Thursday 2 June 2022

Intriguing Last Words: Remembering Stan Rodger (1940-2022)

Stan's Our Man: A decent, moderate Labour Party stalwart, Stan Rodger navigated the treacherous waters of the Rogernomics era to such effect that he was able to state, with complete honesty, that he belonged to none of the factions that were tearing the Fourth Labour Government apart. Unfortunately, as Aneurin Bevan so rightly observed: "If you spend all your time in the middle of the road, then eventually you will get run over." In a time of extremism, moderation is a kind of betrayal.

STAN RODGER, Minister of Labour, and Minister of State Services in the Fourth Labour Government, died on Sunday, 29 May 2022, aged 82. Between 1978 and 1986, Stan was my Member of Parliament. In 1984, that crucial year which saw the fall of Robert Muldoon and his right-wing populist National Government, I found myself on Stan’s campaign team for the Dunedin North Labour Electorate Committee.

The Labour Party of 1984 was a monstrous creature. It’s branch membership, alone, was close to 100,000, with another quarter-of-a-million trade union members affiliated to the party. It also possessed a large and highly vocal left-wing: people who took the Party’s pledge to promote the cause of “democratic socialism” seriously.

One morning, early in 1984, three old comrades from the student protest movements of the 1970s chanced to run into one another in the student union cafeteria at the University of Otago. To our considerable consternation, we discovered that all three of us were working on the campaign committees of Labour MPs and candidates. Radical leftists who had laughed at the pretentions of Labour claimants to that title, now found themselves designing pamphlets, organising photo-shoots, and analysing canvassing returns. “Has it truly come to this?” We asked ourselves. “Have we all become fucking social-democrats!”

Within days of that embarrassing reunion, I had put a new set of words to the tune of Cliff Richard’s 1963 hit “We’re All Going On A Summer Holiday”.

We’re all working for a Labour victory
No more Trotsky, no more Lenin or Mao.
We’re all working for a Labour victory,
I’m glad the comrades cannot see us now!

Stan Rodger had a pretty good feel for the political leanings of the people he worked with. Certainly, he could recognise the many and various shades of red radicalism with relative ease. I was not the only “democratic socialist” on his campaign committee, although it is fair to say that we were easily outnumbered by the Labour moderates among whom Stan felt most comfortable. What distinguished him from practically every other member of the Labour caucus at that time, however, was his conviction that, to retain its political “soul”, the party needed to encompass the full range of democratic left-wing opinion. In the hierarchy of Labour’s “broad church”, that made Stan an Archbishop – at the very least!

Before his death, Stan Rodger allowed himself to be interviewed by the veteran political journalist, Richard Harman. In the course of that interview, Stan revealed something very few people outside the upper echelons of the trade union movement of the 1960s – and the Security Intelligence Service – knew anything about. Stan only learned the secret because he was a rising star in the Public Service Association (of which he would eventually become president) as well as being a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Works.

According to Harman, as Stan started moving up the ranks of the PSA he encountered a highly organised underground movement within the Association dedicated to advancing the ideology and clout of the far-left.

“Stan might have been a member of a political party that was still nominally socialist,” writes Harman on his Politik website of Tuesday, 31 May 2022, “but like most Labour Party members, he subscribed to Michael Joseph Savage’s argument that the party’s philosophy was actually ‘applied Christianity’. Stan, said Harman, “had no time for pure socialism or Marxism.”

But, Marxists there were in the public service: “a new cohort of university graduates with far-left views was making itself felt in Wellington.” According to Stan, the wartime Labour Government of Peter Fraser had placed many of these young firebrands in the Department of Industries and Commerce (DIC).

Now, as any good Kiwi leftist knows, the Department of Trade and Industry (as the DIC was later renamed) came to be headed-up by New Zealand’s most effective left-wing intellectual, William (Bill) Sutch – the man who, in 1974, was charged with espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union – and acquitted.

Stan’s principal antagonist, however, wasn’t Sutch, but John P Lewin. Lewin, a former President of the PSA, senior official at Industries and Commerce and, ultimately, Government Statistician, was the man who, according to Stan, became the unofficial leader of a far-left group within the PSA, calling itself the Korero Group.

“It had many key activists in the PSA within it,” Stan told Harman, “with Lewin driving it out of the Trade and Industry department. And Jim Turner, the last member that I knew that was in it, told me it always ran with huge discipline and would even expel people out of the Korero. It essentially ran the PSA at arm’s length through the executive.”

What Stan Rodger has held back until he was safely beyond the reach of controversy are the bones of an explanation for one of the most devastating hit-jobs in the history of New Zealand political journalism. The exposé was published in the right-wing weekly newspaper, Truth, in July 1975, and it purported to expose a “plot” to socialise much of the New Zealand economy which had been hatched on behalf of Labour Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, by Labour MP, Gerald O’Brien, Bill Sutch and Jack Lewin.

Dismissed by Labour supporters at the time as just one more example of an increasingly sinister series of leaks and rumours (what we would, today, call “fake news”) intended to disorient and dismay the electorate in the run-up to the 1975 general election, Truth’s “Plot” may have been something else altogether.

If Stan Rodger knew about the Korero Group, so, almost certainly, did the SIS. Unable to prevent the likes of Sutch and Lewin rising high in the government department at the cutting edge of economic policy, the Security Services likely became increasingly fixated on the extent to which the “far-left” bureaucrats at Trade and Industry were influencing the direction of New Zealand economic development.

It is possible, therefore, that right through the 1960s, and into the 1970s, there was a race between the Left and the Right to find a group of politicians with the courage to undertake a drastic reform of the New Zealand economy. The persecution of Sutch, and the “fake news” about a plot to socialise the New Zealand economy (almost certainly leaked to Truth by the SIS) both bear testimony to the “Deep State’s” fear that the “hugely disciplined” left-wing “cell” in Trade and Industry had already found, or was about to find, the group of politicians it was looking for.

As the man who made certain that David Lange entered Parliament, Stan Rodger, set in motion the political sequence of events that culminated, ironically, in an equally disciplined group of ideologically-driven bureaucrats – this time concentrated in the Treasury – finding the group of politicians it had been looking for. The politicians who were to give us “Rogernomics”.

With Stan Rodger’s passing it is no longer possible to ask him if he saw the rise and rise of the neoliberal “cell” at Treasury as clearly as he saw the defusing and dispersal of the Trade and Industry Marxists and the Korero Group. I wonder if he would have agreed that there was a moment, at some point during those extraordinary post-war years, when New Zealand could have gone in an entirely different direction.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 2 June 2022.


Trev1 said...

Fascinating, thank you for sharing.

Andrew Nichols said...

A key reason to abolish the SIS. Their subversion of legitimate political activity.

Simon Cohen said...

It is interesting Chris that you refer to 'the persecution of Sutch"

I presume you mean that the charges of espionage that were brought against him in 1974 were false even though they were approved by Martyn Finlay the Attorney General of the time, a Labour Party Cabinet Minister and a lifelong friend of Shirley Smith [William Sutch's wife].
I presume that you haven't read Shirley Smith an Examined Life by Sarah Gaitanos. Helen Sutch, Bill Sutch's daughter proposed in February 2011 that Sarah write a biography of her mother and gave her first and sole access to Shirley Smith's papers. Helen Sutch also supported Sarah's applications for funding to write the book.
If after reading the book you have any doubts concerning Sutch's guilt I would be very surprised. Before reading it I was extremely sceptical of the case against him but this book changed my views.
Apart from any other considerations it is an excellent read and a fitting tribute to a woman of originally strongly Marxist beliefs who achieved a huge amount in her life. She founded the Human Rights Organisation and co-founded the NZ Council for Civil Liberties. In addition she was a ground breaking female barrister who devoted her energies to defending the weak and oppressed.
Interestingly when Sutch was arrested and had to find bail he told Shirley at ask Jack Lewin for the money.
Lewin refused !!!!!

swordfish said...

My Grandmother, Labour Party activist from the early 1920s to retirement in the 60s, PSA activist in the Public Service Equal Pay campaign through the 1940s & 50s ... was a member of Lewin's Korero Grouping & quite friendly with Sutch ... not sure they were quite as radical as Stan would have us believe however. Don't think my Grandmother, for instance, ever saw herself as a Marxist ... more a Left Social Democrat. Very much a Labour Party loyalist (& great admirer of Nordic Social Democracy) rather than part of some sort of far left infiltration. Certainly at the progressive end of the spectrum in terms of mid-20C feminism & views towards Māori ... but above all a believer in democracy & the power & talents of "ordinary" people. Wouldn't have been too taken with the professional middle class Woke capture of Left organisations, their self-righteous elitism & vicious scapegoating of swathes of the lower income along ethnic lines.

Archduke Piccolo said...

So we lost the 'Korero Group' out of the New Zealand political arena for good, and gained the Rogernomics economic vandalism instead. Tell me that the New Zealand people profited thereby. Go on: tell me. I'm really into gallows humour.
Ion A. Dowman

mikesh said...

I have always believed that Gerald O'Brien was the last of the monetary reformers, along 'social credit' lines, within the Labour Party. Apparently, after Norman Kirk's death, he wrote to Bruce Beetham, behind Rowling's back, suggesting that they meet to discuss 'common ground' between their respective parties.However, Beetham thought he could gain more political capital by going public with the letter, and pointing that that the popular Norm Kirk had been interested in monetary reform. Was monetary reform the extent of the 'plot'?

I thought that this was the probable reason Rowling hounded O'Brien out of the party.

PS: I cannot provide a link to this. All I can say is that I remember hearing a report of it on the radio news at the time.