Thirty two years on from the beginning of the ‘new’ New Zealand which began with the ousting of the “socialist” National government of Rob Muldoon on 14 July 1984 how much better off are we?
We no longer need the authority of the Reserve Bank to subscribe to a magazine published overseas (and in this electronic era perhaps we don’t have it delivered by post any more either).
And of course there were a host of other changes as well to tax, import licensing, floating the currency, ending subsidies, deregulation of industries and later the opening up of the labour market and more.
The thing that I miss the least of the Muldoon era is the absence of generational warfare that the old tusker used to conduct regularly to appeal to my parents’ generation, the people who thrust him into power so decisively in 1975.
He told them they could have the world’s most generous superannuation scheme – a state funded pension at 80% of the ordinary time wage and paid from age 60. This was much higher and five years earlier than the then current universal pension which I recall was worth about 65% of the ordinary time wage.
I thought then and have believed ever since that this was intergenerational theft on a massive scale because the people who would pay for it were those in the workforce, and I was just starting out at that time. And I doubted that it would be so generous when it came my turn to claim the pension, if it existed at all.
He told my parents’ that they deserved a better retirement after what that had been through – the Depression and the war, and they believed him. It was my first lesson in how to legitimise greed; tell people they deserve it and that it was affordable.
All that had to happen was for the economy to grow at 4% a year, he said, ignoring the very inconvenient fact that from 1945 until then the New Zealand economy had never ever grown at 4% a year (and has done so only rarely since).
The pension is still there as I now approach that age of positive cash flow (and travel privileges) but it’s nowhere near as generous as it was, and we have interparty consensus only after broken promises from Labour’s David Lange and then from National’s Jim Bolger not to mess with the rates or the eligibility dates (remember the debates over surcharges), and only after much agonising over what to pay and how to pay for it. (Kiwisaver, Cullen Fund and rising the age of eligibility).
In the late 70s I saw Muldoon’s superannuation plan as an attack on my generation. As a second year reporter with 2ZB I remember paying 66% income tax on overtime. Overtime was taxed at a higher rate anyway – 60% regardless of income, and Muldoon had imposed a “temporary surcharge” of 10% on all income tax. I don’t miss that.
He savaged our culture. Remember him attacking Mi-Sex, “what’s that all about?” And the Screaming MeeMees, what sort of band are they?”
He was about disparaging what young people liked, and associating himself with the ‘short back and sides, a spell in the army will do them good, get a haircut generation’ that he’d fought in the war with and championed until the day he died.
Our generation rebelled against our parents and rejected their values. We liked sex and drugs and rock’n roll. They thought we were depraved, idle and noisy spongers.
We didn’t support apartheid or sporting contact with it and fought hard to stop it while Rob championed the right to play sport regardless. Our regard for rugby suffered in the aftermath of 1981, even though it helped him to election victory. We didn’t like that either.
After Vietnam, the killing fields of Cambodia Nixon, Watergate, we didn’t fawn on the United States as the saviour of the free world; nor did we uncritically follow her of the UK anywhere. We didn’t talk of England as home (although we still wanted to go there).
Whatever one might say about the reforms that follow – and political discourse is still shaped by arguments about the Douglas/Richardson reforms and the reactions and aftermath – the fall of Muldoon, the arch social conservative is one that I have never regretted. And I have not the slightest doubt that New Zealand is better off for his defeat this day 32 years ago.