Faux Pas

That Time a Prime Minister Got Drunk and Called a National Election

As a public service, we at Commonplace Fun Facts remind our readers that there are a lot of good reasons to avoid alcohol. It is detrimental to your health, is addictive, impairs judgment, is a contributing cause of death and and injury to tens of thousands of motorists each year, can send the worldwide oil commodities market into higgly piggly through the actions of one intoxicated trader, and has been linked to pilots shooting their own planes out of the sky while participating in drunken, airborne bird hunting.

As if those dire consequences weren’t enough, alcohol can topple an entire government when the prime minister gets wasted and calls an impromptu general election.

By 1984, Robert Muldoon had been New Zealand’s prime minister for nine years. He led the National Party to victory in the 1975 elections on a platform of assertive government economic intervention. Although criticized for his authoritarian leadership style, no one could challenge Muldoon’s political savvy. He led his party to electoral victories in 1978 and 1981, and his future in the party and New Zealand government seemed assured.

The National Party held a slim majority in the House of Representatives. As long as all party members stayed the course, Muldoon’s political agenda would always prevail. Problems arose, however, when members of the National Party began to express their disapproval of certain policies.

Tipsy Prime Minister Robert Muldoon calls for a general election.

Everything came to a head in June when party member Marilyn Waring told the prime minister that she would not support him in an upcoming vote on an opposition-sponsored anti-nuclear bill. Muldoon saw his ironclad control of the party and the government slipping away and knew something needed to be done.

Unfortunately, the prime minister had been imbibing a wee bit too much that evening. In fact, he was seriously inebriated.

Everyone knows alcohol seriously impairs one’s judgment. Such was the case with Robert Muldoon. Unlike others who have found themselves in that situation, he didn’t strip to his underwear, don a lampshade, and perform an outlandish table dance during a crowded dinner party. Nor did he ring up any of his ex-girlfriends in the middle of the night and drunkenly try to rekindle old relationships. He didn’t even follow the example of the aforementioned soused commodity trader or aviation bird hunters. This drunken lout had something going for him that none of those other examples could claim: he was the head of a national government.

Muldoon staggered in front of the television cameras on the evening of June 14 and made the startling announcement that he was calling for a schnapps snap election just one month from that date.

Muldoon hoped the voters would bolster the strength of the National Party, allowing the government’s agenda to move forward without hiccups. Unfortunately, the public’s support was about as wobbly as the tipsy prime minister’s balance.

After a month of frantic campaigns, the voters went to the polls. Turnout was 93.7%, the highest turnout ever recorded in a New Zealand election. When the votes were counted, Muldoon had a headache beyond anything he ever experienced with his worse hangover. Rather than solidify his position, he lost it. The National Party came away with ten fewer seats than before. The Labour Party, in contrast, won 56 seats, giving it an outright majority.

Muldoon not only lost his position as prime minister but he was quickly deposed as National Party leader. Although he remained in government until shortly before his death, he found his once-significant influence evaporate as quickly as 80-proof vodka.

To make matters worse, he didn’t have to call an election in the first place. Although it looked as if Muldoon would lose over the anti-nuclear bill, no one had suggested making it a confidence-level event. In other words, he could have stayed the course, lost the vote on the bill, and remained as leader of his party and head of the government.

Oops.

To the best of our knowledge, no New Zealand elections since that time have required the use of a breathalyzer.


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