Slaying bureaucrats and promoting common sense and private enterprise – all with a sense of humour.
It’s 12 years since Queenstowner Warren Cooper, turning 80 today, retired from politics but his passion for it burns bright as ever.
The ex-signwriter, painter and motelier, who left school at 15, won an impressive 13 elections at either local or national level. Cooper’s loftiest role came when then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon made him Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1981.
“A very sophisticated level of employment,” Cooper reflects.
At the time, Kiwi property mogul Bob Jones said it showed Muldoon didn’t think much of Foreign Affairs.
“It was rumoured some of the staff were up on their roof when they heard the announcement preparing to jump,” Cooper says.
“[But] they found it wasn’t as disastrous as prophesised.”
Despite a fearsome reputation, Muldoon was great to deal with, Cooper says: “He was, I think, more of a socialist. He described me as being the private enterpriser in the caucus, which I was.
“Everything I did was involved in trying to make certain that we weren’t over-run by our officials – that is basically the problem in regard to the whole of NZ now.”
Cooper says he and Cabinet colleague Bill Birch got rid of the Ministry of Works, reduced the tourism department to about 16 staff and vapourised the Government Printing Office.
“We both believed the Crown was probably getting too big and the bureaucrats were getting too much muscle and backbone.”
Ironically, proposals he couldn’t get support for – closing Government tourist booking offices and quitting Central Otago’s state-owned irrigation schemes – were enacted by the Labour Government of 1984.
Cooper tried introducing casinos via a private member’s bill: “I’ve never gambled but thought instead of Kiwis going to Austra-lia for a flutter, we should do it.”
Again Labour stole his thunder.
“The Casino Control Authority gave the most ridiculous decision to give two casinos to Queen-stown … in no way my intention.”
Cooper’s glad he left before the MMP electoral system arrived.
“It may be good in a democratic sense but from the point of view of someone representing a [party] list instead of an electorate, I think it’s ridiculous. The tail wags the dog – you always have to placate the people you wouldn’t normally deal with to get a majority.”
Cooper’s in no doubt he had more power as a mayor than a Cabinet Minister.
During his first mayoralty, he successfully badgered then-Finance Minister Muldoon to allow council to sell Queenstown Hill Commonage land to pay for water and sewerage schemes.
In his second mayoralty he conducted a high-profile spat with local movie star Sam Neill over rural-residential development.
Cooper says he enjoyed the stoush with Neill, who gave him a case of ‘Socialist chardonnay’.
“But some of those nitwits out in Speargrass Flat, they took the bait so seriously you could hook them.”
Cooper is appalled at the council’s burgeoning bureaucracy.
The organisational review is well overdue, he says: “They’ve got to have a clean-out there, got to.
“When I left they had a debt of $16 million. There was $100m added to that in a 10-year period – that is a huge albatross and I have to think $50m was wasted.”
Cooper says regional councils should be abolished and suggests Queenstown Lakes could be part of an Otago district council: “It wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
Cooper bemoans a lack of successful businesspeople standing in NZ: “The first council when I was mayor was probably the best – we had five businesspeople who were successful. We had an instinctive knowledge of whether or not a thing would work – we were fortunate enough to shy away from some of the disasters that have befallen us since.”
Cooper despairs at “hand-wringers” opposing projects like the Haast-Hollyford road.
“They don’t have the brains to know unless we have those things and the private investment that comes from it, we’ll never get the taxes to give to those who can’t make it on their own.”
Cooper feels the country’s well served by PM John Key and his top brass: “My feeling is we’ve got at least four members of Cabinet that would be more competent than any of the Australians.”
He also praises his wife of 54 years, Lorraine: “Many have said, ‘He must be a funny bugger, that Warren
Cooper, but I suppose we could vote for him because she seems to think he’s alright’.”