Sir Robert Jones getting into the media last week for ignoring safety briefings on an AirNZ flight reminded of his most significant role in the election of 84, the fourth Labour Government. That was another time when he had ‘heard all this crap before.’
For those too young to recall the events surrounding that event, it would seem very peculiar that a multi millionaire property investor would support a Labour government; but this was no normal election and no normal Labour Government. It all centred around another Sir Robert, Sir Robert Muldoon, Prime Minister and leader of the National Party.
In the late seventies / early eighties something had gone terribly skew-whiff in New Zealand politics. Elections had always been a clear blue and red choice since the Labour Party had been founded. The Blue supported by the feudalists: farmers, corporate bosses, investment bankers, officers and mounted rifles; and the Red supported by the workers and foot-soldiers, ‘We have nothing to lose but our chains’.
Muldoon, National party leader and NZ Prime Minister was the MP for the true-blue Tamaki electorate: a conservative and privileged section of our population, very focused on law and order. Fast forward to Sir Robert Muldoon’s funeral and the most enduring image I have of that occasion is the Black Power gang performing a haka to his coffin. Such respect from an underpriveleged, outlaw group for a National Party leader? What had happened in NZ society? We can be reasonably confident that senior executives of Comalco, the subsidiary of multinational Rio Tinto who owned the Tiwai Aluminium Smelter in Bluff, did not mourn Sir Robert’s passing with the same passion. For although he ostensibly represented the affluent, Muldoon was a Keynesian interventionist at heart.
When Muldoon wanted to over-ride the electricity price contract with Comalco to force up the power price charged to them (admittedly the Comalco contract had not factored in the impact of the global energy crisis), he simply stated that he would ignore the legally contracted position and legislate the price he demanded. Comalco had no option but to pay the price demanded.
The masses (Rob’s mob,) supported this, ‘you stick it to the bastard multinationals, Rob’. While I understand and even sympathise with the need for an adjustment to electricity prices given the global economy at the time, the finger could not be pointed at Comalco, it needed to be pointed at the government representatives who originally signed the contract; and furthermore it was the NZ government that had asked Comalco to come here initially and put a $175 million investment in the Bluff smelter based on the original contracted price. Such an action by Muldoon was more that of a 3rd world dictatorship than a leader of a conservative 1st world government.
In the aftermath of the 1979 oil crisis created by the Iranian revolution, our books were getting into a progressively worse state. Muldoon responded more and more with interventionist politics. Apart from the Comalco confrontation, he imposed a wage freeze, he pushed-through car-less days legislation and he enforced price controls. He also introduced the policy mantra of “Think Big”. Muldoon’s government invested hugely in large-scale industrial plants based on NZ’s natural gas and oil supplies, the Clutha dam was built and the NZ Steel plant was expanded.
But this “Think Big” policy required massive capital investment, the Government was a poor business manager and the national debt was spiralling dangerously out of control.
Emerging in the political spectrum was the backlash from the business sector seeking a shift towards a more free market economy following the lead of Margaret Thatcher in Britain. That was never going to happen in a Muldoon-led government. Muldoon was a megalomaniac. He required a signed, undated letter of resignation before he would appoint any of his MP’s to Cabinet. He iron-fist-ruled a country whose economy was probably the most highly regulated, highly protected and state-dominated capitalist system in the first world. And woe betide any jumped up little journalist who challenged him.
Taking up the lead role for a the free-market push was property developer Bob Jones. He established his own political party, “The New Zealand Party”. Muldoon would have recognised the threat of NZ Party splitting his vote, especially since he was having increasing problems with some of his own MP’s, primarily Marilyn Waring, over Labour’s proposed anti-nuclear bill. He called a snap election leaving Bob Jones only a month to campaign. The NZ party did not win a seat but still did enough in that short time to pull a critical 12% of the vote. That was a sufficiently large block of votes from National’s traditional voting base to allow Labour to win the election. If National had retained NZ Party’s votes they would have had a 48% : 43% split against Labour. As it turned out, Labour had a 43% : 36% majority of votes resulting in Labour taking ten seats off National-held electorates as well as 7 of 11 new seats.
When Labour opened Muldoon’s books immediately after the election, they recognised that the country was. as suspected, at crisis point. The dollar was instantly devalued as a crisis measure, although not without a brief constitutional crisis when Muldoon initially refused to sign-off on this as he was still technically Prime Minister until the swearing-in of Labour. But sanity prevailed and it was a time to be grateful for the fact that our ultimate head of state, the Crown, is above party politics. Such a constitution protects us from the dictatorial ambitions of very strong-willed and aggressive personalities.
Into the fourth Labour Government cabinet came names like Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble. Recognise them? The Minister of Finance and associate Finance Minister respectively who later went on to New Zealand’s most right-wing political party, ACT (Association of Consumers and Taxpayers). With them came the phrase “Rogernomics” which was in essence a free market economy. Effectively Labour introduced the economic policies of Bob Jones’ NZ Party. Unthinkable, but it happened. Is it possible that Bob Jones had orchestrated this with senior Labour people before he put his own dog into the fight? You may suggest that, Humphrey, but I could not possibly comment.
Many Government departments were corporatised as State-owned enterprises required to operate as a commercial entity focused on making a profit. After the 1987 share market crash, a programme of selling off these state-owned assets was undertaken to reduce debt. In 1989 and 1990 the Labour Government sold Air NZ, Postbank, State Insurance, Shipping Corporation, the Tourist Hotel corporation and Telecom. By the year 2000, forty State-owned enterprises had been sold off for a combined $19.1 billion.
Today it is hard to really see the traditional hard-line distinction between the National Blues and the Labour Reds. John Keys is from an underprivileged background who made millions without losing his connection with the average Kiwi. Labour is now dominated by academics and socially minded professionals rather than canny workers with grease under their finger nails. We have two parties of shades of purple.
Interestingly purple is the colour of Peter Dunne’s United Future party. Dunne was in that original 1984 Labour government and now supports the National government. That says it all.
The Greens are desperate to appeal to the mainstream traditional labour voter to form a Brown Party; but there lies muddy waters and they have never really shaken off their dope-smoking, ‘end of the world is nigh’ roots. The new co-leader James Shaw may change that image but his first question-time session with the Prime Minister indicates that is highly unlikely. He continues the green mantra that requires NZ to martyr its economy in the naive belief that this will convert the rest of the world to their cause. Making progress on Green politics will require the Greens to recognise that the frightening acceleration of global population growth is the root cause of the negative impact that humans are having on the planet and its eco-system. I don’t think they will do it even if they realise it.
Winston Peter’s NZ First Party is simply Winston Peters. Just a wily, very experienced politician who knows where all the bodies are and who, without the constraints of toe-ing a mainstream party line, can use his experience, debating skill and knowledge to bring someone into line, when he so chooses. He seems to enjoy himself and attracts enough support from those who like someone to ‘keep the bastards honest.’ His party colour is black, interestingly John Keys seems hell-bent on converting NZ’s flag from blue to black. No doubt that will amuse Winston.
The ACT party are the last of the true blues, but that’s a pretty lonely camp. To the free market supporters it is largely redundant as today New Zealand ranks as the 3rd most free market economy in the world behind Hong Kong and Singapore but well ahead of the USA in 12th position.
And it all comes about from that period of the mid 1980’s when, under the Red flag, the most right-wing government NZ has experienced took power from the Blue flag which represented the most state-controlled government we have ever experienced. And at the heart of it all was multi millionaire Sir Robert Jones who, in the days when he was referred to as a tycoon, arguably funded and fronted the creation of the colour purple in NZ politics.
I also recall the other policy statement of the New Zealand Party. “That the welfare system is a safety net not a lifestyle choice.” While acknowledging that turning the Labour Party into the country’s most right-wing government was in itself monumental in rescuing our economy, imagine what a stronger and more resilient country we would have today if the politicians had also had the courage to introduce that safety net principle into our national psyche.