Flashback: Beehive revolution

05:24, Jun 08 2014

Defiant, drunk and at the end of a long day, Prime Minister Rob Muldoon slurred: "It doesn't give my opponents much time to run up to an election, does it?"

Across town, the National Party's Apple Macintosh computer whirred into action.

It was June 14, 1984 - 30 years ago next week - when Muldoon greeted reporters in a Beehive hallway and announced a snap election would be held in exactly one month.

National MP Marilyn Waring was apparently to blame.

Political scientist and Muldoon biographer Barry Gustafson would describe the scene after Waring crossed the floor to vote with the opposition bill banning nuclear ships.

She then announced her withdrawal from the National caucus and select committees, and was summoned to a meeting with Muldoon. According to Gustafson, Waring changed into a tracksuit and sneakers. She packed an apple. "You perverted little liar.


"What the f*** do you think you're up to now," Muldoon said.

"Waring responded: 'those words leave your lips again and I'll sue the s*** out of you!' It was not the way to start a rational discussion. Muldoon, who usually drank whisky, was drinking brandy and ginger ale."

As the story goes, Waring took off her trackshoes, put her feet on the coffee table in front of Muldoon and started to eat her apple. Richard Griffin, then a National Radio reporter, had gone home from Parliament that night but knew "something was in the air". A colleague called to say Muldoon was calling a snap election, though he had yet to tell his National Party colleagues, the governor-general, or the New Zealand public.

Griffin raced back to Parliament. On the third floor of the Beehive he ran into National Party president Sue Wood, who had that afternoon flown to Auckland, got the news, and turned around and come straight back to Wellington.

"Wood had no idea it had gone feral. She said: 'what is happening'? She said: 'there's no way we can put a campaign together'."

But the wheels were in motion and at Government House Governor-General David Beattie, who was hosting a dinner that included Cabinet ministers, was about to get a visit.

Over two large whiskies, Muldoon told Beattie that, in light of Waring's move, he could not promise the Government's majority would be maintained.

Beattie set an election day for July 14. Muldoon, Griffin remembered, returned to Parliament "even more pissed".

Behind closed doors in his ninth-floor office at the Beehive, Muldoon was convinced by insiders, including Wood and party whip Don McKinnon, that he had to make a public announcement.

Griffin remembers Muldoon emerging from his office that night "the worse for wear".

McKinnon was peering over his head, urging media: "Take it easy on him."

Griffin knew National had little chance of running a decent campaign in the time available.

David Lange's Labour Party was, by comparison, much more prepared. Griffin would ask many questions in his career. What he asked next, though - while slightly banal - is the one that he continues to be reminded of.

"That doesn't give you much time to run up to an election, prime minister," he said.

Muldoon, half-smiling, replied: "'It doesn't give my opponents much time to run up to an election, does it?"

Almost immediately, Labour claimed the snap election had nothing to do with Waring, that it was really that Muldoon had seen the economic outlook and it was too bleak to continue.

Lange offered to form a temporary government until the election.

"As I understand it, the prime minister is satisfied that he can't run the country," he said.

"I am satisfied that we can."

The offer was rejected by the governor-general and scoffed at by the National Party. According to a news report, National's "data they need to get the campaign up and going" was held on a single Apple Macintosh computer at the party headquarters.

It was far from enough.

On July 14, 1984, Labour swept to power. It would lead to one of the most dramatic economic overhauls in New Zealand history.

Labour's Rogernomics period saw New Zealand's highly protected, highly regulated economy of the Muldoon era swept away. In its place, Labour deregulated almost everything in sight, slashing government controls to allow markets to self- regulate. Handing over the reins in July 1984, Muldoon - "I'm not crying into a corner" - insisted he was handing over a potentially strong economy.

"The one question mark hanging over the whole thing is that we don't get this massive crisis in the world economy," he said. That crisis was still a few years off.

The Dominion Post