A fitting tribute, Jim Collinge

The Roberts Report
ed Margaret Clark
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 86473 383 6

In recent months, many of us in Wellington have made a number of mournful trips to Old St Pauls for the funerals of people whose deaths have left a huge gap in New Zealand’s cultural and intellectual life. I speak of David Hamer, John Mansfield Thomson, Lauris Edmond and John Roberts. This book is meant, in part, as a tribute to John Roberts by his long-term friend and colleague Margaret Clark. It is in two parts, the first being a number of reminiscences by family and friends and the second a selection of Roberts’ radio talks, The Roberts Report, which were delivered on Concert FM between 1990 and 1995.

The pieces in the first part present a picture of a man, large in frame and personality, with a vast range of interests and passions. Roberts was a Professor of Public Administration. His views in this area, according to John Martin in his article on Roberts’ contribution to the field, are not exactly the height of intellectual fashion in the 1990s. Public administration for Roberts was an aspect of the exercise of political power which could not be understood without an awareness of the context of history. It was not simply an exercise of generic management. The Roberts hallmark was “a concern for policy rationality directed to the public good but mindful of history and human frailty”.

It was because of this breadth of understanding of the public sector that Ian Johnstone saw him as a potent and effective watchdog of public broadcasting. Johnstone quotes from Roberts’ submission to a select committee: “We are concerned that the restoration of the portfolio of broadcasting inevitably involves some direct political control of the system and we are convinced that politicians cannot be trusted in this matter.”

Several of the tributes remark on Roberts’ generosity and fearlessness when a principle was involved, even when he disagreed profoundly with the other person’s position. A remarkable example is recounted by businessman Bob Jones, who was at the opposite end of the political spectrum to Roberts. Nevertheless, Roberts was prepared to appear as an expert witness on Jones’ behalf in a libel trial when other academics, although agreeing with Jones, refused their help. Jones pays tribute to Roberts’ courage and integrity in standing up for intellectual honesty against his peers.

The bulk of the book consists of a selection of 30 “Roberts Reports”, from a total of over 60. The editor, noting the “awesome breadth” of his interests and talents has excluded those concerned with the politics of the wider world, concentrating mainly on New Zealand issues and the arts.

Roberts had a passion for all the arts, although he was not himself a practitioner. Rather he was an amateur, in the sense of a lover, an enthusiast. One does not read him on Mozart for any new scholarly insights, but rather for the musings of one who adores the music and wishes to share his love with others.

Although he viewed predictions, particularly political ones, as having a short shelf-life, he did not hesitate to put forward a few himself. In “Premonitions about Te Papa” he assumes that the pre-eminence of the Auckland City Art Gallery in the visual arts will no longer prevail once Te Papa is opened. He must have been sorely disappointed.

For Roberts, art was a “reasonable indication of a civilized society in action”. I well remember hearing his talk on “The Consolation of the Novel”. Here again his approach is not that of the literary critic, but rather the kind of intelligent and thoughtful reader that George Eliot and Trollope might have hoped for. The word “consolation” here is a curious yet apt one, indicating that the reader turns to novels not only for enjoyment and an understanding of the human condition, but for a reassurance that, at times when the species behaves with a kind of collective death wish, the arts, in this case the novel, provide relief for despair.

Another passion was for the outdoors. Roberts was a keen tramper and accomplished sailor. His piece on the America’s Cup is a refreshing antidote to all the jingoistic hype we have recently been subjected to. He would have made an admirable sports writer. A nostalgic account of holidays in his beloved Marlborough Sounds leads on to a reflection on the fact that, despite golden memories of summer vacations, nothing is safe and stable. In any political conflict between economics and environmental objectives, the claims of economic development stand higher. The problems of protection of the environment, he realised, were too complex “for one small brain to uncover in 25 minutes of idiosyncratic chat”, but nevertheless he had a go. His solutions included such potentially unpopular ideas as limiting entry to National Parks, as well as modest charges and the provision of only rudimentary services.

Essays on broadly political themes inevitably dominate the book. Here there are some surprising opinions expressed. A lot of the blame for our present political woes is laid at the feet of Norman Kirk, although, given the state of Kirk’s health, Roberts admits that this is unfair. Nevertheless, policies which left the Labour Government unprepared to cope with accelerating inflation led, in his view, to the catastrophic defeat of 1975 and the destruction of what was left of the Savage/Fraser tradition.

Roberts obviously detested Sir Robert Muldoon and everything he stood for. Under Muldoon, he believed, politics became “unpleasant, confrontational and eventually incapable of compromise”. Nevertheless, Roberts expresses a great deal of admiration for Muldoon, for his personal integrity, and for his clear economical prose. Muldoon, he believed, was an efficient manager of the political process and a clear communicator of government policy. These are not small virtues.

John Roberts was a fine essayist. His prose has a distinctive and individual voice, his range of interests was phenomenal and he never hesitated to express a personal viewpoint, even when he knew he was not an expert. If there is a constant theme which runs through these consistently enjoyable pieces it is an overwhelming love and respect for “the diversity and the singularity of the human psyche”. This beautifully produced book is a fitting legacy.

Jim Collinge teaches in the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington.

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