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Matt McCarten: better red than dead

Feb 27, 2014 Politics

Living left-wing legend Matt McCarten knows what this story is about: “The dying man.” He’s one of the strangest and most  compelling figures in New Zealand public life, and he has cancer.

First published in Metro, January 2011. Photos by Simon Young.

Matt McCarten wakes up at four in the morning and the lights in his head are blazing. His head is full of big ideas, mad notions. He typically works till midnight, survives on four hours’ sleep, and starts plotting and planning the moment his eyes open. “Ready to go,” as he put it, boyishly.

A handsome man, 51 years old, he has short arms and small, beautiful hands — soft and feminine, really quite pretty little paws, with shapely fingers, fluttering in the air like butterflies above his laptop. McCarten was abandoned as a child and raised in church orphanages; he carried a sketchbook with him and drew all the time, the little hands smudged and fluttering. Now he puts all his flair and manic energy into his work, as national secretary of the Unite union, and before that as president of the Alliance Party when it formed a coalition government with Labour in 1999, heralding the last left-wing experiment in New Zealand. In between founding Unite and helping to create the Alliance, he was key to the formation of the Maori Party.

Matt McCarten, master strategist; “man on a mission”, as political commentator Chris Trotter put it, admiringly; “a maker of his own myth”, as former Alliance minister Matt Robson put it, bitterly; and now, Matt McCarten, cancer patient.

“The cancer’s spread but it’s inconclusive. I’m working on the basis that I’m fucked. Either way, you are my last interview.” He had his operation on December 14. The next day I asked him how he was feeling. “Sore,” he said.

I interviewed him three times before that, in November. He talked a lot about politics. His spectacular political career has made him a left-wing legend, respected and idolised, and characterised by at least one enemy as a psychopath. But I thought of him as an authentic New Zealand maverick, a genuine and lifelong outsider. He was the abandoned child — his father was a hopeless drunk, his mother was so out of it she didn’t know she had given birth — who has never belonged anywhere. He has sad eyes, but there is no woe to him; remorseless, single-minded, imaginative, he’s an animated and very cheerful misfit.

“I’m used to institutions,” he said. “I came from an environment which was very regulated, and had a code of what was right and what was wrong. Political parties are institutions. Unions are institutions. They’re structured, and I’m very comfortable in that environment. I understand hierarchy. I understand systems.”

And within them, he’s able to express a kind of creative genius. His unique, fluid talent for mobilising people and staging campaigns worked miracles for the Alliance, and now Unite.

It got him nowhere, though, in November, when he made a last-minute decision to run as an independent candidate in Wellington’s Mana byelection. He talked up his chances of getting five or even 10 per cent of the vote, and finishing second or a respectable third. The electorate looked at him like he was mad. He gave a spirited performance, but he was just some union guy from Auckland with cancer. He came fourth with 849 votes, or 3.64 per cent.

His volunteer crew, he said, were “hotheads, fucking amateurs”. He expects others to keep up with him, to make the leap of faith to trust in what he’s doing. It’s probably freaked some people out.

His best friend, Unite president Gerard Hehir, said: “Matt comes up with like 60 bloody ideas a week. Crazy stuff sometimes. I’m very much his sounding board.” The straight man playing to the ideas man: Deputy Prime Minister Bill English has said that describes his relationship with Prime Minister John Key.

McCarten is like Key turned inside-out. The standard New Zealand narrative of success is Key’s story — the man who worked his way up from nothing to accumulate vast wealth. McCarten’s story adds a twist — the man who worked his way up from nothing to advocate for people who have next to nothing.

The bulk of Unite’s 8000 members are workers on the minimum wage on shop floors at McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, JB Hi-Fi, SkyCity. Membership has a turnover of 70 per cent a year. “We’re running just to stand still,” said Hehir.

The dusty red-brick Unite offices in Western Springs used to house the Mt Albert City Council. The front doormat has gone to seed. Inside, it’s dim and murky; you half expect staff to work by candlelight. Hehir wears a pair of red Doc Martens, and his haircut is like the leftovers of a quiff. He asks McCarten what sort of story Metro was doing.

“Oh, you know,” McCarten replied. “The dying man.”

McCarten’s a tenant in a cottage in the gardens of Waterlea, the large property in Mangere Bridge owned by his friend Willie Jackson, the former Alliance MP who’s now a RadioLive host. The previous owner was another classic New Zealand eccentric: David Lange. Jackson said, “My wife, Tania, was saying to me yesterday, ‘You know, I don’t think I’ve seen Matt out of a suit since he’s been with us.’ He moved here in early September, and he comes home every night at 11 or 12.” He smiled. “My wife loves Matt. When I told her [about the cancer], she cried and cried, and said, ‘Get him to come to us.’”


Matt McCarten wakes up at four in the morning to complete silence. It’s very peaceful in the garden at the end of Waterlea’s tree-lined driveway. Since the cancer, McCarten resists the urge to jump onto the laptop when he wakes. Instead, he lies in bed till seven, resting, gathering his strength. He has secondary cancer of the liver. “The killing kind”: that was his neat and memorable line when he announced his illness in his Herald on Sunday column on September 5.

All the indications were he’d be gone by Christmas… he went shopping for headstones.

He was given weeks to live. His GP estimated his chances of survival were 3.4 per cent. Jackson said, “All the indications were he’d be gone by Christmas.”

McCarten put his affairs in order, shifted to Waterlea, and went shopping for headstones. His only ambition was to make it to his birthday on January 19.

“But now my surgeons are saying they think I’m going to be fine,” he claimed. “The best-case scenario is they cut me open and it goes away, cos it’s small, and it’s only in two places. The worst? That it’ll spread. But they said that could take years and years. If I get two years, I’m happy.”

Jackson told me his wife’s brother-in-law was operated on for liver cancer and died within a month. I mentioned this cheering fact to McCarten. “Might happen,” he said. “But I’m not scared. I haven’t given it a thought. I’m quite relaxed. I’m busy. I’ve got things to do. I genuinely do! I’m not in denial; it’s just another campaign. I’ve got the acupuncturist, I’ve got the naturopath, the Maori healers, the Western medicine.”

He had three sets of chemotherapy. He vomited once, felt a bit tired after the third round, otherwise he felt fine, and looked great. Chris Trotter said he had expected to see McCarten go the same way as other friends who had got cancer. “The decline is quick and obvious. But with Matt, it’s weird, it really is. It’s gone the other way. He looks better now than he did a few months ago.”

Matt McCarten

Matt McCarten in the garden of his Mangere Bridge home.

I interviewed Trotter, affable and immense, at his villa in Three Kings. He made a cup of tea in the kitchen, which backed onto the driveway of a townhouse: three people stood right outside his kitchen window and chatted, including a dwarf. Trotter talked about the first time he clapped eyes on McCarten. It was at a sandwich bar in Wellington during a union conference in the early 1980s. “He was North Island and I was South Island, and I think we both rather fancied ourselves as young up-and-coming tyros in the union movement. And this is going to sound silly, but there was something about him that I noticed right away which just said to me, ‘It’s not you. It’s him.’

“I’m not making it up, I remember it very distinctly. He was even better looking in those days, and even then he had this charismatic quality which is very rare and you can’t mistake it when you see it.”

Trotter was right: it sounded silly. McCarten, the special one; McCarten, messianic and glowing. I met with left-wing blog hollerer Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury. He was even more affable and almost as immense as Trotter, and sillier too. He said, “I think Che Guevara was described by Jean-Paul Sartre as the perfect human being. Matt, intellectually and as an activist, fits that bill for me.” McCarten, immaculate.

The hits kept coming. “Matt’s a person of enormous warmth and humanity,” said right-wing political commentator and PR trout Matthew Hooton, who shares a regular spot with McCarten on the radio show Willie Jackson co-hosts with John Tamihere. I met Hooton in his Shortland St office. He wore a business shirt, and sat with his hands clasped behind his head. “I hope he survives. I think he’s a New Zealand treasure.”

McCarten and Unite are planning a nationwide campaign in 2011 to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He was made to look out of touch with ordinary New Zealanders on the Mana campaign when he was unable to tell TV3 reporter Patrick Gower the price of a litre of milk, but he draws the same wage as everyone employed by Unite: $39,000. He owned a house about 20 years ago, freehold, in Grey Lynn, with his daughter’s mother; now he owns a Ford Falcon and a few suits. He hires himself out as a freelance negotiator in white-collar employment disputes, and the biggest single fee he has received is $113,000. He ploughs it all back into Unite.

He said, “If I didn’t believe in what I was doing, I’d have just gone out and got rich and had a wasted life. If you don’t believe in anything, you just indulge yourself.”

His friends all said he could easily have made a personal fortune. “Matt doesn’t have bugger-all material possessions,” said Jackson. “If money was his choice, he’d be as rich as Graeme Hart, he’s so clever.” Trotter: “He’s very much in the tradition of people like Michael Joseph Savage and Harry Holland [the first Labour Party leaders], who departed this world with virtually nothing. What they’d had, they’d given away, or poured it back into the movement they were a part of.”

“What he is,” said Hehir, “is he’s a working-class hero. There’s no doubt about it. That’s where his politics come from, that’s where his values come from, that’s what he’ll be till the day he dies.” Then he said, “You know. Whenever that is.”


Matt McCarten lies awake in the dark hours before dawn. What does he see? Is it all angles and ideas? In his 2002 political memoir Rebel in the Ranks, he wrote about meeting his father for the first time when he was five. He didn’t know what the word meant and he didn’t know what men looked like. He was looked after by nuns in a Home of Compassion in Island Bay, Wellington. His dad gave him a toy boat. I said, “Maybe that’s your Rosebud. It’ll be the last thing you think of.”

He said, “I remember it vividly. It had a white bottom and a red top and blue and yellow gadget things on it. First thing I ever owned. Never had a present before that. But it got run over by the manager at the next orphanage I went to. I was shocked! He said, ‘Your own fault. Stupid leaving it in the driveway.’ I hated him. Actually, now that you’ve reminded me about it, I suppose what it did for me is that something was put in my brain about authority, about resenting authority…”

He was making it up as he went along. The story was accurate; the moral lesson arrived on the spot. But it was consistent, because McCarten orders his universe in moral absolutes: right and wrong, good and bad. His first law is good manners. He smiled and said, “I’m a polite-aggressive.” He mentioned in passing, “I’m a New Testament guy.” I followed up on that in a later interview, and he said, “I read the New Testament backwards and forwards in the orphanage. It was about a way of life, about being decent. You know, we’re doing God’s work at Unite… So, yes, the influence of the New Testament would run through me. It does. It does. It’s decency and not walking away from injustice, and about confronting — Jesus would confront. He would speak to power, against the Romans or the moneylenders; he was a socialist, with a small ‘s’.”

McCarten also got worked up as a kid by reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I said the novel was like a New Testament parable. “That’s exactly what it is,” he said. I realised what the depressing red-brick Unite building reminded me of: a Salvation Army chapel.

“Bomber” Bradbury had said, “He’s very stoic. It wouldn’t surprise me that when he dies…” We met at Rakinos on High St. He blushed at the word “dies”, scoffed a mouthful of fish and chips, and then gamely continued, “They might find he has some kind of goat-hair corset on him, you know, like a priest would to keep himself humble.” The notion of a hirsute undergarment also appealed to Linda Clark, a press gallery journalist when McCarten worked in Parliament. She said, “I think Matt’s a puritan. He exhibits elements of someone… you know, like a survivor of a cult, or… I mean, there’s something horse-shirt-wearing about him.”

“He was so charming, and he was such a terrific leaker.”

She also said, “I absolutely adored him. He was so charming, and he was such a terrific leaker. He would always tell you what was really happening in caucus.” I thought of that when I called Matt Robson. He had called McCarten “treacherous”.

As Progressive Party deputy leader, Robson had just returned from a junket to North Korea and was full of the joys and sorrows of that “misrepresented” regime. The subject of McCarten, too, made him garrulous. “It’s a big topic,” he began. “Clearly he’s a person with a number of political talents, but he has one singular flaw, and that is he finds it difficult to know what the truth is, and always has to be at the centre of attention.”

I asked him to count the number of McCarten’s talents. He got as far as two. “He’s a good organiser, and a good — well, reasonably good — motivator, but the problem is that it has to be ‘me, me, me’ all the time… He stole other people’s ideas… He has a propensity for dishonesty… There was always his incessant ‘man of the people’ rhetoric, but the people he got on with best in Parliament were Act. He went to all their piss-ups… He was more interested in the good life than politics. Wine, women and song.”

So much for the “singular” flaw. But what the hell was all this about? Robson reached a crescendo when he revealed the root cause of his amazing bitterness: he blamed McCarten for destroying the Alliance. “He wrecked it! Single-handedly! He spent all his time running down the MPs, saying they’d sold out, and [were] not left-wing enough… Constant attacks… Constant intrigues…” On and on he railed. This was Robson as avenging angel.

McCarten said he’d received a lot of messages of goodwill from old enemies after he announced he had cancer. I asked Robson if he had emailed. “No. And I won’t. I’m not a hypocrite.”

Nor are there any relations between McCarten and Jim Anderton. I phoned Anderton’s office. A woman said she’d raise my inquiry with him. She called back eight seconds later and said, “Jim says he has not discussed Matt since the Alliance broke up and is not about to start now.” I laid it on thick. I said McCarten was dying of cancer, and that Anderton would look like a complete bastard if he didn’t break his silence and pay some last respects to his former ally. The woman said she’d ask him again. She called back nine seconds later and said, “Jim says he has not discussed Matt since the Alliance broke up and is not about to start now.”

McCarten asked if I’d got a comment from Anderton. He sounded hopeful. No, I said, not a word. “Oh,” he said.


Matt McCarten is alone as he forces himself to rest, death whispering in his ear, in the garden cottage in Mangere Bridge. “I think I’m a loner,” he said. “I’m very self-contained. A lot of my girlfriends — well, there haven’t been that many — said afterwards, ‘I thought I could change you, Matt. But I can’t compete with what you do.’ You know, you just can’t hold down relationships at the same time as working seven days a week and all hours of day and night. And that’s my position now.”

“I think it’s well known that matt cuts quite a swathe with the fairer sex.”

Willie Jackson and Chris Trotter grinned like schoolboys when asked about McCarten’s love life. Trotter: “I think it’s well known that Matt cuts quite a swathe with the fairer sex, ‘he said rather ruefully’. In particular with the parliamentary press gallery. He always had a way with the media, shall we say.” I asked Linda Clark about that. She said it was news to her. I met with Jackson at Bambina in Ponsonby Rd, near his RadioLive studio; he leaned over the small table and said, “He likes to remain private. But I will say that over the years, there’s a lot of women been interested in him. He’s a pretty popular bloke, our Matt McCarten, and good luck to him.” And then: “But for Matt, politics and his daughter always come first.”

Kate is 22. “His life has always been politics and Kate,” said broadcaster Susan Wood. “He just adores Kate.” I was in McCarten’s office one day when he called Wood. The little endearments (“darling”, “tiger”) and his gentle, cooing tone revealed a side to McCarten I hadn’t noticed before: happiness. He and Wood were lovers, briefly, in the 90s. The pair make an unlikely couple on the surface — the driven left-wing orphan, the nice middle-class conservative. But they are strikingly alike, both playful, funny, chatty, wilful, brittle and untrusting.

I met Wood at Fiesta in Pt Chevalier. She arrived in her very shiny black BMW convertible. She said, “We met at a party and got chatting. He said, ‘I’d like to be your friend.’ It was kind of instant. I liked him a lot. He’s engaging and interesting and challenging. We have a lot of laughs. I regard him as a very dear friend.

“One of the things we’ve got in common is that we only let people in so far. We’re quite careful. I think we saw that in each other. He said to me once, ‘I’ve got issues about closeness and intimacy.’”

She mentioned, “He really has no regard for his mother.” McCarten met his mother when he was 14. He writes in Rebel in the Ranks, “I wasn’t at all sure what I was supposed to feel.” And: “I didn’t feel anything in particular towards her.” Also: “The only feeling I ever experienced was pity.” He lived with her in Dunedin, and committed himself to a psychiatric ward to get away. He preferred that institution to her drunken slovenliness.

He doesn’t drink much, and has never smoked or inhaled. Man on a mission, as Trotter remarked, although he’s a snappy dresser, always stylishly turned out.

“There’s a touch of vanity about him,” said Linda Clark. He looked like a dandy when he wore a suit and purple shirt to our first interview, over lunch at the Pt Chevalier RSA. We both ordered delicious $18 fillet steaks with $2 pepper sauce. The cook sat down at a nearby table. McCarten boomed: “Good working-class food!” The cook looked at him like he was mad. Matt Robson would have smirked.

But actions speak louder than smirks. McCarten hated being asked about his personal life; what made him come alive, energised him, was “war”. In every interview, he talked about Unite as the ultimate institution — an army. They were, he said, in constant war. Trotter said, “He said to me once, ‘Chris, before you do anything in this world, you’ve got to have an army.’ He means you need something credible behind you to be a force in the land.” Jackson said, “Unite is a great legacy for Matt. It’s all about making the world a better place.”

“Mine’s a moral argument,” McCarten said. “I can’t walk away from things which I know are wrong. And so… you’ve just got to live your life the best you can, and make a contribution, and live in a way that you think is respectful to others.”

He made farewell speeches like this in each of our interviews. They weren’t very long speeches. I doubt he wasted time rehearsing them as he lay awake and alone in his garden cottage in the dead of night. “When the time comes,” he said, “it comes.”


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