Steven Joyce had one of the most colourful careers in politics and has now given an insight into that time with a new book. Audrey Young reflects on his career.
When Steven Joyce first left politics, barely a week went by when he wasn’t tweeting about his garden in Dairy Flat.
It was clearly something to help him adjust to life after almost 10 highly intensive years in Parliament.
There haven’t been many tweets about that garden this year possibly because Joyce, the former “Minister of Everything,” as he was known, has been writing a book, On the Record, to be published this week by Allen &Unwin.
He has been writing a regular column for the Weekend Herald on his reckons of the day but the book is a memoir of his life to date, personal and political.
He came to politics after an intense career in radio, that began with a motley student crew from Massey University and ended with a successful national network, ripe for a foreign takeover.
He would later become one of the most successful people in politics of his time, both as a minister with a reputation for getting things done, and as a campaigner.
After conducting a review of National’s disastrous election campaign in 2002 (20.9 per cent), Joyce became National’s campaign chair for the next five elections.
As minister, Joyce was unashamedly pro-roads and he relished the big projects such as the Victoria Park tunnel and the Waterview tunnels, which he had widened from two lanes in each direction to three.
He put together the super-ministry known these days as MBIE, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
He was always regarded as a minister who worked with intensity at whatever he did and set high expectations for his officials.
But he was almost always good-natured and had the ability to laugh at himself, as was the case when he had a sex toy thrown at him one Waitangi Day [see extract below].
It was in 2016, two days after Key had signed the controversial TPP agreement in Auckland, and after the police had advised him to avoid Waitangi, Joyce stood in for him.
Joyce’s first election campaign and possibly most controversial was conducted under the leadership of Don Brash in 2005.
Although National didn’t win, it came within a whisker of limiting Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark to two terms. Were it not for Brash’s secret dalliances with the Exclusive Brethren, it may have got over the line.
National made it over the line in 2008 with John Key as leader, and Joyce remained close to him throughout the next eight years while Key was Prime Minister.
Joyce himself became an MP in 2008 and joined that small club of those who have gone straight into a ministerial role from civvy street. Margaret Wilson and Ayesha Verrall have been the other two since 1999.
As a minister, he was part of Key’s inner sanctum and became the master of the message, working on the party’s strategy at macro and micro levels.
His duties leading up to the 2011 campaign were interrupted by the grounding of the Rena off Tauranga, when he was Transport Minister.
As he recalled when he left politics, his pre-schooler at the time, Amelia, saw the Rena on television and pointed to it saying “That’s where my daddy lives.”
The most memorable event in the 2011 campaign was the teapot-tape incident in which Key’s private conversation with then Act leader John Banks was taped.
The 2014 election is remembered for the publication of the book Dirty Politics, by Nicky Hager, at the start of the campaign, and the so-called Moment of Truth in the Auckland Town Hall at the end, when Kim Dotcom got Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden to attack Key. It backfired and boosted National’s support.
Joyce’s last campaign was in 2017 when Bill English was Prime Minister and Joyce himself was Finance Minister. And perhaps the most memorable moment was when he claimed there was a $11 billion fiscal hole in Labour’s costings - which was contested at the time by some leading economists, including Cameron Bagrie.
National clawed back some of the gains Jacinda Ardern had made in the campaign, but even its respectable 44.4 per cent party vote to Labour’s 36.9 per cent was not enough to keep the party in power for a fourth term.
Joyce left Parliament in 2018, after belatedly putting his hat into the ring for the five-way leadership contest to fill the vacancy Bill English left.
Simon Bridges won but was deposed in election year, 2020, by Todd Muller and when Muller had a mental breakdown, Judith Collins took over.
It was National’s first campaign without Joyce since 2005 but the damage had been done and the party polled just 25.6 per cent.
That Waitangi Day incident ... in Steven Joyce’s own words
I loved my time in the north and I really enjoyed the pilgrimage to Waitangi for Waitangi Day.
I went three or four times as a minister and appreciated the mostly laid-back vibe and the overwhelming friendliness of locals and visitors alike, all set against that wonderfully warm Northland summer.
Even the protests often weren’t such a big deal when you were there. They’d look huge and angry on TV, which is the beauty of a narrow camera angle where everything in the picture looks like tumult.
If you widened the shot, you’d mostly see people simply looking bemused. One of my favourite examples of this was in early 2014, when a hīkoi protesting deep-sea oil drilling was timed to arrive at Te Tii marae at the same time as John [Key, Prime Minister].
It was a lovely sunny day and everyone was waiting for John on the road outside the marae; MPs and ministers, media and protesters all mixed up together.
John’s car was late. His security detail was waiting for the hīkoi leaders to be welcomed on to the marae ahead of him.
We all chatted quietly amongst ourselves, protesters, MPs and journalists, greeting old friends and checking our phones as we waited for the main event. Then, suddenly, John’s car swept up, with two Diplomatic Protection Service (DPS) cars in convoy.
The journalists assumed their positions, the protesters theirs, cameras were switched on, and politicians surged forward to take their place on John’s flank.
There was jostling and shouting mixed with a chant of welcome, but it was all over within minutes. There were no serious incidents, and John and the rest of us were safely on the marae. The cameras were turned off, the day settled down, and serenity resumed.
In 2016 we were all once again assembling in Waitangi. I had arrived on the night of February 4, and was staying at the Copthorne Hotel over the bridge, below the national marae.
The iwi leaders were holding their meeting in the large conference room across from the hotel proper and, just as in previous years, John was leading a team of ministers to meet with the iwi leaders.
The air was slightly more tense than usual. I’d spoken to [Key’s chief of staff] Wayne Eagleson by phone once or twice and he’d passed on that police were concerned a more significant protest was brewing that year.
Their intelligence had picked up a plan to target John explicitly, and they were evaluating how to handle it. I reported back that things seemed to be as relaxed as ever on the ground in Waitangi, but the police presence certainly seemed a bit more beefed up.
It wasn’t a complete surprise when I received another call to say John had been advised to cancel his trip.
As the senior minister present I was asked to lead the government delegation and deputise for John at his scheduled events, apart from at Te Tii marae, which we’d decided not to attend.
I happily acquiesced, but was immediately a little nervous as my first duty would be to lead the ministerial delegation at the iwi leaders’ meeting. While I had participated previously, I’d never led the discussion.
My te reo certainly wasn’t up to the standard of Bill’s [English] or even John’s, and while my knowledge of protocol had improved over my time as a minister, I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as confident.
I needn’t have worried. With John’s decision to withdraw, the tension dissipated. With the help of my colleagues, we had an enjoyable discussion with the iwi leaders, many of whom I knew personally.
After we finished, I went out for the normal stand-up interview along with fellow ministers Nathan Guy, Louise Upston, Amy Adams, Maggie Barry and Jo Goodhew.
It was a small group of journalists, including Paddy Gower of TV3, Helen Castles from 1News and Claire Trevett from the Herald.
The media too had lost some interest with the PM no longer coming. A couple of uniformed police officers were standing some distance away, with their arms folded, watching on. It was a calm, still day and very quiet.
I was just wrapping up the interview when I felt something hit me in the face. I heard someone shout something, but not what they said. We all — journalists, MPs, cameramen — instinctively looked down to see what had hit me.
Whatever it was had rebounded off Helen Castles and hit the ground. It looked like some sort of . . . plastic dildo.
Thoughts raced through my mind. What does one say in these situations? Keep calm, I said to myself. Everything is okay, you are fine, just wrap it up and walk away.
What I said was “Good-oh”. Behind me, Nathan said quietly “We’re off “, which was a good hint. I said “Let’s go”, and we walked calmly off as a group while the police took away the person who threw the projectile.
As we walked away I had a thought. It had all happened so fast, maybe the cameras had missed it. I said under my breath to Nathan, “Do you think the cameras picked that up?” “Yes,” he said, “keep walking”.
Inside the hotel, I started to process what had happened. My immediate reaction was that it wasn’t that big a deal. I rang Suzanne [Joyce’s wife] and let her know I was okay.
My press secretary, Serene Ambler, came up and said the police were asking for my view on pressing charges. My gut instinct was no. Everyone was okay and the protester would just milk their situation for all it was worth. It was the police’s call, but I sent the message back that I wasn’t pushing for charges to be laid.
There was a moment of thinking “What if it had been something more serious?”, but I pushed it to the back of my mind. I had to go and officially open the new Museum of Waitangi, so I readied myself for that.
I made the speech, cut the ribbon and had a look around inside. It wasn’t till I came out again and faced a barrage of media that what had happened earlier started to sink in a little more, including how big the moment was proving to be.
By then I was firmly back to seeing the funny side of it all. I told the media you have new experiences in politics every day and that it was “all part of the privilege of serving”.
I then tweeted for someone to “send the gif over to John Oliver so we can get this over with”, in reference to the American weekly talk-show host who had developed a bit of a fixation with New Zealand politics.
Then I had the evening off. We’d all been invited to MP Andrew Bayly’s brother’s place for a barbecue out on the Waitangi peninsula. It was a great opportunity to relax a little and regroup.
Clearly, John Oliver didn’t relax. He outdid himself the next weekend with a big(gish) budget production number roasting me, which included choirs, dancing dildos, flying dildos, and Peter Jackson waving a giant new dildo-inspired New Zealand flag.
I had to admit I was impressed, and amused.
Extracted from On the Record by Steven Joyce. RRP$37.99. Published by Allen & Unwin NZ. Out August 15.