REX CONNOR is remembered in Australian political history as the Labor Party minister who wanted to “buy back the farm”. In the rough language of Gough Whitlam’s 1970s Labor Party, “buying back the farm” meant bringing Australia’s phenomenal mineral wealth under public control for the benefit of all Australians – rather than a handful of obscenely profitable mining companies. Unlike the Australian Labor Party of today (or the New Zealand Labour Party, for that matter) the party of Rex Connor, MP for Cunningham, New South Wales, still boasted some honest-to-goodness socialists.
Sadly, Rex Connor is remembered for more than wanting to buy back the farm, he’s remembered for actually trying to do it. Bull-headed and scornful of political compromise, Connor stepped beyond the accepted bounds of Cabinet Government and allowed himself to be duped by a charlatan almost certainly in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency. In doing so, Connor brought down not only himself, but also the charismatic Labor Treasurer, Jim Cairns, and, ultimately, the government of Gough Whitlam itself.
Connor’s economic nationalism was about as strong as it gets. He was fond of quoting the Australian poet, Sam Walter Foss. These lines in particular:
Give me men to match my mountains,
Give me men to match my plains,
Men with freedom in their visions
And creation in their veins.
By and large, politics and the poetic temperament do not mix. Had Whitlam paid more attention to the visionary gleam in Connor’s eye, he might have avoided the “dismissal” that brought his stellar career to a sudden and ignominious end. Creativity can be equally dangerous – especially when it extends to swallowing the too-good-to-be-true promises of shadowy “bankers” like Tirath Khemlani.
Connor’s tale is a cautionary one. So much so, that between 1975 and 1984 the lessons to be drawn from the Lands and Minerals Minister’s pig-headed economic nationalism were dinned into our own Labour MPs. Two lessons in particular were emphasised. One: It is impossible for a Cabinet Minister to operate secretly without the tacit support of his officials. Any attempt can only end in disaster. Two: Threatening the core economic interests of your country’s capitalist class is always a bad idea. They will get you long before you get them.
Connor’s tragic history therefore contributed in no small way to the readiness of both Antipodean labour parties to be convinced that there were no viable political alternatives to the free-market economic policies urged upon them in the mid-1980s. Rex Connor’s failure to buy back the farm, and Roger Douglas’s eagerness to sell it, are not unrelated.
But what have these fifty-year-old experiences got to do with the New Zealand of 2021? Surely our own government contains no one even remotely like the recklessly quixotic Rex Connor?
Actually, it does. Her name is Nanaia Mahuta.
Labour’s Minister of Internal Affairs is not an economic nationalist, but she is a Māori nationalist. Her mission is not to buy back the farm, but to redeem the whenua out of which New Zealand’s farms were fashioned. And not just the whenua. Mahuta’s sights are firmly set upon Aotearoa’s waters as well.
Though she is extremely guarded about the potential of her controversial Three Waters Project to provide an answer to the question: “Who owns the water?”; the Waitangi Tribunal evinces no such reticence. According to the Tribunal, Aotearoa’s waters do not belong to the Crown. Nor do they belong to “no one” – as Prime Minister John Key insisted, when 50 percent of New Zealand’s hydro-electric assets were being floated on the share market. No, Māori and water cannot be justly separated. Hence the “co-governance” provisions embedded in Mahuta’s Three Waters reform package.
Mahuta does, however, possess advantages Rex Connor lacked. In the Aotearoa of 2021 there is no Rupert Murdoch figure ready to publish devastating leaks from senior bureaucrats outraged by their Minister’s secret manoeuvrings. On the contrary, a great many journalists and public servants share the transformative visions contained in the Mahuta-commissioned He Puapua Report. Nor is it the case that Mahuta’s colleagues are being kept in the dark, as Connor’s were, about the implications of the Minister’s radical plans.
On one thing, however, Mahuta’s colleagues need to be very clear. Her version of “buying back the farm” cannot avoid buying a political fight every bit as consequential as Rex Connor’s.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 November 2021.