Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

His Way: A Biography of Robert Muldoon

Barry Gustafson, Auckland University Press, 2000.

Reviewed by Michael Bassett

None of our political leaders has provoked the range of emotions that are still felt about Robert Muldoon; everything from fear and loathing to respect and admiration, though not love. Some compared him with Mussolini, Hitler and Nixon, others with Churchill. Those with an interest in political economy still regard his years as prime minister (1975-1984) as the period when a large hole was dug for New Zealanders from which we are still clambering. Some of Muldoon's life story is well-known. After all, he immodestly produced four volumes of autobiography. Nevertheless, Barry Gustafson's biography of this multi-faceted man has been long awaited. All who read it will learn new bits about him, and are likely to be intrigued by some of the stories and the gossip that swirled around him. There are some fine descriptions of Muldoon speaking. There's good inside material, too, about the coup against Jack Marshall in 1974, the Moyle Affair, the Colonels' Coup in 1980, Muldoon's odd flirtation with the Black Power gang, and the snap election. Whether at the end readers are much wiser about how such a clever man got the country into an economic mess, and why he was so slow to appreciate the likely long-term effects of his ad hoc decisions, is doubtful.

Gustafson draws on the contents of Muldoon's safe, and a great deal of interview material, although a much smaller range of official documents and newspapers. He has put together a lengthy story about the small, shy Mt Albert boy with a fierce intelligence and a not inconsiderable social conscience who counter-punched his way to the top of the National Party. It claimed to favour free enterprise, but usually rolled over and let him have his way. Yet, oddly, he remained an outsider. Ability, skill with words and sheer hard slog took him into Parliament, then eventually into Holyoake's cabinet as Minister of Finance from 1967-72. Holyoake's patronage helped him to the leadership in 1974. Then luck played a part in opening the door to the Prime Minister's office when Norman Kirk died - a highly significant milestone for Muldoon about which Gustafson, surprisingly, has little to say.

The author sometimes seems uneasy with Muldoon. Gustafson spent most of his political life in opposition to his subject, then, after joining National, found himself the favoured biographer when Muldoon's career was nearly over. Gustafson came to admire his subject who, along with his wife Thea (she emerges with great credit) became personal friends. At one point Gustafson observes that biographers can be "inhibited by sensitivity to the feelings of surviving relatives". It's a safe bet that this book is not the last word on Muldoon. Even Gustafson might have more to say later. But he is critical. In a long, sometimes repetitive introduction he labels Muldoon a "pragmatic stabiliser", a populist conservative, who could be abrasive, brutal and insensitive. As with Spiro Zavos' earlier biography, there's a bit of unflattering pop psychology to boot.

However, for this reader there was a vague feeling of dissatisfaction at the end. It's not just that the balance of the book sometimes seems odd; there is much on Matai Industries and little on Vietnam, the political touchstone for a generation. Questions such as whether a draft budget existed in 1984 are raised, but not answered. The real problem is that this is a two-dimensional study of our most three-dimensional politician since Seddon. What Muldoon was trying to do with the economy is not adequately explained. Prior to 1984 New Zealand had four ministers of finance of real significance. Vogel and Ward spent on infrastructure; Nash on social engineering. Muldoon's superhuman attempts to keep every element of the welfare state functional with subsidies, SMPs and Think Big made him truly heroic. How did he justify his activism at a time when conventional wisdom around the world was moving in the opposite direction? Gustafson, like so many historians these days, seems more interested in the distribution of wealth, than its creation. He shares the vaguely fashionable idea that debate about wealth creation is unnecessary. But Muldoon twice wrestled with recession, first between 1967-72, and then as Prime Minister and Minister of Finance 1975-84. He should, at least by his second term, have understood all the characteristics of the economy, and have realised why he was between a rock and a hard place. In reality, as the economic historian Gary Hawke has observed, Muldoon was little more than "an inveterate meddler, an overconfident, self-proclaimed economic manager" who was "clever but undisciplined; he thought of the balance of payments today, the fiscal deficit tomorrow, but never seemed capable of balancing all the relevant factors at the same time. He had the misfortune to be in office at a time when this mattered." Anyone looking for an explanation for such a shrewd observation in this otherwise very readable book, might be disappointed. Was it something to do with inadequate training as an accountant? After all, much of Muldoon's study was at night school or by correspondence. Or was it some other cognitive short-coming that meant he was unable ever to see the economy in its totality, and refused the advice of the growing number of officials who could? The nearest Gustafson gets is to say at the end that Muldoon was a nostalgic creature of an earlier generation. Is this good enough?

His Way is a handsome hardback, with good illustrations. There are a few mistakes with dates, facts, names and initials, and the story about the devaluation crisis in 1984 doesn't entirely ring true. Yet the overall feeling I have is that His Way is a valuable addition to the relatively small number of works on New Zealand political history.

* This review was published in the Dominion, 21 August 2000.