Peter Dunne suggests our new government ought to study the lessons of the Third Labour Government to avoid its fate and becoming just another 'what if' footnote in history

By Peter Dunne*

Our new government has taken office and comparisons are already being made about the circumstances of its accession. Some are saying that the public mood is similar in terms of enthusiasm and response to the advent of the Lange Government in 1984.

That government came to office after the grim and increasingly repressive Muldoon Government, and its election was greeted more with a sense of relief that the long national nightmare was finally over, than a sense of excitement about what lay ahead. That is clearly not the mood today. There is no sense that either the country is on its knees and facing imminent economic collapse, or that the outgoing government had become more and more intrusive in people’s lives and virtually every aspect of the economy, as was the case in 1984.

A more accurate comparison is 1972, when the Kirk Labour Government swept to power. There was at that time a palpable feeling of “It’s Time for a Change”, not too far removed from this year’s “Let’s Do It” slogan now being reprised in so many different ways, as Kirk capitalised on a mood that the long-term National Government had run out of steam and ideas.

Like today, the economy was in reasonably good shape – the impacts of the 1974 Oil Shock and Britain’s joining Europe in 1973 were yet to come – and there was a growing sense of optimism about the country’s future and emerging identity. The “climate change” issues of the early 1970s were French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and apartheid in South Africa (both of which the new government had strong positions on) and there was a housing shortage, in Auckland in particular. All in all, circumstances far more akin to today than to 1984.

But herein lies the challenge for the new government. Leaving aside the particulars of managing a coalition with the serially erratic New Zealand First (the Greens will be far less difficult – they, after all, are just happy to finally be there after 27 years of failure), the new government would do well to study the lessons of the Third Labour Government, lest it similarly succumb in 2020 or earlier and end up just another “what if” footnote in history.

First, it should be careful about promoting and believing in its own invincibility too much. When Kirk was elected in 1972, no-one imagined he would be dead within two years, with his government left wallowing in the wake of his demise. This is most certainly not suggesting nor wishing a similar fate for our new Prime Minister, but using the drama of the most unexpected circumstance of all to highlight the priority need to establish a credible, broad based, competent leadership team. 

Next, no-one also envisaged in 1972 the economic shocks that lay ahead, with the dramatic oil price increases and supply limitations after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the catastrophic impact they were to have on fortress economies like ours. The domestic cocoon of complacency always shatters quickly in a crisis. In the 1970s New Zealand was clearly caught short by not only the Oil Crisis but also the impact on our trading patterns and the need to develop markets and diversify products that British entry to the Common Market had caused.

So, the government needs to be wary of trying to shelter New Zealand too much from global influences, over which it has no control. A cautious embrace of globalism, rather than a wholesale rejection would be prudent. We are part of, not apart from, an increasingly interdependent world.

And finally, the government needs to know and understand the value of flexibility and pragmatism. It will not always be right, no matter how much it will wish to be. Kirk’s refusal to budge from costly manifesto commitments, despite the international economic shocks, was short-sighted and blinkered, and allowed Muldoon, aided by the Dancing Cossacks, to storm to victory in 1975 on the promise to “Rebuild New Zealand’s Shattered Economy”.

Last week, one Australian newspaper stupidly and wrongly labelled our new Prime Minister a “commie”, which clearly she is not. But, as an educated and literate person, she will be well aware of Karl Marx’s observation that the thing to learn from history is that people do not. So I wish her well as she sets out to disprove that dictum.   

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*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister.