The 1981 Springbok Tour and explosive revelations

by Listener Archive / 16 June, 2012
The 1981 Springbok tour caused so much concern across the Tasman that the Australian Government considered barring New Zealand from the 1982 Brisbane Games, according to just released official documents.
1981 Springbok Tour protests

New Zealanders remember the 1981 Springbok tour all too well. The storming of the pitch in Hamilton, the police clashing with protesters in Wellington and the flour-bombing of Eden Park were dramatic examples of how the tour divided the country. But recently released documents have shed further light on how the tour also divided the Commonwealth.

When the New Zealand Rugby Football Union council decided the All Blacks would tour South Africa in 1976, many New Zealanders were shocked by the consequences.Twenty-eight African nations boycotted the ’76 Summer Olympics in Montreal in protest. However, this was not enough to prevent the council from inviting the Springboks to tour New Zealand. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon refused to intervene, and the Australian Government made little public comment on the matter until early 1981, when it was forced to condemn the tour and announce it would refuse transit visas for the Springboks.

But behind the scenes, the Australian Government was in a quandary. It was due to host the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane the following year, and was concerned about disruption. It was also in the middle of negotiating the Closer Economic Relations trade agreement with New Zealand, and was nervous about what might happen at an upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Melbourne.

According to papers just released by the Australian Government under the 30-year rule, which requires the release of non-sensitive government documents after three decades, the pressure was such that it considered barring New Zealand from the 1982 Brisbane Games. When Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Tony Street presented a paper to his Cabinet in March 1981, it appears he still hoped the tour could be cancelled. If the tour went ahead, Street knew Australia would be left with three options: hope the Commonwealth Secretariat could convince the African and Caribbean nations not to boycott the Games; allow the boycott to go ahead and expose Australia to economic and political risk; or bar New Zealand from competing.

The following month he suggested “bringing effective influence to bear” on New Zealand. Street proposed his Cabinet colleagues make an initial “low-key expression of concern”, then escalate their activity later on. His colleagues agreed to consider this “middle-course” plan. The paper suggested the Australian Government have third parties discreetly lobby senior officials in New Zealand Commonwealth and Olympic sporting organisations and ask the British and Caribbean governments to make their views known to New Zealand at a “suitably high level”.

Street noted the Australian Government did not want to “provoke anti-Australian feeling in New Zealand”. However, he proposed sending Sir Edward Williams, the Australian chairman of the Commonwealth Games Foundation; Lord Carrington, the British High Commissioner to Australia; and Sir Shridath “Sonny” Ramphal to New Zealand to meet with officials. He also identified senior rugby officials in Australia and New Zealand who were believed to be opposed to the tour, such as Waka Nathan and Ray Harper, and suggested asking the Australian Rugby Union to try to convince them to cancel the tour. Street, now 86, declined to comment on the released paper. But it appears Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser eventually decided not to go ahead with the plan.

Both Nathan and Harper are surprised they were singled out in the paper. But Harper acknowledges he did have doubts about the tour, as did most of his fellow council members. “It’s not untrue. I certainly had reservations, but there was so much debate, and from day to day we were changing our minds,” he says.

Both men say there was no attempt by the Australians or the New Zealand Government to lobby them over the issue. However, the police did pressure them not to change their minds once it went ahead, says Harper. “When we met after the Hamilton game, the police said we must not weaken our stance, because they needed to maintain control. If they’d told us not to carry on, then there is no way the tour would have gone ahead,” he says.  "At times we were huddled under the grandstands on the day of the game, reassessing the situation, and the truth is we might have stopped it at any point.”

Street sent letters to his New Zealand counterpart, Brian Talboys, warning him that the Australian Government would have to publicly force the issue at some point, but in fact it never went much further than declining transit visas. Former MP Chris Laidlaw, an assistant to Ramphal at the time of the tour, says it was clear the Australians didn’t know what to do. “They initially maintained a sort of stony silence on the issue and clearly didn’t want to buy into Commonwealth moves to strengthen the constitution [and prevent sporting engagement with South Africa],” he says.

To the Australians’ immense relief, the Commonwealth Secretariat was able to prevent a boycott of the Brisbane Games by convincing members to agree to amend its constitution. Victoria University politics lecturer Jon Johansson says Australia’s decision not to meddle was a wise one, as Kiwis would not have taken kindly to Australian criticism regarding the moral implications of the tour. “New Zealanders would have been appalled by any Aussie giving us advice, however attempted, on race relations, so it would only have played into Muldoon’s hands.”

The paper largely ignores Muldoon, and Johansson says this is probably because Australia recognised there was nothing it could do to sway him. Laidlaw says the Australians were hamstrung by Prime Minister Fraser’s inability to deal with Muldoon and his lack of infl uence within the Commonwealth. “The eventual outcome was far from a triumph of Australian diplomacy, but rather an example of Sir Sonny Ramphal’s brilliance and the precarious balance of power within the Commonwealth.”

Victoria University politics professor Stephen Levine says even the existence of such a plan would have been an explosive revelation at the time. “There was already resentment over international pressure for New Zealand to change its policies regarding South African rugby, and for the pressure to be coming, in a somewhat covert manner, from Australia of all countries, would have provoked a very strong reaction,’’ he says.

Human Rights Commissioner Jeremy Pope doubts Australia would ever have barred New Zealand from the Brisbane Games. Pope was also an aide in the Commonwealth Secretariat at the time, and says Fraser had given up on Robert Muldoon and had little influence within the Commonwealth. “Australia wasn’t actually prepared to come down heavily on New Zealand for whatever reason, and this was proven in the build-up to the Games when they left the fate of the Games in the hands of the Secretariat.”

According to Pope and Laidlaw, the Games were saved at a critical meeting of the Commonwealth Games Federation in London on May 6, 1982. After the Springbok tour had been and gone, the Secretariat’s focus shifted to appeasing the African and Caribbean leaders who continued to threaten a retaliatory boycott. Ramphal sent officials around the world to meet African and Caribbean leaders and get their agreement on a resolution that would give the federation the power to suspend a country’s right to participate if it did not uphold the objectives of the Gleneagles Agreement.

Laidlaw says the message to the African leaders was simple: let this one go and it will be better in the future. But by 1986, the same ugly issues had again reared their head in relation to the Commonwealth Games in Scotland, this time in response to the Thatcher Government’s policies on apartheid. Thirty-two countries boycotted the Games, which ended in financial disaster for the Scottish hosts.

Pope suspects the only reason the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland did not suffer the same fate was Nelson Mandela’s release from jail. “Mandela’s release was the key, and although we might like to think otherwise, I suspect the Commonwealth would have struggled to find a permanent solution to the problem had this not happened.”


1982 Commonwealth Games closing ceremony / Getty Images

The Queen once said Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Sonny Ramphal “had the ability to charm the birds from the trees, and she was right, says Chris Laidlaw. “He was completely brilliant and had this highly developed antenna and always seemed to know what people were thinking.” Laidlaw says the entire aff air leading up to the 1982 Games shows the importance of personalities in politics. Ramphal, an honorary member of the Order of New Zealand, met many of the Commonwealth leaders and maintained a close relationship with the Queen.

Laidlaw recalls that after the tense lead-up to the Games – right up until an agreement was signed on the eve of the event, the African leaders’ stance had been that if New Zealand was going to be there, then they weren’t – he and four or five others were not sure what to expect when they were invited to accompany Ramphal to a breakfast with the Queen on the royal yacht Britannia.

“He told us she wanted to watch the marathon on television and have breakfast. It was all very relaxed given what had just happened. When the marathon started, she kicked off her shoes, and when it finished she went off for a rest and told us to help ourselves to drinks at the bar and stay as long as we liked.”

“The Queen and Ramphal got along famously, but you imagine Ramphal and Muldoon in a room together,” he says.
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