Wellington, New Zealand — This usually calm country is bracing for a major political crisis . . . over rugby. Indeed, next year could prove to be New Zealand's most politically turbulent period in decades because of a proposed tour by the South African Springboks rugby team during an election year.
The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU), a rich and powerful sporting body administering New Zealand's national game, made the controversial decision to invite the Springboks here in September.
The ultraconservative men of the NZRGFU ignored the government, the opposition Labor Party, the churches, and a wide body of domestic and international opinion in issuing the invitation.
At the same time, they threw Prime Minister Robert Muldoon what will undoubtedly be a major election-year hot potato. Sporting ties with South Africa are one of the most controversial issues in New Zealand.
In 1976 the New Zealand All Blacks, the national team, toures South Africa against a wide body of international opinion. But on that occassion the Muldoon government did not object because it was fulfilling an election promise not to interfere in sport.
The result was the black African boycott of the Montreal Olympics, ignominy for New Zealand in the eyes of the world, and a gradual shift in public opinion against further sporting contacts with South Africa.
Other leaders in the British Commonwealth pressured Prime Minister Muldoon into formulating a compromise solution to stop further contacts. The resulting "Gleneagles agreement" called on all Commonwealth countries to use whatever means possible to stop sporting contacts with South Africa. In some countries that would mean withholding visas from sportsmen, but in New Zealand it does not.
The Muldoon administration has steadfastly refused to interfere directly with the rights of sportsmen and women to that extent. As a result, it is paying the price of another proposed Springbok tour.
The government has openly condemned the NZRFU's decision, in line with the Gleneagles agreement, but will not use "coercion" to try to block the tour.
Says Foreign Minister Brian Talboys: "The government has done, in my view, everything it can do short of coercion, and there is no intention of using coercion to carry out the spirit of the Gleneagles agreement."
The government is hoping to shift public opinion against the tour to such a degree that the rugby union will reverse its stand. Already police are preparing plans for massive demonstrations should the tour come about.
Labor Party leader Wallace Rowling urged the government to withhold visas from the South African sportsmen, as his party had done in 1972 to 1975. "We have enough trouble already without getting involved in a winter of bitterness over the proposed tour by the rugby union," he said.
Further influential criticism of the government came from Commonwealth Secretary Shridath Ramphal, who accused New Zealand of merely making a "ritual bow" toward the Gleneagles agreement. That remark stung Mr. Muldoon and Mr. Talboys, who had been quite blunt in their criticism of the rugby union's decision.
The government appears to be hamstrung, however, over actually stopping the tour from proceeding.
But there have been threats. The minister of sport and recreation, D. Alan Highet, announced the government would consider cutting its funding of the rugby union if the tour went ahead. The government provides $110,000 (NZ) directly or indirectly to rugby. Similar threats were made against athletes intending to compete at the Moscow Olympics. Eventually only three canoeists and a modern pentathlon participant went to the games.
A poll released just before the Olympics amply summed up the dilemma this country faces: 84 percent of those polled thought politics should be kept out of international sport, while 66 percent did not believe that separation is possible.
As New Zealand enters its summer torpor the tour issue will likely fade. But come the 1981 election year, the government will find itself in the middle of a white-hot political debate it has little chance of winning.