Fran O'Sullivan: Politics of abuse: spot the real Muldoonist

Greens co-leader shows disturbing propensity for personal attacks

Brent Layton. Photo / NZ Herald
Brent Layton. Photo / NZ Herald

Russel Norman exposed himself as a "Muldoonist" when he slammed into highly respected economist Brent Layton this week for daring to raise his head above the parapet and defend the work of the NZ Electricity Authority, which he chairs.

Norman was clearly incensed that Layton had issued a paper on the economics of electricity that laid waste to the arguments of three critics of the current regime, and challenged the proposal by the Greens and Labour to set up a new entity - NZ Power - to effectively control prices.

But by slagging Layton off as "nothing more than a National Party-appointed civil servant who has failed to do his job and is now trying to protect his patch", Norman was straying well into the territory of personal attacks that Sir Robert Muldoon made an art form, and demonstrating a predisposition to a form of political management the Greens co-leader claims to despise.

Norman wouldn't have recognised his own behaviour as Muldoonist. The former National Prime Minister had after all been dead for five years before Norman crossed the Tasman to begin doctoral studies in political science where he concentrated on the now defunct Alliance party.

But by sledging Layton so soon after his tenuous allegation that Prime Minister John Key has become a divisive and corrosive figure ("we have seen all this before ... Robert Muldoon would recognise this Government as one after his own heart, but with better spin doctors and a similar disposition" he told the Greens conference), Norman was illustrating not simply a lack of tolerance for informed debate, but also a basic lack of knowledge of New Zealand political history.

If he is going to make a point of drawing links with a Prime Minister who left the Beehive nearly 30 years ago (when the Greens co-leader was still an Australian teenager) Norman should make sure his parallels are soundly based.

It's a moot point that many of the interventionist economic policies he espouses are not too far from those Sir Robert favoured. Sir Robert resisted Treasury calls to move towards a "market economy" while he reigned as Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.

And surprisingly for a man who based his doctoral thesis on the Alliance - itself a leftish grouping favouring strongly interventionist economic policies - Norman doesn't see the parallels between what he proposes and what Sir Robert held on to for far too long.

There was more besides in his attack on Layton.

Reports saying Layton would not work for a Greens-Labour Government were to Norman proof positive that he had shown "a lack of political neutrality that is unfitting of a state servant".

First, Layton is not a state servant. He is the independent chairman of the Electricity Authority. While he works within an overall framework he is not expected to lick political backsides. He is mandated to run an effective market.

Layton has proven integrity.

And there would be few people in the Wellington political firmament who would have missed the underlying message sent by the NZ Institute of Economic Research when it issued a short-form CV yesterday under the simple headline: Background: Dr Brent Layton.

The release simply noted the many roles Layton has held: chairman of the electricity market rules committee, a director of Transpower and M-Co, former chairman of Trust Bank Canterbury, a director of the Futures Exchange, deputy chairman of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, chairman of Lyttelton Port Company, chairman of Canterbury Health and also AgResearch and its commercial arm Celentis. Currently, He chairs Sastek, a Brisbane-based hardware manufacturing and software development company. And he has also been one of two external monetary policy advisers to the Governor of the Reserve Bank.

In other words: frame that up against a PhD on the Alliance and a working life spent mainly in Parliament? There is no real comparison.

It's worth pointing out that if there was one kind of person Rob Muldoon couldn't stomach, it was someone who was not on top of their material.

Trade Minister Tim Groser - who worked in Muldoon's think tank - said, "Unlike an Australian schoolboy, I actually knew Muldoon's personality. I would argue that I have never met two people more unalike than John Key and Robert Muldoon."

I doubt Layton would be fazed by Norman's absurdities.

The reason why Sir Robert held sway for so long was because not enough people of integrity had the courage to stand up for their beliefs and maintain their positions with reasoned argument. The Greens co-leader's kneejerk response has backfired. All Norman has done is seriously expose himself as a politician with little self-awareness and alarmingly predisposed to personal attacks.

A return to the economy of fear - I don't think so.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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