Sweetening the demon, Paul Goldsmith

Memories of Muldoon
Bob Jones
Canterbury University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 908812 69 8

Prime ministerial careers usually end in failure: it occurs to few to leave when they are on top. Sir Robert Muldoon’s time as Prime Minister was brought to a conclusion in 1984 less gracefully than most. Early in his career he was one of the first successful manipulators of the television media yet a couple of images on the screen will continue to undermine his reputation: his slurring announcement of the “snap election” and his broken line, “I love you, Mr Lange”.

Memories of Muldoon is one man’s view of Muldoon. It doesn’t claim to be a full biography but as a piece of “participant history” it adds to our store of knowledge about the man. Sir Robert Jones’ offering is an openly apologetic work designed to rehabilitate its subject — which is interesting, given that Jones personally had done more than anyone (other than Muldoon himself) to hasten his political demise. It seems that with this book Jones hopes to lay to rest a sense of betrayal that’s been gnawing at him for years.

After an entertaining chronological account of Jones’ relationship with Muldoon the book devotes its last chapters to answering what he sees as the three most common charges against Muldoon. The first of these is that Muldoon nearly wrecked the New Zealand economy. It is unfair, Jones argues, to blame Muldoon for views generally supported and in many respects generated by the top brass at Treasury. If Labour had won in 1978 its approach would have been similar.

But Jones overlooks the departure of Muldoon from Treasury advice during his last term (1981-84), most notably over the wage and price freeze. It is hard to reconcile Jones’ suggestion that Muldoon was a busy minister who merely followed his officials advice with the latter’s bold claim that “nobody knows New Zealand’s economy like I do”.

Jones, second, tries to answer the charge that Muldoon was deliberately divisive, most (in)famously with the Springbok tour in the months before the 1981 election. Jones rightly points out that Muldoon was consistent with his party’s long stated stance on a keeping sport out of politics. However, one of Muldoon’s many political mottos was “never try to win your enemies”. Such a hard nosed, pragmatic strategy would inevitably lead to division, for better or worse.

Third, Jones deals with the issue of political integrity in response to the claim that the 1975 superannuation scheme was an outrageously irresponsible election bribe without regard to practicability. Jones says Muldoon stuck to his word, in contrast to the “mendacity” of the succeeding Labour and National governments which fatally undermined confidence in politicians through broken promises. But Muldoon was scarcely honest in the way he fiddled the economy and disguised the real economic figures in election years. It is also harsh on succeeding governments who have brought in a fundamentally more honest, accountable and transparent system of government under the Public Finance Act.

Memories of Muldoon is about Bob Jones. It is a frolic through a field of anecdotes, a moving account of an intriguing relationship and a retrospective version of the split with Muldoon from 1982, through to the moment of “communal grace” when Jones, Sir David Beattie and others arranged a valedictory dinner for Muldoon and the former friends made their peace. The rapprochement on that night was clearly important to Jones, although the laconic and unemotional response of Muldoon left most of the others guessing.

Memories of Muldoon is a timely reminder that the “demonisation”, such as it is, of Muldoon is simplistic, swamping the man’s positive attributes. It provides us with a picture of Muldoon from one angle. But it also highlights our want of an in-depth study of one of the major New Zealand political figures of the twentieth century. Barry Gustafson has been working on this task since 1989 and many have speculated as to why it has not yet appeared. The wait is nearly over: Gustafson says his biography is due to be finished by Christmas and will reach the shelves in the middle of next year.

Paul Goldsmith is press secretary to the Minister for the Environment

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Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review
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