Meet the monsters, Tony Simpson

Three Labour Leaders: Nordmeyer, Kirk, Rowling 
ed Margaret Clark
Dunmore Press, $29.95,
ISBN 086469394X

Mirrors on the Hill: Reflections on New Zealand’s Political Leaders 
Keith Eunson
Dunmore Press, $29.95,
ISBN 086469385

To the uninitiated, looking in askance from without, politics must often seem like a cross between a zoo and a snake-pit. This perception is assiduously cultivated by the media in their perennial hunt for sensation. The reality is rather more complex when observed from within and over the longer term. As someone once sagely remarked, politics is, in truth, not unlike the Whanganui River: at every bend one encounters a taniwha. Among the more intriguing of these monsters are those whom fate has chosen to lead us. These two books deal, from different perspectives, with some of the monsters in question.


The first is the outcome of the seminar held by the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University, in 1999, which explored facets of the leadership of the Labour leaders Arnold Nordmeyer, Norman Kirk and Wallace (Bill) Rowling. This was the third of a series of such seminars, the two earlier of which had dealt with Peter Fraser and Keith Holyoake. They combined the presentations of academics, retired and current politicians who had known the leaders in question, and their contemporary senior public servants. The result was fascinating and rounded pictures of their subjects. All have subsequently been issued as published proceedings. The Fraser and Holyoake books were more focused because they had only one subject. This particular work is necessarily more diffuse, but the sequential continuity of the three men all holding the same post as leader of the Labour Party binds it together. Professor Clark has also done an excellent job of editing.

The pictures of the three that emerge may surprise some readers who have been raised on the political caricatures of them that have embedded themselves in the national mythology. Nordmeyer, for example, is remembered mainly for his “black” budget of 1958 and the outrage it caused among Labour’s traditional supporters when it raised the excise and other taxes on such items as liquor and tobacco – although one is bound to remark that in retrospect the increases look paltry and that the fuss seems wholly disproportionate. It has nevertheless served to obscure the very strong contribution that Nordmeyer made to the creation of the welfare state in this country in the 1930s, and, to a degree, the astonishing longevity of a political career that extended over more than four decades and included the Depression and World War 2 as well as the post-war economic changes that have carried us into the 21st century. During these events, Nordmeyer held some very senior political positions, and it was appropriate that his role should be re-assessed. He emerges as a much more attractive figure than his opponents have painted him, and not at all the puritan wowser of popular memory.

I didn’t know Nordie (as he was widely called) but I did know both Kirk and Rowling quite well. I was certainly involved with both in the Labour Party when I was a student, Kirk in particular, because he was at that time consolidating his position in Christchurch as a prelude to his successful bid for the Labour leadership. There has been a bit of a tendency since to turn him into a plaster saint, and it’s undoubtedly true that his untimely death in office cut short a line of political advance that would have coped much more successfully with the changes New Zealand was undergoing than the subsequent and ultimately futile efforts of Robert Muldoon. There would quite possibly also have never been any “Rogernomics” had Kirk lived and completed more than one term as Prime Minister, an outcome also on the cards.

But Kirk was at the same time a ruthless machine politician who dealt mercilessly with those who opposed him. Much more so, in my estimation, than Muldoon; the latter feared Kirk as he feared few others, and with reason. Neither took any prisoners but Kirk butchered his more quickly and efficiently. In one of the more interesting contributions, dealing with Kirk’s foreign policy stances on such matters as apartheid and nuclear weapons, Malcolm Templeton, who served Kirk as a foreign affairs advisor, draws attention to Kirk’s conservatism and his tendency to secretiveness and paranoia, particularly as his illness took hold. But he also quite rightly gives Kirk full due for his remarkably imaginative grasp of situations and his capacity for finding unorthodox but pragmatic and strategic solutions to problems. I would endorse that absolutely and add that Kirk’s posthumous reputation as an anti-intellectual is entirely undeserved. It’s certainly true that he had no capacity for suffering fools gladly, and academia has more than its fair share of fools, so those within that sphere who felt his lash possibly mistook its nature. But I was in a very good position to see how Kirk responded to the world of ideas and I never saw him turn a good idea away.

Rowling, too, has suffered from being caricatured by his enemies. It says something about New Zealanders that this very civil and polite man could be consistently depicted as a mouse, constantly harried by and unable to deal with Muldoon, and that this travesty of reality should stick. Rowling had a steelier character than he has been given credit for and he was most certainly not afraid of his National counterpart. In fact, he often challenged Muldoon to public debate, but Muldoon always refused the challenges (for whatever reasons). It should also be recalled that over two elections – 1978 and 1981 – Rowling led a party that scored a higher proportion of the vote than Muldoon’s did, and it was the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system that delivered Muldoon up to us as Prime Minister, not any liking for him among the majority of voters. Rowling, an affable, honest, and humanitarian man, spoke more directly to the way New Zealanders saw themselves than a political street brawler like Muldoon ever could. That said, those who calculated that Labour had a better chance of winning office with Lange as leader were probably right. But I think Labour would have won in 1984 anyway, and it was our tragedy that “Rogernomics” probably wouldn’t have happened had Rowling been leader and Prime Minister.

A number of the contributors to this book – notably Barry Gustafson and Michael Cullen – also draw attention to the significance of the backdrop against which all three leaders had to perform. Since the mid-1950s, New Zealand has had to make its own way as a small and highly vulnerable agricultural trading economy in a world that owes us no favours or a living. All three of these men had to come directly to terms with that fact, in one case as Minister of Finance, in another as Prime Minister, and in the case of Rowling through both offices. Each made a much better fist of it, in my estimation, than either Muldoon – who seems in retrospect simply to have engaged in political Micawberism; ie, hoping that something would turn up and kicking for touch in the meantime – or the subsequent governments from 1984 to 1999 – which were in many ways spectacular failures in dealing with our real problems.

This book and its two predecessors have filled important gaps in the narratives of our political history in ways that more than justify the existence of the Stout Centre. One shudders to recollect that only last year there were serious moves afoot to effectively close the Centre down. We need to be alert to the fact that those who would like to do so have not given up on that agenda. They must not be allowed to. No-one outside the Stout is doing this sort of work, and it needs to continue.


Keith Eunson’s book is rather a different beast, as well it might be because it is written from an entirely different perspective. Eunson was a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery for many years, contributed widely to a range of publications both here and internationally for half a century, and was latterly editor of the Otago Daily Times. Consequently, in giving us political portraits of twelve Prime Ministers from Peter Fraser to Jim Bolger plus Arnold Nordmeyer (once wittily described as the best Prime Minister we never had), he might reasonably be expected to know whereof he speaks. In his piece on David Lange, he approvingly quotes an unsourced commentator on Disraeli as saying that he was a man about whom there would always be something new to say. That might be true of any politician, and some of the more significant leaders covered in this book have yet to find a definitive biographer, Norman Kirk for example; and so potted versions of their lives might be accounted useful. (Others, on the other hand, such as the ineffably ghastly Sid Holland, probably shouldn’t be the subject of a biography at all and are better forgotten.)

However, although I don’t want to be unduly critical, I began to wonder, as I read through this book, why Eunson had written it at all and why Dunmore had published it, especially as much of its ground has been covered, and much better, by, for example, Leslie Hobbs in The Thirty Year Wonders. Eunson’s book tells us nothing new that we need to know, and much that we don’t. It also does so at inordinate length, repeating itself, returning to the same incidents, sometimes to the self-same clichéd phrases, several times in the course of each chapter. It reads very much as a first draft that has been banged out on a word processor off the top of the writer’s head and has got into print by mistake.

It also represents one of the worst pieces of book editing I have ever encountered, to the extent that I had to remind myself that this was a book issued by a respectable mainstream publisher with a very good reputation and one, moreover, which published the other book under review here to impeccable academic standards. There are whole sentences that don’t make sense as English (there’s a particularly bad example near the top of p179), and other obvious howlers have simply not been corrected. Thomas Jefferson was not President of the United States from 1901 to 1909, for instance (p58). I rather got the feeling that the text had not been proofread at all. This is simply not acceptable from someone who has been the editor of one of our major daily newspapers (although it does explain why sub-editors had to be invented).

Finally, there are neither reference notes, nor an index, and so the book is not much use even as a reference source, let alone for hard information. The Dunmore Press gets full marks from me for publishing the first book reviewed here, but none at all for the shoddy second.


Tony Simpson is a Wellington social historian and writer.


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