When Labour Party executive member Stan Rodger engineered the selection of David Lange as the party candidate in the Mangere by-election in 1977, he wasn’t to know that fate would bind his own political career to him.
Rodger would enter Parliament himself the next year as the new MP for Dunedin North, with a young Michael Cullen as part of his campaign team.
That move ended his 21-year career as a public servant and PSA activist, including a stint as president.
He had joined the party in 1957 and had been mentored by a number of influential senior figures, particularly once he moved to Wellington, the former leader, Arnold Nordmeyer.
Stan had an autographed copy of “Nordy’s” infamous 1958 Black Budget.
But Nordmeyer also left an impression on him about what really counts in politics.
He said he never liked Peter Fraser, but he respected him; he liked Walter Nash, but he didn’t respect him.
That idea that politicians were not one dimensional but were complex individuals permeates his own judgements on the larger-than-life members of the 1984 – 90 Labour Government.
But in 1978, in Parliament, he joined a dispirited Labour Opposition led by Bill Rowling, making little headway against Sir Robert Muldoon’s National Government with its “Think Big” industrial spend-up and constant pitches to populist causes like support for the Springbok Tour.
In 1980 an attempt to have Lange replace Rowling had failed, and then after Labour narrowly lost the 1981 election, the momentum to change the leadership grew and in February 1983, David Lange and Russell Marshall (MP for Whanganui) were nominated.
In spite of his role in getting Lange into Parliament, Stan voted for Marshall.
“I didn’t want Lange to win by a big margin, and I remember telling Russell Marshall that I would vote for him.
“But I said, if I thought you’re going to win, I wouldn’t.
“He said if he thought he was going to win, he wouldn’t vote for himself either.”
But then Stan’s innocuous attempt to keep Lange’s ego in check rebounded on him through a typical political act of treachery.
“One of the scrutineers; I know who it was; told Lange who voted who against him.”
Eighteen months later, when the party got into Government, Lange ensured that those who voted for Marshall were placed in the bottom half of the Cabinet so that Stan, though he had one of the most senior portfolios, found himself in an office on the fourth floor at the bottom of the Beehive.
Stan didn’t much care about that; what he really wanted was to be both Minister of Labour and Minister of State services.
He knew that would be a huge challenge.
In early 1984 he had met, along with David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer and Roger Douglas, the executive of the Federation of Labour, to discuss how the country would emerge from the wage-price freeze that Muldoon had imposed in 1982.
The FOL had established a Wage Reform working party which was not only to find a way to come out of the wage-price freeze but also to find an alternative to the-then centralised wage-fixing system; compulsory arbitration and the rigid wage relativities which prevailed across wage-fixing.
Despite Lange’s resentment over the way Stan had voted against him, he got the portfolios after he was voted into Cabinet on the first ballot.
His opportunity to promote the reforms he wanted to make to industrial relations came not from the unions but within days of his becoming Minister, from the Employers’ Federation, who asked him to set out his plans in an article for their magazine.
He had no staff, not even a typist.
Despite that, he wrote his piece on long-term wage-fixing for the Federation’s August bulletin.
It was the manifesto for the approach to industrial relations that would see him very soon called “Sideline Stan”.
“In my view, the Minister of Labour should not be involved in disputes unless they are likely to have an adverse effect upon the national interest,” he said.
“Rather, I believe the Minister should put in place legislation that commands the respect and trust of the participants to ensure that industrial conflict is resolved through effective consultation, mediation, conciliation and arbitration.”
For traditionalist trade unionists, the idea that the Minister of Labour, particularly a Labour Party Minister of Labour, would not intervene in a dispute amounted to political apostasy.
The President of the Federation of Labour, Jim Knox, was a traditionalist trade unionist.
“The poor man was really in a bad way.
“His mental condition, in my view, had hugely deteriorated.
“He really didn’t understand the complicated issues and became angry, and he turned on people around him.
“And it was extremely hard to have a civilised sort of a discussion with him.
“I had very good relations with Ken Douglas (the FOL secretary), and that was hugely important, but with Jim Knox, it was hopeless.”
Even so, Douglas set Stan back on his heels when instead of proposing a movement out of the wage freeze which would have also seen the Minister withdraw from the process, he proposed a general wage order in a handwritten note to Stan.
But Stan prevailed, and the annual round of wage negotiations began as usual with his insistence that the Government would not intervene.
One of the first awards up for negotiation was the drivers whose advocate was Rob Campbell, these days the chair of Health New Zealand.
Campbell ignored Stan’s pledge to not intervene.
“You had Campbell advocating for the drivers ringing Doug Martin, who was in my office, and we had about five ministers in my office, including the Prime Minister, all sitting around listening to these conversations, pretending that we were hands-off.”
As it turned out, the Ministers hadn’t needed to intervene, and the drivers settled their wage round.
Stan decided to codify his views on how a new industrial relations structure might work with a White Paper, which would eventually lead to the 1987 Labour Relations Act.
He boasted that the proposals contained within the White Paper would constitute “the most significant reshaping of industrial relations since 1894.”
Simply, the Act proposed that its overall objective was ”to encourage the development of effective union and employer organisations” which could operate independently of legislative support; and could negotiate awards and agreements which were relevant to the industry or workplace in which they applied.
It offered a broad mandate to both employers and unions, but it didn’t end compulsory unionism.
“I didn’t want to, but I gave it to them.
“I said, I’ll give it to you back; I didn’t extract any concession, but I remember talking to Pat Kelly, who was the chair of the Affiliates Council and told him he had to put the unions’ house in order because when the counterattack comes, it will be vigorous.
“I came from a voluntary union (the PSA).
“And that would have been my preference.
“I wanted big, lusty, well-resourced, voluntary unions; that was my desire that they would have tons of resources to do things like research, run holiday homes, and do a lot for their members.”
But Stan’s determination to keep out of wage negotiations was sorely tested at the end of 1984 when Air New Zealand cabin crew went on strike in the last week of December before Christmas.
The pressure on the Government from anxious hopeful holidaymakers was immense, but it also saw the birth of “Sideline” Stan.
At first, Stan tried to resolve the dispute.
“It was a try-on of the Government and Bill Andersen (leader of the Moscow-aligned Socialist Unity Party) fronted it.
“It was the most bizarre thing, and I didn’t have any sleep for 72 hours or 80 hours or something, and I couldn’t get a solution. I sat up day and night with these roosters.
“And you had to watch the composition of that group because there wasn’t a mainstream FOL unionist among them.
“They were a bunch of broken-down hacks.”
Stan was convinced that it was a test, driven by left-wing unionists, of the Government.
”Sideline Stan” was yet to be invented, but there I was, spending endless hours, and it failed, and I remember bringing Lange in at seven o’clock in the morning on the second day, and he said I can’t understand any of this.
“And I said I’m not getting anywhere.
“And he had a sort of desperation and said to Mike Moore, Stan’s done his best, you try.
“So I remember Moore flew off.
“It was a bit humiliating for me. I’d done my best.
“And Moore flew off and promised the cabin crew the moon; promised them a review; promised them this promised them that.
“He never did anything with the promises he gave.
“I remember Knox coming along and saying what about this, and I said what review.
“He said that Moore promised.
“I said I don’t know about that.
“It was bizarre.”
So Stan withdrew and left the airline and the crew to sort the dispute out, which they did late on the Sunday, two days before Christmas.
And that is the origin of “Sideline” Stan.
“I signalled that I wasn’t going to intervene, and I was going to put machinery in place, where the parties who had got themselves into trouble could sort it out using that machinery.
“And that is indeed what the Labour Relations Act was intended to do.”
By the end of 1984, the Lange Government was deep into Rogernomics, having deregulated the financial markets and was beginning to plan for the introduction of GST and the corporatisation of many parts of the Government sector.
Stan was in an interesting position; basically a supporter of much of what Roger Douglas was doing but regarded with some suspicion, if not hostility, by the Treasury and the Business Round Table.
The Labour Relations Act deregulated the wage-setting process, but it still left the unions and the employer organisations as the principal players.
“I had a whole lot of opponents to the main drivers of the Labour Relations Act.
“I supported much of the initial economic reform, as did Lange as did Palmer.
“The economy was in such a mess after decades of foregone examination and change, by Muldoon.
“So I was happy enough to go along with most of those early reforms, and some elements of my changes were compatible.
“But the protective measures that I put to the core of the institutions of the labour market were contrary to the thrust of the Government’s economic policies.
“The Business Roundtable loathed it with a passion; the employers disliked it; Treasury hugely opposed it, and the finance ministers disliked it.”
The Business Roundtable managed to move closer to Stan with the appointment by the three Finance Ministers; Roger Douglas, David Caygill and Richard Prebble of a Roundtable hero, Dr Roderick Deane, the Governor of the Reserve bank and hero of the 1984 devaluation crisis as the new chair of the State Services Commission.
Not only was the appointment sprung on Stan, but he was outraged when he saw the terms that Deane had negotiated for himself.
The package included retaining his membership of the Reserve Bank Superannuation Fund, use of a Reserve Bank car, with access to a driver and carpark, access to housing and other loan entitlements, expenses allowances, telephone rentals, club fees and expenses and first-class air travel on official business including the same for his spouse, as well as other fringe benefits that applied to the Reserve Bank.
Stan received copies of correspondence sent from David Caygill on to the Governor-General, Sir Paul Reeves, seeking his “concurrence” to Dr Deane being retained by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand as a consultant.”
The letter also said that the implications of that would mean Dr Deane would retain his Reserve Bank gratuity and superannuation rights as well as “certain other non-salary benefits”.
Stan wrote back to Roger Douglas, stating he was “aghast” that such arrangements should have been entered into without the knowledge of the Cabinet or himself as the responsible Minister.
Stan was so incensed he wrote a formal letter to the then Governor-General, Sir Paul Reeves, questioning the legality of the proposed arrangements and advising him he had sought the advice from the Solicitor General.
“It was a conspiracy by the three finance ministers to deliver Roderick into that post.
“I had somebody else quite different in mind.”
But the Governor-General did not appreciate being brought into what was really a political dispute and summonsed Lange to explain it.
Crown Law argued that Stan was wrong, and so he then had to learn to live with Deane.
“I had to swallow deeply, and Roderick turned up, and I wouldn’t say we had a cold relationship, but it was a strictly formal one.
“We got on alright.
“But he is as dry as dust. You could strike matches off him.”
Right from when he was sworn in, Stan had wanted to bring the industrial relations process in the state sector closer to that of the private sector.
This would require the cooperation of the State Services Commission.
His 1988 State Sector Act was something he had long wanted to do though its genesis was awkward.
He had begun with negotiations involving the Combined State Unions and the State Services Commission on how to match the private sector reforms with changes to the state sector.
But the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) pulled out of the talks, effectively killing the project.
Instead, the State Services Commission produced a draft Bill which Rodger took to Cabinet and Caucus and got approval for.
It would make way for chief executives to be employed on fixed-term contracts.
The chief executives would employ all the staff in their departments and took on responsibility for the efficient and effective management of their departments.
The Act also removed the career security of public service employment, abolished compulsory industrial arbitration in the public sector, and introduced labour relations laws that had previously applied only in the private sector.
The response of the PSA was brutal; it stripped Stan of his life membership.
Though Stan generally supported the economic reforms that became known as Rogernomics he had an ambiguous relationship with David Lange and the finance team.
It is perhaps revealing that before he died, he insisted that Sir Geoffrey Palmer be a speaker at his funeral.
And Palmer himself has been fulsome in his praise of Stan since his death.
“Stan was a key Minister in the Fourth Labour Government.
“He had great judgment, and a profound knowledge of the New Zealand public service.
“Stan was a workhorse in the Cabinet.
“Stan was never in a panic, he was thoughtful, considerate, and moderate.
“Stan was the very model of what a Cabinet Minister should be.”
In a sense, the bigger personalities of the Lange Government orbited in their own trajectories, only occasionally bumping into Stan.
For the first three years, from 1984 to 1987, everything revolved around David Lange.
But Stan is able to puncture one of the great Lange myths; that he was behind the decision to ban the US naval vessel, the Buchanan, and thus precipitate New Zealand’s exclusion from ANZUS and the birth of the independent foreign policy.
Stan knew that before the `1984 election, Lange had opposed the nuclear-free policy.
“I think our nuclear-free stance owes much more to Geoff Palmer than it does to Lange.
“Lange dined out on it, but I would suspect that Geoffrey, if we are absolutely upfront about it, would say that he’s still somewhat resentful of the fact that his role in all of this was obscured.
“Lange was wicked. He was deliberately out of communication range up in the islands, and we couldn’t get hold of him.
“We didn’t know where he was and what he was up to.
“He articulated the New Zealand position brilliantly subsequently, but he was not a driver of that decision.”
This was consistent with what Stan saw as the enigmatic nature of Lange’s personality, brilliant but with very human failings.
Stan marvelled at the way Lange ran Cabinet.
“We never had a vote in Cabinet in all the time I was there.
“You didn’t need one. We did everything by consensus, and David Lange was a brilliant reader of the mood; absolutely brilliant.”
But apart from his oratory, running Cabinet was the limit of his political abilities.
“David didn’t know how to run the party.
Kirk did. Kirk had come up through the party. David’s knowledge of the party was minimal, and he leaned on me a bit in that sense because he knew I’d been around the party for a bit.
“And so there was a void there, and when he chose two thirds through the life of the Government to try and rejig the direction, he didn’t have the allies in the Cabinet.
“He didn’t have any allies in Caucus because he had never sustained them socially or in any way.
“So he didn’t have a critical mass of people who could shift things around.”
But just after the 1987 election, Stan became aware that Lange was having an affair with his speechwriter, Margaret Pope.
“Her influence, in my view, was huge, absolutely huge and shifted David’s political position on the spectrum.
“And we didn’t know.
“And, it harmed his attitude towards Douglas and Prebble
“So I think she inflicted enormous damage on the government.”
Stan believes she was the reason the Government imploded, particularly because of the way she influenced Lange over Roger Douglas’s flat tax proposal.
“We were going through due process on the flat tax, and for the Prime Minister to leap out from a caucus meeting and declare it was dead when the Minister of Finance was in London was truly astonishing.
“The processes of Government were greatly stressed.
“It was hugely damaging to the government, and it outraged the activists from the Labour Party and its consequences reverberated for a long time subsequently.”
Stan revealed that it was highly unlikely that the flat tax could have been enacted anyway.
He was told by Sir Geoffrey Palmer there was not the capacity to have drafted the complex legislation that would be required in time to enact it, as had been promised, in 1988.
Stan said Lange hated controversy.
“Strident women upset him.
“Fran Wilde sent him demented. She would beat on his door, so she was moved from an associate minister to a minister outside Cabinet.
“And people used to say, Why did that happen? Don’t know.
“She just harried him until she got the full ministerial title.
“Moore made his life a misery because he had fresh ideas all the time, and he wanted to implement them.
“And sometimes they were great. Sometimes they were just scary or weird.
“And he was always knocking on Lange’s door.
So whenever he asked for overseas travel visits or a trade mission to here, there or anywhere, Lange was the first in the queue to say, yeah, you can go.”
“But the dominant figures in the Cabinet were apart from Lange and Douglas; Palmer, Prebble, and Caygill.
“Caygill was the gentler of the finance ministers, and Prebble was the enforcer.
“If you had a stoush, it was better to have Prebble on your side than agin you.
“He came down to my initial election campaign in 1978 and nearly had a punch up with two wharfies at the back of a hall in Port Chalmers.
In 1989 Lange resigned after Caucus insisted on reinstating Roger Douglas in Cabinet, and Lange himself had lost the confidence of the Cabinet after he allowed Pope to amend a speech he was giving at Yale in the United States on ANZAC Day in which he described ANZUS as a dead letter.
Stan believes the affair with Pope reverberated right up to Lange’s last Cabinet meeting.
“He asked not to receive a knighthood, and in retrospect, I wondered whether that was so Naomi (Lange’s wife) didn’t become a lady, but I don’t know.”
By the time Palmer replaced Lange as leader in 1989, Stan had already announced his intention to retire at the 1990 election.
He stood for election for the new Cabinet but didn’t make it.
He “retired”, and though he maintained a close relationship with Palmer, he never spoke in the House again and spent most of his time in his office or away from Parliament.
But over the years, his home and, more recently, his apartment in Dunedin became a place of pilgrimage for former and present Labour MPs anxious to tap his huge reservoir of knowledge of their party and its most spectacular Government.
He is survived by his wife, Anne, who he met through the PSA and two children.