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 the final part of my series discussing how Labour was able to finally gain control of New Zealand politics, I would like to discuss the social divisions that existed during this period in New Zealand history. I previously have discussed the more conventional areas, the political and economic reasons for Labour’s victory, but now I would like to focus on the significance of the social turbulence that was taking place in the country during this same period. The polarised climate in the country over certain social issues have been accredited as the final nail in the coffin for the Muldoon Government before Labour swept to power in 1984. So let us indulge ourselves with this in mind. 

A key factor to its defeat in 1984 was the National government’s failure to acknowledge, or connect, with the changing nature of the New Zealand electorate. Two events prior to 1984 illustrate the extent to which the Muldoon-led Government was perceived to be out of touch with popular opinion. The first was the stance National took during the 1981 tour of New Zealand by the (all white) South African rugby team. This was in the face of both international and Commonwealth sporting sanctions against the apartheid regime in Pretoria. The second was the growing support for a ‘Nuclear Free New Zealand’ policy championed by Labour which National opposed as a threat to its special relationship with the United States. These two examples and their implications help explain why the National government failed to secure a fourth term in office at the 1984 General Election. 

Rugby has a special place in New Zealand’s social history. The national team the ‘All Blacks’ has a unique place in the national consciousness and the only other country where rugby exerted this level of influence was in South Africa. Matches between the Springboks, the South African Rugby national team, and the All Blacks were widely acknowledged as the pinnacle of rugby. 

At the same time, however, there was mounting concern about and opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Allowing the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand to take place further reinforced a sense among many New Zealanders that their Prime Minister was out of touch with contemporary political issues. On this point historians51, and political scientists who have written about the National and Labour Party during this period are agreed. 

In fact, already before 1981 New Zealand’s determination to sustain sporting contacts with a regime widely condemned, led to an African boycott of the Montreal Olympics in protest at New Zealand’s stance. 

Muldoon’s decision to allow the Springbok tour to proceed in 1981 was viewed as the “moment New Zealand lost ‘its innocence’”. The tour divided New Zealand society. One hundred thousand New Zealanders - an unprecedented number for a total population of 3 million - took part in over 200 demonstrations throughout the two months of the tour, leading to 1,500 arrests. National’s aggressive approach to the protesters contributed to the perception of an authoritarian Government prepared to violently punish New Zealand citizens exercising their democratic right to protest. The tour also highlighted the difficulties and racism faced by New Zealand’s indigenous population (the Maori), as well as Pacific Island minorities. It also sharpened social divisions between those living in urban areas, where opposition to the tour was strongest, and the more conservative populations living in rural areas. 

The Labour Party unequivocally opposed the tour aligning itself with the younger urban population and international opinion. It became a standard feature of the 1984 election campaign for Labour to emphasise National’s stance on the Springbok tour as demonstrating how out of touch it was with public opinion, and that it was ‘time for a change’. 

Leading up to the 1984 election New Zealand was also divided on a defence and security issue that would prove advantageous for Labour. New Zealand had been a long-standing member of the Australian - New Zealand - United States (ANZUS) military alliance. ANZUS had been established in 1951 in the context of rising tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. Under ANZUS, Australia and New Zealand benefitted from US backing against any Soviet aggression, but in exchange allowed nuclear powered, or nuclear armed US naval vessels “free access” into their ports. This was increasingly challenged by the growing anti-nuclear peace movement domestically and internationally. The possibility of a nuclear-free New Zealand which became an immensely popular policy helped propel the Labour Party to power at the 1984 general election. 

National’s determined resistance to the Nuclear Free New Zealand Bill and Muldoon’s personal identification with the ANZUS alliance underlined the conservatism of the National Party. There was also mounting scepticism about the utility of the alliance with the US and the price that had to be paid for this in the form of access to New Zealand ports by nuclear powered and nuclear armed military vessels. 

The changing social nature of the New Zealand electorate over this period was personified in support for anti-nuclear policies, and opposition to the South African apartheid regime. This shift was mirrored in the changing party composition of the Labour Party. In 1919, 63 percent of Labour MPs were manual workers and unionists. By 1984 75 percent of Labour MPs61 were drawn from “professional occupations”62 such as teachers and academics, who been exposed to political issues in the protest movements of the 1970s and 1980s, rather than in the union movement or working class. 

Labour’s appeal to middle class professional voters therefore, who were a core element in their victory in 1984, was in part dependent on Labour’s well-articulated anti-nuclear position, as well as its clear opposition to the Springbok tour. Taken together, there was a sense that on social issues Labour was more in touch with contemporary thinking. 

Concluding Remarks

This series considered the political, economic and social factors that propelled the Labour Party to victory in 1984, less than three years after a defeat that had cost its former Leader his job. Important political factors in Labour’s election victory were the declining popularity of the incumbent government, the revival of the Labour Party with a new, youthful leader, combined with the rise of two ‘minor parties’ who eroded the incumbent National Party’s electoral support. Moreover, National’s failure to manage the economy further damaged its credibility as an effective government, while Labour saw no need to set out its own approach to the economy and focused on highlighting the fact that National seemed bereft of any new ideas. Finally, the government’s failure to understand and respond to the changing social mood in New Zealand also damaged its electoral prospects. National’s support for the deeply divisive South African rugby tour, as well as opposition to the nuclear free policy being espoused by Labour, reinforced a perception of a Government simply out of touch with the new generation embodied by a revitalised Labour Party. 

The 1984 election is a defining moment in New Zealand’s economic, political and social history. It heralded an era of political change, sweeping economic reforms and social change, including the severing of ties with the apartheid regime and the establishment of an anti-nuclear policy that continues to this day.

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