Analysis by Keith Rankin.
Rob Muldoon was a pugnacious and abrasive prime minister of New Zealand who was treated unkindly by commentators – and even historians – in the aftermath of his period in office (1975 to 1984). Hopefully, future historians will treat him in a much more objective way.
It is important to note here that Sir Robert Muldoon was in fact one of our strongest, most important, and most pragmatic political leaders. Ever. And Judith Collins reminds me of him, in personal and personality ways, in strength and mana, and in political philosophy.
Notwithstanding the relatively unimportant matter of biological sex – he was male, and she is female – both were/are of similar build, and both had/have distinctive facial mannerisms. Muldoon was brought up by two fiercely socialist women, and Collins, as a young woman in Matamata, became a Labour Party supporter. They had/have genuine empathy for working class people.
(Talking about mannerisms and political styles, the present President of the USA always reminds me of the 1920s’ and 1930s’ Italian leader. Both of those leaders drew much initial support from the much neglected working classes and small businesses.)
Muldoon led – and kept New Zealand safe – through the most difficult decade in New Zealand’s history. (In the 1970s, four countries that we shared histories with – Australia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay – had governments overthrown by coup d’états. At least the first two mentioned coups were stoked by the CIA.) The period from 1973 to 1985 was one of huge financial imbalances, double-digit inflation that became stagflation in many countries, the cutting of the economic umbilical cord with Great Britain, and very high crude oil prices.
Muldoon was a social liberal by the standards of his 1960s’ political peers – for example, he was strongly opposed to the death penalty, a big issue of that time. And he was more committed than any other political leader to the principles of the universal welfare state – more committed even than Michael Joseph Savage.
Rob Muldoon was most motivated by economic issues – and sat firmly in the political centre on matters of ideology and economic policy. He sparred equally with the activist political left (especially in the 1970s) and the activist political right (especially in the 1980s). Despite making plenty of enemies on both sides of politics, Muldoon followed a resolutely moderate economic course, for as long as he could keep his growing list of political enemies at bay. When his enemies on the left flipped, and joined his enemies to his right – setting the new socially liberal and economically conservative zeitgeist (neoliberalism) – Muldoon’s brand of centrist politics and Keynesian economics was doomed.
Nevertheless, New Zealand was a very different place in 1985 than it was in 1965, and for the better. There had been substantial economic and creative liberation in that period. The universal welfare state had been strengthened. And we had the 1982 Official Information Act, allowing for a much greater freedom of information.
Of great importance is the fact that Rob Muldoon was one of our greater leaders because he was not debt phobic. (Other leaders who were not debt phobic included Vogel, Ward and Savage.) Muldoon understood debt better than any other New Zealand politician, ever. And he knew that the indebtedness of New Zealand Inc to foreign interests was a much more consequential matter than the government debt that New Zealanders owed to themselves. In other words, he was more concerned – in globally depressed and unbalanced times – with the balance of payments’ current account deficits than he was with the government budget deficits. Hence his successful policy drive – dubbed ‘think big’ – to make New Zealand much more self-sufficient in energy. It was his initiative that led to the electrification of the North Island Main Trunk railway line.
I was never a Muldoon supporter until after he lost office in 1984, when I could see how the new political coalition of the right and the former left was mis-framing him, his centrist policies, and his legacy of achievement. Indeed, the only time I ever voted Labour – in 1978 I voted for Trevor de Cleene – I did so as an explicitly anti-Muldoon vote. (I also thought that Bill Rowling – Labour’s leader – was a much better politician in 1978 than he had been in 1975. The first act of New Zealand’s 1980s’ neoliberal coup was the 1982 deposition of Rowling – later Sir Wallace Rowling – as leader of Labour.)
Muldoon, as a National prime minister, could do things for the economy that he never could have done if he had been a Labour prime minister. A Labour leader with the mana of a Muldoon or Norman Kirk could have suffered the same fate as Gough Whitlam in Australia did in 1975.
Judith Collins is at a similar stage of her political career to that of Rob Muldoon in 1972 to 1974. At that stage Muldoon was very disliked by the political left; and was the provisional darling of the financial right. Yet he went to the country in 1975 with an audacious (but historically attuned) centre-left policy; to restore universal superannuation by completing the vision that Savage enunciated in 1938.
Judith Collins will have an opportunity – from 2020 – to go to the New Zealand people in 2023 with a similarly necessary welfare reform. And she may be the only New Zealand politician with the ‘balls’ to integrate income tax with universal welfare, as Muldoon was wanting to do.
Like Muldoon, Collins knows how to ‘dog whistle’. She certainly needs a ‘Robs Mob’ from which to win votes. And she must dog whistle to her own patrons by making the usual noises about public debt. Yet, candidly, she has also stated that she ‘is not afraid of debt’. I was very encouraged to hear that. Further she does not want to ‘beggar the country’, which is what David Cameron did to the United Kingdom through his government’s ‘fiscal consolidation’ programme.
Muldoon always had enemies. So has Collins. She also has the political talent to lead, and to forge progression coalitions. Coalitions that are socially and economically centrist – indeed radically centrist (as Muldoon was). While she is socially liberal, I can see that – like Muldoon – she will most upset the neoliberals who espouse social liberalism and economic conservatism.
I think it’s unlikely that Judith Collins will be prime minister this October. But it’s not impossible. (In 2016 – using my knowledge of the American electoral system and the dire economic circumstances of rust-belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – I won a wager over who would then become president of the United States. It was a wager that I would have been more than happy to lose. I also saw that the British rustbelt would vote for Brexit.) Rather, Collins may do a Mike Moore. This year, I expect she will keep her party’s vote at over 30 percent, and I expect she will oversee as big a swing of the electoral pendulum in 2023 as occurred in 1993. (For those not in the know, the swing in the popular vote from one side of politics to the other in 1993 was as big as it was in 1975.)
Public Finance and Welfare reforms should be the big issues from 2020 to 2023; that is, so long as the mainstream media gives oxygen to them. (Welfare reform needs to be on the lines of Universal Income Flat Tax. Public Finance reform should be broadly along the lines espoused by ‘modern monetary theory’, which I will write about on a future date.)
New Zealand desperately needs a courageous economic non-conservative political leader; a leader who can stare down those journalists who oppose everything intellectual, propose nothing, and love to wallow in scandal. New Zealand needs a leader who is not risk-averse, and who will promote reasoned solutions to the problems that have been shelved in the ‘too-hard basket’. The first issue to deal with is that of public debt phobia.