The 1970s

Page 2 – Overview


New Zealand’s population reached three million in late 1973. Then the rate of natural increase slowed as the contraceptive pill became more widely used and an economic downturn meant that young couples were less eager to start families. There were also more emigrants and fewer immigrants. The population had only reached 3.2 million by the end of the decade.

Non-Māori still lived longer than Māori, although the gap was narrowing. Life expectancy for non-Māori men was 69 years and for women 76, as opposed to 63 and 68 respectively for Māori. Māori infant mortality had fallen by almost half since the 1950s, but at 22 per 1000 was still significantly higher than the non-Māori rate of just over 15. Nevertheless the total Māori population had increased fourfold in 50 years. In 1976 nearly 45% of the Māori population was aged 15 and under, compared with just under 30% of the non-Maori population.


Developed economies worldwide reeled as a result of the twin oil shocks of 1973 and 1978–9. Soaring oil prices had severe consequences for our economy, which relied heavily on imported oil. Our balance of payments worsened while unemployment and inflation both increased. By 1976 New Zealand was in recession. In a bid to reduce oil consumption the government employed a variety of methods ranging from carless days to the more ambitious – and expensive – ‘Think Big’ energy projects.

Britain’s position as our major export market had already begun to decline by the time the United Kingdom entered the European Economic Community in 1973. Britain’s share of our exports was still around 50% in 1965, but by the end of the 1970s it was less than 15%.

In 1975 the average weekly wage was $95 per week (equivalent to around $850 per week in 2012). This rose to $157 per week by 1979, but because of inflation the average Kiwi was no better off. The minimum wage for all workers was set at $1.95 an hour (around $11.30 per hour in 2012) compared to the average hourly rate of $4.52 per hour ($20.26 in 2012).

Popular Culture

In 1970 the single state-run television channel (a second began broadcasting in 1975) broadcast 65 hours of programmes per week. The opening of the Warkworth satellite station in 1971 enabled us to receive news from overseas more quickly and to watch events ‘live’ without physically being there. Colour television arrived in 1973, but it was expensive. In 1975 a 26-inch colour set could set you back around $840 ($7,500 in 2012) and its annual licence fee of $35 ($330 in 2012) was almost double that for a black and white set. With advertising restricted to five days a week for much of the ‘70s, the licence fee was an important source of revenue for television broadcasting.

Although American and British shows dominated the television listings, important steps were made in the development of local content. Good examples included the ‘soaps’ Pukemanu (1971) and Close to home (1975). While they caused some ‘cultural cringe’, viewers did get used to hearing an authentic Kiwi twang on the telly. We explored our past through The governor and laughed at our rural roots with Fred Dagg and his host of ‘Trevs’ as well as Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats. Shows such as A week of it allowed us to laugh at our politicians; the catchphrase ‘Jeez, Wayne’, became part of the national lexicon. For our kids, Play school (1972), which featured Big Ted, Little Ted, Humpty, Jemima and Manu, and the award-winning Spot on (1974) became compulsory viewing.

Music shows continued to be popular. Ready to roll, The Grunt machine, and its successor Radio with pictures all attracted strong viewer numbers. Music videos were coming into vogue but talent shows remained popular. Studio one/New faces, described by music historian John Dix as ‘a talent quest in search of safe innocuous performers’, actually covered the full gamut of musical styles and acts. Nevertheless, Osmond and Partridge family wannabes appeared frequently.

On the big screen, Sleeping dogs (1977) was the first full-length feature film made entirely by a New Zealand production crew. It attracted large audiences here and was also released in the United States.

Protest and issues

Anti-Vietnam War protests intensified before New Zealand’s complete withdrawal from the conflict was announced shortly after Labour’s victory in the 1972 general election.  Opposition to French nuclear testing continued and led to questioning of whether we should allow nuclear ship visits from our American allies. Sporting contact with South Africa continued to dog New Zealand and New Zealanders. In 1970 Māori players toured South Africa for the first time, but only as ‘honorary whites’. Fearing violence should it proceed, the Kirk government cancelled the proposed 1973 Springbok tour to New Zealand. The All Blacks’ tour of South Africa in 1976 resulted in a boycott of the Montreal Olympics by 26 African nations.

The 1970s brought major changes for Waitangi Day as (briefly re-branded as New Zealand Day in 1974) it became a focus for renewed Māori activism.  The 1975 land march and high profile protests at Bastion Point and Raglan highlighted the issue of Māori land loss. The establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 was an important constitutional development that enabled Māori to seek redress from the Crown for breaches of the Treaty.

The women’s movement grew in strength through the decade, influencing significant legislative and social changes. United Women’s Conventions attracted thousands in the main centres. The message of women’s rights was brought to the streets in marches and protests. Key issues for women included the right to safe legal abortion, pay equity, matrimonial property rights, and legislative change to outlaw discrimination against women.

Race relations suffered a setback with the controversial dawn raids by police on the homes of ‘overstayers’ who were alleged to have remained in the country after their visas expired. Samoans and Tongans in particular were singled out for attention.


National finally lost power after four terms in office when a revitalised Norman Kirk led Labour to a landslide victory in 1972. Kirk’s interest in foreign affairs brought new links with Africa and Asia and a new sense of national identity. Following his sudden death in August 1974 there was a genuine outpouring of grief and thousands attended his state funeral. The new National Party leader, Robert Muldoon, portrayed Kirk’s successor Bill Rowling as weak and dismissed Labour’s economic policies as ‘borrow and hope’. National’s pledge of a tax-funded superannuation scheme wooed many voters and helped National reverse the 1972 election result in 1975. Muldoon’s abrasive style created a divisive brand of politics that was captured perfectly by one particularly memorable interview with Simon Walker on the current events show Tonight in 1976.

In 1972 the term of Sir Arthur Porritt, the first New Zealand-born Governor-General, came to an end. Unlike Porritt his successor, Sir Denis Blundell, had spent most of his life in New Zealand. From now on this would be a requirement for appointees to the position. The 1977 appointment of Keith Holyoake – a serving cabinet minister – was controversial. Many doubted his ability to be impartial and the precedent of appointing a retiring politician has not been repeated.


Rugby remained a powerful sporting and cultural force. Prior to the establishment of a two-tier National Provincial Championship in 1976, the Ranfurly Shield was the symbol of provincial supremacy. Smaller unions such as North Auckland (Northland), South Canterbury, Manawatu and more famously Marlborough all enjoyed tenures of note. This was not a vintage era for the All Blacks, who tasted defeat in 14 of their 48 tests – much worse than their usual record – including controversial series losses in South Africa (1970, 1976) and at home against the British Lions (1971). During an internal tour in 1973 they were even defeated by the Junior All Blacks. A first ever ‘grand slam’ against the home unions in 1978 was the highlight of an otherwise mediocre decade for the men in black.

The New Zealand cricket team had a little more to shout about, with first-ever test wins against both Australia and England.

The victory by the New Zealand rowing eight at the 1972 Munich Olympics was hailed as one of our greatest Olympic moments. Four years later our participation at Montreal was overshadowed by the boycott of the games by 26 African nations in protest over that year’s All Black tour of South Africa. On the track John Walker won gold in the 1500m and the New Zealand men’s hockey team upset the more-fancied Australians to win the gold medal. But it is the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games that stood out for many Kiwis. Dick Tayler’s celebrations after winning the men’s 10,000 metres on the opening day would become one of the iconic sporting images of the decade.

Fans of the round-ball code of football received a boost with Sunday lunchtime screenings of England’s Match of the day and (from 1973) live screenings of the English FA Cup final. Locally a national league was established in 1970. Mount Wellington and Christchurch United each won three titles during the decade.

Outdoor basketball was renamed netball in 1970. Auckland staged the fourth world championships in 1975, and in 1979 New Zealand shared the world title with Australia and hosts Trinidad and Tobago.

'Meat and drink'

We remained a ‘meat and three veg’ people. Our appetite for beef increased from 45 kg per person in 1969 to 57 kg in 1977. Counting mutton and lamb as well, the average Kiwi scoffed nearly 90 kg of red meat each year. Potatoes (57 kg), carrots (8 kg), cabbages (5 kg) and cauliflower (4 kg) were the main vegetables eaten.

Milk – almost always full-cream – was delivered by the local ‘milkman’ in a glass bottle. In 1979 we each drank 188 litres of the stuff. The amount of cheese consumed almost doubled during the decade to 8 kg  per person per year, in part because of the fad for fondues. We also spread 15 kg of full-fat butter on our sandwiches.

Kiwis still enjoyed a ‘flutter’ at the track or the TAB. The amount ’invested’ annually on horses and dogs increased more than threefold to just over $500 million, and the betting age was lowered from 20 to 18 years. A bet went hand in hand with a beer. By the late 1970s we were consuming 119 litres of beer a year per person – quite some effort given the numbers who didn’t touch alcohol.  We were also drinking more wine – 4.5 litres in 1969 but 11 litres in 1979.

How to cite this page

'Overview', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 7-Mar-2018

Community contributions

2 comments have been posted about Overview

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Posted: 24 Jul 2013

Hi - thanks for your comments. The plan is to keep chipping away at these as we have time - 1860s, 1910s and 1980s are all in the pipeline. Regards, Jamie Mackay


Posted: 24 Jul 2013

Thank you for all of this information, it is quite interesting to learn about what happened in the past and how things were different.
I was wondering if/when you were going to finish off the rest of the decades?