Saturday, September 30, 2023

Blue Blood: ‘Often As A Political Journalist, You Assume A Conspiracy And It’s Just A Series Of C*ck-ups’

Journalist Andrea Vance has written Blue Blood: The Inside Story of The National Party in Crisis, a blockbuster of a book that reads like a thriller – or a horror story. She talks to Capsule about the ‘power & soap opera’ of politics and why we need to see our politicians as humans.

The year 2020 gets a pretty high ranking when it comes to ‘Years of Utter Chaos’ but the election whirligig of 2017 makes for a strong contender. The aftermath of John Key’s shock resignation the previous year, kick-started a domino effect that not only saw Jacinda Ardern eventually named Prime Minister, but began the slow-then-faster disintegration of the National Party.

As the then political reporter for TVNZ, Andrea Vance was in the thick of it and she’s just released Blue Blood: The Inside Story of The National Party in Crisis. Now based at Stuff, the political journalist has created a play-by-play of the past six years in NZ’s politics and it reads like a thriller novel – or, as one reviewer called it, “a horror movie.”

Author Andrea Vance (Photo credit: Stuff)

The book is filled with interviews from high-profile players in the National Party – including John Key and Simon Bridges – as well as numerous un-named sources, who paint a very insightful and very human picture of what it is like to work in one of the most high-pressure, highly scrutinised workplaces in Aotearoa.

“I just wanted to give a flavour of the pace, and the insanity, and the chaos of it all,” Andrea says. “It’s a book about politics but it’s more a book about ambition and ego and power, and a bit of a soap opera, as well.”

Back in October last year, Andrea was approached by publisher HarperCollins to write a book about The National party and she jumped at the chance. “Being a political nerd, I am fascinated by why things happen, in politics. Because National was enormously successful – why did it fall apart? Why did the discipline machine fail? But also, Labour had just gone through a similar period of instability and chaos – why didn’t National learn the lessons of the previous opposition and avoid that? I was immediately fascinated and thought, ‘maybe I can get to the bottom of this.’”

“It’s a book about politics but it’s more a book about ambition and ego and power, and a bit of a soap opera, as well.”

It involved a tight deadline; Andrea had just finished putting together the documentary This Is How It Ends for Stuff when the offer came up, and it meant getting as many of her interviews done before parliament shut for the summer holidays. But the situation kept evolving – there was the leadership battle between Judith Collins and Simon Bridges before Christopher Luxon became the leader of the National Party.

“Then, literally two hours after I handed in the last three chapters, Simon resigned,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘Oh, for f—ks sake, I’m going to have to rewrite it.’”

When it came to getting former politicians like John Key to take part in a book literally about ‘the National Party in crisis’, you might think it will be a hard ask. But Andrea said that the dust had been settled for long enough that a lot of people were not only willing but very keen to go on the record.

“I was very upfront about the book I wanted to write and I gave them the option about whether or not they would want to talk on or off the record,” she says. “But mostly, people were open and honest and ready to talk. The National Party are very pragmatic – they don’t take things too personally; they wanted to kind of air the dirty laundry of what went wrong, why it went wrong and avoid doing it again in the future. And there’s very much a sense in the party – and it’s a good line they can use – that ‘that was the past, and Nicola Willis and Christopher Luxon are the future.’”

Andrea did try and get both Nicola and Christopher on the record for the book – there was a lot of ‘dancing around’ with various press secretaries – but in the end, not only did they not take part, but as Andrea understands it, Christopher told MPs not to talk to her at a caucus meeting in Queenstown. “But it was too late by then, because I’d done the other interviews,” Andrea says. “It’s a shame, because I really would have loved to talk to him – to work out what he stands for and what he would be like as a prime minister.” 

‘People who are political don’t understand people like me; I don’t care who is in government, I really don’t.’

Another politician that Andrea would have loved to have got on the record was Judith Collins. “She comes across as a very two-dimensional character, that kind of ‘Crusher Collins’, but there are many sides to her,” Andrea says. As a press gallery reporter, Andrea got to interview Judith a lot and describes her as “an excellent minister” who has a very devoted team who love working with her. “People just see this very public, ‘Iron Lady’ side of her, which is some of her, but isn’t necessarily all of her.”

As our political climate becomes increasingly heated – and our media puts pressure on those with a platform to be more and more tribal with their opinions, we can lose a lot of the nuance in between. I tell Andrea that one of the things that surprised me the most about Blue Blood is that I couldn’t tell which way she, personally, leaned politically. That’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t have been so surprising five, 10 years ago, but is a real point of difference now. The reason why? She’s not a very political, political reporter.

“People who are political don’t understand people like me; I don’t care who is in government, I really don’t,” Andrea says. “I actually don’t vote – I’ve said that publicly before. There are good ideas and bad ideas on both sides and it’s my job to hold them to account and to try and explain to people what’s happening. I don’t take a view – I’m not right or left or grey or purple or whatever.”

It’s the human aspect of politicians that appeals most to Andrea – when things are going well and – in this book particularly – when things are going badly. “I feel bad for the National Party, on a human level, because they built this hugely successful political machine – whether you agree with that or not, whether you agree that that’s what politics should be about, those are different things. It was a phenomenally successful machine and they tore it down. And people got hurt along the way – egos got bruised, families were hurt, staffers lost their jobs.”

That human – and flawed – factor can often be the most interesting – and unpredictable – part of what’s going on. “Often as a political journalist, you assume a conspiracy and then you find out later – like when you do an exercise like this – it’s just a series of cock-ups they were trying to cover up, or paper over the cracks,” Andrea says. “You never really know what’s going on behind the scenes.”

One of the reasons that Blue Blood is so compelling is that it takes the readers behind the scenes and shines a light on a lot of the hidden work that comes with being a politician. In the book, careers are helped and hindered by things that happen in the wee hours of the morning.

The life of a politician, Andrea says, is both privileged and gruelling. Many days a week away from their homes and families, and then weekends are spent attending events in your electorate. “You’re always hustling for votes, basically. And if you’re high-profile, people will stop you in the Koru lounge – you can’t even have a cup of coffee and read a book, because people always want to be at you.”

She mentions an anecdote she learned while writing the book, that John Key used to tell new MPs at their induction that “one of the casualties of the job is marriage,” so they all had to take care to nurture their relationships along the way.

And then there’s the increased level of abuse that politicians are now facing. “The risk to MPs, in my time, has never been greater and obviously we’ve seen tragic examples of that overseas.” Women, in particular, have a very hard time, between the hours and the heightened scrutiny. We all know the vitriol that has been levelled against Jacinda over the past year, particularly, but Andrea says it’s far from an isolated problem. “Paula Bennett received an eye-watering level of abuse; you wouldn’t believe the level of what got sent to her. It didn’t just affect her, it affected her family and the people who worked for her, who had to see it.”

Perhaps we all need a reminder that our politicians are human, like the rest of us. “The identity politics that we’re currently grappling with, it sometimes divides our politicians into heroes and villains, the good guys and the bad guys. And that’s not a good thing.”

Blue Blood: The Inside Story of The National Party in Crisis is available now at all good bookstores.

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