The Price Of Principle: Labour's new leader, Norman Kirk, follows his party's defeat on Election Night 1966. Labour's opposition to New Zealand's military involvement in the Vietnam War was an important factor in the National Government's re-election. Polls taken in 1965 indicated that upwards of 70 percent of voters favoured Keith Holyoake's decision to send New Zealand troops. By 1972, however, public opinion had shifted decisively in favour of withdrawal.
A PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE on whether or not New Zealand should participate in America’s latest war is long overdue. That New Zealanders will soon be going to the polls makes it even timelier. The deployment of New Zealand troops overseas is much too important to be left to National Party Cabinet Ministers alone.
The Leader of the Opposition, who will argue against participating in America’s war, has not been leader of the Labour Party for very long. Nor is he especially popular. The man he replaced as leader may not have been well-liked by the public, but he was beloved by the more forward-looking and liberal elements of his party. They resent the way in which the newcomer’s been foisted upon them with the near unanimous support of Labour’s powerful trade union affiliates. Many fear that, as the unions protégée, he will drag Labour back to the attitudes of the 1930s and 40s. They worry that the much-needed “modernisation” of the party, which his predecessor promoted, is destined for the dustbin.
If you’re thinking that the Leader of the Opposition described above is Andrew Little, then you’re wrong. Nor is the American war referred to the one threatening to flare up again in the Middle East. The set-piece parliamentary debate described above took place not in 2015, but during the penultimate week of the 34th New Zealand Parliament, in October of 1966. The war in question was raging across South Vietnam. The new Leader of the Labour Party was Norman Kirk.
Rather than go on escalating New Zealand’s military involvement in Indo-China, Kirk argued strongly for a humanitarian, aid-based response to the conflict. He remained unconvinced that a just peace in Vietnam could ever be secured simply by administering ever-increasing doses of military force.
Little’s current assessment of the most effective contribution New Zealand can offer to the struggle against Islamic State is remarkably similar to Kirk’s 1966 position on Vietnam. He, too, favours a humanitarian, aid-based response; arguing that only an economically strong, socially cohesive and religiously tolerant Iraq can hope to lure away Islamic State’s aggrieved Sunni supporters.
The parallels do not end there. If Andrew Little’s foreign policy and defence assessments mirror those of Norman Kirk’s, then the Prime Minister’s, John Key’s, position is remarkably similar to that of Keith Holyoake’s.
As New Zealand’s National Party Prime Minister from 1960-1972, Holyoake distinguished himself as an astute “consensus” politician. Pressured by President Lyndon Johnson to add New Zealand footwear to the steadily increasing number of US “boots on the ground” in Vietnam, Holyoake did his best to limit this country’s involvement. He rightly suspected that even his minimal offer of a single artillery battery would generate vociferous opposition from a sizeable minority of the electorate.
Token Force: New Zealand troops load an L5 howitzer on to an armoured personnel carrier in Vietnam circa 1965.
That the trade unions would oppose military involvement was a given, but Holyoake and his colleagues were genuinely surprised and dismayed when Labour opted to follow the unions’ lead. Up until the 1965 decision to send troops to Vietnam, National and Labour had maintained a solid bi-partisan consensus on foreign-policy and defence matters. Holyoake’s decision to hold a set-piece parliamentary debate on the issue, just a few weeks prior to the 1966 General Election, was not made in the hope that consensus would be restored, but that it would remain broken. He was betting that Labour, by holding fast to its principles, would cause the 70 percent of Kiwis who backed the Vietnam intervention, to also back his government. He won the bet.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is clear that Holyoake and National lost more than they won. The shattering of the bi-partisan consensus on foreign policy and defence presaged the even greater fissuring of New Zealand society. It was Labour, not National, which rode the radical changes of the late-1960s and early-70s to victory.
Nowhere was this radicalism more apparent than in Labour’s changing view of New Zealand’s place in the world: “Circumstances dictate that, while we preserve the warmest ties and closest sentimental attachments between our country and the United Kingdom,” said Kirk, in 1972, “we recognise that we have come of age and must now stand on our own feet to reject the role of the dependant and at every opportunity seize the initiative.”
“Big Norm’s” declaration of independence is reaffirmed in Andrew Little’s principled position on Iraq.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 February 2015.