His Way: A Biography of Robert Muldoon
Auckland University Press, $59.95,
ISBN 1 86940 236 7
Sir Robert Muldoon was the dominant figure in the political life of a generation of New Zealanders. He was Minister of Finance for fifteen years (1967-72 and 1975-84) and Prime Minister from 1975 until 1984. And yet those bare facts don’t in themselves convey the role he played in the collective psyche. I lived abroad for fourteen years and returned here for good just before the 1975 election. I was astonished at the way all dinner party conversations turned to the subject of Muldoon, and the intensity with which people loved or loathed him. No-one was detached or neutral, and this continued to be the case as long as he was in power.
Barry Gustafson has now attempted the daunting task of coming to terms with Sir Robert’s place in history. He has had limitless access to Muldoon’s papers, and was also able to interview almost all the other players in the drama of Muldoon’s political life. Whatever your perspective on the complex central character, this is an absolutely fascinating book. And because Barry Gustafson had the luxury that no other biographer will be able to share – innumerable hours of interviews and conversations with Sir Robert himself – it is a book that is sure to be relied upon heavily by any future chronicler of Muldoon and his times.
Barry Gustafson is quite clear about what he did and didn’t want to do by way of a biography. His is not a psycho-biography, though it is full of subtle psychological insight, and gives appropriate weight to childhood influences and experiences. Nor is it merely a political biography, though politics indubitably dominated the life. In his preface Gustafson recalls his admirable biography of Michael Joseph Savage, Cradle to the Grave, and what he tried to achieve there, and what he will do for Muldoon. His prime purpose, he states, is
to follow him through his life and describe it as accurately as I can. Contemporary events which do not directly concern that life I largely ignore, but many other incidents are selected, described and analysed in some detail, not only because of their importance as events in the life of Muldoon, but also because of the light they throw on his character, motivation and achievements.
Muldoon’s character was irrevocably shaped by the circumstances of his childhood. A clever, tiny only child, he was brought up by his hardworking mother Amie, and deeply influenced by his formidable grandmother Jerusha. She did not succeed in converting her grandson to her faith in socialism, but she certainly inculcated in him a deep commitment to the welfare state. What Michael Joseph Savage had set in place 40 years before, Muldoon in power would struggle to preserve. But it was not only the women present in his life who shaped the young Muldoon. Quite as much the absent father cast a shadow. Jim Muldoon returned from the First World War unknowingly bearing the syphilis which was to wreck his mind and body. When Robert was only six or seven, his father entered a psychiatric hospital at Point Chevalier, where he remained for the rest of his life.
One doesn’t need to be overly imaginative to see the effect such a tragedy might have on a child. And the thoughtless cruelty of other children is remembered with guilt to this day by some of the perpetrators. The only child became a loner, and learned “to retaliate both verbally and (insofar as a small boy can) physically against his tormentors, and to strive for both respect and success”.
Muldoon seems always to have had a developed sense of direction. Though he served throughout the Second World War, he did not seek a commission, but devoted a lot of time and energy to studying and qualifying for his postwar professional life. In that postwar life he rapidly became involved in the Junior National Party where he met Thea (Tam) Flyger, his future wife. On the last occasion Gustafson met him, a seriously ill Muldoon urged him to record that “The best thing I ever did was to marry Tam.” He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in Mount Albert in 1954, and for Waitemata in 1957. His third attempt was in 1960 when he took Tamaki off Bob Tizard. He was to hold that electorate for National for over 30 years.
It is interesting to note that his electoral pamphlet in 1960 introduced “Bob [sic] Muldoon, who does not promise you the moon”. Fifteen years later, on the eve of becoming Prime Minister, he was ridiculed by those with a mind to for answering Ian Fraser’s question of his wish for New Zealand: “To leave it no worse than I find it.” There is a nice philosophical consistency to be detected there.
When he first ran for Parliament in 1954, he issued a detailed statement of his beliefs, and subsequently claimed that for the duration of his time in Parliament he abided by them. He probably did. The young Robert Muldoon was against socialism but for the welfare state. He was against the class war and industrial strife, but for human values and individual rights. He thought that the family must be retained as the basis for national life, and that a Member of Parliament must make himself freely available to the people of his electorate. This last he did religiously. Gustafson records that even in decline, when he was being interviewed for the biography, the phone rang repeatedly with calls for advice or help.
Muldoon’s intelligence, energy and debating skills caught Holyoake’s eye, and following the 1963 election he was appointed Under-Secretary to Harry Lake, the Minister of Finance. However, to the surprise of many, Holyoake did not originally appoint him to Cabinet following the 1966 election. Gustafson believes that Marshall, Shand and Allen convinced Holyoake that Muldoon was too tactless, abrasive and independent to be promoted. To their surprise, Gordon, Thomson and MacIntyre were appointed ahead of him. Perhaps it was because Muldoon, though devastated, accepted Holyoake’s snub without public protest that Holyoake changed his mind and three months later made him Minister for Tourism and Associate Minister of Finance. (Many years later, as a symbolic reprimand, Muldoon demoted Derek Quigley to Minister of Tourism.)
On 21 February, 1967, Harry Lake died of a heart attack. Holyoake first of all offered the Finance portfolio to his deputy Marshall, but he refused it. Shand wanted the portfolio, but Holyoake distrusted his independence on economic matters, and would not give it to him. By this series of accidents, Muldoon got this most powerful of portfolios, one he would not give up even when he became Prime Minister.
I’m no economist, though I am married to one who worked particularly closely with Muldoon for the whole of his fifteen years as Minister of Finance and his three terms as Prime Minister. When Holyoake appointed the young Muldoon Minister, he instructed the even younger Treasury official Bernard Galvin: “Boy, boy – look after the lad.” That gives you a taste of the Holyoake flavour.
When I say I am no economist, it is prefatory to saying that I don’t really want to wade into the controversies that surrounded Muldoon’s handling of the economy. I’m not competent to adjudicate the claims and counter-claims of the Keynesians and the free-marketeers. Besides, I lived with it all too long. What I do know, however, is that Muldoon’s abiding concern with economic policy was that it not harm the poor. Innumerable Treasury papers over the years went up to him advocating deregulation or economic reform (as New Zealand slid down the various OECD indicators of economic well-being) and came back with scrawled comments such as “No. It would cost jobs.” He wanted to leave New Zealand “no worse than I found it.”
Gustafson quotes me when Sir Robert left Parliament, and I don’t think I’d change a word of it a decade later:
He provoked in the electorate almost equal measures of blind rage and unquestioning adoration. Rob’s Mob was no figment of his imagination, but a considerable slice of the electorate for whom he embodied an assurance that it was all right to feel as they did, and that he would keep the world the way that they wanted it.
The trouble with trying to keep New Zealand the way they wanted it, and the way he remembered it in the 1950s and ’60s – equal opportunity, minimal wealth disparity, full employment – was that the world had moved on. Britain had joined Europe, so New Zealand had to diversify its markets; the price of oil had risen and the terms of trade shifted against us; international capital flows made fortress New Zealand ever more costly to prop up.
He borrowed, he blustered, he had mini-budgets, he threatened the banks and finance houses with draconian regulations if they didn’t lower interest rates, and in a final effort to turn the tide he imposed a wage-price freeze. No wonder cartoonists began to depict him as King Canute.
Muldoon’s departures from economic orthodoxy are probably what loom most vividly in the memories of the business community and Wellington’s chattering classes. I suspect, however, that in the memories of others who were less policy-obsessed, events such as the Moyle Affair, the Springbok Tour, and the saga of Think Big would come more readily to mind. Gustafson treats all of these tumultuous political happenings in appropriate detail and they make compelling reading. Muldoon revelled in the cut and thrust of debate both inside and outside the House, and it was not really until Lange came on the scene that he met his match.
Once he fell from power, not only the incoming Labour Government but his erstwhile colleagues scapegoated him for all that had happened during National’s reign. Patrick Millen, Secretary to the Cabinet, was astonished after 1984 to hear former Cabinet ministers say how much they had disagreed with what Muldoon had done: “He could not recall most of them saying anything at all at cabinet and cabinet committee meetings he attended and recorded between 1975 and 1984.” In their own defence they might cite fear of his abrasiveness, or inadequate information – as Minister of Finance he controlled access to Treasury papers – but in the final analysis ours is a Cabinet system of government, and the doctrine of collective responsibility lies at its heart. If Muldoon was as out-of-order as some of his erstwhile colleagues would now have us believe, then they must accept their share of the blame.
Gustafson’s account of the calling of the snap election reads as tragic farce. I think that putting the verbal recollections of an obviously distraught Marilyn Waring in quotation marks (even when preceded by an accuracy disclaimer) is a lapse in taste and judgement. That said, the whole account is a reminder of how weary not only Muldoon but the whole government had become. The gladiatorial shenanigans in the House seem collectively to have deranged them. From the outside it appeared that Muldoon had unilaterally decided to go to the Governor-General on the evening of 14 June to recommend the dissolution of Parliament and the holding of a snap election. In fact, a caucus meeting was held at 10.30 pm, where Muldoon “put the matter to them very fairly” and asked: “Is there any member of caucus who would counsel against this?” There was a long silence. Sue Wood, the party’s President, expressed surprise that no-one had spoken against it, but still no-one did. The rest is history, but let no member of that caucus claim that Muldoon single-handedly decided to pull the temple down around them.
This is a big book in every sense. It is based on a huge volume of documents, and a wide range of interviews with participants and observers. During his time in power, and afterwards, Muldoon was the subject of unprecedentedly vituperative commentary and assessment. I think Gustafson has attempted to right the balance, and set the record straight where it was crooked. That said, it is not a eulogy. Gustafson acknowledges that Muldoon was no saint: that his combativeness could become aggression, that his intelligence could be applied brutally, and that he had contempt for many self-appointed elites. He was also a passionate nationalist and egalitarian, who, though he belonged to the party of free enterprise, nevertheless thought it the job of government to buffer its weakest citizens from life’s traumas. He and his generation were shaped by the Depression and the Second World War. He believed he had fought that war, and he certainly fought all his political life, to preserve a New Zealand where individual rights were balanced by collective responsibilities, and where taxes funded schools, hospitals, a secure old age, and benefits in times of misfortune.
Barry Gustafson has, I think, got the balance just about right. Muldoon and the historical record have been well served by him. There remains, however, a sadness. I think my late, lovely colleague John Roberts put it best in one of The Roberts Reports he did for the Concert Programme: “A regret persists. The man had such abilities. It is our tragedy that he never found the way to put them to best use.”
Margaret Clark is Professor in Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington.