Michael Cox: Get out the tea towels and wipe up the votes

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Rob Muldoon in 1975 with Palmerston North electorate workers and the tea towels. Photo / John Cleland
Rob Muldoon in 1975 with Palmerston North electorate workers and the tea towels. Photo / John Cleland

You could take your pick of Muldoon tea towels. One had "Not just a pretty face" printed under his portrait; the other "It's nice to have a man about the House".

This was a gentle poke at his Labour opponent in the 1975 election, Wallace "Bill" Rowling, who was seen as a less robust character than National's leader, Rob Muldoon.

The tea towels were a fundraiser for the Palmerston North Nats who, with the help of $30,000 raised by their sale, narrowly took the seat from Joe Walding, Labour's able Minister of Trade.

Joe had to fight a campaign based on the slogan "Better an MP at home than a minister overseas".

The man who beat him by 80-odd votes, John Lithgow, lasted just three years in the job before Joe returned in 1978.

It was in 1975 that, under the first-past-the-post electoral system, National reversed Labour's 23-seat majority.

Muldoon barnstormed the country. He was an excellent communicator and must have realised victory was in sight when more than 4000 Aucklanders - many waving our tea towels - turned up at a wool store in Wiri to hear him speak.

The world was in the middle of an oil price crisis and Labour hadn't coped with its effects on New Zealand's economy.

We were also grappling with the sad effect of the UK, our largest market for primary products, jettisoning us by joining the Common Market, forerunner of the European Union.

As fundraiser for the Palmerston North electorate, my first foray into politics, I knew the best thing going for the Nats was a vibrant, aggressive, popular and punchy Muldoon.

The tea towels caught the moment and we sold 10,000 with a profit of $3 on each. A local entrepreneur and clothing retailer, Peter Gillespie, who specialised in printing T-shirts, took on the job of producing them and a group of us sent 100 at a time to electorates around the countryside.

Those of us who would later be part of his governments slowly realised that the Muldoon we had trumpeted as being "nice to have about the House" also had very little idea, apart from the "Think Big" projects, how to cope with the huge changes in the world's economy.

Interestingly, many of those Think Big energy projects, particularly the methanol plants, are still a vibrant part of our economy.

In 1984, the people of New Zealand kicked Muldoon out and it was impossible to sell any more of his tea towels.

Recently I came across one of them, the photo as faded as its once famous original. I heard that the Palmerston North National electorate was left with about 500 towels. I suppose by now they could be a collectors' item.

So as candidates struggle to raise money for their upcoming campaigns, I can still recommend the idea that was so successful 45 years ago.

No one would have called Rob Muldoon a pretty face, but those tea towels promoting the fact that he was more than a pretty face certainly helped to win the marginal seat of Palmerston North.

- NZ Herald

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