RIGHT-WING REVISIONISM is on a roll! As if John Roughan’s economic caricature of 1970s New Zealand in last Saturday’s Herald wasn’t outrageous enough, the Listener’s Jane Clifton has used her latest politics column to re-write the history of Tiwai Point.
According to Ms Clifton, the aluminium smelter and its hydro-electric power supply were both inflicted on us by Sir Robert Muldoon.
“Up on a fluffy cloud, tending his intemporal (sic) lilies, a certain portly former Prime Minister will be dimpling up with merriment over his legacy”
And what legacy might that be? Ms Clifton does not keep us in suspense.
“Think Big, which veered between turning this country into an industrial behemoth and a white elephant theme park, before petering to a limp somewhere between the two, is still very much with us.”
In Ms Clifton’s version of recent New Zealand history, Tiwai Point stands as “one of Think Big’s biggest thinks”.
It’s a bold claim. Especially when one considers that the National Party’s ambitious plans for large-scale industrial development and making New Zealand self-sufficient in energy: the programme popularly referred to as “Think Big”; constituted the Muldoon Government’s key re-election strategy in 1981.
But The Tiwai Point smelter : “one of Think Big’s biggest thinks”; had started producing aluminium ingots a whole ten years earlier, in 1971 – the same year the Manapouri power station started generating electricity.
Unless we’re including time travel among the many dark arts attributed to Sir Robert Muldoon, neither Tiwai Point nor Manapouri could possibly have been part of “Think Big”.
Ms Clifton’s blithe disregard for simple chronology is further evidenced in her statement that: “Five decades on from when Tiwai Point was just a twitch in Rob Muldoon’s dimple, much has changed.”
Putting to one side for a moment the fact that Sir Robert Muldoon had nothing to do with the construction of either Tiwai or Manapouri, let us see where going back five decades takes us.
In 1963, the plans for a smelter and a hydro-electric scheme to power it, were just three years old. They had emerged in the final months of the historically ill-served Second Labour Government (1957-1960).
One of the most interesting figures in that Government was Phil Holloway, the Minister of Industries and Commerce. Advised by the legendary economic nationalist, Bill Sutch, Holloway and Labour’s Finance Minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, convinced their Cabinet colleagues that the only way to preserve full employment (and the prosperity it underpinned) involved a dramatic diversification of New Zealand’s economy.
Industrialisation – powered by New Zealand’s abundant hydro-electricity – was seen as the key to moving the economy away from its reliance of butter, cheese, meat and wool. In addition to aluminium extrusion at Bluff, Labour’s industrialisation programme called for an iron-sands based New Zealand steel industry; an oil refinery at Marsden Point, and the creation of carpet-making and glass industries. Nordmeyer and Holloway also proposed the construction of a large cotton mill in Nelson.
Although they never went by that name, the plans which emerged from Labour’s Industrial Development Conference of 1960 were the real “Think Big”. And the reason Rob Muldoon had nothing whatsoever to do with them is because he wasn’t even in Parliament at that time.
R.D. Muldoon only became an MP in the General Election of 1960 – the election in which the Second Labour Government was defeated.
Jane Clifton should know all of this. Just as she should know that Rob Muldoon won his political spurs not by supporting Labour’s industrialisation policies but by opposing them.
The new National leader, Keith Holyoake, was disposed to proceed with the Nordmeyer-Holloway schemes, but Muldoon placed himself at the head of those forces in the National opposed to moving New Zealand out of its colonial dependence on the British market. The Nelson cotton mill, in particular, was denounced by the new MP for Tamaki and his fellow “Young Turks”. Holyoake buckled, and the contract for the mill’s construction, already signed, was abrogated and the British investors compensated.
Even so, it was five decades ago, in 1963, that National’s own Export Development Conference ended up confirming most of the conclusions arrived at by Labour’s planners three years earlier. 1963 was also the year that the National Government took over the smelter’s construction from Comalco (which had signed-up under Labour).
But, Ms Clifton is not in the least bit interested in either reminding old New Zealanders, or informing young ones, about the period in our recent past when there was a genuine, progressive, bi-partisan commitment to building a more diversified New Zealand economy – and with it a more independent nation. Ever since he unleashed it on us in the mid-1980s, The Listener’s political columnist has been a loyal camp follower of Sir Roger Douglas’s neoliberal blitzkrieg.
In her version of New Zealand’s recent past, Sir Robert Muldoon is, by turns, a figure of genuine authoritarian menace and retrograde economic dogma, or, a sort of dimpled imp, heh-heh-heh-ing out of New Zealand’s benighted Keynesian past.
The (true) story that Ms Clifton will not tell is the one in which Rob Muldoon, in 1981, and with a supremely ironic hat-tip to Bill Sutch (the man he’d accused of being a Soviet spy and helped drive to an early grave just six years earlier) shamelessly plagiarises Labour’s big thinking policies of 1957-60.
Nor will she reveal the even greater irony of the Labour Party from which those big thoughts were stolen, going into the 1984 General Election as their most vociferous critics. When David Lange warned New Zealand that “You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard!” – it was Muldoon’s “Think Big” projects that he was referencing.
Poor Ms Clifton. It’s all such a muddle. So much easier to mischievously conflate all that complex and fascinating history into one big raspberry to the whole notion of state-led industrial development. Certainly a lot easier than simply googling all these subjects and reading the Wikipedia entries.
And that’s a pity, really, because had she done so she’d have remembered that the aluminium smelter Rob Muldoon was touting in 1981 was the one planned not for Tiwai Point but for Aramoana – the pristine salt-marsh at the end not off Bluff, but Otago Harbour. And that the hydro-electric scheme supposed to power this second smelter was the one planned (and eventually built) at Clyde, on the Clutha River.
The only project involving the Tiwai Point smelter that was ever proposed by Rob Muldoon’s “Think Big” strategy was the one calling for the construction of a third reduction (“pot”) line.
I suppose, at a pinch, that could be called a “twitch in Rob Muldoon’s dimple”.