Hard News by Russell Brown


It was 30 years ago today

Thirty years ago today, New Zealand pivoted. On July 14, 1984, the fourth Labour government was elected and things would never be the same again.

I remember voting that morning. I was living in a barely-converted warehouse in Fort Street and we all trooped up the road to the Auckland Town Hall to play our part in the change. I voted Labour and spoiled my liquor ballot in protest at the law on cannabis.

I remember the elation afterwards, for months. New Zealand had been a dull, mean country in which to be young, one dominated by a demagogue Prime Minister who grasped every lever he could. To be young here was to be desperately embarrassed by Rob Muldoon, who had contrived a mad economy and led us into international odium and domestic rebellion by encouraging the tour three years before by the South African rugby team.

People who had fled talked eagerly of coming back. The new Prime Minister, David Lange, defied powerful interests in defending our anti-nuclear stance in his magnificent address to the Oxford Union.

And then, it started to hurt. The intractable demagogue turned out to have been supplanted by some equally intractable zealots. We experienced mass unemployment for the first time in decades. We began running up social deficits that remain unredeemed. And in 1987, the business dreams of fools and knaves fell apart. 

I was gone by then, off for five years to London, and the implosion of the Labour government seemed distant and unreal in those pre-internet days. I'm not really sorry that era doesn't form part of my politics.

I arrived home in 1991, with a life partner and a baby, to a bleak recession and Ruth Richardson. A friend told me it was, perversely, an exciting time: with so much laid waste and slim prospects for employment, we were freed to just do what we wanted.

My friend wasn't entirely wrong: I did things in the early 90s that became the foundation of what I do now. But I did them in a country that was never the same, for better and worse, after that Saturday in 1984.

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