Friday 15 April 2011

A True Representative

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.


Anonymous said...

John A Lee ( force behind Labour's historically celebrated election victory in the 30s, state housing projects & NZ being one of the leading economies in the world during the wide-spread depression) was a 100% representative of the people when in parliament once. He soon got kicked out of the Labour party once they had political power & having given his best, went back to humbly means & obscurity.
Bruce Beetham, who became the figure head & catalyst driving the Nuclear Free NZ agenda, forcing Labour's hand to implement the policy with 'his' solid leverage of Social Credit without media 30- 20% record of nationwide support & a system looking at potential complete dis-array. So Labour ( having replaced Rob Muldoon P.M. who was openly admitting to consideration of using sovereign credit power for funding of national infrastructure in his associations with Bruce) did the Nuclear Free, hard work all ready done - but they really had too. Bruce suffered a heart attack,(NZ suffered Rogernomics which all the lefties had voted in via the usual prejudices being inflamed instead of a potential sovereign credit using lead Rob Muldoon Govt!) and then was shuffled out of the disposable (as they all are) political party that had formed in the coat tails of the efforts.
But the case for proportional representation had irrevocably been imprinted on the public's consciousness, although the integrity of it's genesis being lost in it's application, has pretty much bought it very close to a used by date.

But both were 100% monetary reformers.
I think it is very likely that those two are the greatest(& possibly only) 100% public servants that have been in the NZ parliament for the past 100 years in actuality - yes i know actuality doesn't count in the trade, but it's the only thing that counts in the infinite all the same.

Have a nice day

Anonymous said...

An intriguing column, and not just a history lesson, though I had not heard of Bob Walls. So once upon a time it was possible to be in the labour movement, a servant of the community, and a 'self-improver'/capitalist. In those days, there was also a high level of political party membership, and election manifestos meant something.

It's very tempting to take from the piece that we now experience a category of career opportunists who control party lists, and the FPP system was better for community representation. Certainly, when one studies political science at certain universities, and the lecturers suggest getting a job as a parliamentary researcher through their contacts, it is a fast track to selection as an MP. Another route seems to be through journalism, and a period as a spin doctor in the leader's office. Some of these kind of recruits do become good parliamentarians, even electorate MPs.

If we want better selection of candidates, or MPs that have actually come out of civil society, rather than being a career opportunist with a mediocre pols sci degree or journalism diploma, it is still up to the voter. Mana voters did not have to vote for Kris Faafoi when he was arguably the weakest candidate, but they remained loyal to the Labour brand. The academics told us that with MMP only the party vote really mattered, and this implied that the best electorate MP could come from any party, or even an independent. Until voters realise that the two 'major' parties involve representation of vested interests, based on the selection of career opportunists, we will get more of the same.

Matthew said...

"Sufficient unto the day"

Chris, the children of the revolution today won't even know what you are talking about.

Hence the gaggle and self-servers...

Unknown said...

Good post Chris.

No doubt if Bob and his kind were selected on the Labour list today there would be cries, many from right wing bloggers, that the list was boring and staid, full of too many trade unionists, and lacking that "wow" factor. And no doubt the commentators, most of the right wing, would be claiming that Labour was heading to electoral oblivion because it selected worthy rather than newsworthy candidates.

Give me Bob and his kind any day.

Anonymous said...

Occasionaly life and nature combine to throw a gentleman from our bastard litter, but only from those that are disposed towards the restraints of that station in life. The world of dog-eat-dog and rat-eat-rat may as well be another planet to them.

Thank you for reminding us of this rare breed. They stand in stark contrast to the current crew of chancers, wide boys and bum bandits that aspire to their opportunity at the trough.


Anonymous said...

Great post - my being a bum bandit notwithstanding

Anonymous said...

Can we really not make the distinction here between identity politics, and the politics of inclusion? They are not the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Motivation is an aspect often ignored in political circles - but not within the voting public.

Especially among the crucial swing voters. Their cynicsm and aversion to pugnacity has them ranking politicians down with car salesmen and con-artists: by definition they distrust, and largely ignore, the synthetic "messages" from both sides.

Hence the attraction to the widespread practice of imputing motives to the main players and the increasingly important "presidential" aspect. Couple that tendency with the overweening rightward media bias (the sole source of info for Mr + Ms Swing), and the current vote-determining conversation becomes "Key has millions, so his motivation must be selfless. Goff has never been anything but a pollie."

Actions and record speak louder than words; particularly when your every word is filtered by the enemy. That Young Labour team had the right idea - what happened to them?

Labour could do worse than announcing that this election campaign will consist of the following:

From now on, all prospective and serving MPs will spend all of every weekend helping volunteer groups such as foodbanks, benefit advocates, environmental projects etc throughout the country, followed by local meetings.
No specialist campaign workers will be employed, and all campaign and advertising funding will be directed to the promotion of existing volunteer projects and local leafletting.

Labour's still the party of the underdog: it just has to get out there and prove it.


uke said...

"Yes, I know, it was a different world back then."

But this is the key point. I don't believe Labour politicos are necessarily any less sincere or grounded in communities now than in the 1930s. But, back in the day, Labour's philosophy had clear parallels with the Christian belief system that a large proportion of the NZers were raised into. People could intuitively grasp the moral imperative of helping others, relieving suffering, the "he ain't heavy... he's your brother" attitude.

With the decline of this belief system, it has become all too easy for the right to depict socialism as materialistic redistribution, as a "politics of envy".

And in some ways, sadly, given our addiction to the consumerist Babylon of the moment, there is some truth in this. With the loss of those old Christian values in NZ, the left needs to morally reinvent itself. I don't where they're going to get a new mythology but it's needed.

Otherwise, its just let's get on with the next round of resource wars.