Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Sir Keith Holyoake

Towards a Political Biography, Edited by Margaret Clark, Dunmore Press, 1997.

Reviewed by Michael Bassett

On one occasion in 1975 a reminiscing Sir Keith Holyoake, soon to retire from Parliament, began a sentence: "When I became Deputy Prime Minister in 1949...." There was a cheeky interjection from the 26 year-old Labour MP, Mike Moore: "A good year for babies!". It was one of those rites of passage: Holyoake himself had been Parliament's youngest MP when elected in the Motueka by-election in December 1932 a few weeks after the sitting MP poisoned himself on Makara Beach. Holyoake was being cheeked by a successor to that position. A parliamentary career that lasted slightly more than 39 years, making Sir Keith the second longest serving MP in our history, including nearly 12 years as Prime Minister, was drawing to a close, to be capped off with three years as Governor General. A remarkable career by any standards, anywhere. And yet there is still no biography of the man.

This, sadly, tells us more about professional historians than it does about Sir Keith. In these politically correct times many seem more interested in flummery than the things, or people, who have influenced our lives. And Holyoake certainly did that. A loyal supporter of Gordon Coates during the darkest days of the depression, he nonetheless was a major player in governments of the fifties and sixties that rapidly expanded State spending, reviewed and revised social welfare, committed (however reluctantly) New Zealand to the Vietnam war, and re-focussed New Zealand's world view from Great Britain to the United States and Australia. The Stout Centre and the Association of Former MPs deserve our thanks for last year's conference that discussed the significance of Sir Keith's life, and Margaret Clark for gathering together some of the material from it in this small book.

The sixties, when Holyoake was at the top, are best remembered for his consensus style; in practice it meant there were leaders and the led. "Breathe through your nose", he would tell the new intake of MPs, meaning "Leave the decisions to Cabinet". The public tolerated it, failing to realise that the sands were shifting beneath the monolithic state that had been growing since the 1930s. Holyoake's simpler, cleaner, less formal society, had nostalgic appeal. A Prime Minister who answered his own telephone, often walked to his rather shabby office, who was seen at his Taupo bach up a ladder, his trousers held up with twine, would no doubt have appealed to Rodney Hide. There is, however, a story in the book about the PM's speeding ticket being torn up under his nose by his indulgent Minister of Transport. These days such an act would be the cause for 100 parliamentary questions. Easier times, perhaps; but were they wasted years? Did Keith just preside over a world where one generation nibbled away at the inheritance of the next? This collection of essays provides a few clues, but much more work is required before Holyoake's career is brought fully into perspective.

* This review was published in the Dominion, 18 April 1997.