Michael Cox: The night Muldoonism got bottled

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Ex-Prime Minister warned politicians of dangers of drink then disregarded his own advice, to disastrous effect.

Sir Robert Muldoon (left), with Governor-General Sir David Beattie on the night he called the snap election in 1984. Photo / NZ Herald
Sir Robert Muldoon (left), with Governor-General Sir David Beattie on the night he called the snap election in 1984. Photo / NZ Herald

Alcohol and politicians are sad but inevitable bedmates.

"Beware," warned Rob Muldoon, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, while addressing a group of new National members of Parliament, "for by the end of your first term in Parliament you'll be drinking three times as much as you do now".

He was right. The pressures to meet with every interest group in Wellington, inevitably with booze and meal provided; the collegiality of the place, when we would sit in someone's office at the end of each sitting day, emptying another bottle and the sheer challenge of life experienced, all made it so.

For me it was akin to being back to my years at sea; mainly a male-dominated experience, with grinding responsibilities and a need to relax with those around you. You did this while holding a glass.

Rob Muldoon was an old military type binge drinker, not a habitual boozer, but every Thursday night a group of old soldiers in the house threw away the cork and emptied the bottle before trying to find their way home to their right beds.

One can envisage Rob, the former corporal, together with two former brigadiers, Duncan McIntyre and David Thompson, sitting up on the ninth floor of the Beehive, planning their next moves. A former private, Colin McLachlan, filled the glasses and fetched more water.

It is amazing how former corporals mix it with history. From Napoleon to Adolf Hitler to Idi Amin to Robert David Muldoon; all have played interesting roles.

It was on one of these Thursday nights when Rob proved to those he had lectured about excess consumption the dangers of too much booze.

The House was in "urgency", to enable it to pass the Finance Bill through its third reading. This bill contained the Budget. Sixteen days of debate had passed, perusing every item, since Budget Day when Rob Muldoon had moved its first reading. In those times "urgency" meant that the house sat until all the required bills were passed; no knocking off at midnight, but a slog to the end.

After helping to dispatch the first bottle, Rob decided to see what his caucus members could offer. He was on the prowl. I kept a bottle with only a couple of nips in it for such visitors; not all my colleagues were as cautious.

As a whip, I was designated to keep an eye on our leader as he would be required to move the third reading in the debating chamber when the time came.

At 2am Rob rolled into the chamber, obviously high as a kite and took his seat. The Opposition could see the state he was in. "Rob, we're over here!" called out an exuberant and waving David Lange. He knew that things were turning his way and this latest event was only one sign that his opponent was in trouble.

There was byplay, with Rob returning the waves; his caucus colleagues looked on with concern. The Opposition couldn't believe their luck and the press gallery was full.

The time came when Rob was required to move the third reading. He stood and was recognised by the Speaker; "The Right Honourable Robert Muldoon," he called thrice, only to be met with a drunken grin.

It was obvious to us whips that Rob could either stand or he could speak, but he couldn't do both at once. After several attempts we made another senior minister sit with him to distract him in his attempts to put the final touches to a Budget.

While he was so distracted we made the Associate Minister of Finance, John Falloon, stand and move the third reading.

There was sadness too that night. If one looked past the pathos, the humour and pantomime, it could be clearly seen that the end of Muldoonism was fast approaching.

His fortress economy with controls on wages, interest rates, prices and dividends, was collapsing in a large heap. The Budget finally passed contained a deficit of 6 per cent of GDP, the biggest in history.

Eight months after that drunken night he finally called an early election. Behind the scenes he was struggling to get his next Budget to a deficit of less than 10 per cent of GDP.

When Marilyn Waring resigned from the National caucus, he grabbed his opportunity, and called a snap election. Marilyn's letter of resignation arrived on my desk and I delivered it to Rob who told me to check with every marginal member to see if they were ready to face the electorate.

This was about three in the afternoon, and the drinking began - brandy was the tipple. He had finished the bottle and at 10.30pm announced to the media and caucus that he would hold an election on Bastille Day. We stood behind him, ready to catch him should he stumble. At that time National was up in the polls by 8 per cent, but when, probably with an awful hangover, he blamed Marilyn for this sudden event, his credibility and our lead collapsed. The rest is history.

I always thought Tom Scott's cartoon summed up that day. He had Rob sitting up in his bed in Vogel House, with an ice pack on his head.

"Thea [his wife]" he said, "I dreamt that I called a snap election!"

Michael Cox is a former National MP.

- NZ Herald

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