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1981 New Zealand general election

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1981 New Zealand general election

← 1978 28 November 1981 (1981-11-28) 1984 →

92 seats in the Parliament
47 seats needed for a majority
  First party Second party Third party
Leader Robert Muldoon Bill Rowling Bruce Beetham
Party National Labour Social Credit
Leader since 9 July 1974 6 September 1974 14 May 1972
Leader's seat Tamaki Tasman Rangitīkei
Last election 51 seats, 39.8% 40 seats, 40.4% 1 seat, 16.1%
Seats before 50 40 2
Seats won 47 43 2
Seat change Decrease3 Increase3 Steady
Popular vote 698,508 702,630 372,056
Percentage 38.8% 39.0% 20.7%
Swing Decrease 1.0% Decrease1.4% Increase4.6%

Results by electorate, shaded by winning margin

Prime Minister before election

Robert Muldoon

Subsequent Prime Minister

Robert Muldoon

The 1981 New Zealand general election, held on 28 November 1981, was a nationwide vote to determine the shape of the 40th New Zealand Parliament. It saw the governing National Party, led by Robert Muldoon, win a third term in office, but the opposition Labour Party, led by Bill Rowling, won the largest share of the votes cast. Social Credit also won over 20% of the vote – their best result ever – but received no new seats.

This was the second consecutive election in which National lost the popular vote to Labour. More electorates were rural and right-leaning than urban and progressive, and therefore National benefitted under the first-past-the-post electoral system. That the unpopular Muldoon was able to continue to govern was a major catalyst for the growing public desire to reform New Zealand's electoral system. This happened within fifteen years, when the 1996 election was the first to use mixed-member proportional representation.

Notable MPs first elected at this election include future Labour Party leader and mayor of Auckland Phil Goff, the first Māori Speaker of the House Peter Tapsell, future Finance Minister Michael Cullen, and future Prime Minister Helen Clark. Future Minister of Foreign Affairs and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters lost his seat of Hunua at this election to Colin Moyle of the Labour Party, whom Robert Muldoon had aggressively accused of being gay as part of a McCarthyist smear campaign in 1977.


Before the election, the National Party governed with 50 seats, while the opposition Labour Party held 40 seats. The Social Credit Party held two seats (one of which they took from National in a 1980 by-election). The National Party had won a landslide victory in the 1975 election, then lost ground in the 1978 election, but remained in government. The style of Robert Muldoon's leadership was growing increasingly unpopular, both with his party and with the public, and there had been an abortive leadership challenge by Brian Talboys in 1980. Some commentators believed that the 1981 election would mark an end to Muldoon's government.

The Labour Party was led by Bill Rowling, who had been leader of the party in the past two elections. While Rowling had performed poorly against Muldoon in 1975, and was generally viewed by the public as weak, he had gradually recovered a measure of public respect. In 1980, Rowling survived a leadership challenge by David Lange. In the 1978 election, Labour had won a plurality of the vote, but did not win a majority of the seats. Many believed that this time, Labour would manage to convert its support into seats, although that did prove not to be the case.

Not all of Muldoon's opponents gave their support to Rowling and the Labour Party, however. The small Social Credit Party, New Zealand's "third party", was enjoying strong support, although the first-past-the-post electoral system made it difficult for them to win seats. After the 1980 East Coast Bays by-election, Social Credit support rose as high as 30% in opinion polls, but then declined.[1]

Some pundits have since claimed that the Springbok Tour increased votes for National in provincial electorates, despite the tour not being seen as a major election issue.

MPs retiring in 1981[edit]

Five National MPs and seven Labour MPs intended to retire at the end of the 39th Parliament.

Party Name Electorate Term of office Date announced
National Eric Holland Fendalton
17 March 1980[2]
Leo Schultz Hauraki
22 April 1980
Colin McLachlan Selwyn
1 April 1980[3]
Lance Adams-Schneider Waikato
23 July 1980[4]
Brian Talboys Wallace
9 December 1980[5]
Labour Paraone Reweti Eastern Maori
26 March 1981[6]
Ron Bailey Heretaunga
12 December 1979[7]
Warren Freer Mount Albert
Before 17 May 1979[8]
Gordon Christie Napier
Before 17 May 1979[8]
Joe Walding Palmerston North
18 March 1981[9]
Arthur Faulkner Roskill
20 February 1981[10]
Bill Fraser St Kilda
14 December 1979

Election day[edit]

The election was held on 28 November. 2,034,747 people were registered to vote, and 91.4% turned out. That was a markedly higher turnout than recorded for the previous election, but as the official statistics for that election are regarded as highly misleading, the comparison is probably not valid. It is likely that turnout in the 1981 election was about the same as in the election before it.

Summary of results[edit]

The 1981 election saw the National Party win 47 of the 92 seats in parliament, a drop of three from before the election (National lost Hunua, Kapiti, Miramar and Wellington Central but won Taupo). This meant that National kept its majority by only a single seat, which became highly problematic over the next parliamentary term. The Labour Party won 43 seats, a gain of three (Labour won Hunua, Kapiti, Miramar and Wellington Central but lost Taupo). The Social Credit Party managed to retain its two seats, East Coast Bays and Rangitikei. No party initially held a majority until a recount flipped the seat of Gisborne from Labour to National, which gave National a working majority of one.[11]

For the second election in a row, Labour won more votes than National, but fewer seats, allowing National to retain government despite not winning the popular vote. Social Credit won more than 20% of the popular vote but only two seats. This result, and that of 1978, contributed to New Zealand adopting the Mixed Member Proportional system of proportional representation in the 1990s.

Detailed results[edit]

Map of electorates.
Map of electorates.

Party totals[edit]

Election results
Party Candidates Total votes Percentage Seats won
National 92 698,508 38.77 47
Labour 92 702,630 39.01 43
Social Credit 92 372,056 20.65 2
Mana Motuhake 4 8,332 0.46 -
Values 17 3,460 0.19 -
Independents 68 17,897 0.98 -
Others 39 5,096 0.28 -
Total 338 1,801,303 92

Votes summary[edit]

Popular vote
Social Credit
Mana Motuhake
Parliament seats
Social Credit

Individual electorate results[edit]

The tables below shows the results of the 1981 general election:


  National   Labour   Social Credit   Mana Motuhake   Independent

Electorate results for the 1981 New Zealand general election[12]
Electorate Incumbent Winner Majority Runner up
General electorates
Albany Don McKinnon 1,964 Bryan Mockridge
Ashburton Rob Talbot 3,655 John Srhoy
Auckland Central Richard Prebble 6,614 Dorice Reid
Avon Mary Batchelor 7,820 Colin McNicholl
Awarua Rex Austin 2,341 Dick Fitzgerald
Bay of Islands Neill Austin 864 Les Hunter
Birkenhead Jim McLay 2,104 Bill Smith
Christchurch Central Geoffrey Palmer 7,028 Ian Wilson
Clutha Robin Gray 661 Clive Matthewson
Dunedin Central Brian MacDonell 4,169 Nancy Ruth King[13]
Dunedin North Stan Rodger 4,733 Des Bleach
East Cape Duncan MacIntyre 1,964 Peter Dey
East Coast Bays Gary Knapp 758 Don Brash
Eastern Hutt Trevor Young 5.011 Alex Duthie
Eden Aussie Malcolm 117 Ian Scott
Fendalton Eric Holland Philip Burdon 1,158 David Close[14]
Gisborne Bob Bell 150 Allan Wallbank[nb 1]
Hamilton East Ian Shearer 1,188 Lois Welch
Hamilton West Mike Minogue 1,477 Paddy McCaffrey
Hastings David Butcher 1,845 Hamish Kynoch[13]
Hauraki Leo Schultz Graeme Lee 1,787 Gordon Miller
Hawkes Bay Richard Harrison 2,430 Mike Cullen
Helensville Dail Jones 216 Jack Elder
Heretaunga Ron Bailey Bill Jeffries 2,233 Ronald Palmer
Horowhenua Geoff Thompson 876 David Page
Hunua Winston Peters Colin Moyle 996 Winston Peters
Invercargill Norman Jones 1,592 Dougal Soper
Island Bay Frank O'Flynn 3,938 Doug Catley
Kaimai Bruce Townshend 5,146 Douglas Conway
Kaipara Peter Wilkinson 1,029 Nevern Connachy
Kapiti Barry Brill Margaret Shields 495 Barry Brill
King Country Jim Bolger 2,158 Derek Mason
Lyttelton Ann Hercus 3,892 Simon Stamers-Smith
Manawatu Michael Cox 2,913 Dennis Kessell
Mangere David Lange 5,806 John Pettit
Manurewa Roger Douglas 2,815 Keith Ralph
Marlborough Doug Kidd 1,643 Graeme Macann
Matamata Jack Luxton 3,460 David Mawdsley
Miramar Bill Young Peter Neilson 649 Bill Young
Mount Albert Warren Freer Helen Clark 3,907 Warren W. Moyes
Napier Gordon Christie Geoff Braybrooke 3,009 Kevin Rose
Nelson Mel Courtney[nb 2] Philip Woollaston 698 Mel Courtney
New Lynn Jonathan Hunt 4,874 Ron Hanson
New Plymouth Tony Friedlander 1,567 Dennis Duggan
North Shore George Gair 3,969 Peter Chambers
Ohariu Hugh Templeton 1,567 Norman Ely
Onehunga Fred Gerbic 2,012 Sue Wood
Otago Warren Cooper 4,893 Bryan Griffiths
Otahuhu Bob Tizard 5,164 Stuart McDowell
Pahiatua John Falloon 7,569 Bill Sutton
Pakuranga Pat Hunt 783 Neil Morrison
Palmerston North Joe Walding Trevor de Cleene 2,110 Brian Elwood
Papakura Merv Wellington 3,215 John Cheeseman
Papanui Mike Moore 4,409 Brian Keeley
Papatoetoe Eddie Isbey 1,689 Roy McKeen
Pencarrow Fraser Colman 4,065 Willard Amaru
Porirua Gerry Wall 3,639 Estelle Brittain
Rangiora Derek Quigley 932 Chris Hayward
Rangiriri Bill Birch 3,004 Roy Hayward
Rangitikei Bruce Beetham 2,376 Paul Bardwell
Remuera Allan Highet 5,105 Judith Tizard
Roskill Arthur Faulkner Phil Goff 2,525 Cheryl Parsons
Rotorua Paul East 1,544 Johnny W Lepper
St Albans David Caygill 4,926 Jim Baker
St Kilda Bill Fraser Michael Cullen 3,579 Stuart Clark
Selwyn Colin McLachlan Ruth Richardson 2,129 Bill Woods
Sydenham John Kirk 5,594 Richard Bach
Tamaki Robert Muldoon 5,153 Richard Northey
Taranaki David Thomson 4,470 Brian Heilihy
Tarawera Ian McLean 2,442 Noel Scott
Tasman Bill Rowling 2,246 Ted Krammer
Taupo Jack Ridley Roger McClay[nb 3] 36 Jack Ridley
Tauranga Keith Allen 2,232 Paul Hills
Te Atatu Michael Bassett 3,330 Stella Noble
Timaru Sir Basil Arthur 1,850 Jane Coughlan
Waikato Lance Adams-Schneider Simon Upton 4,661 Noel Johnston
Waipa Marilyn Waring 2,768 John Kilbride
Wairarapa Ben Couch 1,546 Tom Gemmell
Waitakere Ralph Maxwell 2,883 Martin Gummer
Waitaki Jonathan Elworthy 305 Jim Sutton
Waitotara Venn Young 2,784 Sam Gray
Wallace Brian Talboys Derek Angus 6,558 Owen Horton
Wanganui Russell Marshall 1,668 Terry Heffernan
Wellington Central Ken Comber Fran Wilde 1,283 Ken Comber
West Coast Kerry Burke 4,406 Doug Truman
Western Hutt John Terris 1,420 John Tanner
Whangarei John Elliott John Banks 1,743 Maurice Penney
Yaldhurst Mick Connelly 1,962 Margaret Murray[15]
Māori electorates
Eastern Maori Paraone Reweti Peter Tapsell 6,232 Albert Tahana
Northern Maori Bruce Gregory 3,541 Matiu Rata
Southern Maori Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan 8,665 Amster Reedy
Western Maori Koro Wētere 8,624 Eva Rickard

Table footnotes:

  1. ^ Wallbank was first on election night for Gisborne, but lost on a recount.
  2. ^ Courtney had withdrawn from the Labour caucus in March 1981.
  3. ^ McClay was declared elected by the High Court after an electoral petition.

Summary of changes[edit]

  • The seats of Hunua, Kapiti, Miramar and Wellington Central were won from incumbent National MPs by Labour challengers. The challengers in question were Colin Moyle, Margaret Shields, Peter Neilson and Fran Wilde, respectively. The defeated incumbents were Winston Peters, Barry Brill, Bill Young and Ken Comber, respectively.
  • The seat of Taupo was won from the incumbent Labour MP by a National challenger. The challenger was Roger McClay and the defeated incumbent was Jack Ridley.
  • The seats of Heretaunga, Mt. Albert, Napier, Palmerston North, Roskill, St. Kilda and Northern Maori passed from incumbent Labour MPs to new Labour MPs.
  • In Nelson, Mel Courtney achieved the best result by an Independent candidate in a New Zealand election in nearly forty years.
  • The seats of Fendalton, Hauraki, Selwyn and Whangarei passed from incumbent National MPs to new National MPs. Two of these changes were the result of MPs retiring, but two (in Selwyn and Whangarei) were the result of controversial challenges to the re-selection of the incumbents. In Selwyn, Ruth Richardson successfully challenged the re-nomination of incumbent Colin McLachlan, and in Whangarei, John Banks successfully challenged the re-nomination of incumbent John Elliott.


  1. ^ Calderwood 2010, p. 1.
  2. ^ "Mr Holland to vacate safe seat". The Press. 18 March 1980. p. 1.
  3. ^ "Mr McLachlan to quit". The Press. 2 April 1980. p. 1.
  4. ^ "Minister not to stand". The Press. 24 July 1980. p. 1.
  5. ^ "Mr Talboys to step down". The Press. 10 December 1980. p. 1.
  6. ^ "Labour loses two more". The Press. 27 March 1981. p. 4.
  7. ^ "Mr Bailey retiring". The Press. 13 December 1979. p. 12.
  8. ^ a b "Labour seating in House". The Press. 17 May 1979. p. 3.
  9. ^ "M.P.'s retirement National's gain?". The Press. 19 March 1981. p. 1.
  10. ^ "Shock move by MP Faulkner". Auckland Star. 20 February 1981. p. 1.
  11. ^ "Error gives Muldoon majority". The Montreal Gazette. 2 December 1981. p. 116. Retrieved 5 April 2021.
  12. ^ Norton 1988, pp. ?.
  13. ^ a b Gustafson 1986, p. 371.
  14. ^ Bohan 2004, p. 67.
  15. ^ Gustafson 1986, p. 379.