Remembering Thea Muldoon

An Interview with National Press Club President Peter Isaac

Dame Thea Muldoon Personified an Era. 
She Gave Shortest New Zealand Speech Ever

The death of Dame Thea Muldoon was regarded by journalists of a certain age as the end of an era?
Dame Thea personified a quite different era to the one we live in now. She exemplified the now quite forgotten era in which wives empowered their husbands rather than wielded influence and power directly and in their own right. Dame Thea’s particular cleverness I often thought was in the way that she was a creature of her times, carefully disguising how astute she in fact was.

Any personal recollections to share?

The National Press Club was the launching platform for a book of reminiscences about Rob Muldoon. Being a good sport Dame Thea came along and gave a speech from the podium. It was the shortest speech I have ever heard- and the most memorable. I will now give it to you word for word

“I will tell one thing about Rob. He wrote his own speeches.”

And that was it?
That was all. Those 12 words tell you everything about Rob Muldoon, and also about Dame Thea, for that matter .

This was not reported, or covered at the time?
It was ignored

Can you think of any reasons why it passed over the collective heads of the media?
The mainstream media, then as today, is not nuanced. Either someone or something is good or bad. This means that anyone connected with them is also either good or bad. Rob Muldoon was then as now viewed in fashionable circles, a circle that entirely embraces the mainstream media, as the Prince of Darkness. So Dame Thea’s mastery of succinctness and its stylish delivery was allowed to go unreported. In effect in those pre-internet pre social media days in practical terms it meant that it never happened.

What were Rob and Thea like together?
On the one occasion that I shared a family type dinner with them, I recall noting at the time what an attentive husband Rob was, Thea chipping in from time to time – never interrupting—and Rob giving spontaneous weight to what it was she said.

There was though this media rancour and if we accept that the media channels the mood of the public, then the media was echoing this general sentiment?
Shortly after his ouster I went to see Rob Muldoon in his parliamentary offices now rather diminished from the circumstances of just a month or so before. I asked him why he had been so decisively voted out. “People got bored with me,” was his reply.

Particularly toward the end of his era, he seemed to go out of his way to foment this media/public rancour.
He did. It was characterised by his diverting to himself a knighthood originally intended for Peter Gordon, his long-time political and cabinet comrade-at-arms. Instead of alighting on Gordon’s head, Rob put it on his own. Cromwell noted that “men are led by baubles.” Rob had publicly demonstrated that he was similarly prone, even though he publicly rejoiced in proclaiming himself the ultimate “ordinary bloke.”

On the topic of people who proclaim their dedication to ordinary folk in their eagerness to get preferment, elected, did you find as a surprise the Prime Minister’s vetoing of the MPs pay rise?
Premier John Key, like Rob Muldoon, is an outsider who broke through into the inside. They are from working class backgrounds. Their success is having sampled life from both sides of the divide. John Key knew that the syndrome in which MPs tell voters to do what we say, instead of do what we do had been pushed as far as it could. He knew there would be trouble.

The do-what-we-say syndrome over pay lasted for a very long time?
Every rational person has known for a very long time that New Zealand MPs are exceptionally well rewarded relative to their counterparts in the rest of the English – speaking world. The media was aware of it. But was dazzled and blinded by the bureaucratic and accounting structures that encased it. The first was the original arbitration outfit the Higher Salaries Commission. This was a slick piece of bureaucratic nomenclature psychology. There is this implicit message that, yes, certain people are not as you ordinary people. They exist on altogether more exalted level. So this Higher Salaries concoction by its mere existence confirmed that there was indeed an elite, and it was merely a question of calculating how much extra this elite should be rewarded for its eliteness.

Are you public sector bashing here?
I was once a denizen of the Ministry of Works single mens camp at Otematata. Living across the road in the married side of the camp was the Project Engineer. Notice that he was described as just project “engineer.” He was responsible for thousands of people and their safety in addition to a billion dollar investment. Yet he would have earned no more than four times the pay that I earned. Nowadays this same job would have been divided up among a cohort of manager types, each commanding perhaps even 40 times the pay of a labourer.

You are questioning the now mute acceptance of the elitism that replaced the post war ethos of applied egalitarianism?
My point is that the mainstream media very largely leaves it unchallenged and that this is because the elitism in its remuneration form is dressed up in elements of bureaucratic structural technology such as Higher Salaries Commission.

The hounds are surely out now in terms of MPs pay?
Note how the flurry to date has centred on words such as pay, and salary. The bamboozlement is already in place. People who self-select themselves as journalists are not the people to be at home with the core issue which centres around the numerate sphere of actuary, superannuation, and expensing . Of particular interest will be the aniseed trail that diverts these hounds from for example the remuneration category broadly encompassed by the phrase fringe benefits.

This diversionary aniseed trail, what form will it take?
The flag will be one such form. Journalists cannot resist it. It works every time. It is a shrink wrapped pour on water issue which everyone can relate to. It’s got everything – nationhood, independence, sovereignty, cock-a -snook at the imperialists. You could add to this such media set pieces as standing alone,, one-up on the Australians……... On cue, and Muldoon-like, Premier John Key will unfurl the flag diversionary wheeze.