Michele Hewitson Interview: Don McKinnon

By Michele Hewitson

Sir Don McKinnon says the Queen likes to talk about horses and cattle breeding. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Sir Don McKinnon says the Queen likes to talk about horses and cattle breeding. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Don McKinnon said he'd put on his suit jacket for his picture, so that he'd look "like a director".

He's just been appointed the interim director of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, that troubled place on the hill and he, of all people, doesn't need to put on a jacket to give himself the gravitas required for the job.

He's got the CV: former Deputy PM and Foreign Minister, Nobel Prize nominee, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, and, I almost forgot, he's a Sir, a proper one, knighted by the Queen.

So, properly, I suppose, he should be addressed as Sir Donald, but this is New Zealand. Will the museum staff have to call him Sir Don? He said, "I think I get a bit of everything." The media minder said, "He said he was quite happy to be called Don." Don had a suggestion: "Hey, you."

That might be in keeping with the new spirit of openness at the museum.

As might being offered, through a PR agency, an interview with the interim director. You'd have died waiting for an interview with the departed one.

Anyway, that was a kind offer, but an unnecessary one: I'd already called him and he'd already said "yes". He's been given the job - according to him, after he delivered the Hillary lecture at the museum last year, and "Some people saw this lecture and felt I had some attributes that I otherwise wasn't aware of".

I said, "Oh, come on!" But that's a fairly typical example of his favoured manner: self-deprecation, which should not be mistaken for false modesty.

Later I asked him about the fun of being a Sir, and he said, "... some people are a bit perplexed". What did he mean? "As my mate Paul East used to say, 'McKinnon looks at himself in the mirror ... and says, 'my God, New Zealand's a land of opportunity'."

He's been brought in, according to me, to mop up the post-Vanda Vitali mess. He says he's here to "keep the show moving" and so on. A matter of, "getting things tidied up now. They've gone through a pretty painful period, from what I can see. You know, over the whole Vanda episode clearly there's been a lot of bruising, been a lot of tears ..."

He'd been in the job 24 hours when I saw him and he'd already been having "little chats".

He's been assuring staff: "... don't worry about your back. There are no more divisions, there's no more isolation of some people. These sorts of things." It sounds like a form of peace keeping, or making. Which he's good at. "Okay." Well, isn't he? "Hopefully, yeah. It's a pretty important thing to do when you've got conflict all around you."

He is astute with the media, and the museum needs good news headlines, so you'd think they'd trust him to be a reliable, safe pair of hands.

He was, for example, supposed to deliver the Hillary lecture at the time of the spat between the Hillary family and the museum, but he put it off until an agreement was reached.

"Look, if I'd been giving the Hillary lecture here ... and Vanda was in the front row [and it had been] probably boycotted by the Hillary family, that would have been news."

He's not silly, obviously. A media minder sat in on the interview, and recorded it. (The only other important people who do this are PMs, some ministers, heads of very big companies.)

So it is, I think, a silly look to have him minded. It says that either the museum is still suspicious of the media - a running theme through the reign of Vitali - or that they don't trust their interim director to say the right things. And why on earth would he need to be minded?

"After nine years in London, and I don't mean just the British media, I mean the Zambian media and the Indian media and the Pakistan media, I need a lot of self-protection."

That was a joke. Still, perhaps he needs a bit of self-protection. He said I had a "heinous" reputation, which I don't think was quite a compliment, but then I said he had been described as having a "patrician ease", and he didn't take that to be entirely complimentary either, so we'll call it even.

He got into a spot of bother for saying - and he was stating a fact, but still he was the Sec Gen at the time - that Prince Charles would not automatically be the next head of the Commonwealth, among other things. I wanted to know if Prince Charles had said anything to him about his so-called gaffe.

"Well, if he did, I wouldn't tell you, would I?" So he did. "Ha, ha. I can neither confirm nor deny." He has been described as getting into such bothers because of his "geniality and relaxed approach to the media". Did he enjoy that description? "I don't know."

He said, "you have a lot of descriptions imposed on you, that's the way it is."

I'd had a brilliant, but unfortunately belated idea of an image to impose on him. We could have hired a white horse and had the knight riding in on it, to save the museum, for his picture.

He decided to humour me; he's had lots of practice humouring people. "Ha, ha. That's a good story. You couldn't find a white horse? I could have dusted off my saddle."

Would he have done it, I wonder? When I phoned to ask for an interview he said, in closing, "good on ya".

I wondered whether he'd ever said, "good on ya", to the Queen. "Well, I wouldn't say, would I? Ha, ha." He's met her, oh, about 40 times and he and his second wife, the former journalist, Clare de Lore, had her majesty and Prince Philip round for an intimate lunch at their former, rather posh Mayfair house.

He is presumably more formal in such situations. "Look, you can waste a lot of energy trying to be what you're not. I am who I am. Maybe I'm slightly more polite in such circumstances, but I don't think the language changes very much really." So he may have said "good on ya" to the Queen? "Well, I may have."

His Mayfair residence was very nice but he told a funny story about the French ambassador calling it a "modest little residence".

He also told a really funny story about his wife saying the McKinnon household was, "the white trash of Mayfair". He said, twice, that I wasn't to put this in, but why not? It's funny. And he should know better than to tell journalists jokes and then tell them not to put them in.

I wanted to know what that dreadful man, Prince Philip, was like and he said, "Oh, look, he's very entertaining." Of course, what I really wanted to know was whether he'd made any of his famously offensive jokes at the lunch table.

"Ah. No, no, no." Not that he'd tell me, would he? He said that no, of course he wouldn't, and in any case, Prince Philip wouldn't be making gaffes at a lunch, now would he? I said I didn't see why not, he does in public. "You have to look at his life as being like going to an A & P show three times a day, every day of your life ..."

What the Queen really likes to talk about (and you know you really want to know this) is horses and cattle breeding. So that's what they would end up talking about. He must be able to talk about anything. "I can talk about cattle and horses."

What Robert Mugabe likes to talk about is cricket. "He can tell you what Richard Hadlee scored at Lancaster Park, in the third test, in 1978. He's got a very good brain. Unfortunately, he went astray."

I was asking about a Queen and a dictator because I was trying to get some sense of what his life had been like being Sec Gen, and what he was like in the job.

He must be very good at small talk and passing the port, say, which might be at odds with that telephone manner. I wouldn't know.

Perhaps he subsumes one side of himself, which is what he says he did with personal ambition when he was chief whip and Deputy PM. He called the photographer "mate" and, in a blokey way, by his last name.

There was some banter about some photograph taken years ago, which the photographer had promised him, and never delivered, of him with the Queen at Turangawaewae Marae. He said, "I've got a few more of me with the Queen."

I said I supposed if he had them up on the wall at home, he wouldn't tell me that either. He said, no, he didn't actually. I suppose one gets so used to having their picture taken with the Queen that it's no big deal. You could say I got the patrician and the photographer got the ease.

He was once, famously, called a "born to rule prick" by Michael Cullen, in the House. I asked what he thought about that. He answered by telling me what happened afterwards, which was that he went out into the lobby to confront Cullen.

Goodness, was he going to punch him? "I was walking towards them [Cullen and Trevor Mallard] with my hands firmly in my pockets to show that I wasn't going to punch him." That's a good story, if not quite an answer.

Perhaps he got the huff - or got bored - with me asking about the Queen and Cullen and whether it was true that Winston Peters once threw up in a washing machine at a party at their flat, a legendary press gallery story (he says he can't remember). I should have asked about cattle and horses.

After half an hour he said, "all right. Got it all?" No, I hadn't. I'd booked an hour. He said, "who gave you an hour?" Had he had enough already? "Yes!" Where, I asked, was his genial and relaxed approach to the media? "You've had the lot. You've had your share. Ha."

He gave me another 20 minutes. He was mostly genial and relaxed, although he didn't need to put on his jacket to look like a director.

- NZ Herald

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