Following Jane Clifton Down The Memory Hole

By   /   April 6, 2013  /   21 Comments

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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.


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”.

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  1. Sanctuary says:

    It really points to gross laziness on the part of a columnist who prefers to recite cant from memory than bother with an hour of research. After all, research might undermine the premise of her column, which means she then wouldn’t just be able to bang it out in a hour and would actually have to do some thinking.

    Jane Clifton is part of a hopelessly old and out of touch baby boomer 1980s/90s political establishment that just can’t let go, and won’t let go, even though they haven’t had a fresh idea for thirty years.

    • Matthew Hooton says:

      It doesn’t take an hour. More like 2 mins. I had a bit of fun with this on Nine to Noon on Tuesday: “On 19 January 1960, the Labour Government and Consolidated Zinc/Comalco signed a formal agreement for Consolidated Zinc to build both an aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point and a power station in Manapouri. The agreement violated the National Parks Act, which provided for formal protection of the Park, and required subsequent legislation to validate the development” from Allowed me to talk about Labour inventing Public Private Partnerships. Although, to be fair, I intuitively knew the timeline from having previously worked for the smelter.

      • Saarbo says:

        Matthew, you also stated on the same programme that we would lose 100% of the electricity in the transmission from Manapouri to the North Island. Patrick Strange on The Nation stated that lines are already setup to efficiently transmit this power.

        Charles Chauvel was right when he stated that our right wing biased MSM media are a real problem I guess.

  2. Ion A. Dowman says:

    Come on: Jane Clifton is a prime representative of the standard of journalism in this country: p!ss bl00dy ha@gg@rd. (Can I say that in this forum without the … erm … disguise?).

    It used to amuse me that the Fourth Labour, and Fourth National and National led governments achieved the bally near impossible: they made Muldoon’s mal-Administration look good. Well… sorta. The Fifth Labour (led) administration arrested the downhill slide, but back we are in a Neo-Liberal avalanche of incompetence and Neo-Classical economic sabotage and corruption.

    I recall that ‘Think Big’ (‘Growth strategy’ as Muldoon preferred to style it) met with a lot of resistance, for a lot of reasons. I don’t think anyone was particularly opposed to TB in principle, but the process seemed extraordinarily ham-fisted at the time. Good heavens, he put Bill Birch in charge – a man whom I liked to call ‘the Master of Disaster’ a position and nom-de-fou that looks as though is being inherited by Tony Ryall.

    Recall the side-lining of the MWD (Ministry of Works and Development) in favour of a private sector consortium associated with a Swiss company and a Christchurch businessman who seems to have been called more or less out of retirement – the whole got together ‘to lend verisimilitude to a bald and unconvincing narrative’ – that it was a private sector project.

    I do believe now (didn’t think of it then) that Muldoon might have been trying to attract high quality overseas investment into this country. By ‘high quality’, I mean investment that adds something new to the New Zealand economy, or at least adds value to what is already here. But I quite fail to understand, then,the motive behind factory and freezing works closures in small towns like Shannon, Mosgiel, Waitara, Patea, and others. Why on earth did he shove swingeing taxes upon the caravan construction, pretty much destroying overnight a homegrown industry?

    I sometimes wonder what might have happened had Rob Muldoon decided to turn left at the crossroads.

    • Draco T Bastard says:

      …but the process seemed extraordinarily ham-fisted at the time.

      I think the autocracy of Muldoon had a lot to do with that as well.

      Good heavens, he put Bill Birch in charge – a man whom I liked to call ‘the Master of Disaster’ a position and nom-de-fou that looks as though is being inherited by Tony Ryall.

      Grab any person from National and I think you’ll find that you’ll have a better than even chance of getting one of such incompetence. There’s a reason why they believe as they do – they’re stupid as shown by the research.

  3. Groucho Marxist says:

    Thanks for putting the history back into order. The rewriting of history by ( what can you call them? not really journalists or reporters) usually for political advantage is so Orwellian. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four” the Ministry of Truth did the same type of thing that had citizens doubting their own memory.

    The main white elephant was the ethanol plant that was set built in response to the fuel shocks of the 70s. It was regarded as a waste of money by the turn of the century and sold to private interests for a big loss.
    Too soon as it turned out with further fuel problems creating demand for biofuels. (Another privatisation misjudgement)

    Muldoon was not the fool that history has written. In my twenties I hated his style of leadership, many of his ideas, and the type of people he represented, but he wasn’t a stupid man.

    • Groucho Marxist says:

      edit – omit ‘set’

    • Ovicula says:

      Economically, Muldoon was probably left of anyone in the present Labour caucus. I hated him as well, but at least he thought about what his Kiwi voters wanted, not what Washington and Hollywood wanted. I can think of good things about Muldoon’s deeds. Thinking of anything good about the first ACT government is mostly beyond me.

  4. Phil Toms says:

    Excellent. Seems very popular to blame everything on Muldoon at the moment. I think it is deliberate misinformation, now that Rogernomics has tanked.

    • Draco T Bastard says:

      It’s not just that Rogernomics has tanked but that capitalism has tanked yet again.

    • Ion A. Dowman says:

      I go with Mr Bastard on this one. But for mine Rogernomics and Ruthenasia tanked a whole deal worse than Muldoon’s ‘mixed economy’ approach.

      I’ll tell you for why. Muldoon, I believe, was following the ideas of Matnard Keynes, which implied (more or less) some kind of symbiotic arrangement between State and Private economic sectors. How competently Muldoon achieved this, I’ll not discuss here.

      But the so-called policy of Roger ‘I’ve-Got_Milton-Friedman’s-Hand-Up-My-Bum’ Douglas and Ruth ‘Guess-Where-Milton-Friedman’s-Other-Hand-Is’ Richardson were ‘informed’ by Neo-Classical Economics in particular as she is spoke in the Chicago School of Economics. You would have thought that Milton Friedman – the global guru – might have harboured some doubts given that his programme could not be made good in places like Chile and Argentina and Brazil (etc) without beatings, rapes, murders, tortures and disappearances carried out by Government agencies. Not a bit of it. He lauded the courage – courage, forsooth! – of such governments in their perseverance in carrying out a difficult task.

      The core thrust of the programme? Privatize everything. The ‘Market’ is the most efficient means by which scarce resources get allocated and distributed to where they are needed. The ‘Market’ is self regulating. An ‘Invisible Hand’ (I’m not making this up) will make sure everyone gets a fair suck of the sav. The ‘Economy’ is always in equilibrium, or tending towards equilibrium. ‘Economic Man’ behaves always in a ‘rational’ manner, having perfect knowledge of the market (Look, they really do believe this!), not only in the present but in perpetuity. Blah, blah, blah.

      Oh, yes. The role of Debt is an economy is irrelevant. Seriously. The Global Financial Collapse of 2008? Couldn’t happen. Some Neo-Classicalists are starting to come out of the woodwork to say it didn’t happen.

      I would scarcely have believed sheer, utter, complete drivel could have been espoused by any academic discipline that calls itself ‘scientific.’ It was supported by practically no empirical evidence – yet there were plenty of evidences (as even a non-economist such as I could see) that contradicted Neo-Classical ‘Theory’ and contra-indicated the solutions enacted by Neo-Liberal followers of Neo-Classical economic advisers.

      But I long ago figured out why such a crack-potted load of clap-trap should be so beguiling to the ruling classes. It is my belief they never believed a word of it. They could see that it was licence to loot the Common Weal, and they went for it.

      Probably the worst thing Rob Muldoon did, was to leave this country open to the kleptocratic idiotocracies that followed him. At least David Lange tried to arrest the rot, and Michael Cullen brought back a bit of Keynesianism to the New Zealand economy. But the damage wrought is still with us, and this National Administration is hell bent on wreaking more, for the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many.

  5. JeanetteE says:

    I think you are too hard on Jane Clifton. I find her columns very entertaining, and reasonably balanced overall – not particularly right wing. She just finds one (or more) amusing vantage points from which to view the current political craziness, and she always makes me laugh. True she may have got the history a bit wrong this time (and I appreciate your putting the record straight for those of us with hazy memories), but I don’t think that is a reason to denigrate her in quite such an extreme manner. I suggest that the conflating of history in this case could almost be seen as an amusing shortcut (or even a pretend memory lapse), not necessarily something to beat her up about 🙂

    • shona says:

      Entertaining in a tedious shallow manner Ms Clifton can be. Thinking people soon tire of her repeated inaccuracies and ever deepening well of ignorance. The woman is a prat and a crap journo with nothing of real value to say to the thinking public of NZ.!

    • Tom says:

      But that’s not journalism.

      Ms. Clifton is one of those postmodern journalists who think that the past should be retconned comic book style in order to make the news “entertaining”.

      People who make others laugh are called comedians; when it’s via simulated idiocy, they’re clowns; and when through simple ignorance, they’re fools.

      • Ion A. Dowman says:

        Mind you, there is a good deal of political comment in the accompanying cartoon. I’d name the cartoonist here, but I’ve forgotten who it is, and the last one I’ve seen lacked a signature. Let’s call him ‘Borax’ for now… 🙂

  6. Another David says:

    Most of that generation of journalists seems to have gone to seed – Rosemary McLeod and Karl de Fresne are two that come to my mind. Their two columns tend to be not so much politically reactionary as socially reactionary, as in they just don’t like modern New Zealand very much.It’s the sort of thing that happens to a lot of people as they get older. Most of them can’t be far off retirement age.

  7. chica nueva says:

    Of course the Third Potline was an important part of Think Big.

  8. Robert M says:

    A number of points. Jane Clifton is of the ‘Dominion school of journalism’ ie deliberately non graduate, non university journalists often from the provinces designed to be acceptable to low grade govt clerks and Hutt factory workers.
    Think Clifton, the repulsive Rosmary McLeod, ( red neck bitchery and police prejudice), Richard Long ( probably worse). Tom Scott-illiterate half bright provincial. The Dominion should have been an elite SMH type paper and the decision in the late 1960s to dumb it down and make it good fish and chip paper for the proles is on of the great Kiwi tragedies.
    There was tremendous Southland pressure from the local nat Mps like Ralp Hanan and others of great ability for the Smelter in the 1950’s.
    While Muldoon is far too the left of me, Muldoon was probably more to the right in the 1960’s by the Nat stds of the time . Tom Shand was far too the left of Muldoon and Muldoon was a driving force behind the sig liberalisatiion and social and economic opening of NZZ in 1967. It was when Muldoon emerged as a leadership contender in the late 1960s it went to his head, and he lost courage. Muldoon was right to oppose the Nelson cotton mill which would hopelessly have limited NZ women’s fashion clothing choice.