Page 9: Final battles
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.
The Labour government was re-elected at the 1987 election with many former National voters supporting Roger Douglas’s free-market economic policies. Of National’s urban strongholds only Muldoon’s seat of Tāmaki recorded a safe majority. After the election, National Party leader Jim Bolger appointed Ruth Richardson as finance spokesperson and Muldoon again withdrew to the back benches, from which he trenchantly criticised both Labour and Richardson.
Attacks on Richardson
National defeated Labour in the 1990 election, and Richardson as minister of finance pursued similar policies to Douglas. Muldoon, acting almost as an independent MP, launched attacks on her inside and outside the House. He objected to the retention of the superannuation surtax, to welfare cuts, and to the influence of the Business Roundtable. By then, however, he was persistently ill, tired and deeply disheartened.
Muldoon had developed diabetes in the early 1980s and also had a bowel-cancer operation in December 1986. Three years later, in December 1989, a bacterial blood infection did not respond to antibiotics, his heart was seriously damaged, and the aortic valve was replaced. He was very ill and took some three months to recover. Despite this, he stood and was re-elected in Tāmaki at the 1990 elections with his largest ever majority: 7,592 votes.
In November 1991 Muldoon angrily told caucus that he thought he would resign, predicting that with its current policies National would be lucky to survive the next election. He confirmed his retirement on Radio Pacific 10 days later. He had served 31 years as an MP when he gave his valedictory speech on 17 December 1991.
On Sunday afternoons from late 1984 until the weekend before he died almost eight years later, Muldoon hosted a weekly talkback radio programme, Lilies and other things, on Radio Pacific. It was very popular, attracting some 75,000 listeners and twice winning an Australasian broadcasting award for the best programme of its type. Muldoon projected on the programme a more tolerant, patient, kindly and humorous personality than he had as prime minister.
The Queen awarded Muldoon the Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in the 1984 New Year’s Honours. Thea Muldoon became a Dame of the British Empire in 1992.
After leaving Parliament, Muldoon continued to host his Radio Pacific programme and chair the North Shore Hospice but from Christmas 1991 recurrent stomach pains, diarrhoea and sleeplessness troubled him. Tests suggested cancer but his heart condition made an operation impossible. He entered North Shore Hospital for further tests and died in his sleep on 5 August 1992. He was 70 years old.
Muldoon was buried in a simple grave at Purewa cemetery after a state funeral in the Auckland Town Hall, at which 100 Black Power members performed a ferocious haka, symbolic of the fearsome reputation he had during his lifetime.
Ambition and arrogance
Throughout his career Muldoon, like most politicians, was driven by personal ambition, but he also had a genuine concern for the welfare of those he regarded as 'ordinary' New Zealanders. He believed, however, that he could personally (though paternalistically, and in time arrogantly) discern what was required to achieve, or in times of economic difficulty defend, the interests of those people. In the latter years of his prime ministership he became much more cautious and isolated and failed to realise that his policies were becoming increasingly counter-productive.