COMMENT:

Never before or since has a politician appeared in front of the television cameras in such a drunken state. And the night Rob Muldoon called the snap election 35 years ago today was only the start.

The drinking continued through the four weeks of the campaign and on the Thursday night before the country went to the polls he agreed to see me, and Mark Scott from Radio New Zealand, for a campaign wrap in the permanent room he kept at the old South Pacific Hotel in Auckland.

He'd agreed to the interview after he'd battled his way through protesters, poking his tongue at them, to give his final address of the disastrous campaign. He told me to leave it for an hour after he'd finished speaking before coming to his room.

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Being let in to the room we found him slumped in an armchair, tie hanging drunkenly across his shirt that had been unbuttoned at the neck. Wisps of his comb-over fell over his collar and there was an empty bottle of red wine lying on the carpet. Usually Muldoon was fastidious about his appearance but he didn't seem to care.

Genuflecting in front of him with a microphone, as there were no other chairs handy, I asked the opening question: "Do you think you've won the election Prime Minister?" He shook his head from side to side, indicating he hadn't. I reminded him it was radio and that he had to speak and he did. "Nup," he snorted and went on to mumble at some length about the campaign and what his future was going to be.

It was a scoop, an election concession before the voter had gone to the ballot. It was unheard of. I excitedly relayed the information to my incredulous colleagues who were celebrating the end of the campaign in the bar, it was too late for them to match it. Radio New Zealand decided not to run it because Muldoon was too drunk.

Rob Muldoon with Sir David Beattie. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Rob Muldoon with Sir David Beattie. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Hearing the interview on air the next morning, Muldoon convened a press conference - his ability to recover was incredible - and claimed he'd been quoted out of context.

During the campaign I edited together the daily, incoherent ramblings of the Prime Minister and dubbed the piece the schnapps election, a term that is now frequently used to describe it.

But back to the night he called it. I was called at home by Fran O'Sullivan, currently the Herald's head of business, who was then on my staff, and was told Muldoon was on his way to Government House.

I got there before him, joined by another colleague and former Herald photographer Paul Estcourt. We were the only ones who made it past the gatehouse that night and were ushered into the foyer and asked to wait. TVNZ's Mark Sainsbury had been turned away.

Muldoon turned up a short time later and was shown in to a side room to meet with the then Governor General Sir David Beattie. Throughout the next hour or so a butler made frequent trips, bearing a tumbler of whiskey on a silver tray, into the room.

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The Prime Minister finally emerged and stopped for an interview on the steps. Unfortunately his slurred words were so incoherent the interview was taken over by Beattie while Muldoon was helped into his waiting limousine to take him back to the Beehive.

It was some time after that he appeared before the media and announced the election date, slurring in answer to a question that it didn't leave his opponents much time in the lead-up to the election.

Cartoonist Tom Scott probably best summed it up with his drawing in The Dominion the day after. Scott had Muldoon waking up the next morning, with a party hat sitting skeewiff on his head, with streamers strewn over the bed next to his wife Tam asking: "Did I say something about a snap election last night?"