New Zealand conservatives tap new leaders after crashing defeat

New Zealand's conservative National Party, which has dominated this country's politics since World War II, is regrouping under a young leader after its crashing election defeat last July.

On Nov. 27, the National Party sacked Sir Robert Muldoon, its leader for 10 years and New Zealand's prime minister for nine. He was widely held to be responsible for the party's collapse on July 14. Labour's David Lange won with a majority of 17 in the 95-seat House of Representatives.

The new leader is Jim McLay, a 39-year-old lawyer who, with deputy Jim Bolger , has been charged with restoring the party's shattered fortunes. Mr. McLay faces no easy task in reuniting the party in the face of Sir Robert's continuing criticism of politicians and grass-roots members who campaigned for his replacement.

Asked if he thought the McLay-Bolger team was capable of winning the next election, Sir Robert shrugged and said: ''You pays your money and you takes your choice.''

Sir Robert, a colorful and pugnacious politician, towered over the political scene for his decade at the head of the party. Contrary to the traditional style of consensus government by Cabinet favored by his predecessors, he developed a presidential-style leadership. He brooked no opposition within his party or without, and had a series of bitter clashes with politicians, lawyers, journalists, bankers, and others who disagreed with his policies.

As minister of finance as well as prime minister, he increasingly rejected advice from officials, especially in the Treasury.

His departure from traditional National free-enterprise principles and increasing intervention in the economy with measures such as pegged interest rates alienated many in his own party.

The New Zealand Party, a right-wing group advocating a free-market economy, sprung up last year and helped bring about his downfall by polling 12 percent of the votes, mostly from disaffected National supporters.

Sir Robert the economist finally went out in disgrace when it was revealed he had been rejecting advice from Treasury and the Reserve Bank (counterpart to the US Federal Reserve) to devalue the New Zealand dollar for 18 months. His refusals brought the country to the brink of international bankruptcy because of an outflow of funds in anticipation of the inevitable devaluation.

In November, he reversed an earlier hint that he would step down as leader in the new year, saying there was nobody else in the party as capable as he of overturning the new Labour government. But the ballot went ahead later in the month. Since his ouster by McLay, Sir Robert has refused to give wholehearted approval to the new leadership team.

Nonetheless, party officials have hailed the change as heralding a new beginning for National, which has ruled for 29 of the last 35 years. McLay has confesssed that the party needs to redefine its policies, saying he will establish an economic advisory unit as a first move. He also pledged a leadership ''based a lot more on consultation than might have been the case in the past,'' and hinted at efforts to woo back party supporters who left in protest against Muldoon's policies and style.

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