Labour's shadow man

Why does Mike Williams, the all-powerful president of the Labour Party, have a public profile as high as a flat white? TIM WATKIN puts the question as the Labour Party conference begins this weekend.

It all seems a bit inside out. Mike Williams is sitting in a Ponsonby Rd cafe spotting famous people.

"There's that TV announcer Carol Hirschfeld," he says with glee. Later, in the midst of a discussion on political polling, he spots celebrity chef Peta Mathias. "Sit here long enough you'll see everybody."

Williams is a keen observer, regarded as one of the most astute readers there is of public opinion. The question, however, is why this man isn't more keenly observed himself.

He has power and influence over public life that leaves these passing celebrities for dead: friend and confidante of the Prime Minister, leader and devotee of the ruling party, wealthy businessman, redoubtable political campaigner ... and thoroughly anonymous.

No one recognises Williams. He's as unobtrusive as a flat white in this cafe. Asking about him in political circles, the most common response is, "Mike Williams ... the Labour Party president?"

Such clarifications have never been necessary for his opposite numbers Michelle Boag (National Party president) and Matt McCarten (Alliance), nor were they for predecessors such as Bob Harvey or Michael Hirschfeld.

Yet after a year in the job, Williams remains in the political shadows. He's a backroom specialist. As former Labour Cabinet Minister Michael Bassett says, Williams knows and is known by the right people, but is close to few.

Williams took over last November, at the end of Harvey's successful if controversial term, promising to tighten organisation and build the party into an efficient, election-winning machine. Hardly a rousing manifesto. What's more, he hadn't been active in the party since the early 80s.

Minister Steve Maharey says he won the job because he was seen as a young Turk from the good old days, a successful businessman, and a party man through and through. What goes unsaid is that he was more or less anointed by both Prime Minister Helen Clark and the Engineers' Union.

Yet as he leads the party through this weekend's conference, it will be the first time Williams has had a prominent public role. He remains the least visible Labour president in a generation.

So who is Mike Williams? Where has he come from and what kind of man is he?

O ne of Williams' earliest memories is of getting his tongue stuck to his family's front gate on a freezing morning in Wainuiomata in 1954 - an incident friends say shows that, even as a child, Williams couldn't keep his mouth shut.

He's famously both delightful company and terribly indiscreet.

When the family moved to Hawkes Bay, Williams' father, George, a fitter and turner for Humes Steel and a member of the Engineers' Union, transferred to the Hastings pipe factory.

So began a golden childhood. Aged 13 at Karamu High School he met two boys who remain the best of friends - broadcaster Paul Holmes and Peter Bevan, later Williams' business partner and the brother of Auckland City Councillor Penny Sefuiva.

Holmes says they were a clever little group - they liked the Goon Show, debating and politics and went to every political meeting in Hastings during the 1966 election campaign, heckling Keith Holyoake. At 17 Williams joined the Labour Party.

They were successful academically, earnest yet diverse - Holmes the performer, Bevan the sportsman, Williams the observer and commentator. Holmes recalls Williams was always on the fringes, even of the fringe groups; an outsider looking in.

"He's a very astute reader of a situation. Peter once said to me in frustration - he lives a life in the half light."

The trio have remained close for nearly 40 years, though Holmes says their relationship has changed since Williams became Labour president.

"I've got to be careful what I say to him because he's notoriously indiscreet and he's got to be careful what he says to me because I'm professionally indiscreet."

At the end of school, the threesome boarded the same train for Victoria University, where Williams joined the marches against apartheid, nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War before heading to Auckland to add an MA in New Zealand history to his BA. There he joined the now famous Princes St branch of the party, where he met Helen Clark.

It was through Clark and Jim Anderton, Labour president at the time, that Williams first worked for the party as education officer. That job description didn't last long.

"Whenever you work for the Labour Party," he quips, "the first thing you've got to do is raise your own salary, so I became a fundraiser."

S tarting by reading every book in the Auckland library on political fundraising, Williams instigated three practices. The most important, he believes, was a pledge system, where people committed a regular amount to the party. Automatic bank transfers were new. He used them to the party's advantage. "There's still cashflow coming from that, still people in that system signed up by me," he says.

He also inaugurated a system using the party's membership list to send letters with prepaid envelopes to members, asking for donations.

He and Anderton also started visiting businesses. "It really plugged us into the business community. The first thing you demonstrated was that you didn't have horns. The second thing was that we started getting money."

Finally Williams introduced systematic canvassing and direct-mailing to New Zealand politics. "We'd print out the electoral roll in street order. You'd go along and say, 'Are you a Labour supporter?' in marginal electorates. Systematically knock on every door."

They were looking for floating voters. "If they said, 'Look I really haven't decided', then you'd target that person to meet the candidate or get policy material."

Such organisation, which helped to build the party towards its 1984 election landslide, earned Williams his fame in left-wing circles. "What we did in the Labour Party at that time is exploit computers a lot earlier than the Tory party," he explains.

Paul Holmes says National was convinced Labour had flown in a team of experts from Australia, but it was only Williams printing out thousands of letters in his Grey Lynn garage.

"He was always a good lateral thinker and he still is, thank God," says Mike Smith, Labour's general secretary, who met Williams during that campaign. "He's an organiser from conviction and tradition. He's very committed to the Labour Party and all it stands for."

This devotion to the party seems to be more instinctual and pragmatic than ideological. Despite more than a passing resemblance to Mike Moore, he was no friend of the former leader and his cronies.

Says Smith: "I'd put it more that he's solid Labour". Holmes agrees: "He's tribal. I couldn't tell you what Mike believes on a specific policy. I simply know what he's made of and where his heart is. He's a Labour man."

After the 1984 election Williams, who had missed out on the general secretary's job here, joined the Australian Labour Party in Canberra. The appointment was short-lived. Williams was back after a year. "What they learned from me was management of electoral rolls and direct mail in marginal seats. What I learned from them was telephone market research."

The lesson helped him into business, setting up two companies - Insight Data direct-mail and marketing, and Insight Research (now UMR Insight) market researchers - something, he says, he always intended to do.

"I was always interested in capitalism," he says. "I didn't intend to spend my life on a teacher's salary, let's put it that way." They were successful companies, which he sold out of in 1994 (Research) and 1997 (Data). Has this "urge to make a quid", as he puts it, reshaped his politics? "Yes it has. It means I'm strongly aware of what the engine of jobs and government money is."

Despite their success, Williams' companies were not squeaky-clean from a Labour point of view. In the early 90s, long-term part-time staff complained that they weren't receiving holiday pay.

Williams says holiday pay was included in their hourly rate until a court ruling forced many companies to change. "I don't know if it was best practice, but it was common practice."

Although he was in regular contact with his staff's union organiser, the problem was never raised until, claim ex-staff, they filed a complaint with industrial relations authorities.

Also, when staff arrived each day they would be given either mail-out or better-paid telephone work. One staff member recalled "the brown boys" were always sent to the mailroom.

"No one ever complained to me about that," Williams says now. He contends he paid well by industry standards, created new jobs in a recession and has no qualms about his record as an employer.

W hen Pete Hodgson asked him to be campaign manager at the last election, Williams chucked in his half-hearted efforts at a PhD in tourism and put together a winning campaign.

With the success came controversy. While Williams said publicly he was doing the job for free, there was a five-figure expenses bill. "They shouldn't have been [surprised]," he says. Expenses had consistently been $3000-4000 a month, meaning he did the party a favour carrying the cost for six months up to the election, waiting until donations had been processed, rather than billing them monthly.

Next, when Williams announced his intention to stand for president, some party people were nervous. Would this pollster and organiser make the party merely a machine for winning elections rather than than a party of principle?

Certainly, Williams likes the deals and machinations, the pure politics. It's what he calls the "big chess game", with himself the bishop with a few supporting pawns. Or as Matt McCarten describes him, "Like the Don, sort of Mafia." Adds political commentator Colin James, "Behind those heavy lids is quite a sharp brain."

In line with his brief, Williams set about tidying up the party's organisation, which he describes as "very thin".

He's credited with bolstering the Maori and youth sections of the party and wants to create budget surpluses so more can be spent on marketing and communication. He also wants to get membership, now 10,000 to 15,000, to more than 20,000. Most controversially, he wants the party run more like a business.

Maharey is impressed. "He's seen as someone who delivers. All political parties are less social movements and more organisations these days. If they're going to be successful they have to be more businesslike."

Does Williams consider himself a politician? "I'm in a sort of netherworld. I'm an administrator really. I've never wanted to be a member of parliament." Which is one of the reasons he has endeared himself to Clark, Bassett believes.

H is lack of political ambition and ego - unlike most recent presidents - means he doesn't get in Clark's way. Williams has long been a Clark loyalist and has her ear (and those of all caucus, says Maharey) because he's effective and reliable. He's more gregarious than Clark, but like her, has a no-nonsense style and values hard work.

Which brings us to concerns that he is too close to Clark, chiefly that Clark's domination of Labour is unhealthy and the one person in a position to stand up to her is one of her most loyal lieutenants.

As one council member says, "Half the council was initially suspicious of him, whether he would truly represent the party if there was conflict between the party and Parliament. The crunch hasn't come on that yet."

Other questions about Williams' independence have grown partly out of his lack of visibility. Past Labour presidents have had presence and profile; they've embodied the party's principles. Not Williams, who admits he's no good in the spotlight.

Certainly his invisibility is in stark contrast to Michelle Boag's prominence. But he's dismissive of both publicity and Boag.

"Every bit of publicity she gets is a subtraction from what the politicians get. If I see myself it's usually a defeat, it's usually explaining why something's got out of hand."

Paul Holmes says the self-effacing attitude goes back to their schooldays. "Few people understood the significance of something he said when he won the presidency.

"He said, 'I've fought 32 or 34 election campaigns and this is the first one I've ever stood in.' He didn't think until recently that if he put himself up for election that anyone would vote for him. Part of it's that he enjoys being in the backroom and organising, but part of it is that he doesn't think of himself as front-of-house talent."

W illiams says he has three tasks: administer a voluntary organisation; be an honest broker holding the party together; raise money and establish links with the corporate sector. It's a to-do list a million miles from Bob Harvey, who tried to use his presidency to raise ideas, visions and be a marketer; he said he was nothing more than an ATM for the party, endlessly fundraising. As he notes now, "I haven't seen Mike in a bigger role than that either."

Williams, in contrast, seems happy.

"It's a numbers game. I've expanded corporate fundraising from about 60 targets to 400. I will do 400 visits this year and I will do 800 next".

But is it time well spent? Given that Harvey generated $1.3 million from 30 corporates in 1999, experienced political fundraisers question why he's visiting 20 times the businesses to raise only twice the money.

Answer: probably the same tactics he used in 1984. Visits allow Williams the president to meet people that Williams the campaigner might not. Nearly everyone agrees on one thing: Williams works. The day of our interview is the first he's had in more than a month.

However, it's too early to gauge his contribution to Labour's present popularity. While some say Williams' networking has dampened business opposition to the Government, others reckon he's "Mike Who" in the glass towers where the Government's staunchest critics work.

On the other hand, party finances have recovered after a disaster last year when a surplus from the 1999 election was drained. Councillors and Williams say fundraising is paying off, finances are "healthy".

Insiders say Williams' real test will come over the next six months as the party makes its candidate selections. Under Labour rules, head office, and those behind it, have the potential to dominate selection panels. Pressure will be exerted from both Helen Clark and the Engineers' Union (he was elected on their ticket and has been a member since 1999 - "It doesn't hurt to be a member of your biggest affiliate") for candidates they favour to win selection.

Expect some internal party tussles. Williams' commitment to the will of the members may well be tested. The shadow man may, at last, be forced out of obscurity and into the glare of election day.

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