As a history fan I can't resist what-ifs. What if Jim Anderton had been leading the Labour Party in 1984? How different our recent history might have been

He could easily have been Prime Minister in 1984 had he not waited until that year to enter Parliament. The Labour Party elected him its president in 1979. But what if he had been its candidate at the 1977 Mangere byelection that brought David Lange into Parliament?

Or at the Christchurch Central byelection in 1979 or Onehunga in 1980? Former president Mike Williams said this week a number in the party were urging him to stand in Onehunga but Anderton felt he had to honour a promise when he stood for its presidency that he would serve a full five-year term.

How the party must have later wished he had asked to be released from that promise.


Had he entered Parliament at any of those byelections or at the general election in 1978 and even as late as the 1981 election, it is possible he would have beaten Lange in the caucus vote when Bill Rowling stepped down. Lange's supporters had actively undermined Rowling since 1980, which didn't endear their candidate to many of their colleagues.

Lange offered the beleaguered Opposition a leader who could stand up to Muldoon but by then Anderton would probably have proved a match for him too. Anderton was a tough hombre and a powerful speaker.

In the mid-1970s when I was covering the Auckland City Council, Anderton was one of only two Labour members on a council of mainly Remuera gentlemen. They probably voted National but were not overtly partisan. They were public spirited patricians who could be persuaded to provide quite a bit of social assistance in the name of community development.

The other Labour member was Cath Tizard and the difference between them was striking. Tizard had been there a while, was respected and effective. Anderton didn't want to be any of those things. He used council meetings to lash the establishment. He would find something on the agenda with an application to social justice and would deliver an impassioned speech on what the council should be doing.

He was so good on his feet, so persuasive, that from the press bench we could see the patricians after listening for a while start to nod in agreement. Then something odd would happen. Realising they were coming around to his thinking, he would start to harangue them. His impassioned appeal would turn to invective. By the time he sat down he had them thoroughly antagonised and he seemed satisfied.

I don't know why he did that. It wasn't immaturity, he was at least 37 by then. Jacinda's age.

When eventually he came into Parliament with the fourth Labour Government I was in the press gallery. I remember him chortling at the caucus photo, "Look at all the great MPs I've selected." He wasn't entirely joking. Lange always regarded him as a rival.

One Sunday night six months later I was the only reporter in the gallery when he made a rare visit to tell us what he, back-bencher Helen Clark and new party president Margaret Wilson were doing to stop the next morning's Cabinet meeting adopting a procedure that could have allowed the USS Buchanan to visit under the no-nuclear policy. That's how Anzus was destroyed.

Much later when he was Deputy Prime Minister, the attacks of 9/11 occurred and in Clark's absence it fell to Anderton to hold a press conference on that nervous morning. I was briefly in the gallery again and Anderton was perfectly prime ministerial.

He was never very left wing, as Alliance veterans can attest. Anderton came from Labour's fiercely anti-communist Catholic wing.

What sort of prime minister would he have been? Possibly not as averse to economic reform as circumstances made him after 1984.

He would not have devalued the dollar after that election. He joined Muldoon in a call for an inquiry into the currency crisis that gave Roger Douglas a compelling case for rapid change. But he might have followed the Hawke-Keating Government in Australia, negotiating gradual exposure of industries and wage restraint to try to combat inflation.

An Anderton Government would probably have been followed in the 1990s by a normal National Government taking incremental steps, not the drastic leaps of the Richardson term. John Key thinks the economy could have been gently liberalised this way. I doubt it. Business lobbies would have resisted deregulation at every turn and we would have lost our way.

History would have been different. Anderton might have been a prime minister in the mould of Norman Kirk, or he might have fallen out with too many people. He was strong-minded, persuasive but uncompromising, a prime minister that might have been.