The 9th floor – Geoffrey Palmer

Sir Geoffrey Winston Russell Palmer KCMG AC QC  became the 33rd Prime Minister of New Zealand in August 1989. He was rolled by Mike Moore in September 1990, two months before an election that Labour crashed in.

Guyon Espiner (RNZ) is doing a series of interviews with five ex Prime Ministers., starting with Palmer.

The Standard has a summary in RNZ: The 9th floor – Palmer

The Reformer – Geoffrey Palmer: Prime Minister 1989-90

NZ’s earliest living Prime Minister begins the series reflecting on the revolutionary fourth Labour government and his year as one of its three Prime Ministers.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer was one of New Zealand’s most prolific lawmakers and reformers, but a reluctant politician.

Imagine a country where the Prime Minister set the price of basic goods. Where the Cabinet, without having to even put it to a vote in Parliament, decided the wages you get and the taxes and interest rates you pay.

That was the country Geoffrey Palmer was determined to change when he entered Parliament in 1979. It was an economy, he told The 9th Floor, that no young New Zealander would recognise. … Palmer, a constitutional lawyer, describes Prime Minister Robert Muldoon as running an elected dictatorship between 1975 and 1984. It’s a big claim. …

Ultimately of course Palmer would get his chance to run the country too. He was Prime Minister for 13 months sandwiched between David Lange and Mike Moore, who a desperate Labour party turned to just two months before the 1990 election in a bid to save the furniture.

So what was it like to run the country? What is it like to be Prime Minister? “I found being the leader a nuisance,” Palmer told us. …

RNZ report and audio: full hour-long interview

Palmer is an essential voice on what it means to exercise power – precisely because he never wanted it and remains highly sceptical of those who do.

Palmer is worth listening to but not necessarily heeding. He has proposed a written constitution that doesn’t seem to have excited many, and he has proposed making voting compulsory – see next post.

Comments at The Standard suggest that Palmer is not revered on the left, but being associated with the Lange/Douglas era of reform is an instant fail for many.

Sanctuary lead off.

That went a long way to re-confirming my view of Geoffrey Palmer as a very intelligent uber-technocrat completely besotted with his own cleverness.

The man has the certainty and fanaticism of the technocrat, the arrogance of a self-regarding intellectual and the political nous of a fool. He was, and remains, a very dangerous conviction politician with scant regard for the opinions of the hoi polloi.

Listening to Palmer, the viciously toxic culture of arrogance of the Roger Douglas era Labour cabinet comes flooding back.

He followed up:

Nothing wrong with being clever, but being a clever clogs who projects that as an intellectual hauteur is IMHO an absolutely fatal and fundamental flaw in a (so called in this case) left wing politician.

Palmer’s ability to diagnose the ills of the world are not particularly unique, you or I could have just have easily rattled of the list of fairly trite topics – climate change, Trump, the crisis of democracy – he did. What struck me about Palmer was his unerring technocratic ability to correctly identify a crisis then just as unerringly use that crisis as a vehicle to push an agenda driven and completely incorrect solution.

For instance, the crisis of democracy and voting won’t be fixed by a written constitution or fiddling with how we vote. Palmer’s constant fetishisation of mechanistic solutions to political problems with their origin in fundamental clashes between democracy and authoritarian global capitalism is entirely keeping with the machine like mind and lack of imagination of the high priesthood of neo-liberal technocrats across the West.

Palmer is more suited to being a legal academic than a political leader or reformer.

He comes across as too theoretical and not practical.

Leave a comment


  1. Kevin

     /  10th April 2017

    Palmer was a constitutional lawyer. We can, I believe, thank him for the Bill of Rights Act – a completely useless bit of legislation as far as putting limits on what the government can do, but ok, I suppose, for those occasions when the police rough-up some crim.

    • David

       /  10th April 2017

      The bill or rights is a disaster in the waiting. There was no need to codify rights and it has the potential to destroy a thousand years of common law.

      • Kevin

         /  10th April 2017

        The problem with it is that the government can ride rough shot over it thanks to section 4:

        4. Other enactments not affected
        No court shall, in relation to any enactment (whether passed or made before or after the commencement of this Bill of Rights),—
        (a)hold any provision of the enactment to be impliedly repealed or revoked, or to be in any way invalid or ineffective; or
        (b)decline to apply any provision of the enactment—
        by reason only that the provision is inconsistent with any provision of this Bill of Rights.

        In other words it doesn’t give power to judges to strike down statutory laws that are inconsistent with the Bill of Rights. Although the word “only” gives some hope…

        • Unfortunately Palmer who has a great legal knowledge, accumulated over the years, was not cut out to be a politician, and has been unable to separate ideological cant from reality. He seems to lack commonsense, and does not get plain people”s (ordinary Joes and Jills) support.

  2. To accept all this Guyon love fest you have to accept the following – which I don’t.

    “Palmer is an essential voice on what it means to exercise power – precisely because he never wanted it and remains highly sceptical of those who do.”.

    I contend Palmer is a relatively bitter man who has masked his personal pique at being discarded, rolled and put on the political rubbish heap behind a screen of refornative constitutional opinion.

    He’s largely boring and self opinionated.

    • Gezza

       /  11th April 2017

      I have a brother in the profession who says he has heard his lectures & can’t make up his mind whether Sir Geoffrey is legally aesthetic or legally anaesthetic.

      • 😃😃 as much as your bro is undeniably very cleffer wif words Gezz, I’d say that when one is having to toss up on a such a scale, then the lower estimation is the usual winner.

      • Nelly Smickers

         /  11th April 2017

        Coincidentally G…..Wayne was saying that Sir Geoffery was engaged by the RNZFABS to give a lecture on the proposed *Zero Carbon Act*. By the end of it, the entire audience had fallen asleep. This would seemingly lend weight to your brothers second proposition?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s