Even as a young Otago student, Chris Laidlaw was a man prepared to stand up for what he believed was right. This determination – and a willingness to learn – has guided him through a long, varied and sometimes accidental journey as All Black, Rhodes Scholar, diplomat, politician, writer and broadcaster.
“I shared with a bunch of girls and it worked well. I sourced food from various contacts and they cooked it. It was an arrangement that suited us all.”
But it didn’t suit the moral standards of the day. Laidlaw recalls a University representative coming to the flat and telling him to leave. Laidlaw stood his ground, asking what jurisdiction the University had to dictate his private life.
“He was frustrated by that and tried very hard to get me to give it up, but I didn’t back down. Nothing happened. Legally the University didn’t have leg to stand on. Word got round and eventually the floodgates opened. Did it lead to a less moral climate? I don’t think so.”
It may not have led to a decline in morals, but it did indicate Laidlaw’s willingness to stand up for a point of principle. The tendency set him up well for a long and varied career, often fighting injustice, although he didn’t set out to be a crusader.
“I never started out with a plan and, in many respects, I have never had a plan ever since. Things have just happened.”
Laidlaw grew up in Dunedin, so it seemed logical to attend Otago, where “even at that stage the student lifestyle was regarded as superior to anything found elsewhere”.
He studied history and English initially, but majored in geography for his BA and an MA with honours, crediting Professor Ron Lister as an outstanding teacher and mentor. For his master’s he researched the economic basis of Stratford in Taranaki.
“I used a highly theoretical central-place analysis, which was all the rage at the time – what makes a place tick economically in terms of its centrality. New Plymouth was growing and I concluded that Stratford was doomed, which was not what they wanted to hear.
“My studies taught me a big lesson that economic theory and reality are all too often very different things.”
Laidlaw’s studies also taught him time management, which was crucial because of his stellar career as an All Black. In 1962 he’d gone from playing halfback in school rugby directly to the University A side, also playing for Otago, the South Island and New Zealand Universities.
He received training and advice from former All Black halfback Charlie Saxton. “Charlie took me under his wing and kept me on the straight and narrow. I was party oriented in those days and he inspired me to behave rather better. He was one of those mentors that everyone needs.”
Laidlaw debuted with the All Blacks on their 1963 tour of Britain and France. Although only 19, he was selected for tests against France and the Barbarians, and his performances sealed his rugby history. But he was still a student, which meant trying to combine sport and academia.
“Of course, rugby players didn’t do anywhere near as much training in those days as they do now, so we had more time. And the combination of physical and mental challenges was a good one. But there was still a lot of rationalisation and corner cutting.
“I learned from exceptionally good teachers such as [Professors] William Morrell and Angus Ross. You could talk to them and get sound advice, and they taught me the joy of learning. I was very lucky in that regard.”
But the All Blacks were a powerful draw. “Tours were not every year, but they were longer and spread more widely. I’m extra grateful to Otago because they indulged me, allowing me to take exams out of the country. I sat a few papers in London and Cardiff at various times.
“It wasn’t easy and my marks were not as good as I would have hoped, but I got my MA done relatively free of rugby commitments.”
The All Blacks’ 1970 tour to South Africa jolted his social conscience.
“Principles are evolutionary. I went because I believed that it was better for us to be there with a multiracial team on the field, regardless of what the South Africans were doing with apartheid. And conversations I had there led me to believe that the next South African team to tour in 1973 would be a mixed one – but they didn’t deliver on that.”
Laidlaw played 57 tests with the All Blacks, scoring 48 points, but he was by no means finished with study. In 1969 he went up to Merton College, Oxford, to read social anthropology after gaining a Rhodes Scholarship.
“I had a good interview and I got it. I was pretty chuffed. I’d assumed I’d pick up a lectureship somewhere and become an academic, but instead the Rhodes Scholarship opened up all kinds of doors. It changed my life completely. It injected ambition, which might not have happened otherwise.”
After his years at Otago, Oxford was a shock. “It was a completely different environment from Otago, particularly for foreigners, who were made to feel like outsiders. I was lonely at first and wondered why I was doing this.
“But it was easier on Rhodes scholars because we all had the same challenges and got together as a community. I met people I have stayed in touch with ever since. I even met Bill Clinton and got to know him. He was a real partygoer, but a brilliant networker even then. Everyone picked him as going to go far.”
Despite difficulties in finding a supervisor – and despite finding senior academics better at offering drinks than advice – Laidlaw emerged with an MLitt for his analysis of race-conditioned patterns of settlement in Fiji.
He accepted a place at the University of Lyon because he was offered free entry if he would coach the local rugby team. It seemed like a good idea at the time and the newly-married Laidlaw moved to France to study and learn the language.
But because he was an unpaid amateur, things didn’t work out financially, as Laidlaw admitted on a visit to New Zealand’s High Commission in London. Deputy High Commissioner and ex-Rhodes scholar Denis McLean advised him to join the Department of Foreign Affairs and offered to smooth the way.
Soon Laidlaw was back in Wellington, starting at the bottom and working his way up. His experience of the world worked to his advantage, with postings to Fiji and France, and even an opportunity to advise Norman Kirk on whether or not to allow a South African rugby team to tour.
Laidlaw realised he had been misled about apartheid when he was a player and was definite in saying no. “It had become clear to me that the only way to fight apartheid was to deny contact. It was a personal journey of discovery for me and I’m glad I finally made a stand.”
Over the years Laidlaw worked with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Energy Agency, and then served as assistant to Commonwealth Secretary-General Sonny Ramphal – “the most brilliant person I ever met” – for several years in London.
In 1984 he advised David Lange on foreign policy and then took a post as New Zealand’s first resident High Commissioner to Harare, representing New Zealand's interests throughout Africa.
“We were repairing relations with African countries that were suspicious of New Zealand because of what had happened with South Africa. It was a highlight of my career, a most unusual and challenging role, and very fulfilling.”
On his return to New Zealand, Laidlaw was appointed Race Relations Conciliator and then Human Rights Commissioner. “My experiences in South Africa had brought home to me the searing reality of the awful denial of rights that had occurred. That, and working with Sonny Ramphal in Commonwealth countries, had made me very interested in rights and the injustice of denying those rights.”
Then Laidlaw entered formal politics – a move he now regrets. “The seat for Wellington Central was dangled in front of me, but becoming an MP was a silly thing to do.
“I discovered I’m not a party political animal. In just over a year I was ushered to the Parliamentary door and deeply grateful to go. It was a wake-up call that this was not what I was supposed to be doing. Being an opposition backbencher is about as bad a job as you can have because almost everything about it is negative, trying to lay banana skins under ministers’ feet.”
He moved to head the World Wildlife Fund in New Zealand before joining the Wellington Regional Council.
“The WWF was my conservation education. I realised that so much of what we are doing is not sustainable and now I’m applying that knowledge with the Wellington Regional Council, looking at ways we can shift the public consciousness in the right direction.
“This aspect of local government is an area where we can get things done. It’s very practical and I still get a huge buzz out of it. Right now I enjoy life and I’m having more fun than I have had in years.”
For most of his life Laidlaw has been making a difference – through his career, his books, his print articles, his sports commentating, and the Sunday morning radio programme from which he has recently retired after 12 years.
“I said when I started with radio that I’d do it for a decade, so it was time to leave. It’s also hard to express personal views on National Radio, and I want to keep asking awkward questions and commenting on issues that interest me.
“Right now I’m looking particularly at inequality. Egalitarianism is something in this country that we have always thought of as our point of difference, but we are selling it short and more. There really hasn’t been a good examination of this. The new underclass is showing signs of despair and anger. It is the greatest danger this country faces and we need more people shouting to be heard, and I can do that.”