New Zealand's political `Muhammad Ali' bows out

It is not often that a political party that has ousted a sitting government and still attracts considerable popular support self-destructs. But that is the strange scenario being acted out in New Zealand.

The free-enterprise New Zealand Party (NZP) was founded less than two years ago by millionaire property investor Robert E. Jones, with the express intention of getting rid of the conservative National Party government of Sir Robert Muldoon, which had ruled since 1975.

Mr. Jones, a former university boxing champion, has been dubbed the ``Muhammed Ali of New Zealand politics.'' He had been a close personal friend of Sir Robert and a major contributor to National Party funds. But he held that through interventionist policies and authoritarian control of the economy, Sir Robert had lost his way as a leader offering a conservative, free-enterprise alternative to socialism.

Less than a year after Jones formally launched the New Zealand Party, Sir Robert called a snap election in a bid to shore up his one-seat majority in Parliament.

But Jones already had his party organized enough to field candidates for all 95 seats. It didn't win any, but it drew enough conservative supporters away from the National Party to allow the Labor Party, the main opposition, to become the government.

The NZP party was growing in popularity. Jones was rated the third most popular choice for prime minister, behind Labor's incumbent David Lange and Sir Robert, who was ousted as leader of his own party earlier this year.

But in a surprise move earlier last month, Jones and NZP president Malcolm McDonald announced the party was going into recess for 18 months before deciding whether to contest the next general election due in mid-1987.

Their reasons: The Labor government was implementing all the New Zealand Party's economic proposals, a change of government was undersireable, and results of a recent by-election showed that the NZP was hurting Labor and helping its archenemy, the National Party.

``The original objectives were changes, not power, and we always said so,'' said Jones. ``We're going into recess. It's the sensible thing to do.''

Jones would eschew any claims that he is a socialist. But Lange's Labor government has adopted orthodox economic policies which Jones welcomes, including wide-ranging deregulation, lifting controls on prices, wages, and interest rates, and floating the New Zealand dollar.

Some NZP members, however, did not agree with the decision to disband and vowed to keep the party going. When they refused to recess, Jones -- the party's first and only leader -- Mr. McDonald, and director-general Charles Begg resigned.

``I predict that the party will now fold,'' Jones said.

NZP supporters are endeavouring to carry on, but it was essentially the ``Jones party,'' and whether it can survive without his leadership and funding remains to be seen.

And Prime Minister Lange, for one, is not sure that Jones has made his last foray into the political scene.

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