Looking back over New Zealand elections past, 1963 is another with a familiar look about it

Past elections, with their moods, trends, characters and issues can offer a window on what's happening now. A oft-repeated line at the moment is that this election is looking an awful lot like 2002.

But what about further back?

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the similarities between this year and 1951, and today wanted to look at another election with some familiar characteristics  – 1963.

As with 2011 and 1951, it saw National heading into a second term with a popular leader and a strong tail wind, politically speaking. Walter Nash had won power in 1957, aged 75, but didn't last long. Sid Holland's National had kept hidden some nasty economic surprises and the new Labour government was faced with a terrible balance of payments problem.

Nash, alongside Finance Minister Arnold Normeyer, wrote the now infamous Black Budget, increasing taxes on alcohol, tobacco and petrol. It allowed the party to carry out some other tax reforms and stick to some election promises, but voters didn't see much virute in that. In 1960, Kiwi Keith Holyoake let the anti-Labour mood do his work for him, promising little and keeping expectations low. Labour lost the election, rather than National winning it, and Holyoake began his run as National's longest-serving Prime Minister.

If Key's compared to anyone, it's often Holyoake – a likeable leader who united his party and held a commanding grip on the public imagination, although no-one could quite put their finger on what fanned the spark of affection. Holyoake was picked out as a potential leader as soon as he arrived in parliament (aged 27), but had to be patient as the Holland years rolled on.

As if often noted of Key, Holyoake was part-populist, part-pragmatist. His Te Ara biography puts it well:

"Holyoake was not one to formulate and craft his ideological credentials. His was a pragmatic approach, moving along more or less in tune with public opinion."

As Political Scientist Robert Chapman said, his "greatest feat was the slowing down of every process which, if speedily dealt with, might have represented change". I can hear the same murmurings on the right today about Key.

In the 1963 campaign, National accentuated its popular leader, talked about it as a "no change election" and benefited from the public's lingering distaste for the previous Labour government.

Labour's leader by then was Arnold Nordmeyer, he of the Black Budget. As with Phil Goff, Nordmeyer was a respected and meticulous minister whose politics had shifted around during his long life as a parliamentarian. When he won the leadership, his baggage was simpy too heavy for the party to carry, despite its efforts to repackage him.

The earnest Labour leader was no match for Holyoake's likeability and the public confidence that he was a safe pair of hands.

In 1963, National's 12 seat margin slipped to 10, but it still won without much sweat. While today's National would be terribly disappointed if it mirrored 1963 and saw its support fall from 2008, Labour should be even more horrified by the prospect of history repeating itself. The 1963 election was the start of just the second term of National's 12 year run in office.

So there are some interesting comparisons between this year and 1963. But of the two years – 1951 and 1963 – the latter feels like the harder squeeze. Holyoake was riding a wave of prosperity, there was no sense of crisis around him, and to be honest, his winning margins were never colossal.

National through the 1960s wore a face more New Zealanders were comfortable with and read the mood well, but it was slowly losing support throughout.

In many ways, Key seems to be at least as much a Holland as a Holyoake, and Goff more a Nash than a Nordmeyer. The immediate past elections and the issues of the day seem more in line with 1951.

Of course historical comparisons are far from perfect, not least because we're now working under a different electoral system. And 2011 will be its own unique year. But it's useful, I think, to look at how our politics has ebbed and flowed in the past and take what we can for today.

As with 1951, it seems one lesson for National is to see how New Zealand voters rewarded caution. When we vote National, it's more often than not a sign we want that 'steady as she goes' approach.

But for Labour, it's something else.

Perhaps the most useful lesson Labour could take from 1963 – if it can't rally in the next few months and write a new chapter – is the need to quickly identify and rally round a successor, and a figure of change. What typically comes after a period of consolidation, is a leader who is more of a change agent.

Nordmeyer was eventually replaced – belatedly, you could argue – by one Norman Kirk. To the party's detriment, MPs kept squabbling and wasted an election by failing to unite around 'Big Norm'.

When they did, he caught the mood of a new generation, even if his premature death meant it wasn't for long.

Who knows, maybe there's a new factor just around the corner, waiting to change the shape of this election. But when National unites around a popular leader and plays a conservative hand, it's a hard party to shift.

Comments (25)

by Iain Butler on August 25, 2011
Iain Butler

Hmm, Black Budgets that hit the cost of tobacco, alcohol and petrol in response to a fiscal crisis... doesn't that make Bill English the Nordmeyer of this analogy?

by Andin on August 25, 2011
Andin

Kiwi Keith another despicable character in a long line of politicians who, to some, give the appearance of leadership. Smile and wave, tho behind that facade of respectability, affability there was/is a moral vacuum. Hand-me-down useless claptrap that even in '63 it was past it's use by date. Our political body/morality was a rotting corpse then, now its bleached bones. Time woven into everything is merciless, it just keeps moving and we've been standing still for too long.

Whoops there I go again......apologies.

by alexb on August 25, 2011
alexb

If you ignore the fact that it was Labour doing it, I would say the outcome of this election will bear more resemblance to 1984's election. Lange was a smiley face for people to rally behind after grim old Muldoon, but after the election the government went on down a radical economic path of privatisation, asset sales, tax cuts, etc. If we vote National back in, we will get Rogornomics part 2, no matter how appealing and smiley John Key is, he is there to distract attention away from policies that will harm our country, possibly irreversably.

by Andrew R on August 25, 2011
Andrew R

I remember Holyoake -- he used to come out and smile and wave at us protesting against the Vietnam War.

by stuart munro on August 26, 2011
stuart munro

We knew him. A nice enough bloke - but somewhat pompous in public. Not especially progressive. A man of his times and thus naturally representative. But not exactly an enlightened ruler. Then again the current crop of as yet unhanged scoundrels don't seem to include many enlightened folk either.

by Tim Watkin on August 26, 2011
Tim Watkin

Alex, not sure about that. For a start, 1984 was a change of government and a mammoth swing in policies. Even if National does swing right, do you really think they'll go as far as '84 and without declaring it all before the election? That'd probably end their chances of being in government for another decade.

And is Key a Lange or English a Douglas? Neither are really a change agent.

by Brendon Mills on August 27, 2011
Brendon Mills

I would be very wary about comparing Key with Holyoake, Tim.

While 'Kiwi Keith' despised socialism, he was very skeptical of unfettered free market capitalism as well, and I think I read somewhere that he also commented favourably about FDR's New Deal programmes, and favoured co-operative models of agricultural enterprises

Keith, (and a lot of his cabinet) were very much to the left of today's National Party administration, They had no intention of screwing the sick, the young, and the vulnerable in this country. Whether that was because they were the last generation to experience unrestrained capitalism, I dont know.

by Frank Macskasy on August 29, 2011
Frank Macskasy

"Alex, not sure about that. For a start, 1984 was a change of government and a mammoth swing in policies. Even if National does swing right, do you really think they'll go as far as '84 and without declaring it all before the election? That'd probably end their chances of being in government for another decade."

Tim, I believe Nation has declared several big policy changes if they win again in November. Amongst other things, we'll see partial privatisations and welfare "reforms". I think they have others lined up, but we'll see.

 

As for past elections, my 'take' on this is that the Baby Boomers have had a massive effect on the political landscape - more than we realise, and more negative than has been assessed. The first Boomer government was Norman Kirks, I believe. Prior to that, Holyoake was a product of our parent's generation. As was Muldoon - except for that very peculiar result in 1975, wjhere Boomrers voted for Muldoon because he offered us money. Yup, it was the first (?) time a poli had bribed us - not with a tax cut - but by scrapping Labour's compulsory super scheme.

 

Following 1984, Labour and National gave us six tax cuts, and User Pays.  I kinda go into it more here;

http://fmacskasy.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/greed-is-good/

The tax-case surroundingf Dr Penny and Dr Hooper is not, in my view, an isolated, unconnected incident. I actually believe it is a clear illustration what has been happening on the political scene since Muldoon was deposed.

If I'm right - we're screwed. Because if I'm right, then my generation is more of a  "Me Generation" than I'd ever thought possible.

 

 

by Tim Watkin on August 29, 2011
Tim Watkin

Frank, it's a question of degree. While we're still unclear how far National will go on welfare, it's unlikely their policies will be as brutal as the broad cuts initiated by the Bolger government or have the sort of impact on unemployment that the 4th Labour government's privatisations had. And the partial privatisation of five companies, however flawed, is a long way from the trade sales of so many government companies from 84-the mid '90s.

As I said, they'll swing that way, but not as far.

I have some sympathy in your concerns about the boomers, but I don't think you could say 1975 was the first bribe. Nash won in '57 on a tax "bribe". Heck, the first Labour government's reforms could have been described as bribes... and then there was Seddon who knew a pork barrel when he saw one...

by Andin on August 30, 2011
Andin

1975 and it was all those baby boomers, the oldest of whom would have been just turned 30, (the fifties bulge hadnt quite worked its way into the system) voted in Muldoon to get a tax break? Against the howls of protest from their parents? Geez get yer hand off it Frank. You've taken self loathing to new heights.

"In 1984 we unknowingly elected a Labour Government that had been taken over by a secret cabal of neo-liberals, conservatives, and proponants of the Free Market"

Secret cabal, bloody hell, all those ideas were more than public currency by then. The IMF and World Bank were pushing them. And Muldoon was a drunk, so yeah, great choices were littering the ground. The push back was well under way. Roger Douglas wasnt born in the boom. He and his fellow travellers were suckers for a crap idea. As they say" there's one born every minute."

by Rob Hosking on August 30, 2011
Rob Hosking

Hell, I don't think there *is* a parallel election. For every possible one I can think of, there are too many counter-factors.

For 1963, Holyoake was deliberately anti-austerity, unlike our present times and present govt.  He'd campaigned against the Black Budget and his message, explicit and implicit, was that he wouldn't deliver that sort of cut to govt spending.

But then he did.  If you want a parallel from that time, try 1969, when the Holyoake govt had, against all its instincts, had to deliver a tough mini Budget and then full budget by its new finance minsiter, Rob Muldoon.  It was regarded by economists as being blacker than Nordmeyer's but Muldoon successfully 'sold' his austerity measures and got National re-elected in 1969.

A couple of differences: the obvious being that in 1969 National had been in power for three terms, not one, and was very tired.

The less obvious one is Muldoon, after two years of austerity, let the fiscal sluices open (and monetary sluices as well, for that matter, since finance minsiters called the shots on monetary policy in those days)  in 1969, which English certainly hasn't done this year.

1987 would be the closest, perhaps.  But National hasn't been as radical as Lange-Douglas were, and while the govt accounts were a mess the economy wasn't actually in recession when Labour took over in 1984.

 

 

by Tim Watkin on September 02, 2011
Tim Watkin

Never parallel, Rob, just similar. Looking for trends and lessons. I still think 1951 one has most to teach us.

You really think this year's budget was that black, compared to those in the '60s? And even if you can draw some economic comparisons, not so sure about the political comparisons... Definitely don't see it like the '80s, I'm afraid.

by Rob Hosking on September 02, 2011
Rob Hosking

The trouble with the 1951 parallel is firstly, it was a snap election and secondly, it was so overwelmingly dominated by the state of emergency which had been declared over the waterfront & miners' strike.  It was in the middle of an atmosphere of bitter confrontation.

Oh, and it was also at the top of the biggest economic boom in the country's history.

Trying to set those factors aside seems to me a bit like examining JFK's re-election prospects and setting aside the events of Nov 22 1963.

by Tim Watkin on September 02, 2011
Tim Watkin

The waterfront strike is the main difference, I conceed. Although this election – indeed this term – has been dominated by a couple of states of emergency, in the form of the earthquakes. There are exceptional circumstances here too, that the government has played to its advantage, stressing the 'steady as she goes' message in a time of uncertainty, as I wrote.

You'll have to show me numbers to convince me 1951 was the top of the boom. It was only National that lifted rationing, for a start. I think times were not as easy as you make them seem and the peak of the boom came later, in the late '50s or early-mid '60s.

by Rob Hosking on September 05, 2011
Rob Hosking

'top of the boom' was perhaps a bit loosely worded. 1951-52 was certainly the peak of export earnings - wool prices quintupled between 1949 and ealry 1951 (see John Gould, 'The RAkes Progress, p 69).

My point was simply that the economy was booming (and the same goes for 1963):  something which isn't exactly happening right now.

On the 'state of emergency' issue - they are rather different.  The Christchurch earthquake aftermath has hardly involved confrontation in the streets, has it?

 

 

by Rob Hosking on September 13, 2011
Rob Hosking

Ok, since the govt took over the waterfront this afternoon, I'm going to have to partially concede your 1951 analogy....

by Tim Watkin on September 17, 2011
Tim Watkin

Heh. Who knew I was prophetic and the people would be crowded against those red fences again?

My understanding is that wool prices leapt in a rush at the end of 1950 or early 1951 due to the Korean War and the need to equip troops for the northern hemisphere winter. So agree economic growth was better – although the wool boom at least went on for more than a decade and kept us rich, so the wealth increase was only beginning in 1951. (It was after that collapsed in 1966 that Australian wages passed ours). The post war years had been tough and the mood was conservative and wary/weary.

My comparison between earthquakes and lockouts is political. Both created upheaval and a public mood for stability and continuity that favours/favoured the incumbent Tories.

 

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