Jim Anderton at the launch of the Progressive Coalition in Christchurch, 2002. Photo by Dean Purcell/Getty Images

‘He built his footpaths where the people walked’: Matt Robson on Jim Anderton

Longtime friend and fellow Alliance MP Matt Robson says farewell to Jim Anderton, a colossus of New Zealand politics who sought to do what was right, not was expedient.

On turning on the radio in 1980, just returned from overseas, I heard an unfamiliar voice. The voice outlined that the Labour Party would campaign vigorously against apartheid and for a society of fairness and equality and that the speaker and his Labour Party colleagues were building a party machine to do just that.

It was one of those annoying interviews where you come in part way through and Kim Hill does not tell you for 20 minutes or so who is the interviewee. Finally, when informed the speaker was Jim Anderton and he was president of the Labour Party, I just about fell off my chair. I probably did.

I had attended Labour Party conferences in the past and the presidents, if I could remember their names at all, gave platitudinous speeches, never mentioned policies, the sacred territory of MPs, and announced the time for morning tea. This was a different political beast.

I asked Helen Clark, soon to be Labour MP for Mt Albert and a fellow student when at university, if Jim was the genuine article. As his close colleague and fellow Labour Party activist, Helen assured me he was.

I immediately joined the Labour Party. With the thousands who were now joining a revitalised Labour led by Jim, Helen and Margaret Wilson, we campaigned vigorously in 1981 with Bill Rowling as leader and Jim by his side as president.

That was the year of an all-white Springbok tour. Jim with a few brave Labour MPs around Helen defied a caucus ban to be on the mass marches.

So began a more than 30-year friendship with Jim and the privilege of joining in government the man whose achievements and leadership have been recounted over the last week and at his funeral in Christchurch on Thursday.

Apart from Helen and a small group of MPs including opposition leader Bill Rowling, there was no welcome mat from the Labour caucus for President Jim with his plans to revitalise the organisation and involve the membership in developing progressive policies.

They thought they had seen the back of him after driving him out of the 1967 conference where he had made an unsuccessful attempt to break the power of union grandees ,who had rubber-stamped conservative policies and conservative selections in concert with the caucus.

Now, over a decade later he was back, as president and supporting policies from the base for progressive taxation to reduce disparities in wealth, using state resources to develop the mixed economy, severely limiting user pay provisions in health and education and a progressive and an independent internationalist policy which would also make New Zealand nuclear-weapon-free.

For old and new Labour members alike in the refashioned mass party, Jim provided a clear set of principles based on recognition that wealth was created collectively and should be used for the collective good and based on that old fashioned socialist and Christian ideal of national and international solidarity of the peoples.

His political experience spanned his years from 1965 as a young Auckland city councillor with the chutzpah to challenge that Auckland mayoral colossus Dove-Myer Robinson, becoming Labour president in 1979, leading the formulation of the 1984 Labour policy platform programme, expulsion in 1989 from the Labour caucus for his opposition to state asset sales to becoming the leader of the New Labour Party, then the Alliance and deputy PM and senior cabinet minister in the coalition government led by Helen Clark.

The funeral service for Jim Anderton, who died aged 79. Photograph: Getty

Jim would use the telling analogy of opposition to the American war in Vietnam, in which millions of Vietnamese died, to show that principle will win out in politics. At the beginning of that war, and during the Cold War, Labour MPs were nervous of outright condemnation of the war and New Zealand’s military commitment from 1965.

Their nervousness became panic when they lost the 1969 election and attributed that to opposition to the war.

They became even more invisible than usual on the subject. Then as the truth about the war emerged a clear majority of New Zealanders supported an immediate end to New Zealand’s involvement. Labour 1972 victory was boosted by joining that demand.

Jim cited this example to demonstrate that it was crucial to take the right moral and political position even when public opinion was not on your side. When the truth emerged, he would say, people will remember those who took the principled stand and gave leadership.

And taking the principled stand was his hallmark. He would tell us: do what is right, not what is politically expedient.

The watershed years

The campaigning enthusiasm of 1981 carried over into 1984.

President Jim became Sydenham’s Labour MP.

But the Labour election manifesto was side-lined by the new cabinet.

The new government did not have a mandate to lower taxes on the wealthiest and begin the programme of public asset sales. It did not have a mandate to pull the state out of the market and on the side of ordinary New Zealanders. But it did all of those things.

Jim rallied the Labour ranks against these policies. At the 1988 Labour conference he came close to winning the presidency. If he had, history would have been different.

Jim stood by the policies that Labour had gone to the electorate on even when it meant no cabinet post, no committee chairs, no overseas trips and, famously, expulsion from the Labour caucus in 1989.

He led the formation of the New Labour Party and fought the 1990 elections without the material resources of a large party but with the respect and admiration and support of thousands who turned their back on a bitterly divided Labour Party.

It is hard to encapsulate in any pithy way those heady days when droves of the activists of the Labour Party turned to the new Party.

At the 1990 election Jim retained his Sydenham seat, against any historical precedent, and the fledgling New Labour Party was launched as a political force.

National too was to lose the trust of New Zealanders when after their 1990 landslide election win they continued asset sales and placed the greatest burdens on the least well off.

It was the combined mistrust of Labour and National which probably tipped the balance for MMP in the 1993 referendum, a cause Jim campaigned for enthusiastically.

Former prime minister Jim Bolger is now on record as saying: no one in politics now believes in the extreme free market approach that led Anderton to quit Labour in 1989.

It takes courage to admit mistakes.

In 1991 the New Labour Party, under Jim’s guidance, joined with four other small parties, the Greens, Liberals, Democrats and Mana Motuhake, to form an Alliance around a common programme.

In the last first past the post election in 1993, and with 18 % of the popular vote for the Alliance, Sandra Lee leader of Mana Motuhake defeated Labour heavyweight Richard Prebble in Auckland Central and joined Jim in parliament. Now we were two. Jim always paid tribute to Sandra’s role at his side in the good times and the bad times.

Alliance policies for progressive taxation, regional and economic development, an end to asset sales, return to free public health and education, greater resourcing of the Waitangi Tribunal, strong environmental measures and an independent foreign policy – and of course Kiwibank, paid parental leave and four weeks annual leave – became our hallmark.

The 1996 manifesto set these policies out with each one costed down to the last cent. Jim’s imprint was evident.

Jim refused to go to an election with vague promise designed to catch votes but without saying where the money would come from. He wanted the Alliance to do the right thing by the public.

The result in the first MMP election: nine more Alliance MPs to join Jim and Sandra.

In that 1996 election I well remember that Jim drew a line in the sand against using migrants as a punching bag to gain votes. The anti-immigrant campaign blaming, in particular Chinese immigrants, for every social ill possible (there is nothing new under the sun!) caused our high polling to drop dramatically.

I was the immigration spokesperson. There was pressure to put arbitrary numbers on immigration figures from within the Alliance. I refused to blame our contributing migrant community for the country’s woes. Jim backed me 100%. It was not the right thing to do, votes or no votes, so we were not doing it. That was that.

Alliance with Labour

Although neither Labour nor the Alliance was in government in 1996, the Alliance had arrived.

Then in 1998 Jim showed his political vision and commitment to achieving the implementation of progressive policies by joining with Helen Clark and Labour to campaign for a Labour-Alliance government in 1999.

Not without a lot of grumbling from many of us who were not so fast to see that it was time to leave our separate camps and strike at the political enemy together.

Jim, older than most of us, was quicker off the mark. Helen Clark showed her political leadership as well and both rose above any of the political friction that had gone before and put the needs to rebuild a fairer and more just New Zealand above anything else.

Labour-Alliance in government 1999 -2002

The rest, as someone famously said, is history, and the Labour-Alliance government was formed in 1999.

Many key Alliance policies were implemented.

But Michael Cullen has pointed out that although the Kiwibank is rightly credited to Jim and the Alliance it was Jim’s determination to have a ministry for economic, industry and regional development that was perhaps his most remarkable achievement.

Helen Clark and Jim Anderton hold aloft the coalition agreement binding Labour and the Alliance in 1999. Photo by Barry Durrant/Getty Images

This helped to underpin economic growth for every single region in New Zealand, and the retreat from extreme market policies.

Jim was also, as Michael has attested this week, a co-architect of the Kiwi Saver policy. And later the Fast Forward Fund for the primary industry sector.

This was no tax and spend socialist politician who neglected sustainable economic growth.

The 2002-2005 Labour-Progressive government

Between 2002 and 2005 Jim and I were the only surviving MPs from the Alliance.

But not to despair. Jim was a glass half-full man.

This was 100% more than he had from 1990 until Sandra joined him in 1993.

Be of good cheer. There is work to complete.

He worked even harder, if that was possible, to complete the Alliance programme.

I campaigned with him for measures to reduce alcohol harm and introduced, as a backbencher, the eventually successful bill for four weeks annual leave. Some of those who attended on Thursday could probably do so because of it.

He was unremitting in his advocacy of effective measures for suicide prevention and resources for mental health.

Yes, we were down to two MPs. That just meant that we had to work harder.

Man Alone: 2005 to 2008

Now he was back to a one-man party ,but still in coalition.

As No 3 in the cabinet he was placed in the hot seat as Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity. It was his responsibility to put the farming sector back at the centre of government economic strategy.

He created the Fast Forward Fund for the primary industry sector which saw a $700 million research and development fund, planned to grow to a $2 billion fund over 10 years .Jim regretted the axing of this important initiative for our most important industry by the incoming Key government.

Back in opposition: 2008 to 2011

Whether you can keep a good man down or not you certainly couldn’t squash the spirit of Jim.

During this last term in opposition, he developed a workable model for affordable dental treatment for all New Zealanders and campaigned on the reform of our alcohol legislation.

Retirement from parliament – look out, Christchurch

In retirement from parliament in 2011, Jim continued with voluntary work in post-earthquake Christchurch campaigning for the conservation of the Christchurch Cathedral with the Greater Christchurch Building Trust, fundraising for the new AMI Sports Stadium and chairing the stadium committee and was on the board of the low-cost housing group, Habitat for Humanity NZ.

Oh and of course apart from that little episode of earthquakes in his beloved Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, before his retirement from parliament, he would have added mayor of this city to his CV.

His Christchurch years after parliament were not your normal retirement set of activities.

Working with Jim – or at least running to try and catch up

He stressed Organisation, organisation, organisation. Detail, detail, detail.

Do sweat the small stuff or the big stuff will fall on you. Get the scaffolding right.

Did Jim feel political pressure from the ever present daily crises of politics and personal issues? Of course. But he would breathe deeply focus on what is to be done and do it.

He liked to get things in perspective and would have loved the advice of Australian cricket great and World War Two bomber pilot Keith Miller who when asked about pressure in an Ashes test replied: “Pressure! What pressure? Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse.”

I spoke at a farewell from parliament for Jim and said that Jim would now have time to write a book. But unlike Richard Prebble’s title I’ve Been Thinking, Jim’s would be called I’ve Been Knowing.

That is because when, and you only did it once, you rushed into him with a bright idea and blurted out that you thought such and such was true and should be shouted from the rooftops, Jim would lift his head and growl, “don’t think, know.”

He was a hard taskmaster. But he never asked more of us then he would give himself. He would point to the hours of voluntary work put in for our movement and our policies by our members and the sacrifices that they made.

They deserved not sloppiness from those of us paid to be in politics but 100 per cent, and more, of effort.

He was at his desk early and left late.

When he offered to call after 7am you had to be prepared for the call to come at 10 seconds after the appointed hour. And you did not get away with it being Sunday and thinking surely not!

It was no good leaving the phone off the hook and claiming that Helen had rung you – he would send a fax with the simple words, call me, now.

His To Do list was always in front of him with each task accomplished crossed out. And then more were added.

(I am pretty sure that somewhere he is making up a fresh To Do List on which he has requested urgency on progressive tax reform to ensure that is wealthy is more evenly distributed .

And if he is I would request him to add to it removing the immigration requirement that the skilled Cambodian baker in our neighbourhood now has to have university entrance English to be a New Zealander and to get more resources for Radio New Zealand staff to learn Māori even if just to annoy Don Brash.)

Many of us were a little anxious if we spied our names on the list with a line through.

Meetings were to start on time and an agenda meticulously prepared.

When we felt like giving up or despaired or were hurt by insults hurled – not a rare occurrence in politics, unsurprisingly – Jim would simply tell us to harden up. Was this evidence of unremitting ruthlessness?

No, it was the best advice I ever got in politics. Because he knew you would not survive if you did not. If the opposition did not kill you your own party comrades might.

He did it to arm us. He once gave me the image of putting on a suit of armour when going into political battles so that the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune did not have to be suffered. I use that image to this day.

But all was not hard-nosed with Jim.

If genuine adversity struck, Jim was the first to be by your side and offer you his hand.

He would not let us sink into a pit of despair if a political crisis hit –and as all involved in politics know we can be the toast of the town one day and plain old burnt toast the next.

To inspire us when politically we might be on the ropes Jim would pull out his favourite cricket analogy: New Zealand nine wickets down having to score 400 against Australia, not an unusual situation, on the last day and sticking it out with dogged determination and a straight bat.

And as a diligent constituent MP, both in opposition and as a Minister with heavy responsibilities, he had few equals.

He ordered his staff to make time for his constituency work even if it meant evening appointments.

Those who could not get their own busy MPs to help were not turned away by Jim. To this day he is praised by people well away from Christchurch who sought his help and got it.

He cared for everyone who walked through his door. He looked at their need as human beings before he asked if they had a visa or were in his constituency. The appropriate minister’s door would be knocked on if necessary and Jim would only leave when he had got justice.

We Alliance MPs learned this from him. No political science textbook on the role of an MP could teach you this.

He valued all his loyal and hard-working staff in Christchurch and in parliament and the many volunteers who worked with him in the interests of the people he served as a public servant.

He valued his secretaries in and out of parliament as close colleagues , friends and advisers –Sally Mitchell, Cathy Casey, Sally Griffin, Jeanette Lawrence and Alan Hayward.

He appreciated and worked closely with his MPs, a number of whom were at his funeral this week – Sandra Lee, John Wright, Grant Gillon and Kevin Campbell.

This was the man whose favourite saying was: lay your footpaths where the people walk.

In 1998 I went to London. I sought out Tony Benn, the legendary Labour MP who laid the groundwork for the revitalisation of British Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. He generously gave me three hours of his time at his home. I showed him a book of speeches of the Alliance MPs and the Alliance policy booklet and explained Jim’s political history.

He took from his bookshelf a work complied by him on the roots of English radicalism and inscribed in it:

To Matt, comrade to comrade, we have shared it all.

He asked me to show that to Jim. He had recognised a kindred spirit.

I recently looked at Tony Benn’s book Arguments for Socialism and I believe that Jim would agree with the following sentiments:

The real history of any popular movement is made by those, almost always anonymously, who throughout history have fought for what they believe in, organised others to join them, and have done so against immense odds and with nothing to gain for themselves, learning from their experience and leaving others to distil that experience and to use it again to advance the cause.

Now we say good bye to a remarkable New Zealand figure who truly built his footpaths where the people walked.

In recent conversations with Jim during the making of the documentary on his political leadership he expressed his hope that trust in the political system would be rebuilt. He was optimistic that the movements in the world against austerity policies, would be successful and would be influential in New Zealand.

Jim would want us to evaluate his life and contribution to New Zealand warts and all and not elevate him to sainthood and embalm him in a mausoleum.

In these last years Jim continued to be as active as his health permitted and probably expended more energy than he should have. He continued to help people. And to be involved in the affairs of Christchurch.

He had an unfinished biography and followed the progress of the documentary on his life, in which he gave a six-hour interview, to the end. He followed politics with a critical and insightful eye.

In 1999 Jim authored a book of 12 essays on remarkable and undervalued New Zealanders called Unsung Heroes. It is time for Jim to join Colonel Malone in that book.

But we should retain the living, breathing fighting spirit of Jim Anderton who would have repeated to us the immortal words of union leader Joe Hill: Do not mourn, organise!

Haere ra e rangitira

Haere ra e hoa

Moe mai, Moe mai, Moe mai.


The above is an edited excerpt from Matt Robson’s Eulogy for Jim Anderton at Sacred Heart Church, Christchurch, on 11 January. Published with permission.

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