Striving for consensus, Gordon McLauchlan

Kiwi Keith: A Biography of Keith Holyoake 
Barry Gustafson 
Auckland University Press, $60.00, 
ISBN 9781869404000

I first met Keith Holyoake in 1943 in Pahiatua where my father was editor of the North Wairarapa Herald. In those days, even small country towns had their own daily newspapers. It was election night. I was 11 and allowed to stay up at the office to watch the results come in. Political philosophy was central to the lives of young and old then. Holyoake and his wife Norma eventually turned up just before I was too tired to care, except that I remember him as strangely remote even though he tousled my hair.

My father, like the majority of his generation, was politically Left of centre, which would make him very Left now that centre has been moved so far to the Right. They had been bruised by a war, the Depression and another war into wanting dramatic change of some sort. So he saw Holyoake as a defender of the world as it was. Thus his was a jaundiced view, further discoloured by the foppish manner and phoney southern English speech so alien to New Zealanders. My mother, who regarded politics as vaudevillean, thought Holyoake “puffed up”, but insisted Norma Holyoake was an agreeable woman, charming and compassionate. This was, and continued to be, the universal view of her.

Holyoake had had six years in Parliament as the member for Motueka and then lost to Labour’s soon-to-be Deputy Prime Minister, Jerry Skinner, in the second landslide Labour win in 1938. My last departure from Wellington College was in the back of Skinner’s ministerial car, alongside his son, my best mate Tony, giving royal salutes to schoolmates as we passed along the drive.

The next time I saw Holyoake was in the early 1950s. I was in the Press Gallery, reporting Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association when Parliament was still actually reported and not synthesised for impatient news consumers by young know-it-alls. Sidney Holland was Prime Minister, and Holyoake his deputy and Minister of Agriculture. Then, in the 1960s when Holyoake was Prime Minister, I worked in Wellington for the New Zealand Weekly News, the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture and, as required, the New Zealand Herald.

The three prime ministers during these years – Sidney Holland, Walter Nash and Keith Holyoake – all came from the same physical mould: average height or perhaps a shade below, heavyset, short-legged – what was once called “stout”. They also had in common no secondary schooling. But all similarity ended there.

Holland was a confident, cocky man, quick and deadly in debate. One night, when I was working for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, he arrived at the studios on The Terrace like a gust of wind to make an evening broadcast to the nation. He picked up a script and read it flawlessly, and when I remarked on this, the technician in charge said the two best sight-readers in the country were Selwyn Toogood and Sid Holland. But he was bumptious, full of himself, a shallow man, and you could detect, under the thin layer of bonhomie, the fascist inflexibility that drove his behaviour during the 1951 waterfront dispute.

Walter Nash was as subtle a fibber as I ever heard in action. He found truth in ambivalence, summed up by his neither-for-nor-against attitude towards the watersiders in 1951. I once followed him from meeting to meeting and at each he said essentially the same thing – except for a shift of meaning that brilliantly dissembled to seduce the particular audience. As he aged, Anglican lay-reader Nash became self-righteous to the edge of delusion and dithered and dithered, unable to trust anyone with decisions because they could not possibly conform to his own high standard of wisdom. When he spoke, it was a sermon from the fount.

Holyoake, though, was an enigma, a paradox, and thus a much more deeply interesting man than either of his predecessors. He would tilt his head back if you asked him something in a formal situation, and you felt he was looking down his nose at you as though from the top of a ski-jump. But sometimes I thought I detected a glint of irony. His natural manner was that of a fop – and yet no prime minister in my time managed to have as wide a range of easy-going personal contacts. He seemed aloof until you started to play cards with him, when he exuded good humour and a relaxed friendliness; or when he took the prime ministerial car out of his way to drop a messenger or cleaner off home late at night; or when he took you to the races because he had a spare seat in the car; or when he dropped in on the Chinese greengrocer some Friday mornings as he walked to work to discuss race prospects with his Best Bets.

Sadly, no one could do this now for security reasons but the important thing was they were personal gestures, not events manufactured by a public relations team for photo opportunities.

You had the sense that Holyoake was always in control, not by the kind of humbug put-downs Holland employed, nor by the pulverising of opponents in the manner of Muldoon, but by listening, considering, deciding firmly, conveying the powerful impression that no other decision would be possible among reasonable people, and moving on. Another technique was to keep things to himself, even from Cabinet, thus hugging power close to his chest.

Sometimes he seemed a parody of a prime minister; and then he would say in that pompous, absurd voice something so acute, so politically shrewd you were staggered because it was so unexpected. One of his secretaries told me, chuckling, what a powerful advantage he had over the majority of people who underrated him. In the House and at meetings, he sometimes seemed away with the fairies until you noticed, from some remark, that he was listening. He was in any situation an alert, attentive and patient listener.

So I picked up Barry Gustafson’s Kiwi Keith: A Biography, hoping for a full portrait of this extraordinary man. Was it the Government excesses of 1951 that drove him to strive always for his trademark consensus? Towards the end of his reign, Holyoake’s bids for consensus turned into a tendency to do nothing because if you do nothing you don’t make mistakes. He always publicly defended the 1951 tactics, but then he consistently publicly endorsed the US invasion of Vietnam while privately expressing dismay and fighting determinedly against his Cabinet hawks and his own officials to minimise New Zealand involvement. His letter to President Johnson, some of which Gustafson quotes, was a masterpiece of prescience.

These are some of the things I wanted to know about this complex man, and some light on the lacunae would have been gripping. I have no doubt there were shadows in the life of such a profoundly cunning political person. We know enough about the purchase and subdivision of Kinloch, on the shores of Lake Taupo, to sense he was a master at what was graft New Zealand-style – not passing money but heavy influence-peddling for financial and social gain. What of the strange persistence in using a shady figure to start negotiations with Communist China when normal diplomatic channels were available? And was there truth in the claims that he refused to accept, and was excused, dozens of traffic offence notices? Gustafson doesn’t attempt to fully investigate these matters.

What I found in this book was an excellent account of the current events that dominated our lives in the 50s and 60s, and how the governments dealt with them – a book I will keep on my shelves for its reference information. Gustafson mentions more than once the problem that Holyoake seldom wrote down what he was really thinking; but the biographer obviously read all the letters and papers, talked to many contemporaries, had access to material from a Stout Centre seminar devoted to the man; so, armed with all this information, and, presumably, illuminating anecdotes, why does he not hazard a full-blooded portrait of the man? Only when an old and sick Holyoake is stupidly made Governor-General does the author get close and personal.

One of the criticisms of contemporary biography and faction (the fictionalising of historical figures) is that writers take liberties far beyond what they may adduce from what they can know, that they subjectively assume too much. Gustafson has avoided that pitfall to our disadvantage. In Kiwi Keith: A Biography, he stays with the single dimension of what events transpired and how Holyoake responded to them. So we have a valuable historical narrative of two decades, but not the essence of the man who dominated them.


Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland writer.


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