Page 5: Party leader
Muldoon, Robert David
Accountant, politician, prime minister
This biography, written by Barry Gustafson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
Many people disliked Robert Muldoon’s abrasive personality and populist appeal. From 1967 opponents referred to him with contempt as ‘Piggy’ Muldoon. But others, who became loosely known as ‘Rob’s Mob’, admired the direct and combative politician, who certainly polarised public opinion but claimed to understand and represent ‘the ordinary bloke’ against the elites. Their loyalty was as much to Muldoon personally as to the National Party.
Although it appeared likely that National would lose the 1969 election, it won its fourth victory in a row. Prime Minister Holyoake told his caucus colleagues that they could thank Muldoon for the victory, and certainly the minister of finance’s barnstorming campaign throughout the country was generally regarded as a major reason for the win. It also raised the possibility that Muldoon rather than Jack Marshall might succeed Holyoake as National’s leader.
Election loss and Marshall’s removal
When Holyoake stood down, however, in February 1972, Marshall defeated Muldoon, who became the new deputy leader. Marshall lost the 1972 election and on 9 July 1974 was replaced by Muldoon, whose supporters convinced a majority of caucus that Marshall could not defeat Labour’s Norman Kirk. Many in the National Party organisation, however, were upset at Marshall’s removal and never accepted Muldoon as the ideal National leader.
The day after Muldoon became leader, The rise and fall of a Young Turk, the first of four autobiographies he was to write over the following 12 years, was published. Within four months it was reprinted three times and sold over 28,000 copies. The sequels were Muldoon (1977), My way (1981) and Number 38 (1986). He also wrote The New Zealand economy: a personal view (1985).
Muldoon was an extremely effective leader of the opposition in 1974 and 1975. His task was made easier by the death of Kirk in August 1974. The Labour government, now led by Wallace (Bill) Rowling, also had trouble dealing with an economic crisis following the first international oil shock and a downturn in New Zealand’s terms of trade.
Muldoon traversed the country attracting huge and enthusiastic audiences. He denounced Labour’s alleged economic mismanagement and Kirk’s decision to stop a Springbok rugby tour. He also promised to establish a national superannuation scheme, funded out of taxation, which would pay individually to all men and women a pension of 80% of the average ordinary-time weekly wage, less tax but in addition to any other income. It was one of the most costly and attractive election promises in New Zealand’s history.
Citizens for Rowling
Labour countered with a ‘Citizens for Rowling’ campaign to draw attention to Rowling’s strengths, but more importantly, by comparison, to alleged defects in Muldoon’s personality and character. Labour television advertising showed a child holding a pig while a background song alluded to a dictator, and few believed Labour claims that there was no intent to refer to ‘Piggy’ Muldoon. Holyoake and many others rallied to Muldoon’s defence and the negative campaign was largely counterproductive. National won the 1975 election by 55 seats to Labour’s 32, an exact reversal of the outcome three years before.