A memoir is a mirror book, and Steven Joyce takes great pleasure in his reflection throughout the 340 pages of his new political memoir On the Record. It’s a record of vanities and preenings, told-you-so’s and look-ye-upon-my-works, as he writes with enormous pride about his nine years as a minister of whatever in the Key government (2008-2017). He should be proud. He built roads. He built ultra-fast broadband. “Steven was the guy who got stuff done,” Key says on the cover, and it’s the kind of legacy any politician would crave – many leave Parliament without a trace, but Joyce left his mark on the nation, made things better. He came to manage; and he managed. Too impatient for history to tell us how well he managed, Joyce steps in and tells that he managed exceedingly well.
The point of Key and Joyce during their three-term governance was that you never wondered what they thought. They positioned themselves as essentially thoughtless: they were happy voids, unbothered with intellectual life. All through those years I parodied Key in my Secret Diary series as the Prime Minister who came home after a hard day’s work, unscrewed his head, and let it float around the ceiling. It was weightless; it had no substance. Joyce, too, floats over the pages of On the Record.
He reveals the entirety of his political philosophy on page 43, when he writes of wondering what to do with the rest of his life after he sells his shares in the radio network that he founded. “I’d always had an interest in politics and helping the country and its people be more successful.” Wait, there’s less. “The question was, which party? Given my background and beliefs about things like individual freedom, personal responsibility, and people being rewarded for their effort, it boiled down to a choice between National and Act.”
Actually, he experimented with something else – a lobby group, called with all due resonance of fundamentalist conservatism, the Silent Majority. It didn’t last long. Like Act, it existed on ideas; Joyce was impatient for power. He chose National. He was their target market. The party has long existed to serve wealth, opportunities, and leisure, in other words the New Zealand way of life as lived by a silent 1%-age who get to enjoy wealth, opportunities, and leisure. Joyce writes with as much passion about his private business interests (hospital beds!) as his political career. But the supposed absence of ideology is a sleight of hand. Let’s pull back to those bland itemisings of “things like individual freedom and personal responsibility”: they are freighted with an entire and quite exact right-wing ideological theorem of reward and punishment, giving and withholding. The poor are an irresponsible nuisance best avoided in On the Record just as they were in the nine years of Joyce and the National government practising its policies of lowercase wealthism.
With free-market fiscal thinking comes blasé social thinking. Joyce writes of the famous red/blue billboards that John Ansell dreamed up in Don Brash’s campaign as National leader in 2005. The red half of a billboard offered a lousy Labour idea, the blue half offered an appealing National idea. As in: Tax / Cuts. Also as in: Iwi / Kiwi. Breathtaking now to think that the very concept of iwi was held up in broad daylight as a lousy idea to be ridiculed and scorned. But it was emblematic of Brash’s campaign, with its policies of lowercase whiteism. Joyce pays this no mind. He enthuses, “You can never tell in advance when something like the red/blue billboards will come along and capture the public. I liken such moments to the America’s Cup red socks campaign … When you discover a marketing device like that your job is to ride it for as long as you can – and we did.” Joyce, the pragmatist, getting on with it, going with whatever works; Joyce, perfectly unbothered with annoying little concepts like racism, sailing past in a pair of red socks, his unscrewed head rising to the ceiling.
And yet the pages of On the Record have a sheen to them. The nine years of Key’s government were a golden nine years for the National cult, a time of progress, achievement, and, you know, roads. Joyce holds the receiver of On the Record close and breathes: “The Waikato Expressway…The Waterview Tunnel.” They form the book’s sexiest pages, give it an erotic charge. The timing of Joyce’s book falls into beautiful step with the current election campaign, and National’s good showing in the polls. Here is one of its unsullied legends with a potent reminder of the last time National held power and the things it achieved.
There is a little bit of backstage gossip, some nice scene-setting. He meets a young Nikki Kaye, “intense and passionate” who laid out her “frustrations and concerns for the party”, banging away with a “relentless advocacy”; it was “a relentlessness I would have cause to recall in later years”. He describes a supper with delegates in Ashburton where the entertainment was an accordion orchestra, average age about 70! There’s this excellent detail of his thoroughness in his early days at National: “I kept a private spreadsheet of the people in caucus I was happy to work for from week to week.” When National sat down for coalition talks with New Zealand First, Brash employed his stooges at the Exclusive Brethren as go-betweens. There were rats in the walls of Premier House and no one did anything about it because of budget cuts to the household. He was the first person in the universe to know that one day New Zealand would be ruled by Jacinda Ardern. Simon Bridges was undone by his impatience. Bill English once told him, “In politics, it’s always later than you think.” He loathes Jami-Lee Ross, but who doesn’t?
He has a fresher take on Todd Muller. He visited Joyce’s office when MPs were plotting to replace English as leader. “He ostensibly came to see me about his new climate change portfolio…As the conversation turned to what might happen with the leadership in the new year, Todd asked me whether I had any interests in a leadership role. I gave some sort of vague but open answer…Two weeks later a speculative opinion piece from columnist Michael Hooton appeared in the National Business Review, suggesting that Todd could be a candidate and that apparently Steven Joyce fancied himself as a leader, followed by a list of disparaging comments about how bad an idea that would be. The surprise, to me at least, was that one of my personal conversations had made it into print. I wasn’t 100 percent sure who was responsible, but the only other individual present at my meeting had been Gemma the dog.”
Great stuff. He clearly had good fun writing On The Record and not merely because it provided an opportunity to rewrite the history of such moments as his much-derided “fiscal hole” in the 2017 election campaign – he wore egg all over his face at the time, but in his book he emerges from that snafu as a virtuous hero. He caricatures himself in every scrap as a kind of holy innocent, above the fray, devoted to the task while others around him lost their heads. All of which may be accurate but when he writes about his failed party leadership bid – he looked for support, found it rather lacking – you get the sense that not too many people liked him very much. Maybe they regarded him as an insufferable know-it-all while at the same time knowing he was a kind of political or managerial genius. They will recognise him in On The Record.
The number-one bestseller On the Record by Steven Joyce (Allen & Unwin, $37.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.