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When Sir Bob Jones once put himself at risk of becoming the Prime Minister of NZ

Bob Jones (left), Thea Muldoon, National Party cabinet minister Wyatt Creech and Robert Muldoon at a surprise dinner for the former prime minister, organised by Jones in 1992. Photo/The Dominion Post Collection/Alexander Turnbull Library.

The millionaire property tycoon's foray into politics.

Many people will have forgotten Sir Bob Jones once put himself at risk of becoming the Prime Minister of New Zealand. History will never get a chance to show whether, like Donald Trump – with whose political career his has elements in common – he would have overcome the initial shock of his unlikely election to make the most of his victory.

Jones was no newcomer to political hijinks when he formed the New Zealand Party in 1983. He had supported colourful nightclub owner Carmen in a bid for the Wellington mayoralty, and paid in 1975 to have the legend “[Labour cabinet minister] Mat Rata reads comics” emblazoned on the side of a Wellington building.

In a letter to the Sunday Star-Times a couple of years back, the indefatigable correspondent provided some context for this, refuting an accusation of racism by Māori Party co-leader Tariana Turia: “Firstly, Mat did read comics and never denied it, which is solely why the billboard bore that message.” Interestingly, there are no records of Jones using public space to record the reading habits of other MPs.

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But the grandest jape of all was Jones’ formation of an entire political party to contest the 1984 election.

It came after he grew disenchanted with the economic policies of his erstwhile friend Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, whose heavy-handed interventionist approach Jones likened to communist policy of the time. He said the comparison had been inspired by a visit to Poland.

None of this went down well with Jones’ former National Party pals. Speaking in Parliament in 1983, Thomas de Vere Hunt (aka Pat Hunt), the member for Pakuranga, described members of the New Zealand Party for those who were unfamiliar with them: “They are rich whingers, affluent knockers and greedy malcontents typical of the kind of person who comes up to one at a party or some other function and says... ‘I will not vote National until you get rid of Muldoon.’”

Which is more or less what happened – except it was not his own party but the “kind of person etc” who ended up getting rid of Muldoon by casting their ballot for Jones and splitting the vote.

With an election called, Jones rose to the campaigning occasion. Old news footage shows him in typically colourful style, the pugilistic plutocrat, pipe in hand, entering a town-hall campaign meeting to the theme from Rocky.

When the results were in, the New Zealand Party had taken 12% of the vote. This could well have given it several seats and considerable influence had the MMP system been in place. As it was, the total achieved Jones’ aim of taking enough votes from National to oust Muldoon. David Lange’s Labour Party was able to form a government, which ironically shared many of Jones’ free-market views.

Economics aside, the New Zealand Party’s manifesto was notable for its idiosyncratic defence policy, reflected in the choice of a dove for its logo. Jones wanted us to get out of the Anzus alliance. Again, this was something the Lange government made happen, albeit unexpectedly by refusing to allow potentially nuclear-powered US vessels into New Zealand waters, although it could be argued Anzus left us. Labour did not take up his idea of doing away with a defence force altogether.

His work done, as he saw it, Jones put the party into recess – but like Monty Python’s Black Knight, it refused to accept the inevitable, and remnants contested two more elections, gaining less than 1% of the vote in each case.

This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of North & South.

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