1981 New Zealand general election

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1981 New Zealand general election
Flag of New Zealand.svg
  1978 28 November 1981 (1981-11-28) 1984  

All 92 seats for the New Zealand House of Representatives
47 seats were needed for a majority
 First partySecond partyThird party
  Muldoon 1978.jpg Bill Rowling, 1962.jpg Bruce Craig Beetham.jpg
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 election51 seats, 39.8%40 seats, 40.4%1 seat, 16.1%
Seats before50402
Seats won47432
Seat changeDecrease2.svg3Increase2.svg3Steady2.svg
Popular vote698,508702,630372,056
SwingDecrease2.svg 1.0%Decrease2.svg1.4%Increase2.svg4.6%

1981 New Zealand general election - Results.svg
Results of the election.

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. The fact the unpopular Muldoon was able to continue to govern anyway 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 current 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 (one of which had been taken from National in a recent by-election). The National Party had won a landslide victory in the 1975 election, but in the 1978 election, although remaining in office, had lost ground. 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.

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.

The opposition 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 previous 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, traditionally New Zealand's "third party", was enjoying strong support, but the first-past-the-post electoral system made it difficult for Social Credit to win seats. After the East Coast Bays by-election, Social Credit reached as high as 30% in opinion polls, but it then declined. [1]

MPs retiring in 1981

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

National Eric Holland Fendalton
Leo Schultz Hauraki
Colin McLachlan Selwyn
Lance Adams-Schneider Waikato
Brian Talboys Wallace
Labour Paraone Reweti Eastern Maori
Ron Bailey Heretaunga
Warren Freer Mount Albert
Gordon Christie Napier
Joe Walding Palmerston North
Arthur Faulkner Roskill
Bill Fraser St Kilda

Election day

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

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. [2]

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

Map of electorates. NewZealandElectorates1981.png
Map of electorates.

Party totals

1981 nz parliament.svg
Election results
PartyCandidatesTotal votesPercentageSeats won
National 92698,50838.7747
Labour 92702,63039.0143
Social Credit 92372,05620.652
Mana Motuhake 48,3320.46-
Values 173,4600.19-
Independents 6817,8970.98-

Votes summary

Popular Vote
Social Credit
Mana Motuhake
Parliament seats
Social Credit

Individual electorate results

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


  1. Calderwood 2010, p. 1.
  2. "Error gives Muldoon majority". The Montreal Gazette . 2 December 1981. p. 116. Retrieved 5 April 2021.
  3. Norton 1988, pp. ?.
  4. 1 2 Gustafson 1986, p. 371.
  5. Bohan 2004, p. 67.
  6. Gustafson 1986, p. 379.

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