National Programming: The Changing Accents of Labour’s Leaders



I’M A RADIO NEW ZEALAND LISTENER, have been all my life. Raised in a middle-class family in which there were always many more books than magazines and where the LP on the radiogram was more likely to be classical than pop (The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night changed that for a while!) it simply never occurred to me that our household radio could ever be set to anything other than the National Programme.

I grew up listening to the rounded vowels and clipped consonants of announcers trained to speak “BBC English”. As a result, I forged an unconscious, yet immensely strong, association between the NZBC’s very correct pronunciation of what my mother still called “the Queen’s English” and what I would later recognise as the accents of power and influence. In short, the people who spoke “properly” were people you should trust and obey, and the people who didn’t – weren’t.

When the urge to listen to music that hadn’t been recorded in the 1940s and 50s finally drove me to the commercial networks, the first thing that struck me was the announcers’ (deejays’?) diction. Though far less broad than the Nu Zild accents that fill today’s airwaves, they were unmistakably demotic and, to my sheltered ears, alien. Listening to the commercial networks made me uneasy. I loved the music but it always with a sense of relief that I rolled the dial back to the National Programme.

It was only years later that I realised how alien and intimidating the National Programme must have sounded to working-class New Zealanders. Theirs would have been a far more intense and unsettling listening experience than my own, not least because they were trespassing upwards into an aural environment frequented by people who wielded much more economic and cultural power than they did. To their ears the National Programme must have sounded like Radio S-N-O-B.

The organisations that gave me this (in retrospect, pretty obvious) insight were the Otago Trades Council and the New Zealand Labour Party. I came to both as an ex-student radical and Springbok Tour protester, so the culture-shock was sizeable. At university just about everyone still spoke the Queen’s English, but the accents of the men and women who attended union meetings and the Local Electorate Committees of the Labour Party were very different from Her Majesty’s.

What I heard there were the accents of the factory-floor, the freezing works and the wharves. And what I learned to appreciate and applaud was the “shed oratory” of the union delegate and the Labour Party branch member. Theirs was a rhetoric quite distinct from the rotund Latinate phraseology of the middle-class public speaker, with a vocabulary that owed more to the Anglo-Saxons than the Romans. They further enriched their speeches with words and phrases inherited from all the multitudinous dialects of the British Isles – and Aotearoa. A shed orator in full-cry was a political force of nature. And the effect on his (and, more rarely, her) audience was almost always electrifying!

But this was the early 1980s and the reign of the shed orators, along with the language and values of the shop floor, was rapidly coming to an end. I was not the only middle-class, tertiary educated, ex-Springbok Tour protester to find their way to the branch meetings and conferences of the Labour Party. Under the stewardship of Party President, Jim Anderton, hundreds, and then thousands, of members of the professional middle-class had flooded into the Labour Party. Some came to bring down National’s populist prime minister, Rob Muldoon. Others, like me, in solidarity with a working-class that still crackled with the socialist electricity generated by the Great Depression. Still more came to change the conservative, religiously-oppressive, racist, sexist and homophobic culture of post-war New Zealand.

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While the first objective loomed before us, all was well. Rob Muldoon was one of the most polarising figures in New Zealand political history. A target more than large enough to subsume the differences that divided Labour’s 85,000-strong membership.

A key feature of Muldoon’s political strength was the way he spoke. His voice had an awful timbre, much like the jagged scraping sound you hear when a heavy cast-iron door is challenged by a concrete floor. The contrast between the intriguing lilt and richness of Norman Kirk’s speech – deep, resonant and garnished with just the slightest lisp – and Muldoon’s ground-out sentences struck a deeply discordant note. But against the high-pitched and rather querulous voice of Kirk’s successor, Bill Rowling, Muldoon’s harsh tones spoke of decisiveness and strength.

The spoken word is much under-rated by New Zealand’s professional political observers. But even they could not ignore the effect of David Lange’s soaring rhetoric. Muldoon’s nemesis didn’t so much speak as sing his political appeal to the electorate. And when he abandoned the poetry of the 1984 campaign for the prose of prime-ministerial power he laced it with a wit that made his friends laugh out loud and his enemies cringe.

Lange’s oratory was utterly crucial to the increasingly difficult task of preventing the Labour Party from splitting apart. The voice of the man after whom “Rogernomics” was named was as harsh as the policies he introduced – as if Muldoon’s vocal chords had been crudely transplanted into the throat of a man who had already lost the ability to speak softly, melodiously or with the slightest hint of compassion. The voices of Roger Douglas’s allies, David Caygill and Richard Prebble, weren’t much better. Without David Lange to lay his Methodist lay-preacher’s treacle over the jagged gravel of his Cabinet colleagues’ pitiless diction, Labour’s “more market” revolution would have been stillborn.

With Lange’s departure the “sound” of Labour changed dramatically. Geoffrey Palmer was an upper-middle-class law professor whose accents were as far removed from Labour’s shed oratory traditions as his neoliberal beliefs were from Mickey Savage’s 1935 manifesto.

Just how far removed I learned at the 1985 Labour Party regional conference held in the then pottery town of Temuka. Before the start of proceedings a small group of working-class delegates were gathered outside the front door of the conference hall having a smoke. Looking up, who should they see striding up the path with a swift and determined step but the Deputy-Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer. “Morning, Geoff” called out one of the men, “how’re your digs?” Palmer stopped and, frowning darkly at the over-familiar delegate as if he might be the one responsible, replied: “The hotel room was small; the bed was hard; and the breakfast was execrable!”

I knew then that Labour was in very serious trouble.

As did Helen Clark when she surveyed the opinion polls a few months into Palmer’s brief  stint as Prime Minister. That she turned to Mike Moore as the man most likely to rescue Labour from catastrophic defeat in the 1990 election was in no small measure due to his strong working-class accent. For a little while, at least, it would be necessary to have as party leader a man who looked and (most importantly) sounded like the people Labour still purported to represent. Clark would repeat the trick in 2008 when she stood down from the leadership of the Labour Party. Like Moore, her replacement, Phil Goff, retained the traces of his strained upbringing in working-class Auckland.

That both Moore and Goff adhered to an ideology light years distant from the socialist  beliefs that constituted their true class inheritance mattered much less than the subliminal comfort their familiar working-class accents undoubtedly brought to Labour’s bruised and battered electoral base. For the whole of Clark’s 15 year reign, working-class New Zealanders must have felt as if their personal radios had all been welded fast to the National Programme. Try as she might (and that wasn’t hard or often) Clark found it next to impossible to sound like anything other than a political studies lecturer from Auckland University. It was as if she had enrolled Labour’s reluctant electoral base in one vast and continuous tutorial.

Earlier this week, the departing Labour List MP, Shane Jones, told Radio Live’s listeners that he owed much of the indisputable effectiveness of his oratory to repeated readings of early Wesleyan sermons. Like Lange, he understood the enormous power of the preacher’s declamatory cadences, born, ultimately, out of the incomparable poetical rhythms of the King James Bible. Combined with the pith and power of Maori oratory, Jones’s speeches became powerful political intoxicants. He wasn’t a shed orator, but I suspect that the force of his words, like theirs, drew their inspiration from the same Christian Socialist pulpits.

Like me, David Cunliffe almost certainly grew up listening to the National Programme, and like so many middle-class New Zealanders, has learned to place great stock in the accents of influence and power. What he is clearly struggling with at present, however, is how to address Labour’s working-class base without sounding like a middle-class, Herne Bay, ex-Boston Consulting Group poseur, come to fill his carpet-bag with the votes of people with whom he has little in common.

All I can suggest is that he tells them that he’s there for the music, and asks them to teach him how to rock-n-roll. Labour voters will forgive their leader his middle-class accent if he’s willing to use its authority to tell the rest of New Zealand a working-class story.


  1. For goodness sake, Chris, David Cunliffe speaks like all the men I know – and amazingly those men with workingclass backgrounds and Labour to the very core of their respective beings sound cultured, assured, and New Zealand. I am constantly amazed at how well spoken Labour men are – with their backgrounds of working class ethos. And if you compare them with the slovenly speech of Key and Bridges – they are streets ahead.

    Anyway, what the heck are you doing …. knocking how David C speaks …. have you run out of other things to knock him with ?

    Get real, Chris, and stop looking for nonsensical things to batter David Cunliffe with.

    • And as such do you now wonder why those that have the speech which you describe as slovenly rule the popularity stakes.

      What Chris has described is the feeling of the of those that used to be the rump of the Labour vote, who over the years have tired of seeing and hearing the academics that rule the roost in Labour.

      A party that has been hi-jacked over the last 40 years by those that think they know better and look down on those that dont fall at their feet.

      Add to that the dress code and you have an image that is so foreign to the worker in the grim reality of struggle street, David dresses like a toff or better described as a Dandy of old, so much so I would not be surprised if he turned up wearing a cravat. even dressed down he reeks of fine clothes, dry cleaned and starched.

      • It is ridiculous, and your comments sound like wanker Judith Collins picking on other politicians because of their dress sense. It is petty diversionary tactics to distract us from the real politics of the day. @LLOYD JORDAN It is called a suit. All politicians wear them these days! John key, a Wall Street banker, also wears a suit yet is always perceived as working class John. David speaks the language of the people, has the endorsement of Helen Clark, and was raised in New Zealand and truly understands what New Zealand stands for. John Key spent most of his pivotal years in America and it is their cultural and political ideology that he now peddles.

        I am sick of celebrity politics, soon we will be voting in a wrestler!
        (Refer to the movie Idiocracy)

    • Jenny: That’s not what he’s saying. Read Chris’s post again, more carefully.

      Especially the penultimate paragraph.

  2. “Like Lange, he understood the enormous power of the preacher’s declamatory cadences, born, ultimately, out of the incomparable poetical rhythms of the King James Bible.”

    Aren’t you talking about David Cunliffe here? The son of an Anglican minister. One of the most inspiring speeches I have heard was David Cunliffe’s state of the nation speech. Every speech since have always been inspiring. David is one of the few politicians who doesn’t come across as either jaded and insincere. The only problem is that you have to hunt them out. Perception is everything here, for those fighting to control the destiny of this country, they have to make us believe that black is white and white is black. They have to make us believe that Cunliffe is not performing, and that destabilising characters like Shane Jones are fantastic even though the Labor members think otherwise. Most of the callers from Radiolive were nothing but disparaging of Shane, not because they were disapointed but because he doesn’t connect with any but the jaded few. Shane’s role has always been a destabilising one and in that role he has been fantastic. Labor is better off without him!

  3. Well said Chris!

    Your English was a pleasure to read, although I admit I had to look up ‘demotic’.

  4. To an extent I agree with you Chris, but the party needs all walks of life to function in today’s modern society. If the party stayed in it’s early ideology it would be polling somewhere between the Green and the Mana party. I enjoy and share your nostalgic views though. I have always aligned myself with the views of the ‘old’ left’ which ended after the Paris 1968 episode. The ‘new’, post 68 left of today is something I have trouble recognising.

    Exemplary prose as usual Chris. Pleasure to read.

  5. How low can you go Mr Trotter? Not only do you sound desperate, to put out this rubbish, its wholly pathetic. Youre clutching at non existant straws.

  6. In regards to Chris Trotter’s article. I have taken this from your Wiki page about your past labor leadership analysis:

    In February 2008, he (Chris Trotter) said that Helen Clark should stand down before the election and be replaced by Phil Goff, who he thought may have been Labour’s only hope of regaining ground with struggling families. He has since recanted, arguing that Goff should have stood down in his turn before the New Zealand general election, 2011, arguing that David Cunliffe should replace him.

    Seems like your opinion about the right leader for labor has been wrong. We have the right man for the job. Your opinions seem to flip flop all over the place – whose next? Shane Jones – yeah right.

  7. Yeah, well here is some music for Chris Trotter and the reader

    I am hoping that Chris is inspired for his next commentary on the state of our politics in NZ, particularly by the words

    “Look behind the eyes;
    its a hallowed hollow anesthetised
    ‘save my own arse, screw these guys

    Because unless our political commentators who actually manage to get on mainstream media gigs, start doing so, we really aren’t getting political commentary of any calibre or worth at all.

    All we are getting in the main is ‘shit so thick you could stir with a stick’

    And I for one am sick of being jerked around.

    Lift your game, Mr Trotter.

    **Thanks R.E.M and other artists who send clear messages unlike some of our other forms of media.**

  8. Now that Jones has left I feel more comfortable about where Labour is going. Although the influence by National on the MSM and how the news is told or how the opposition is perceived is telling. Whoever is Labour’s leader would have an uphill battle. But yes entertainment, wit and humour, splendid oratory are what is needed to win the hearts and minds of the voters. But if one feels one has to watch ones back all the time from poison darts aimed from all sides, then perhaps the confidence needed to establish such a leadership style will be difficult to grow. Cunliffe IMHO does have a great public speaking style
    But difficult to demonstrate when he’s always on the back foot having to explain what happened and why. Oratory is best when proclaiming. Labour need to be very, very careful about whatever they do, especially closer to the election. The state of being careful though undermines the psychological state of exuberance and extroversion.

    • …very, very careful what they do…..
      They don’t have to be that careful. There is a massive dichotomy in political New Zealand. Broadly,on one side are those who believe that intervention, and in particular government intervention can improve Society/the Country/the World. On the other side are those who believe change should be resisted. This latter side side offers a CEO mentality, only interested in the monetary bottom line for the stakeholders. (Who those stakeholders are becomes then the main point of potential attack.) On the other side, typically you find an emphasis on multiple bottom lines, where the goals sought are diverse.
      These reformers come from many different directions and find their best expression through different political groupings. An election decides the relative force of the different factions. But all have more in common with each other than they do with those who reject a reform agenda. In this context a pre-election coalition would be ill-judged, in my view.
      However, people who wish to see change will judge as much on conviction and enthusiasm as they will on the micro-details of a particular programme, particularly as the programme will likely shift as a reflection on the post-election power balance.
      On this basis it is not necessary for Cunliffe to be ultra cautious of what he says; rather he should strive to speak as much from the heart as he can. The attacks of those with a conservative agenda can be easily mocked if he speaks from conviction rather than calculation.
      After the global crash, few felt enthusiasm for reform: survival was more on their minds. The question is how ready people are now for a renewal of the quest to improve outcomes for both people and the environment.
      As Chris says, get the message right and the accent can be forgiven.

  9. New Zealand, a traditionally “egalitarian” society? Yeah right, I presume. Some here have always been more “equal” to the middle and upper middle class, than the rest down the bottom and on the fringes.

    Perhaps it is good for Chris to point this out, and it gives stuff to ponder upon. It tells me that the “divisions” in the “broad church” of Labour are not that new at all.

  10. ”hundreds, and then thousands, of members of the professional middle-class had flooded into the Labour Party” . Unfortunately, no class is more utterly despised by the NZ working class than the upper middle class. Given the history he outlines here, Chris Trotter cannot have failed to learn that.

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