Clem Simich, Parliament's perfect gentleman
By AUDREY YOUNG
Tamaki MP Clem Simich is a man of superlatives. He is known mainly as the man selected to replace the dominant figure of Rob Muldoon as MP for Tamaki in the 1992 byelection.
But he was also National's longest-serving senior officer to come into Parliament.
He was best trainee in his intake at police college with a mark, he says, that has never been equalled. He was the youngest detective and detective sergeant in the force. He did a double degree in arts and law in four years that should have taken five.
And he has been one of the best select committee chairmen.
These are all facts offered by the man himself this week in the course of an interview occasioned by his becoming Shadow Speaker.
But there's more. "I've made a major contribution to the caucus", he says, then with a hint of modesty, "so I'm told."
It is surprising that Simich is so forward about his achievements. His image has been that of the reluctant hero, demonstrated last year when he helped an elderly couple escape from their car teetering on the edge of the sea wall around the eastern bays.
It is also surprising because he has famously good manners.
There is no shortage of praise about him from any number of people around Parliament where Simich, now the Assistant Speaker, is regarded with an affection and respect that sits at odds with criticisms heard in Auckland about his being the invisible man.
Ask any MP. "It was a pleasure standing against him," says Labour MP Lynn Pillay, his opponent in 1999. "He is a perfect gentleman."
"I've found Clem to be a gentleman and a straight man," says New Zealand First leader Winston Peters whom, it must be said, was backed by Simich during the Winebox ordeal.
"He has natural authority and you just know he's the sort of person you can't mess with," says former Act leader Richard Prebble.
Simich would not disagree. "I know I have a presence and that always went part of the way to being able to deal with situations calmly and forcefully."
He chairs the House up to three hours a week. He has yet to throw anyone out. His own colleagues test him the most, but that is because the chamber is the Opposition's forum to make the executive accountable. He thinks it best to let people have a long leash.
"If some want to make fools of themselves, I let them do that, too."
His talent for exhibiting and demanding good behaviour was apparent at an early age.
"I was considered to be a model child by my mum and an angel. And as I grew up, nothing changed. I guess I was just good.
"And when I was in police school, all of my classmates had the same view."
Simich is sitting in his third-floor office at Parliament, ready to head down to chair a robust scampi debate after Question Time.
His immaculate manners are matched by his immaculate appearance: black suit, gold silk pocket handkerchief, matching gold and black tie, shining brogues and three rings. With his smartly groomed moustache, he would make a perfect Poirot if he were a little more Belgian and a little less tall.
He confirms the suspicion that he is fond of an old-fashioned waltz - but only with Mrs Simich, "top New Zealand high-fashion model Ann Lynch", as she is described on his website.
He has given up the roll-your-own cigarettes for a more dignified pipe.
Someone looking for a reason behind the heavy emphasis on achievement might find it in his humble beginnings. He began life as a barefoot boy on the gum fields of Northland, born in Te Kopuru in 1939. His mother was half-Maori, his father Croatian.
"We had nothing. We just looked after ourselves. We made our own fun. Grew most of our own food."
The family, his parents and two brothers, went toCroatia for what was meant to be six months but turned into five years. From 8 to 13 he went to school in Croatia, almost forgetting how to speak English and topping the school in Croatian language studies and maths.
When the family came home to the gumfields, he finished his schooling by correspondence, being too far away from school to attend daily. And he remembers learning an encyclopaedia by heart at home.
Then in a surprising admission for a high achiever, he says he made it only to fourth form and that when he sat School Certificate at police college, he passed only on his third attempt - on a recount.
Simich moved from the police force to a stonemasonry business with one of his brothers, which grew into a construction and development company.
And while he was gaining that double degree in the late 1980s, he was also general manager of the public company Corporate Investments.
He was made Minister of Police and Corrections by Jenny Shipley in the dying days of National's nine-year tenure in Government.
Despite the rumblings in Auckland over Simich's lack of vigour and lack of profile, he is National's elder statesman in caucus, where he is said to say little but makes it count when he does.
His colleagues are delighted to save him the ordeal of a challenge for selection - as had been foreshadowed. In a tidy solution to possible problems for National in Auckland's eastern suburbs, Simich agreed to stand aside as an electorate MP in the next election for a high list position.
Simich gets what he wants in the promise of the Speaker's job - to which Northland MP and senior whip John Carter might well have laid claim.
An unpleasant challenge against a sitting member is avoided and the party gets to hold a real contest to attract new blood in the crucial Auckland market.
The solution would allow Tamaki's National supporters to vote strategically for Act - if that looks like what it would take for National to claim the Government benches - without upsetting a highly regarded local MP.
Simich, 65, may take some quiet satisfaction from the fact that he could spend his political twilight years in Parliament's most respected posts. His entry to politics was less reverential.
For years he has been teased about promising during the 1992 Tamaki byelection to "take a message to Wellington". Asked if he was sick of being asked about "the message", he is genuinely puzzled. "What message?"
Reminded about it, he explains that the "message to Wellington" was not just "a" message. It was two years after the 1990 landslide election to National and - following the Mother of All Budgets - the party had been rating a dismal 26 per cent.
"My invitation to [National Government] caucus members was to come and get a feel for things on the ground, but what the Government had done either had not been sold or was not very well received.
"I wanted them to get that message. How it lingered on was that I said 'if you want to send a message to Wellington, send it to the Government, not the Opposition'.
"That's a message I passed on at my very first caucus, mainly that their policies were good but hadn't been sold properly beforehand or 'take the people along with you before you implement the policy'.
"I was given about half an hour of caucus time."
Simich knocked aside one of New Zealand's most loved sons and a paper-perfect contender, Dr David Kirk, who came qualified with medical degree, Rhodes scholarship and World Cup trophy to his name.
"It was the biggest line-up for a selection ever - 19," says Simich.
Observers outside Tamaki could not understand how the electorate had chosen a supposed "unknown" against a world-beater following Muldoon's retirement.
But he wasn't an unknown. Simich's relationship with the National Party began 30 years ago this month, in 1974.
He had stood against David Lange in the Mangere byelection and for 15 years was on the governing body of the party, the Dominion Council. And an activist in Tamaki had a special window on the party.
"We were very lucky to have Rob there for 30-something years, nine of them as Prime Minister. All of us in Tamaki had a ringside seat on what was happening.
"And of course I was his right-hand man for 18 years, both in the electorate and on the Dominion Council in Wellington."
His Tamaki electorate ranges from the elite of Auckland on Paritai Drive to the poor of Glen Innes and Pt England, and he cites as one of his proudest achievements the bulldozing and replacement of the infamous Madeleine Ave flats.
Asked how he would like to be remembered by the people of Tamaki he offers this: "I'd like to be remembered as someone who represented them well, who represented their views at this end - and who got into Cabinet in a shorter time than Rob Muldoon."
Getting In Touch
I consider it important for constituents to be able to talk directly and easily with their Member of Parliament.
You can reach me at either my Tamaki Office or through my office in Wellington.
My Tamaki electorate office is run by a husband-and-wife team, John and Vicki Tremewan
Between them they have many years experience in politics and the operation of an MP's home base.
If you have any problems that you feel need the attention of your Member of Parliament then please get in touch with the office.
26 St Heliers Bay Rd
Phone: 575 9842
Fax: 575 6597
Clem Simich MP