The ugly decade

Rob Muldoon in 1973. Photo: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The ugly decade

One man set the tone for a nation divided over rugby and apartheid South Africa. Halt All Racist Tours (HART) founder Trevor Richards writes on Muldoon, politics, sport and culture in 1970s New Zealand.


Read Trevor Richards on the birth of a movement that divided New Zealand and changed us forever here.


For many in New Zealand, the 1970s began in stirring fashion. This is New Zealand, the 21-minute, three-screen promotional documentary film made for the New Zealand exhibition at the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, drew such enthusiastic praise in Japan that cinema screenings were organised back in New Zealand. They ran for months. Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders flocked to see the film, myself included.

On display was New Zealand’s natural beauty, accompanied by idealised snapshots of rugged New Zealanders in the great outdoors and our happy race relations. All were brilliantly captured. We looked so innocent. It was no wonder we loved it. Richard John Seddon would have adored it. The film did make New Zealand truly look like “God’s own country”. If This is New Zealand was advertising a fantasy, it was one with which many in 1970 could happily identify. By the time the decade was over, so too was the fantasy.

This Is New Zealand

Eric Gowing, the Anglican Bishop of Auckland had said in 1970, “What we think about sporting contacts with South Africa depends on what we think about racism.” After a decade as HART’s national chairperson, what I remember about the politics of the 70s was its ugliness. Casting a grim shadow over that period were dawn raids on Pacific Islanders, Bastion Point, the country’s ongoing involvement with apartheid sport – and Robert Muldoon, the leader of the opposition during much of the third Labour government, prime minister from 1975 to 1984, and chief advocate for a virulent set of racist, populist policies. By the end of the decade, racism was an issue on which we were deeply conflicted.

We had welcomed 80,000 immigrants from neighbouring Pacific Islands when the New Zealand economy was booming and there was a shortage of labour, but couldn’t get rid of them fast enough when, by the mid-70s, the economy was in trouble. The country, which Prime Minister Keith Holyoake had assured my school assembly in Kaikohe in the early 1960s had the best race relations in the world, had within 10 years discovered that such a view was highly contestable, especially among Māori. A Māori renaissance, led by Ngā Tamatoa and others, challenged such notions. The challenge took many forms. In 1975, Whina Cooper led a 1,000 kilometre Hikoi to Wellington protesting against the continuing alienation of Māori land. In May 1978, in an operation involving 800 police, 220 people were arrested at Bastion Point. For 507 days the land had been occupied in an attempt to prevent more Māori land coming under the control of the Crown.

Spanning the whole of the decade was the issue of sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa. Nowhere in the world was anti-apartheid protest more passionate than it was in New Zealand. Nowhere else were the domestic and international consequences of such contact greater. In the 1970s, New Zealand’s sporting relationship with South Africa determined the outcome of general elections, caused the first major boycott of the Olympic Games and was responsible for major Commonwealth and United Nations initiatives against apartheid sport.

The 1970s did not start well for HART. The tour which we had been formed to stop – the 1970 All Black tour of South Africa – proceeded. Eric Gowing’s challenge had fallen on many deaf ears. What some in the country thought about racism helped explain why it was that New Zealand still maintained rugby contacts with South Africa. Some couldn’t see racism even when it was staring them in the face. Returning from South Africa with the Petone Rugby Club in 1974, the club’s Captain, Andy Leslie, expressed surprise at the lack of apartheid in South Africa. “We were told it was everywhere, but we saw virtually none of it.” In 1971 we regrouped, reassessed our approach and announced a policy of non-violent disruption to stop the scheduled 1973 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. This new policy brought about some early successes. In 1971 visits by a South African women’s hockey team and a men’s golf team were cancelled.

At the end of November 1972, after 12 years of National Party government, Labour leader Norman Kirk went to the country with the slogan “It’s Time”. The country agreed.

Labour was elected in a 23-seat majority landslide.

Throughout 1972, Labour’s position on the 1973 tour had been one of unenthusiastic opposition. HART felt it had good reason to be uncertain and suspicious of Labour’s anti-tour commitment. For the first few months of 1973, believing that the tour would proceed, HART set about preparing to implement its policy of non-violent disruption.

Today, it is clear that once in government, Kirk was moving towards a very strong anti-tour position. At the time, that was difficult to divine. The pressures on Kirk to cancel the tour were substantial and varied. Commonwealth countries were threatening to boycott the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games should the rugby tour proceed.

HART and other activist groups were threatening to close the country down.

These factors would clearly have weighed on Kirk’s mind, but according to his chief foreign policy adviser, the secretary of foreign affairs Frank Corner, “the tour did not fit in with his view of what New Zealand should do in the world, and what its standing would be should it proceed”. On 10 April 1973 Norman Kirk cancelled the Springboks tour. That it was principally Kirk who was driving these decisions became clear later in the year. When a friend in Dar es Salaam congratulated Bill Rowling, in East Africa for a Commonwealth finance ministers’ meeting, on the government’s decision to cancel the tour, the response he got back was “that was Mr Kirk’s decision.”

Leader of the Opposition Norman Kirk visiting the home of a pensioner in Wellington. Photograph taken circa 6 October 1966 by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer. (Dominion Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library)

It was the beginning of a brief, exhilarating, period in our politics. In June 1973, the HMNZS Otago sailed to Mururoa to protest against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. In 1975 the Labour government set up the Waitangi Tribunal, providing a legal framework for the investigation and resolution of Māori Treaty claims. If I had to name my favourite year, it would probably be 1973. I was 27, and after 12 years of conservative government, change was happening. Baby boomers had been waiting a long time for this.

The cancellation of the tour was a decision which the National Party exploited in the leadup to the 1975 election. It was made clear that under a National government, South African sports teams would be welcome in New Zealand. Norman Kirk died at the end of August 1974, and was replaced by Bill Rowling. In the November election, a populist National Party won in a landslide. For the next nine years, the New Zealand government stood with its back to the future, confident that the past was the way forward.

Robert Muldoon embodied all that to which HART was opposed. Some even felt that his personality and his politics cloaked our actions with a particular nobility.

Anyone with whom Muldoon had a problem was a potential subject of vilification, insult and attack. Members of the Pacific Island community, gays and lesbians, students, Māori, trade unions, the civil liberties movement, churches and women’s organisations all qualified. The country was Muldoon’s playground, and he was its number one bully. Known widely to opponents as “The Pig”, he was Trump before Trump.

Halfway through the first year of his prime ministership, the die was cast. On national television, Muldoon gave the 1976 All Black tour of South Africa his personal blessing and goodwill as it set out for South Africa. In the process, he set in train a series of events that were to haunt the country for the remainder of his Premiership. A small number of other countries had sporting contacts with South Africa, but in no other did the government openly welcome such contact. The political potency of this was compounded by the fact that in 1976 it wasn’t just any tour to South Africa to which the Prime Minister had given such support – it was a tour which had begun a matter of days after South African police had started shooting and killing protesting black school children in the streets of Soweto, the Republic’s largest black township.

The Rugby Football Union, with memories of the cancelled 1973 tour still painful, was adamant that the tour would proceed. Dead school children had nothing to do with rugby and were not going to stop the tour. Besides, massacres hadn’t stopped the Rugby Union from sending an All Black team to South Africa in the past. In 1960, less than two months after 69 had been killed at Sharpeville demonstrating against apartheid, Wilson Whineray’s all-white All Blacks headed to South Africa.

But 1976 was not 1960. The world had moved on. African countries were no longer colonies. They were now mostly independent, and one of the very few issues on which the continent was passionately united was its opposition to apartheid. African action at the Olympics, should the 1976 rugby tour of South Africa proceed, was by no means a certainty, but nor was it an idle threat. A perfect storm was brewing. African nations, for so long unable to make any meaningful assault on apartheid and its friends, saw an opportunity at Montreal, the venue for the Games of the XXI Olympiad.

Other than being on the wrong side of history, there were several critical aspects in the developing Montreal saga that the prime minister failed to comprehend. He never understood the strength of African countries’ opposition to the apartheid regime sitting at the bottom of their continent. He never grasped how comparatively little he would have had to have done to prevent drastic African action at Montreal, and he certainly never appreciated the warmth and trust in which HART was held by African governments, organisations and individuals.

There was a large cast lined up to become involved in this matter. In Africa’s corner were the continent’s leading sports administrator, Abraham Ordia; the exiled South African non- racial sports activist, Denis Brutus; and, individual African countries, especially Tanzania and Nigeria, the former offering moral leadership, the latter economic clout. It was a formidable cast, and it had history on its side. Squaring off against them in the New Zealand corner, which was also the South African corner, were Muldoon, the NZ International Olympic Committee representative Lance Cross – a staunch defender of sporting contacts with South Africa – and large sections of an increasingly jingoistic NZ media. New Zealand’s best interests were poorly served by all three.

Early on Sunday morning, 18 July, I stumbled out of bed to watch the Montreal Games opening ceremony, the first live Olympic telecast beamed worldwide by satellite. As Greece led the athletes of the world into the stadium, we did not know who and how many would follow. It was later announced that 88 national Olympic committees participated in Montreal, the smallest number since Rome in 1960. At least 28 countries had boycotted. Sir Lionel Luckoo, manager of the Guyana team, told New Zealand television: “What we wanted to see was some declaration from the New Zealand government that they would not approve of teams going to South Africa.” It was not a request to stop such tours, but merely to disapprove of them.

The prime minister blamed HART and other anti-apartheid groups for the boycott. We had, he said, deliberately spread lies about New Zealand to countries around the world. Since the end of 1974, HART had been informing African countries and international organisations of developments in New Zealand. After the 1975 election, this need had become more urgent. The government was speaking with two voices: one for an international audience (New Zealand is opposed to apartheid); one for the domestic audience (the All Blacks go to South Africa with the government’s blessing).

On the day that the minister of sport was farewelling the All Blacks, telling them that they went to South Africa with the government’s “blessing and good will”, the foreign minister, Brian Talboys, was launching a late bid to prevent an Olympic boycott of New Zealand. The Christchurch Press summed up the situation well: “If the government believes that it has a strong argument to put abroad, it has extraordinarily bad judgement when it allows a spokesman to say exactly the opposite at home.” We challenged Muldoon to name the lies that had been told, when we told them and to whom we told them. Against an already tense backdrop, the prime minister cranked up the heat with a dramatic allegation. In a snap debate in parliament, he said that the activities of certain “dissident” New Zealanders, such as HART and CARE, bordered on treason.

Sports and Recreation Minister Alan Highet said that in the opinion of everyone on the Government side of the House, HART and CARE – Citizens’ Association for Racial Equality – were traitors to the country.

The international response was quick in coming. In June 1977, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, member states unanimously agreed to take “every practical step to discourage” contact with South Africa – the “Gleneagles Agreement”. In December the same year, the United Nations General Assembly adopted an International Declaration Against Apartheid in Sport.

Muldoon had endorsed the Gleneagles agreement only because he really had no choice.

He could not afford to be seen, either domestically or internationally, to be in a minority of one. But once back in New Zealand, the word-games as to what he had actually agreed to in London began. With the scheduled 1981 Springbok rugby tour due in four years and an election only a year away, the prime minister had no intention of taking “every practical step” to discourage sporting contact with South Africa.

Nigeria could see through his duplicity, and boycotted the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games in protest. This led to a fresh round of allegations against HART. The prime minister wanted an investigation into whether I could be charged under the Race Relations Act. RLG Talbot, the chair of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, accused me of being “a traitor… a traitor to the western world, a traitor to New Zealand, a traitor to the Commonwealth”. I was, he said, “one of New Zealand’s most traitorous international knockers.”

In the 1978 General Election, Muldoon painted himself as the strongman leader, and asked the electorate if it wanted “the man, or the mouse” – the “mouse” being Bill Rowling. A majority of the electorate voted for the mouse, but New Zealand had yet to adopt a proportional electoral system, and under the prevailing method, Muldoon was able to hang onto power. For the next three years, he knew that he would go into the November 1981 election with a Springbok tour behind him.

Nothing – not Gleneagles, not international condemnation, not the threat of boycotts, not promises of disruption at home – would stand in the way of the 1981 Springbok tour.

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In New Zealand the 1970s had been a tough and ugly decade. In retrospect, however, it can be viewed more positively. This decade was the engine room for much of the social change, demanded since the 1960s, which was soon to sweep New Zealand. By the mid 1980s, we were anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear. We no longer proclaimed that we had the best race relations in the world. Assimilation was dead and Māori had been recognised as tangata whenua. Safe abortions were available and homosexuality had been decriminalised. Women were no longer routinely invited to “bring a plate”. By the time 1990 arrived, New Zealand was another country.

Let this story end where it started: in the 1970s. In early 1979, a wild pig had been causing problems in Ngaio, one of Wellington’s bush clad northern suburbs. On 29 March Wellingtonians woke to billboards from the fictitious newspaper, The Double Standard, pasted up all over town. “Rooting Pig Shot In Ngaio”, the billboards announced. And then, so there would be no confusion, the billboard added, “PM Safe”.

For Wellingtonians, such an in-your-face reminder of the prime minister’s rumoured extra-curricular activities was, both in tone and substance, a fitting end to a decade which he had done so much to make so ugly for so many.

Trevor Richards will be joining fellow former HART activists John Minto, Sue Bradford and Dave Wickham, former All Black and HART supporter Bob Burgess and others for the Victoria University of Wellington hosted HART at 50: The Power of Protest at the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga in Wellington on Saturday 12 October. On Wednesday 30 October he is appearing at the University of Auckland Society hosted HART at 50 – 1969 to 1985: Sixteen years of protest that changed New Zealand, 5.30-7.00 pm Old Government House Lecture Theatre, 24 Princes St, Auckland. Welcome from 4.30pm at Old Government House for complimentary nibbles. All welcome. Free.


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