Veteran MP’s health is failing as party prepares to celebrate centenary.

The drums have been beating around the Labour clan this week about the declining health of the legendary Bob Tizard.

He spans the eras, having first stood for Parliament in 1951, two years after the defeat of the first Labour Government.

He was eventually elected in 1957 when Walter Nash won power - eight years before current leader Andrew Little was born.

At that stage, he was the modern face of Labour.


He was a minister in the Kirk and Lange Governments and retired in 1990 shortly after winning the massive argument (almost single-handedly) within the party and across the country to order the Anzac frigates.

His intelligence, wit, impatience, irascibility and directness are legendary.

To a woman who wrote: "If you must persist playing war games with your gin-deadened mind, then resign and do it in the bath," he replied: "I have been abused by experts so your effort pales by comparison ... I do however feel constrained to point out that I am rarely a gin-drinker and that I was involved in the air force, not the navy, in the Second World War so I do take a very critical approach to the claims to the navy for the kind of ship they are now seeking."

After a run-in with a journalist who claimed to represent "the public conscience", Tizard said he saw him more as "the public arsehole".

It is a great pity he never wrote his own book but there were probably no publishers willing to underwrite the libel suits such a publication would have attracted.

But he has given access to many historians, including those compiling a warts-and-all history of the Labour Party to be published in July when the party turns 100.

Tizard starred at a warm-up event to the centenary year in November last year, actually to mark the election of the first Labour Government.

It was a dinner organised by Napier MP Stuart Nash for all MPs who had ever been elected under the Labour ticket, including a bevy of Act supporters.

That in itself was a historic event.

After a run-in with a journalist who claimed to represent "the public conscience", Tizard said he saw him more as "the public arsehole".


The party in the 1990s and 2000s did not come to terms with its past.

It may have been from a fear of reopening wounds, but it chose to either ignore its past or at least to cast a disdainful judgment on the economic reforms it led in the 1980s.

It says a lot about Little that the November event happened without fuss.

It could not have taken place under Phil Goff or David Shearer without the party left being paranoid about the party shifting to the right.

It wouldn't have happened under David Cunliffe because while he may have privately recognised the merits of Labour's economic reforms, he publicly projected himself as a member of the "we-know-best" left.

Andrew Little and Tizard had a memorable encounter at the November dinner.

Stuart Nash had organised red silver ferns to be presented to all MPs and ex-MPs present and when a frail Tizard went up to collect his (the 112th of 290 Labour MPs elected so far), Little asked him if he would like to make some brief comments.

Tizard grabbed the microphone and said something like "I don't make brief comments".

He spoke for about 15 minutes, leaving today's MPs inspired by his call to be staunch to Labour's traditional values of 100 years ago in order to be bold about the future.

It encapsulates all that the party leadership wants for its centennial year.

Whether the party can use its centenary to its advantage, however, is not a given.

Apparently Labour held very modest celebrations under Norman Kirk in 1966 to mark its 50th birthday, with just a special edition of the party journal and a hooley at the Wellington overseas passenger terminal. Kirk did not want the party wallowing in the past during an election year.

This is not an election year but the party leadership will be nervous about managing the inevitable arguments over its year of policy development.

Little is safe until the election, no question, and has done a good job of getting stability and discipline back into the party.

But this will be the year we see whether he has just papered over the cracks or plastered over them to make them watertight.

In advance of any major policy fights, the party wants to paint itself as a rambunctious family that will inevitably have bigger ideological debates than others because it is a party of reform.

The debate will no doubt be under way at the caucus retreat in Martinborough on Monday and this weekend at Young Labour's Summer School in Swanson, West Auckland.

Little will talk there about the need for Big and Bold responses to Big challenges facing the world and how National doesn't have answers.

They may talk about whether Labour should vote against the TPP enabling legislation (mainly dropping tariff rates) because that is not clear yet.

They may talk about whether Labour should welcome the United States Navy back to New Zealand ports, because that is not clear, and whether Labour wants New Zealand to do more in the fight against Isis, because that is not clear.

The work by finance spokesman Grant Robertson on the future of work is a prime candidate for future tensions.

The need for future flexibility is bound to come up at some point against the fundamentals of embedding rights won by unions, the bedrock on which the party was formed. Exactly where the rub will come, we don't yet know. But it will be impossible to develop such policy without challenging some fundamentals.

The debate will be carefully managed. The last time an important debate was not managed well - changes to the way the party elects its leader - the ensuing civil war set Labour back several years.

The centennial year is an opportunity for Labour to not only develop a modern party that is fit for Government, but a new era of tolerance - for one another.