Island Life by David Slack

And I'd put Lange ahead of Kirk

I don't know how ready we are to become a republic when we're still prepared to rate a King as our most successful Prime Minister of the last century. These exercises are a bit daft, really. Every Prime Minister is a creature of their time. Still, you read the list, and raise your eyebrow at the odd ranking. Number 4 seems perhaps a little bullish for the incumbent, or at the least a little early. On the other hand I'm much less inclined than David Farrar to dispute the ranking of Muldoon.

Red rag, bull. I try to avoid being reflexive about the man, but I thought he was bad at the job when he had it, and I still think so today. I remember watching the election night coverage in 1975. He told us he hoped to leave New Zealand no worse off than he found it. Bet you don't, I thought.

Nine years followed of a style of leadership that was, by turns, belligerent, divisive, cynical and vaguely desperate. In my opinion.

Boy, did he ever polarise opinion. Around our area, where I grew up, he had plenty of admirers. I don't know how many times I heard a grown-up - a farmer type typically - declare that they would only be happy to be a politician if they could be a dictator. I'd tell the buggers what to do. Unions, students, commies, bludgers - stroppy academics, nit-picking journalists. They just loved the way Muldoon put everyone in their place.

I had a fair idea that some of the teachers at our high school thought he was alright too. A couple of them threatened to resign if I were to go ahead with the speech I'd prepared for the 1977 Anzac day service that took issue with the anti-democratic direction the Prime Minister was taking. There may have been one or two personal issues involved, to be fair.

I wasn't wrong about the anti-democratic spirit though. It was a command economy, and he had both hands on the levers - PM and Finance Minister. It seems odd today that any one person could loom so large in the nation's life. For one thing, the market economy diminishes the influence; for another we have recoiled from the concentration of power in one place.

And we have less reverence for the office. I daresay you were always going to get that as the mass media brought politicians into our living rooms. Muldoon lead the charge. Even as he used the medium to dominate, he was laying the foundation for a degree of contempt that would flourish in the familiarity.

Rob's mob cheered him on as he demonised individuals, hounded others, intimidated the media and generally imposed an air that chilled dissent. Others of us were appalled. Here's just one example.

The sheer dominance of the man was reflected in the culture of the times. Brian Easton has an interesting exploration of this in a paper MULDOON IN FICTION: Politicians and Intellectuals. He writes:

This image of Muldoon as dictator is one of the icons of literature in the 1970s and early 1980s. Arguably there are at least ten contemporary novels and four plays in which a Muldoon-like character appears.


The burst of the political oriented writing which appears in the early eighties, tells us that something was happening about that time. The precipitating factor was surely Muldoon, perhaps magnified by the events surrounding The Tour.

In a more fundamental way the rise of the political novel in the 1970s reflects a changing national perception of politics.

With the passing of Muldoon, he asks, will there be a passing of the political despot?

Already there are politicians who have been marked as Muldoon's successor - no doubt there are more to come. One might argue that they are much less likely to become prime minister in the future. The Germans adopted MMP to prevent the rise of another Hitler. Moreover there are now examples of other styles of successful New Zealand premiers: Holyoake and Jim Bolger, since he deposed Ruth Richardson, have both been consensus, rather than populist, driven. But even if the despot cannot practice so easily, the image is unlikely to easily disappear, especially as long as "Rob's Mob" continues in some form, seeking a populist leader.

The country he left was in poor shape, and not only in an economic sense. The politics of division he practiced were bad for us all. The contempt for dissent was ugly. Rob's Mob might rank the man as a successful Prime Minister, but I like the look of the list better the way it is.