9 - The Turbulent Seventies

The 1970s in New Zealand were characterised by political turbulence. The first major surge came in the 1972 General Election and continued through the 1975 and 1978 elections. Labour was deeply disappointed at loosing the 1969 elections but during the ensuing three years the late Norman Kirk emerged as a credible national leader. He was an eloquent orator and spoke as a man with a vision which matched the aspirations of many New Zealanders. His charismatic leadership swept Labour to a landslide victory in 1972. When the counting was over Labour held power with a 23 seat majority. It resulted from a 3.9 per cent swing away from National and a 4.4 per cent swing to Labour1.

With its massive majority it seemed Labour could expect to hold power well into the forseeable future. But the dreams started to fall apart with the first of a series of oil-price shockwaves. The comfortable balance of payments surplus Labour had inherited from National disappeared to be replaced by what at that time was a record deficit. And then, within twenty-one months of assuming office, Norman Kirk was dead. As the nation mourned his passing, the dreams he had inspired seemed to fade. Bill Rowling became the country's new Prime Minister and found himself faced with a powerhouse on the Opposition benches. Rob Muldoon had recently been chosen as the leader of the National Party.

Unhampered by the responsibility of governing the country, Mr Muldoon travelled the country convincing people everywhere that he had the formula for ?New Zealand the way you want it.? His meetings attracted audiences unprecedented in New Zealand for size and enthusiasm. There followed the 1975 General Election and the second major surge. This time National was returned to office with a 23 seat majority. It resulted from an 8.8 per cent swing away from Labour and a 6.1 per cent swing to National.2

Promising New Zealand the way you want it was one thing, delivering the goods proved to be quite a different matter. National's promises fell apart in the face of soaring oil prices. They played havoc with internal costs and dampened the international demand for our goods. Countries trying to meet their own burgeoning oil bills faced constraints in purchasing the products of other countries. One problem followed hard on the heels of another and the Government was held to blame.

At the same time Rob Muldoon was stamping an indelible mark on New Zealand. People either admired his style or found it objectionable. There were few who felt neutral about him. Even those who disliked him intensely, grudgingly admitted he was a shrewd and competent politician. More than anything New Zealanders recognised in Rob Muldoon a man who was decisive. They knew where they stood with him. He displayed a stubborn logic for the facts and once he had made up his mind about something people knew he was as good as his word. To his many admirers, Rob Muldoon was a man of outstanding ability.

By 1978 a new force was asserting itself on the electoral scene. In February of that year Social Credit's popular leader Bruce Beetham was elected to Parliament following a by-election in Rangitikei. The General Election nine months later saw the third major surge and this time it was towards Social Credit. National was returned to office with its majority reduced from 23 to 11. This resulted from a 7.8 per cent swing away from National, a 0.8 per cent swing to Labour and an 8.7 per cent swing to Social Credit.3

By comparison with this series of dramatic movements, changes occurring during 1981 were on a relatively modest scale. This time there was a 1.0 per cent swing away from National, a 1.4 per cent swing away from Labour and a 4.6 swing to Social Credit. These swings were accompanied by the virtual collapse of the Values Party.4 Nevertheless these moves were sufficient to leave National holding power with the narrowest possible majority. The final result gave National 47 seats, Labour 43 and Social Credit 2. In a full House with the Speaker unable to vote and a Government measure opposed by Social Credit, the vote would be 46 to 45 ? a majority of one. In the midst of the political turbulence of the 1970s abortion surfaced as a major public issue.


Coming to terms with abortion as a ballot box issue

The comments that follow deal with reactions I discerned from the pro-life side of the fence. I can only assume they were similar from the pro-abortion side. During 1975, pro-life supporters generally recognised the importance of a pro-life majority in Parliament should the Royal Commission recommend changes to the country's abortion laws. Many of them accepted without question the concept of not voting for pro-abortion candidates. Others had difficulty accepting the notion that saving unborn children was linked to the way they voted. They saw protecting the unborn as a high-minded and principled cause, but seeking votes with a political objective carried with it the odour of party politics. This was particularly so if the only pro-life candidate in their electorate happened to stand for a party they did not support.

Some felt that asking them to vote in a way likely to enhance the protection of the unborn was tantamount to instructing them how they should vote. This touched their most jealously guarded democratic right, the right to make their own decision as to who they voted for at a General Election. Most pro-life voters however, coped with this new concept. Either the candidate of their choice was pro-life anyway or their convictions about safe guarding the right to life were such that they accepted the sacrifice involved in putting Party preference to one side.

Inevitably this first venture into abortion politics was amateurish and patchy. The major advantage 1975 had over subsequent General Elections was the relativley large pool of single issue voters who had never previously been tapped. Voters were well-motivated as a result of the Royal Commission's deliberations and in addition, abortion had been a high profile issue in the run-up to the 1975 elections.

The other side of the coin was the lack of experience in this aspect of political action. It was not until September that the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child commenced its election campaign. A spring-board for the Society's efforts was a visit from American pro-life activist Robert Sassone, who had been one of the participants at the Wairakei Medical Conference held by the Guild of St Luke Ss Cosmas and Damian. Until that time the society had been fully occupied with the multitude of developments on the abortion front that year. The late start combined with inexperience and nervousness by many, lead to problems in assessing candidates, conveying accurate information to potential single issue voters and encouraging people to see abortion as a valid ballot box issue.


Assessing the Candidates

Assessing candidates on the abortion issue is difficult because there are no clearly defined demarcation lines. Candidates range from those who actively support abortion on demand through to those who totally oppose all abortions. Candidates are spread out between these two divergent positions and somewhere along this line decisions have to be made as to whether the candidate falls into the general pro-life grouping or the general pro-abortion grouping. The best test of any politician is the way he or she votes on the floor of Parliament. This is where politicians publicly nail their colours to the mast. But, it is a test that can only be applied to sitting MPs and even then it needs to be recognised that a Parliamentary vote does not lock an MP into permanently voting that way. Any number of sitting MPs have modified their attitude on this issue over the years.

During 1975 the Wall bill provided a good indicator of where most sitting MPs stood on the issue but for other candidates it came down to questionnaires. Women's Electoral Lobby interviewed 325 candidates from 85 electorates and the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child interviewed 162 candidates from 61 electorates. An assessment of candidates was finally made for the pro-life movement on the basis of the Wall bill and responses to both the WEL and SPUC questionnaires. Subsequent events were to prove these assessments were not reliable in all cases and the experience highlighted the difficulties faced by voters who do not have access to all of this information.

Unlike sitting MPs who had received a great deal of information in the course of the debate on the Wall bill, there were candidates who hadn't the chance to clarify their thinking on this issue. There were other candidates, including sitting MPs, who tried to be all things to all people. By carefully choosing their words in answer to questions from voters they hoped to avoid alienating anyone. These were the people who had the greatest difficulties in Parliament. They were faced with the dilemma of trying to appease two quite disparate groups.

We were to discover the complexities involved in making a reliable assessment of candidates. Nobody wants to alienate a candidate whose heart is in the right place but who does not express his views concisely. On the other hand recommending unreliable candidates creates long term problems. Voters willing to put Party preferences to one side feel cheated if they make such a sacrifice and then find the person they voted for was not reliable. The 1975 elections highlighted how difficult it can be to make assessments that are both fair and reliable.


Publicising candidates views

Conveying accurate information about candidates to potential single issue voters was to prove another major problem. Conventional advertising channels like newspaper ads and letterbox circulars were regarded as risky at that time. Trying to ensure a certain candidate was elected meant doing nothing to harm his or her chances. Their chances could of course be harmed if a group of voters willing to support them changed their minds on learning of their abortion stance.

In 1975 this problem was not effectivley grappled with. Both pro-life and pro-abortion groups used their own channels of communication to pass on information to their supporters but apart from that it remained the job of voters to question their own local candidates.

The voting records of sitting MPs at the time of the Wall bill were of course widely disseminated through the news media. All interested voters had a chance to check out the votes of their own local MPs These MPs were the candidates whose views were most readily available to the community at large.


Making Abortion a Ballot-Box Issue

There remained the question of encouraging people to regard abortion as so basic an issue that it transcended all other considerations. For many this was a new concept. There appeared to be a general assumption by the media and political pundits that women wanted ready access to abortion and so would reject anti-abortion candidates. It was a part of the impression that when feminists spoke out they did so on behalf of the majority of women. Pro-abortion and feminist groups confidently expected women to reject anti-abortion candidates. At the same time the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child through national and branch newsletters urged its members to vote for the protection of unborn children.

A similar call was heard from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In a pastoral letter, the late J.P. Kavanagh, Bishop of Dunedin wrote to his diocese, ?I want you to listen very carefully to these words of the Pope: ?It must in any case be clearly understood that a Christian can never conform to a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle that abortion is licit. Nor can a Christian' ? and I ask you again to listen most carefully ? ?take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it. Moreover he may not collaborate in its application.' Those word of his,? Bishop Kavanagh continued, ?make it clear that you cannot support efforts to make abortion available. You would clearly be doing just that if you voted for any man or woman who believes in the extension of abortion.?5

In Wellington a similar line was taken by the late Cardinal Delargy in a pastoral letter to his archdiocese prior to the elections. ?. . . one matter stands out? his Pastoral letter read ?the burning issue of abortion. The result of the free conscience vote in the next Parliament will decide the fate of thousands of New Zealanders yet unborn. If the unborn child is not sacred and precious, neither are the weak and the aged, neither are the poor and oppressed ... It is hard to discern the true merit of individual candidates and to make a choice. We must all prayerfully attempt to do so and vote accordingly.?6

John Kennedy, ebullient editor of the Catholic weekly newspaper The Tablet made no bones about his opinion. In his pre-election editorial he said, ?The Tablet would prefer to see the National party elected to office next Saturday. And it believes that this is what will happen if people casting their votes consider very seriously the material on abortion and related issues which have been put before them by our Bishops and by other sources.?7

Mr Kennedy explained his reasons for this decision in the book he had published in 1981. He said, ?a careful headcount of Labour and National candidates convinced us that if National won, the situation would be much safer than if Labour did.? But he went on to say that a second factor was the attitude of Mr Muldoon. ?This was something that extended back even before the abortion debate and which had involved him in voting against capital punishment. Again, he had obviously given both the moral and social implications of abortion deep thought. I had talked with him and I was convinced his grasp was more than just pragmatic; it was a philosophical conviction strongly held. What is more, it was clear that if he were the Prime Minister he would argue the case forcefully. No sitting on the fence for him. Here, of course, lay the key difference between Mr Rowling and Mr Muldoon.8

The indomitable Mr Kennedy was to acquire a reputation for picking winners. In his editorials he had backed Labour in 1972, National in 1975 and Bruce Beetham in the 1978 by-election in Rangitikei. It earned him the accolade ?Kennedy the King-maker? from pro-abortion activist Erich Geiringer in his 1978 book on abortion politics called SPUC ?em All.

In the weeks preceeding the 1975 elections the Anglican Bishop of Wellington, the Rt Rev Edward Norman also issued a pastoral statement to his people. In a statement both compassionate and powerful he said that, ?. . . once you accept the principle that a human being, however small, can be destroyed for the convenience of others, you have put your foot on a very slippery slope. One inevitable consequence is that, having approved this principle, that an inconvenient life may be destroyed, it is difficult to know where to stop.?9


The results of the 1975 General Elections

In 1975, Labour lost 23 seats and 29 new Members of Parliament entered the House. Of the 87 politicians elected, 52 were to show before 1978, their willingness to support legal protection for the unborn. The new Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon had publicly stated during the election campaign, ?As a personal belief I abhor the destruction of the life of an unborn child save in the case of undeniably strict necessity.?10 The important Health and Justice portfolios were placed in the hands of Ministers who supported legal protection of the unborn. This was in marked contrast to the situation that had prevailed prior to the elections. Then the Prime Minister, Bill Rowling studiously avoided any commitment to protecting the unborn apart from stating his personal opposition to abortion. Both the Health and Justice portfolios had been held by Ministers who supported the pro-abortion cause. Labour's Minister of Justice, Dr A.M. Finlay who had been a leader of the Parliamentary pro-abortion faction had his majority reduced from 4,221 to 401. It resulted from a 17.1 per cent swing against the Minister ? the largest swing against any incumbent in the 1975 elections.11

Dr Gerard Wall who had lead the pro-life cause and been the subject of persistent vilification through the media, from women's groups and from the pro-abortion lobby had his majority reduced from 4,399 to 2,265 ? the result of a 12.2 per cent swing against the Member for Porirua.12

Labour's Minister of Health, Tom McGuigan, lost his seat. His 1972 majority of 3,235 was turned into a majority of 999 for National's Colleen Dewe ? the result of a 13.7 per cent swing against the Minister. The Health portfolio had been held by Bob Tizard who had actively supported the pro-abortion cause. He lost 12.6 per cent of the support he had received in 1972. Labour's Minister of Eduction, Phil Amos, who had opposed the Wall bill lost his seat. His 1972 majority of 2,397 was turned into a 1,358 majority for National's Merv Wellington.

Two of Labour's Auckland MPs who faced greater reverses than Mr Amos were Michael Bassett who lost his seat in the face of a 14.2 per cent swing, and Johnathon Hunt whose majority was reduced from 4,3212 to 980 following a 14.5 per cent swing. They had both opposed Dr Wall's bill.

Table Two  at the end of this chapter records swings both to and against incumbents at the 1975 elections based on their attitudes to abortion. It shows there was not one category in which pro-abortion incumbents fared as well as pro-life incumbents. Labour's pro-life incumbents had a 2 per cent edge over their pro-abortion colleagues while National's pro-life in-cumbents had a 1 per cent edge over their pro-abortion colleagues. Such figures would not represent the sum total of single issue abortion votes. They are an indication of the margin that survived the cancelling out process, in other words the winning edge. Pro-life votes were moving in one direction, pro-abortion votes in another and the balance fell in favour of the pro-life vote.

To get the impact of such margins into perspective it helps to see them in relation to elections generally. A direct 2.0 per cent swing from National to Labour in the 1981 elections would have been sufficient to give Labour nine National seats and so return them to power with a majority of seven13. Whole election campaigns are fought trying to gain such an edge. The 1972 landslide to Labour followed a 3.9 per cent swing away from National.14 It has been suggested that a large segment of single issue abortion votes in 1975 went to Values. No doubt many Values voters also support permissive abortion but that cannot be taken to mean they were single issue pro-abortion voters. The logical course for such voters would be to seek the election of pro-abortion MPs ? a vote for Values was not going to achieve that. An analysis of the election results show that Values fared best in the grouping of electorates held by pro-abortion Labour incumbents.

Before concluding this section I would like to deal with a number of Auckland electorates in the 1975 election. National's George Gair and the late Frank Gill adopted a high profile in the Parliamentary debate on the Wall bill. Their respective electorates of North Shore and East Coast Bays shared a common boundary while in both, the Labour candidates were pro-abortion. A major difference was that Air Commodore Gill supported protection for the unborn while Mr Gair opposed such protection. When the final counting was over there had been a 6.8 per cent swing to Air Commodre Gill and a 4.7 per sent swing to Mr Gair.15

Close by was Birkenhead where Labour's pro-life Minister of Social Welfare contested his seat against newcomer Jim McLay whose response to the SPUC questionnaire was somewhat vague. This vague response was conveyed to the society's members through its national newsletter. Subsequently Mr McLay wrote to the Society saying he felt his reply had been misrepresented, ?. . . to the point where a number of people have telephoned me expressing concern that I am adopting an attitude that is either anti-life or alternatively in favour of abortion on demand. Neither situation is the case,? Mr McLay went on to say he had made his views publicly known within his electorate that ?. . . in the absence of a strong recommendation to the contrary, from the Royal Commission, I generally favour the law as it is presently written.?16  Mr McLay went on to win this seat with a substantial majority.

Following the 1972 elections, Labour held 14 Auckland seats ? 5 were held by pro-life MPs and 9 were held by pro-abortion MPs. In 1975 the average swing against these 14 Labour MPs was 11.6 per cent. They ranged from a high of 17.1 per cent in Dr Finlay's electorate of Henderson to a low of 5.5 per cent in Eden which had been held by Mike Moore who was pro-life.17 Mr Moore lost his seat to Aussie Malcolm who at that time did not fall into the category of being pro-life. Although Mr Moore lost his seat, in terms of the swinging vote, he did better than any other Labour MP in Auckland. During his years in Parliament Aussie Malcolm's views underwent a significant chance.

He told me about the event that finally confirmed his pro-life position. In 1979 a little girl was born in Auckland. She was described at the time as a miracle baby and her parents named her Shannon Martin. Shannon had been conceived a day or two before her mother's hysterectomy. It is presumed that sometime during her mother's operation or in the days shortly following, the embryonic Shannon fell against her mother's intestine. There she implanted and developed into a healthy baby. Her birth received worldwide publicity as a medical first.18 Aussie Malcolm told me he had marvelled that this tiny embryonic baby had been able to survive under those circumstances and how it convinced him that human life existed from conception.

With the elections over, New Zealand was set for the most intensive period of abortion legislation in its history. We were to be the first country in the world to use the legislative process to turn back the juggernaut which had swept across the globe. The New Zealand voters had played their part. They had put in place those who would man the last line of defence.

Table Two

Swings in the 1975 General Elections Based on the Incumbents Stand on Abortion

Pro-life incumbents                                            Pro-abortion incumbents


All 35 seats                            -8.8%                     All 20 seats                             -10.9%

19 urban seats                      -10.2%                   11 urban seats                        -12.1%

13 rural & provincial seats -8.0%                      8 rural &. provincial seats   -8.9%

3 Maori seats                         -3.0%                   1 Maori seat                           -13.1%


All 23 seats                            +4.9%                    All 9 seats                              +4.0%

6 urban seats                         +4.2%                   5 urban seats                        +4.0%

17 rural & provincial seats +5.1%                     4 rural and provincial         +3.8%

Note: Included in the list of incumbents are candidates who replaced the 7 MPs who retired from Parliament at the end of the 1975 session.

Source: The Government Printer Publications, ?The General Election 1972? and ?The General Election 1975.? Pro-life candidates in the 1975 General Elections by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.


1   The General Elections 1969 & 1972; Govt. Printer, Wellington

2   The General Elections 1972 & 1975; Govt. Printer, Wellington.   The General Elections 1975 & 1978; Govt. Printer, Wellington

4   The General Elections 1978 & 1981; Govt. Printer, Wellington

5   Most Rev. J.P. Kavanagh; ?Straight from the Shoulder?, Whitcoulls 1981 pp. 86-7

6   N.Z. Tablet; 26 Nov. 1975; ?Archbishop Delargy's Election Pastoral? p. 3

7   N.Z. Tablet; 26 Nov. 1975; ?The Tablet and the General Election? p. 3

8   John Kennedy, ?Straight from the Shoulder?, Whitcoulls 1981, pp.88-9

9   N.Z. Tablet; 3 Dec 1975; ?Anglican Bishop's Pastoral hits hard at abortion danger?, p. 8

10 N.Z. Tablet; 26 Nov. 1975; ?National and the family? p.7

11 The General Elections 1972 &. 1975; Govt. Printer, Wellington

12 Ibid

13 The General Elections 1978; Govt. Printer, Wellington

14 The General Elections 1969 & 1972; Govt. Printer, Wellington

15 The General Elections 1972 & 1975; Govt. Printer, Wellington

16 Jim McLay; Letter to SPUC, 19 Nov, 1975

17 The General Elections 1972 & 1975; Govt. Printer, Wellington

18 Evening Post: 16 May 1979, ?Birth makes medical history wonder baby girl born after Auckland wife has a hysterectomy?