NZ book month -18 and 19 – Barry Gustafson on Muldoon and Holyoake


I am going to shamelessly cram a couple of extra books in today because I am so far behind the pledge to do a book a day.

As well as the earlier post, here are two offerings from New Zealand’s best political biographer.
Barry Gustafson has done a great deal to correct the tendency, very noticable when I began taking an interest in NZ politics as a teenager, for most academics to concentrate on writing about left-wing politicians.
He is also thorough and fair. I am something of a political biography junkie, and I think ‘His Way’ – the biography of Sir Robert Muldoon – is the best local political bio I have read.
I do think Gustafson is a little too gentle on Muldoon. But that is a matter of interpretation. One soon learns, in reading about politics, to skirt past a writer’s own interpretation and concentrate on the raw information being presented.
And there is plenty of that in ‘His Way’. The stories of the internal machinations of National’s caucus, from the mid-to-late 1960s, though to Muldoon’s demise in 1984, include a lot of previously unavailable information.
The only other quibble – and this probably reflects my own pre-occupations – is Gustafson does not put quite as much emphasis on economic issues as I would like.
Muldoon came and spoke at an Auckland University Political Studies class, of which I was a member, in 1989 and was asked what his biggest mistake was.
He said he thought his biggest error was not realising the economic downturn New Zealand found ourselves in from the late 1960s was a major economic shift. They assumed it was simply another cyclical downturn, and reacted accordingly – i.e. with Keynsian pump-priming.
Gustafson – who, from memory, co-ordinated that university course – was in the middle of interviewing Muldoon at the time and similar comments are included.
There is an overlap with the Holyoake book. Muldoon was very much Holyoake’s apprentice and the period 1966-75 was, in different ways, a vital part of both men’s lives.
The most intriguing earlier part of the Holyoake book is the demonstration of how distrusted Holyoake was by National’s more business-oriented wing. There was a concerted bid to get dump Holyoake when National was in opposition between 1957-60, a move driven by Auckland business. The book shows National’s business wing was never very happy with Holyoake.
Again, it is intriguing how Labour’s internal politics was much written about from the 1950s through to the present day, but National’s were completely unrecorded, until these books.
In their different ways, they show a very different New Zealand to the one we live in now.
Holyoake was notoriously heavy-footed when he got behind the wheel of a car and collected a number of speeding tickets. There is an incident where the then Transport Minsiter, Peter Gordon, marched into Holyoake’s office with a wad of tickets, ripped them up in front of Holyoake and told him to ease up on the accelerator pedal.
No PM today would get away with that without it being made public.
Then again, Holyoake was incredibly stingy when it came to spending on his own or his ministers’ comforts. He refused to commission what became the Beehive, and the curtains in his office were literally rotting because he refused to have them replaced.
There is also a nice comment about Holyoake’s greatest hardship when he became governor-general – the long lunches. Since growing up on a farm he’d taken the attitude that lunch took seven minutes, maximum, to eat, before getting back to work. He’d taken the same approach as PM, apparently.
For anyone with an interest in New Zealand politics, these books are essential reading. And Gustafson deserves a knighthood, in my opinion, for his work.

3 thoughts on “NZ book month -18 and 19 – Barry Gustafson on Muldoon and Holyoake

  1. Bob, you should spend a few days with Peter Tapsell at his farm in Ruatoria. He has many unknown but great stories about Muldoon. Peter just turned 80, so no time like the present.

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