Monday 30 April 2012

The Journey: A Political Memoir - Posting No. 3

The Voice Of Outraged Reasonableness: Labour Leader, Bill Rowling, opened his party's 1978 election campaign with a speech that both delighted and surprised his electoral base. The man property-tycoon, Bob Jones, called "The Mouse", had roared.

It was supposed to be a book about the birth of the NewLabour Party, but somewhere along the way it became the story of what led me into, and out of, the old Labour Party. In hopes of providing future political studies students with a glimpse of what it was like to be a left-wing Labour activist in the days of David Lange and Roger Douglas I am publishing The Journey on Bowalley Road as a series of occasional postings. L.P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” May these memoirs, written in 1989, serve, however poorly, as my personal passport.

Tuesday, 31 October 1978

WE WERE ALL VETERANS of one sort or another. Three years of Muldoon had seen to that. Gathered together in that weatherboard slum, we talked of little else but politics. The ordinary Otago students who flatted with us laughed at our intensity – by the late 70s radical politics were on the verge of becoming unfashionable.

Dunedin, hugging its windswept hills, was giving birth to new diversions. Wild enrag├ęs like Chris Knox and The Enemy spoke to a generation grown wary of promises. Life was moving to machine-gun rhythms. There were precious few jobs and precious little enthusiasm for brave new worlds. Old and young alike responded to the maniacal Knox’s chorus: “Pull down the shades!”

We were gathered around a black-and-white set; nervously awaiting the televised opening of Labour’s election campaign. I was sceptical about Bill Rowling’s ability to rouse any enthusiasm for a party that had spent the best part of three years stabbing each other between the shoulder blades. My mind went back to the Moyle Affair, the O’Brien Debacle. Could he do it? I was doubtful.

And then Rowling began to speak. The room fell silent. The veterans of anti-apartheid protests, anti-SIS protests, anti-nuclear protests were listening. The little man grasped the podium with both hands, staring calmly out over the heads of his huge and enthusiastic audience. Rowling’s was a serious passion: he spoke with the voice of outraged reasonableness. I recalled his concession speech three years before. “New Zealand will have need of Labour again, and when she does Labour will be ready.”

Somehow he had reached that part of us that still believed in New Zealand. He argued convincingly that what we had all experienced since 1975 represented the worst and not the best of our national character. Labour was the guardian of the best of our political traditions: the tradition of egalitarianism; the tradition of compassion; the tradition of co-operation; the tradition of peace and justice for all humanity.

“There has never been a time in the history of this country when we have been so divided with bitterness and sourness,” declaimed Rowling, “when New Zealander has been turned against New Zealander, when each person tries to keep his place by kicking the other fellow down … the path to recovery will not be easy, but I pledge to you that tomorrow will be brighter … Together, we can make it. Together, New Zealand can make it.” The audience was delighted. The man property-tycoon Bob Jones called “The Mouse”, had roared.

The following day I made my way down to the Labour Party’s North Dunedin office. A chain-smoking young woman, wrapped up against the chill, pushed a membership book in my direction. As I emerged from the office, into the pale spring sunlight, I chuckled to myself. In my hand was a tiny slip of yellow cardboard telling me that I was now a member of the New Zealand Labour Party. I stuffed the card into my wallet and walked on down the street.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Brendan McNeill said...

"Labour was the guardian of the best of our political traditions: the tradition of egalitarianism; the tradition of compassion; the tradition of co-operation; the tradition of peace and justice for all humanity."

That may have been what Labour believed then, but what did it believe when last in office?

Well, it believed that they were the benevolent State, that knew best about:

1) What light bulbs you should have in your home.

2) What shower heads you should use in your bathroom.

3) What gender definitions required 'special treatment' before the law.

4) Who deserved the financial 'compassion' of the tax payer, and who did not.

5) Who should get tax payer funded international trips to research various forms of dance, and who should not.

6) How politics should be about equality of outcomes regardless of inputs, grievance groups, gender and race.

They were totally disconnected from mainstream working New Zealanders, let alone small business people, and they remain so today.

That's why they are out of office, and may remain so for a good deal of time to come.

There is nothing like the wilderness experience to sharpen's ones sensitivity to basic realities.

Anonymous said...

I turned 10 years old in 78 & remember that election night well. Both my parents were labour voters in Wellington- Ohariu electorate. They were resigned to defeat & it felt like the continuation of a long dark period in our lives...