Robert Muldoon

From Academic Kids

Sir Robert David ("Rob") Muldoon KCMG CH (25 September 19215 August 1992) served as Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1975 to 1984.



Born to lower-middle-class parents in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, Muldoon's strongest formative influence was his fiercely intelligent, iron-willed maternal grandmother, Jerusha, a committed socialist. Though Muldoon never accepted her creed, he did develop under her influence a potent ambition, a consuming interest in politics, and an abiding respect for New Zealand's welfare state. Also, when he was a teenager, Muldoon suffered the humiliation of his father being committed to an institution as his mind decayed. Years later, Muldoon discovered that his father, a First World War veteran, had suffered from syphilis.

Early Career

Serving as an intelligence officer in the navy in the Second World War, he completed his training as an accountant; when he returned to New Zealand after the war, he was the country's first fully qualified cost accountant. In March 1947 he joined a newly-founded branch of the Junior Nationals, the youth wing of the conservative New Zealand National Party. He quickly became active in the party, making two sacrificial-lamb bids for Parliament against entrenched incumbents in 1954 and 1957 before being elected MP for Tamaki in 1960 in the wave that brought the Holyoake government to power. He displayed a flair for debate and a diligence in his backbench work, and in 1963 he was made Under-Secretary to the Minister of Finance. While holding this office, he was responsible for the successful introduction of decimal currency into New Zealand. When the previous Minister of Finance died in 1967, Muldoon was the natural (and only) choice to replace him; at 45, he was the youngest Minister of Finance since the 1890s. However, because Holyoake believed Muldoon was too arrogant and ambitious for his own good, he was not given the Finance Minister's usual number-three spot, but placed at number eight, the lowest-ranking position on the Government front bench.

Muldoon believed in sanctity of human life, which he believed meant that both abortion and capital punishment were wrong. He crossed the floor to vote with the Opposition for abolishing the death penalty.

From his early years as a Member of Parliament, Muldoon became known as Piggy; the epithet that was to remain with him throughout his life even amongst those who were his supporters. (Why the term piggy was applied to him has never been identified reliably.)

Muldoon established a considerable national profile rapidly; many historians credit his image, rather than that of the Prime Minister, Holyoake, or his deputy, Jack Marshall, for the National Party's surprise victory in the 1969 election. He also displayed a flair for the new medium of television lacking in his older superiors. (He is still considered one of New Zealand's most artful practitioners of media manipulation.) When Holyoake stood down in 1971, Muldoon challenged Marshall for the top job; he was defeated, barely, but unanimously elected deputy leader and hence Deputy Prime Minister.

Leader of the Opposition

Marshall fought the 1972 election on a slogan of "Man For Man, The Strongest Team" — an allusion to Marshall's own low-key style, particularly compared to his deputy. The party was defeated badly, ending a 12-year run in government. In the aftermath, Muldoon deposed Marshall. Many members of the party caucus believed Marshall was not up to the task of taking on the formidable Labour Prime Minister, Norman Kirk. Muldoon, on the other hand, relished the opportunity — but had it for only a short time, until Kirk's sudden death in August 1974. In the 1975 election, Muldoon overwhelmed Kirk's lacklustre successor, Bill Rowling, reversing the 32–55 Labour majority into a 55–32 National majority. His platform offered "New Zealand The Way You Want It", promising a generous national superannuation scheme to replace the old 19th-century pension structure.

Prime Minister

Upon becoming Prime Minister, Muldoon broke with tradition and remained Minister of Finance as well, concentrating enormous power in himself. The "Muldoon years" are marked by Muldoon's obstinate, resourceful and autocratic attempts to maintain New Zealand's "cradle to the grave" welfare state, dating from 1935, in the face of a changing world. The nation's economy was suffering from the aftermath of the 1973 energy crisis, the loss of New Zealand's biggest export market upon Britain's entry to the European Economic Community, and rampant inflation. Rather than attempting to foster diversification of the economy, Muldoon imposed draconian wage and price controls and promoted a strategy he labelled "Think Big", in which the government borrowed heavily and pumped the funds into large-scale industrial projects, most of which failed or yielded minimal profit and many of which were hampered by industrial disputes. (It should be noted that similar state-backed large projects were successful in the Asian Tiger economies, though there were marked fundamental differences in capital freedom.) He was also obliged to borrow to fund the welfare state and New Zealand's extremely lavish regime of agricultural subsidies.

Even in hindsight, Bill Birch (later Sir William), one of Muldoon's allies of the Think Big era and his Minister of Energy, is convinced the programme could have succeeded and generated employment. This is despite the fact that succeeding Governments sold off all the "think big" projects that were State owned for minimal amounts and in some cases paid for them to be taken over.

Muldoon was re-elected in 1978 and 1981; however, in both elections, the Labour opposition received more popular votes across the country as a whole. This ambiguous mandate did not dilute Muldoon's agenda, and he became more emphatic and autocratic as his time in power grew.

Concerned about the use of foreign exchange during the 1970s' oil crises, Muldoon supported a scheme where automobiles could be powered by natural gas or a dual-fuel gas–petrol system. Incentives were introduced in Muldoon's 1979 budget to encourage the conversions, and New Zealand emerged as possibly the first country to have dual-fuel cars as a commonplace sight. However, the projection that oil prices would become ever-higher did not eventuate during this period.

In 1980, there was an abortive attempt, known as the Colonels' Coup, to replace Muldoon with his deputy, Brian Talboys. However, Talboys was a somewhat reluctant draftee, and Muldoon was able to see the plotters off with relative ease. This was the only serious challenge to Muldoon's authority in his years as Prime Minister.

Muldoon's authoritarian reputation was only exacerbated by his refusal to prevent the 1981 tour by the Springboks, the national rugby squad of apartheid South Africa. "The Tour", as it has become known, provoked massive protests and some of the worst social schisms New Zealand has ever seen. Muldoon came down firmly on the pro-Tour side, arguing that sport and politics should be kept separate, and displaying open contempt for the protesters. He argued that his refusal to ban the Springboks was anti-authoritarian, leaving it up to individual consciences whether to play sports with representatives of apartheid. He also argued that allowing their rugby team to tour did not mean supporting apartheid any more than playing a Soviet Union team meant supporting Communism.

He initiated a Closer Economic Relations (CER) programme with Australia to liberalise trade, which came into effect on 1 January 1983. The aim of total free trade between the two countries was achieved in 1990, five years ahead of schedule. Muldoon's administration also introduced Teletext to New Zealand early in 1984, bringing the country into the information age.

He became a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1983, the only New Zealand Prime Minister to be knighted while in office. He was later made a Companion of Honour.

His autocratic style eventually undid him: following a late-night clash with National backbencher Marilyn Waring over highly contentious Opposition-sponsored nuclear-free New Zealand legislation, in which Waring told him she would cross the floor (giving the Opposition a victory), Muldoon, visibly drunk, called the snap election of 14 July 1984. He lost to David Lange's resurgent Labour Party, which won 56 seats to National's 37.

Muldoon justified the snap election by Waring's revolt; however, historians have been critical of this excuse, as Waring said at the time and has repeated since that she would not have denied the Government confidence or supply, and would not have prevented Muldoon from governing. It was at the time and remains a strong convention in New Zealand politics that a Prime Minister does not dissolve Parliament prematurely unless they cannot govern, or unless they need to seek the electorate's endorsement on a matter of national importance (as was the case in 1951).

A final controversy occurred during the transfer of power: while Muldoon was still technically Prime Minister (Lange and his Cabinet not yet having been sworn in) a major currency crisis occurred. By convention, the caretaker government defers to the wishes of the incoming government in these situations; however, Muldoon refused to devalue the dollar, as Lange wanted. This provoked a minor constitutional crisis until Muldoon grudgingly agreed to devalue. Legislation was subsequently passed to ensure the situation would not repeat itself.

Later Life

Muldoon was deposed as National Party leader shortly after the election by Jim McLay, his deputy. McLay lasted two years, with Muldoon actively undermining his leadership. In 1986 he was ousted in turn by his own deputy (and Muldoon's preferred candidate), Jim Bolger.

Muldoon remained in Parliament throughout the Fourth Labour Government's radical neoliberal reforms, known as Rogernomics. He also lived — to his far greater horror — to see the government of his own man, Bolger, after being elected in the landslide of 1990, take up the neoliberal baton and brandish it with great enthusiasm under Finance Minister Ruth Richardson, who gave her name to the second-stage neoliberal reforms: Ruthanasia. His conscience tormented him; he could not bring himself to vote with the Labour Party against the Bolger government's benefit cuts, and, looking miserable, abstained.

Muldoon also opposed the legalisation of homosexual behavior when Labour MP Fran Wilde introduced the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, which was passed.

Although he remained iconic to particular segments of society, particularly the elderly, Muldoon faded quickly as a force on the political scene. His biographer, Barry Gustafson — who noted that he was not a Muldoon supporter — wrote that he still served as an active MP for his Tamaki electorate, dealing immediately with matters from all walks of life. He continued to write in international economic journals, arguing that the unemployment that had arisen as a result of the free-market reforms was worse than the gains that were made. He had a short stage career in a New Zealand production of The Rocky Horror Show, starring as the narrator, had minor television appearances on commercials for Panasonic (when it changed its name in New Zealand from National) and the TV series Terry and the Gunrunners (as Arnos Grove) and The Friday Frights (as the host), and hosted a talkback radio show entitled "Lilies and other things," after his favourite flower. It was on this show, on 17 November 1991, that he announced he would stand down from Parliament; he formally retired one month later, on 17 December. His retirement party featured taped speeches from Ronald Reagan (commenting that at Muldoon's age, he was only getting started) and Margaret Thatcher. He fell seriously ill almost immediately, and died in hospital on 5 August 1992.

Muldoon remains one of the most complex, fascinating, and polarising figures in New Zealand history. He divided people into camps of those who loved him and those who hated him; very few people, except those born after his fall, were neutral. To his enemies, "Piggy" Muldoon was a dictatorial Prime Minister who nearly destroyed both New Zealand's economy and New Zealand society through his arrogance. To those ,known as "Rob's Mob", who revered him, he was an icon of the New Zealand national character, a supporter of the "ordinary bloke" (his own description of himself) and an international statesman. Curiously, he was also patron of the Mongrel Mob gang, members of which paid him solemn respect by kneeling on the street during his funeral procession in 1992.

Most historians recognise him as brilliant: talented without being great, because the line of policy he ultimately pursued was not sustainable. Some argue that he was responsible for much of the pain caused by the free-market reforms of 198493, because by holding on for as long as he did he forced the inevitable reforms to be implemented with unusual speed and severity.

Muldoon famously declared upon becoming Prime Minister that he hoped to leave New Zealand "no worse off than I found it". He dominated New Zealand politics for over a decade, and still influences the conduct of government today. Gustafson gives him the following epitaph: "By 1992 New Zealand had not become what Muldoon or many other New Zealanders wanted it to be but he was not prepared to take the blame for that. Muldoon died unrepentant and still convinced that his way, even if never perfect, had been a better way."


When questioned about increased levels of migration to Australia, Muldoon responded that these migrants "raised the IQ of both countries".

Suggestions for further reading

  • Clark, Margaret. (ed.) Muldoon Revisited. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, ISBN 0-86469-465-2 (2004). [The revised proceedings of a conference on Muldoon held at Victoria University of Wellington during 2002.]
  • Easton, Brian. The Nationbuilders, pp. 239-53. Auckland: Auckland University Press, ISBN 1-86940-260-X (2001).
  • Gustafson, Barry. His Way: A Biography of Robert Muldoon. Auckland: Auckland University Press, ISBN 1-86940-2367 (2000). [The definitive biography. Authorised, with access to Muldoon and his papers, but critical.]
  • Jones, Bob. Memories of Muldoon. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, ISBN 0-908812-69-8 (1997).
  • Muldoon, R.D.
    • The Rise and Fall of a Young Turk. Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, ISBN 0-589-0083-1 (1974).
    • Muldoon. Wellington: Reed, ISBN 0-589-01087-5 (1977).
    • My Way. Wellington: Reed, ISBN 0-589-01385-8 (1981).
    • The New Zealand Economy: A Personal View. Auckland: Endeavour Press, ISBN 0-864-81105-5 (1985).
    • Number 38. Auckland: Reed Methuen, ISBN 0-474-00220-9 (1986).
    • [Muldoon's autobiographical writings are inevitably self-serving, but he speaks candidly about his thinking and his desires for New Zealand.]
  • Zavos, Spiro. The Real Muldoon. Wellington: Fourth Estate Books (1978).

External links

  • Biography ( of Sir Robert Muldoon from New Zealand Prime Minister's official website.
  • Think Big policy decisions (

Template:New Zealand prime ministersTemplate:End box

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