Gordon McLauchlan produces Passionless People sequel

23:12, Apr 14 2012
The anarchic Gordon McLauchlan.

God save the exodus to Australia," says Gordon McLauchlan. "If we stopped that, unemployment would soar."

Well, that's one way of looking at it, and just a taste of McLauchlan's anarchic views, most kindly described by the publishers of his new book as "outspoken". The Passionless People Revisited is possibly even more outspoken than The Passionless People, in which he called New Zealanders the living-dead, smiling zombies. It was first published in 1976 and sold, he recalls, 25,000 copies in six months.

Thirty-six years later, things are worse. New Zealanders are now dubbed frowning zombies and the promise of the 1960s and 70s has evaporated. "Even though in the 1960s and 70s New Zealand was a stultified society, very conformist, we were poised to come out of it. It never happened." New Zealanders, he says, are impotently aware that they have been drifting towards social and economic disaster for decades.

During a telephone interview, McLauchlan is saved from sounding as if he's ranting by the occasional joyous self-deprecating laugh. He really enjoyed writing the book. "I don't think it will get me on the honours list, do you?" he says.

Possibly not. Chapter one begins: "A Face won the 2011 general election but only by a nose - a nose which rescues the Face from that blandness cartoonists fear. The perfectly passionless palliative Face kept saying it wanted to talk about serious things such as the economy and yet somehow never did. I could sense the attraction of personal charm but saw or heard nothing to hint at the gravitas mature citizens would want from a leader, and nothing at all to excite admiration."

Now a new paragraph: "Unlined by worry, with flat, incurious eyes and an airy, pleased-with-itself smile, the Face eclipsed all others in the campaign."


Etcetera. You could call it insulting, incisive, clever, rude, shocking with a grain or a welter of truth, all sorts of things. Not exactly aimed at earning official endearment by way of an honour. Fortunately, he'd hate one.

"The only joy I'd get out of it would be being able to turn it down. There's no chance."

McLauchlan hasn't actually met John Key, but thinks he lacks purpose. "I don't think he's a nasty man." He was concerned to read that the country's leader nominated his favourite book as anything by John Grisham. "There's nothing wrong with that if it's not all he reads, but I suspect that is all he reads. He managed in the last campaign to avoid any kind of questioning. He's said he has a 'sunny personality'. Does anyone know what he believes?"

The Prime Minister - "the ultimate refinement of the passionless person" - is not the only politician McLauchlan aims his barbs at. Don Brash "is really John Cleese playing a politician", and John Banks "the robotic Energiser".

Under such politicians, McLauchlan believes, New Zealand has become "a broken country, and no-one wants to fix it". And New Zealanders have lapsed "into a lack of passion bordering on inertness". If a New Zealander feels a bout of passion coming on, "he goes and paints a roof".

McLauchlan has a broad and long- term view of the state of the nation. He is 75 and worked for every variety of media before becoming a freelance writer and broadcaster in the 1970s. He has written a clutch of books and plans more. Not for him bowls or golf by way of late-life amusement. He can't understand how people can pursue these sorts of games repetitively. Boring bowls might be fine once a month but he, a competitive person, would have to play more often, which cancels the idea out completely.

"I'm an urbanite. I live in the centre of the city, 200 metres from Queen St, close to the library and the art gallery."

So, what is wrong with us all in 2012? Our relationship with alcohol, the gap between haves and have-nots, our preoccupation with committees and reports, our reversion to hiring Brits to run important organisations like the Treasury - "We're becoming a cultural colony of Britain, the least attractive society in the world". And an economic colony, "mainly of Australia". He deplores youth unemployment - the catalyst for the Middle East Spring. "And if we stopped bleeding off workers to Australia unemployment would soar."

Family violence is another serious issue: "A problem in New Zealand for decades. We were beaten at secondary school. I wasn't thrashed by my father when I was young. I never told anyone. They'd have thought he was a poof. My father was a lovely, gentle man."

He cites poverty, with a subsequent demand for food parcels in Auckland, for the working poor. "It's a low-income country and only has been since the decline of the unions.

"In Australia they have strong unions and know that when you've got people who demand more wages you have to increase productivity. In New Zealand we drop the wages."

New Zealand, he says, is a little country tagging along with the world's biggest failures - the United States, Britain and the Eurozone. It should be taking lessons from Scandinavian countries, Germany and South Korea.

New Zealand's indebtedness and current crop of politicians distress him. He doesn't think, though, that any subsequent prime minister has done as much damage as Rob Muldoon, the bete noir of his first book and overseer of ructions and riots at Bastion Point and around the 1981 Springbok tour.

"Keith Holyoake seems to me to be the last prime minister to want to make New Zealand a better place. The rest seemed to have been people on the make. The worst prime minister in my time was Walter Nash, in 1957, awful, but an old, old man. The best was Holyoake. [Helen] Clark did give us a sense of purpose. Key doesn't seem to have one himself."

He sees one of the problems of modern leadership as attracting people like David Cameron in Britain  "Eton and Oxford, into the Tory research unit and into Parliament. In the 1950s when I was in the Press gallery in Wellington there were farmers, teachers, waterside workers and miners. They'd all been hungry ... if you look at the House now it's essentially middle class or upper-middle class with a sense of entitlement.

"Why would John Key, with his money, go in to politics unless he had a deep-dyed need to do something for his country. I don't see it. What does he believe in? Can anyone tell me? Muldoon believed in himself and bullying people. I don't have the faintest idea what drives John Key. It's hard to see him late at the office worrying about 80,000 unemployed youth. When you look behind John Key you see the same old, shop-worn politicians there when Don Brash was leader. Nothing much has changed. They've found a frontman who can deflect serious issues."

He wouldn't have a bar of politics.

"I've never been a member of a disciplined group. Any government that hired a loudmouth like me would have to be stupid. I couldn't abide by government rulings. I couldn't compromise on things I think terribly important.

"Perhaps we're not beyond redemption. It might take a combination of people who really care."

Things might change, he says, when unemployment hits the middle class.

In his new book he deplores changes since book one, when Maori were forcing Pakeha to look again at the Treaty of Waitangi. "As negotiations became formal", he writes, "successive governments preferred to deal with iwi leaders, who were seduced into following a corporate model and whose affairs are entirely Pakeha in tone. The once were enemies have won again."

Maori, having achieved a place in Parliament through savvy and determination, "have been seduced in the same old way and absorbed into the Pakeha ethos". And statistics indicating social disadvantage "have worsened since the 1970s".

Women are a disappointment, although he admired them in 1976 "and still do, particularly older women. I was a great fan of the feminist movement."

Feminism was in full swing in 1976, but now he observes that the feminists' determination not to be seen as sex objects has been betrayed by their own children, with women sexualised as never before in magazines and television produced and run by women. And liberation has meant for many women "that men owe them nothing and especially don't even need to offer the perverse kind of loyalty they once would concede. Some women seem lost in shallow and sneering hedonism. "I do feel a bit let down by young women."

He's not worried about being abused for his views. He had hundreds of letters after The Passionless People. A woman who decamped for Canada told him it was a final straw. "The book confirmed her worst fears."

No, he says, he doesn't foresee rousing New Zealand readers to fury. "New Zealanders don't give a stuff about anything too much."

Does he think his 1976 book made a difference? "I don't think it had all that much effect. I don't think many books do. A number of books on a similar theme might. New Zealand literature generally doesn't relate to real life. Most of it's about middle-class angst. There are really serious problems in New Zealand. Once Were Warriors touched on real problems, but tell me a book that's done that since.

"One great thing that's happened is that society's opened up. There's enormously more freedom of speech. Conformity has moved over as a form of censorship. But nobody listens much."

Has he ever thought of leaving the country? No, he says. "If I didn't love it so much, it wouldn't piss me off so much."

Passionate People Revisited, by Gordon McLauchlan, Bateman, $29.99.

The Dominion Post