A Different World: The New Zealand which long-forgotten North Dunedin MP, Bob Walls, represented was a place most of us would struggle to recognise. A country where politics and politicians were embedded in their communities in ways that made the selection of parliamentary candidates considerably easier than it is today. (The painting Tahunanui, Nelson was painted by Doris Lusk in 1947.)
YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER HEARD of Bob Walls. He wasn’t the sort of man to leave too many ripples in History’s pond. For Bob, “sufficient unto the day” seems to have been both his personal and political credo.
Oh yes, Mr Robert Walls was a politician and, given his humble working-class origins, a highly successful one.
When Bob died in 1953, aged sixty-six, the prime minister of the day, Sid Holland, paid tribute to a fellow parliamentarian. “The late Mr Walls was a most friendly and likeable man and everyone in this House held him in the highest regard and esteem. He was a quiet, thoughtful man and when he spoke he commanded the respect of members of both sides of the House.”
Bob’s Labour Party colleague, the Reverend Clyde Carr from Timaru recalled that: “Mr Walls began his association with the labour movement as a trade unionist and he was, as one would expect, an excellent trade unionist. He was loyal and thorough in his service and deeply interested in the welfare of his fellow workers. Later, from a small beginning, he built up a very prosperous business, known from one end of the country to the other as McCracken & Walls.”
If you’re thinking this fellow sounds rather dull – think again. Because Bob Walls’ business was at the cutting-edge of the new technologies of communication which were, in the 1920s and 30s, transforming the way people understood the world.
McCracken & Walls sold radio receivers and gramophones, records, musical instruments and sheet music. And that wasn’t all. Bob was also instrumental in setting up one of New Zealand’s earliest private radio stations, Dunedin’s Radio 4ZM.
It was from Bob’s radio station that the Methodist minister, Leslie Neale, broadcast his Radio Church of the Helping Hand. The message beamed out to the tens of thousands of working-class Dunedin citizens who were unemployed, hungry and losing hope was very similar in tone and content to the message broadcast by that other great Depression era Methodist broadcaster, Colin Scrimgeour – “Uncle Scrim” – whose Church of the Friendly Road based itself at Auckland’s Radio IZB. Neale, like Scrimgeour, preached the Christian Socialist “message of the Carpenter” – and Bob shared his sermons with the whole city.
In a week of considerable controversy concerning the composition of Labour’s Party List, perhaps it is worth reflecting on Bob Walls’ career.
For he was a man deeply embedded in his community. From his youth as a trade unionist, to his later career as a retailer and broadcaster, Bob Walls immersed himself in the life of his city. People knew him, liked him, respected him and, most importantly of all, trusted him. As one of his fellow Dunedin MPs (and a future mayor of that city) J.G. Barnes, put it: “Mr Walls was one of Dunedin’s finest citizens, an able man of quiet manner. Those attributes, coupled with his kindliness and friendliness, carried him through many an election, municipal as well as parliamentary.”
Jim Barnes did not exaggerate. Prior to entering Parliament, Bob Walls had also served on the Dunedin City Council, the Otago Harbour Board and the Otago Hospital Board. When the MP for North Dunedin, J.W. Munro, died in office in 1945 the choice of Bob Walls as Labour’s candidate in the by-election was, as we would say today, a “no brainer”.
Yes, I know, it was a different world back then. But I can’t help comparing the by now long-forgotten Bob Walls with the Labour candidates of today. How many of them can bring to the table the extraordinary record of self-improvement and public service that he laid before the North Dunedin Labour Electorate Committee in 1945?
Bob Walls was a true representative of his Dunedin constituents, claiming their support not in recognition of the hand nature had dealt him – but for the way he had risen above it: for the man he had made of himself.
Not a gaggle or a self-server in sight.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 April 2011.