The life and times of Red Ken

By Adam Bennett

Ken Douglas lost 70kg from his famously bulky frame. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Ken Douglas lost 70kg from his famously bulky frame. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Having served on the boards of numerous corporations including Air NZ, NZ Post, Healthcare NZ and the NZ Rugby Union, does "Red" Ken Douglas still consider himself a socialist?

"Oh yeah too right", is his emphatic response. "Other people might not agree but it doesn't really matter to me what they think."

Just as well really, as Douglas - a complex figure as noted in historian David Grant's new biography Man for All Seasons - has been vilified by the left and the right for over 50 years for being either too socialist or not red enough.

At his home in Titahi Bay on the coast west of Porirua, Douglas, who turns 75 in November, has slowed down somewhat to concentrate on his work as a Porirua City Councillor along with his remaining directorships.

He's now doing more work from home which is a large house on the hill overlooking the beach and state houses below, shared with his long term partner and Socialist Unity Party fellow traveller Marilyn Tucker and one of his 14 grandchildren.

"I've really got to appreciate just what a lovely locality it is."

Again, this is just as well. Although a stomach stapling operation a few years back and the consequent loss of 70kg from his famously bulky frame gave him a new lease on life, a recent hip replacement quickly followed by a fall which dislocated his other hip, along with ongoing knee problems means he is not getting around as easily as he might.

His advancing years don't appear to have affected his mental acuity either. Douglas is still an accomplished and enthusiastic polemicist who enjoys setting out his analysis of any given economic or political topic at length.

But his easing workload after decades as a divisive, larger than life figure on the frontline of New Zealand's landmark industrial conflicts, means he has now had the chance to take stock. "It has given me the opportunity to be a bit retrospective in thinking about things in a real sense of time and space."

That self reflection has coincided with the interviews and research for Grant's book.

"I don't like biographies much. I haven't read many good ones" says Douglas from a chair within arm's length of a bookcase in his lounge filled with biographies of political leaders including Kruschev, Mao, Castro, De Gaulle and Helen Clark, along with texts by Marx and Engels.

"The mistake they make is they often make the person look bigger than Ben Hur which everybody knows is bullshit or they try to make some sort of sensational exposure."

In fact, the prospect of sensational expose has been headed off by Douglas's openness with Grant about his numerous affairs, including his chalk and cheese romance with businesswoman Roseanne Meo. Douglas's request that those involved and their families were not embarrassed means Grant's book is almost perfunctory in its coverage.

Douglas says while he was as open as he could be with Grant about his life, he asked his biographer to use the final chapter to make his own assessment of his role in the social and political context he lived in.

"That's the only value that these books have. It's not about how clever these people were, it's about what was happening at the time and I think he kept it pretty straight."

In fact that is exactly one of the book's key strengths. It is a vivid social history, firstly of Wellington and New Zealand in the middle decades of last century when events, such as the 1951 waterfront lockout, influenced the young Douglas's politics. And then of the trade union movement during a period where it lurched from challenge to crisis as successive Governments during the 1980s and early 90s shook up industrial relations.

It is this phase of Douglas's life that is the most controversial. Some union and left wing hardliners criticise his leadership of the Combined Trade Unions (CTU) - when the National government of the day was pushing its Employment Contracts Act in 1991 - as too weak. Many feel he should have called a general strike to oppose the legislation which ended compulsory unionism, and some go as far as accusing him of being complicit in the breaking of union power.

In spite of his claim he doesn't care what people think of him, Douglas admits he still gets "really offended" by what has been said about his role as CTU president at the time of the ECA.

As a SUP member he believed workers' organisations would only be effective if they operated along democratic control and decision making lines. "All of a sudden all these so called left wingers wanted me, because I happened to be the president of the CTU, to start acting like Ron Trotter or some other corporate chairman and start directing people to do things.

"That's personally offensive because if someone can tell you to do something, some other person call tell you to do something else."

What appears to have also influenced Douglas's leadership at the time was his belief that the unions had to progress from an adversarial approach to concentrate on gaining more influence over the "commanding heights" of the economy.

"Trade unions said it's no longer good enough to protect the level of wages we used to have, we've got to contribute to growing a better quality of employment, greater job security."

While Douglas indicates that approach never fulfilled its promise, the ECA certainly curtailed the influence of the CTU and its member unions. Having represented 660,000 union members when the CTU formed in 1987, by 1994 that was down to 380,000.

But Douglas doesn't see the weakening of union power in early nineties as having anything to do with the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and its satellite states at the same time.

The Soviet Union, which he visited a number of times as a SUP representative, was fundamentally weak because it denied workers any say in tackling problems of creating wealth, better job security and greater efficiencies.

"What was deficient was a lack of fundamental democratic rights."

Then again, that's a criticism he believes applies to New Zealand in the present day.

"New Zealand workers still don't have any effective economic democracy in their lives. We're still controlled by the dictates of very small minorities."

Douglas identifies the Business Roundtable and ACT - whose founder Sir Roger Douglas he refers to as his "illegitimate brother" - along with Finance Minister Bill English as the representatives of these groups.

On the other hand he praises Prime Minister John Key as "a pragmatic person who wants to believe in a system of equity and fairness".

"He's honest enough as an individual to say he'll have no truck with these extreme policies that wrecked New Zealand."

Meanwhile, despite the disillusionment he felt with the union movement which led to his resignation as CTU president in 1999, Douglas has optimism for its future and hopes it will learn from the mistakes of the past, including his own.

"I don't have regrets from having done things, the regret would be if I didn't learn from them. It's very easy not to make mistakes, you just don't do anything and I'd rather be known as a person who made huge mistakes because I tried to do huge numbers of things."

Milestones: Ken Douglas
* Born 15 November 1935

* Left Wellington College in 1953 having failed School Certificate twice. Truck driver, father of four, life-long socialist, pivotal figure in New Zealand's union movement for four decades.

* Served on NZ Post and Air NZ boards, remains on NZ Rugby Union board

* Member of the Order of New Zealand, Victoria University honorary doctor of laws

Man For All Seasons by David Grant
Random House, $45

- NZ Herald

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