Friday 12 August 2011

The Gangsters' Ball

Fedoras, Pin-Stripes, Wide Lapels: Sid Holland, National's second leader (and former member of the proto-fascist New Zealand Legion) was responsible for the darkest chapter in New Zealand's democratic history - the 1951 Emergency Regulations. From its inception, in May 1936, National has been a party of negation. Gangsters with a Kiwi accent.

THIS WEEKEND, in Wellington, the National Party is holding its 75th annual conference. With intriguing prescience, the party is hosting an anniversary ball with a 1930s theme. [Author's Note: In the original version of this posting I wrongly identified the Young Nats as the hosts of this weekend's big anniversary bash. National's youth wing did, indeed, celebrate their party's 75th birthday with a ball ... but that was in April, not August. Hat-tip to Cam Slater and apologies all round.]

With global markets in the midst of yet another precipitous dive, it is fitting that the Nats’ celebration is an homàge to the bleak decade that witnessed their party’s birth.

I’d be dismayed, however, if any of the guests turn up wearing sugar-bag smocks or shoes stuffed with newspaper. Such attire is more correctly associated with those who found themselves on the receiving-end of National’s forebears’ austerity measures.

The sugar-bags – from which these grim years draw their sobriquet – were worn by “relief workers” to protect their threadbare clothing from the mud and clay laid bare by their shovels. Re-located by the United-Reform coalition government of 1931-35 as far away as possible from the riot-prone cities, the unemployed inmates of the Coalition’s “hunger camps” worked long hours in all weathers for the pittance that was the “dole”.

It was the votes of these men, along with those cast by thousands of other economically and socially brutalised New Zealanders, that finally overcame the chilling “charity” of the United-Reform Government.

Not even the decision of Post & Telegraph Minister, Adam Hamilton, to jam the election-eve broadcast of the worker-friendly Methodist, Colin Scrimgeour, could save the government that had made men “cheaper than horses”. (The infamous jamming of “Uncle Scrim” was not, however, enough to prevent Mr Hamilton from becoming the new National Party’s first elected leader.)

Indeed, Mr Hamilton’s jamming was by no means the worst affront to democratic principles to be laid, over the next 75 years, at National’s door. From the outset, the project commencing in the immediate aftermath of Labour’s victory in November 1935, and culminating in the conference which gave birth to the National Party six months later, in May 1936, was conceived in negation.

The new organisation was driven forward not by the ideals and policies it purported to stand for: God, King, Empire, Private Enterprise (although not necessarily in that order) but by what it unequivocally stood against: “subversive and other doctrines”. A deep-seated hostility towards the institutions and processes that had made it possible for a government dominated by former members of the “Red Feds” to be elected, lay at the heart of the effort to unite the entire anti-socialist, anti-union Right in a single political party.

Nor were all those involved in the creation of the National Party necessarily imbued with the parliamentary spirit of moderation and compromise. Many of those who attended the party’s foundation conference had been, like National’s second leader, Sid Holland, members of the proto-fascist New Zealand Legion.

Presumably even less familiar with the democratic process was a clutch of former senior army officers: Colonel H.G. Livingstone, Colonel James Hargest and Colonel S.C.P. Nichols. They, too, played a prominent role during the National Party’s formative stages.

Viewed in the light of so many of its founders’ deep reservations about the democratic process, the National Party’s subsequent record of over-riding basic human rights is readily explicable. It was, to no one’s surprise, Sid Holland, the ex- New Zealand Legionnaire, who imposed the fascistic 1951 Emergency Regulations. This, the darkest chapter in New Zealand’s democratic history, speaks volumes about the true extent of National’s commitment to constitutional probity.

Mr Holland’s ruthlessness and fondness for rule by decree found an apt pupil in National’s fifth leader, Sir Robert Muldoon. It was during Sir Robert’s time in office that the National Party’s enduring historical association with massive shows of police force on the streets of New Zealand reached its crescendo – in the 1981 Springbok Tour.

But the police violence unleashed against the anti-apartheid protesters of 1981 was as nothing compared to the crushing economic and social violence unleashed against trade unionists and beneficiaries by the National Government of Jim Bolger, Bill Birch, Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley. The inmates of New Zealand’s burgeoning prison system constitute a living testament to National’s long-running hate-affair with organised labour and the poor.

I trust, therefore, that those attending the Nats’ 75th anniversary ball will not trifle with history’s costume directions. Fedoras, pin-stripes and wide-lapels – not sugar-bags and broken shoes – are the accessories of reaction.

Go, dressed as the gangsters you have always been.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 August 2011.


Lixin said...

Thank you Chris. I am a Labour supporter and wouldn't vote for National if it were the only party. The smiling John Key makes my blood run cold, I don't understand his appeal to the people he is shafting, and his instrument Paula Bennett is a truly dreadful woman.
After living overseas for a few years I returned to NZ late last year and I couldn't find a job: I applied for many but often didn't even get an acknowledgement of my application so after 3 months of living on savings, for the first time in my life I applied for the Unemployment Benefit.
I kept a daily diary of all that happened throughout that humiliating experience.
Here are a few comments.
The constant harassment by 'case managers' to 'be flexible: but they were unable to explain just what that meant in my case and how it would ensure my getting a job; being told by one that I needed to 'dumb down' my CV; days of waiting for an appointment to see a 'case manager' and always a different one each time, and having to explain my situation again as there seemed to be no central data base.
The best or worst depending on your point of view, was the letter that told me that due to information received my benefit was to be stopped. I couldn't find a single person (and the person who signed the letter was protected by their staff)to tell me what the information was and where it had come from. As it happened the benefit wasn't stopped but again nobody could tell me why. After two months of this treatment I started to become depressed and my self confidence was very low. So I found another job overseas and I will now stay away from NZ until I am due for my pension next year.
I weep for my country.

Anonymous said...

That's pretty revealing when a case manager tells you to dumb down?

McLaren said...

Why is it that people with a left wing bias always resort to a hateful stance. I read your piece in the paper this morning and was truly disappointed at your last line. I am sure if you were writing about the 'heroes' of the left in 1930 you would not call the current labour crop "the communists you always have been". It's comments like that that impede dialogue and incite hatred as many of the comments on left wing blogs show.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, McLaren, while there have been some benign interludes in National's history - most notably the 12 years the party was led by Keith Holyoake - most of it makes pretty grim reading.

There's the abrogation of civil liberties in 1951 and the legislative crack-down on union activity right through the 1950s.

And what about the whole Muldoon era, when the prime-minister of NZ turned the SIS into his own, personal hit-squad, and was happy to set New Zealander against New Zealander to win the 1981 election?

Not forgetting the social violence of "The Mother of All Budgets" or the economic hardship forced upon working-class families by the Employment Contracts Act.

The list goes on and on.

And what else is a gangster if not someone who employs intimidation and force to enrich himself (or in National's case, farmers and businesspeople) at the rest of the community's expense?

If the Fedora fits ....

Anonymous said...

Ah those heartless National party gangsters!

But is there a typo in the midst of this fine article?

"But the police violence unleashed against the anti-apartheid protesters of 1981 was as nothing compared to the crushing economic and social violence unleashed by the 4th Labour government of David Lange, David Cagill and Roger Douglas"

RobM said...

@Lixin. I had a similar experience in 2009 and employed the following strategies:

1. Start referring to your benefit as a bailout.
e.g "My bailout is inadequate."
"I need a bailout."
"Will you WINZ f--ks sort out my bailout."
"My bailout is necessary to kick-start my economy."

which leads onto no 2:

2. Start referring to your life as an economy.
e.g "My economy is stagflating" - particularly good as a pick up line.

Didn't really get me anywhere as they turfed me off the dole after half a days plum thinning and with the wife 8 months pregnant. After multiple calls to multiple call centers, a colorful phone message threatening to go to the media and dialogue with the branch manager, I was placed back on the job seeker's register. If I didn't have a family I'd be shot of Chopper John's wannabe Chinatown like yourself.

Anonymous said...

Gangsters - THAT sort of metaphorical/colourful language I can live with :-).

Anonymous said...

Oops sorry meant to post this interesting link at the same time.

Brendan McNeill said...


My Dad was the tenth child in a family of fourteen. He fought in WWII in North Africa and El Alamein. He returned home with nothing in 1945 and obtained a rehab loan that was available to all service men, to purchase a marginal farm sheep farm in Canterbury, with a mortgage that many of his mates thought he could never repay.

In 1951 the Americans were fighting in Korea. They wanted our wool for uniforms. My dad's wool stayed on the docks as the unions brought the countries export trade to a halt. That wool sale would have paid off a significant component of his mortgage. In the end, it was almost twenty years later before that day arrived.

If you were to ask my dad who the 'gangsters' were in 1951, he would remember history differently than you appear to.

Adze said...

It's not election year is it? This sort of pointless brand/identity hysteria I would have expected to see on M. Bradbury's blog but not here... 2/10.

Anonymous said...

@ Brendan - perhaps your Dad should ask the bosses why they locked the wharfies out in 1951 then, eh? Terribly inconvenient for your Dad perhaps, but then I guess he wasn't a big enough boss to matter to the really big bosses, huh?

Or maybe your Dad could have asked the hungry wharfies kid? Just so long as your Dad didn't give the lad any bread, or he might have spent time behind bars for that anti-capitalist gift.

The Nats are gangsters. Perhaps you should read Dick Scott's wonderful book '151 Days' on the '51 lockout. Fascist thugs like Sid Holland should have spent the rest of their life behind prison bars.

Mad Marxist.

Brendan McNeill said...

@Mad Marxist

Perhaps the one thing we can take from this experience, is that we gain nothing from entrenched 'them' and 'us' attitudes. They simply harm everyone.

It seems that extreme political movements need to have a group of people they can demonize in order to rally their supporters. I suspect that both sides of the 51 lockout were conducting their own form of 'jehad against the infidel'.

My dad was simply 'collateral damage', unfortunate but necessary to advance the cause of [the workers] / [the wealthy].

Thankfully in New Zealand we appear to have emerged from the politics of the extreme, at least to the extent that they have little popular support.

Our challenge will be to maintain our sense of shared community as the prospect of economic austerity descends upon the Western world, New Zealand included.

Hopefully we will be shaped by more intelligent aspirations than the bitterness of the past.

Anonymous said...

Brendan's contribution was quite interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it recalls the time when certain citizens were actually given quite advantageous preferences, in this case for being soldiers, and could jump the queue for low interest loans or State houses. The National Party of recent times has reversed this so it has a punitive attitude to those deemed to be lacking merit, ie all beneficiaries, when in the past it was more a case of neglect.

The other point was that no sheep farm was marginal in the early 1950s, given the wool price. The wool boom brought such large sterling payments into the country that the government tried to disguise the fact, certainly the effect on the public accounts. A similar thing happened in the 1960s when the State house sales brought large revenue to the public accounts, at a time when State house rents were being raised. So the overall point is that the National Party consolidated its rule in the 50s and 60s at the time of unprecedented prosperity. The Holland Government was perhaps the worst ministry in the history of the country, but the prosperity covered this to an extent. They were still niggardly, and their farming backgrounds were not very useful at a time of rapid urban development. Holyoake allowed a massive increase in foreign currency borrowing in the late 1960s which resulted in crippling interest payments, and formed the basis for the fiscal crisis of the early 1980s.

Brendan McNeill said...

@ The Sentinel

It's difficult from this distance in history to appreciate the context of the times circa 1945. I think my dad would be indignant that someone in 2011 would think that he, having come back from five years of war, and having risked all for King and country, was in a position of 'advantageous preference' because he had a rehab loan.

He would have considered that at the very least, a bizarre proposition.

He would also have scoffed at the assertion that his high risk sheep farming venture was not 'marginal', and that he was the beneficiary of a wool boom that somehow placed him in a position of privilege in the 1950's.

Looking back on my childhood in the late 50's and 60's, I can attest that we lived with debt, and adversity like most New Zealanders, and our standard of living was well below what most Kiwi's take for granted today.

Our 'washing machine' was a tub in an external wash house, where water was boiled in a 'copper' using firewood, and marginal lambs were brought into the kitchen and kept warm with a heat lamp on a sack in front of the fire place.

I suspect that for the most part, we lived no better than those on welfare today.

Nothing is served by looking to the past for the purposes of grievance. We have to live with the cards we are dealt and make the best of it.

Life is too short for blame and excuses, and besides, those attitudes get us nowhere. Today, most New Zealanders live in un-imagined wealth compared to 90% of the worlds population.

Let's give up the grievance and start appreciating what we have.

Anonymous said...

IMHO - all parties govern for what they perceive to be the best interests of their constituency, or sometimes those they hope will become their constituency. They also demonise ‘the other side’ via what are usually crude generalisations. Likening the NP today with the NZ Legion or other manifestations of fascism is no more helpful than the VRWC likening Helen Clark’s governments to Stalinism.
I am a bit tired of it really – whilst I am probably a small c conservative I generally enjoy being challenged in my views by Mr Trotter’s writing - but simplistic labels related to unfortunate fashion might be a bit of a barrier to thoughtful and open minded consideration of another point of view. I think such tactics may safely be left to Whaleoil, The Standard, Red Alert et al.

Anonymous said...

Get real man, how many of those on welfare today have a wash house, lambs or a fireplace?

Anonymous said...

While not wanting to in any way make light of Brendan's personal experience, he is still using historical circumstances to argue that current welfare recipients have undeserved privileges. Most people growing up in past times had more spartan conditions, and had to be frugal. Nonetheless, farming prices in the early 1950s were much better than in the 1930s, when farmers lost their equity, usually had mortgages 'adjusted' and ended up working to repay the stock agents in the first instance, and mortgage holders after that. The other point was that the rehab loans no doubt had a lower interest rate than most borrowing in recent times. It was not easy to get a farm and finance, but if Brendan's father did not eventually see increased land values, I would be surprised. The urban poor will never have that kind of economic opportunity, even if it was exceptionally hard graft at the time.

McLaren said...

I agree with Anonymous. I would guess that he would not refer to the current crop of left wing politicians as the "communists they have always been". Chris Trotter then makes the preposterous claim that the growing prison population is the result of a 'hate affair' by National against unions and the poor. I think that Occam's Razor should be used here and that the rise in incarceration is the result of people breaking the law.

Chris Trotter said...

The problem, McLaren, which this (admittedly provocative) posting attempts to address is the unwillingness of those on the Right to own the consequences of their actions.

Slashing benefits by 25 percent and stripping workers of their industrial rights and much of their incomes - i.e. penal rates and allowances - dangerously exacerbated the problems of poverty in New Zealand.

Only those who refuse to accept the basic propositions of sociology would argue that the level of poverty is not significantly correlated to the levels of drug and alcohol abuse, violence and family dissolution; and that these, in turn, are not significantly correlated with the level of criminal offending in any given community.

So, while fine, up-standing National Party members may not have held a gun to today's prison inmates and forced them to offend, their policies set up the circumstances in which offending was highly likely to occur.

Conservatives are, therefore, akin to someone who fashions a pot, fills it with water, places it on the stove, whacks up the heat - and then comes over all surprised and horror-struck when the water begins to boil.

The simple historical fact of the matter is that Labour in office has (with the great exception of 1984-1990) helped their fellow New Zealanders, while National (with the great exception of 1960-1972) has hurt them.

markus said...

Actually, Chris, I'm pretty sure the benign "Kiwi Keith" had himself been a member of the proto-fascist New Zealand Legion.

Anonymous said...


It amazes me the breadth of quality I see in your commentary. At times I see such brilliance, which isn't tainted by the rose colored glasses you so often wear. Then other times, such as this post, I see a hatred that transforms the rationale, and respectable debate that oft comes of you.

As for most of the commenters on this blog, that hatred appears to be an absolute pastime.

Bring back the intelligent brilliance, Chris. The gutter commentary of such posts is beneath you.


BTW I totally disagree with all of your arguments and views, but will always respect the intelligence that comes with those brilliant moments.

Madison said...

@ Chris, While I agree that many on the right refuse to own up to their actions or accept the consequences I dare you to show me the liberal people doing the same. I link this to the greenpeace protestors being arrested for breaking and entering to procure evidence then being "horrified" that they are prosecuted for their blatantly admitted criminal activity. Unions aghast that an employer would dare lock them out while they are on strike. Politicians bemoaning the crippling levels of individual debt among the populace while running up the same debts through the government while in office. Or my personaly recent favourite; Matt MacCarten decrying employers and the rich failing to pay taxes and then willingly withholding those from his companies or allowing his companies to fall into debt laden recievership with massive unpaid bills or taxes.

I don't question that historically conservatives are the best at this hypocrisy but you've got to admit that lately those on the left are easily their equals.