The Liberal Party Legacy

Thirty years ago I looked like this,

The guy in the middle.

Actually, this is Christmas in 1981 on the back patio of our house in Indira Place.  This photo features some of my Christmas presents.  Some running shoes (and socks), and the board game Stratego.  I still have the board game somewhere.  It’s cool.  I prefered it to chess which I persevered at for a long time before I realised I hated it.  Probably one of the main reasons that I hated it was that it didn’t have bombs in it.  Stratego had bombs.  Much cooler.

My shoes were also a highlight.  They had red laces, and were grey and synthetic with a cushioned sole.  In 1981 this was a pretty big deal.  In New Zealand we still wore sensible shoes in 1981 (see shoes models to the left and right in the above picture), and all this flashy, running-related colour and softness – without a hint of stiff leather that hurt when you first wore it – was something radical and sexy.

Speaking of sexy, check out those dark brown stubbies, and fancy shirt.  This is a pretty unusual look overall actually, but I think I’m making it work.  It’s kind of  “summer-business work-out”.


At the start of 1982 there is a lot of talk about 1981 in the Listener.  What strikes me about this now is that the Springbok Tour was in 1981.  For those of you outside New Zealand, this was when apartheid South Africa sent a rugby team on a tour of New Zealand, and there were mass protests and acts of civil disobedience across New Zealand as a consequence.  Robert Muldoon was the Prime Minister at the time of this unprecedented disturbance.  Afterwards there was an election and he was returned to power.

The fact that Rob Muldoon was returned to power would strike you as surprising if you accepted the popular version of the 1981 Springbok Tour as we are told it now.  This version is something like: Springboks came to New Zealand thanks to Rob Muldoon, heroic New Zealanders stood up (and were batoned by police thanks to Rob Muldoon), black South Africans were heartened by our support of their struggle.

Which is nonsense.

It is nonsense because all of the rugby matches against the South African team were sold out, which tends to suggest a great deal of indifference to black South Africans, (not to mention racism in our own country), and is also nonsense because Rob Muldoon became Prime Minister again at the end 0f 1981. 

Perfect democratic representation in a society totally made up of white men

The man in the middle is Bruce Beetham who was the leader of Social Credit (Rob on the left, and Bill Rowling on the right).  Remarkably, New Zealand managed to have a third party in parliament in 1981 in the dark days of first past the post voting.

If we imagine that Social Credit is actually the Green Party now, then we have a nice mirror image of the situation in New Zealand in 2012.

The Listener article reports that of those voters who switched votes in 1981 because they were fed up with the party they had previously supported, the biggest loss came from Labour and went to Social Credit.  Another key factor was liking the leader of the party.  For National voters this was key.  Very few Labour voters mentioned this as a reason to vote for Bill Rowling.  On top of that, the two big controversies of 1981 – the Tour and abortion legislation – had a tiny impact on voter decisions, and what impact it did have favoured National.  Labour lost its more conservative over 40 voters to National.

To me this means that next year the National Party will win the election. 

John Key is very popular.  The leaders of the Greens and Labour aren’t.  Labour will continue to lose support to the Greens.  It also doesn’t matter what controversial acts the National government engage in, unless opposition is effectively and charismatically led these so-called controversial issues have no significant impact.  In fact, something like the gay-marriage bill (which I completely support) probably reduces Labour’s vote with their conservative members.

Which reminds me of something a friend linked me to last election. 

It shows the make up of parliament in New Zealand since 1890.  This is just a summary shot, but it still shows something very clearly.  If you look at the top row you will see that yellow is pretty influential, but by the second row it has vanished.  This was the Liberal Party; one of the most influential parties in New Zealand political history.  They dominated from 1890 until 1910;  a twenty year occupancy of the benches in which they introduced many of the reforms and policies that have shaped our country as a broadly liberal, socialist place.  In 1935 they ceased to exist in the House, and never returned.

The party that replaced them was Labour.

I won’t make the obvious comparison to a possible future for one of our major parties, I will instead state something I don’t think I had fully realised until this year.  Controversial issues and controversial decisions don’t speak for themselves and compel people to turn against the government.  If people are going to do that then somebody has to speak for those issues, and that someone has to be compelling.  Political parties who are essentially leaderless, and believe that a collective sense of moral outrage will carry the day for them are wrong, and if they are wrong for long enough they will cease to exist.

5 thoughts on “The Liberal Party Legacy”

  1. 1981 was the year I was born. A brother of my Dad’s had participated in the protests against the tour; a brother-in-law of my Mum’s thought all the protesters should be punched in the face. They all had to come to my christening in October and these polar opposites of politics have been in my life ever since.

    I concur with your last point. A lot of harmful (but popular) leaders have won elections because the opposition is weak (John Howard in Australia, Bush junior in US to name a few).

  2. Dad bought tickets to the Spingboks vs AB’s game at Athletic Park Wellington. But Mum refused to go. I still have those tickets at home. I was 19 in 1981 and at uni. Mum was worried I would get invovle din protests, but at the time I was’nt that worked up about it like some folk. My cousin came up from Dunedin to protest. Mum gave her a lecture. She was at Dunedin Teachers College at the time.

  3. I was nine, and I wanted to watch the rugby. I remember being cross when the game was cancelled, and bemused when the plane was buzzing Eden Park. I had absolutely no understanding of the politics. Rob is the first politician I was aware of.

  4. I was in a railway workers’ canteen in West London when the news came on the TV of the cancellation of the Hamilton game. There was a loud cheer from my colleagues. This was Thatcher’s Britain, and we understood what the issues were. I’d made a brief visit back to Godzone at the start of the year, after 5 years away, and realised that even under Muldoon this was a better place to be than the UK. I came back for good in 1982. A few years later we were betrayed by a “Labour” party which succeeded in outdoing Thatcher.

    Plus ca change….

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