All Honourable Men: Inside the Muldoon cabinet 1975‑1984
Auckland University Press, $39.95
Goodbye to All That
I’ve Been Thinking
“A prudent punter would conclude that Helen Clark, at the head of a left‑of‑centre coalition, is the most likely next Prime Minister.” So wrote Bryan Gould recently in the Evening Post. In fact, the prudent punter would be hanging on to the chips. Betting on this election may be fun and offer many permutations ‑ but the prudent punter would shudder at the odds.
Making firm statements about the shifting and complex interrelationships between the parties and between them and the voters is the privilege of those distant from them ‑ and Gould is that. Vice‑chancellor of Waikato University, he is comfortably insulated from the intense personal animosities and ideological incompatibilities on economic policy that separate Jim Anderton from Helen Clark and the Alliance from Labour. Gould in the Post urged Labour into accommodation with the Alliance; if he were closer to the action he would recognise that is rather like proposing Labour become partially pregnant to the Alliance.
Gould’s other distance is his many years in British Labour. This is the party that helped ensure Thatcherism was implemented unopposed by falling in love with a romantic form of socialism to which voters could not relate and thus, in effect, withdrawing from the argument.
Gould, as he tells us in Goodbye to All That, in fact opposed this and argued a line that took as its starting point that Labour should stop putting up policies to stop people doing things; in 1989 he brought his thinking together in A Future for Socialism, a book Mike Moore used to urge people here to read. But A Future for Socialism is a sort of communitarian, environmental and industrial democratic update of Anthony Crosland’s influential 1956 work, The Future of Socialism, explicitly acknowledged by Gould as his starring point. However ‘modem” it may have looked to British Labour in 1989, it reads rather quaintly in the wake of the fourth New Zealand Labour government’s plunge into the market and the post‑1990 liberal (not socialist) New Zealand Labour leadership’s search in opposition for a way to graft traditional Labour social policy activism on to the open economy.
Goodbye adds nothing to the Future. It is a jolly reminiscence, a sort of extended CV. But it reminds us of the gulf between British and New Zealand Labour.
It is not that Gould is wrong; just that, coming upon us from his Thatcher‑moulded English tangent, he lacks a gut-feel for the core issues of post‑revolutionary (and post-socialist) political New Zealand and has still less comprehension of the personality histories in a country whose politics owes much to personality. Britain is not New Zealand any more than Brobdignag is Lilliput. The culture is different.
Hugh Templeton can help us understand this dislocation of perception a little better. Templeton’s elegant memoir on his experiences as a junior to mid‑ranking minister in the Muldoon cabinet comes to us from the other side of the great divide of 1984 ‑ a country nearly as foreign ‑ as, perhaps more foreign than, early‑1990s Britain.
Templeton’s memoir tells us much about the players of that era and some of the detailed discussions behind closed cabinet and caucus doors, which is useful to flesh out the history. There are some arresting passages, particularly in a detailed account ‑ from a waverer who refused to sign any lists ‑ of the botched attempt to mount a coup to replace Sir Robert Muldoon as Prime Minister with Brian Talboys in October 1980. There are some insights into present Prime Minister Jim Bolger and his early questioning of Muldoon’s bulldog support of the 1976 All Black tour of South Africa and the “wildly divisive” Springbok return tour in 1981.
But, overwhelmingly, this is a diary about the doings of Muldoon, with Templeton either in awed tow (over Muldoon’s apparent financial wizardry in 1976‑78) or in frustrated attendance (over Muldoon’s vacillations in the negotiations for CER, which Templeton presciently championed, initially without his leader’s endorsement and then with his grudging permission) or dragged along in slightly shocked disapproval of Muldoon’s brutal treatment of enemies and ‑ as his vision blurred and his megalomania and paranoia grew ‑ his friends or, finally, in the Götterdämerung of 1984, aghast as the autocrat decayed from drink and diabetes. For under‑30s who did not live any of their adult lives under Muldoon, it is a good introduction to an era in which nothing moved without the Prime Minister’s say‑so (and grown men put up with that!); for those who lived through it, it will jog memories, nostalgia or schadenfreude.
But, unless the diarist is an arresting figure (which Templeton is not; gentleman to the core, he loyally served Muldoon despite his misgivings) or unless the diary is an unusually penetrating commentary on the times, the account is of limited, even specious, interest. Templeton adds little to the public understanding of Muldoon.
Templeton misses another chance, too. The deeper point of histories of the Muldoon era is to establish a clearer understanding of the political, economic and cultural conditions existing before the Labour revolution so we can understand the revolution better and learn better what endures from that pre‑revolutionary era to help in constructing the post‑revolutionary society. Templeton’s autopsy on the New Zealand fourth Labour government – buried under radical economic, social, racial, environmental, foreign policy and constitutional reforms – is set in a narrow frame. There are no arresting analytical insights or perspectives. Though he reminds us often in Honourable Men of his Balliol training, Templeton gives us too little benefit of it.
A saving point of both Gould’s and Templeton’s books is a delicious aside or two. Gould records Lange telling startled British parliamentarians shortly before he took office in 1984 that he knew nothing of economic matters and was going to leave all that to Sir Roger Douglas. Templeton tells us that when he put Post Office prices up in 1976 after Douglas had plunged it deep into deficit by freezing prices during three highly inflationary years, “I noticed a curious anger that anyone should change his policies.”
Douglas’s anger is still there, funnelled first into Unfinished Business, then into ACT, fuelled by his successors’ distortion and derailment of his 1980s enterprise. Of a quite different, fun‑loving temperament is Richard Prebble, newly a fellow‑author of Douglas’s and more popular ‑ I’ve Been Thinking went into its second printing two weeks after its launch in early February.
Thinking is reminiscences, too. About how awful things were before the revolution. And some “values” that could keep us from counter‑revolution. It’s occasional fun ‑ and, like Gould, not deep. But it has by far the best aphorism of the three books: “We [politicians] fight elections over things that don’t work.”
Colin James is a political columnist.