IT’S 30 APRIL 1939, and the New Zealand Labour Party has been in office for nearly four years. On the 15 October 1938, the government of Michael Joseph Savage had been re-elected with 55 percent of the popular vote – a still unsurpassed level of support.
April 1939 began with the coming into force of the Social Security Act. Described by the National Party as “applied lunacy”, and by the Labour leader as “applied Christianity”, the Act represented one of the most far-reaching social reforms ever undertaken by a New Zealand government.
Just how popular Labour’s social reforms were among the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders was revealed when, on the morning of 2 February 1939, the half-completed Social Welfare departmental headquarters situated in Aitken Street, not far from Parliament Buildings, was burned to the ground in a deliberate arson attack. Savage refused to be daunted by this overt act of far-right defiance. “We have got to get the Social Security Act working on April 1st and it’s going to work”, Savage told the country.
The Labour prime minister was as good as his word. “We are not going to weep,” Savage’s irrepressible Minister of Public Works, Bob Semple, bellowed. “It is a question of getting our backs into it, and getting the job done.”
While firefighters were still dampening down the smoking ruins on Aitken Street, Semple promised the construction of a replacement building within six weeks. The Public Works Department, Fletcher Construction, and the building firm of R.C. Love began work immediately on a site in Aotea Quay.
This breakneck schedule would “necessitate the working of two 10-hour shifts”, James Fletcher admitted, “and it is anticipated that approximately 150 men will be required for each shift”. The normally obstreperous building trades unions agreed to work the site around the clock. Fletcher and Love agreed to take no profit.
Thirty years later, the eminent public servant and historian W. B. Sutch, recalled the almost festive atmosphere that permeated the construction site: “Wellington citizens daily visited the job to share, to encourage, and to offer, at breaks, refreshment for weary workers.” Astonishingly, the construction was completed in seven weeks – just 7 days shy of Semple’s wildly optimistic target. Even the normally hostile journalists of the daily press were forced to acknowledge “an achievement never approached in New Zealand before.” On March 27th 1939, Savage opened the new building. In his book The Quest For Security, Sutch recalled the ceremony taking place “in the presence of thousands of people, in time to mark, five days later, the end of poverty.”
When the First Labour Government said “Let’s do this!” – it meant it.
Because, of course, the Social Security Act (1939) and the herculean rebuilding of the new department’s headquarters, were not the only things Labour was able to show after nearly four years in power. Between 1935 and 1939 Savage’s housing czar, the charismatic John A. Lee, had overseen the construction of thousands of so-called “state houses”. According to Sutch: “[D]uring 1937 there were three times the number of houses built compared with 1932 or 1933; by 1938 this had risen to five times”. By 1940-41 fully 40 percent of all houses built in New Zealand were state houses.
It is important to remember that the Members of Parliament who served in the First Labour Government were overwhelmingly drawn from the same working-class that made up the solid core of the Labour Party’s electoral base. Hardly any of them had much in the way of formal education. University graduates were few and far between. Trade unionists, on the other hand, were sufficiently plentiful to secure the passage of a bill making union membership universal across most of the New Zealand workforce. For good measure, they also reduced the working-week to 40 hours.
Like the Sixth Labour Government of Jacinda Ardern, Mickey Savage’s ministry was fond of harking back to the darkest days of the Great Depression, when New Zealanders were subject to the tender mercies of the right-wing coalition of George Forbes and Gordon Coates. Unlike Jacinda’s government, however, Savage’s never resorted to highlighting the Tories’ failures as a way of justifying its own.
Michael Joseph Savage made a promise to transform New Zealand, and nothing – not even a right-wing arsonist in Aitken Street – was going to prevent him from keeping it.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 April 2021.