45 years ago, National MPs found an unlikely saviour in the abrasive and controversial Robert Muldoon. The Member for Tamaki had already lost one leadership contest before and few expected a comeback. But a quiet campaign to win the confidence of his colleagues paid off. The following year, Muldoon led National to a stunning victory. Is history about to repeat?
In June 1974, the National Party’s Dominion Council passed a unanimous resolution endorsing former prime minister John Marshall to remain in the leadership. His timidity and consensual approach to politics had earnt him the nickname ‘Gentleman Jack’. But Marshall’s style proved no match against the larger than life personality of Norman Kirk. Yet, despite losing the popularity contest, Marshall was head of a party that retained significant support. Opinion polls had National and Labour neck-and-neck. The soaring cost of living and a housing shortage loomed large in voters’ minds. The hope and change promised by a new Labour government was beginning to fade.
With Marshall’s leadership apparently secure the press gallery was content to run the official party line: Gentleman Jack would have one last chance to face off against Big Norm. But behind the public display of unity there was growing disquiet in the National caucus. Having spent most of the past year resigned to Opposition, there was now a whiff of victory in the air. They could win the 1975 general election. If only they had a leader who could get the measure of Kirk. But there was only one man up to the job. And he was not available.
Since the 1972 election, Robert Muldoon had been lying low. At least when it came to direct questions of leadership. He had lost to Marshall once before and would not allow himself to lose a second time. Thus, Muldoon portrayed himself as the ever-loyal deputy, keenly focused on the issues of the day, and holding the government to account. He argued policy details and administrative technicalities. What kept him up at night, he said, was not ambition for high office, but a burning desire to solve New Zealand’s economic problems. Leadership of the National Party? That was for the caucus to decide, and evidently, the caucus had chosen Marshall.
A few weeks later something changed. National MPs finally turned on their leader. To the press gallery’s shock, Marshall summoned them for a Friday announcement. He was resigning and there would be a special caucus meeting the following Tuesday to select his replacement. There was only one contender. And until that moment he had been unavailable. But, as they say, a week is a long time in politics.
Back to the present, and Judith Collins finds herself in the role of a latter-day Muldoon. She alone can rescue the National Party from certain defeat. Yet her claim to the leadership depends on the Member for Papakura remaining above internal politics. Collins’ silent campaign has now reached its climax. What happens next may be more accident than design. It is but a waiting game. When Bridges goes, Collins will be the only real contender.