David Kirk is one of our most famous sons and, after his stellar All Blacks career, is now a top businessman in Australia. He talks about life after rugby, and his hopes and fears for NZ.
David Kirk is a republican and he doesn't much care for the Wellywood sign. But he's diplomatic about it. Nothing wrong with the monarchy. Perfectly OK for someone to suggest a giant"Wellywood" for the Wellington hills. The man politely squeezes the argument to death.
Kirk is lean, handsome and rich, with a preppy haircut and designer jeans: the golden boy enters his 50s. He is the only All Blacks captain to hold (and kiss) the Rugby World Cup. He made millions in business and his investment vehicle is called Bailador, after a famous Spanish bull. We'll get to that later.
He smiles a lot and is friendly but exact: he will often dismantle the question before answering. After a lifetime of success, why wouldn't he be pleased?
Kirk is one of New Zealand's most famous sons and worries about why the country isn't doing better. He is highly political, a former chief adviser to then-National prime minister Jim Bolger, and once a would-be National MP. He thinks we should get rid of MMP and he favours state asset sales.
New Zealand and Australia, he says, should become republics. "We're not appendages of another state. We are a stand-alone country." But, "it's a funny thing. I'm sort of a republican in principle, and I would support a process which moved Australia and New Zealand to being republics.
"But I think from a constitutional point of view, what we've got works very well. Now I can't think of any reason why the republic wouldn't work just as well. So in that sense, I'm not critical of what we've got."
Same goes for Wellywood. "It's derivative; it's not original. It's not saying: 'This is what we stand for.' I mean, why do we want to be derived from someone else? It's a question of identity, and whether your identity should be derived from someone else's achievements and someone else's symbols."
But no offence to the folks who like Wellywood. "I don't think it's fair to say it's try-hard or anything. I mean, people are trying to think of the right thing."
Kirk is now executive chairman of the Hoyts Australasian cinema chain, and this and other business interests regularly bring him back home from Sydney. Ask him whether he thinks of himself as an Aussie and he ponders.
"I kind of think we all have multiple identities... no identity is exclusive to any other identity. So to ask somebody to choose, to say: `Are you Australian, do you feel a New Zealander?' is a very difficult thing to do."
However, "I'm a passionate supporter of the All Blacks in sport and, to some extent, I'm a frustrated supporter of New Zealand in economic terms."
It bothers him that we strive for excellence in some areas and not others. When it comes to rugby and other sports, we go all out. In areas of culture – opera, acting – "People have this sense of: 'Why not? I come from New Zealand, why can't I be the best I can be?"'
Sam Neill and Kiri Te Kanawa are world stars in their fields. So are some of our entrepreneurs, especially in new industries where you must compete on the world stage "from the beginning".
But in other areas, "I do sense and you do see a lot of acceptance of mediocrity." Take our attitude towards wealth creation. "No one thinks that wealth creation is the most important thing in their life.
"If they do, they've missed the boat, they should go and see Citizen Kane."
But, he says, "it's fundamental to New Zealand to grow the wealth of the country and that comes from business performance. It does not come from the government".
He questions why John Key's Government should only partially privatise power companies.
"There's no good economic reason not to go the whole hog. There might be a good political reason, but I'm not a politician."
So long as there was adequate regulation to ensure security of supply and competition, the companies could be sold.
Increased productivity was the key to greater wealth, and greater productivity came from new work practices, new technology, "new ways of managing and applying brain power. Clearly education is a big part of that, because you have to train people to be more effective and to work in more complex environments and add more value to what they do".
Kirk is struck by the much more overt nationalism of Australia, and says this gung-ho Aussie confidence might give it an economic edge over New Zealand.
"One thing's for sure, you've got to try stuff... You don't want to be too confident, of course, but I do think you want to come from a situation, a psychology, if you like, of 'I can succeed'."
Kiwis were "a bit more self-effacing, a bit more humble, in manner. And I think that's a good thing. I think you can be both. You can be humble and self-effacing – you don't have to be self-regarding and boastful – but, at the same time, have a fundamental confidence and drive and self-belief".
This sounds a bit like a self-portrait.
On MMP, Kirk is decisively negative, and for once he does not engulf his point in a cloud of qualifications. Governments need mandates, he says, but "MMP is not a system which is designed to provide a mandate". The system was born in post-war Germany and was designed to put a brake on the power of the government, to prevent one party holding too much power.
But governments today need a mandate to take decisive action, especially "in a world that's changing quickly and a world where we're seeing the rise of many new economies, particularly in Asia, which are very competitive...
"This is probably temperamental as much as anything else. I quite like to ask for a mandate and then go and do it. And that's what I've done as a chief executive of publicly listed companies.
"I did a lot of things in a short time that I thought were in the best interests of the company. I got a mandate from the board to do that. I explained it clearly and I asked for their sign-off and asked for their support. And I expected their support and I received it."
But not always. Kirk had a fast and furious stint as CEO of Fairfax, the media company that owns many Australian and New Zealand newspapers and websites, including the Sunday Star-Times and Stuff.co.nz. Appointed in 2005, he resigned abruptly in 2008, and many asked why. It was not, he now says, disagreement over his decision to buy the internet auction website Trade Me. It cost $700 million, which some said was too much. "Trade Me was very successful from the get-go," he says.
Rather, the problem arose when Fairfax merged with Rural Press, a large Australian newspaper chain. This brought John and Nicholas Fairfax on to the board of the company which bore their family name – and they didn't see eye to eye with Kirk, although he says "the rest of the board were very supportive of me".
He couldn't continue as CEO without the board's full support, "so the only honourable thing to do is to say, 'I need to resign', and the board reluctantly accepted that".
Kirk looks quite happy with how things turned out. He got his life back. "I've got time and I can pick and choose how I spend it."
The higher you go in a public company, he says, "the more administration you get [and] that's just a less interesting job".
He also got a $5 million golden handshake. He was entitled to it under his contract, he says, although he does concede that "frequently" chief executives' salary packages, including the golden handshakes, are "overblown" or excessive.
And then, a characteristic bit of hedging. "I'm not saying necessarily mine was, but frequently they are. And I'm not excluding myself from that."
Nowadays he spends half his working time on Hoyts and half on the investment vehicle Bailador – the Spanish word for dancer. It is also the name of a famous Spanish bull which gored the great matador Joselito to death in 1920. Bailador was a "small agile bull, very successful".
The story of the name says a lot about the intellectual businessman and his lifestyle. Kirk got interested in bullfighting after noticing a book about it in the Tate gallery in London, where he had been looking at an exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon following a reunion at his old Oxford college. And then he started reading other books about bullfighting, "not just as a sport, but as a cultural process" and a sort of pseudo-religion in Spain.
"That's the more general way I live my life now," he says.
The intellectual wrote a brutally frank book about rugby, Black and Blue.
"One of the first things to understand about rugby is that it is a violent game," he wrote. "Sometimes it is extremely violent. While violence isn't the point (as it is in boxing or, say, hurling) it is integral to the game.
"You can't play well without suffering it, or being prepared to administer it. I'd go so far as to say that the team who can control their violence and apply it most effectively is the team that is likely to win."
But he won't buy the liberal argument that rugby celebrates violence.
"It's structured violence and it's regulated violence," he says now. "And people are not intending to hurt each other. There might be some people who do love to hurt people – I think they'd be very rare and they are sociopathic anyway.
"Most people don't intend to hurt people; they intend to get the ball; they intend to move someone off the ball... they just want to play the game."
Kirk is an official ambassador for the Rugby World Cup, but the good liberal says he can quite understand why people don't like the game. If you didn't grow up with it, if it wasn't part of your family life, he says, you might well not like it.
Kirk became deeply unpopular with many All Blacks after he refused to join the rebel Cavaliers tour to South Africa in 1986. Not only the players ostracised him, so did some of the wives. But his wife, Brigit, who wasn't interested in rugby and didn't even know he was an All Black when they first met, helped give him a perspective on the game which was causing him so much grief.
"Brigit's magnificent lack of interest in the game was inspiring," he wrote. And Brigit, he says with a laugh, is still not interested.
DAVID KIRK: THE BIOFILE
Born October 1960, the son of a doctor, and educated at Wanganui Collegiate.
Takes a medical degree at Otago University.
Was "agnostic on the moral question" of the 1981 Springbok tour, "but in practical terms, I did think nothing was worth this violence".
In 1986, eventually decides not to join the rebel Cavaliers rugby tour of South Africa.
In 1987 is captain of the All Blacks team that won the Rugby World Cup – the only time New Zealand has won it. But Kirk abandons rugby at 26 and takes a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford to study philosophy, politics and economics.
In 1991, tries and fails to win National Party nomination for Robert Muldoon's old seat of Tamaki. Works in National Party prime minister Jim Bolger's office and becomes chief policy adviser. Shifts with wife Brigit and sons Hugo, Barnaby and Harry to Australia in 1999.
Was chief executive of Fairfax Media from 2005 to 2008, with newspapers and websites on both sides of the Tasman.
Now executive chairman of Hoyts cinema chain.
David Kirk will write exclusively for Fairfax Media newspapers and for the RugbyHeaven website during the Rugby World Cup. This will include columns in the Sunday Star-Times.
- © Fairfax NZ News