Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Salute to a 'fairly good bastard'

Labour's ex-President Mike Williams had some of the best lines at the Labour Party conference in Rotorua.

He drove down there on Saturday to receive a gold badge for his service - the second longest serving president after Big Jim Roberts who held the post from 1937 to 1950.

In his brief acceptance speech, Mike said he had a weird feeling driving down from Auckland that something was strangely different.

He finally worked out at about Tirau what it was . "I had written a speech to give to the conference and I haven't got Heather Simpson trying to get it out of me in advance."

That got a big laugh from the audience - in the safety of knowing that Simpson was not in the room. The scary former chief of staff for Helen Clark is now working for her in New York at the UN Development Programme.

Mike also thanked the media -"you gave me a fair go,'' he said simply.

I assume that by that he meant that when he got bad press, he thought he deserved it. He got plenty of good press too, especially in the first two terms, including this profile I did of him in 2004 where he talked about an out-of-body experience in 1977 after almost being electrocuted.

I like the Matt McCarten quote, too, where he said of Williams: "He'll hold your hand while Helen cuts your throat and you don't blame Mike. If you are going to get shafted, you don't feel so bad getting shafted by Mike."

McCarten recalled in his Herald on Sunday column yesterday meeting Williams for the first time: "He was dressed completely in black, seated in the back of a cafe, chain-smoking over black coffee while wheeling and dealing on a cellphone attached to his ear.''

"He really was a working-class party boss right out of central casting. He's always great fun, a consummate story teller and a political spinner from way back. It's an end of an era."

Mike got plenty of bad press over his presidency from 2000 to 2008.

Sometimes he stuffed up, but often it was because he said what he thought when he shouldn't have said it or thought it. Either way, he has always been a popular figure with the media.

Most of the bad press was in the last term - pledge card, paying it back, the Electoral Finance Act, that trip to Melbourne.

Pete Hodgson delivered the tribute to Mike. He said that after last year's loss, Mike was inconsolable and went into a deep funk for months.

I am not surprised. Williams became a scapegoat for Labour's defeat because the trip to Melbourne to search historic records he had been led to believe directly linked John Key to the unlawful H-Fee deals of the 1980s.

It turned out to be a dud lead and it was ill-judged of Williams to have buried himself in such business, especially in the closing weeks of the election.

But the search by someone was justified given that Labour had reason to believe it had a genuine tip-off - as opposed to just trawling for dirt. You would have thought, however, that someone further down the food chain could have been dispatched for the purpose.

The mea culpa exercise being undertaken by Goff is putting some perspective on Williams' role in the defeat. But Phil Goff is trying to distance himself from the failure of 2008 and maybe that is why he confined himself to pinning the gold badge on Mike rather than paying tribute himself.

"We think you are a fairly good bastard,'' Hodgson said in suitably fitting way that Goff could not have.

Much of the good heart that the party finds itself in despite defeat - not to mention three previous election wins - is because of the organizational strength it developed under Williams. Goff has a lot to be grateful for.

In such good heart is the party that it accepted in a very generous spirit in which it was given the offer by the sole Progressive MP Jim Anderton to help Labour with future campaigns. While it is true he has held his own seat since 1984, parties he has led have netted the following number of MPs:

1990 - 1

1993 - 2

1996 - 13

1999 -10

2002 - 2

2005 - 1

2008 - 1

Anderton was interview by Paul Holmes yesterday on Q and A, and David Farrar on Kiwiblog takes issue with some of Anderton's claims of campaigning prowess.

"I probably hold the Guinness Book of Records for representing the largest number of parties in the same electorate, increasing my majorities most of the time. The people of Sydenham have the right to say that and that's what they've been saying,'' Anderton said.

Farrar points out the actual majorities:

1996: 10,039
1999: 9,885
2002: 3,176
2005: 8,548
2008: 4,767

- Audrey Young

Photo: Former Labour Party president Mike Williams. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

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