Wellington, New Zealand — New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon goes into an election year in 1984 with a long-simmering revolt by members of his National Party well in the open. Dec. 9 marked the first time in 40 years that a New Zealand government has been defeated on a policy issue - to allow low rates of pay for youth - in Parliament. (In 1970, a National Party government lost a vote, but this was because of the accidental absence of a member from the House of Representatives.)
Just four days earlier, a Muldoon-promoted bill to fix low interest rates for homeowners just barely slipped through Parliament.
Muldoon had lobbied strongly for both bills. The rebellion highlighted dissatisfaction within the National Party with what some members see as his dereliction of traditional conservative, free-enterprise policies.
Rejecting opposition calls to resign and call an early election, the prime minister nonetheless admitted that the revolts had damaged the credibility of his government, which has only a one-seat majority in the 92-seat Parliament.
''It is not possible for the government to have two economic policies,'' he said, criticizing the rebels for their actions. ''If I can't get a majority of members in the House who support my economic policies, then I can't implement them.''
The first revolt came Dec. 5 when Muldoon sought parliamentary approval for his move to peg interest rates by law to 11 percent for a first mortgage and 14 percent for subsequent mortgages.
Three National Party members, all private-enterprise, free-marketeers opposed to government intervention in the marketplace, voted against the measure.
''I was not elected to Parliament to support socialist legislation,'' said National Party MP Dail Jones. ''If we must follow this socialist philosophy, then I'll have to consider my place in the party.''
But two Social Credit members of Parliament and two independents - both Labor Party rebels recently ousted by their colleagues, for the opposition also has its internal problems - voted with the government. The measure went through.
But that whisker of margin was shaved four days later, when two other government members joined the combined opposition to defeat a move to introduce special low rates of pay for teen-agers. The government wants to make it economic for employers to hire youths, who account for one-third of the nation's jobless.
One National Party MP, Marilyn Waring, was incensed by Muldoon's comment the previous day that it was better for an unemployed teen-age girl to have a job than a married woman whose husband was employed. ''How dare anybody say that?'' she asked in Parliament.
The revolt killed the youth-rate clause but the major bill, which outlaws compulsory unionism and substitutes right-to-work laws like those of more than half the states in America, was narrowly passed. It becomes law Feb. 1.
Muldoon's embarrassment at the government revolt is compounded by the latest opinion poll showing that a new rival political party, formed specifically to challenge the Nationals, is making great gains in public support.
The New Zealand Party was started in August and is spearheaded by Bob Jones, a real estate millionaire, author, and boxing commentator. Mr. Jones, who says Muldoon has lost his way as the private-enterprise-oriented alternative to socialism in New Zealand, already has 15 percent of the vote, according to the poll.
Jones is drawing huge crowds at public meetings and hopes to increase his following to 30 percent by April. The election must be held by November.