A New Zealander Worth Remembering: Peter Conway was a man whose efforts in the cause of social justice touched the lives of a huge number of New Zealanders; a man who will be remembered and mourned by clothing workers and shop assistants, truck drivers and storepersons. Of him, the employers’ organisation, Business New Zealand, said: “Peter was an industrial leader of the highest integrity and his passing is a sad loss to New Zealand.”
THIS IS HOW IT IS NOW. This is the country we’ve become. These are New Zealand’s priorities – even in the grim business of honouring the dead.
A man, his wife and baby daughter, travelling by car along a French highway, are reported to have veered into the path of an oncoming truck. In the ensuing collision, the man and his wife are killed and their baby seriously injured.
There is no other word for this bare summary of facts except tragedy. To the family and friends of the deceased is owed the sympathy of all decent and caring people.
Except that the victim of this tragic traffic accident was something more than just a man – he was a former member of the All Blacks – New Zealand’s world-beating rugby team. And that is why, for the past three or four days, the country’s newspapers have given this story saturation coverage. The life story of Jerry Collins, his history with both the Hurricanes provincial rugby team and the All Blacks, is related in lavish detail, with considerable empathy and undoubted pride. When his body arrives back in New Zealand, Jerry Collins funeral service will attract thousands of mourners.
An 80-year-old lawyer dies following a six year struggle with prostate cancer.
Once again, all decent people will acknowledge a life lived well, and with considerable success in the nation’s courtrooms, and express their deep regret at his passing.
Except this man was no ordinary lawyer, but the defender of some of New Zealand’s most notorious criminals. Sir Peter Williams QC was the barrister for Ron Jorgesson, the Bassett Road machine-gun murderer, and Terry Clark – a.k.a “Mr Asia”. He also defended Arthur Alan Thomas, the man accused of, and then ultimately pardoned for, the murders of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. President of the Howard League for Penal Reform for 30 years, Sir Peter was an outspoken critic of the way New Zealand treated the men and women it locked up. A bon vivant and wicked raconteur, he will be remembered as one of this country’s most colourful legal practitioners.
We know all this because, aware of the seriousness of his illness, the nation’s newspapers had prepared fulsome obituaries to mark his passing.
A trade union leader loses his battle with acute depressive illness.
In the NZ Herald of 10/6/15 the death of Peter Conway, former Secretary of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions – at over 300,000 strong, this country’s largest voluntary organisation – merited precisely 63 words.
More than 30 years devoted to improving the lives, wages and working conditions of tens-of-thousands of New Zealand workers was considered unworthy of even a photograph. The stories of how he campaigned alongside the British miners in their doomed struggle against the government of Margaret Thatcher; or, how he organised scores of young New Zealanders to travel to the socialist republic of Nicaragua in the early 1980s to pick coffee under the banner of “The Harry Holland Brigade”; neither of these warranted a mention. Nor did the fact that in his 40s he went back to university to attain a master’s degree in economics – the better to defend the interests of working people against the bosses’ apologists. That he was a fine singer and accomplished player of both the guitar and mandolin was, likewise, left out of the tiny side-bar story.
Peter Conway was a man whose efforts in the cause of social justice touched the lives of a huge number of New Zealanders; a man who will be remembered and mourned by clothing workers and shop assistants, truck drivers and storepersons. Of him, the employers’ organisation, Business New Zealand said: “Peter was an industrial leader of the highest integrity and his passing is a sad loss to New Zealand.” The Greens co-leader, Metiria Turei, recalled that: “As Secretary of the Council of Trade Unions, Peter could still be found running a picket line at 3 in the morning, he never shirked the hard work, and never stopped fighting for a fairer New Zealand.” And, of his friend and comrade, the former Secretary of the EPMU – now leader of the Labour Party – Andrew Little said, simply: “He was a good man and he will be held in the hearts of the labour movement.”
None of these tributes were considered worthy of quotation by the NZ Herald, and, to be fair, by most of the rest of the mainstream news media. Because, when all is said and done, Peter was not an All Black, nor a renowned barrister – he was a trade unionist.
The coverage of this fine New Zealander's death recalls to mind the following verses by James K. Baxter, which seem to have been written for just such a man as Peter Conway:
The man who talks to the masters of Pig Island
About the love they dread
Plaits ropes of sand, yet I was born among them
And will lie some day with their dead.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 11 June 2015.