Current Affairs

From the Archives: At home with Sir Robert Muldoon

In April 1985, staff writer Robyn Scott Vincent visited the former PM at his home.

**He was one of New Zealand’s most polarising politicians and prime ministers, but one thing’s for certain – Sir Robert Muldoon was definitely never dull!

Just months after losing the snap election he called while drunk in 1984 – political commentators dubbed it the schnapps election – the Weekly caught up with the former PM and his wife, then known as Thea, Lady Muldoon, at his new home on Auckland’s North Shore.

Robert died on August 5, 1992, aged 70, while Thea, who was made a Dame in 1993, lived until the age of 87, passing away in February 2015.**

It is a domestic scene... The lady of the house (Thea, Lady Muldoon, no less) is ironing. Her husband sits in the lounge sorting through lily seeds.

Hardly the situation in which you would expect to find the bold former prime minister Sir Robert Muldoon. But it is one he is becoming increasingly used to in his bright new home, away from luxurious Vogel House and the number one seat in the country.

There’s a hint of that distinctive Muldoon smile as Sir Robert admits that, yes, he is enjoying the moments of relaxation his unplanned release from prime ministerial duties have afforded him.

“But I certainly haven’t retired,” he warns. To the contrary. Sir Robert maintains an eagle eye on “the other lot” (the Labour Party), hosts a weekly radio show, is still called on to attend countless functions and is writing three books.

The difference is that now he does have time should he choose to do otherwise. Most likely to take him away from his work is the small garden of his “official residence” in the smart new Chatswood subdivision on Auckland’s North Shore.

A far cry from his home of eight years, Vogel House, there is no expanse of lawn, just a small plot in the front, boasting Sir Robert’s prized lilies. But it is home and Sir Robert lives there half of every week, which is more than can be said for his previous Auckland home.

Sir Robert was, until his defeat, virtually unable to escape official duties so he and Lady Muldoon barely saw their Kohimarama home during the last few years they owned it.

Now there is a stable routine of three nights in Wellington attending to parliamentary business and four nights at home with his family. The Muldoons’ new residence is conveniently situated only a couple of streets away from one of their daughters, ensuring ready and frequent access to two of their grandchildren.

Sir Robert is delighted to be able to make up for lost time with all his grandchildren, as well as with his two daughters and son.

Says Sir Robert, “There was one year we only saw Dylan [his oldest grandson] twice.”

Now the four-year-old and his young sister regularly wander with their mother, Barbara, the short distance from their Birkenhead home to Grandad’s. As he speaks Sir Robert wanders over to a table and points out each of his grandchildren in a mounted photo.

Lady Muldoon appears to be thriving in her new environment too. She looks fitter and healthier than ever, relaxed and comfortable in her new brick and tile home.

“I do like it here. It’s a security, having your own home,” she says chirpily.

“It is certainly smaller than Vogel House. Only two bedrooms, where we had five before, and two bathrooms instead of four. And no cloakrooms to store things.”

Gone are the days of servants doing all the housework. But Lady Muldoon doesn’t sound particularly sorry. She is enjoying the newfound privacy she and her husband of more than 30 years can share.

“Goodness, we had to be dressed and ready to go at 8.30 every morning to suit the housekeeper,” she recalls none too fondly. Privacy of the Muldoon home only extends as far as the front gate, the couple have discovered. A regular procession of cars passes the house at weekends, passengers pointing out the house.

“We have our suspicions that a tour bus actually comes down here showing off our house.

We had a swarm of Japanese tourists around the gate one day, taking photos and asking Tam [Sir Robert’s nickname for his wife] if she was really the wife of the former prime minister,” Sir Robert chuckles.

One gets the feeling he is really quite chuffed by the attention. Similarly, Sir Robert, is none too daunted by the stack of more than 400 letters swimming about his feet awaiting reply. These are the response to a comment on his weekly talkback show that he would send listeners some of his prized lily seeds, if they wished.

Though the Muldoons have only been in their home less than a year, the lily bed looks well established.

Sir Robert concedes that the plants are not new. Some he has lovingly tended for many years. He uprooted them for transfer to the new house. A number of the
lily plants are hybrids Sir Robert has created himself, using extensive gardening knowledge.

His interest in gardening dates back to his youth, where he was initially given the chore of helping his mother tend to the garden, but he came to love the pastime.

When first married, Sir Robert and Lady Muldoon keenly developed a large garden at their home on the North Shore.

Sir Robert became interested in growing rare plants. He corresponded with seed merchants around the world, seeking out new species to try his green fingers on.

But his interest settled on lilies and he has remained a firm fan ever since. When he became prime minister, his opportunities to garden dwindled. Weeds
at his Kohimarama home grew progressively.

In Vogel House, however, he found a new interest, overseeing a massive transformation of the elegant grounds.

“I believe I have really bequeathed something to the nation. Vogel House would be the best private garden in New Zealand,” says Sir Robert with pride. “It was always a good garden, but it had gone back. It was very overgrown when we took over.”

An experienced gardener was hired and a revitalisation of the 1.1 hectare gardens began. Sir Robert was delighted by results over the years. No matter how busy he was, he religiously set aside 15 minutes during the weekends to look over the gardens and their growth.

He misses the huge gardens and admits he would love to pop back now and again to check on how its faring.

“But I wouldn’t feel right while the present occupant [Labour opponent David Lange] is there.”

Though small, the plot of land at Sir Robert’s new home is just the right scale to keep in check himself.

He is happy with the diversions in his life – particularly writing and his Sunday radio show. His next book, which will be released in May, is titled The New Zealand Economy – 25 Years of Personal Experience. It is written, Sir Robert explains, for the average man in the street, and aims at explaining politics and occurrences over the last 25 years to voters.

While Sir Robert’s talk show covers a variety of topics, he thrives on being able to provide answers to political questions.

“There is so much people don’t know about politics,” says Sir Robert.

Although it only began in February, the programme has been tackling some of the major issues before parliament. Sir Robert hopes to debate issues as they happen throughout the year.

In between his schedule, Sir Robert is settling into a more domestic lifestyle. He has even got back into the routine of driving Lady Muldoon to their local supermarket.

“I don’t go in, though. I just sit and wait outside,” he tells.

At Easter he and Lady Muldoon will pack the car and head down to Hatfields Beach, resuming a family tradition interrupted by politics. Sir Robert always spent a month of the Christmas break in this cosy hideaway, but he has been overseas most Easters in recent years.

Amid the luggage will be boxes of Easter eggs. Sir Robert and Lady Muldoon will play Easter Bunny to their grandchildren, who will be holidaying with them.

But knowing Sir Robert, there will be a stack of parliamentary papers in their too, ensuring he maintains his finger on the political pulse.

read more from