Robert Muldoon was the pre-eminent figure of his generation in New Zealand politics.
A self-styled 'counterpuncher', his combative manner enlivened his country's drab political scene and commanded international attention - not all of it positive. His determinedly interventionist approach to economic management divided his own party and paved the way for the free-market policies of David Lange and Roger Douglas. But Muldoon's heavily subsidised 'Think Big' programme, and such expensive feats of social engineering as a universal pension scheme pegged at 80 per cent of the average wage, saddled New Zealand with South American levels of international debt.
He rose and fell in elections and opinion polls with breathtaking suddenness. In 1975 he became Prime Minister after achieving the largest parliamentary majority in New Zealand history. He was defeated by exactly the same margin nine years later.
Muldoon was a skilled politician with an instinctive understanding of the voter, whom he characterised as the 'ordinary decent bloke'. Yet he was much misunderstood. Because he betrayed so little of his private feelings, except to seem tough, he never evoked the sympathy he may have deserved.
Robert ('Rob') Muldoon was born in 1921. His father was invalided out of France during the First World War and died after a lingering illness. Like a surprising number of successful politicians, he was an only child brought up by a domineering mother who shaped her son's personality. Muldoon won a scholarship to grammar school and was a bright child, although shy and introspective. A playground accident caused the cheek scar which in later years could turn the most benign facial expression into an apparent sneer.
Muldoon grew up in modest circumstances. He frequently referred to the deprivations of his boyhood. He would buy bruised and speckled fruit - 'the specks' - on his way to school because his family could not afford better quality. He identified politically with working- class voters and deeply resented 'Remuera radicals' who lived in New Zealand's most affluent suburb but professed left-wing values.
In the Second World War he served in Italy under Sir John Marshall, later Prime Minister, whose nemesis he was to become. He qualified as an accountant, and became active in the National Party's youth wing, where he met and married his wife.
Muldoon became an MP in 1960. He was associated with the 'Young Turks' who tried to take the governing National Party (led by the Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake) away from its rural origins to a broader electoral base. Muldoon's political ascent coincided with the arrival of television in New Zealand, and he determined to master what he recognised as a vital electoral tool. Instead of being interviewed conventionally, he brushed aside the reporter's question, glared fixedly down the barrel of the camera and spoke directly to the viewer. The technique proved successful, and Muldoon's career blossomed as the influence of the new medium grew.
Muldoon became Minister of Finance in 1967 under Holyoake. His abrasive manner made him a household name. He regularly abused journalists and political opponents, and once punched a demonstrator outside a meeting. His policies had a Poujadist flavour: 'Rob's Mob', as his supporters became known, believed in law and order, loyalty to the Crown, and the preservation of their view of the New Zealand way of life.
After the blandness of the Holyoake years, when the monthly wool export figures constituted a major news story, Muldoon was an exciting contrast. Sir John Marshall, known as 'Gentleman Jack' for his old-fashioned courteous bearing, took over the premiership from Holyoake. Within months Marshall was defeated by Labour's charismatic leader Norman Kirk. Muldoon subsequently made a successful leadership challenge based on his more aggressive style.
In the 1975 General Election Muldoon humiliated the Labour government in a campaign founded on rampant populism. His election slogan was 'New Zealand The Way You Want It'. Television commercials featured dancing cossacks, swarms of brown-faced migrants and trade unionists with Liverpool accents - all signposts to the route New Zealand might take unless 'Rob's Mob' gained control. The campaign was divisive but Muldoon, not for the first time, proved himself an astute judge of electoral form. One commitment was to resume rugby links with South Africa, a policy which led eventually to the Gleneagles Agreement (to which Muldoon was a reluctant signatory).
Muldoon's 'counter-punching' continued in government. Within a year he revealed that a former Labour cabinet minister had been picked up by the police (though never charged) for suspected homosexual soliciting. He belittled his opponents and articulated popular prejudices. Journalists, teachers, students, trade unionists and civil servants were regular targets. He in turn gained the sobriquet 'Piggy Muldoon', and aroused passionate opposition as well as strong support.
Muldoon appointed himself Minister of Finance. He had always said that 'economics is common sense made difficult', and he offered constant analogies between his own budget and that of the prudent housewife whose support he sought.
He believed in central government and its ability to reorder the economy in what he considered a fairer and more efficient manner. Wage and price freezes and controls on interest rates became the economic norm, with 'general wage orders' pronounced annually for all wage-earners. He allowed taxes to rise, limited imports through tariffs and quotas, and heavily subsidised farming. For a conservative, he appeared to have little faith in market forces and slight commitment to property rights. In the paradox of New Zealand's political system, he represented a stereotyped Labour politician: compassionate, fiscally irresponsible and economically dirigiste.
Muldoon's faith in central planning reached its apogee in the lavish 'Think Big' energy projects which were funded through government subsidies and guarantees. Constituency considerations and the fall in oil prices combined to create taxpayer-owned assets worth a small fraction of their cost, confirming that politicians are the worst judges of investment decisions.
In 1981 Muldoon won a knife-edge election to a backdrop of batons and barbed wire after a Springbok rugby team toured New Zealand under heavy police escort and unprecedented security arrangements.
The divisions and contradictions of the Muldoon era returned to haunt him. In 1984 Sir Robert Muldoon (as he was now) called an ill-judged snap election. A push for 'consensus' and the creation of a breakaway free-market party led to a sweeping victory for the conciliatory David Lange.
Muldoon admired Margaret Thatcher, and sent a frigate to support Britain in the Falklands War. He quoted a wartime New Zealand prime minister who proclaimed, 'Where Britain goes, we go', a somewhat dated sentiment in the era of the European Community. He got on badly with Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and most other international leaders, excepting Lee Kuan Yew, with whose political style he had something in common.
Muldoon had no obvious heir - like other strong-willed prime ministers he brusquely eased aside potential rivals. After his return to the back benches his still significant public following enabled him to chip away at the credibility of two successors as National Party leader. This played a role in the re-election of the Lange government. He was widely thought to be promoting the candidacy of a young, photogenic Maori lawyer, Winston Peters, who evoked his populist appeal.
In 1990, when Jim Bolger led National to power, Muldoon turned down a cabinet position to have freedom to attack the new government when it 'deserved it'.
He relished this facility and became a constant irritant to the Bolger administration by continually siding with opponents of the Finance Minister, Ruth Richardson. At the end of 1991, he resigned from Parliament, precipitating a by-election which he believed would punish the party he had led so successfully. His constituency remained safely in government hands. Rob Muldoon's once dominant persona had lost much of its influence.
Muldoon retained his unpretentiousness to the end. He hosted talkback radio programmes and wrote regularly for the populist press. He starred as the narrator in an Auckland production of The Rocky Horror Show, advertised garden equipment on television (he was an authority on lilies), and presented a series of horror movies for Television New Zealand.
Rob Muldoon had the common touch, and he genuinely believed it was the job of government to set right the problems of individuals. He reciprocated loyalty to his parliamentary colleagues, often at some political cost. He was never dull and he should be missed by the journalistic profession, with which he had a symbiotic if fraught relationship. He might have been characterised as the Huey Long of the South Pacific.
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