Chris Trotter is New Zealand’s leading leftwing political commentator, with 30 years of experience writing professionally about New Zealand politics.
Victoria University of Wellington
I WAS A CAPTAIN COOK MAN, Grant Robertson was a Robbie Burns man. If you know anything about the great student pubs of Dunedin in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, those allegiances should tell you a lot.
While I was at varsity, the “Cook” had a reputation for entertaining more than just students. While the “new” Dunedin hospital was being built in the 70s, the pub’s “Back Bar” was patronised by construction workers. In the years prior to the University Staff Club opening its doors, the Cook’s “Corner Bar” remained a watering hole for the more adventurous sort of academic. Trade union officials, especially those employed by the Hotel, Hospital and Restaurant Workers Union, could also be found in the Corner Bar, along with poets, Hone Tuwhare, Peter Olds and John Gibb. The artist Eion Stevens also drank there. Not forgetting the pool players, tough guys one didn’t interrogate too closely – unless one was looking for something a little more interesting than alcohol.
Meaning that, if you drank at the Cook, especially downstairs, your horizons simply couldn’t fail to be broadened. Upstairs, where the bands played, might have been more recognisably studenty, but, if you kept your ears open in the Back and Corner Bars, you could learn at least as much as you were being taught in all those lecture theatres on the other side of the Museum Reserve.
The Robbie Burns was different. For a start, its clientele was nothing like so bohemian. Law students drank at the Robbie Burns – alongside the true crème-de-la-crème of the university scene, medical students. The “Robbie” – as everybody called it – was just that little bit more – what? ‘Refined’? No, that isn’t right. How about “self-consciously superior”? Yes, that will do. That will do nicely.
Oh, and I nearly forgot, the Robbie was where most of the student politicos drank. The presidents of the Otago University Students Association and their hangers-on – the Robbie was their pub. That’s why Grant Robertson (Otago University Students Association President in 1993) and his mates drank there. Like talked with like – and liked it. To say they learned nothing would be wrong, but they certainly didn’t learn as much as the students who drank downstairs at the Cook. Unsurprising, I suppose that all those budding journalists who worked on the student newspaper, Critic, generally preferred the Cook to the Robbie.
And all this is related to the looming 2023 general election – how? Nostalgia is fine, in its place, but what has drinking in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s got to do with voting in the 2020s? Nothing at all, I suppose, unless you’re willing to see those two Dunedin pubs as peculiar prefigurements, strange and symbolic representations, of what the New Zealand Left used to be, and what it has become. Because what could be more like the sprawling and rambunctious labour movement of the 1970s and ’80s than the downstairs bars of the Captain Cook Tavern? And what could more resemble the preening, superior, student-politician-dominated Left of 2023, than the up-itself, yuppified, Robbie Burns Hotel of the 80s and 90s?
A party purporting to represent the people cannot be anything like the prissy affair of ambitious back-biters that the Labour Party and (God help them!) the Greens have become.
Entering a genuine left-wing political party should be like entering the Cook on a Friday night. It should be buzzing with conversations and barking with arguments. One should have as much chance of encountering a burly construction worker, full of choice epithets for those with soft hands and even softer heads, as a Maori poet, a philosophy lecturer, and a Marxist union activist. A people’s party should, like the Cook, be a place to get educated, inspired, intoxicated and (if you’re lucky) seduced. You should walk out of a people’s party ready to change the world, your place in it, and, if you’ve met the right sort of leftists, your opinions.
What a people’s party can never be is a collection of cliques, where like meets like and no one else. Where newcomers are assessed with a calculating eye and a closed mind. Where the only trick worth learning is how to separate the mere seekers after power from the smug possessors of it. A true people’s party is full of smiles and snarls – not smirks. Its members speak freely and argue passionately – not in conformity with the current orthodoxy. When people’s party comrades finish arguing, they buy each other a beer – they do not sell each other out, or dob each other in. A people’s party welcomes and involves, it does not exclude and punish.
Of course, the Cook – as I remember it – is nowhere to be found in the Dunedin of 2023. The building still stands, it’s a pizza parlour now with electronic games. But the city – and the country – that made it possible for the Cook’s earlier incarnation to thrive, no longer exists. The New Zealand of 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, was an altogether different country, they did things differently then.
The New Zealand Left, or at least the Left I encountered in the 1970s – and fought for across the 1980s and 90s – has, like the Cook, also ceased to exist. What killed it? The debilitating fear of freedom which is the inescapable companion of societies that devote themselves entirely to the pursuit of power and money, and construe the absence of these prizes as proof of culpable incapacity. In societies such as ours has become, there is no tolerance for sprawling, or brawling, or carousing. All ends are closed, all destinations known, all opinions pre-approved, all conduct scrutinised and judged.
If you can believe it, the University of Otago, alarmed by the twenty-first-century student body’s predilection for drunkenness and couch-burning, bought up most of the great student pubs – and shut them down. The last time I was in Dunedin, however, I noticed that the Robbie Burns had somehow survived. It was being refurbished, brought up-to-date. Its owners were promising “Emerson’s on tap”.
The thought occurred to me that New Zealand itself has become the Robbie writ large – a place where only the crème-de-la-crème feel entirely at home. Ours is increasingly a nation of the anxious and the embittered. A country which has not only forgotten how to fight but also no longer remembers how to have fun.
What New Zealand, and the New Zealand Left, needs most is a rollickingly good Friday night at the Cook, as it was, and, with just a little bit of luck, and a lot of courage, could be again.