Tuesday 7 June 2022

The Affable Snake: Tony Simpson Remembers Stan Rodger (1940-2022)

A Man May Smile And Smile: Stan Rodger was an affable almost avuncular figure although it’s important to recall that no-one gets to the top of the then largest union in the country without exercising the skills commonly found in any political snake pit; ostensible bands of brothers and sisters are no exception.

THE DEATH of erstwhile Dunedin Labour politician and Cabinet Minister Stan Rodger on 29 May and the obituary note by Chris Trotter that followed a few days after raised a number of ghosts which I thought I had long buried; but ghosts have a habit of coming back to haunt and Stan’s role in the Lange government of the eighties is no exception. That government may be ancient history to many reading this but it represents a significant phase shift in our political past which needs to be regularly examined and analysed. As someone once said: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it; someone else added “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” [1]

I knew Stan quite well when I was a senior advocate for the PSA in the early seventies and he was the union president. He was an affable almost avuncular figure although it’s important to recall that no-one gets to the top of the then largest union in the country without exercising the skills commonly found in any political snake pit; ostensible bands of brothers and sisters are no exception. Stan went on to parlay his union background into a safe Labour seat in Parliament. There was nothing exceptional about that. The trade union movement invented the Labour Party in 1916 to unify its parliamentary initiatives on behalf of working people and moving from union office to MP was quite common in past decades. As an experienced worker representative Stan was an obvious candidate for Cabinet when the Lange government came to power in 1984 and he became Minister of Labour and of State Services. And that’s where the fun begins.

It is now commonplace to recognise that that government repudiated the social democratic tradition which was central to its previous philosophies and replaced it with a thoroughgoing economic and social neo-liberalism which included an attack on some of the longstanding rights of workers in their trade unions. There was widespread outrage at this within the union movement; I myself abandoned my role with the PSA, at root because they refused to call out the Lange government for its anti-union policies, but immediately because the debate became so heated that there were fisticuffs in the office and I had to go, although I was subsequently to return as president to try and repair some of the damage.

The angry debates that government occasioned affected its Members of Parliament along with everyone else. Some, such as Jim Anderton walked away and set up an alternative party true to what they perceived to be the previous Labour traditions. Others, along with much of the previous mass party membership, disappointed and disillusioned, turned their backs and slipped away. But some stayed on in Parliament and saw the crashing defeat of Labour at the 1990 election. Stan’s erstwhile membership at the PSA showed their displeasure by revoking his honorary status at a subsequent Conference against the advice of the then platform leadership. It was subsequently restored but it is indicative of the fury among many committed unionists that it happened at all.

All of this created a dilemma for Stan. No-one likes to be labelled a traitor to a cause i.e. in this case the workplace rights of working people, whether such a characterisation is justified or not. Others who were confronted with the same problem took the obvious course and published a memoir in justification. [2] Stan didn’t publish a memoir as far as I am aware. But he did it seems invent a narrative of his motives which he vouchsafed to those around him such as the veteran journalist Richard Harman; it is one that finds its way into Chris Trotter’s obituary notice.

According to this story there was a left wing Marxist conspiracy against the PSA led by another of its erstwhile presidents, Jack Lewin, who by the deployment of a sinister body called The Korero sought to take over the union and turn it by stealth to its own left wing purposes. This group it is alleged, playing some master game of which the puppet master had been Bill Sutch, were trying to use their position within the PSA to turn our polity in an extreme left direction, and had already attracted the attention of not only the scurrilous right wing newspaper Truth but the SIS. Stan, by playing a major instrumental role in getting David Lange into Parliament, his story goes, and then into the leadership of Labour saved the nation from this Marxist conspiracy. His role in the Lange government was an on-going part of that brave enterprise. Its problem as a narrative is that it bears little or no resemblance to the facts of the matter.

That there was a group referred to informally and partly in jest as ‘the korero’ is true, and Jack Lewin who was also well known to me not only existed but was considerably more colourful and larger than life. I also knew personally quite a number of the other activists involved including Jim Turner and Jack Batt, both subsequently union presidents. But to understand what this was all about you must go back to the creation of the PSA in 1913 in the wake of the passage of the first serious attempt to create a professional and non-political civil service in this country, the Public Service Act of 1912. This Act was predicated on the assumption that some organisation would be in place representing the interests of the newly created professional public service workers, and so one was accordingly created – the PSA. But if you called it a union you would probably give its founders a heart attack. Even its name eschewed the word ‘union’; it was an association, and its rules to this day contain a clause forbidding it to affiliate to any political party. It sternly rejected the suggestion that it should register under the then Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act because it had a paranoid fear of anything resembling compulsory membership and was from its inception to this day a wholly voluntary body.

But times change. By the late nineteen fifties New Zealand had gone through a cruel Depression, the first Labour government, and the trauma of the Second World War. This had created a generation of committed unionists to whom the PSA as originally constituted was no longer fit for purpose. But neither were they Marxists or Leninists or any other of the communist sectarians who are always with us but who have also had little or no influence on the direction of the trade union movement in this country, except perhaps in the fevered imaginings of the SIS or populist politicians in search of a bogeyman such as Robert Muldoon, and sometimes only in their own minds.

What Jack Lewin and the so-called ‘korero’ were all about was ending the cosy relationship between the senior public service of the day and the leadership of the PSA and replacing it with a leadership transparent and accountable to its rank and file members. In this they succeeded admirably. I would venture to say, from my own observation, and as someone with a highly sensitive nose for bull shit and subterfuge that during my period working at a senior level for the PSA it was genuinely responsive to the views and requirements of its members and probably more so than any other union in the country. Those were its agendas and nothing else despite efforts from time to time by various groups to take it over or assert influence on it – including at various points a strange right wing philosophical group calling itself Moral Rearmament, the ubiquitous sectarians of the communist left, and some of the more socially conscious groups within the Catholic Church. None of them came within a bull’s roar of gaining their objectives or even enjoying other than minor influence.

Ironically, it was only when the Lange government repealed the State Services Act – not on Stan’s watch but that of Geoffrey Palmer - and replaced it with legislation which effectively shut out the PSA from any influence on the direction of government workplace policy, that there was serious damage done to the professional and politically neutral ethos of our public service. In a very real way we have returned at least partially to the situation which pertained prior to the passing of the 1912 Act when the New Zealand civil service was subject to gross political patronage and inappropriate interference by politicians.

I last saw Stan and chatted briefly to him at the centenary function of the PSA in 2013. He remained at a personal level what I had always known him to be – an affable and avuncular figure who came over as someone who wouldn’t harm a fly. In that regard I would simply remind you reading this that appearances, particularly when power is involved, can be very deceptive, and that Stan survived and flourished in one of the most unforgiving of all social environments - the trade union movement.

Tony Simpson.

[1] There are many claimants to have invented this dictum, including Winston Churchill and a Spanish philosopher George Santayana but the most likely candidate is Edmund Burke (1729-1797) with the coda added by Karl Marx.

[2] The prime instance of this is Reform by Geoffrey Palmer (2013). There were others I will not mention, some so egregious as to beggar belief. In its subsequently published centenary history the Labour Party also glossed over the whole matter.

This essay is exclusive to Bowalley Road.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

The whole idea of an extreme left conspiracy in the PSA is and was ridiculous. The extreme left were busy fighting over who was the most ideal logically pure, and I guarantee there were very few of them in the PSA, given that it covered mostly white collar workers? F' crying out loud, the teachers union was more assertive than the PSA, and for good reason. I went with a bunch of kids to the Treasury building on a careers day once. By God it was luxurious. We had been eating our lunch in a room with no heating and a great big hole in the wall for about four weeks in the middle of winter, thanks to private enterprise contractors who'd decided something else was more urgent than our comfort. The armchairs were made by the technical department/s out of metal tubing and plastic cloth. Around 1958, so they were at least 20 years old. THEY even had carpet. Place looked more like a boardroom than a lunchroom. :) I can't imagine those guys spouting Marxist rhetoric. And come to think of it, the conditions in other government departments were much the same – not the we went to them all, but enough.

swordfish said...

Excellent critique of the Rodgers narrative, Tony.

If I may, I'll repeat my comment replying to Chris's original post (albeit with minor additions):

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 the Korero was 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 as opposed to, say, Mao’s China or the Soviet Union) … I really don't think she or other members were part of the sort of far left Militant Tendency-style infiltration (or worse) that Stan appears to be hinting at.

She was certainly at the progressive end of the spectrum in terms of mid-20C feminism & views toward Māori (as was the entire Korero grouping) … but above all a believer in democracy and in the common-sense, unfulfilled talents & empowerment of so-called ‘ordinary’ working people. Wouldn’t have been too taken with the professional middle class Woke capture of Left organisations, their self-interested elitism & authoritarianism (posing as moral refinement) or their highly-selective top-down "empathies" resulting in the systematic scapegoating of swathes of the lower income along ethnic & gender lines.

Don Franks said...

Thanks to Tony Simpson for shining a light on some working class history. Also useful on this theme and period is the late Jim Delahunty's pamphlet "Night's black agents".

John Hurley said...

Have a listen Chris
very difficult very difficult to imagine a transition to a whatever version of
the 80s we're looking for in terms of public policy with that political class
given the divisions that are emerging it's very difficult to imagine that they have the nouse to be able to keep
bridges built between cities and regional centers and between cities by