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From the Beehive: Muldoon's sting-and- honey politics

A typical day for Robert Muldoon might include going eyeball to eyeball with Ken Douglas, the articulate but hard-nosed secretary of the Federation of Labor, in a clash over wage increases. Later, New Zealand's prime minister will jostle with newspaper reporters, then spend an evening writing a speech for the opening of Parliament.

None of this fazes him. Mr. Muldoon remains the feisty bulldog type of politician, as was evident in a 45-minute interview of his office on the top floor of the executive offices, known as the Beehive.

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His tenacious nature is reflected in his determination to keep "a tight rein on everything," particularly the budget. This, the prime minister boasts, will help decrease the country's rate of inflation from its current 16 to 17 percent to 12 to 13 percent by year's end.

To contain New Zealand's rising wage demands, Mr. Muldoon said he was considering (1) a wage-price freeze, or (2) compulsory wage guidelines, or (3) a trade-off between a compulsory wage freeze and a tax cut.

The image of a tightfisted fighter suits Muldoon just fine. He likes to give the impression he would be a tough man in a Rugby scrum.

In fact, when South Africa's Rugby team (the Springboks) was to tour the country in the last few weeks, the prime minster had to decide whether to cancel the games in response to violent anti-apartheid protests or let them be, for the benefit of the country's diehard fans. He sided with the fans, and maintains that New Zealand will suffer no international consequences. A measure of his confidence was his scheduled trip to the United States during the Rugby uprisings.

In parliamentary debate, says James Lange, deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, Mr. Muldoon is well known for going straight for the opposition's jugular. "We get used to ducking," he says.

Mr. Douglas of the Federation of Labor says Mr. Muldoon "has the tendency to personalize his battles. He shoots from the hip." When referring to Douglas, Muldoon often reminds the electorate that the labor leader's personal political preference is Marxism. In his caustic style, the prime minister refers to Douglas as "Comrade Douglas."

Not only is Muldoon the prime minister, but he also holds the titles of minister of finance, minister of the security intelligence service, minister of the audit, and minister in charge of the Legal Department. When he isn't administering, he writes books and gardens.

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Muldoon says he has been forced to act in rough fashion by the country's balance-of-payments problem. Over the past five years, New Zealand has been shocked by the continuing spiral of oil prices. "We're now paying $1 billion [ US$820 million] more this year for oil than we were in 1978," he states.

But despite the continued outflow of funds and the high inflation rate, Muldoon paints a positive picture of increased exports and the balance of payments. In fact, he points out. "It's better than it was five years ago, but only by increased export production" -- a result of incentives passed by Muldoon's National Party.

He also likes to take credit for a freeze in the number of bureaucrats, an apparent drop in the country's drug problems, and the resumption of real growth in the economy this year -- an election year. The prime minister says he is not concerned with an annual net outflow of 20,000 New Zealanders searching for jobs elsewhere.

But some opposition leaders aren't so sanguine. They worry it will result in shortages of skilled workers to help build new smelters and refineries. Muldoon counters that the country will have an influx of skilled workers: The social benefits and green hills will draw them back from the dusty Australian outback once there are jobs.

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