So I thought I would start 2012 with a few blogs about memories from my childhood and some thinking of how they have influenced me as an adult. I was pondering yesterday how things we learn and see as we grow up influence us so heavily in our adult life. Some of these make perfect sense, and some really don't make much sense at all. I can still remember clear as day the first time I became really conscious of politics in New Zealand or I guess politics in general. It was the night of the general election in 1978, I was 7 years old. The reason this sticks so firmly in my mind, is my mum, dad, brother Patrick and I had gone to the movies to see Grease. At the end of the movie, the provisional election result was shown on the screen as an act of public information. This in itself is remarkable to me now, because I suspect it was right at the end of the era when news was shown on movie theatre screens. I can never imagine that happening now. I must have been aware enough that the election was going on, because I wasn't confused by the concept but I can still remember my dad going, bugger out loud and muttering something rather insulting about Robert Muldoon.
I knew then that this Muldoon fella and the party he stood for (National) were not OUR friends. That he was the enemy and I remember thinking a bad thing had happened. I don't at all remember the election of 1981, but I certainly remember the election 1984 and the happiness I felt when the impossible (to me at least) occurred and Labour won the election. In my conscious time I had never lived in a Labour led New Zealand and a spirit of hope did seem to prevail, at least for a short time (we wont talk too much about Rogernomics here....) I should note, now, some 33 years later, I have never voted National once.
So this set me thinking. What do I know about Robert Muldoon? Was he really that bad? So let me start with what I knew about Muldoon that formed my construct. Muldoon was a heavily combatant figure who was quick on attack and did not tolerate dissension. He instituted the wage and price freeze in New Zealand and was the master of the "Think Big" schemes in New Zealand which were designed to generate wealth but in reality delivered little and what they did deliver they delivered too late. I remember carless days. I know that the cost of these things left New Zealand heavily in debt with an overvalued dollar when the Labour party took power in 1984. I also know, that he was drunk we he declared the famous "schnapps election" of that year. To me and my mind the National party under Muldoon represented a New Zealand that was heavily protectionist towards the farming sector. Finally, Muldoon supported and made possible the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand which heavily divided the country.
What surprised me when I was reading, was the side of Muldoon that I did not know about. When reading through some resources including Wikipedia, New Zealand History Online and the Archives New Zealand Official Biography I was interested to read that Muldoon was raised in part by a socialist aunt and although he did not subscribe to her political flavour, he did carry with him throughout his career a concern for the worker and believed in the Welfare State. This, last point, on reflection, should not be a surprise to me considering how prevalent the welfare "attitude" was in New Zealand in the 1970's and early 80's and how shows like Gliding On reflected the public sector in New Zealand. I was also interested to read that Robert Muldoon was New Zealand's first fully qualified cost accountant and that he crossed the floor in 1961 to support the opposition in removing Capital Punishment.
So there was a side to Robert Muldoon which I did not know or indeed appreciate and which made him far closer politically to my leanings than I realised. Also, I will acknowledge, that the National Party of the Bolger years and forward which actually owe far more to Rogernomics than they do to Muldoon era National, are what I have tended to view Muldoon through.
Now before I start sounding like I am "loved up" with Muldoon, I am not. What is also apparent from reading and from my own memory, is that Robert Muldoon was a deeply flawed individual who was so singular in his vision that in many ways he did more damage than good. His combative style of politics led to an environment where people were afraid to challenge him and new ideas were not encouraged. He was actually far too conservative in his views of how New Zealand should be run and what was best for it economically on the global stage. Think Big, no matter how honourable the intentions, was an economic disaster for New Zealand, which made the major reforms of the 80's and 90's necessary and led to a generation feeling cheated out of the retirement they had saved for through their taxes.
So, on reflection, Sir Robert Muldoon is a slightly different character than I had always thought and I do feel slightly happier knowing that. However, his personal style is one that did not and never would sit well with me. In 1984 as a 13 year old, I think in many ways I represented the urge for change and desire for a more liberal New Zealand. I wanted a New Zealand where people could be who they wanted to be and would not be held back because they did not go to the right school, born in the wrong suburb or their parents did not earn enough. I was delighted when Labour was elected (again forgetting the downside to Rogernomics for a moment) and today as an adult this is still where my heart lies. We cannot change the past and New Zealand will always have his legacy in its history, but for my money, my dad was right in his reaction about Robert Muldoon in the 1978 election.