News & Events

Jim Anderton: A progressive politician

BY Ian Shirley

There have been many eulogies and tributes paid to Jim Anderton since he died in Christchurch just two weeks short of his 80th birthday. While the Policy Observatory traditionally focuses on policy structures and systems rather than personalities Anderton was clearly a politician who stood out because of his principled and courageous approach, and his enduring commitment to social justice.

These principles were evident during his apprenticeship in the 1960s when he was employed as a youth movement organiser in Auckland. He proved to be a superb organiser for a movement focussed on young workers and based on a Freirean pedagogy that emphasised action and reflection. He had a healthy scepticism of power and authority and the courage to challenge those who held positions of authority.

I recall one such example in a discussion with Bishop Brian Ashby prior to the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand. Although a progressive thinker himself, Bishop Ashby expressed concern that the Catholic Bishops as a group were having difficulty coming to a consensus on the tour, and he described their position as sitting on the fence with both feet on the ground. To which Jim replied: “well I hope the top rail of the fence is covered in barbed wire”. The Bishop enjoyed the comment immensely and it reinforced the position adopted by members of the youth movement (including many chaplains) who were in the vanguard of protests against apartheid in South Africa. Father Terry Dibble was one such example.

After leaving the youth movement to set up an engineering firm with his brother, Anderton became an Auckland City Councillor at a time before the establishment of wards and as a consequence the majority of Councillors came from the eastern suburbs of the city. It made little difference to Jim – when issues were debated in council it was often Anderton against the rest. And those odds were repeated often during his political career.

He was prepared to take risks in political terms and throughout the 1980s and 90s he was the one politician who fought the neoliberal excesses of public policy in New Zealand that went further than Thatcherism in Britain or Reaganomics in North America. For those of us conducting research through these years and involved in public policy debates, Jim stood out as the only politician who rejected Margret Thatcher’s dictum ‘that there was no alternative’.

Ironically when it came to discussions with Jim over alternatives he was equally pig-headed in pursuing his political goals. As far as he was concerned there was only one way to engage politically and that was through a parliamentary party system. He modified this stance to support MMP but only after the limitations of the first past the post system were graphically exposed by the fourth Labour government and the sweeping changes it introduced with little reference to the electorate. Even then he had little appreciation or time for citizens who expressed their political role in the tradition of Socrates who famously described a citizen as ‘a persistent annoyance’. Whilst there are many avenues through which individuals in a democratic society can fulfil their political role as citizens Jim couldn’t accept that viewpoint and he had little time for those who could not commit themselves to a party system.

Another example stems from his role as Minister of Economic Development. At a national development conference in Timaru he made a presentation as Minister, with the essence of his address centred on comparing the various regions of the country and how they were performing. The conclusion reached by the Minister centred on defining Auckland as ,the basket case of the country,.  His data was biased and the graphs were fundamentally flawed but when I challenged him at the conclusion of his presentation he said: ,I know but it was a bloody good story wasn’t it?’ The Auckland contingent was so annoyed that when we returned home we set up a programme aimed at promoting the Metropolitan Development of the region. Jim later claimed that he had provided the motivation for the programme. He revelled in the cut and thrust of politics.

Jim Anderton’s contribution to progressive politics and public policy in New Zealand stands on its own. He battled throughout the destructive excesses of neoliberalism and he advanced alternative initiatives when the political establishment denied there were alternatives. Initiatives such as Kiwibank, the New Zealand Superannuation Fund and regional economic development stand out as examples of a legacy he contributed to building. Yet perhaps his greatest contribution is still to come. As others have suggested it might eventually lie in the way in which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Labour led government steers a policy direction that is closest to what Jim Anderton had in mind.