BOOKCASE : KIWI KEITH – A biography of Keith Holyoake

Barry Gustafson • Auckland University Press • RRP $59.99

Some important participants in Rob Muldoon’s political career complained they were not interviewed for Barry Gustafson’s His Way biography. There are unlikely to be similar concerns about Gustafson’s Kiwi Keith, the exhaustive biography of one of the country’s most important, and more contradictory, prime ministers.
The book is all the more impressive as Holyoake said he had no intention of writing about himself and, unlike Walter Nash who even hoarded used train tickets, did not go out of his way to assist future biographers.
Holyoake’s seeming lack of pretence contrasts with the pompous, toffee-tongued persona of the man, characteristics magnified on television, introduced early in his 11-year tenure at the top. In fact, the book provides number of telling anecdotes showing, as the honours piled up, he was singularly status-immune and remarkably accessible and informal.
Kiwi Keith is equally convincing on Holyoake’s political status. “During his years as Prime Minister, major and inclusive Agricultural Production and National Development conferences were held; an aluminium industry was established; the steel, timber, pulp and paper, and tourism industries were greatly expanded; oil and gas exploration was pursued, eventually leading to the Maui field; and there was overall considerable increase not only in agricultural but also manufactured output and exports.”
One of Holyoake’s greatest gifts was his ability to lead one of the most talented and strong-minded cabinets of the last half century. He achieved ‘consensus’ among his colleagues and together they also negotiated successfully with Britain over its EEC entry, opposed nuclear testing, stopped racial selection of All Black teams playing South Africa, and ensured minimal Vietnam War involvement.
As Gustafson writes: “It was not just coincidence that Holyoake presided over period of New Zealand’s history during which there was considerable economic growth, material prosperity, cultural liberalisation, expansion of educational opportunity, upward social mobility, and when, perhaps arguably, it came of age in foreign affairs.”
The book is characteristically detailed and even-handed with the surprisingly few embarrassments during 40-year plus career in politics – the buying of Dannevirke farm to keep Holyoake in politics, the helpful building of road to his Kinloch property, and the dubious precedent of his appointment as governor-general.
It is not often one can say book with 1600 footnotes is highly readable – even dense passages are lightened by insightful anecdotes. It is the model of modern political biography.

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