My election as Labour Party president 18 years ago brought a distant relative out of the woodwork with an eccentric offer of help.

A widow, she had been a member of the National Party years ago but had become disheartened by what she saw as its poor treatment of Winston Peters in the 1990s.

She offered to attend National Party meetings and "report in".

I didn't want to give offence, so I accepted her offer and have thought of her as "Auntie Vera" ever since, though her name's not Vera and she's not really my aunt.


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As it turned out, she has only ever reported on public meetings open to the media, but even given her now very advanced years I always find her observations valuable and insightful.

A couple of weeks ago Vera and some of her mates from her retirement village went to one of new National Party leader Simon Bridges' "meet the people" meetings and, as is her now well established habit, phoned in with her report.

These days Vera is what you might call a floating voter and though she has a long-standing affection for Peters and "voted for Jacinda" last year, she has mostly given her support to the National Party candidates with her electorate vote and swung between National and New Zealand First with her party vote.

In her nearly 90 years on this planet, she has never failed to vote.

Her impressions of Bridges were mixed. She thought it odd that he kept referring to himself as "oi", but observed that Jim Bolger had a similar eccentricity, referring to himself as "ay" and that didn't stop him winning three elections in a row.

Vera was a little bemused by Bridges spending quite a lot of his speech talking about the fourth Labour government of Norman Kirk and Bill Rowling.

She was right in thinking Bridges' knowledge of this government could only be hearsay as it was consigned to history a year before he was born.


Bridges was trying to convince his almost entirely National Party audience that defeating a Labour government after only one term in office - as he would attempt to do - was possible because it had happened in 1975.

This is an interesting approach and, while it might be an effective way of rallying National's dispirited troops, those of us who experienced and remember the 1972 to 1975 Government will know the situation and events that occurred then are unlikely to be repeated.

To remind younger readers, Norman Kirk led Labour to a landslide victory in the 1972 General Election. He died in office after serving fewer than two years as Prime Minister and was replaced by Bill Rowling, his former Finance Minister.

National quickly replaced Jack Marshall, who had led them to such a resounding defeat in 1972, with the aggressive and pugnacious Robert Muldoon.

In office, Labour encountered a serious international crisis driven by a quadrupling of the price of oil products after the Yom Kippur war between Israel and an alliance of Egypt and Syria, supported by the large oil-producing Arab states.

This was immediately reflected in the price of fuel at the pump and New Zealand was not immune from the recession which followed.

The election of 1975 produced a mirror image of the 1972 election and saw Muldoon and National elected to office in a landslide.

But history rarely repeats itself and, if Bridges is betting his career on the 2020 election turning into a repeat of what happened 45 years ago, he's drawing a very long bow indeed.

The Labour Party which won last year's general election is not comparable to the one that won in 1972.

Kirk was unwell and led a party which had been in opposition for 12 years, with no experienced ministers.

This Labour-led Government has the advantage of a phalanx of experienced ministers and neither is its healthy 37-year-old leader likely to experience Kirk's fate.

With years of the economic stewardship of Sir Michael Cullen and Sir Bill English under our belts, the country is in a much better position to cope with a financial crisis and, of course, we now have MMP.

Had the 1975 election been under MMP, a Labour, Social Credit and Values Party Government, similar to the current arrangement, would have been a possibility as these three parties each got more than 5 per cent of the vote and together assembled 52 per cent.

So is Bridges the next Muldoon as his own analogy would hope?

Vera, who saw Muldoon up close several times, says "definitely not" and nominates Judith Collins "for when they get desperate".

• Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.