Some final thoughts from a 'virtually forgotten' political powerhouse

Bill Birch (front), who was the driving force behind Think Big energy projects, poses with...
Bill Birch (front), who was the driving force behind Think Big energy projects, poses with Dunedin City Councillor Ian McMeeking at an LPG-filling station, in Dunedin, in this undated photograph. PHOTO: ODT FILES
He has been called everything from dull and plodding to ruthless and one of the most influential New Zealand politicians of recent decades. And yet, Sir Bill Birch is virtually forgotten today. Bruce Munro talks to Sir Bill about Robert Muldoon, pushing the Clyde Dam project through, inequality and national crises — then and now.

"There are parallels, of course ... We certainly had several crises."

Sir Bill Birch is comparing the Covid-19 pandemic to events during his time in government, spanning the last quarter of the 20th century.

"It does challenge the Government. And the Government has to do what it thinks is best for the country," he says.

It is true now and it was certainly the case during the oil crises of the 1970s, he says.

"People forget the extent of that."

In 1973, the year after Birch was first elected to parliament, an international dispute over support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War caused the price of a barrel of oil to quadruple and then more than double again. In 1979, a second oil shock rattled the world when production plummeted in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.

"It had a huge impact on the economy of the country," recalls Birch, who by then was the Minister of Energy and the Minister of National Development.

"It raised the question of rationing.

"We had debates about that and decided we would try to avoid it if we could."

The Government introduced compulsory car-less days to reduce petrol consumption.

Politicians, including ‘‘Lifeguards’’ Bill Birch and Robert Muldoon, argue about the law while...
Politicians, including ‘‘Lifeguards’’ Bill Birch and Robert Muldoon, argue about the law while Cromwell ‘‘drowns’’. IMAGE: GORDON MINHINNICK, NZ HERALD, JULY 8, 1982.
Another international crisis struck almost 20 years later. Birch was Minister of Finance when the Asian Financial Crisis raised the spectre of a worldwide economic meltdown.

"That again, had a huge impact on the economy and required pretty clear leadership.

"The country tends to get behind the leadership of the Government if it feels comfortable with the direction it is going. I think that really is what is happening now."

It is fascinating to hear this voice from the past.

Birch, now 86 and still putting in 10-hour days at the office, is speaking by phone from his son’s Pukekohe surveying business. These days, most of the young surveyors he mentors probably have no idea he once all but ran the country.

Despite, according to his biographer, Brad Tattersfield, being "low key" and "somewhat plodding"; despite, according to former Otago Daily Times political editor Bryan James, presenting "a colourless personality" and having the speaking style of "an exceptionally dull undertaker"; despite all that, Birch held some of the most powerful positions in the country and oversaw transformative events including the construction of Think Big energy projects, such as the Clyde Dam, and the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act, which broke the power of trade unions, radically liberalising the labour market.

"Every successful political leader needs a loyal, self-effacing ideological zealot who keeps to the background and does much of the difficult day-to-day running of a government in office," says James, who wrote about New Zealand politics for the ODT, from 1974 to 2010.

"Birch performed that role for Robert Muldoon, Jim Bolger and briefly for Jenny Shipley."

"By any measure he is among the most influential New Zealand politicians of recent times," writes Tattersfield, Birch’s former press secretary, in a new biography Bill Birch, Minister of Everything.

Readers will have to judge for themselves whether "communications specialist" Tattersfield’s book is more hagiography than biography.

"[He] was not usually the visionary behind the decisions he implemented, but his change-making and problem-fixing skills were unmatched," the writer says.

More memorable was Robert Muldoon, the larger-than-life leader of the National Party and 31st Prime Minister of New Zealand, who reigned over the country for a decade from 1975.

Robert Muldoon (centre) with officials at the Clyde Dam construction site during the 1980s. PHOTO...
Robert Muldoon (centre) with officials at the Clyde Dam construction site during the 1980s. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Muldoon has become almost mythic. Birch, however, worked closely with Muldoon and has an unvarnished view.

Muldoon had many traits Birch admired. He was hugely intelligent, always spoke his mind and was loyal to those who did a good job.

"He was a great listener ... You could see him absorbing and weighing up the logic of what you were saying.

"It was quite deafening really. You could hear your own voice and nothing else."

In later years, however, Muldoon consulted less and made more unilateral decisions; even ones that went against the majority view of Cabinet.

"That’s when things started to get very uncomfortable.

"There’s an old saying that is true, that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts ... even worse.

"I think that’s what happens a little bit, when people have the authority of a prime minister."

Think Big, for better or worse, was Muldoon’s enduring legacy. It was the moniker for a collection of publicly funded energy-related projects developed from the late 1970s in response to the oil shocks and a perceived need to correct an agricultural bias to the economy.

Bill Birch (left) with his friend  former Prime Minister Jim Bolger at a 1992 function...
Bill Birch (left) with his friend former Prime Minister Jim Bolger at a 1992 function celebrating their 20 years in politics. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Projects included a methanol plant at Waitara; an ammonia-urea plant at Kapuni; a synthetic-petrol plant at Motunui; expansion of the Marsden Point Oil Refinery, the New Zealand Steel plant at Glenbrook and the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter at Bluff; electrification of the North Island main trunk railway between Te Rapa and Palmerston North; and, building the Clyde Dam on the Clutha River.

Muldoon recognised Birch’s organisational abilities and gave him responsibility for Think Big. Although the projects became the symbol of Muldoon’s administration, Birch was the driving force that made it happen, Tattersfield writes.

Central Otago’s Clyde Dam was the most divisive and prolonged of the Think Big projects. The decision, in 1976, to build a 100m-high hydro-electric dam at Clyde, would generate power at a lower cost than coal. But it meant creating Lake Dunstan, which would inundate orchards and drown an historic section of Cromwell. The dam was opposed by locals and environmentalists all the way to the High Court. It was also hampered by concerns about a geological fault line running through the site and divided political opinion on its worth, even within National.

It was eventually built, but only after the Government, in 1982, passed legislation over-riding a High Court decision that the politicians believed gave the courts the power to judge government policy.

Birch was in favour of the legislation. In fact, he pushed for it, but reluctantly, he says.

Law is made by Parliament and interpreted by the courts. If the courts’ interpretation is different from what Parliament expected, "then the proper thing is to change the law", Birch says.

"But you’re reluctant to do it, because it is an indication that things aren’t working as well as they should be."

The value of Think Big was, and continues to be, debated.

The Government borrowed heavily overseas to fund the schemes, creating big budget deficits.

The weight of opinion shifted against large-scale public spending after National lost power in 1984.

James is not alone in decrying what he calls "the since-discredited ‘Think Big’ projects".

"History might remember Birch as one of the minor figures in the deregulation of New Zealand," James says.

"But his principal political identity will always be associated with the absurdity of Think Big."

In recent years, however, there has been a revision of that view. Although it created debt, the assets are still serving New Zealand.

"All the major Think Big plants are still operating today, earning literally billions of dollars in foreign exchange," Tattersfield writes.

"The country is still benefiting from Think Big jobs, manufacturing expertise, royalties and tax receipts."

Birch continues to defend Think Big, particularly the Clyde Dam.

"Yes, they were certainly justified. They’re all there now," he says.

"And the Clyde Dam is a huge contributor to our hydro-electricity. It’s non-polluting and sustainable; all the qualities you would want to have in a modern society."

As with many old-school politicians, Birch does not fit neatly into contemporary boxes.

He defends the large-scale public spending projects of Think Big. But says he has a strong bias towards government keeping its nose clear of things the private sector can do.

"I’m very much in favour of getting competition in there and letting the private sector do it."

He was integral to negotiations for New Zealand’s first MMP coalition government but favours the old first-past-the-post system.

"What I don’t like is the horse-trading. A lot of that goes on behind the scenes today.

"Half of your parliamentarians are not elected today. I think that’s an awful system."

And he prefers the current arrangement to the idea of a written constitution for New Zealand.

"When you look at America, which does have a written constitution, they do get themselves in a bit of a tangle about gun laws and the like.

"That is the risk, that a written constitution can become tied to the past and doesn’t change with the needs of the country over time."

Although Birch is described by James as a "National Party conservative of the protectionist small shopkeeper type, [who] gradually moved somewhat further to the neo-liberal right", he is concerned that politics in New Zealand has lost some of its humanity.

"I’m astonished to walk down some of the streets of our cities and see people sleeping in doorways. That’s a huge indictment on us."

It’s interesting to note then that Birch’s Prime Minister through the early ’90s, Jim Bolger, is now busy repudiating the policies that many say caused the harm Birch now regrets.

Neoliberalism, championing an unfettered free market, has been a failure, Bolger recently told The Weekend Mix.

"Neoliberalism ... created massive unequal growth," he said.

"Wealth flowed uphill to the top, and they became massively, excessively, grossly wealthy. And the bottom ... are barely surviving one paycheck to another."

Bolger has also said he now thinks the National Party’s union-smashing legislation of the early 1990s — overseen by Birch — went too far, leaving them unable to push back against the tide of inequality.

Birch says now that one of the whole points of a democracy is to try to provide confidence and certainty and skills and education and health services and those sorts of things.

"That’s the whole point of a government, to make sure resources flow into things that improve our wellbeing.

"I worry about that a wee bit in terms of future generations and how well they will do."

Birch retired from Parliament at the 1999 general election. He had spent 27 years as an MP, 15 years of it as a Cabinet minister who, during that time, held 15 portfolios.

He missed representing his electorate — "being able to kick down doors and get things done for them" — and the stimulating environment of policy making — "influencing long-term outcomes for your country".

Trained as a surveyor, Birch has returned to that field as a consultant and mentor.

He still gets up at 6.30am each morning and arrives at the office by 8am. Nine and 10-hour days are not unusual.

For something to do in the weekends, he runs about 30 prime beef cattle on a large lifestyle block just north of Pukekohe.

Around the edges of all that Birch maintains a keen interest in national politics.

In his view, the Government has done well handling the pandemic health risks.

"They listened very carefully to the director-general of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. He did a great job, I thought.

"So they scared the socks off us and made us lock down and generally behave ourselves.

"She’s a good communicator, the Prime Minister, and she did that well."

The former Minister of Finance, however, has a less favourable assessment of the Government’s economic response.

"I’m not criticising increased spending. But it’s the quality of the spending that worries me.

"I’m quite nervous when they come out with a huge increase in expenditure without the fiscal controls to ensure we get good value for money."

Perhaps there’s a reassessment of "thinking big" in there somewhere.


 

Comments

"Half of your parliamentarians are not elected today," he says. Fact check: They ar all elected. How else would they be in Parliament?

Mr Birch still has an electorate mentality. The old First Past the Post system has similarities with the US Electoral College set-up, in that they dont always allow the majority vote to win: eg, Hillary Clinton in America; Bruce Betham (Social Credit) here.

The current Government represents a majority of voters, as decided by the "party vote", the important one!

The Clyde. The wonderful Clyde. The thought of it thrilled we and filled us with pride.

 

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