Fedoras, Pin-Stripes, Wide Lapels: Sid Holland, National's second leader (and former member of the proto-fascist New Zealand Legion) was responsible for the darkest chapter in New Zealand's democratic history - the 1951 Emergency Regulations. From its inception, in May 1936, National has been a party of negation. Gangsters with a Kiwi accent.
THIS WEEKEND, in Wellington, the National Party is holding its 75th annual conference. With intriguing prescience, the party is hosting an anniversary ball with a 1930s theme. [Author's Note: In the original version of this posting I wrongly identified the Young Nats as the hosts of this weekend's big anniversary bash. National's youth wing did, indeed, celebrate their party's 75th birthday with a ball ... but that was in April, not August. Hat-tip to Cam Slater and apologies all round.]
With global markets in the midst of yet another precipitous dive, it is fitting that the Nats’ celebration is an homàge to the bleak decade that witnessed their party’s birth.
I’d be dismayed, however, if any of the guests turn up wearing sugar-bag smocks or shoes stuffed with newspaper. Such attire is more correctly associated with those who found themselves on the receiving-end of National’s forebears’ austerity measures.
The sugar-bags – from which these grim years draw their sobriquet – were worn by “relief workers” to protect their threadbare clothing from the mud and clay laid bare by their shovels. Re-located by the United-Reform coalition government of 1931-35 as far away as possible from the riot-prone cities, the unemployed inmates of the Coalition’s “hunger camps” worked long hours in all weathers for the pittance that was the “dole”.
It was the votes of these men, along with those cast by thousands of other economically and socially brutalised New Zealanders, that finally overcame the chilling “charity” of the United-Reform Government.
Not even the decision of Post & Telegraph Minister, Adam Hamilton, to jam the election-eve broadcast of the worker-friendly Methodist, Colin Scrimgeour, could save the government that had made men “cheaper than horses”. (The infamous jamming of “Uncle Scrim” was not, however, enough to prevent Mr Hamilton from becoming the new National Party’s first elected leader.)
Indeed, Mr Hamilton’s jamming was by no means the worst affront to democratic principles to be laid, over the next 75 years, at National’s door. From the outset, the project commencing in the immediate aftermath of Labour’s victory in November 1935, and culminating in the conference which gave birth to the National Party six months later, in May 1936, was conceived in negation.
The new organisation was driven forward not by the ideals and policies it purported to stand for: God, King, Empire, Private Enterprise (although not necessarily in that order) but by what it unequivocally stood against: “subversive and other doctrines”. A deep-seated hostility towards the institutions and processes that had made it possible for a government dominated by former members of the “Red Feds” to be elected, lay at the heart of the effort to unite the entire anti-socialist, anti-union Right in a single political party.
Nor were all those involved in the creation of the National Party necessarily imbued with the parliamentary spirit of moderation and compromise. Many of those who attended the party’s foundation conference had been, like National’s second leader, Sid Holland, members of the proto-fascist New Zealand Legion.
Presumably even less familiar with the democratic process was a clutch of former senior army officers: Colonel H.G. Livingstone, Colonel James Hargest and Colonel S.C.P. Nichols. They, too, played a prominent role during the National Party’s formative stages.
Viewed in the light of so many of its founders’ deep reservations about the democratic process, the National Party’s subsequent record of over-riding basic human rights is readily explicable. It was, to no one’s surprise, Sid Holland, the ex- New Zealand Legionnaire, who imposed the fascistic 1951 Emergency Regulations. This, the darkest chapter in New Zealand’s democratic history, speaks volumes about the true extent of National’s commitment to constitutional probity.
Mr Holland’s ruthlessness and fondness for rule by decree found an apt pupil in National’s fifth leader, Sir Robert Muldoon. It was during Sir Robert’s time in office that the National Party’s enduring historical association with massive shows of police force on the streets of New Zealand reached its crescendo – in the 1981 Springbok Tour.
But the police violence unleashed against the anti-apartheid protesters of 1981 was as nothing compared to the crushing economic and social violence unleashed against trade unionists and beneficiaries by the National Government of Jim Bolger, Bill Birch, Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley. The inmates of New Zealand’s burgeoning prison system constitute a living testament to National’s long-running hate-affair with organised labour and the poor.
I trust, therefore, that those attending the Nats’ 75th anniversary ball will not trifle with history’s costume directions. Fedoras, pin-stripes and wide-lapels – not sugar-bags and broken shoes – are the accessories of reaction.
Go, dressed as the gangsters you have always been.
This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 August 2011.