner and its new head of podcasts Tim Watkin. Coming away from it and into the churn of the electoral cycle you get the sense that in its conception and execution lie an antidote to the brawling of day to day politics – that if the whole country, partisans and apathetics alike, were somehow to be persuaded to listen then they might take something quite profound from The 9th Floor. It’ll never happen, but as we head into the ugly maw, it’s fun to listen and dream.

You can watch all episodes of The 9th Floor released so far here; visit Radio NZ to listen to the interviews as podcasts. The fifth and final episode, an interview with Helen Clark, is released on Friday.


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