John Armstrong has worked in Parliament's press gallery for nearly three decades. For a good chunk of that time he led the Herald's coverage of politics. Ill health has forced him to quit the job he loves. In this final assignment - which he set himself - one of New Zealand's most astute political observers reflects on the politicians he's encountered.

Here is a message to the anonymous Herald reader who was so angry with a column I had written that he offered to drive me to the airport on condition I left the country.

Save yourself the bother, mate. I'm out of here. I'm on my bike (or at least, would be if I could get on a bike).

For the past 16 of the nearly 30 years I have been in Parliament's press gallery, I have been locked in what is inevitably a losing battle with the ravages of Parkinson's disease.

There will only be one winner. And it won't be me who stands on the victory dais. Things have reached the sorry stage that this has to be the last regular political column I will be writing for the Weekend Herald.


Covering 10 general elections and 28 Budgets should be sufficient to satisfy even the most intoxicated of political addicts. But you always want more.

When it comes to the Budgets, the most memorable was Ruth Richardson's 1991 "Mother of All Budgets". This was the high-water mark of National's enthusiasm for the free market and belief that user-pays should apply across the social services, such as overnight stays in public hospitals. It was someone's bad planning that Richardson's full-bore offensive against what remained of the welfare state was delivered on a Tuesday prior to the following weekend's annual National Party Conference.

It didn't take long for National's large backbench to work out that swallowing Richardson's agenda writ large was the political equivalent of drinking poisoned Kool-Aid in Jonestown. National's pocket battleship remained unperturbed and impervious to argument -- as I found out on the Friday night of the conference. Among the huge pile of Budget-related press statements was one announcing that the Press Gallery would be required to pay rent for their offices at Parliament. Not surprisingly, the statement did not declare which Cabinet Minister would be responsible for implementing this policy.

Jim Bolger walked away from some of Ruth Richardson's proposed Budget changes. Photo / NZH
Jim Bolger walked away from some of Ruth Richardson's proposed Budget changes. Photo / NZH

In a shabby disco bar opposite the Christchurch Town Hall Richardson held court, castigating the Press Gallery as "a bunch of wimps" before taking the stage for a karaoke-inspired rendition of I am Woman.

By the following afternoon, National MPs were in full revolt. Alerted to the mood of his caucus, Jim Bolger was already walking away from some of the Budget's proposed changes, including the suicidal plan to introduce asset testing for would-be superannuitants.

The conference wound up on Sunday afternoon following a speech by then party darling Jenny Shipley, the Minister of Social Welfare who was charged with introducing the changes to pension entitlements.

Shipley's difficulty was trying to justify a policy which was only day's old but which was already raising hackles even within National's own ranks. The cool reception she received from conference delegates showed in her shell-shocked demeanour as she was literally dragged into the media room by Richardson. The latter interspersed Shipley's attempts to square the pension policy with political reality by repeated declarations that there would be "no budging on the Budget".

Of course, National did little else but try to wipe its hands of the document. (And there was no more mention of the proposal to charge the Press Gallery rent.)

Politics boils down to power - winning it and, just as importantly, retaining it. The fascination comes in watching how politicians play the game.

This was politics in the raw. There was plenty of that in my time in the Gallery.

There were the two days one month apart when David Lange first sacked Richard Prebble from his Cabinet portfolios and then axed Sir Roger Douglas from his role as Finance Minister.

There was Jim Bolger chucking his pen across the House with the intention of striking Sir Geoffrey Palmer who had just questioned the intelligence of National's leader. There was the four-day orgy of self-destruction which was Labour's 1988 annual conference.

There was the night Shipley collapsed the National-New Zealand First Coalition Government. There was the nine weeks it took for Winston Peters to play National against Labour as he exacted a heavy price for New Zealand First's signing up to a coalition deal.

It has been a privilege to watch history in the making. Never forget that politics boils down to power -- winning it and, just as importantly, retaining it. The fascination comes in watching how politicians play the game. Sometimes the tactics are mind-blowing in their sheer audacity and inventiveness.

David Lange celebrates his return to power with Minister of Finance Roger Douglas. Photo / NZH
David Lange celebrates his return to power with Minister of Finance Roger Douglas. Photo / NZH

One example occurred during the run-up to the 2005 election. The ruling Labour party suddenly called a press conference which revealed that the Budget surplus was larger than expected. But things did not end there. Within minutes of that announcement, Labour called another press conference which revealed the extra money would be spent on removing interest from student loans and pushing entitlements for Working for Families into even higher income groups. It was a blatant, unapologetic pitch for the middle class vote -- and it probably worked. The clock had barely struck eleven when the press conference ended.

When they heard the news, National MPs found themselves gagging on their mid-morning lattes as they realised they had been well and truly gazumped.

There is equal fascination in watching how politicians extract themselves Lazarus-like from what seem to be dire circumstances into which they have been thrown by fate, mere bad luck or their own stupidity.

Crisis management is the Prime Minister's responsibility. The buck stops there.

I have watched eight prime ministers during my time in the Press Gallery grappling with what is surely one of the most demanding of jobs. The first was David Lange. He breathed fresh air into the fetid atmosphere of the Muldoon years but ended up being suffocated in the ideological disarray into which the Labour Party fell as a result of the far right economic objectives espoused by Roger Douglas.

The rise and fall of the former MP for Mangere was a tragedy of truly Shakespearean proportions. The upshot was the public wiped its hands of Labour.

Lange's successor Sir Geoffrey Palmer did not stand a chance. His attempt to find the common touch saw him play the trumpet on the outside ledge of the prime minister's floor of the Beehive for the Holmes Show.

Jenny Shipley, New Zealand's first female PM (John Armstrong can be seen, centre). Photo / Mark Mitchell
Jenny Shipley, New Zealand's first female PM (John Armstrong can be seen, centre). Photo / Mark Mitchell

It was not music to anyone's ears. Palmer was toppled by Mike Moore in a pre-election coup. Moore's brief stint as Prime Minister was not the 56 days which changed the world.

National's subsequent landslide victory in the 1990 election saw Jim Bolger take the top job. He was lampooned as the "great helmsman" but was vastly underrated.

Starting the Treaty settlement process was risky but truly enlightened. He fell victim to one of the most well organised of leadership coups. But then it had to be to get the better of this smartest of political operators. Shipley will be remembered for little more than being New Zealand's first female prime minister. Truly a one-hit wonder.

That leaves Helen Clark and John Key. They are head and shoulders above the rest.

John Key. Photo / Stuart Munro
John Key. Photo / Stuart Munro

Both had the array of attributes that are needed in a prime minister. Like a great all-rounder in cricket, the role demands one to be as lethal with the ball as the bat. Key may just outscore Clark as a consensus builder, but she had more intestinal fortitude when it came to pushing unpopular causes. But we're talking at the margins here. You can argue which is the best until the cows have not only come home but are back in the far paddock again.

Both were faced with the most difficult decision a prime minister has to make -- whether to send military personnel into a war zone. Clark did so in Afghanistan. Key has done so in Iraq. Neither ducked for cover.

So why quibble. The trophy for best prime minister is shared. History, anyway, may judge them by the massive contributions of their respective finance ministers, Michael Cullen and Bill English. Two formidable partnerships, for sure.

There is another question that deserves attention. To twist an old Robert Muldoon quip, is New Zealand's democratic fabric stronger now than when I first arrived at Parliament? Arguably, yes. MMP has made Parliament not only more representative of New Zealand society but also less tolerant of ministerial mistakes and mischief. Ministerial resignations are much more common. At times, the political system might look a bit shaky. Witness the Kim Dotcom/GCSB fiasco. The upshot of this sorry tale of abuse of surveillance power has been a clean-out of the security services and a strengthening of the public watchdogs which oversee them.

What is worrying is the decline in voter turnout, especially among the young.

[Helen Clark and John Key] are head and shoulders above the rest. Both had the array of attributes that are needed in a prime minister.

Regrets? A couple. First, failure to immerse myself deeper into Maori political culture. Second, effectively calling for David Cunliffe to resign when he was Labour leader over something which was relatively trivial. Sorry, David.

A parting shot. It was never my role to express personal opinion. But speaking as someone of English nationality, for heaven's sake, let's change the flag. While New Zealand is a young country, it now has a much greater self-confidence.

It is time to express that confidence and the nation's separate identity by coming out from under the shadow of what is now an irrelevant foreign ensign otherwise known as the Union Jack.

And while we are about it, it is long past time New Zealand became a republic. Unfortunately, I'm whistling in the wind on that one.

As for me, there may be a lot more tweeting and even, God forbid, a blog, and maybe even the occasional contribution to the Herald. Otherwise it's time for fresh voices from a new generation to issue the verdicts on our politicians.