Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Keith Holyoake


Barry Gustafson, Kiwi Keith: A Biography of Keith Holyoake, Auckland University Press, 2007, $60.

Reviewed by Michael Bassett for the Listener

No politician gets to the top of the greasy pole without displaying talent. My generation of university types loved to belittle Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, laughing at the plum in his mouth and the seemingly inane profundities that he could spout. "Steady as she goes" seemed as close as he got to a political philosophy while winning four elections on the trot, before reluctantly retiring as prime minister in February 1972.

Barry Gustafson successfully demonstrates there was much more to Holyoake than was commonly believed by contemporary critics. He outlines how a barely educated small farmer from Motueka who was a shrewd observer of life managed, as the youngest MP from his cohort, to learn the political ropes and develop organizational skills ahead of cleverer MPs of his generation. By the time Holyoake became MP for the safe seat of Pahiatua in 1943 he already had six years parliamentary experience behind him and wasn't yet 40. Ambitious and well versed in farming politics that was the backbone of the then National Party, Holyoake won the confidence of colleagues with his instinctive dogged opposition to Peter Fraser's centralising government. "Kiwi Keith", a moniker adopted to distinguish him from his Australian cousin of the same name, was deputy to Prime Minister Holland between 1949 and 1957 before Holland was obliged by illness to surrender the reins to the now 53 year old Holyoake. But it was too late to rescue an eight year-old National administration confronting economic contraction. A combination of self-immolation by Walter Nash's Labour government and Holyoake's gritty determination to win back the office he had held for only 83 days in 1957, won him a comfortable majority in 1960 which he maintained until his last term.

Gustafson ruminates about the factors in Holyoake's ascendancy in the then simpler world of politics. He isn't always convincing. Yes, Holyoake had a head start over others and was always an astute National Party net-worker, receiving good feedback from its often contradictory constituencies. He was a shrewd observer of people, a hard worker, an excellent chairman, but never a spell binder. Holyoake possessed a sense of humour and liked it when, after he'd crooned his way mellifluously through a speech in the House, I called him the Bing Crosby of New Zealand politics. He just kept on keeping on, popping up for a controversial short term as Governor General 1977-80 following 39 years as an MP.

A good political biographer has to get to the fundamentals of the subject's character. Gustafson tells us a lot of useful information about Holyoake's upbringing, but the account of the way in which this "modest man" sat back and expected the party grandees to pave his path into Pahiatua requires more explanation, as do the accusations leveled at Holyoake over his use of influence to get essential services into Kinloch that appears to have turned him and his partners into wealthy men. Holyoake used influence to escape traffic fines, and had a rather cavalier attitude towards road rules. He fibbed publicly about his role in Sir Leslie Munro's parliamentary selection and appears to have possessed a lordly approach to his children's property options. Gustafson mentions these, but doesn't weigh them. If a biographer with all the facts at his finger-tips won't reflect on such character fundamentals, who else can?

The book's organization takes an odd turn once Holyoake becomes Prime Minister. Politics is dealt with in a rudimentary manner in one chapter; foreign affairs then occupy another hundred pages. There is some intriguing material about the wary eye Holyoake kept on Munro, and about the interface between minister and officials as New Zealand's increasingly mature stance in world affairs inched ahead. But does all the detail about the country's relationship with Africa, South-east Asia, China and Vietnam belong in a political biography? It should be a careful balancing of the factors directly influencing the subject's life and conduct. Gustafson shies away from the discipline required. The story about Vietnam, the issue where Holyoake's decisions shaped a generation of National's future political opponents, bogs down in detail.

Longevity in politics poses problems for a biographer, and Gustafson occasionally falters. Misunderstanding the disciplines required for managing economic stabilization to which both major parties subscribed, he gets confused at page 60 when he discusses National's economic conduct in the early 1950s. He labels Holyoake a "conservative" within the National Party without explaining its spectrum of beliefs. Gustafson tells us in his introduction that the basis of the New Zealand economy was "fast eroding" during the 1960s, but never explains Holyoake's failures to deal with the problems, saying only that change threatened a political backlash, as if this excuses his failure of leadership. What a country we'd be if every politician had followed the herd and never sought to lead it! One historian - was it W.H. Oliver? - observed that Holyoake's were "locust years". There's merit in the assertion; New Zealanders gradually devoured their seed corn during the sixties and seventies. Gustafson doesn't explain how decisions not taken made the jobs of Holyoake's successors the more difficult, ultimately destroying consensus politics and damaging his reputation. Hindsight and a lot of available Treasury and Reserve Bank advice warning of constant government over-expenditure now makes mature judgments possible about Holyoake's government. Unfortunately, they aren't contained in this book, thus making the superlatives Gustafson showers upon Holyoake somewhat hollow.

It is hard to fathom why Gustafson prefers overseas observers' views of New Zealand politics to those of locals. There are many pages of ambassadorial comment, interesting, but often unreliable, as Gustafson concedes. Above all, the book needed careful editing. Good material for instance about the final days of Holyoake's prime ministership and his support for Muldoon, mixes with otiose words and phrases, clumsy expressions, occasional small mistakes, impenetrable footnotes and constant repetition, all of it distracting. This book is not the equal of Gustafson's earlier historical works.

Michael Bassett is a political historian and biographer who overlapped with Holyoake in Parliament 1972-75.