Driving force

by Maggie Barry / 01 December, 2007
Ken Douglas, golfer, is still a heavyweight when it comes to influencing New Zealand's future, but these days he's lighter on his feet.

"I love golf because of the challenge of controlling your emotions and disciplining yourself; there are a lot of frustrations, but ultimately it's just you and you can't blame anyone else," says Ken Douglas. "The etiquette of the game is really important, too, because it's all about respect for other players and opponents mixed with a burning desire to beat everybody."

Could these be the words of "Red Ken", New Zealand's best-known trade union leader? In the past 20 years, I've interviewed Douglas mostly in his role as the heavyweight union boss. These days, though, he's a changed man. Perhaps that's because a stomach-stapling operation has allowed him to win one of his biggest personal battles: losing a third of his body weight and emerging a thin and healthy man.

"I wish I'd done it years ago," he says. "My quality of life has improved dramatically. I'm playing golf a couple of times a week now and I've got a huge energy surge. I sleep about three to four hours a night, I'm doing more reading and I'm interested in more things. I'm a happier person. My grandkids might say I'm grumpy, but I think that's just old age ..."

At 72, Douglas is still in demand: NZ Post board deputy chair, Wellington Regional Economic Development Trust chair, Air New Zealand board director, NZ Rugby Union director and Health Care NZ director. Re-elected in October for a third term as a Porirua city councillor, Douglas has always been active in the Titahi Bay community where he's lived for 45 years.

He's been a member of the Titahi Golf Club since 1967 and its president for most of the past three decades. It's a club that's given a start to many champion golfers, including top female golfer Lynnette Brooky, the current under-19 men's champion Perry Hayman and, of course, Michael Campbell.

For many years Douglas was part of a small group that mentored Campbell. Eight years ago, Douglas helped set up a formal board for "Cambo Enterprises" and is now one of a five-member board that meets annually to review all aspects of Campbell's business, family trusts and strategies for life after golf.

"Michael comes back each year and spends a day at a junior tournament because he values that connection and consciously wants to reinvest in the club that got him started. He loves being around the little ones - some only three or four years old - and that's great because if you can get a child playing and swinging well before they're 10, they'll never lose it.

The club is unique for a nine-hole course, because last year we had the top male and female golfers in New Zealand. It's hilly, so it's all about controlling where you hit the ball. There's also a strong tradition of support and nurturing."

The board has just set up the Michael Campbell Foundation: one of the strategies, with NZ Golf and Greg Turner's wedge programme, is that a top young golfer "spends a week with Michael to understand the life of a touring professional. It's not just about hitting a ball, it's about your temperament, your values as a person, eating and fitness discipline and dealing with the psychological pressures."

What is it about Campbell that's made him an international champion?

"It takes tenacity and he's technically sound and fundamentally he's got one of the best swings in golf and he's an extremely good putter and if he goes through a bad spell, we know he'll come right. I've got confidence in him, and there's another major win in him yet.

"I'd like to play more golf," Douglas says. "I'm on a 20 handicap at the moment and the lowest I ever got was an eight. While I'll never be a champion, it's a hugely satisfying way to spend four or five hours."

When Douglas left Wellington College, he weighed 76kg and had to deliberately eat and exercise because he was too light for the front row in the old boys' team. While he worked as a truck driver and coalman, his weight remained steady, but once he became a deskbound union official all that changed. In one year, he went from 82 to 95kg, and by the time he shifted to Titahi Bay in 1964, he was just under 108kg. "I was never under that again until I had my gastric bypass."

When his knees packed up because of "old rugby injuries and arthritis", and reconstructive surgery had to be repeated, Douglas became less mobile, leading to more weight gain. Further knee surgery wasn't possible until he lost weight and his GP was forthright about the consequences.

"He told me, 'In a year's time you will have blood pressure problems and probable heart problems. It's only a matter of time before you get diabetes and the year after that you'll be a cot case and the year after that you'll be on one side of the lid with your mates all on the other side glaring down at you.' That was good enough for me ..."

There are several options for surgical interventions, and Douglas is happy that he opted for a partial stomach-severance (Fobi pouch) surgery in 2003.

"I've never felt hungry and I don't have great yearnings for many foods. Everything's significantly reduced ... I go out to dinners regularly and normally have two small entrées. It's different for everyone and over time you adjust."

These days, his weight is steady on 92kg (at his heaviest he was 151kg).

Douglas paid $20,000 for his bypass operation, but is adamant that the government should provide free gastric surgery for the morbidly obese.

"Early intervention is a much cheaper option than allowing people to deteriorate to the point where they need more expensive treatments and support. In my case, the doctor's diagnosis was that I would be a sickness beneficiary and now I'm a taxpaying earner, so the logic is pretty straightforward.

"I want to keep the discussion going and build up a social pressure in the community and health boards until the Ministry of Health is forced to accept that this is a justified intervention and investment by the state. The levels of obesity are really blowing out dramatically and preventing diabetes is the critical issue. I see it more in the context of an economic rationing argument than even a quality of life prospect."

Unusually for the times, Douglas's parents separated when he was five and his sister, Terree, was two. Their father, Attie, took them to live with his parents in 1941.

"I did resent it," Douglas recalls, "and I used to say to Nana Douglas, 'Why haven't I got a mother and a father like other kids have?', and she always stressed that 'It takes two to make an argument, your mother's not wrong and your father's not right. Just understand that things happen for reasons that nobody understands.'

"Dad was a truck driver, he'd go to the pub after work, get his belly full of piss and expect his tea on the table. I don't remember him being violent, but there were a lot of arguments. On Saturdays he'd go to the pub all day and come home drunk.

"The Yanks were in town and Mum [Madge] was a real party girl. They gave her what she was looking for in her personal relationships, and I could never blame her for that. She was a victim of her circumstances and she didn't have any control over Dad, so she found her own answer to it. She'd dance and sing all night, for days actually, when she was on the grog - Mum was an alcoholic, but we got her off that."

When Douglas was 23, his mother's drinking caused her to hit rock bottom, and his grandfather, George Winter, rang him one night, worried because she hadn't been to work for a week.

"We get to this boarding house and she was in bed with this young guy - they were very drunk, they'd spewed in the bed, they'd crapped in the bed. She was totally unaware of the circumstances and she was in an appalling state. The thing that frightened me most was my reaction, because I started to beat this guy up. I wanted to kill him, but my grandfather stopped me.

"We wrapped her in a blanket and carried her out. I had to hold her in the bath while my aunty bathed her. The doctor said she needed to be committed, but she refused, so I said to the doctor, 'What are the options?' He said, "Well, you can commit her", so I did, and she took that very, very hard. She used to say to me, 'What son would ever commit his mother?'"

After seven months at Porirua Hospital and the support of family and friends, Madge Douglas was able to give up drinking. In 1985, aged 75 and still sober, she died of cancer.

"I didn't love her when I was a child, I resented that she'd left us and I felt sad about such a wasted life, that she had great abilities and talents. But I admired her strengths hugely. She fought battles that so many other people didn't win, and I felt very proud of her about that.

"It reinforced for me that it doesn't matter how impossible the situation might appear, it comes down to you and what you want to do. If you keep on looking for other people to provide answers, you're just creating another form of dependency.

"Mum was a devoted grandmother and she sought to make up for the mother she hadn't been to me, so our kids have very fond memories of 'Diddy', as they called her. She was a great seamstress and could make kids' clothes, and she loved horse racing.

"She'd go to the Trentham races and you'd think she was the bloody Governor-General's wife. She'd have sequins and veils and bangles and baubles and hats. She liked dressing up and she liked dressing the kids up and parading them all over the place. I was busy in the union, so it was helpful to [wife] Leslie having my mother around and we got closer as a consequence of those relationships."

There has been talk over the years of Douglas's reputation as a bit of a ladies' man.

"I never ever saw myself as such. I've had a couple of passionate relationships - some that I'm not very proud about now, but at the time they seemed the best thing out."

Douglas and Leslie, the mother of their four children - Jane, Peter, Helen and John - separated in 1979, and Leslie died of cancer last year. He met Marilyn Tucker, an Auckland pharmacist, through the Socialist Unity Party and Tucker shifted to Titahi Bay in 1984.

"We just evolved together ... I asked her to marry me a couple of times and got turned down, so thought, 'Oh yeah, that's fine.' I'm not quite sure why I offered, because I don't really believe in the legality of marriage. It's either a commitment that you make or you don't. Marrying for life is a bit stupid, because people either grow together or they grow apart."

Douglas admits that he didn't appreciate the support base that Leslie gave him, and that he probably wasn't a good father. "I've spent more time with my [10] grandkids than I did with any of my kids and I only realised it when I started to teach the grandkids to play golf.

"When I talked to my kids about it, they said they never had that opportunity because I was always going somewhere. I used to cart them off to union meetings so my life was part of their lives, but I wasn't much of a part of their lives and I regret that. Whether they're the better or worse for it, I don't know."

Has being brought up the hard way made him more confident?

"I was never confident about any of the jobs that I got elected to. I used to think, 'Jesus, how the hell am I going to do this?' Probably one of the reasons I've been relatively more successful as a union leader than most was that I would never accept replacing the debate about policy and ideas with the trivia of personalities. Once you do that, you lose sight of objectivity.

"I say to Labour people - and some of them don't like me saying this - something I'll always remember about [Robert] Muldoon is that he gave the position I held the hugest amount of respect, and that's all I was entitled to. It was not about whether he liked Ken Douglas: that was irrelevant. I was the secretary of the Federation of Labour and he demonstrated in his behaviour an integrity and respect for that position.

"He didn't suffer fools gladly and I knew from my first meeting with him that if ever he was able to catch me out, he'd kick me to f---ing death, because that's the nature of the guy. I admired that about him, too. You learn to be well prepared and not to open your mouth unless you've got something to say."

Although he declined a knighthood ("I'm a republican - my Irish forebears would never have forgiven that"), Douglas didn't hesitate in December 1998 when offered our highest honour, the Order of New Zealand, which is limited to 20 living members; and now he sits around boardroom tables with former prime ministers and traditional foes of the causes that he's always championed.

How does "Red Ken" define himself these days?

"I'm redder in my politics than I've ever been. I'm a socialist. I try to analyse things from a Marxist understanding and to be clear about what you can and can't change.

"The priority is to influence the things that we can change ourselves - a slave can't stop being a slave until they stop thinking that they're a slave. Our imprisonment comes from our own brains and so the more you can invest in people to be active and energetic about their concerns, the more you're empowering them to be real contributors to growing our economy and our society.

"People are starting to realise that it's not necessary or desirable for a person to have only one occupation in their life. Your physical condition changes, your mental condition changes, so why would we assume that a position, if it did fit when you were 18, will fit when you're 81?"

What ambitions does he harbour for the community he's lived in for most of his life?

"I get a huge amount of pleasure working in collaborative structures with people that grow and you can see them grow. Every time I see Michael Campbell play golf, whether he plays good or bad, I think about seeing him as a boy and what he grew up to be. That's hugely invigorating, because I know that there are hundreds more Michael Campbells out here in Porirua and that's what our obligation is, to give them their best shot to achieve and that's why having a vision about the future's important.

"I want to influence the quality of our city as a whole and the reputation and confidence of our young people to believe in themselves," he says. "I want to keep people here - but if they go, I don't want to stop them, I want them to know that this is going to be a even better place to come back to."

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