Kaftans and sandals and falsetto barbarians at the gate

Stories about 2 March, 1981 (10/10)

The front page of the Evening Post on 2 March, 1981 was all about strikes. 

Several thousand trade unionists had just marched down Queen Street to protest the right to peacefully picket, a right that Muldoon was presumably trying to take away.  The problem, according to Muldoon, was defining the word “peaceful”.  Essentially this seems to have been a fight over whether “scabs” could cross picket lines without getting the snot beaten out of them.  I say “scabs” advisedly because I have no particular sympathies with either side of this argument.  Muldoon is obviously trying to damage the unions, but unions rarely act in a way that inspires any loyalty in me.

The march down Queen Street is a good example.  The unionists got called “traitors” “bludgers” and “scabs” (ha!) by the bystanders, and then some of the unionists told “the more vociferous groups of women to get back to their kitchen.”  Charming.  President of the Auckland Trades Council, Bill Anderson, said “They are people who represent Muldoon.  Forty percent of this country voted for him and that’s them out there.”

The main consequence of the strikes, which seem to have started with the Auckland Airport Engineers, was that thousands of people were stranded at airports around New Zealand.  A presumably unintended consequence was that Frankfurter Puppenzentrum (a German puppet troupe) were stranded at Singapore airport and had to cancel four sold out shows in Wellington.  I imagine the German puppet theatre enthusiasts’ rage was palpable in New Zealand.

Cat. Cream.

As a solution to this problem (the thousands of stranded people, not the Germans) the government was organising RNZAF airlifts out of Ohakea on Hercules planes, and the Australian government had sent planes to pick up any Australians stuck here.  Muldoon told the Federation of Labour President, Mr. Knox, that if everyone went back to work tomorrow then they could talk about the issue.  A reporter asked what would happen if they didn’t go back to work.  Muldoon responded rather enigmatically, “Ah ha.  Then we’ve got a problem.”

Frankly most of New Zealand seems to have been on strike in the month of March, 1981.  It was the sixth day of the Cook Strait Ferry being tied up, the buses in Wellington were on strike, the meatworks were closed, beer deliveries had ceased, the Boliermakers’ Association was meeting, the Railway Tradesman’s Association was meeting, and the workers at the Ford assembly plant in Seaview were still striking over the introduction of stopwatches onto the production lines.  This is salutary reminder that the good old days often weren’t that good.


Muldoon is the first politician I remember.  I also remember strikes (the Picton Ferry stopping often stuffed school holidays), and car less days.  Although Muldoon is not caught in any of his iconic moments on 2 March, 1981 he nevertheless pops up everywhere.  He is mentioned in the Listener by a former Australian politician (see picture at the top of the page), and there is a long article about why Think Big was a crap idea.  In the Evening Post, as I mentioned, he was wrestling with trade unionists and getting some support from the editorial.

As with most people who polarize, Muldoon is an interesting character to look back on.  While I am certainly in the camp that dislikes him overall, there is always a part of me that will acknowledge his charisma and his gift for wit.  I honestly believe that he was the best political comedian we have ever had in New Zealand.  Unfortunately much of the humour was nasty as well as funny and clever.  Worse, he had a tendency to slur people by suggesting they were effeminate.  Aside from the historic and infamous low of accusing an opposition MP in the house of having being picked up by the police for suspected homosexual behaviour (whatever that means), Muldoon generally seemed to like to brand people with unflattering (in his eyes) traits:

I come back to my original analysis [sic] of the Labour Party in this.  It is essentially a party of losers, the under-acheivers and those who are sympathetic to them….  Some of the sons and daughters of National Party parents, softened both in the head and the heart by their university studies, turned to Labour and became the Remuera Radicals and the Wadestown Pinkos.

This is in his second book, My Way, which he published in 1981; the same year as Rowling’s book came out.  Muldoon, of course, has a bit to say about Rowling.  Mostly that he lost all his self-confidence after the 1975 defeat, but also that he was weak.  Muldoon gives as evidence Rowling sacking Roger Douglas as shadow finance minster for releasing an alternative, unapproved, budget in 1980.

When interviewed on television about the over-reaction and asked why he had done it, Rowling’s falsetto response, “I’m the boss”, was a classic.

Note the adjective before “response” in that sentence.  It was a common Muldoon slur technique, and it was powerful.  It is emotive, and plays to conservatism, and yet you hardly notice it; just a little bump as we cross from the subject to the noun, a little bump that might make you smirk before you catch yourself.  His whole book is full of it.  At one point he responds to the publication of an unflattering biography of himself penned by a “Wellington Greek journalist” (why does he mention Greek, specifically?), excerpts of which were published in the Listener (“that precious journal of the effete left”).  If there was one thing Muldoon detested it seems to  have been having his version of events challenged, and being personally attacked.

Which is rather ironic as he was the master of the personal attack.  He became less  and less masterful at having his version of events become the official version.  In his version of events New Zealand was going to be ok if we hunkered down, clung on and resisted too much change.

But it was no good.  You can’t stop change no matter how much you want to, and Muldoon certainly wanted to, but even the definitions of what a man was, and how people dressed had reached right into Muldoon’s own family well before he fell from power in 1984.  I give you a photo from his  daughter’s wedding.  You may smirk before you catch yourself. 

The caption notes the matching embroidered kaftans, but fails to mention the sandals.

6 thoughts on “Kaftans and sandals and falsetto barbarians at the gate”

  1. At one point he responds to the publication of an unflattering biography of himself penned by a “Wellington Greek journalist” (why does he mention Greek, specifically?)

    I’m pretty sure Spiro Zavos was the only Wellington Greek journalist out there at the time (and especially the only one who’d penned a Muldoon bio), so it was a way of identifying him without having to mention his name – i.e. he’s not worthy enough to be mentioned by name. And also a little nudge to remind folk that this chap wasn’t a white Anglo-Saxon protestant; he was (gasp!) the child of Greek migrants.

  2. Yep. A nasty little man. The most interesting thing about him is how popular he was. I read recently that in the late 80s he was voted New Zealand’s most liked politician.

  3. Maybe if Piggy had’nt got pissed that night in July 1984 and called a snap election the history of this country would be quite different. He was fascinating because he truly illustrated how “absolute power” corrupts.
    He kept politics intersting while I was in my teens and early twenties. At home we had many interesting dinner table discussion about the “little gnome” as my mother called him. Politicians are so bland now in comparison. I really think Labour won that election because people were so fed up with Piggy and he was becoming like a dictator. Lange was a breath of fresh air in comparison. However I still feel the economy and society in this country has wounds from that Labour government and what they did to the economy. I worked for the government in IT back then and the reforms were good for IT projects but it was devastating when you saw how many people lost there jobs due to restructuring and ended up on the dole. Now when I teach economics at high school, I tell the students about the glory days of Muldoon and how the Farmers loved him because he gave them guaranteed subsidies especially on wool and meat. We don’t see subsidies used much any more in our economy. We were living in fools paradise under Muldoon and he nearly bankrupted the country. Labour opened up the eyes of the public. Now we have MMP and I wonder if we are going to keep it after this year’s election referendum. Can’t really see NZ ever going back to FPP. Just thinking about Muldoon is enough to stop that surely.
    We can’t afford to have another leader like him in power. This country is no longer that niave I trust and hope.

  4. I was caught up in this. At this time in early 1981 I was ‘working’ at the Gear Meat Company in Petone. At that time Gear Meat seemed to own half of the Petone foreshore on a site that went all the way back to Jackson Street and a couple of kilometres along. It was huge. I had started as a Felmongery clerk (the skins and wool section). Not long after I started the workers at the company (owned by a bigger operation in Hawkes Bay) went on strike. This strike lasted for several months and the company never recovered. As the last on clerk I did not have accrued holiday leave and was not part of the union so I stayed on. On my own. There was a skeleton staff in the management office which was about a 10 minute walk from where I was. The very old plant and buildings would creak and groan all day long. It was kind of scary being in a plant of thousands and thousands of square metres where previously there had been hundreds of workers. My job was to man the phone in the felmongery office and, if the head office called, check a batch number on a wool bale. Sometimes the phone would not ring for days. I did a lot of reading (LOTR, Gravity’s Rainbow, V, Ulysses and even started Finnigan’s Wake). I started shortening my day coming in at 10 and leaving at 3 but eventually (after a couple of months) I resigned and left for Auckland. Gear Meat Company never properly functioned after this strike, closing down permanently and selling off the land for small industry and housing. Petone is much more different now.

  5. Valley Girl – Muldoon was a bizarre looking man really. Gnome seems about right. In fact if he had worn a pointy red hat the resemblance would have been uncanny. I was eleven when Muldoon went out so I only have very superficial memories of him, actually most of them are from his strange post-politics career: Rocky Horror, talkback, and gardening advice.

    Curmudgeon – When I was working near Petone we often did a local history research assignment and lots of students focussed on Petone. The Gear Meat Factory features in that history a lot. It must have been one of the longest running businesses in the area before it closed down. In a way it’s sad that it closed, but I sense that Petone’s “ambience” was improved when the huge meat works in its midst shut down.

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