Jamie Mackay runs The Country...on the radio.

Jamie Mackay's 'From the Lip' - The day Helen Clark totally ignored me

Although Helen Clark was "chatty" off air, once recording started she "gave you very little" writes Jamie Mackay. Photo / Supplied.
Although Helen Clark was "chatty" off air, once recording started she "gave you very little" writes Jamie Mackay. Photo / Supplied.

The question most commonly asked of talk radio hosts is; who are your favourite people to interview?

My absolute favourite was All Blacks hard man Kevin Skinner, because I was raised on the legend of him single-handedly sorting out the 1956 Springboks.

Former All Blacks Colin Meads, Brian Lochore and Ian Kirkpatrick are right up there because they were my boyhood heroes. More recently Richard Loe and Andrew Hore have been fun. Coincidentally, they all have farming backgrounds, they're all forwards and are all former All Black captains.

Captains of industry and economists are also good value but the surprise package is definitely politicians. With one exception, nearly every politician who's crossed my path in 23 years of radio has been most personable. The reality is politicians need to be good communicators to get to the top.

Ironically, the first politician I had much to do with in a broadcasting capacity was the then boyish Bill English, the member for Clutha Southland.

He was our local MP when we set up Hokonui Radio in 1994. But more about him later!

Jenny Shipley had a brief burst in the top job, post Jim Bolger. I remember being MC at a packed national netball final at Stadium Southland, where Prime Minister Shipley oozed aura and was quite glamorous on the evening.

Her eventual successor, English, looked rather dowdy by comparison in an old brown suit complete with an untucked shirt. But more about him later!

My first serious brush with politicians on a national stage was in 2000 when the newly-elected PM Helen Clark became a regular member of the Farming Show stable.

I was surprised that she wanted to take the time to talk to a Gore radio station on a weekly basis until my cousin Barry Soper, who facilitated the relationship, pointed out that she had a vested interest keeping her profile high in an electorate where the incumbent MP was seen as a future National Party leader. History tells us Bill got the job, only to crash and burn in the 2002 election. But more about him later!

For nearly the entire nine years of her tenure, I interviewed Helen at 7-55am every Tuesday morning. I only met her once - at a netball test one evening in Invercargill - where I was slightly the worse for wear after trying to look after the Mad Butcher at a fundraising luncheon that got out of control. I guess you could hardly blame her for only reluctantly acknowledging her old league mate and totally ignoring me.

In fairness, over the course of time, Helen became quite chatty. That was until you pressed the record button at which point she put on her game face and gave you very little.

The thing I remember most about National leader Don Brash was his incredible penchant for punctuality. I used to joke that we could calibrate our radio studio clocks by Brash's weekly 9-30am call on a Thursday.

Of all the politicians I've interviewed, though, John Key has been the most consummate practitioner. He had that rare gift, upon meeting people, to make them feel that they were the only person in the room. It's a skill few possess. Lochore is the only New Zealander I know who comes close and like Sir Brian, Key seemed to possess an encyclopedic memory for recalling peoples' names.

Then there's been the plethora of Labour leaders since Clark was deposed by Key in 2008. Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little. Three-quarters of them are thoroughly likeable. Goff is proving to be a very capable Auckland mayor, Shearer's doing God's work in South Sudan but would have made a good PM given the chance while Little's fate will be decided on September 23. It's also worth mentioning a couple of Greens. I really liked the late Rod Donald and James Shaw impresses me.

Without doubt the most charismatic of the lot is Winston. Who else in the Beehive is known simply by his Christian name? Politics is a game and no one is better at playing right up to the offside line than the MP for Northland. Like Clark, he's a different beast when the record button is on but afterwards he's always happy to tell you, in good humour, how much he dominated you.

But let's go back to where it all started. Let's go back to Bill. In the intervening 23 years, what's changed other than he's now PM? His dress sense? Maybe, but he'll never be as dapper as Winston. His confidence as a speaker? Yeah probably, but he'll never be as comfortable as Key in front of a TV camera. His steely resolve? Sure he's got plenty but he'd play second-fiddle to Clark on that one.

So what hasn't changed? One thing I reckon. His hands! He'd have to have the safest set in the business. He's navigated the economy through the GFC and the Christchurch earthquakes. Sure he's not as flamboyant as Winston, not as exciting as Key and certainly not as domineering as Clark. But put the house on one thing. Good, honest, earnest, intelligent Bill English will not drop the ball.

- The Country

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Jamie Mackay runs The Country...on the radio.

Jamie Mackay runs The Country. Well actually his former Southland sheep-farming mate Bill English does that but Jamie's apolitical so we won't mention it. Mackay is a rural legend in broadcasting with over 20 years' experience. Jamie enjoys the finer things in life such as a quenching pint of Emerson’s pilsner, a leisurely Friday afternoon game of golf, and mercilessly teasing Dom George about everything from his appearance to his social standing.

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