GUEST BLOG: Curwen Rolinson – The Sir Robert Muldoon Centre for Time Warp Research

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One of the curious little oddities of Kiwi politics, is the lack of an overt culture of comparing present leaders to their antecedents. Sure, when relatively more frothing parts of the right wing wish to cast inaccurate aspersions upon the present-day National Party, they conjure the ghost of Helen Clark via wewege-board to talk about how John Key’s “socialist streak” is dragging us all kicking and screaming back to a place called “Helengrad” … but I ascribe that less to any actual notoriety on her part, and far more to the fact that Helen looms large in the popular consciousness due to her recency as PM and the notion she represented something slightly different to the aggressively warmed-over neoliberalism promulgated by Key et co.

Muldoon is different.

Even some thirty years and climbing since the end of his tenure as Prime Minister, the venerable old “tusker” still casts an incredibly long shadow. Given that a good whack of the modern-day Parliamentary Press Gallery started or nurtured their careers under him, as well as the quite frankly impressive degree of personal influence he managed to exert on our politics, public life and economy, this is perhaps not surprising.

What is, however, is the ridiculously broad array of politicians, parties and policies which find themselves caught up in that shadow, and tarred as being “Muldoonist”.

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In no particular order of significance nor accuracy, a cursory peruse of my google reveals Greens co-leader Russel Norman accusing Nat Prime Minister John Key of “acting like Muldoon”;Rodney Hide then accusing Russel Norman of sharing Muldoon’s economic views; right-wing no-idea-ologue Matthew Hooton levelling the charge of aiding and abetting “Muldoonery […] from beyond the grave” at Steven JoyceThe Standard declaring Key to be Muldoon’s “doppelganger”Failoil reckoning then-Labour leader David Shearer to be a dyed in the wool advocate of Muldoonism, in the form of controlling the exchange rate to prevent the ongoing ruination of exporters [trigger-warning: FailOil]; neoliberal former Labour Prime Minister Mike Moore making the comparison at Helen Clark’s expenseACT’s John Banks (himself an arguable disciple of Muldoon) saying it about Labour and the Greens over NZ Powerand an array of sourcescommenting on the linkage between Muldoon and Winston Peters.

We even wound up with the New Zealand Herald describing me as a “Muldoonist” late last year.

So given the singularly impressive rogue’s gallery of politicians to whom the charge of “Muldoonery” evidently applies, we should probably pin down what, exactly, we mean by a Muldoonist. I must confess a certain innate suspicion of any word flexible enough to encompass in its scope and ambit the personal affectations of everyone from Helen Clark to John Key; and the economic proclivities of Winston, David Shearer, and Steven Joyce … apparently simultaneously … but this is no reason to dismiss the term out of hand.

As with most things in our nation’s political discourse, the answer is bifurcated. If you’re coming at it from the right wing, then “Muldoonism” invokes the specter of the highly visible (and apparently iron-fisted) interventionist hand of the state exerting a great leaden weight upon the invisible hand of the market; using sui generis and economic-reality-breaking legislative powers to attempt to bolster the incomes and employment rates of workers, using the transformative power of the state to spur economic growth in other ways (like state-owned power generation assets, and renewable energy 😛 ), while attempting to co-ordinate and regulate the entire economy through a corporatist command and control mechanism that by some accounts wouldn’t seem entirely out of place on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Oh, and the whole system makes use of this forgotten school of political economy known as “Industrial Policy”, wraps the entire thing in tariffs and moves toward energy independence, and then keeps it all ticking over by controlling the exchange rate.

Apparently, in the eyes of right-wingers, these are *bad things*. And naturally, given my status as one of New Zealand’s more eclectic socialist economic nationalists … this all sounds pretty much *right up my twisty, benighted, 100% state-owned, #Renationalized alley*.

Now given we’re presently living under a National-led government which seems hell-bent on doing exactly the opposite of what the right-wing caricature of Muldoon would have done, you will perhaps forgive me if I overlook in this piece the litany of egregious legislative, constitutional, and environmental abuses and shortcomings which the *left-wing* interpretation of Muldoon fixates upon.

This is not, of course, to pretend they did not happen … and if you really want to re-tread such highlights of New Zealand political history as the time Muldoon necessitated the 1689 Bill of Rights being invoked at him (specifically, the bit covering what monarchs are allowed to do) because he pretty much managed to circumvent Parliament’s law-making ability through pure force of personal charisma alone; the time concerned citizens attempted to secede from New Zealand in order to prevent one of his Think Big projects going ahead; the time his cavalier attitude tointernational agreements brought the country about as close as it’s ever been to a civil war during the 20th century; or the time he provoked an apparent constitutional crisis by refusing to do something bloody stupid suggested by Roger Douglas with the New Zealand dollar … then you can. Dr Russel Norman’s variousstatements on the subject do quite a reasonable job at enumerating Muldoon’s various crimes against ecology and the rule of law; although I had noted with some amusement the problem Dr Norman faces when dealing with the Think Big parts of Muldoon’s legacy – as a Green with a sense of history, he’s no doubt appalled at the environmental impacts of the projects; yet, as a left-winger with a sense of present, I’m sure the lack of overt and specific condemnation for Think Big (in fact, he points out Think Big made more sense than the Roads of National Significance program) derives from our mutual appreciation for what a state with an aggressively pro-active attitude to fostering its economy by strategically increasing its asset base can actually achieve.

But if we are to gain some value from disturbing the tomb of Muldoon (beyond somewhat wide rhetorical shots at the man’s antithetical successor presently leading the National Party), and see what lessons we might derive from his record for Fortress Aotearoa here in the 21st century; then it is not to the left-wing invocation of Muldoon that we turn, but rather to his right-wing bete-noir counterpart.

Because that’s where the actual record of something fundamentally /different/ from the post-1984 neoliberal consensus in our history is to be found. It’s also why the more … frothy elements to our domestic right wing keep churning out endless screeds of thought-terminating cliches about going on a waiting-list for imported consumer goods, carless days (what an environmental policy win that would be today lol!), the length of time it took to get a telephone connected, or rampant and runaway inflation. Because what better way to stifle any debate about what shape alternative, state-centric economic arrangements to warmed-over neoliberalism might look like, than by deluging anybody who might participate or take an interest in said debate with so much empty rhetoric about “inevitable” consequences for challenging the neoliberal paradigm. [I hereby apologize for using the phrase “neoliberal paradigm”. I am not a sociology student. It won’t happen again]

I’m saving the in-depth examination of the economic ins-and-outs of actually-existing Muldoonism (or, if you prefer, “Socialism with Kiwi Characteristics”) for a future post, but suffice to say the rampant inflation was at least partially explicable via the cost-push “shock” created by successive oil crises in 1973 and 1979; the idea of imported consumer goods being out of reach of the average consumer is certainly not new (only difference is nowadays it’s wage rates rather than import licensing that keep creature comforts distant for many…while necessities are less affordable); and as applies waiting for phone-line connections –  well we appear to have collectively traded in spending days waiting for a phone-jack from a publicly owned arm of the state … for spending $600 million on subsidies for a privately owned company like Chorus to faff about and eventually get around to providing one lucky town somewhere in the North Island with gigabit-speed broadband.

Suddenly, the idea of a government which has the gumption to muck in and do things itself – rather than paying its mates to pretend to get the free market to do so – has a certain, insurgent appeal.

And that’s really at the heart of what Muldoonism represents, to me.

Jane Clifton, in her absolutely excellent book “Political Animals” (seriously, go out and read it; then buy a copy for the politico in your life!) sets out the theoretical underpinnings of Muldoon: a child, growing up amidst poverty and mass unemployment, then sent off to fight for New Zealand as a soldier. She sets out the way in which our grandparents’ generation – who, it must be remembered, bear a large amount of responsibility for voting him in in the first place – “Went Without”; then posits that it was an “avenging desire to ensure that New Zealanders never again Went Without” that motivated Muldoon to “Do Something” in the first place. She succinctly sums up the Muldoonist mentality as “that of an embattled parent – ‘I will provide for my family /no matter what/. I will do /anything/, and I will smack down /anyone/ who tries to get in my way’.”

Just as we can attempt to understand David Lange’s time in office as being the logical conclusion of a clever, overweight kid seeking approval from his peers; stories of Muldoon as a child having to pilfer rotten fruit for sustenance and sugar definitely tell us a helluvalot about the values and ethos which the more venerable Muldoon would bring to his tenure in office. 

That’s actually the thing that rankles me most about comparisons between Muldoon and Key. Both of these leaders of the National Party grew up in conditions of relative poverty and rose, through the assistance of the state, to become leaders thereof. One of these Prime Ministers has taken his formative experiences, and absolutely committed himself to ensuring they never recur for the next generation of Kiwis; while the other appears to have wholeheartedly adopted the Jordan Belfort creedo that there is no nobility in poverty, which ought to be escaped as fast and as rapaciously as possible, while making a buck for one’s mates, and bugger the rest of us.

Whichever way you dice it, and even (perhaps especially) when taking into account and consideration the manymanymanydickish things Muldoon did while in office; there’s no getting around the impression that Muldoon did what he did, and the way he did it, out of a genuine and deeply held series of convictions about how best to help his fellow Kiwi and build a better tomorrow rather than a brighter future.

It’s eminently possible now, with twenty first century eyes polished to the fine rhetorical standard of twenty-twenty, to conclude that Muldoon “could be a right prick” (as a certain MP who served with him, but who shall remain nameless, once told me); but such a simplistic and superficial analysis totally ignores the both the context the man was operating in – and, more importantly, his position as one of, if not *the* last leaders of a political generation which had actually known genuine want, and which was committed to a genuine egalitarianism. This was a man, after all, who seemed personally offended by high rates of unemployment – a position that’s totally at odds with the “relaxed” attitude John Key took to his own government having some of the highest unemployment figures of the MMP era. 

(And having said all that, I reserve the right to criticize the absolute hell out of his social policy and elements of his personal style)

While the case for Socialist Paragon Muldoon is always going to be a controversial one to make, it’s by holding up a mirror that actually shows the differences between National leaders then and now that we reveal how far we’ve fallen. The vast majority of New Zealand’s entire political spectrum presently exists to the right of Muldoon, and has done so now for almost three decades. Without a yardstick like Muldoon to actually demonstrate this in practice, who’d believe that yesterday’s National Party could be so incredibly to the left of today’s Labour?

I’ll leave you with a few quotes from Muldoon’s seminal book The New Zealand Economy: A Personal View, which I believe really strongly set out the difference between Muldoon-era National and the present days of the InterNational party.

“The political scene had been greatly influenced by the advent of a new dirty word, “intervention”. […] intervention by the Government in the economy was a normal procedure in New Zealand as it is and has been in every country around the world. The whole concept of government is based on intervention. […] Intervention is what government is about, and in a democracy it is the people who decide whether that intervention is acceptable”

“Economic management is not a matter of textbooks and algebraic equations. It is people: their reactions to stimuli, to adversity, and to one another.[…] In these circumstances economic management in New Zealand requires first of all a knowledge of the people, and then the judicious use of the widest range of weapons that are available”.

So a governing philosophy entirely based around active intervention using any means necessary, and a rejection of neoliberal econometric modelling as a source of fiscal policy. Bet you wouldn’t hear any of that coming from the mouths of Bill English..

They’ve even got dancing Cossacks!

 

“Curwen Ares Rolinson is a firebrand young nationalist presently engaged in acts of political resistance deep behind enemy lines amidst the leafy boughs of Epsom. He is affiliated with the New Zealand First Party; although his postings here should not necessarily be taken as indicative or representative of NZF’s policy or views.”

 

16 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent post. I’ve long thought that Muldoon was demonised by the new right as part of their attempts to make over the way we think about economics. It’s just a pity that the more unsavoury aspects of his leadership meant that the left were happy to join in his demonisation.

    I remember a Christmas day a few years back when, in the usual post-lunch lull, with nothing better to do I idly picked up a copy of one of Muldoon’s books on my parent’s bookshelf. Opening it a random spot I was really surprised to find myself reading comments about the economy that actually made a lot of sense. He was talking about how it’s the velocity of money going round the economy that makes it tick. A concept that is never heard of these days but which makes perfect sense.

    Ever since my views of Muldoon have been a lot more nuanced.

    • By 70s standards Muldoon appeared hard right, but in retrospect he was not so much right-wing as traditionalist. There was a unique situation in 1987 when the supposedly centre-left Labour Party was more right-wing than the supposedly right-wing National Party. If John Key’s National Party is centre-right, then Muldoon must have been a socialist.

  2. With incredible irony (coming from an obsessive Labour background) and hindsight I miss the era of Muldoon’s vision for NZ. It was not perfect but compared to today NZ was not the rich man’s football its become.

    Having said that I do not miss the abrasive almost dictatorial leadership example however.

    He was a man from another generation but I think he genuinely cared about all New Zealanders although it definitely did not always look that way. Either by design or coincidence New Zealanders were protected from the excesses of capitalism, that they had the affordable ability to gain a better education than their parents, that they could have a quality and worthwhile job and with a good savings record, a home (just imagine that, a home).

    Some economic solutions were ridiculous such as car less days, wage and price freezes that were bypassed anyway but others such as commanding the value of ones currency (as China currently does), and not been afraid to intervene where and when it was required.

    Most anything was made in NZ by New Zealanders who could get a good job as a result.

    The solution to absorbing the unemployed into large government organisations, now derided, seems to me to be a far better way of helping a man or woman to earn a living ‘but equally contribute to their self worth and allowing them to contribute something of worth to the economy rather than casting them on to the scrap heap of the dole, or worse the system as it is now.

    Yes a number things were dearer or harder to get than they are now and yet others were cheaper too. But one thing clearly stands out in my mind is that things were far less unequal than they are now. I cannot recall a beggar in the streets in the years up to 1984, but now look all around!

    • @ Xray: “….absorbing the unemployed into large government organisations….”

      I remember some years ago having a discussion with someone from the private sector about the old Ministry of Works. He said, “I never thought I’d say this, but come back, MoW, all is forgiven!”

      The thing about the old government departments such as this one was not just the fact that they soaked up the unemployed; it was that they provided job training for young engineers and the like that simply couldn’t be replicated in the private sector. It has been our great loss.

      The dismantling of those big government departments has cost us orders of magnitude more than we’ve saved: much more than most young people now realise. Unfortunately, I don’t think that it’s possible to put that genie back in the bottle.

  3. Genius. We need more of this – Weighty – historic balance- not enough of that in journalism these days! Researched! Evidenced! Insightful!
    Get it into print press as well: Listener etc. More!

  4. Without wanting to get too far into the muldoon debate I will say this . The little creature was a complete cunt and thank Christ he’s dead .
    Despite the festering stain that he was on society , he can only be thanked for showing us the new kind of Machiavellian traitor to keep an eye out for .
    If he came back as a pillow stuffed with rose petals held aloft by Fairies on gossamer wings I’d still pull old betsy and take a pot shot at the bastard . The flea ridden little fool was bidden by satan to bleach us of our humanity for a dodgy dollar , and well done you little shit . You succeeded admirably .

  5. Indeed , Muldoon was one of the last of the post war generation politicians …who at that time having gone through the 1930’s depression era as well ,…adopted the economics of John Maynard Keynes , ..ie: Keynesian economics. And it worked well. And still (though modified ) does in West Germany and most of the Scandinavian countries.

    Economics is NOT all about monetarist/fiscal policy. It incorporates societal effects of such policies . Much like a farmer tending to the animals or crops to encourage the benefits of good health…in this way also it is the good management of Govt that tends to the health of the general community ..using that analogy… THAT is the measure of GOOD governance.

    In contrast…neo liberalism is all simply about the dollar value of material items and this includes human beings as well…it is a ruthless, soulless ideology that cares not for national sovereignty , societal well being , -save how much it can extract from other ‘consumers’ and has no social conscience as to how it achieves those ends.

    The only governing factor in neo liberalism that matters is how far the population can be pushed before the societal dam breaks….in which case,…like indiscriminant logging companies…they simply move on to other stands of trees and ravage those as well . Historically ,… looking at certain countries in South America will demonstrate what happens when this ideology goes unchecked.

    We DO NOT elect a government to simply sit on its proverbial fat arse and draw handsome salaries and pensions to deliver us some mealy mouthed excuse about minimal governance while sitting back and watching the country that gave them birth sink and burn.

    And not only that- to act in a totally treasonous way that aids and abets that process. In which case- we would be far better to rid ourselves of these impotent parasites and re elect real men and women of action. People with a real sense of nationhood and sovereignty.

    In short – people who actually give a damn about their own country of birth and the people they are representing.

  6. Very well written.
    Muldoon has been vilified by by the press from the time his leadership ended to this day.The media often show that unfortunate picture of him announcing the ’84 election while being rather soused and make him appear to be NZ’s own version of Ceaușescu.

    I despair at the press’s retelling of history. Muldoon certainly wasn’t perfect and did make bloomers…The Tour and the scrapping of the Rowling superannuation spring to mind…however he was a staunch advocate of the ordinary bloke, the Welfare State, a top rate of tax at 66%, and full employment. He believed in an egalitarian society and would be shocked at the inequality in today’s NZ.

    He was definitely more to the left than any government since. He despised Rogernomics and was horrified with Ruthanasia. He was treated shabbily by National both when he was deposed and when he retired. He deserved better.

    .

    • “He was definitely more to the left than any government since.”

      I think that this above sentence is the key to understanding Muldoon and Muldoonism.

      For all his faults National under Muldoon was further Left than even the Alliance under Jim Anderton, (another control freak.)

      Yes I marched and protested and was battoned for standing up to Muldoon’s policies on sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa and yes I marched and protested against his policy on hosting nuclear war ship visits, and I was appalled when he physically assaulted housing activist, Roger Fowler for protesting outside a landlord’s convention he was attending. (Shades of Bob Jones)

      But I found his carless days scheme quite fun and thought that it was an imaginative way of dealing with a serious restriction in our use of fossil fuels. People forget that one of the attendant policies was a curfew imposed on petrol stations which persisted for some years. I remember being appalled when this curfew was loosened and then removed entirely and are now open for business 24/7 and lit up like casinos, as if in an advertisement for profligacy and conspicuous consumption in an age when we should be cutting back.

      God forbid any of today’s gutless politicians, whether of the Left or Right, even suggesting putting any such restrictions on the fossil fuel companies in the face of global climate change.

      And what about Think Big? While some admittedly some of it flopped some of it was highly successful, and during its construction phase ‘Think Big’ provided thousands of workers with highly paid construction jobs, that set many up with a savings nest egg, that has served them the rest of their lives, and probably the reason that many workers of a certain age still vote National after all these years.

      Finally, my most long lived memory of Muldoon was shortly before his death when he joined my driver’s union delegate brother Kevin O’Dea, as one of the support speakers at an Auckland bus drivers protest rally and strike against the then Labour Government’s legislation enforcing privatisation of council owned public transport. Which included a clause that made it illegal for councils to provide transport as a public service and instead stipulated that public transport had to be run at a profit. A scheme which like the rest of Labour’s privatisations cost many bus workers their jobs.

      And yes the media and some historians like to portray Muldoon’s decision to call a snap election a piece of drunken madness, the fact of the matter is that Muldoon was drinking that night because he knew he had been defeated by the anti-nuclear protest movement who had forced a vote on nuclear ship visits onto the floor of parliament. Muldoon’s decision to call a snap election was done before he started drinking, it was a last ditch effort to prevent this legislation being passed. If Muldoon had shut down parliament to prevent the vote, Zealand would have become “Nuclear Free” in 1984. As it was Labour came in in a landslide, and though Labour tried to bring in a nuclear capable warship (The Buchanon) they couldn’t do it. But Labour were able to postpone the legislation for another three years, something Muldoon couldn’t have done for one more day. And Labour were also able to use their supposed “anti nuke” credo as a cover for a whole raft of Right Wing attacks.

      Thanks Curwen for bringing this part of our history back into the light.

    • @ Glenn: “I despair at the press’s retelling of history.”

      Increasingly, journalists here were either very young or not born when Muldoon was in power, so they have no experience of him upon which to draw. In addition, they either don’t study politics as part of their training, or if they do, they’re not taught about Muldoon. Either that or stuff about the Muldoon era simply whizzes in one ear and out the other, because they fail to understand the importance of it.

      “He was definitely more to the left than any government since. He despised Rogernomics and was horrified with Ruthanasia.”

      Indeed. I made this point recently to a group of people, most of whom were much younger than I am, in the context of the fact that the arrival of neo-liberalism gave NZ politics a sharp shove to the right, and the pendulum hasn’t yet swung back.

  7. In the Muldoon days it was obvious to me that carless days and a wage freeze would not work. They certainly didn’t affect me in the slightest. But I was unhappy about the 66% income tax and sales tax of 40% on computers etc. I was also unhappy about the methanol plant. And I had serious doubts about selling off assets and privatising. However I knew nothing about politics in those days.
    Maybe I should read my Muldoon books to see if I can glean anything useful from them.

  8. That style of writing is popular with the older generation: conversational and trying to sound clever by complexity. It seemed to follow no rules but break them all. One sentence is 118 words long. Personally, I think it’s a very interesting topic. But I gave up, because the style nauseates me.

    Why write “The answer is bifurcated” ?

    No offence is meant to the author or to anyone who expressed their enjoyment of the article. I wish only to communicate that proper writing is worth learning. The article above does nothing to promote clear communication or engage the sophisticated reader, IMHO.

    • She’s right, mate – takes all sorts,..anyways I’m sure you can get the gist of it…I thought it was pretty well written and quite comprehensive ,…but that’s just my opinion- have a nice day =]

    • @ Jem: “That style of writing is popular with the older generation: conversational and trying to sound clever by complexity.”

      My impression is that the author is in fact a young person. This is a complex topic: analysis is therefore complex, and the result may seem a bit convoluted. But I thought it clear and well-written, by someone who knows his stuff.

      “Why write “The answer is bifurcated” ?”

      Well, why not? It neatly encapsulates what follows, and saves the author having to use a whole bunch of words instead.

      • Bifurcated means forked, not twofold, dual, double-sided. Too much cleverness by half, perhaps, methinks, however, etc etc

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