The People's Choice: The contemporary conservative voters’ faith in the policies of their Prime Minister is no more susceptible to being undermined by dissident journalism than their predecessors’ was by militant unionism. New Zealanders, it seems, will forgive many sins in the name of maintaining stability and preserving prosperity.
A HOT WAR in Korea. Record prices for New Zealand’s agricultural exports. Overseas shipping companies waxing wrathful over restrictive practices and unneedful delays. A belligerent trade union unwilling to back down. A National Government slowly recovering the use of its political muscles after 14 years on the Opposition benches. Mix all these factors together and something’s bound to happen.
And something did.
The Waterfront Dispute of 1951 is remembered now (when it is remembered at all) as a mighty industrial stoush. The Watersiders and their allies squaring-off against the ship-owners and the first National Government under Sid Holland – a man every bit as belligerent as the watersiders’ leader, Jock Barnes.
Not surprisingly, Sid Holland won.
But that was then and this is now. Sixty-three years on, who cares? In 2014, “organised labour” is a fading historical memory. Today, outside the public sector, barely one worker in ten carries a union card. For young, twenty-first century Kiwis, the tales of ’51 might just as well be the tales of Ancient Greece.
Except it’s not the tale of the Watersiders’ heroic defeat that I want to tell. That’s an old story and Dick Scott told it much better than I ever could in his book 151 Days. No, the story I’m interested in is the story of how New Zealanders reacted to the events of 1951. And that is a story with some very distinct contemporary echoes.
This is how the veteran broadcaster, Gordon Dryden, remembered 1951 in his memoir Out of the Red:
“In my view the emergency regulations introduced on 26 February 1951 slashed at everything I believed in about journalism. It became against the law to report both sides of the story of the biggest industrial dispute in New Zealand history. It became against the law to make donations to help feed the families of workers who were on strike. It became unlawful for opponents of the Government to hold meetings.”
Dryden, in 1951, “was much more concerned with the issue of press freedom and democracy.”
But these were not the concerns of a clear majority of New Zealanders: 54 percent of whom delivered a resounding endorsement of Sid Holland’s draconian regulations by casting their votes for the National Party in the Snap Election of 1 September 1951.
And it wasn’t only the ordinary voters who declined to be outraged by the National Government’s sudden and unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties. In 1951, New Zealand boasted dozens of daily newspapers, but not one editor or proprietor prepared to put his freedom on the line for the freedom of the press. Nor was there a single judge willing to tender his resignation rather than enforce a law which would not have been out of place in Stalin’s Russia.
But, that was then.
In August 2014, the investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, published a book exposing the manner in which a person employed in the office of the Prime Minister, and Judith Collins, the Minister of Justice, colluded with a prominent right-wing blogger and a slew of working journalists to undermine, discredit and attack opponents of John Key’s National Government.
The many thousands of New Zealanders who read Mr Hager’s Dirty Politics were convinced that its revelations could not fail to erode the voters’ support for Mr Key and his colleagues. Like Gordon Dryden, their concerns were about “the issue of press freedom and democracy”.
But, they were wrong.
The contemporary conservative voters’ faith in the policies of their Prime Minister is no more susceptible to being undermined by dissident journalism than their predecessors’ was by militant unionism. New Zealanders, it seems, will forgive many sins in the name of maintaining stability and preserving prosperity.
Not even the news that, just twelve days after the 2014 election, Mr Hager’s house was subjected to a 10-hour search by five police officers, responding to the complaint of the right-wing blogger whose hacked e-mails constitute the core of the Dirty Politics exposé, is likely to impair the celebratory temper of the conservative Kiwi voter.
In his celebrated essay, Fretful Sleepers, written in the months following the 1951 confrontation, the New Zealand writer, Bill Pearson, observed:
“The New Zealander delegates authority, then forgets it ... There is no one more docile in the face of authority.”
If that was true then, is it still true 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, 10 October 2014.