Page 6: Prime minister
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.
A dominant figure
Muldoon’s intelligence, access to information, grasp and recall of detail and capacity to identify issues, along with his forceful personality, ability to persuade and status as prime minister, made him dominant in the governments he led between 1975 and 1984. Holding the post of minister of finance reinforced that dominance but also overloaded him and made him open to criticism. When he chaired cabinet or caucus, other ministers and members found it difficult to appeal against the recommendations of the minister of finance without the prime minister taking it personally.
Some very able ministers, not least Brian Talboys, Duncan MacIntyre and Bill Birch, invariably supported Muldoon, and, once he had a majority in cabinet, he was able to use executive collective responsibility, his powers of persuasion and clever use of the whips to sway a majority in caucus. As a result a minority of ministers and members who disagreed with specific policies, especially in regard to the economy, became increasingly frustrated, resentful and alienated from him.
Muldoon was also assisted after 1975 by the creation of a new and separate Prime Minister’s Department. This provided liaison between the prime minister, the bureaucracy and major pressure groups. It kept Muldoon abreast of developments, provided information and enabled him to react quickly and knowledgeably.
Mastery of television
Muldoon’s tenure as prime minister and minister of finance coincided not only with the long-term structural change in New Zealand’s economy but also with the advent of television. Despite his contempt for interviewers he was quite prepared to engage them and, when necessary, speak over or around them directly to viewers. Only Norman Kirk and, later, David Lange could match him. Although many journalists feared and even hated Muldoon, he fascinated them.
Muldoon constantly became embroiled in controversies, many of his own making. Two major ones were his 1976 revelation in Parliament that the prominent Labour MP Colin Moyle had been questioned by the police in regard to possible homosexual soliciting, and Muldoon’s appointment of Keith Holyoake as governor general in 1977. He also used Security Intelligence Service material to publicly identify trade unionists he claimed were communists; attacked his colleague George Gair for promoting the liberalisation of abortion; encouraged visits of US nuclear-capable warships; and, despite being a party to the Commonwealth leaders’ Gleneagles agreement in 1977, refused to stop a Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand that split the country and led to unprecedented civil disorder in 1981.
Attitude to Māori
Muldoon’s attitude to Māori was somewhat ambivalent. He strongly opposed the return of Bastion Point to Ngāti Whātua but developed a strange personal relationship with Māori gangs, especially Black Power, encouraging them to form work trusts and assisting them to find accommodation.
As prime minister, Muldoon frequently visited foreign countries and attended international meetings. He was not always tactful, particularly at Commonwealth prime ministers’ meetings where he resented criticism of New Zealand by leaders whose own countries were not model democracies. As in domestic politics, he was prone to attack the messenger as well as the message and his targets included Commonwealth Secretary General Shridath Ramphal, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and US President Jimmy Carter, whom Muldoon dismissed as merely a peanut farmer from Georgia.