WHAT WOULD YOU THINK of a man who offered himself for high political office with the following credentials? He was raised in humble circumstances, fought his way out of poverty and, at 44, is a twice-decorated war hero. He does not eat meat or drink alcohol, loves animals and has an easy rapport with children.
Worth a go?
Not when you hear his name. Not when you discover that the man seeking your support is Adolf Hitler.
And yet, all the attributes listed above are completely factual. Adolf Hitler was all of those things. But, simply listing facts, especially when they are stripped of context, is not the same as telling the truth. To grasp the truth of Adolf Hitler’s contribution to world history requires more than mere facts, it requires understanding, interpretation and judgement.
When the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, addressed her party’s annual conference on 6 November 2022, she cloaked herself in the legacy of the Labour leaders who had preceded her. This is what she said:
On the 9th floor of the Beehive building in Wellington, sitting directly behind my desk, is a picture of Michael Joseph Savage. You could say he’s on my shoulder but also ever so slightly in my ear.
“Of course it was Savage and the first Labour Government that lifted New Zealand out of the depths of the Great Depression. Not by cutting taxes and services, but by investing in jobs, and building a social welfare safety net. They built the country’s first state home. And not long after these social reforms - New Zealand’s living standards were among some of the highest in the world. Not for the few, but for the many.
“The Finance Minister who supported Savage, Walter Nash, then led Labour’s second government as it continued to build our nation’s social welfare system, while advocating on the world stage for peace over war after World War 2.
“It was Norman Kirk and a Labour government who tilted the country towards a modern future with reforms of trade, health, the arts, and education. They worked hard to foster a renewed national identity and partnership with Maōri - all the while challenging global evil such as apartheid and nuclear testing.
“It was a fight David Lange continued, making New Zealand nuclear free, while also righting the wrongs of the past by legalising homosexuality, and fully abolishing the death penalty.
There are many facts embedded in the PM’s speech, but precious little truth.
It is certainly a fact that the Second Labour Government was led by Walter Nash, but to suggest that he was some sort of courageous pacifist visionary is very far from the truth.
Nash was 75 years old when he became Prime Minister in 1957 and was a notorious prevaricator and procrastinator. The two Labour Ministers who drove the Second Labour Government were Finance Minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, and the Trade & Industry Minister, Phil Holloway. Inspiring these two men was a third – the senior public servant and left-wing intellectual, Bill Sutch.
Knowing these things about the Second Labour Government, being able to put Nash and his colleagues into their proper historical context, offers the present-day member of the Labour Party a radically different perspective on the possibilities of social-democratic government. Sadly, Ardern did not want to share even a small measure of the truth about those three years. Her only concern was to establish her place in the line of succession.
Poor Norman Kirk fares little better. On the basis of the PM’s summary, the Third Labour Government could easily be presented as laying the groundwork for the Fourth. The truth is, of course, very different. Kirk was a nation-builder who, like his Australian counterpart, Gough Whitlam, was determined to extend and expand the Labour accomplishments of the 1930s and 40s. In other words, Kirk’s government represented the antithesis of Lange’s.
The Fourth Labour Government made New Zealand safe for neoliberalism by dismantling everything that the First, Second and Third Labour Government’s had built. Ardern’s impossibly brief sketch of the Fourth Labour Government, in which Lange champions the anti-nuclear policy, decriminalises homosexuality, and “finally” abolishes the death penalty comes perilously close to lying by omission.
Lange initially attempted to water-down the anti-nuclear policy, and then made sure he was as far from Wellington as possible when the critical decision to either admit or deny entry to a visiting US warship could no longer be put off. The decriminalisation of homosexuality was effected by a private members bill in the name of Fran Wilde on a conscience vote. It was not a government bill, and Lange had nothing to do with it. The big battle over the death penalty for murder had been won twenty-three years before Lange became PM. It was accomplished under a National Party government in 1961. All that the Fourth Labour Government abolished, thanks to Sir Geoffrey Palmer (not Lange) was the death penalty for treason in time of war.
Ardern’s reference to the Fourth Labour Government shows just how much of the truth can be obscured through the presentation of a few highly dubious “facts”. Had she been of a mind to speak honestly to her party, she could have explained to conference delegates that the reason so little has been accomplished on her watch is because the Fourth Labour Government quite consciously decided to disempower the state, and had carefully dismantled all the machinery that made it possible for previous Labour Governments to make New Zealand a better place.
It is entirely possible that Ardern approves of David Lange’s and Roger Douglas’s “reforms”. Certainly, neither she, nor her Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, have seen fit to roll back the neoliberal revolution which the Lange/Douglas partnership began. And that’s fine – just so long as she doesn’t then pretend to be one more gleaming crimson link in the long democratic-socialist chain that begins with Harry Holland in 1919!
The Labour Party does not like to be criticised and is fiercely protective of its leaders. Over the years it has discovered that the best form of defence is to personally attack all those who draw attention to its shortcomings. Crucial to the success of this strategy, however, is the fostering within its ranks of a pervasive political amnesia, and the encouragement a profound level of historical ignorance. The measure of these Labour apparatchiks’ success is that, to date, not one party member has dared to protest the Prime Minister’s grotesque misrepresentation of the Labour governments which preceded her own.
There is so much that the Labour Party could learn from its past. So much courage that could be drawn from the men and women who refused to be told that their plans were beyond the scope of practical politics. People who didn’t have to pretend to be radical reformers. A party that said “Let’s do this!” – and then did it.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 15 November 2022.