The New Zealand Election of 1984

This is a three part series discussing how the Labour Government of 1984-1990 came to power in the election of 1984 .  Artwork by Julia Jarzyna.

In light of the upcoming 2020 election in New Zealand, and the appointment of Judith Collins as the new leader of the opposition National Party, I wanted to revisit a time in New Zealand that transformed and shaped how my small country is understood today. I refer of course to the iconic 1984 election.

When the fourth Labour Government in New Zealand’s history came to power after a long spell of living in the shadow of the conservative National Government, reforms shook the country to its core. Personally, the effects of these reforms I believe still linger today, but that is for another time. 

Today I how the Labour Party, so long out office, was able to defeat a long-time government that had stifled its opponents for nearly a decade. By doing so, one can both appreciate the changes that were occurring throughout New Zealand society during this time and understand, perhaps , how this may have enabled a return to office for Labour. Today I focus on the political factors that played a role.  

When the New Zealand Labour Party won the election in 1984, it was seen by many New Zealanders as a turning point - a shift from an ageing and tired leadership seemingly rooted in a conservatism of the 1950s and 60s which had run out of ideas. It was replaced by a dynamic and youthful Labour Party more in touch with contemporary issues and concerns. The election represented a fundamental break with existing political, economic and social policies in favour of completely new approaches across all

three areas.

Once in power the Fourth Labour Government instituted virtually overnight sweeping reforms that liberalised the economy and promoted a foreign policy independent of US influence, banning nuclear armed and powered ships, and severing ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa. The significance of the 1984 election endures to this day, laying the foundation for the modern New Zealand economy and self-determining foreign policy. Leading up to this election, it was not certain Labour would win. The National Government had been in power for seven years, while Labour had been divided and disorganised, especially after its defeat in the 1981 election. 

Political factors played a key role in Labour’s victory at the snap-election held in July 1984. These included: the internal divisions within the National Party; the  emergence of a youthful and dynamic opposition leader who contrasted sharply with an ageing Prime Minister; and the rise of two minor parties, The New Zealand Party and Social Credit.

Internal divisions in the National Party were a continual feature of the 1980-1984 period. They were already evident when in 1979-1980 Prime Minister Robert Muldoon survived a leadership challenge, nicknamed the Colonels Coup, by Cabinet members who opposed his economic policies. The failed ‘Colonels’ Coup’ led to the  resignations of some key cabinet ministers and triggered deep divisions in National between the

economic modernisers and the traditionalists. 

This division further weakened of National’s electorate base. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister led National to victory at the General Election of 1981 winning forty-seven seats in Parliament  compared to Labour’s forty-three. The Labour Party narrowly won 39.0 percent of the popular vote compared to 38.8 percent for National but, due to New Zealand’s First-Past-the-Post electoral system failed to secure a parliamentary majority. Significantly, a third party, Social Credit secured 20.7 percent of the vote, much of which was derived from the National Party, but only secured two parliamentary seats. 

The National Party victory of 1981 had not been as comprehensive as that of 1975 and it was clear the popularity of the National Government was eroding. Ongoing internal conflicts within the National Party created a perception of a party adrift with no clear sense of purpose. Important parts of the membership of the National Party, particularly its urban liberal wing, were increasingly alienated from the highly autocratic leadership style personified by the Prime Minister. This urban segment of the National Party was critical to any future electoral success, not least given its access to much needed financing for electoral campaigns.

Tensions within National would continue to rise in the lead up to the 1984 general election. The most obvious manifestation of this was the action of two National Members of Parliament (MPs), on the 13th of June 1984. Marilyn Waring and Mike Minogue represented the new face of National, they were young, socially liberal MPs increasingly at odds with a Prime Minister seemingly out of touch with the mood of the electorate. When Labour put forward a Nuclear Free New Zealand Bill it was only two votes short of being passed in parliament. Significantly, the two young National MPs decided to cross the floor as a matter of principle. This highlighted the perception that National was internally divided and could no longer function effectively. It also raised questions about the quality and effectiveness of its leader, the Prime Minister.

The 1975 general election saw the National Party defeat Labour by  23 seats in Parliament, and a popular vote of 47.6% compared to Labour’s 39.6%. The deteriorating image of the Prime Minister was another factor in Labour’s victory in 1984. Muldoon increasingly appeared to be out of touch with the electorate. His references to ‘Rob’s Mob’ as representing the ‘real New Zealand’ were a desperate appeal to the rural male voter. In the end, even this support could no longer be assured. Moreover, Muldoon’s autocratic endency and willingness to take decisions himself, while once admired, was now considered increasingly dictatorial and out of touch with modern political realities.

Following its defeat in 1975 and again in 1981, the New Zealand Labour Party confronted the very real possibility that it would lose a third election in 1984. The defeat in 1981 was a particularly bitter one for the party as it had won the popular vote, but had failed to win sufficient electoral seats. Much of the blame for the party’s poor performance was laid at the door of its leader Wallace (Bill) Rowling, who in a biography is described to have been unfairly judged by pundits.

His ‘gentlemanly’ style contrasted sharply with Muldoon’s rather more assertive, if increasingly dictatorial manner. A fatal perception emerged that Rowling was a ‘weak’ leader, something. Muldoon had mercilessly focused on during the 1981 election. Following the 1981 election defeat Rowling stepped down in favour of his Deputy, a new MP. The new leader was David Lange and he moved quickly to reenergise the demoralised party and present a more powerful force in Parliament. He restructured “the Front Bench and reallocat[ed] spokesmanship to make better use of the available talent.” 

A recently published official history of the Labour Party argues the change in party leadership was widely seen as a  generational change and a fundamental shift in the party’s direction. That assessment was also shared by political scientists at the time. Jim Anderton, a former businessman, became the new Labour Party President. A revitalised Labour Party organisation focused on securing electorate seats in 1984 and was also more effective at fundraising. Labour presented itself as a re-energised and dynamic party that “would rebuild the country”, unlike the incumbent government that “had brought New Zealand to the verge of social and economic  bankruptcy”. 

Newspaper reports of the period underscored the difference as well, with both the Auckland-based New Zealand Herald and Wellington-based Dominion Post emphasising this to the public. Through the portrayal of National as a government that had caused “nine years of division and confrontation” Labour advocated for unity amongst New Zealanders by healing wounds that National had inflicted on New Zealand.

As Labour’s new leader David Lange provided a sharp contrast to Robert Muldoon. Lange was nearly twenty-five years younger than Prime Minister Muldoon and is described “very much the fresh face during the election”, explains Moon, “during the … final leaders’ debate...looked and spoke like a Prime Minister in waiting”. Labour was not the only political party to benefit from the increasing frustration felt by thee New Zealand electorate regarding the policies and approaches of the  National government. 

Between 1975-84, two important minor parties emerged – Social Credit and the New Zealand Party and they enjoyed a surge of support, largely at the expense of the National Party. The distinction between Social Credit and the New Zealand Party was their respective electoral appeals. Social Credit enjoyed its greatest appeal in small rural towns. It was first elected to Parliament in 1978 because of a by-election in the formerly ‘safe’ National Party seat of Rangitikei won by leader Bruce Beetham. Opinion polls following the 1981 election highlighted Social Credit’s appeal to National Party voters in rural electorates. 

In contrast with Social Credit which had a long-standing set of political objectives, including the introduction of a new monetary system of ‘social credit’, the New Zealand Party was formed, as a reaction to ‘Muldoonism.’ Property developer Bob Jones, who had previously funded Muldoon’s ’75 election campaign established the New Zealand Party explicitly to wrest control of the Government from a Muldoon-led National Party.

The party’s appeal was overwhelmingly urban, where it set about attracting young formerly National Party voters attracted to the social and economic liberalism its leader, Jones, espoused. The appeal of both parties therefore was very much to National Party supporters who felt disenfranchised by the current government, and could not bring themselves to vote for the Labour Party. Consequently Several key National-held seats, like Ohariu, Rangitikei and East Coast Bays were lost either to Labour or to Social Credit. 

While these two third parties alone did not determine the fate of the National Government, they played an important contributing factor in its defeat in 1984, through their different appeals to the National Party base.

Stay tuned for part 2 to be released soon!

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