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Out of the light

Steve Maharey says he’ll relish swapping cabinet for the campus as he heads back to run Massey University. But just what can a politician do for a university?

After 18 years in Parliament, Steve Maharey has thrown it in. The pundits’ pick to succeed PM Helen Clark, once ranked third in the Labour hierarchy and given a string of portfolios including research, science and technology, education, housing and social development, Maharey is headed back from whence he came—Massey University, this time as vice-chancellor. Why is he swapping Cabinet for campus? And just what can a politician do for a university anyway?

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Photograph by Alistair Guthrie

Why leave? Politics must be more fun than academia.

Universities have got more interesting in the last 20 years. You get a chance to be part of an institution that’s more business-like. They make a lot more connections with the economy, with people in social work, the Pacific community, Maori community or city councils. I’m looking forward to having as much fun in education as before, but with a whole new dimension to it.

What will you miss?

When you go into politics, particularly when you’re in cabinet, it’s like you step onto a train and it just keeps going. Every day of the week you’ve always got more than one thing to do. It’s an exciting way to live your life. I don’t think anything can reproduce the kind of rush that you get from politics.

But how does it equip you to run a university?

People are realising politicians do have a skill base they can use. Jenny Shipley has carved an enormously lucrative career. She’s taken her skill base and used it. Roger Sowry goes off to a major NGO [Arthritis New Zealand], Wyatt Creech goes back to his vineyard and starts a major cheese operation with John Luxton. These are not people who are lacking in skills.

A cabinet minister in a modern cabinet, particularly a senior cabinet minister, is developing skills that transfer pretty readily to a whole range of other things. And that’s essentially what the dialogue was between me and Massey.

Massey has a strong science focus—and our sciences could use a boost in New Zealand.

In the 1980s Roger Douglas said, “Oh, sunset industries, not interested in anything to do with land, or science, or whatever, we’re going to do stock markets and robots, etcetera.” The wheel’s turned. Everyone is rediscovering there’s a sunrise aspect to the land-based industries, not just in agriculture, which is becoming agri-business, but in nutriceuticals and other industries.

But the opportunities are just not there for young scientists.

It’s chicken-and-egg. I was talking to a young scientist the other day who now has a couple of contracts in the US and in Asia. He does his work here, he goes to Washington, works there, goes to Asia and works there. He looked around and thought, “Well what could I do? I could be on a panel in the US and I could do some practical research in Asia.” And suddenly he has a career that takes him around the Pacific.

Traditional careers probably are not going to attract a lot of young people into science. If we can get young people interested in the entrepreneurial aspects of science, as well as the traditional role, that’s a package that does grab people.

That knowledge economy we expected in New Zealand hasn’t really happened.

We keep losing focus. We’ve got a little bit hot and cold on the idea of whether we’re a knowledge economy, and what that actually means. Universities have to keep reminding New Zealanders that this is a knowledge-based economy now. Whether you’re a farmer or a hi-tech person, everything is going to be based on how good you are at manipulating and using knowledge.

Your time in national politics is coming to an end. Are there things that you’d like to see done differently? Any regrets?

I’ve come out of it pretty positively, because I went of my own choosing. Many politicians just stay that one term too long and then they get defeated, they feel bitter and they leave feeling pretty angry.

I’ve had 18 years that I would recommend to anybody. Even the bad times are good when you’re in politics because it’s always exciting and challenging. But there are things I’d like to think we had done. I would like to have gone further, faster. Maybe we couldn’t do that because of MMP and the need to look after the smaller parties but you can’t help saying there’s [still] a lot of work to do here.

Any examples?

I would have liked to have rebuilt the entire school system physically, because you can’t run a smart knowledge-based economy while kids are still being taught in traditional long boxes called classrooms. They need to be in smart classrooms, lots of IT with teachers who are facilitating what they do, break out rooms, teachers who can work their professional practice. I never could find money for that.

In the tertiary education sector I think: just double the budget. We simply have to spend a whole lot more money on education and research.

You’ve been out of cabinet now for a while. Have you had withdrawal?

Yes, because it’s a club, it’s like belonging to the All Blacks. The whole country is watching you. I miss the adrenalin of all that, and I miss the camaraderie of cabinet.

Some people end up completely politicised, don’t they?

I remember Jonathan Hunt saying to me in my first year, two tribes go to war in Parliament. I don’t think I ever really accepted that. I felt that politics ought to be thought through. I’m a social democrat, I believe in what I’m doing. It doesn’t mean you’re just doing the politics because you belong to the Labour Party.

It’s a different environment now because it’s multi-party.

If there’s cross-party discourse in the halls of power, why is the public discourse so predictable?

MMP has forced people to have to think a whole lot more, because there are five ideas around at any particular time. And people are going to say, why is your idea better? There’s a growing sense of the need to be thoughtful and have well-founded policies, and cross-party debates are getting better.

Still, the messages the parties are trying to get out are not typically hugely thoughtful ones.

Politics is still going through, as I say, a phase of becoming more and more thoughtful. I just don’t think that the environment is right yet. One of the reasons I like Mr Obama—although he may prove to be a man with clay feet, who knows—is that what he’s saying is that we’ve gone too far with this. Too much show biz, too much focus on entertainment. That ‘A more perfect union’ was the best speech since Kennedy I think, because he said let’s re-pose the problem here. Let’s not talk about race all the time. Let’s talk about how we live together, and be productive in our relationships together. I thought that was fantastic, because it’s not business as usual.

I think editors and journalists and politicians do need to take a step back and say hold on, if this country’s going to be successful in the 21st century, this ain’t going to be easy. This is going to be very hard and we shouldn’t allow the day-to-day effort to be entertaining to overwhelm the serious business of debate. We’ve got to get a bit of a balance here.

In the last 24 months we’ve caught a glimpse of what the 21st century is going to be like, and it’s issues like food miles and sustainability. New Zealand has two stories—one is good, and one is really problematic. How will we deal with this? How is New Zealand going to present itself to the world?

We can’t sit at the bottom of the world and hope that people will be nice to us. If we don’t win the argument around food miles, for example, Gordon Ramsay will win. He’ll say buy local, if it comes in on a plane it must be bad for you. We know that’s ridiculous, but if we don’t win that argument then people will turn against us. We’ve got to win arguments about sustainability, about climate change and about how to make it an opportunity and not a threat.

Does anybody really not want to live in harmony with the environment? It sounds alright to me. The notion that we would like the polar bears to disappear, or the oceans to rise, or whatever, seems ridiculous to me. So let’s get out and win this argument, and by winning it we’ll also create a real opportunity to deliver things that are sustainable. That, say, the food from us is carbon neutral, that we’ve solved the problem of methane from cows so you can trust eating this meat.

But once again what puzzles me is we can’t get consensus here at home. There are no prizes for a little country like us coming second in this.

School leavers are told to expect four careers. If you could pick a fourth, what would it be?

A rock star!

Kids leaving school are discouraged from that one …

It’s a better career than when I tried it. I think I’d do something in a creative industry. In the last 20 or 30 years the film industry, television, writing, all sorts of things have become a viable career. If I had a fourth choice I’d do something, probably now at my stage of life administratively, in some area like television or radio or film.

And how is your new energy-efficient house progressing?

It’s looking good. We don’t want to build a straw bale house or anything. When you look at the house it won’t look anything that different, but it will retain its energy, it will have great water usage and those kinds of things.

I didn’t grow up a greenie. I grew up like Barry Crump: if you’re a New Zealander, if it’s above the ground you cut it down, if it’s underneath you dig it up. My generation pretty much thought that way, so it’s been a big evolution for me at 55 to move from not really caring much about these things to now taking it very seriously and wanting to do something about it.