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Interview: Gordon McLauchlan

The author and commentator is still acerbic in his update of the seminal 1976 tome The Passionless People, writes Karyn Scherer.

It was last year’s general election that finally did it. After years of observing politics both up close and from afar, Gordon McLauchlan decided he couldn’t stay silent any longer. For years, publishers had pestered him to update his seminal tome, The Passionless People, which caused something of a sensation when it came out in 1976.

In the original book, McLauchlan had accused New Zealanders of being “smiling zombies”. But he saw nothing in the 2011 election campaign to persuade him that anything much had changed – except this time we weren’t so smug. Hence The Passionless People Revisited, his attempt to update a subject that once struck a raw nerve.

“Every few years some publisher would ring up and say, ‘Why don’t you do it again?’, and I’d say, ‘No, I don’t need to do it again,’” he explains from a comfy old couch in his delightfully dated central Auckland apartment. “Then suddenly, in the middle of last year, I realised it was just awful. [John Key is] such a nothing person. I think he’s charming and people who know him say he’s a very charming person, but who is he? And behind him are the same old losers who were there when Don Brash was leading the party.”

If you didn’t already know, McLauchlan is not a big fan of the National Party, or its “rock star” leader, John Key. If you believe the polls, Key is still remarkably popular. But as McLauchlan notes, more than a million people didn’t even bother to vote in last year’s election. “Looking back now, I realise just how extraordinarily badly New Zealand has been governed,” he fumes.

It’s tempting to summarise The Passionless People Revisited as the musings of a grumpy old man. The opening chapter is titled “Life in a Broken Country”. Nine chapters and a couple of hundred pages later, it ends with “The Slough of the Future”. His argument seems to be that about the only Kiwis who are better off now than nearly 40 years ago are women who are lucky enough to have found a job they can bear. If you haven’t considered emigrating by the final page, that only proves his point.

At 81, McLauchlan remains in remarkably good health, and appreciates he has been lucky. After a long career as a journalist, author and broadcaster, he is still churning out books at regular intervals. Like his good friend Gordon Dryden, he doesn’t seem to have retired. He seems genuinely surprised that some people might see the book as rather gloomy. It is a look back in sorrow rather than in anger, he insists.

“I’m not angry at all, I’m just disappointed,” he chirps. New Zealand, he concedes, was in many ways a much gloomier place in the 70s. “It was a very closed society. It was very conformist. It was egalitarian and it was prosperous, but all it needed to do was open out.” The problem is that in the process of doing that, we have been callous with people’s lives, he argues. “People have lost their confidence, they’ve lost their sense of security and they’ve lost their sense of belonging to the community in a lot of cases.”

Most of us are familiar with the refrain by now. Sure, we are wealthier than we used to be, but we are falling behind our peers. The gap between rich and poor has widened. We have gone from full employment to condemning those with few skills to a life of permanent welfare. For tens of thousands of young people, some of whom are well-educated, there are simply not enough jobs. And many of those who do have jobs report they are deeply unhappy in their work.

Sure, some people are doing just fine, and, thanks to globalisation, have more opportunities than ever, McLauchlan acknowledges. But for a significant minority, which has become almost invisible to the majority, life is pretty tough, he believes. We might have bigger houses, but we still have a problem with booze, and mental health issues. Money, money, money – it has even ruined the true spirit of sport. How and why has this happened?

He mostly blames big business, and a long list of prime ministers who have been persuaded – and in some cases, bullied – into seeing the world through the eyes of corporates. In the 40s and 50s, he believes, unions got too powerful and the Establishment hit back. Thanks to weaker unions and increasing mechanisation, businesses have since managed to increase their profits. But they are very greedy beasts, he suggests. And all the while, we have mostly looked to the US and Britain for guidance, rather than to continental Europe.

McLauchlan is blunt about his view that we have become an economic colony of Australia. But he is also suspicious about the recent influx of British civil servants, who now head the health and education ministries and the Treasury. He can’t understand why we would want charter schools when he claims they have been such a failure elsewhere, and why we blame our world-class teachers for problems not of their making.

“They’re all imported Poms, and you would not say that England is one of the more successful economies or societies in the world. Why would they do that?”

We have lost, he believes, our sense of concern for others. “The kind of right-wing capitalism we’ve had in the past 30 years emphasises individual effort over everything else,” he suggests. “Whereas when I was brought up, you had a sense of other people’s woes as well. University students in those days were much more rebellious and much more supportive of minorities than they are now.”

Not long ago, he was asked to address a group of young leaders, and was surprised to discover none had read John Stuart Mill – or any other philosophers. He wonders aloud whether Key has read anything by British historian and philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, who wrote eloquently about the meaning and value of political freedom. “We know [Key] likes John Grisham, because he said so,” he chuckles.

The truth is that McLauchlan was a grumpy young man, too. Sure, there were books on beer, history and humour, but there was also 1992’s The Big Con, a fierce attack on what he labelled the “fundamentalist economics” of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. His politics are well enough known that he was once approached to stand for Parliament. He declined, but in his new book admits to a certain amount of admiration for Hone Harawira and other mavericks whose outspokenness often gets them into trouble.

Like AA Gill and others whose poisonous prose is much admired by those bored by the blandness of much mainstream journalism these days, he doesn’t seem to realise just how curmudgeonly he can seem. But how’s this for a ribbing of another of our national treasures: “One magic morning on TVNZ’s Q+A (Quardle-oodle Ardle-wardle-doodle), multi-award-winning, multi-talented and famously self-regarding Paul Holmes interviewed award-winning raconteur, moralist and crowd-renter Sir Jesus Christ on the issues of the eye of a needle, the ultimate inheritance of the earth by the meek and the disgraceful incident in which He tossed the money-changers from the temple.”

There’s plenty more where that came from. John Banks is a “robotic Energizer, for whom any power point will do”. Don Brash is really “John Cleese playing a politician”. Last year’s general election was “a celebrity contest in which I felt Justin Bieber would have been in with a chance”. He also has a dig at Key’s “incredible slightness of being” and his ability to cast “more oil on troubled waters than BP”. And it would, of course, be no show without Michael Laws-Untohimself.

Along the way, there are other predictable targets, such as our mad love of meetings, the Sensible Sentencing Trust, and television reporters who tell you what to think. And television in general, for that matter. He even has a go at the public relations industry, of which he was once a part.

I can’t help recalling he was once the frontman for Telecom, when it was privatised more than two decades ago. Every man has his price, it seems. Whatever guilt, or not, he feels about his role in that campaign, he doesn’t say. But it is hard to argue with his assertion that we retain many illusions about our national character.

“When we look in the mirror, we still see a rugby-tough, self-reliant commonsensical man of the backblocks,” he suggests. Yet the truth is that these days most of us live in multicultural cities, and generally prefer to pay someone to do our dirty jobs for us.

There are some odd, but occasionally rather funny, sorties into satire. There are also some less-obvious observations, such as his declaration that Maori leadership has been more modified by Pakeha than vice versa, “after their initial successes”. And some feminists will be surprised to learn that McLauchlan has long held the view that “what passion exists in this country has resided in the hearts of women”. Although he can’t resist a little prod: “They have modified the macho culture of my youth and their new intellectual confidence has become so noticeable it has cowed the progress of men.”

There is the occasional bouquet among the brickbats. He hails Gareth Morgan as our most innovative and enterprising businessman “not because he has found the way to the future but because he is at least searching for it with a mind cleared of ideology”. He detects in the millennial generation a glimmer of hope that they are much less selfish than their parents.

But as we talk, he also suggests that, sadly, the only solution might be catastrophe. We came awfully close to the brink four years ago with the global financial crisis, yet little in our culture seems to have changed, he observes. Maybe, he suggests half-jokingly, we have been unlucky that Europe’s economy has not yet imploded.

“It’s a horrible thing to say, but the tragedy is, if you look at history, the only thing that brings change is calamity."  Although McLauchlan wasn’t overly impressed with local attempts to capitalise on the international Occupy movement, it disturbed him that some people were more concerned about what the protesters’ tents might do to the grass. Money, money, money.

"Politicians are always talking about tax or economic issues. They’re never talking about people … I’m starting to wonder if, democrat though I am, English philosopher AC Grayling is right. He says the big problem with democracy in the modern world is money, because it buys influence all the time.” Economics, he argues, is all about managing resources. He continues to believe that the single biggest problem facing our society is unemployment. He has never bought the argument that most beneficiaries are bludgers.

“There will always be a very small number of people who are just inadequate – they can’t cope with life. But 80% or 90% of people on a benefit, if you give them a job and give them a decent, dignified wage, then they love it. They thrive on it. There must be some way you can create those jobs.” In five years’ time, he predicts, Christ­church will be our most prosperous city. It seems a fair bet. But why did we have to wait for an earthquake? “Is it beyond the ability of economists and politicians to find some way to give people work?”

As he notes in his book, it was the English writer John Lanchester who pointed out the difference between moaning and complaining: complaining is essentially moaning, but to someone who might be able to make a difference. Kiwis, McLauchlan believes, are a pack of moaners. But is that pot-and-kettle territory? The answer, it seems, is entirely in our own hands.

THE PASSIONLESS PEOPLE REVISITED, by Gordon McLauchlan (David Bateman, $29.99).