Graham, Rex Gordon Interview
Today is the 30th August 2018. I’m interviewing Rex Graham, Company Director and Chairman of the Regional Council Hawke’s Bay. Rex, would you like to tell us something about your family?
I would. My paternal great great grandfather, James Graham, came to New Zealand in 1860. He was a young man … sixteen year old … on a ship that was shipwrecked on the West Coast. He walked across to the East Coast of the South Island. He ended up in Fairlie and around that area there, in Cave; worked for the Elworthys. He actually died on the Elworthy farm, and it’s quite interesting because I’ve had a subsequent long relationship with the Elworthys. But he was a fencer there, and was really well known for his style of fencing.
But prior to that, in 1832 my mother’s family came to [the] South Island as well where everyone came. On her paternal side they were stonemasons who settled in Oamaru; worked in the stone quarries in Oamaru, were stonemasons and helped build the old stone buildings in Oamaru. So we’re very close to that, and to take my kids down there – they can’t believe it.
But on her great great grandmother’s side, and also in 1832, my ancestors came from Australia. They were convicts, two of them; father and son. They were convicted on second offence … grain in the handkerchief; so it was a time when … the Bastille in France … and the English were panicking, and they were shipping the poor. So basically they were poor, but they were quite defiant; and I have their court records because the English, like the Nazis, kept really good records, so I have their court records. And they were quite defiant in the court, and got seven years; both of them got seven years, but not at the same time, [a] couple of years apart. One of them is buried in Tasmania – I’ve never been there, and I want to go; but the other one, the son, came to New Zealand. After serving his time in Australia he came here and died, so he left his wife with eight children, and she had the little cottage which is still there – just out of Oamaru – which is quite famous now, stone cottage. She had that, and she lived there, so we have a deep connection both through the Grahams and through my mother’s family, the Lawsons, into the South Island … Oamaru, Timaru district.
My father was born in McKenzie Country because my grandfather was associated with a farm in [?], and so my father was born there and raised ‘til he was about fourteen and they moved to Christchurch. But really interesting, ‘cause I pass through that area quite a bit, or have done; and I used to ring my father – he’s dead now – but I used to ring him and say, you know, “I’m in the McKenzie Country Jack, and it’s bloody beautiful.” And the only thing he was interested in … was the cold, and he’d say, “Is it cold?” Because [chuckle] his memory is not of the beautiful mountains and the tussock grass; his memory is being on a horse … young shepherd … the war was about to start, ‘cause he was too young to go to the war; and there there wasn’t things, so you know, he wouldn’t’ve had decent socks, and he wouldn’t have decent gear. So we’ve got a strong connection to the MacKenzie Country down to Oamaru, Timaru. Really interesting thing – I told Donna Awatere once that I was whakapapa … whakapapa back to New Zealand, and I was tangata whenua; and she and Wi [Donna’s husband, Wi Huata] took a trip down there with me and went to all the gravesites. And we’re everywhere in gravesites down there.
So my grandfather was a small farmer, and he was a racehorse man so basically a lot of the family wealth went to the racetracks. [Chuckle] And he did come up … well, my father came up here … he did come up once. Both my grandfathers fought in the First World War and both fought in the Somme and Ypres; they both returned from the war. One was a conscientious objector … my mother’s father was a conscientious objector … but in those days they put him in as a stretcher bearer; so he got shot in No Man’s Land.
But Frederick Graham was in all those battles; and he returned quite cheery, you know; he didn’t talk a lot about it, but I remember when I was young he came to Hawke’s Bay. And old General Russell was still alive – and we were very young – and he told the story … ‘cause he was in Russell’s battalions … and he told the story that we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Russell. And they went out and had a cup of tea with him, my old man and Fred. Yeah, that was great. And so, yeah, I used to look at that statue of Russell [??]; and I read his book and I completely understand my grandfather’s admiration because he refused … he denied orders to send the Kiwis, one of which was my grandfather, over; and Fred said he would have died. So they both fought in the Somme; I’ve very proud of that. Their pictures out the back; both of them returned.
My other grandfather threw his medals … buried them. And he had five acres in Windsor, just out of Oamaru, and I often go to that little farm and think, ‘Where the bloody hell did the old bugger bury them?’ [Chuckles] But he basically buried them, and didn’t want anything to do with the war; never did anything. But Fred was quite … he didn’t get to Gallipoli, but he got into the Somme which was much worse.
Yes. It depended, I guess, the way you handled that …
That’s right. Well, one was a conscientious objector, so he didn’t want to kill anyone, and he didn’t.
But it was more dangerous being a stretcher bearer than carrying a rifle.
He was brave. And he was very eccentric. I remember he had an old Model P truck, and I was in it and to get home he drove through a maize paddock; never forget it. Never forget it – he just drove straight through a maize paddock into his hou[se], and I thought, ‘I want to be like him’, you know – I mean I am a little bit eccentric, and it comes from the ancestors of course.
So my father was too young to go to the war, and he decided he was going to move to the North Island. So that would’ve been [a] long time ago – my brother’s nearly seventy, so it’d be seventy years ago he came to Hawke’s Bay – went to Tiko, [Tikokino] started a logging business. I have a picture out there of him with a huge totara. He was always a little … and they were always small entrepreneurs. The Grahams were hard core National Party voters; hard core small business; small farming; conservative in their thinking; but they were always doing their own business – hardly ever worked for anybody. And so he did a logging business, and then he went in to Hawke’s Bay Farmers and he was really pushing for … I remember as a kid, he did his accountancy degree at home. [You] used to be able to do that. We only lived in a small house in … but he built a house in Riverslea Road. He went to the freezing works first, that’s right; and he built a house in Riverslea Road; still there. And I was born there; so was [were] my brother and my sister. So he built it – we used to call it ‘the house that Jack built’.
Anyway, from Riverslea Road he got a job with Hawke’s Bay Farmers, and we moved to Wairoa. And in those days Wairoa was a bustling economy, and Dalgetys, Hawke’s Bay Farmers, Williams & Kettle – and you’d know more about that than me – but Wairoa was a thriving economy. And the stock and station firms, they were huge nationally then of course, as you know – they used to train young men in Wairoa. So you know, Brian Wells who went on to run Dalgetys – he was our neighbour. We lived in Kabul Street. I find that fascinating too, that Wairoa, ‘cause I went to school there, as a community was founded during the first Afghan War; so they’ve got Kabul Street … classic! So you know, and most people in Wairoa don’t get it; they don’t even know where Kabul is, you know. But the history of Wairoa’s fascinating.
So we went to Wairoa Primary, and I think it had a compelling effect on me, going to school in Wairoa. I think, you know, from Central School [Hastings] to Wairoa, you know – kontikis; playing rugby with Māori boys; you know, going to Nuhaka on bus trips with Māoris with guitars; so we were immersed in Māori culture, although Wairoa was very divided. Māoris lived there; pākehās lived there, in those days. You couldn’t help … there was emergence, because certainly a young person developed … so don’t think it happened at older … back to my father’s …
In those days the boats would’ve come up the river too, wouldn’t they?
No, I don’t … can’t remember that. If they did …
It was ‘bout the earthquake, it stopped.
Of course you’wouldn’t’ve been old enough.
No, no, no, no. No, I was a pup – no, no, wasn’t even … not even a thought in ‘31.
So it was a farming town, and so he was in the Hawke’s Bay Farmers there, and my mother was immersed … we were immersed in the environment. And I argue with the Mayor of Wairoa now, because to my brother and I the lighthouse is a very relevant thing. My old man was the boss of Jaycees … president of Jaycees there in Wairoa … and they built the lighthouse. And the Wairoa Mayor, he’s in denial that you know, I had anything to do with that bloody lighthouse. But one of the anecdotal truths is that when they did the lighthouse up they found it was all copper; and my old man would’ve definitely painted the copper. You know, [chuckle] … “Copper? Shit! Paint the bloody thing!” So they did a lot of really good stuff in Wairoa, but we moved back to Hastings and we went to Mahora School; so we went to Mahora, Heretaunga Intermediate, and Hastings Boys’ High. So you know, I am a real Heretaunga boy really, with three years away. And that’s helped me politically, Frank, because I have huge whakapapa back to Heretaunga.
Would you’ve been there when the Jacksons were there?
Yeah, Syd Jackson. Phil Jackson – I met him at high school. [Of] course he was a very close friend of mine; lives in Napier now. So we used to go round to the Jackson household when Syd was a radical. I got to know Syd and Moana [sister] well afterwards in politics, but we were just surfing and having fun and drinking, so we didn’t realise kind of what was going [on]. We were a bit stunned by some of the things that Hana, who was Syd’s wife, said, you know, to us, but it was the first time that we met Māori radicalism – no doubt about that, ‘cause we were just Pākehā boys, you know, having fun really.
But Heretaunga Intermediate – I loved it. It was a brand new school then. It was interesting back in those days, too – Mahora and Raureka were the dominant sports school, you know – wouldn’t even think about that today – but they were. And you know, in our rugby team, I just don’t know how we did [it] – we won everything then, but … Bruce Robinson; Graham Taylor, who’s now in the council over there; we had a phenomenal rugby team, sort of thrashed everybody. So I was into athletics; I was into all the sports – rugby, cricket, athletics, just you know, it was paradise! A paradise! So when was that? Was the fifties really … was it? No, sixties and seventies; we were a paradise to grow up in here, in Hawke’s Bay, you know? The rivers were clean; we used to ride to Pakowhai, swim, you know – we were just loose gooses, man. My parents … I didn’t get home ‘til five o’clock, and otherwise we were out in Frimley Park, Cornwall Park … we were just running wild, fishing, you know – it was a phenomenal childhood really.
And so from that, my father was doing quite well, and he got a promotion; he went into insurance. And he was a pretty good salesman, Jack, and he actually got appointed to be general manager for Aetna Life in New Zealand – which was a stupid thing to do, because he was a salesman. But in those days they used to appoint the best salesman; they don’t do that now. And he survived in that job for seven years, and we lived in [Auckland]; we had a penthouse bloody office, and we had a flash house on the North Shore. And that was a whole new foreign environment; I was at Takapuna Grammar for one year, so thrown into that Auckland thing, was amazing.
But at the age of seventeen I’d had enough, so I went to Australia with Brian [?Tuke?] from the [??]; they were fruitgrowers out here. You might’ve known old Laurie, did you? Maybe not.
Anyway, I went over to [???] – we bullshitted our ages of course, ‘cause you had to; [chuckle] and so we said we were twenty-one. And [chuckle] the Aussies were classic, ‘cause they were so short of labour; I gave the wrong date, and he said, “Don’t you mean x date?” And I said, “Oh yes – yeah, yeah.” Anyway we worked under the Yarra doing a tunnelling job … the tunnel under the Yarra; made a huge amount of money. And then I went to Brisbane and just spent it all, you know, ‘cause we were still surfing, and still messing around, and still … just spent the bloody lot.
I returned to Auckland and I was working on the wharf and just messing around, my old man was getting really sick of me, you know, ‘cause my brother was dairy farming, and he was doing the proper stuff, and I was just messing around and old Jack was getting real pissed with me, and because I had long hair. So the Beatles came out when I was thirteen, and nobody can understand the huge impact, ‘cause it was all Cliff Richard, and rock ‘n roll, and Elvis Presley; and the Beatles came out. And the first time I heard the Beatles it was like a revolution … the harmony. And I [thought] ‘Shit!’ And so we all got Beatle haircuts; and I had a little business cutting …
Did you? [Chuckle]
Yeah, yeah … cutting hair for … just getting it over, ‘cause I went to Boys’ High straight after. So long hair was the big thing, and I was a bit of a radical. So long hair; anti-Springbok tour – God, that was unpopular in Hawke’s Bay – my brother wouldn’t even go to the pub with me. [Chuckle] Anti-Vietnam war; so I was marching with [Tim] Shadbolt up and down Queen Street, and so I was seriously into that counter culture.
Anyway, I came to Hawke’s Bay eventually; and the Willis boys were living at Te Awanga, and we were all bloody hippies. And they were all going to go into communes. And they did. Ewan actually … he’s [an] avocado grower, but basically he’s still a hippie. And we were sitting out there and we were smoking a bit of dope, so we were early dope smokers, you know. No one was smoking dope back then, but we were. And I was working for Rex Bainbridge, and I was painting the roof with Barney Kay, and Barney Kay said to me, “Rex, are you with those hippies at Te Awanga?” [Chuckle] I said, “Yep.” And he said, “Leave.” And I said, “Ah … okay.” So I went back and we had a big hui, all the hippies; and I said, “This is what he said” – and they’re all paranoid ‘cause they’re smoking dope – and they said, “They’re coming after us; they know about us.” And I said, “Well they certainly know about us.” And so they said, “Right, we’re all leaving.” And someone’s going this way, going to Coromandel; Ewan was going here; and – “Where are you going to, Rex?” I said, “I’m staying here.” It was a major decision, ‘cause I said, “I’m staying here; I’m going to go into business.” And I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget it, because it was just a major point in my life – “I’m going into business.”
So I stayed, and – oh, should I say – I must’ve been eighteen; bought a hay truck with Jim Benson, one of the Benson boys, went hay carting, and that’s a classic story, Frank, ‘cause … and I still had long hair. I’ve got a picture, you wouldn’t believe it, you know. But anyway I walked into … ‘cause my father had such big relationships in Hastings … he was a partner with Brian McKay and they were really close. And I walked in there, and I said … they all looked at me, Paddy Donovan and [?] … [chuckle] what are you going to do? I said, “I want to go and buy a hay truck.” And, “Have you got any business?” “No; I went out to see Bill Reeves and he said that I can do his hay.” And he said, “Fine. So you got any money?” “No.” And Brian McKay said, “Righto – have you seen a truck?” “Yeah, I’ve seen one down there.” “What about a loader?” “Yeah”, I said, “I can get a brand new one for [$]350 bucks.” [He] said, “Right, go down and tell ‘em you’ll get the truck, and get that loader, and just tell them that we’ll fix it up.” And I did. In those days, mate; so I just walked in there and said, “Want that truck”; got the truck, got the loader, and they financed it. But I didn’t understand about interest. And I walked in – I made so much money, ‘cause old Bill Reeves, he was a legend; I made so much money. I went in with cash to pay for the truck and the loader, and old Basil, who’s just retired, he asked me for the interest. And I thought, ‘What?!’ Hadn’t even paid, you know. I went berserk! And Donovan was in the back laughing his bloody head off, because you know, I was such a stroppy bastard. Anyway I got through that; didn’t pay any interest, so I don’t know how they sucked it up; it was only ten days.
And Jim and I carted all season and worked incredibly hard, and Bill looked after us, [I’ve] got to say. And he was a legend, man. One day we arrived at his thing with our truck and bloody loader on the back … eighteen year olds … and all the truck drivers were all at the gate. “What are you guys doing out here?” “Aaw, old Bill sacked us all.” And he was [?] – sacked the lot; sacked everybody. And they were just having a smoke outside, you know, all these [chuckle] Māori guys; and then finally he came out and says, “What the hell are you bastards doing out here? Get in and work.” “Oh shit!” [Chuckle] So he just had a little … he was a legend, you know; you couldn’t imagine doing that today.
They loved him and he loved them, but every now and again he sacked the whole lot, and they all went and stood at the gate waiting to come back in.
And before that I worked for old Alec Sheeran though; I did about three, four months with Alec. He was amazing too. And I used to take chooks down to Wellington for him. Oh, I did the hay with Jim first, then I went to work for Alec, so might’ve been three or four months there; but that was a legendary … you know, it was just amazing too. So we did a really good season for Alec, and then the following year I did picking gangs with Rex Bainbridge, so I got into the fruit growing.
But I think Jack and Paddy were thinkin’, you know, ‘Rex is starting to come right, but trucks [are] not the thing.’ That was a big mistake, ‘cause you know, some of my best mates now have done really well out of trucks – Bruce Plested, Roebuck – I should’ve stayed in trucks. I really regret … But anyway, they wanted me to buy an orchard, and they said, “Go out, there’s a couple of orchards, go and have a look.” And there was one, Rusty Nail – I went and had a look at that, and that was perfect for me because I could park my trucks. By this time I had three trucks. And this is next season, so they didn’t want that, and they went and saw that Plateau Orchard. That’s how I got it, I was twenty-one. And I had a little bit of money, but I had my trucks; and I thought I’d do the hay plus the orchard. But it was a stonefruit orchard, and I didn’t know anything about fruit growing. And I used to have to walk around it, and of course it conflicted; and that’s where Shorty Knight came in and, he died in the ……… bus in the end, but he ran my trucks because Jim’d gone by then, and I did the orchard, and we just worked; honestly, we worked every day, seven …
So Plateau Orchard was yours at the start?
Only fifteen acres odd, and there was thiry acres down the back.
And Jack was still in Auckland [in] insurance; they were starting to get sick of him and he was starting to get sick of Auckland. And my brother had twenty-five acres round the corner, and he proposed that he come in and drop some capital in, and we do a family partnership. And that worked incredibly well for a while, the family partnership; and you know, there’s no doubt about it, that’s the way to make money. That’s what the Indians are doing now; that’s what the Crasborns did. But I really wanted to go out on my own, and I did. And firstly I started with Peter Gifford; and I raised Peter Gifford yesterday – I’ve still got his picture; I got it … flogged it off the bank. [The] bank took it down, you know, ‘cause they forget the things Peter Gifford did, you know [speaking together] … they forget. You know, I raised his name yesterday, and it’s public, but I want to publicly acknowledge the fact … on the port, ‘cause you know, we’re doing something on the port … that the farmers in Central Hawke’s Bay had the courage to build our port. Peter Gifford, he took it through a very intrepid time when the government wanted to get rid of our port and wouldn’t help. And now there’s me, you know? And it’s definitely a legacy, and I said, “This is a legacy”, ‘cause Peter Gifford was my mentor. So I bought thirty acres, and I ran his property. And he allowed me to do that, so he allowed the creative … the management; and you know, you employ someone – don’t have to expect them to come to see …
This is when he had built his new house?
It was round the corner from where you were living?
Yeah, yeah. So he really gave me the latitude to build a business. Without him I would have been constrained. I often think about it in terms of young people that come to me that I think, ‘Shit, you know., you’ve got to give them scope to be able to grow, and don’t confine them to …’ So I have huge regard for him, even though he was a contentious old bastard.
[Chuckle] Well I interviewed his widow recently …
She’s a lovely lady.
She’s … we have a lot of people in Hawke’s Bay who …
Just get forgotten.
I’ve got his picture. His picture was in the bank, and I went in one day and it wasn’t there. And I said, “Oi! Where’s that picture of PT?” “Oh, we’ve taken it down.” There’s still one in Gifford Devine – and so anyway, I said to them, “Well I want it.” I got it. And it’s here; it was up in my office for a long time but it’s … since we’ve done the house up I’ve run out of space to put pictures.
Anyway, so at that time I met my first wife, Susan, and we were building the business so I was quite tough, but she was really good at, you know, toughing it out, you know. I had two wives – married the girl-next-door types, that were tough kiwi girls. So we built a business together really, a substantial business; at one point we were the biggest fruit growers in the country in terms of the management. But it was always a little bit dicey, because you know, if you have shareholders you had to meet expectations. We had four kids, Susan and I, and one subsequently died. Rowan got leukaemia, so we had a bit of a tough trot. But Carver – he was a very successful young athlete … nationally successful; and Jessie was a singer, and she’s married to a German now. And Rowie’s still finding his feet but he’s living down here; he’s in Europe at the moment.
And we did build a substantial business, and I ran Wattie’s procurement for fifteen years; met David Irving; met some really interesting people. And Wattie’s was changing and moving onto farms, and so I was giving them advice on how to run the farms … I ran their farms for about five years and did their procurement for a long time. But you know, that was always subject to change of management too, and at one point we were doing eighteen thousand tons of apples, but you know, they were moving all round the place and, you know, new buyers were coming in and other countries were more competitive; and really I’m not sure what they even do now, to be honest – a few tomatoes and … oh, hardly any tomatoes even. So the world has changed.
I always wanted to go into politics, to be honest, and I regret I didn’t do it earlier. But … I have no regrets in my life, but I regretted I didn’t do it earlier. But anyway, the relationship between Susan and I fell to bits as they do sometimes, and I met Julie Green. I knew her through Wattie’s; she was the Ag [Agriculture] Manager. So I knew her, and we have now got two kids; one’s at Havelock High and one’s at Intermediate, so … two young ones. And they’re pretty dynamic, those two.
Yeah, and now I’m Chair of the Regional Council. So you wonder about the fruit growing, because I went through the twenty years of crap money. If you think about it, who survived? Mr Apple survived because they had Hubbard put in a reasonable amount of capital. You had to have the ability to survive doing that, but most people didn’t, you know … Van Howard, and … So I saw the writing on the wall, and thinking, ‘Where’s it going to go?’ And I decided, ‘Well, I’m out of here’, so I sold. So I didn’t have to sell which was a good thing, so I kept the intellectual property and did all right in the process. I mean, if I’d have held … would’ve had to have huge debt; that would’ve been interesting. Probably would’ve got through, but I have no regrets on that either; I’m really happy, I think I was born for this job, and there’s going to be major changes in Hawke’s Bay and I’m going to drive them.
Just going back to when you said you managed these orchards – was it syndication?
It was a bit of both; we drove the syndication in New Zealand.
So what area would that’ve been at that time?
Oh, bloody hell …
It was huge.
Yeah, it was huge.
‘Cause we thought, ‘How does he sleep at night?’
Yeah, it was huge; we had a huge business. I had pretty good staff, but I was working fifteen hour days too. So it was in a time when you could get a tax deduction on a different business; and they changed it, but in many ways I think it was wrong they changed it, ‘cause maybe they should have special economic zones … Wairoa is one … so if you invest in Wairoa you get a tax deduction. So there was lots of people – dentists, doctors and cabinet ministers …
Well yes, it bought foreign capital into the area; I mean from the cities.
It did, and it created all those orchards, so we did big syndication jobs, and so the Pakowhai Orchard was one, and [?] Orchard was another; there was various other orchards. And then we had a corporate – Eastern Equities approached us and we did a huge job for them, and managed their orchards. Well, I was managing them with Wattie’s orchards as well, they were three hundred acres. And my own orchards, and I was quietly syndicating … taking a bit of capital out. I took some capital out of my own and bought this house from Digby’s estate.
Yeah, it was. I had the biggest mortgage in the BNZ, [Bank of New Zealand] … $100,000. Everyone said I was mad; now everyone’s got a $100,000 mortgage. Why I raised that is because debt was not a thing that we did; but now everyone’s got used to debt, and there’s a frailty in that; there’s a danger in that, that people are getting too used to debt, and all of a sudden interest rate goes up; and you know, good times people don’t think bad times are coming, but they are. Things cycle, and that’s all there is to it, so I’m very …
Yes, I know when I developed that sixteen acres I had, it was at the time when we were getting nothing; we were borrowing …
Tough times, mate, trying to stay on your feet.
Yeah. We got pinged by the Bola storm; we were exposed to the east and we had no shelter.
Yeah. Well my brother, he was a pretty hard worker, and basically him and Jack were freehold. They planted about fifty acres of orchard, tickin’ over, making pretty … not great money, ‘cause they were tough times, but they were doing all right; and then they got hit by the big hail storm, and then the next year they went up to $8. We only got $8 that year.
So were they at Irongate Road?
No, he was down Henderson Road, but he had … they took over Plateau Orchards. So you know – this is really historic. So the first thing as a young fruit grower that he did … the second tier levy. And I was with Ian Ivey; Ian Ivey was revolutionising the industry really, in terms of he introduced Braeburn [apples] in here – he’s a forgotten person – and he introduced close plantings. And him, Ian and I were the same age and were were talking all together; and we were planting Royal Gala and Braeburn. So I planted Braeburn … followed Ian … and Royal Gala, and hardly any reds and Grannys; so we were right in the forefront of the industry. And then they introduced the second tier levy, driven by Ken Kiddle and all the guys; and it was that new production contribute to post harvest facilities. But – we were getting $20 a box and they were getting $6 … that might be an exaggeration … but they were cross-subsidising our good prices, and then taking an extra levy off it. It was bloody criminal. And it’s a typical thing that guys who returned from the war did, you know? ‘Cause I had that huge row with Bill Reeves ‘cause I had my trucks on the road. you know; he rang me up and said, “Well, you know …” I said, “You can go and get stuffed. You bastards are … I don’t believe in that.” And it was just … they made laws to suit themselves.
Don’t they sort of have an equalisation system?
They had … yeah. You know, those trucking laws were just unbelievable! [Speaking together]
Protectionism. So anyway, they didn’t know how to cope with me as a young eighteen year old, because I just told them to go and get stuffed. And then I took them on on the two tier levy; and I’d just met Johnny [John Bostock] at that stage. How I met Johnny was he planted an orchard, and it all fell over in a bloody big wind. And he rung me up, and I went out and said to him, “Just push the bloody things back up”; and he said, “They won’t die? They won’t die?” [Chuckle] “No they won’t die – push them back up.” He never forgets that, and I’ve never forgotten that. But he wasn’t really involved in the second tier levy. That was a vicious fight; poisoned my dogs …
Oh yeah! Oh, yeah, it was a vicious fight, man. My kids were getting it at school; much tougher than the deregulation fight. Much tougher. Smashed my letterbox, I still can’t believe … Central Hawke’s Bay farmers smash my letterbox now. The letterbox seems to be the thing that they … they go to the rugby, and they come past and they smash my letterbox. Anyway … young fellows.
But anyway, the two tier levy was a tough fight, but it politicised us. What it did – and Johnny was on the fringes – when deregulation came in, Johnny and I basically drove deregulation, and we became really close ‘cause we used to win fights, lose fights, and we were passionate. So I was a natural politician, so I was driving that and having a hilar[ious] … I really enjoyed every bloody minute of it, you know. But it wasn’t as nasty as the second tier levy, but it was tough; tough fight. And arguing with the Ministers of the Crown; I gave a speech in Genoa … gave a really decent speech, and this was an international audience there … and there was about three Kiwis; and this Kiwi asked me a question, and I thought, ‘You bastard!’ You know? I just got really mad, and when I do it quietly and [??], and I said to him, “Well you know, let me tell you something about Kiwis. We think we’re pretty tough, you know; we’re pretty good at charging up cliffs with fixed bayonets and killing Turks, but when it comes to our domestic situa[tion] – and we think we’re all All Blacks – we’re bloody wimps. We’re nothing but bloody wimps.” Anyway, he come [came] up and said I was a traitor!
Anyway, when I went on the train, Europe to London, [Bill] Sutton [Labour MP 1984-1990] rang me up; said, “You cannot say things like that!” And I said, “You get …” On the train … had a row. You know, they deregulated prostitution, but they wouldn’t deregulate apples. Then they finally deregulated selling apples in the domestic market, which opened up a big thing for my business, ‘cause I bought a business in Auckland and we were really rocking and rolling there. But the export market – and now it is, no one will go back. Just extraordinary. New Zealand was … we were locked into producer boards or state collectives, so everything was done through a state collective.
Cooperative. We thought of this group of people, as long as we stayed in a huddle, we were protected, but we weren’t.
Just on the political front, I was a very big supporter of the Labour government that was deregulating the industry – the Lange government – and when Roger Douglas and Lange had a scrap, it was very interesting, ‘cause Rick went with … Rick Barker’s a very close, dear friend of mine now … he stayed with the Lange principle, and I went with Roger Douglas. And I actually formed the ACT Party in Hawke’s Bay – he rung me up; [I] had a really close relationship with Roger. But we were purists you know; it got entrenched with … oh, rednecks, and you know … the party got captured by other elements that didn’t believe. We were about handing power back to the people and deregulating the economy. and some of it was right, some of it was wrong. I’m not sure I’m on that kaupapa [vision, policy] now; probably not, but at the time it was pretty amazing. I actually had lunch with Milton Friedman, which was pretty amazing. He was about eighty – must be ninety-odd now – and he’s completely demonised by the left, but I actually really enjoyed him. So they were interesting entrées into politics.
I used to be a capitalist most of my life, and I’ve totally changed my …
Yeah, I have too. Not totally, but …
No, no, not totally either – I look on things differently.
Well capitalism … what’s happened in our society today is just not good you know. We seem to [be] driving wealth into a few people’s hands, and so capitalism is failing us, that’s just the bottom line. We need another model. And also, on top of that what I really worry about is … they call it ‘disruptive influences in our economy’. And the next five to ten years is going to be huge; robots are coming in, and how do we manage our community when we have all these disruptive influences coming to farming, coming into the factories. So as a politician I feel that really strongly; I feel that I have a responsibility to make sure that my council’s stable financially; make sure that … we’re going through the wharf thing … that we need that; we need the port, but we do need a dynamic economy that works in harmony with the environment. And how do we achieve that? I don’t think we’ve got our heads around that yet. I don’t think we’ve got the social or financial systems around that, ‘cause what are we going to do with these unemployed people? I don’t think we’ve got our heads round it. So all these people are not educated and not finding jobs. It is a worry.
So your children, then, are both at school?
My little ones?
Jack’s fifteen this year and he’s at Havelock High. He’s a really gentle, loving boy, and it’s been really interesting for me to have him; he hates sport, and all my other kids love sport. But he’s taken a different journey, you know? My daughter Lily is the most … of our six kids … most like me, stroppy; and her and I clash but we’ve kind of got a sense of where we’re going together. She’s quite dynamic really. She’s not as smart as Jack, but she’s okay, enough to push her through, so I think she’ll go really well. But wherever I send her to school, she’s happy. All my previous kids went to private schools, but these two I’m not going to … I just think … can’t see why.
Carver, my oldest is quite [an] extraordinary boy. He was, you know, six Hawke’s Bay titles and three Auckland titles at athletics; could pick up the ball on a rugby field and get a try. And he’s got his own computer business now – not computers – what does it say? Digital marketing company, and employs, I think, thirty staff. And I’m his chairman. So you know, that works pretty well. I had one boy die at twenty-five; he got cancer, which was traumatic for us all. And a granddaughter died at the same time … all bloody traumatic.
And Jessie’s married to a German, and she’s a singer … a beautiful singer … married to a German guy. And they seem to be very happy living in Munich. She’s just got pregnant, so that’s … just in the early stages of that … really excited. And he’s a really nice bloke, good family, so yeah, they’ll probably live in Germany; but you know, you never know, they might come out here and live here, you never know. He’s in the movie business, so he’s pretty committed to Germany.
As I say, Rowie works for Kevin Bailey, and sort of finding his feet and where he’s going to be in life, but he’ll eventually get there. Good bloke.
Well, coming back to some history we just skipped by, and that was your first wife … where did you meet her?
She was a Te Awamutu girl. It was when I was first in the orchard; and she was a hippie girl too, so I had these mates in Auckland when I was working on the wharf there, and they couldn’t believe that you know, didn’t think I’d … They’d come to stay with me, so I met her. I had seen her in Auckland, and she’d come to stay with us at Plateau. And from there, you know, we just … I travelled overseas with her, we went for a year overseas … yeah, we had a great trip, cross country to Europe, Persia …
So what was her maiden name?
Hurst. Her father was a vet in Te Awamutu; very well known vet. He had an interesting history ‘cause he was born in China, and [when] the Japanese attacked he went up to the top of China, right back down into Australia, fought in the Australian army against the Japanese, as a seventeen year old.
Did he really?
Yeah. Yeah, interesting guy.
And then later you met Julie?
Yeah, and I’ve told you a little bit about her. She has a long history in Hawke’s Bay. So she’s from a very strong Irish Catholic family. That’s really interesting for a Presbyterian boy, ‘cause my parents … my grandmother … said Catholics were evil, ‘cause you know, they were Northern Irish Scots, you know; so my two little ones are Catholics – I give them crap about it. So they come from a very, you know, tight whanau … you know, same as Māoris, Irish Catholics, they’re just like Māoris really, tight families and …
And non-forgiving, too.
Yeah, no they’re quite [a] liberal Catholic family. Her sister’s married a local detective, and so they’re quite immersed in our community; very immersed in our community actually, ‘cause they’ve been here such a long time. Very connected to the Catholic church and the Catholic community, very connected. That’s been an interesting thing too, that whole Catholicism thing, for me, ‘cause I love history. Interesting, my little boy Jack and my boy Cameron … the one who died … we love history. So I got up this morning, and I always put the history channel on when I get up early, and there was a story on about a Germanic Roman warrior. And Jack just got up and he didn’t want to go to school, you know, he was just sitting …
Is that right?
Yeah – oh yeah! Oh, yeah. So I learnt the history of this family; Julie’s not, but …
The Orange and the Green didn’t mix very well …
‘Cause the Meeanee Church – that’s where Greens were … Julie’s family … they were in that church. Orange and the Gr[een] – I didn’t sort of get it as a young man. I was sittin’ in the Orange Hall with my [??] … ‘I’m not very happy being here – what the ..?’ And I looked up and there’s … I didn’t get … [chuckle] …
Donna Awatere said to me that I have no prejudices, and I don’t. Talking to Johnny just recently, I always forgive people and I’m very forgiving and very loyal, and it’s been my worst attribute really, ‘cause if you’re in business and you’re loyal and forgiving – doesn’t work. Because you know, someone’ll make a mistake, and I have sacked a lot of people in my life, but … have to be pretty bad, you know.
It’s not a traditional habit of the Irish to forgive.
But anyway – now, what haven’t you told me?
Well, I nearly missed the second tier levy, didn’t I? The whole deregulation thing – that was huge in my life. I think I’ve got everything …
If you have anything particular that you would like to add in; once we edit it and put it on the website, then it can be added to.
Okay, well I think that’s probably pretty well covered … I’m sure that there will be things that you will remember later.
Yeah there will be, I mean there’s so many things in my life.
Thank you, Rex, on behalf of the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank, for sharing your family and times.
Hope I got it all right.
I’m sure you have; so thanks a lot.
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Interviewer: Frank Cooper
- Rex Gordon Graham