When well-spoken Holyoake helmed the land

TOM HUNT
Last updated 08:36 01/12/2013

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There were two Keith Holyoakes at Brooklyn School, near Motueka.

To save confusion, teachers named one "Kiwi" and his Australian-born cousin namesake "Aussie".

Jenny Holyoake isn't certain what became of Aussie Keith. Her father, Kiwi Keith, would become prime minister of New Zealand for 12 years, beginning his reign on November 26, 1960 - 53 years ago this week.

He actually, albeit briefly, became prime minister three years earlier when he took over the leadership of National in 1957 after Sid Holland resigned, just before Labour took power.

It was impressive for a boy who had left school at the age of 12 to work on the family farm in Tasman.

Despite his lack of formal education, he regarded "words as weapons", a biographer wrote.

In Mr Holyoake's own words: "I would have been 13 when I bought Darwin's Origin of Species. Through all my teen years I read in bed by candlelight.

"Through all that time I did not go to bed without a dictionary at my side."

In a piece on a Holyoake exhibition she compiled this year, Nelson Historical Society president and author Karen Stade described Mr Holyoake's mother as "punctilious" in ensuring her children spoke well.

"He always denied it was put on - it was simply something he and his siblings learned at their mother's knee."

Growing up, the young Mr Holyoake never considered entering politics but in 1928 had his name put forward to run for the Reform Party in Motueka. He was, in fact, saving to see the world.

"If he stood, the money would be required for his election campaign," Ms Stade wrote.

"Older brother Conrad encouraged him, saying he could go overseas any time but would remain a back-country fruit farmer all his life if he didn't give it a go."

He lost that election but entered Parliament after a by-election in 1932.

By 1946 he was National's deputy. Eventually, when Sid Holland retired due to illness in 1957, he took the helm.

His time at the top would be remembered for many things.

He was in charge when New Zealand ditched the death penalty, and adopted decimal currency, and he made big gains in overseas agricultural trade.

While Mr Holyoake the politician could be controversial - most notably for reluctantly committing troops to America's war in Vietnam - Mr Holyoake the person was, by today's standards, perversely accessible.

Daughter Jenny Holyoake, now 67 and living in Wellington, remembers the good and bad of that open door policy, which included having their home number listed in the directory.

"He felt, because he was in public life, he should be available for the public to get him."

She remembers during the Vietnam War getting distraught phone calls from parents saying "your bastard father was responsible for my son's death". Homeless people would call looking for a state home.

"Other people would just ring up to have a good go."

On becoming prime minister, Mr Holyoake and his wife Norma moved from Bolton St, off The Terrace, to 41 Pipitea St in Thorndon. They had five children - Roger, Peter, Diane, Lynley and Jenny. Almost every day, Mr Holyoake would wander down to Parliament, meeting shop owners on the way.

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"He got to know the shop owners, the greengrocer . . . he would stop and talk about garden products with the chap who owned the garden shop."

It was a part of day-to-day life that her father "quite enjoyed".

Attorney-General Chris Finlayson was a boy when he and a friend met Clutha National MP Peter Gordon in Parliament in 1974.

"We told him we had a debate coming up and the topic was on foreign affairs," Mr Finlayson remembers.

"He pushed us through Holyoake's door for a chat. For all the allegations about Holyoake's pomposity, he was quite the opposite. A warm and friendly person, happy to chat away for ages."

Mr Holyoake finally stepped down in 1972, just months before Labour seized back power. Robert Muldoon snared another National win in 1975, and appointed Mr Holyoake as minister of state. In 1977 he appointed him governor- general for three years.

The government history website nzhistory.net.nz describes the appointment - of an active politician to the apolitical role - as controversial.

"Holyoake served competently if not brilliantly," the website says.

Following his stint as governor- general, he retired with Norma to a house in Aurora Tce but soon suffered strokes. Jenny Holyoake remembers visiting her father in Wellington Hospital in 1983 when the Melbourne Cup was on. Her racing fan father got her to go to the TAB to put a bet on a horse, aptly named Kiwi.

Kiwi won and soon after, on December 8, 1983, Mr Holyoake died from a heart attack in hospital.

- The Dominion Post

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