New Zealand High Commissioner to the UK, Jonathan Hunt (C) introduces All Black captain Tana Umaga to Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 2005

Jonathan Hunt, who died aged 85 last week, was a Parliamentary institution. Few MPs have embraced its traditions and processes with as much devotion as Hunt.

First as Labour’s Chief Whip back in the late 70s and early 80s and then as one its most successful Speakers between 1999 and 2005, it often seemed Hunt was Parliament’s Standing Orders.

However, his term as a Minister in the Lange government was less successful.

For someone who loved politics and political history as much as Hunt did, he was paradoxically, not much good at it.

Maybe that was because he was often too reasonable and too willing to listen to and accommodate conflicting points of view.

He grew up in Palmerston North, the son of a civil servant and was one of the last of generations of Labour MPs who had come out of the endless cups of tea, raffle tickets and cardigans of the old Labour party.

But he came by way of the University of Auckland, where he got an honours degree in history. He was a member of the Prince’s Street branch of the Labour Party along with Richard Prebble, Helen Clark, Roger Douglas, Phil Goff, and Michael Basset.

He taught history and coached cricket at Kelston Boys High School and, at age 27, entered Parliament as the MP for New Lynn in 1966.

His former fellow whip, the late Stan Rodger, has described the Labour Party at the time as full of grey-haired veterans of the first Labour government.

Hunt often seemed at home with them.

Advertisment

His description of computers in a 1972 Parliamentary debate indeed indicated that.

“They are just great, dumb, expensive adding-machines-typewriters,” he said.

However, he was the first of a cohort of university-educated Labour MPs who would go on to flower in the 1984 – 90 government, yet he was never closely linked to the reformers.

Nevertheless, he was personally responsible for one of Parliament’s most fundamental law reforms.

His 1977 Adult Adoption Information private member’s bill, which Sir Robert Muldoon bitterly opposed, became law in 1985 after Labour got into power and opened up adoption records for children who had been adopted, thus enabling them to find their birth parents.

It was a success he was unable to repeat, perhaps because of his reasonableness and his willingness to listen to all sides on an issue.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer said that Hunt had a unqiue ability to reach out to people beyond the Labour Party and draw their ideas into the Labour caucus.

It is said it was Richard Prebble who first described him as the 20-stone straw in the wind, though David Lange was the first to use the phrase publicly after Hunt had somehow managed to convince both sides in the bid to unseat him in 1989 that he was onside.

However, he drew the short straw in the Lange government. Though he was appointed to one of his policy loves, broadcasting, which was an area he had done a great deal of work on in Opposition, he was also made Postmaster General and was required under the Rogernomics reforms to preside over the closure of 432 post offices.

There was an uproar in communities across the country as they lost what they believed to be the place that defined their existence.

Hunt’s old Labour Party heart was not in it.

Rodger had an office on the same Beehive floor as Hunt and claimed that he had to do the work of two Ministers because his old friend was incapable of making a decision, so he made them for him.

Unsurprisingly, Hunt was relieved of his portfolios and made Leader of the House in the 1987 – 90 government, and thus, he was back in his happy place, the Parliamentary process.

He was close to Helen Clark and her right-hand woman, Judith Tizard, and spent the 1990 – 99 years as Chief Whip and Shadow Leader of the House. Everyone in Parliament knew that he would become Speaker once Labour returned to power.

And then, in 1999, he became Speaker with Labour back in power.

in many ways he had been preparing for this role since he entered Parliament 33 years earlier.

He was a popular Speaker, and he relished the role.

As the MP for New Lynn, he had established a close relationship with another westie,  Mate Brajkovich, the very political Kumeu winemaker.

Hunt’s enthusiasm for wine led to him becoming known as the Minister of Wine and Cheese. He vindicated that as Speaker by establishing evenings in the Grand Hall where winemakers could bring their products to Parliament for members to sample.

He was smart enough to realise he needed to plan his exit, and in 2005, Helen Clark appointed him High Commissioner to London.

She also, somewhat controversially, made him a Member of the Order of New Zealand.

In London, he was able to indulge his love of cricket, music, and history, and his term there was otherwise unremarkable.

He returned to New Zealand in 2008, and slowly, illness overtook him.

When he entered Parliament in 1966, he replaced the veteran first Labour government Attorney General, Rex Mason, who had been in Parliament for 40 years, making him the country’s longest-serving MP.

Hunt was there for 36 years and is our fifth longest-serving MP, just behind Walter Nash. Of the current MPs, only Winston Peters gets anywhere near him.

He was a Parliamentary institution.

Herepresented an age when class determined which political party one belonged to, and Parliament itself was a more respectful place.

Yet Hunt paid a high price for his service.

In 2005, he told an interviewer that his biggest regret was that he wasn’t able to get married and have a family.

The reason, he said, was the split life between Auckland and Wellington that he would have foisted on a family.

“There are marriages that don’t work,” he said.

And were there love interests back in the past?

“No comment,” he said. “Walter Nash gave me the best advice on that subject: young Jon Hunt, when you get the same urges as other young men – just don’t do it in the building’.”

But Parliament Buildings was Hunt’s home.

.

.