The 1980s

Page 3 – 1980 - key events

Moscow boycott

Moscow Olympics

Following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States instigated a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. The New Zealand government applied such strong pressure on sporting organisations that only four of those selected actually attended the games. At the opening ceremony on 19 July canoeists Ian Ferguson, Alan Thompson and Geoff Walker and modern pentathlete Brian Newth marched behind a black flag depicting a silver fern and the five Olympic rings rather than New Zealand’s official flag. Some were soon asking why the government was unwilling to exert similar pressure on the New Zealand Rugby Union over its decision to invite the Springboks to tour the following year.

First Sweetwaters Music Festival

Following the success of the 1979 Nambassa Festival, the impressively named Sweetwaters: Festival of Music, Culture and Technology took centre-stage in late January 1980. Around 45,000 fans turned up to the festival site near Ngāruawāhia. The 1960s generation was now joined by punks and post-punks, whose music was fast winning favour with Kiwi music fans. Headline attractions Elvis Costello and John Martyn were joined by a host of New Zealand acts, including Split Enz, Mi-Sex, Th’ Dudes, Citizen Band, Street Talk and Toy Love.

Expulsion of Soviet ambassador

Just before Christmas 1979 the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service obtained evidence that the Soviet ambassador to New Zealand, Vsevelod Sofinsky, had given $10,000 to a member of the Moscow-aligned New Zealand Socialist Unity Party, one of the country’s two tiny communist parties. There were fears that any action against Sofinsky might be interpreted as retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and threaten New Zealand’s burgeoning exports to the USSR. While British, Canadian and Australian officials recommended expulsion, the United States urged caution. Nevertheless on 24 January Prime Minister Muldoon withdrew Sofinsky’s diplomatic credentials and ordered him to leave the country. New Zealand’s ambassador to the Soviet Union was duly expelled in his turn, but the matter went no further.

‘Colonels’ Coup’

The so-called ‘Colonels’ Coup’ was an unsuccessful attempt by Cabinet ministers Jim McLay, Jim Bolger and Derek Quigley to replace the National Party leader and Prime Minister Robert Muldoon with his deputy, Brian Talboys. There was concern within caucus that Muldoon had become too confrontational and dictatorial. Talboys was seen as the only credible challenger. He had performed well as acting prime minister during Muldoon’s absence overseas and was seen as likeable and diplomatic. Talboys refused to actively campaign against Muldoon, especially if no clear evidence emerged that a majority of the party supported a change. With Muldoon overseas the ‘Colonels’ secured a slim caucus majority in favour of a leadership change. Upon his return Muldoon quickly counter-attacked and tipped the balance in his favour. No vote was taken, and in February 1981 Talboys was replaced as deputy leader by Duncan MacIntyre.

Other 1980 events

  • Beyond reasonable doubt, at the time the most commercially successful New Zealand film, was released. Based on British journalist David Yallop’s book of the same name, it was a dramatised reconstruction of the Arthur Allan Thomas murder case which had captured the public’s attention for much of the 1970s. 
  • Social Credit won a second seat in Parliament when Gary Knapp defeated National candidate Don Brash in the East Coast Bays by-election.
  • Death of Denis Glover, ‘poet, printer, publisher, satirist, sailor and boxer’.
  • Former Minister of Maori Affairs Matiu Rata, who had left the Labour Party in 1979 to form Mana Motuhake, a foreunner of the Māori Party, resigned from Parliament and was defeated in the ensuing by-election.
  • Foreskin’s lament, an award-winning play by twice-All Black trialist Greg McGee, was first performed. Set in a rugby changing room and at an after-match party, it was a timely commentary on ‘national codes and values’.
  • In May the carless days scheme introduced in July 1979 in response to the second oil shock came to an end.
  • Acclaimed artist Len Lye died.
  • Sharon O’Neill won Album of the Year and Top Female Vocalist at the Music Awards. With back-to-back no. 1 hits, Jon Stevens was awarded Most Promising Male Vocalist, Top Male Vocalist, and Single of the Year for ‘Montego Bay’.
  • I got you’, Split Enz’s first New Zealand no. 1 hit, also topped the charts in Australia and Canada.

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'1980 - key events', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 6-Feb-2021

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