Prosperity and protest
National dominated Parliament and politics through the 1960s, with an average vote share of 45.9% and an average majority of nine seats. It was a decade marked by rising prosperity for most – but also, from 1965, by protests from the post-war baby-boom generation then reaching their 20s. They demanded more moral and social freedoms and greater conservation of the natural environment.
The 1960s were a time of substantial social change, with the introduction of the contraceptive pill and freer sexual morals, growing protest against playing rugby with apartheid South Africa and against the Vietnam War, and an emerging environmentalist movement. This last group caught National ministers off guard in 1970 when it forced them to scale back plans to raise Lake Manapōuri to generate electricity for an aluminium smelter. National’s assumption that their policies reflected a general consensus among New Zealanders was challenged.
A powerful inner cabinet of Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, Deputy Prime Minister Jack Marshall, Labour Minister Tom Shand and Justice Minister Ralph Hanan underpinned National's ascendancy. Holyoake progressively promoted able younger MPs into senior roles, notably future prime minister Rob Muldoon and two future deputy prime ministers, Brian Talboys and Duncan MacIntyre.
Holyoake was a fourth-generation New Zealander who saw himself as heading an independent nation, no longer subordinate to Britain. He was ‘a New Zealander who could not – and would not – call himself British’.1 Holyoake resisted United States pressure to join the Vietnam War, although following lobbying from pro-American members of his cabinet, he conceded a small contingent. In economic policy, he maintained the mixed economy, despite pressure, led by Shand, to liberalise. Hanan initiated a number of modest liberal moves, notably in liberalising liquor laws and abolishing the death penalty. Holyoake was a consensus politician who was always attuned to public opinion. His guiding principle was the 1963 election slogan, ‘steady does it’.
Hanan and Shand both died in 1969, weakening the cabinet. Marshall replaced Holyoake as prime minister in February 1972, but in November lost the election to Labour in a landslide. Marshall was ousted as leader in July 1974 by Muldoon. Muldoon reversed the landslide in the 1975 election (47.6% and a 23-seat majority). National won 10-seat and two-seat majorities in the 1978 and 1981 elections – but both times with fewer votes than Labour.
Sir Robert Muldoon drew on the ‘ordinary bloke’ for his inspiration, thereby changing the voting mix by recruiting many wage workers from Labour. He dubbed them ‘Rob’s Mob’. A long-time National Party activist said, ‘I could have gone into a room and known it was a National Party gathering just by glancing around but [after Muldoon became leader] I'd go to the National Party gatherings and think I was at the local football club.’2
Muldoon creates division
Though initially highly popular in the party and with voters for his personal power, decisiveness, contempt for cant and ability to translate complex issues into simple language, over time Muldoon proved divisive. He fell out with both liberals and conservatives in his party (and outside). Many liberals disliked what they saw as his autocratic style and aggressive attacks on opponents, both in and out of politics, and his impatience with constitutional and legal niceties.
Muldoon frustrated both liberals and conservatives by intervening extensively (and ineffectively) in the economy as New Zealand’s terms of trade worsened, at a time when younger National MPs were espousing free-market policies and deregulation. He also upset many older party conservatives by pitching his policies to, and taking his cue from, what he called the ‘ordinary bloke’. In short, he was a populist, a pitch encapsulated in the 1975 election slogan, ‘New Zealand – the way you want it’.
In 1984 many activists and voters defected from National, some to a new free-market party, the New Zealand Party, formed, financed and led by Muldoon’s former friend Bob Jones. As economic problems mounted, and after back-bench MP Marilyn Waring supported a Labour move for nuclear-free legislation, Muldoon called a snap election on 14 July 1984. National lost in a landslide to the Labour Party, receiving just 35.9% of the vote. The New Zealand Party won 12.3%, but no seats.