In December 2014 John Clarke gave the Policy Observatory permission to publish an article he wrote on ‘the most beautiful country in the world’. It was almost four decades after he left New Zealand to settle in Australia that John Clarke’s Briefing Paper ‘New Zealand: A User’s Guide’, made me realise yet again ‘how lucky we were’ to have known a very special New Zealander.
Growing up in provincial New Zealand during the 1970s Clarke personified ‘an egalitarian, social-democratic nation’ of which we (ordinary New Zealanders) were extremely proud. As Chris Trotter suggests, ‘the New Zealand of Fred Dagg wasn’t just as good as his master, he was, in all probability, and after taking all the relevant factors into consideration, better’.
The eulogies that have stemmed from the death of Clarke, who died while tramping with his family, have celebrated his life in New Zealand to 1977 when he became creatively frustrated by the ‘clots’ running broadcasting that he just ‘ducked out to shift the car’ which was his description of moving to Australia. The accolades from both side of the Tasman single him out as a man of substance and a comic genius – ‘the greatest satirist in the English language’. His career in Australia marked him as a gifted commentator highly respected even by those he lampooned and as Oscar Kightley observes, even when he went to Australia he continued ‘shouting jokes over the fence’. He remained a loyal supporter of public broadcasting which he once described as ‘an important national enterprise in an era when national enterprises are sold, stolen or left to rot’.
In New Zealand he captured the essence of our laid back, understated sense of humour. It was his acute political analysis and critique that has not been matched, at least in my lifetime. Writing of the 1970s in New Zealand: A User’s Guide, he noted that ‘government policy had not yet been out-sourced; we still owned the infrastructure, the power, the gas, the water, the phones, the post offices and the national airline’.
He recorded in such simple terms – terms that have eluded most academic writings of public policy during the 1980s - how ‘the New Zealand economy was put in the hands of finance ministers due to a filing error, and authorities are still looking for the black box. A social democracy with only one previous owner was asset stripped and replaced by a series of franchises’.
For those of us who opposed apartheid in South Africa despite our love of rugby he mocked ‘the spuds’ of the New Zealand rugby union and ‘the smaller Prime Minister’ who allowed the rugby tour of 1981 to proceed, a tour he describes as ‘a national disaster, for the spuds and the government did not have the support of the people’. As a consequence the nation was divided and thus there was a gnashing of teeth.
When it came to the 21st century and the legacy of the Key government he simply wrote: ‘The next thing anyone knew they’d appointed a currency dealer as Prime Minister and the equities market became a place of worship’.
I think John Clarke would have had a field day in the lead up to the 2017 general election. His take on both the ownership and state of our water – the ‘spray and pray’ approach to agriculture, the un-swimmable rivers and the renaming of ‘poo harbour’ in Auckland; the transport system which is grinding to a halt in our global city where the most innovative policy response is a train to the airport by 2047; a housing affordability crisis especially for younger New Zealanders while Ministers continue to repeat the phase made famous by Sergeant Schultz: ‘I know nothing’; and the scale of inequality (especially child poverty) in his ‘egalitarian nation’ would have been repugnant to Clarke. As he said, ‘New Zealanders don’t have much trouble working out what they think. It’s the next bit that might need some work’. And even here he provides sage advice: ‘Complaining about what’s wrong but not taking action, has the same effect as not noticing what’s wrong’.
That would be a lasting contribution that the citizens of New Zealand could make to the legacy of John Clarke. Not just expressing what we think about the direction of economic and social policy but taking action to put things right for as a well-known advertising campaign tells us over and over again, ‘it’s the putting right that counts’.