There has been a faint but nevertheless uncomfortable echo of 1975 in Wellington these past few weeks.
We’ve seen the same rush to remove as many traces as possible of the previous government as Muldoon removed the legacy of what had really been the Kirk government.
But the similarities go deeper than that.
It is now easy to see that Kirk’s was a government before its time.
Colin James has called it a false dawn of generational change with its nods to the baby boomer generation on everything from state-sponsored communes to radical broadcasting reform.
It may well be that in the future, Ardern’s government, with its emphasis on diversity, inclusion, climate change, biculturalism and (yes) “kindness”, will be seen as another false dawn for the eventual and inevitable ascendancy of the post-babyboomer generation.
But like the Kirk-Rowling government, there have been questions about its profligate spending and its tendency to centralise and control.
Remember the famous 1975 National Party election ad showing a line of dancing cossacks, supposedly the management of Roger Douglas’s compulsory superannuation scheme.
So, in the meantime, we now have another Muldoon government, a government of reaction.
It was summed up during the election campaign at a dinner hosted for its donors by an Auckland National Party electorate.
They were small business people and tradies who had given a few hundred dollars to the campaign.
“I want you to understand,” said one to the gathering, “we are not supporting National; we are here to make sure the government is voted out.”
National’s campaign strategists obviously understood that sentiment.
Christopher Luxon’s stump speech was a carefully curated series of complaints.
As we all now know, Luxon believes that New Zealand is the best country “on planet earth” and if you had to design a new country from scratch you would put it “smack bang in the middle of the Asia-Pacific region.”
So, he would say to his audiences that everything should be great.
“I believe that we are totally, actually completely heading in the wrong direction,” he would continue.
“And if we’re really honest with ourselves and we take a step back and ask ourselves, are we really realising that potential that we have in this great country of ours or not?”
That would set the theme for the rest of the speech. It was time to go back — to 2017.
“I think over the last six years, we’ve had a government that I think has taken us off course,” he would say.
“It has taken us off course in a number of ways; first and foremost, there has been a huge amount of economic mismanagement in our country.
“What I mean by that is that we’ve had a government that has spent more. It’s hired more bureaucrats, it’s taxed more, and it’s borrowed more.”
It was a clever speech.
He was able to identify the people to blame, the people Winston Peters likes to call “they”.
“They” were Wellington bureaucrats; the problem was Wellington and the fellow travellers in the Beehive.
Opposition to “they” is the common thread that links the three unlikely partners who make up the coalition.
And so public servants found their Te Reo lessons no longer funded; departmental CEOs are busy trying to work out how to save 6.5 per cent while the capital is abuzz with rumours as to who might replace Peter Hughes as Public Service Commissioner who retires in February.
So these first few weeks of the government have seemed like the campaign put into practice.
It has been one reversal after another, all winning hearty applause from the government’s supporters cheered on by an invigorated right-wing media.
But there have been some interesting whisps of smoke appearing over Parliament as National’s new MPs have delivered their maiden speeches.
It is already evident that some are cut from a different cloth to their front bench colleagues.
Take Greg Fleming, the former director of Maxim, and a committed Christian and biculturist and the new MP for Maungakiekie.
He is bringing his children up to be bi-lingual; he worships in Te Reo at the Holy Sepulchre or Te Anan Tapu in Auckland.
“When I dream of Feb 6th, 2040, I dare to imagine, I dare to hope, I dare to believe on that
day, by the shores of Waitangi, we will not weep tears of lament but tears of joy,” he said in his maiden speech.
“That we will celebrate. That we will walk easily in both worlds. That we will be one.”
And the new Rangitata MP, James Meager’s speech attracted widespread headlines with his argument that the other side of the House did not “own” Maori.
There will be more as the speeches proceed through the new year.
They will set a challenge to the government’s leadership to move beyond the partisan arguments of the campaign and address the challenges of the future.
Something similar happened in 1975 when a group of liberal MPs like Marilyn Waring, Jim McLay, Derek Quigley, and Mike Minogue all entered Parliament for National.
Over the next two terms, in different ways, they would challenge Muldoon and his lieutenants in the Cabinet, and particularly Quigley would work to promote what is now called neo-liberalism as a central tenet of National philosophy.
They were “small-l” liberals who, by the time the Bolger government came into power in 1990 alongside their market-driven economic reforms, were also ready to accept the anti-nuclear policy and begin work on substantial Treaty settlements.
This new government faces testing economic times.
The IMF’s World Economic Outlook, published in October, says the global recovery from Covid and the Ukraine War means that forecasts for growth over the medium term are at their lowest in decades, and prospects for countries to catch up to higher living standards are weak.
That, too, is reminiscent of the Muldoon years as oil shocks and declining markets for exports pushed the country into a near-decade-long recession.
Muldoon’s answer was an infrastructure-building programme.
But the real answer came in 1984 when a Cabinet of bright, open-minded young Ministers was ready to listen to a similarly bright group of officials in the Treasury and open the New Zealand economy to the world.
We will hear more about this later this year when we mark the 40th anniversary of the election of the Lange government, and perhaps Labour might finally be able to recognise the courage and intelligence of that government.
So far, National has not enunciated any real strategy to lift the country’s economic performance beyond Nicolas Willis, saying that whatever that strategy is, it will need to rest on sound economic management by the government.
However, perhaps more than any of its National Party predecessors, this one will find it has to confront a range of issues well beyond economics.
Obviously, race relations will head that list and the question of what the Treaty really means. The government has not got off to a great start here with its petty rulings on Te Reo.
But there are signs that it recognises the bigger picture with its promise to consult with iwi on new freshwater regulations. That will open up the question of water allocation and the Treaty.
How will Groundswell react to that?
Then there is the environment.
A farmer at a National Party regional conference this year put the big climate change issues in perspective after a procession of members had complained about the over-regulation of farmers on climate change emissions.
He said they were wasting their time; this was not an issue farmers could control.
It would be companies like Nestle that determined what New Zealand food producers had to do to meet their climate obligations.
Sure enough, when Fonterra confirmed it would be requiring suppliers to reduce their so-called “Scope Three” emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, the statement was immediately welcomed by Nestles.
Groundswell claims targets like this are “political and unscientific.”
And then there is foreign policy, which so far has seemed to run off in a host of different directions.
Winston Peters talks about our traditional allies; Luxon says our “big three” are Australia, the US and China (which Peters barely talks about), and Todd McClay is busy talking up India.
The new government has yet to define what it means by an independent foreign policy – which Luxon says there is bipartisan agreement on — and, importantly, it needs to define where it stands relative to China rather than leaving it to Peters and perhaps some hawks in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to subtly freeze the relationship.
They could do worse than talk to former Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who thinks about these sorts of issues and would agree with Luxon that we are very lucky to live smack bang in the middle of the Asia Pacific region.
Meanwhile, back at home, it remains to be seen whether cutting government expenditure and loosening regulations will be enough to kickstart a very sluggish economy.
There are signs that the new government may be about more than that; Erica Stanford’s review of the compulsory education curriculum may prove to be critical.
Judith Collins’ obvious passion for her innovation and science portfolios picks up where Ayesha Verrall left off.
But there are big gaps in the Cabinet.
Beyond Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop, It lacks a core group of like-minded Ministers, which John Key’s former Chief of Staff, Wayne Eagleson, has argued was critical to Key’s success.
The coalition partner Ministers do not look to be all that comfortable with their National colleagues.
And, importantly, Luxon has yet to set out a real vision for the future, which would weave together all the threads of government.
Muldoon never did that. He famously declared that his goal was to leave New Zealand no worse than when he found it. (In fact, he failed)
That Labour government that replaced him was the ascent to power of the young baby boomers who had voted for Kirk’s “false dawn’ In 1972.
The lesson from those years is obvious: in the long run, politicians cannot stand against the tide of history.
That will be the challenge for the Luxon government.
Can it avoid the Muldoon trap and thus avoid remaining a government of reaction wedded to the way things were.?
The jury is out on that.