Muldoon and after, Barry Gustafson

From Muldoon to Lange: New Zealand Elections in the 1980s
Stephen Levine and Alan McRobie
MC Enterprises, $39.95,
ISBN 0959771530

For almost thirty years from 1960, Professor Robert Chapman systematically studied New Zealand’s election campaigns and their outcomes. Since 1990, a team led by one of his former students, Professor Jack Vowles, has produced four books on the elections of the 1990s and is currently working on a fifth on the 2002 election. This work was complemented by a book on the 1978 election, New Zealand at the Polls: The General Election of 1978 (American Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington DC, 1980), edited by Howard R Penniman. It was one in a series of studies of elections in democracies worldwide.

It was intended that Penniman would edit another collection of essays on the 1981 election. Stephen Levine wrote a chapter backgrounding the election and Alan McRobie another analysing the results. The book had not been published when the next general election was held unexpectedly in July 1984; and Penniman invited McRobie to write an additional chapter covering that election. The book still did not appear and following the 1987 election, Levine was commissioned to add yet another chapter on that election and the title of the book was changed to New Zealand Elections in the 1980s.

In the meantime, the election series was discontinued and the rights to the unpublished work were sold to Duke University Press. By the late 1990s, when it became obvious that the book would never be published in the United States, Levine and McRobie were able to get the rights to the manuscripts released and decided to publish their own contributions. The result is From Muldoon to Lange: New Zealand Elections in the 1980s.

There has been little editing to take into account hindsight or the vast amount published since the end of the 1980s, and the chapters, together with numerous tables and figures, remain largely as they were originally written. Nevertheless, this is an interesting overview of three elections that, in many respects, marked a watershed in New Zealand political history and prepared the way for the even more turbulent 1990s.


It would have been better had the authors combined the two chapters on the 1981 election into a single chapter covering both campaign and results, as is the case with the 1984 and 1987 elections. Instead, McRobie in his chapter on the 1981 election starts by skimming over the background already covered in detail by Levine in the previous chapter. For example, there are repetitive discussions of the Marginal Lands Board issue; the challenge to Muldoon’s leadership in 1980; “Think Big”; the Springbok Tour; Bill Rowling’s sacking of Roger Douglas over the latter’s alternative budget; Lange’s first unsuccessful attempt to replace Rowling; and the rise of Social Credit and its success at the East Coast Bays by-election.

Levine’s first chapter is a good short summary of New Zealand’s political landscape and culture during the period between 1935 and 1981. It is marred by an inexplicable error when he states incorrectly that “The New Zealand Labour Party was formed in 1916 and elected its first MPs in 1919.” He may be excused for not considering the MPs elected prior to 1916 under various labels and who formed the NZLP but he could not so ignore Harry Holland, Peter Fraser and Bob Semple, all elected at by-elections during 1918 under the new party’s banner.

More accurate is Levine’s analysis of what the two major parties came to represent. National, for example, was always “more successful in managing comfort than in adapting to reversal”. Labour, despite being out of government for all but twelve of the fifty years between 1949 and 1999, “remained a dynamic party, creative in its policies, not content simply to administer or manage. It was a party committed to change”, even if the change pursued by the parliamentary leadership after 1984 was detested by many of the party’s traditional supporters.

It is easy to forget that almost all commentators thought Labour would win the 1981 election. In the event, National under Muldoon won a majority of seats, although for the second election in a row Labour under Rowling won more votes. McRobie details how this happened under the first-past-the-post electoral system used at that time. He also discusses how Social Credit could win almost 21 per cent of the vote (about the same percentage as National did in 2002 under a different electoral system) but only two of 92 seats. No third party over the past twenty years has polled as high a percentage of the vote as Social Credit did in 1978 and 1981.

The authors use not only election results but also Heylen public opinion polls to explain what happened in the elections. They identify the increasing dealignment of the electorate as traditional party loyalties eroded. They somewhat more tendentiously raise questions about the effect of the Springbok Tour on the 1981 election results, with McRobie suggesting that “The problems of unemployment and the economy were a far more enduring concern than the Springbok tour”, which by September 1981 “had almost disappeared as an issue”. Again, he asserts that

the Springbok tour was not a major factor in the election. Less than 1 per cent of all electors indicated that their decision was based on the tour issue, and the percentage was the same for both parties …. Nationally the pro- and anti-tour factions largely cancelled each other out.


Yet in contradiction, he then goes on to argue that the tour helped National retain its marginal seats and that “The Springbok rugby tour was almost certainly decisive in National’s retention of power.” The reader is left somewhat confused, especially as elsewhere McRobie, like Muldoon, sees the growth strategy, commonly known as “Think Big”, as the central issue of the campaign that ensured National’s re-election.

Leadership plays an important role in elections, and in 1981 one out of every three National voters said that their major reason for voting for that party was the appeal of Muldoon. Even with that support undoubtedly eroding by the 1984 election, Muldoon’s residual personal appeal in the electorate continued throughout the 1980s and made it very difficult for his successors as National’s leader, Jim McLay and Jim Bolger, to present themselves effectively as the clear alternative to Labour’s David Lange. As Levine notes, “Although the National parliamentary team had rejected Sir Robert for McLay, the public had not and never did so”; and subsequently “One of the difficulties facing Bolger … was the gnawing presence of a member of his caucus, the former Prime Minister, undeniably more popular with the electorate than himself.”

McRobie’s discussion of the 1984 snap election questions Muldoon’s use of Marilyn Waring’s defection as the reason for calling it and argues that it was more of an excuse by a tired, uncertain and frustrated Prime Minister. Muldoon had governed under similar circumstances for two and a half years and could certainly have done so for another six months.

One oversight in McRobie’s discussion of the 1983 electoral redistribution – which he and Labour’s President Jim Anderton thought was fairer than the previous one – was the division of the Rangitikei seat of Social Credit’s leader Bruce Beetham in such a way that he lost it, although he would have been re-elected on the pre-1981 boundaries. Indeed, the minor parties do not get sufficient coverage in this chapter, with Bob Jones’s New Zealand Party receiving only two short and rather superficial paragraphs.

Much has been written on the period 1984-87. Muldoon has often been criticised for wanting to leave New Zealand no worse than he found it. Lange could also be judged by his aspiration “to rebuild this country by bringing people together in the awareness of a common purpose by healing the wounds of nine years of division and confrontation.” Certainly New Zealand was deeply divided at the end of Muldoon’s nine years in office in 1984 but it can be argued that it was even more divided and wounded after only three years of Lange and Labour in 1987.

The 1987 election is covered in the fourth chapter, written by Levine. Again it starts with a brief overview of the major events, inter alia reminding the reader that in 1985 the Government was out of step with public opinion in its decision to ban nuclear ship visits and effectively withdraw from the ANZUS Alliance. Nevertheless, although National’s share of the vote rose from 35.9 to 44.0 per cent, Labour’s also rose from 43.0 to 48.0 per cent, largely as the result of the collapse of the Social Credit and New Zealand Party votes. A transfer of wealthier voters to Labour in support of Rogernomics saw Labour hold the marginals and decimate the majorities in National’s traditionally safest urban seats.


The book ends with a short but thoughtful “Epilogue”, which draws attention to the importance of personalities in New Zealand politics and claims that New Zealand now lacks any comparable to Norman Kirk, Muldoon or Lange. Indeed, the authors specifically reject Helen Clark and Winston Peters as contenders and claim that New Zealand voters “want what could be described as a kind of ‘apolitical politics’ – a politics without leadership, or alternatively, a kind of leadership without politics”. This reviewer disagrees on
both counts.

Much more tenable is the suggestion that Muldoonism lived on in the New Zealand First and pre-2002 Anderton-led Alliance parties while the Lange-Douglas Labour Party of the 1980s is now represented by the small ACT Party. Labour and National, the major parties from the 1980s – a remarkable period in New Zealand’s political history – are today quite different. In many ways, though certainly not all, Labour resembles the National Party of the 1950s and 60s, seeking to govern pragmatically and to occupy the centre of the political spectrum. National, with much of its traditional constituency now supporting ACT, New Zealand First or Future New Zealand, is desperately seeking to redefine and re-establish a clear image, to prevent itself becoming simply a country party, and to find a leader with the strengths, though not, we hope, the weaknesses, of Muldoon. Some suggest there is such a leader, but unfortunately she is already the Prime Minister.


Barry Gustafson is Professor of Political Studies at the University of Auckland.  


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