Fatal Obsession: It was Gough Whitlams' Minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor, whose lifelong dream of "buying back the farm" (nationalising Australia's mineral and energy resources) led him into the coils of an American-inspired conspiracy featuring the shady Pakistani banker, Tirath Khemlani, that precipitated the infamous dismissal of his Labor government on 11 November 1975. Every reforming Labour government should have Connor's name tattooed over its heart - as a warning.
THERE’S ONE NAME that should be tattooed over the heart of every Labour Party politician: Rex Connor. It was Connor’s determination to “buy back the farm” – i.e. deliver Australia’s mineral wealth into public ownership – that set in motion the sequence of events which persuaded the Australian Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, to dismiss Gough Whitlam’s Labor government on 11 November 1975. The lesson for all subsequent Labor (and Labour) governments was clear: never let the policy commitments of a single minister deepen to the point where they drag an entire government down to defeat.
Connor was an old-time Labour socialist and economic nationalist who was fond of quoting the American poet, Sam Walter Foss:
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.
When the Australian Treasury persuaded Connor’s Labor colleagues that his plans to borrow $4 billion (a colossal sum in 1974!) were economically and legally reckless, the bluff old socialist went behind their backs and attempted to borrow the money from Middle Eastern potentates, who, following the dramatic oil price-hikes precipitated by the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and its Arab neighbours, were awash with “petro-dollars”.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the United States government, alerted to Connor’s intentions, laid a trap for him. A shadowy Pakistani banker by the name of Tirath Khemlani was able to ensnare Connor by promising to arrange a loan large enough to make all of the Minister for Minerals and Energy’s dreams come true. It was the Liberal Opposition’s exposure (undoubtedly with American assistance) of the “Loans Affair” which sparked the political crisis culminating in Whitlam’s dismissal.
Why are political events which occurred in Australia more than 40 years ago being rehearsed in New Zealand in 2018?
The memory trigger, in this case, was pulled by the National Party Opposition’s Transport spokesperson, Judith Collins. In a media release issued on Tuesday, 16 January, Collins castigates the Minister of Transport, Phil Twyford, for raising the possibility of diverting motorist-derived revenues from the National Land Transport Fund for the purposes of developing Auckland’s light-rail network.
“This desperate grab for more taxes is the result of this free-spending Government realising how much it’s going to cost to build its pet rail line from Auckland’s CBD to the Airport”, argued Collins, “so it’s looking to divert funding from regional roads as a result.”
Collin’s criticisms were echoed in a release from the right-wing lobby group, The Taxpayers’ Union, which enjoined Twyford to keep his “hands off motorists’ piggy bank”.
Now, this is a very long way from Khemlani’s false promise to provide Rex Connor with the wherewithal to “buy back the farm”, but every doomed journey begins with a single step.
Phil Twyford has staked his own reputation – and that of the Labour-NZF-Green Government – on fulfilling not only their commitment to end Auckland’s traffic gridlock, but also, and more importantly, to have Labour’s “KiwiBuild” affordable housing initiative well underway by the 2020 election.
The $4 billion question is: are there sufficient financial resources available to permit the government to meet these (and many other) policy commitments? The answer, of course, is yes. All governments have the power to beg, borrow or steal whatever resources are needed to implement their plans. In the case of this government, however, the matter is more complicated.
Jacinda Ardern’s Cabinet contains many men and women with “freedom in their visions” and “creation in their veins” but, unfortunately, on his performance to date, her Minister of Finance isn’t one of them. Grant Robertson’s determination to keep his government within its self-imposed “Budget Responsibility Rules” is presently on a collision course with ministers’ determination to keep their promises.
If the Prime Minister allows that collision to occur, then the chances of someone doing a Rex Connor will increase spectacularly. Whitlam’s fatal error was to refuse to make a choice between vision and creation, and the budgetary restraint necessary to keep the confidence of the Australian people. Ardern’s challenge is to decide what sort of government she intends to lead. Will it be a government of vision and creativity? Or, a government which refuses to abandon its commitment to fiscal rectitude.
If it’s the latter, then Jacinda needs to sack her Rex Connors – now.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 January 2018.