Absolutely positive it’s dead? Tim Hazledine

Muldoon Revisited
ed Margaret Clark
Dunmore Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864694652

What were you doing the day Robert Muldoon died? I was in Auckland, very recently returned to this country after 20 years overseas. I watched the coverage of the death and life on the six o’clock news. Several people who had known the man gave their views and recollections. One of them was quite funny. Then I went to dinner with friends. Amazingly – this didn’t happen in Canada – we were soon joined, hot from the studio, by one of the commentators I had seen on the news – the funny one. He and others then regaled the party for the rest of the evening with hair-raising stories about Muldoon, the likes of which I had certainly not heard on the television. I can’t remember them all, but they mostly dealt with what Private Eye used to call “discussions on Ugandan matters”, often carried out in a “tired and emotional state”.

Well, there’s no sex and not even much drinking in this book of memories and assessments of the late prime minister. Quite right too, I suppose. Yet there‘s not much muckraking at all, and perhaps there really are things we could and should be told, now 12 years after Muldoon’s death. In his otherwise equable “Afterword” to this book, Muldoon’s biographer Barry Gustafson criticises the “incomprehensible” lack of comment from contemporary journalists. These are the fine fellows who failed to show any solidarity when Muldoon tried to ban Tom Scott from press conferences and ostracise the television journalists Ian Fraser and Simon Walker. Perhaps they are “still cowed beyond the grave”.

Here one thinks of the marvellous Scott cartoon reproduced by Gustafson in the  biography His Way. The Jims McLay and Bolger, who had just rolled Muldoon as party leader, are standing on a animal skin rug in a room with a still-smoking shotgun hanging on the wall. The head of the rug is Muldoon’s head. Bolger asks McLay, “Are you absolutely positive it’s dead?”

Muldoon, clearly, was a bully. But bullies can be stood up to. A young woman, Marilyn Waring, stood up to him and precipitated his by then inevitable downfall in 1984. It is a great pity that Waring is not a contributor to Muldoon Revisited. Nevertheless, it is clear from those who do appear here that standing up to Muldoon in his prime took guts. Again, an illustration from His Way is worth a lot of words. A remarkable photo from the Dominion shows Muldoon shaking hands with union leader Ken Douglas after some failed negotiations. Muldoon is gimlet-eyed and menacing; absolutely master of himself and the situation. Douglas, despite his clenched jaw, looks totally devastated; perhaps even, terrified.

Muldoon Revisited is a collection of essays and speeches, most from a conference held in Wellington in 2002, and edited by Margaret Clark, who is identified at the foot of her “Foreword” as Professor of Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington. I expect that most readers will know this, as do I, but Clark is the only contributor identified by any details other than their name. This is surprising, as the book has an index and is otherwise quite well produced. Possibly just about everybody knows who everybody else is – this is New Zealand – but, not having lived through all these events, I am slightly awkwardly placed as a reviewer by being in the dark about why some of the people appearing in the book were chosen.

One of these is Jon Johansson, who contributes a chapter on “Muldoon and Character”. Gustafson in his “Afterword” helpfully identifies Dr Johansson as a political psychologist. His thesis – which Gustafson broadly supports – relates Muldoon the père (and premier) to Muldoon fils; in particular to the boy’s horrible experience of losing at the age of eight his syphilitic father to the asylum; thereafter to be brought up by two kind and doting women, his mother and grandmother; all leading to a “basic schism” in adulthood between “Rob” the strong leader and “Bob” the private bloke behind the public mask.

Johansson surprised me with the information that Gustafson and others link Muldoon’s personality to that of Richard Nixon (Johansson prefers to put forward the name of Lyndon Johnson). Surely not. For one thing, Nixon (and Johnson) were crooks. For another  (as we all agree) Muldoon really was not driven by blind ambition and love of power for its own sake. Instead, he saw himself – as Bill English (a name I do recognise) aptly puts it – as the one who protected the many from the special interests and machinations of the few.

Isn’t the 20th century leader whose name most readily comes to mind Mussolini? Here is all the apparatus of corporatism, of top-down planning in the name of ordinary people. Muldoon even looked a bit like Mussolini. Not that physiognomy is reliable: Muldoon looks even more like his biographer Barry Gustafson, who is an infinitely nicer person. Perhaps in this connection I can note that the photos of Muldoon that Gustafson chose to illustrate His Way show a man, especially in his 1970s heyday, who looks rather good – even at times quite handsome.

Another academic contribution is from the political scientists Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts, who compare Muldoon’s relationships with the media with that of various prime ministers, even producing numerical measures, I know not how. For example, Muldoon and Helen Clark each score  +9 on “ability to communicate via the News Media”, just behind Muldoon’s nemesis David Lange. Bill Rowling is bottom, with –8.5, and Geoffrey Palmer (unkindly described elsewhere as “having a great face for radio”) and Keith Holyoake manage only –7s.

As a quant myself I quite like this sort of thing, but my faith in Levine’s and Robert’s numeracy was shaken by the following: “Holyoake stepped down as PM on 12 December 1957. Three years later to the day – on 27 December 1960 – he became Prime Minister for the second time.”

Moving on, my favourite chapter in Muldoon Revisited – and one of the best written – is by Gerald Hensley, who contributes (as do three others) on “Muldoon and the World”. Muldoon was generally happy in foreign parts, did well there, and was well thought of. Hensley has some good stories to tell, including how Muldoon took up nearly a day of the time of President Reagan and his top advisors lobbying against duties on our casein exports. He got what he wanted, too. In this section Doug Anthony also contributes an interesting though very brief memoir of dealing with Muldoon (over CER) from the Australian side of the Tasman.

Much weightier is the intervention of Geoffrey Palmer on “Muldoon and the Constitution”. Sir Geoffrey, who is not afraid to seem pompous, criticises Gustafson’s book -– “in many ways a useful work and the product of much industry” – for its (partial) neglect of his own hobby-horse, the New Zealand Constitution (one of which, of course, we don’t have). Gustafson, from his advantaged position at the end of the book, takes this in good part, but firmly states that  Palmer’s “encyclopaedic” paper “goes into more detail than one would include in a biography”.

Anyway, we have it now, and also other useful and interesting contributions on the Muldoon life and legacy, from which I single out the chapters by Ian Grant (on the cartoons), Richard Prebble, Noel Lough, Graham Scott and, especially, Muldoon’s despised but apparently indispensable cabinet colleague George Gair, from whom, Gustafson says, an autobiography would be welcome. I agree.

There is truly a lot to be said about the late Sir Robert Muldoon, much of it on the negative side of the ledger, including especially that the failure of his wilful economic programme paved the way for the equally damaging interventions of the equally dogmatic and domineering Roger Douglas. But let us leave him (almost) the last word, as do Levine and Roberts, from the man’s own very last words to the New Zealand Parliament, on 17 December 1991:

There was a lady walking down the pavement and as we passed she stopped and she said: “I know you, don’t I?” I said: “I don’t know, you might.” She said: “ I come from Tauranga and I’m a nurse.” I said: “Well, I’ve been to Tauranga a few times and I don’t know any nurses.” I thought: “I’ll put her out of her misery.” I said: “My name’s Muldoon.” She said: “You’re not related to that bastard in Parliament, are you?” And on that salutary note Mr Speaker, I say goodbye.


Rob Muldoon was a bastard all right, but he was our bastard.


Tim Hazledine is Professor of Economics at the University of Auckland.


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