“AT A DOLLAR a gallon we can’t afford Rowling.” Given his latest media release, “Government pricing Kiwis out of their cars”, someone’s obviously been schooling up young Simon Bridges on the way Rob Muldoon smashed Labour in 1975.
[Bill Rowling, for all you millennials out there, was the Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand from September 1974 until December 1975, and a gallon (4.5 litres) was the unit of measure for petrol at the pump. So, yes, you’re right, the motorists of 1975 paid roughly a tenth of what we pay today to fill up our tanks. – C.T.]
But even back when petrol was only a dollar a gallon, Kiwi motorists were hurting. Ever since the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, during which Egypt and Syria came within an ace of destroying the State of Israel, the price of oil had soared. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab oil-exporters had imposed an embargo on the USA and its allies for resupplying the Israelis with arms and ammunition, the resulting price-hikes delivered a stunning blow against the western economy. The so-called “Oil Shocks” of 1973-79 marked the end of the Great Post-War Boom. Almost overnight, New Zealanders – along with just about everyone else in the Western World – lost confidence in the future. Even worse, they began casting about for someone to blame.
Hence, the National Party’s propaganda thrust blaming the rise in oil prices on Bill Rowling. Of course, anybody who had been following current affairs over the previous two years knew perfectly well that National was peddling what today we would call “fake news”. But, those weren’t the people Muldoon was after. The voters he was seeking to enlist alongside National’s habitual supporters were the disoriented, frustrated and just flat-out angry working-class Kiwis who were struggling to work out what had all-of-a-sudden gone wrong with their country.
Like the formerly Democrat Trump supporters of 2016, these bewildered Labour voters found it increasingly difficult to identify with “their” party. Labour was supposed to stand for “the working man” and his values, but now, following the tragic death of that quintessential working-class battler, “Big Norm” Kirk in August 1974, the party was led by a training-college lecturer and was advancing policies which seemed to have more in common with the demands of the long-haired hippies and protesters in the streets than they did with the “ordinary Kiwi joker” and his concerns – not the least of which was the soaring price of petrol.
Muldoon and his campaign advisers were only too aware of the culture war that was breaking out within the Labour Party and they couldn’t wait to exploit it.
Over the course of the 1960s and 70s, Labour’s membership had dwindled. The party branches were peopled predominantly by people who may have been young and radical in the 1930s and 40s but who were now very settled in their ways – and views – which tended towards the socially conservative. Many Labour stalwarts were Roman Catholics, Baptists and members of the Salvation Army. They bitterly resented the small but active groups of liberals and radicals who had begun drifting into Labour from 1969 onwards. They were seen as middle-class carpet-baggers without the slightest idea of what it meant to be a working-class Kiwi.
These were the people for whom National’s election slogan, “New Zealand the way YOU want it”, was invented. The people who had begun to feel neglected, misunderstood and even despised by the people at the top of the Labour Party – and their friends. This latter group had banded together in an outfit calling itself “Citizens for Rowling” which, to the ears of a great many Kiwis, sounded a lot more like “Citizens Against Muldoon”.
It was a huge strategic error on the part of Labour’s hifalutin supporters. Instead of turning people against the pugnacious National leader, it drew them towards him. Just as liberal America’s hatred of Trump only served to entrench his support among those aggrieved Americans without college degrees or six-figure incomes; Labour’s near-obsession with Rob Muldoon proved to be one of the key factors in the growth of “Rob’s Mob” – that peculiar assemblage of “ordinary blokes” and “ordinary sheilas” for whom Muldoon felt more like a Labour leader than the thoroughly decent but doggedly uninspiring Rowling.
Forty years on, Labour supporters should brace themselves for a National Party-driven social media campaign built around the slogan: “At $2.40 a litre, we can’t afford Jacinda.” It’s bound to acquire some measure of political purchase. How could it not when, for Kiwis on low incomes, $2.40 a litre for gas is just one more burden for them to bear. (And anyone on the Labour team thinking about telling these folk to “go electric” should, perhaps, recall the effect on the breadless masses of the thoughtless suggestion that they should consider eating cake.)
National’s big problem is that Simon Bridges is not Rob Muldoon. Bridges simply does not possess Muldoon’s ability to inspire both confidence and hope; fear and dread. Nor is Jacinda Ardern even remotely like Bill Rowling. The latter always came across as the person for whom the saying “nice guys finish last” was invented. And although stardust was intermittently available to politicians back in 1975, the historical record makes it very clear that nobody ever got so much as a speck of it to Bill.
About the only thing Bridges has got going for him is that, unlike the 1973-79 oil shocks, the steady rise in the price of petrol over the period 2018-2021 cannot be sheeted home to greedy Arab oil magnates. This time, it is all Labour’s own work.