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The last Muldoonist has his final stand in Government

Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

This country had its own Trump-like leader in Prime Minister Rob Muldoon, and that didn’t end well. Now, Winston Peters, the last Muldoonist, has a key role in the new Government.

He disdained convention and protocol even as he harked back to a mythical golden age that he alone could restore. His constant assertions of his own expertise swayed a section of the public into seeing him as a saviour, so his conduct and methods were irrelevant.

He viewed the political class, including many in his own party, the judiciary and the bureaucracy, with suspicion, if not contempt. Although he led the party of the Establishment, he was opportunistically non-ideological and unashamedly populist, presenting himself as the champion of the “ordinary people” looked down on by the metropolitan elite. He practised lowest-common-denominator politics, demonising illegal immigrants as criminally inclined ­job-stealers who, over time, would disturb the demographic balance to the white majority’s disadvantage.

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He made adversarial politics more ­rancorous, responding to legitimate questioning with ad-hominem attacks. He revelled in the humiliation of underlings and rivals and in petty point-scoring. He portrayed the media as the enemy within: devious, dishonest, out of control and out of touch with mainstream opinion.

He regarded dissent as subversiveness and doubled down on his divisiveness in the face of civil strife. Seemingly oblivious to the damage to his country’s international standing, he took a wilfully contrary and backward-looking stance on the defining issues of the day.

He was Robert Muldoon, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1975 to 1984 and mentor and role model to our new Deputy Prime Minister, puppeteer extraordinaire Winston Peters.

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in 1982. Photo/Getty Images

One has to wonder how many of the young progressives who cheered Peters’ decision to anoint Jacinda Ardern appreciate that its secondary effect is to empower quite possibly the least liberal, most Machiavellian figure of real significance in contemporary New Zealand politics. Ardern’s statement that “throughout the negotiations, I certainly had a sense that there was more that united us than divided us” suggests she’s not dwelling on the implications of entering an alliance with the last Muldoonist.

Labour’s willingness to ignore Peters’ illiberalism is in striking contrast to the Greens’ fastidious refusal even to explore the possibility of a deal with National.

Denounced state broadcasters

I’ve made the Muldoon-Donald Trump connection before, as have Bloomberg columnist Tyler Cowen and writer and cartoonist Tom Scott, whose ­coverage and satirical depictions of Muldoon in this magazine got him banned from the weekly prime ministerial press conferences. But the more you explore the comparison, the more striking the similarity.

Trump refuses to take questions from certain reporters, scorns CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times as purveyors of “fake news”, and finds his safe space on Rupert Murdoch’s faithfully conservative Fox News. Muldoon refused to take questions from certain journalists, picked fights with newspapers, notably the Christchurch Star, denounced state broadcasters as biased, leftist hotbeds and wrote a column for the tawdry, rabidly right-wing tabloid Truth.

President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Trump regularly lashes out via Twitter, which, among other things, fans speculation about his mental health. Historian James Belich detected a “certain mad-dog quality in Muldoon, including an inability to distinguish the significant from the trivial”. As a result, he “wasted his time writing insulting answers to insulting letters and sending threatening telegrams to university lecturers who criticised him in their courses”.

Trump called presidential rival Hillary Clinton a criminal and accused President  Barack Obama of illegally wiretapping Trump Tower. In Parliament, Muldoon accused former Labour Cabinet minister Colin Moyle of having been questioned by the police for homosexual activities, which were then illegal. Trump is dismissive of political allies, including his staff and Cabinet members, as well as opponents. A year before he retired from Parliament, Muldoon suggested his fellow MPs should be sold off as pet food, if that wasn’t too unfair on pets.

Former Labour minister Colin Moyle.

Racist dog whistles

Trump has a repertoire of racist dog whistles, promising to “make America great again”, build a wall along the Mexican border and deport illegal immigrants, including “Dreamers” whose parents took them to the US when they were children. Muldoon’s campaigns against other­ness included accusing foreign-born trade unionists of economic sabotage, deporting Pacific Island overstayers and cracking down on Maori activists.

Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord, placing the US in an exclusive ­society with Syria and Nicaragua. He labelled climate change a “hoax” and appointed a denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Muldoon antagonised world opinion and flouted the Gleneagles Agreement by refusing to require Kiwi sporting bodies and athletes to comply with the ­boycott on sporting contacts with South Africa under the apartheid regime.

Trump has explicitly condoned police brutality. Muldoon’s determination to “maintain the rule of law” during the 1981 Springbok Tour extended to encouraging heavy-handed and sometimes brutal policing to ensure the rugby community could continue its rivalry with representatives of an ideologically racist pariah state.

But there are significant differences. Muldoon came from a humble background. His home in Chatswood on Auckland’s North Shore was comfortable enough, but a far cry from Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago or, for that matter, John Key’s $20 million Parnell mansion. Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and devoted himself to the accumulation of wealth, by whatever means he could get away with.

Muldoon could be a maverick, but he’d joined the National Party as a young man and was a loyalist thereafter. Trump was a registered Democrat until 1987 and has since changed his official political affiliation at least five times. Muldoon was a career politician: when he became Prime Minister, he’d been an MP for 15 years and had stints as Minister of Finance, Deputy Prime ­Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Trump hadn’t served in government or held elected office before becoming President.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Photo/Getty Images

Genuine sympathy

Although there was a dark side to Muldoon’s populism, he had a genuine concern for and affinity with ordinary Kiwis. As Belich writes, he “placed himself at the head of ‘Rob’s Mob’ partly for political advantage but partly also from genuine sympathy”. His commitment to “the way we were”, argues Belich, was philosophical as well as pragmatic. Trump has no animating cause bar the gratification of his ego; to the extent that he embraces populist nostrums, it’s out of a desire to secure the unshakeable loyalty of an infinitely credulous base and a delusion, born of ignorance, that the problems confronting the US President are easily solved.

In Scott’s assessment, “Muldoon was a much smarter person, far more intellectually curious. Muldoon wasn’t a liar; Trump is a pathological liar.”

Trump has a smart-arse smirk, whereas Muldoon had a sense of humour. When I was a press officer at Airbus Industrie, the Toulouse-based aircraft manufacturing consortium, in the 1980s, Muldoon paid a visit. He was interested in aviation and, in those days, the national carrier was a government department. There was a mid-morning summit meeting at which the two delegations met across a long, narrow table. Muldoon sat opposite Airbus’s president, in front of whom was a tall glass, a small bottle of Perrier and a large bottle of scotch.

Gesturing at the bottle, Monsieur le Président, a functioning alcoholic, explained to Muldoon that he had a cold. Most politicians would have feigned sympathy while resolutely ignoring the scotch. Muldoon, who didn’t mind a beverage himself, smiled, emitted his slightly sinister chuckle and said, “Well, that should kill it stone dead.”

This article was first published in the November 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.