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Sedition: The Suppression of Dissent in World War II New Zealand

A Documentary by Russell Campbell

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Synopsis: In 1916, at the height of World War I, Labour Party activist Peter Fraser condemned military conscription, declaring: 'It rests with the people to say how long they will stand for it.' He was imprisoned for twelve months for sedition. By 1940 he was Prime Minister. World War II had broken out, and Fraser headed a government which introduced conscription as a means of combatting the Nazi threat. But in the meantime many New Zealanders, outraged and horrified by the carnage of the battlefields, had formed a movement committed to rejecting war as a means of settling international disputes. Government and pacifists were on a collision course; and Communists, too, were actively opposed to New Zealand's involvement in the war.

Intent on assisting Britain in its hour of peril, the government would brook no dissent. The state machine pressed down relentlessly on any opposition to its war policy. Three batches of emergency regulations were passed, each more draconian than the last. Dissenters were stringently fined or imprisoned for speaking on street corners or publishing anti-war statements.

When conscription was introduced, conscientious objectors went before appeal boards. Some appeals were allowed, but many were not, and eight hundred men found themselves incarcerated in detention camps for the duration of the war. Many C.O.'s in the camps, especially men who had been members of the Christian Pacifist Society (CPS), took their protest further by refusing to co-operate with the authorities, and were subjected to harsh penal regimes as a result. The men remained in the camps or in prisons as the war escalated into a conflict which killed six times as many as World War I, culminating in the massive firestorm of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

'Sedition', a feature documentary, is the story of those who stuck to their passionate anti-war commitment through thick and thin. It's the story of Ormond Burton, decorated World War I soldier turned Methodist minister and staunch pacifist, imprisoned four times during the war for speaking up against the slaughter; of A.C. Barrington, leader with Burton of the CPS, a former company secretary whose gift for organisation and stubborn dedication to the pacifist cause made him a formidable opponent of the government; of Connie Summers (Jones), a young member of the CPS, given three months' hard labour for attempting to speak publicly against the war; of Chris Palmer and Merv Browne, who escaped from their detention camp in 1944 and trekked to Wellington to bring their call for peace to the notice of the New Zealand people.

Incorporating precious interview material (filmed in 1990) with many World War II conscientious objectors, newsreel footage and radio recordings from the period, and commentary by historians and political scientists, 'Sedition' is a sobering account of the lengths the state went to in an effort to silence those who repudiated war as an instrument of policy.

Director's Statement: I have a great respect for outsiders and rebels, especially people who stubbornly make a stand for progressive social change. My partner in Vanguard Films, Alister Barry, had filmed many interviews with World War II pacifists and conscientious objectors back in 1990, but had not then been able to obtain funding to make the documentary he planned.

When the opportunity arose to revive the project, I seized it. In watching the tapes and researching the history of the period, I became increasingly impressed by the steadfast integrity of those who repudiated warfare as a means of settling international disputes, and increasingly disturbed by what I learnt of the New Zealand government's determination to stifle all dissent. There was a story here to tell. My object in Sedition has been to pay tribute to those who had the courage of their anti-war convictions and spent months or years in detention as a result, while analysing the actions of a wartime government for whom civil liberties counted for little. It is a story told by historians and political scientists, but more importantly by those who were there at the time and fought for what they believed in, and who recollect their experiences vividly, with anger and sadness but also more than a touch of self-deprecating humour.

Biography: Dr Russell Campbell is a senior lecturer in film at Victoria University of Wellington and a documentary filmmaker with Vanguard Films. Among his films as director or co-director are 'Rebels in Retrospect' (about the Progressive Youth Movement of the Vietnam War era), 'Islands of the Empire' (on New Zealand's military relationship with the United States), and 'Wildcat' (the story of a struggle for democracy in the Timberworkers Union).

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