- by Murray Horton
This is not one that I ever expected to write. It seems unnatural to be writing an obituary for somebody six years younger than myself. And somebody, as in Rod’s case, so energetic, so young in all things, so full of life, and so much larger than life. So I can only join the overwhelming chorus of those expressing shock and disbelief at his untimely sudden death in November 2005. This has been one hell of a year and I seem to have gone to more funerals than usual, not to mention writing more obituaries. For the second time in six months, I need to start at the end by addressing the question of the person’s death. In Owen Wilkes’ case, it was suicide and many, many thousands of shocked people wanted to know why. The cause of Rod’s death at 48 was a complete mystery at first, and I bet I wasn’t alone in initially suspecting some connection to his grotesquely overused cellphone that seemed surgically attached to his ear. But it was finally diagnosed as a routine old virus that, when the person’s immune system is run down, secretly attacks their heart with sometimes fatal results and no warning. Hindsight being a wonderful thing, looking back I could see the warning signs. I saw quite a lot of Rod this year, in all sorts of circumstances, and he regularly looked buggered, falling asleep at meetings for example (and, no, not just because our meetings are boring). I last saw him, although not to speak to, at a fundraising walk/run around Hagley Park the weekend before the new Government was announced (which saw Labour contemptuously discard the Greens in favour of New Zealand First and United Future). He was stripped to shorts (he did the run), looked hot and bothered and had his cellphone glued to his ear.
Apparently, in the last couple of weeks of his life, he got quite ill (we now know that was the fatal virus) but he wouldn’t take any time off or slow down. Ironically, for such a Sensitive New Age Guy, it was this old fashioned Kiwi bloke approach to his own health that may well have contributed to his own demise, coming on top of countless years of high octane life and work that must have taken their toll on his body and immune system. One of the standing jokes at our place was the memory of Rod’s repeated cellphone calls to me one January day in the buildup to that year’s protest at the Waihopai spybase. He was “on holiday” with his family in Golden Bay but work just kept rolling along. At his semi-State funeral at Christchurch Cathedral, one of his daughters told how he carefully chose that Golden Bay spot for their annual holiday precisely because it had cellphone cover.
There is an extra dimension to this which may have sealed his fate. Rod’s greatest achievement was that he could rightfully claim to be the father of the Mixed Member Proportional voting system (MMP). But MMP’s weakness is that although it certainly delivers a Parliament, it doesn’t deliver a Government, or not the one that people, such as me and Becky, thought that they were voting for (namely a Labour/Green coalition). Rod and the Greens were the biggest casualties of the electoral system that they had bequeathed to the nation. Nor was this the first time they had been shafted by Labour. It happened when they first entered Parliament as an independent party, in 1999 – Labour chose to stitch up a deal with the Alliance, which duly fell to bits and led to the 2002 election being called early. That time around, Labour and the Greens had a hissy fit over Corngate and a coalition was off the agenda (for its part, the Alliance vanished from Parliament). In 2005, it was all lovey dovey between Labour and the Greens, so much so that the Greens ran a feeble campaign consisting largely of asking voters to vote for them to let them support Labour. Voters decided to cut out the middle man in a tight election and voted for Labour directly, with the result that the Greens dropped three MPs (the first election since 1999 when they hadn’t increased their numbers) and their party vote dropped perilously close to the oblivion of less of 5%. For its part, Labour thanked them for all their hard work by dumping them and reinforcing the point that as long as it is in office (or, at least, has Helen Clark as Prime Minister) it will never include the Greens in a coalition.
Rod ran around like the proverbial bluearsed fly in the weeks after the election, engaged in endless negotiations with Labour (he came to the CAFCA Annual General Meeting during that period but spent most of it outside, talking on his cellphone). And the end result? A big fat nothing, apart from some tokenism such as him being given the Buy New Zealand Made campaign to keep him busy. The question of whether to work with Labour inside or outside of Government has been a constant debate within the Greens and this time around the Party committed itself to wanting in. It is no secret that Rod was busting his guts to be a Cabinet Minister (I used to tease him that he’d get Minister of Racing; funnily enough, his nemesis Winston Peters has that now). In those exhausting and surreal weeks of negotiations, he and the Greens did some unwise things, none more so than their “secret” meeting with Big Business leaders, which was gleefully exposed by the media, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince the transnational corporations and local capitalists that they had nothing to fear from a coalition including the Greens. All for nought. Although he didn’t publicly show it, that must have been a crushing disappointment for Rod, plus the realisation that he was never likely to get into Cabinet. At the Christchurch funeral, the Australian Green Senator, Bob Brown, said that Rod had told him that he didn’t want to die wondering whether he would have made a good Minister. Well, I’m afraid, he did.
Forever One Of Us, Not One Of Them
Just to increase the pressure on him to bursting point, the Greens were made the target of a hysterical election year smear campaign, ranging from the overt (Big Business) to the bizarrely covert (the Exclusive Brethren). As the only party in Parliament to the Left of Labour since the Alliance left the building (and not too much of a Leftwing party at that), the Greens became the bogeyman (that’d better be the bogeyperson to be PC, I suppose) for all the Rightwing forces in the country, from the 80s’ retro Rogernauts to the flat Earth Biblebashers. Interestingly, these same forces did not similarly demonise the Maori Party. After all, its new MPs and senior Party officials include bona fide “Maori radicals”, who are usually good for frightening the children. Why not? The answer may lie in that party’s rather alarming flirtation with National in the post-election negotiations. Heavy petting was in evidence, but it became a case of coalition interruptus.
Speaking at the Wellington memorial meeting: “Author Nicky Hager said Donald did not deserve the strain he was forced to live under at the fringe of mainstream politics. A constant barrage of insults from political foes about being ‘nutty’, having ‘loony ideas’ or being a ‘crank’ took their toll. ‘I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to be struck by the hypocrisy of some of the kinds of words spoken about Rod by other politicians after he died’. Now was a good time for politicians to pause and reconsider their treatment of non-mainstream MPs, he said” (Press, 22/11/05; “Donald’s mates lament attacks”, Haydon Dewes). In her deeply moving speech at the funeral, his partner, Nicola Shirlaw, surprised the nation by revealing that Rod, the consummate political animal, was in despair throughout 2005 at the state of NZ politics and came within an ace of chucking it all in and heading off to another, now never to be known, career. She said that what rekindled the fire in his belly were the lunatic policies and actions of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe and he threw himself into the unsuccessful campaign to stop the NZ cricket team from touring there in 2005. Rod was a hero to the Zimbabwean exile community in this country and they played a leading role at his funeral. Just weeks before the election I found myself sitting next to him at a film premiere (he had to suffer the torture of turning off his cellphone for an hour and a half; he talked on it until the lights went out). Afterwards I teased him that if the polls were correct, Don Brash’s National would win. He didn’t see that as a laughing matter at all and indicated that if it came to pass, he’d chuck it all in. A close colleague told me that she last had an indepth discussion with Rod in early 2004 and described him as “despondent” about the political situation. All of this would have contributed to getting him down to the extent that a common or garden virus was able to kill him.
And would he have been a good Minister? We’ll never know now, nor would we if he’d still been alive. Personally, I think that Labour did the Greens a backhanded favour by shitting on them. I think that calculated insult of refusing to have them as a coalition partner has, ironically, guaranteed the Greens’ survival as a Parliamentary party, indeed as a political party. The record for junior coalition partners under MMP is not encouraging. They become the lightning rod for everything perceived to be wrong with the Government, a perception happily encouraged by the major partner in the interests of its own survival. Look at what happened with New Zealand First during its 1996-98 coalition with National or the Alliance with Labour from 1999-02. And if Rod had become a Minister, he would have been labelled the “loony” one, and undergone the pillorying currently being borne (disastrously) by Winston Peters as Minister of Foreign Affairs. If there’s any justice in the world, similar pillorying will be inflicted on the Minister most responsible for keeping the Greens out of government, namely the odious Peter Dunne (whose name should more appropriately be pronounced dunny). I reckon the Greens are better off out of it. If and when this ramshackle coalition of strange bedfellows falls to bits, the Greens will come out of it smelling of roses. And it gives them vital time to rebuild their seriously eroded support base which saw no particular reason to vote for them rather than Labour in 2005. As for Rod, the national wave of aroha that swept the country after his death means that his memory remains unsullied by the inevitable disappointments and disasters that would have come with a Cabinet post. Rest assured mate, it wouldn’t have been worth it. And it means that you forever remain one of us, not one of them.
Rod literally was one of us. He’d been a CAFCA member since 1998 and an Anti-Bases Campaign (ABC) member for a similar period. In both cases, his active involvement predated his formal membership by years. He donated to CAFCA and contributed more than $800 to the CAFCA/ABC Organiser Account, which provides my income. He regularly said that he must become a regular pledger to it and asked for the automatic payment forms to be sent to him. But despite the truly heroic efforts of his Parliamentary Executive Secretary, Bronwen Summers, he never got around to filling them in and activating it. This sent him off on a self-inflicted guilt trip every time he saw me. He regularly attended CAFCA Annual General Meetings, making him the only MP (not to mention Party Co-Leader) to do so.
By contrast with Owen Wilkes, Rod and I were never personal friends, mates or close colleagues. I knew nothing about Rod’s family or great chunks of his life, most of which I learned from the media. It wasn’t until after his death that I knew he was an only child, which must make it devastating for his elderly parents. He’d been to our place a few times (usually to personally sell us tickets for local Green fundraising movie nights). I’d only ever been to his family home once, and that was as recently as August 2005. We’d both been Christchurch-based political activists for 30 years, but we only ever spoke together to a public meeting once, and that was as recently as February 2005 (in Napier). Again, by contrast with Owen, there was no shared background of madcap adventures from decades ago. I can think of only trip away together before he started regularly coming to the Waihopai spybase protests – a 1980 trip (an extremely uncomfortable one in a van) to Dunedin to take part in activities opposing the proposed transnational aluminium smelter at Aramoana, at the entrance to Otago Harbour (that was one campaign that was 100% successful). He was a crucial few years younger than me and basically we mixed in different circles, with very different views on whether to work inside or outside of the political system.
A Precocious, Prodigious Talent
Be that as it may, Rod and I went back 30 years together as fellow political activists in Christchurch. On numerous occasions, including in the months before he died, he regaled me and anyone else around with a story of him inviting me to speak at his private boys’ high school, St Andrews College, and the impression that I made, as the longhaired and bearded leader of the notorious Progressive Youth Movement, complete with Army greatcoat (the garment that so got up the nose of the powers that be in those fevered days of Vietnam War and Anzac Day protests). No matter how many times he told that story, I have no memory of it, so I just had to take his word for it (but I do have a crystal clear memory of an identical visit to Christchurch Boys High School, where the Deputy Principal stormed into the packed assembly hall like the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse and loudly demanded to know who had invited me. Told that it was one of the prefects, he retreated in confusion). I think Rod treasured his mental picture of me as the longhaired, bearded protester of his adolescence and seemed almost offended when I ditched both hair and beard three years ago. He struggled to recognise me, to the extent of walking past me in the street, and always commented on my extreme makeover as a shorthaired, cleanshaven, middleaged man.
Rod was a precocious talent. His first protest action was as a 12 year old – he picketed his school’s football team from the sideline, protesting his exclusion on the grounds that he was too fat (he made sure that he was never fat again). He plunged into environmental activism as a St Andrews schoolboy in the early 1970s (it didn’t affect his school career, where he finished as Head Prefect). He opted to not go on to university, on the grounds that there was too much to do. He joined the former Values Party and biked to Nelson to become campaign manager for its local candidate. He did a stint on a Nelson organic farm and then returned to Christchurch where he was a founding member of Ecology Action, specialising in recycling. At 18 he was manager of the newly founded Christchurch Environment Centre. Veteran environmentalist, Janet Holm, described him as “full of fire and vigour”. But Rod had a penchant for treading on toes, too (it goes with the territory). “Their relationship became strained as Holm thought Donald ‘became fixated on his own power and influence. He acted on his own bat, seeking publicity’. Holm tried to sack him but he used the group’s constitution to prevent this. When Donald sought a City Council job in recycling and asked Holm for a testimonial, she wrote that he was ‘extremely bright and able and well organised but does only what he wants’. She said he was ‘impossible to control’. To her amazement, he got the job. Also to her amazement, they remained good friends. ‘He was always nice, always innovative and on the go’ (Press, 12/11/05; “Fire And Flair”, Mike Crean).
Rod was the Christchurch City Council’s recycling publicity officer in 1978-79. In the late 70s he was best known in Christchurch as the leader of the Loopies i.e the group of “hippies” who moved into the inner city Avon Loop and set up an alternative community there (which was a very 70s thing to do. In many respects, Rod remained a 70s guy all his life, as evidenced by his love for the Pink Floyd music which featured so prominently at his funeral). This put him at odds not only with the developers who wanted to “develop” the Loop but the formidable Elsie Locke. She headed a group of longterm residents who wanted a different kind of development from that proposed by both the businessmen and the hippies (her son, Keith, became one of Rod’s closest colleagues as a fellow Green MP). Rod’s most enduring legacy from that period is Piko Wholefoods, which is still going strong. Piko led to him becoming involved with Trade Aid, after joining a volunteer committee. In 1981 he plunged into the maelstrom of the protests against the Springbok Tour, being the subject of a TV current affairs profile on anti-tour protestors. In the early 80s he worked for the Tenants Protection Association. It was there that he met his life partner, Nicola Shirlaw. They had three daughters, whose ages range from 13 to 21, and upon whom he absolutely doted (I regularly came upon him biking or walking around town with one or more of them in tow. He loved those kids). He moved on to become national publicity officer for the Youth Hostels Association, and spent the years 1986-90 in Wellington as public affairs manager for Volunteer Service Abroad.
Rod returned to Christchurch in 1990 to become the NZ manager of Trade Aid Importers, the job he held until he entered Parliament in 1996. Trade Aid’s co-founder, Vi Cottrell, said that he “brought absolute passion to the job. He was totally committed. He thought about it all the time. We used to joke that when he went on holiday it was a progression from one Trade Aid shop to another…He was a great strategic thinker. He modernised Trade Aid. Without him, it would have gone down the tube” (Press, 12/11/05; “Fire And Flair”, Mike Crean). This was the period of closest contact between CAFCA and Trade Aid. Rod invited me to the Christchurch national office to speak to the staff; at one point Trade Aid paid for more than a dozen of its shops to stock Watchdog (sadly that didn’t last). Later, as an MP, Rod paid for several copies of Watchdog to be made available in his various offices.
MMP: His Greatest Legacy
Since 1989 Rod had been a high profile public figure as national spokesman for the Electoral Reform Commission. This really is his greatest legacy – he threw himself heart and soul into the successful campaign to force a binding referendum to change the voting system from the totally distorted and discredited First Past the Post to MMP. To win that battle, he had to overcome entrenched opposition from the media and leading MPs from both traditional major parties (plenty of whom are still in Parliament today, ironically having survived because of the system they opposed). The “citizens” campaign to retain the old system was lavishly funded by Big Business (which had done very nicely out of it, especially during the Rogernomics years of crony capitalism in the 80s), and headed by Telecom’s Peter Shirtcliffe. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the voting system and it ended in victory at the 1993 referendum and Rod entering Parliament as a new MP after the first MMP election in 1996. He continued to campaign, rather less successfully, to get the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system adopted for local body elections.
Parliamentary politics seemed the logical next step. Those who branded him a careerist expected it to be with Labour. And indeed he had been a member of that party from 1982-88 “when he quit because he didn’t like the party’s direction and because it reneged on the electoral referendum” (Listener, 9/4/94; “Gunning For The Greens”, Bruce Ansley). Instead Rod chose the Greens and didn’t muck around, going straight to the top as Co-Leader. He was refreshingly honest. “Donald likes power. ‘I’m very keen on it. I don’t see why anyone should shy away from it’” (ibid).
That decade-old Listener profile contains some fascinating insights into both Rod and the Greens. “…But there was a more pressing reason for Donald to turn away from Labour: he is suspicious of the Party’s relationship with unions. ‘I don’t believe in the whole business of the unions affiliating to the Labour Party and holding card votes. Unions have a very important role, but I look for a third alternative, a co-operative model. To some extent unions depend on the continuation of the capitalist system, whereas worker ownership is a completely different path, which doesn’t mean the end of unions. I’ve found it frustrating that unions have opposed the cooperative model because they think it threatens their own future, whereas it’s the best way workers can break their shackles’. Shades of the anarchism that Donald entertained when he lived above the health foods cooperative he started? ‘I still feel quite comfortable with anarchy, in principle. It’s about people taking responsibility for their own lives and being conscious of the needs of other people. But I’m a realist. And a pragmatist’” (ibid). Views such as those were definitely bound to cause problems with the old Labourites and unionists who comprised New Labour, the core party of the Alliance. At that stage, Rod was all in favour of the Greens staying within the Alliance. “Why walk away from a coalition where you’ve already had a significant influence on policy, and then have to form another coalition?” (ibid).
The Greens lasted one term (1996-99) within the Alliance. Shortly before the 1999 election, when they’d taken the gamble to fly solo, I asked Rod why they had left. He replied: “Two words. Jim Anderton”. The gamble nearly didn’t pay off – on election night 1999, when Labour came to power, the Greens had missed out, both in their only electorate hope (Coromandel) and in the party vote. They had to endure an agonising wait in limbo until special votes delivered them both Coromandel (which Co-Leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons, held for one term) and enough party votes to get into Parliament under their own banner (but, by that time, Labour had stitched up a coalition with the Alliance). Then they were thrust into the spotlight of massive media attention as the funky new party (a slot most recently occupied by the Maori Party). Ironically Rod, once the young lion, was now one of the party’s senior statesmen, while the media was transfixed by his younger colleagues, such as Nandor Tanczos. Probably their best chance of getting into Government was in 2002, with Labour unchallenged by an astonishingly feeble National Party campaign. But Corngate definitely stuffed that up and Labour and the Greens went bitterly head to head on a key point of difference, namely genetic engineering. Clark chose United Future and the Greens stayed out in the cold. By the time of the 2005 election, the Greens had ensured that there would be no nasty spats but it was one election too late – National had revved up the “what’s in it for me?” tax cuts issue which set the agenda for the whole campaign, backed up by good old fashioned racism (greed and racism, the old firm). Labour hung on by the skin of Helen Clark’s particularly unattractive teeth and decided that the Greens (who had offered voters no obvious reason to vote for them as opposed to Labour) were dispensable. The rest, as they say, is history (actually it is current reality).
CAFCA’s Key Contact In Parliament
It was during Rod’s years as an MP, i.e. the past decade, that he had the closest relationship with both CAFCA and ABC. Unlike so many others who have become MPs with parties such as Labour and the Alliance, Rod never turned his back on the progressive movement from whence he came. On the contrary, he thrived in his dual role as both MP and extra-Parliamentary activist. He never sold out, and he never forgot where he came from. Starting with CAFCA, that period spanned his leading role in our unsuccessful campaign to stop Westpac taking over TrustBank and went right through to the most recent campaign, namely the 2003-05 one against what is now the new Overseas Investment Act. CAFCA is not affiliated to any party, we’re an independent organisation, and reserve the right to criticise all of them, including the Greens (and have done so). But it’s no secret that we had an extremely good working relationship with the Greens, meaning with Rod. Once they stood on their own two feet in Parliament, it only got stronger. Shortly after that election I went to Wellington and briefed the Green caucus (I started by stating that I was an Alliance voter – by a simple process of elimination, I became a first time Green voter in 2005). Once the Alliance was gone, the Greens were the only game in town for us. Rod was on the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee and persuaded it to inquire into the workings of the Overseas Investment Commission ( OIC). He further persuaded the Labour and New Zealand First MPs on it to agree to recommendations for changing the OIC and tightening up its processes – the Government opted to ignore its own Party’s MPs. During the campaign on the Overseas Investment Bill, Rod initiated a Greens petition to stop foreigners being able to buy rural land in NZ and organised public meetings up and down the country on the issue of foreign control (such as the February 2005 one at Napier at which I also spoke). He was always eager to be personally helpful. On one trip to Wellington, he invited me to Parliament and personally took me around the Press Gallery (where he was part of the furniture), introduced me to every journalist and put in a plug for CAFCA with every one of them.
A glimpse at the Greens’ foreign investment policy for the 2005 election shows it to have been heavily influenced by CAFCA, and that was entirely attributable to Rod constantly picking our brains on the subject. Rod worked his charm on both sides of the argument – after his death I received a lot of messages. The most surprising one came from Steven Dawe, the former Chief Executive Officer of the OIC, who is now with the International Monetary Fund in the US. In the more than a decade that he and I had been communicating, on behalf of CAFCA and the OIC, we had never exchanged a personal message. But he e-mailed me, expressing genuine sorrow at Rod’s death and asking me to pass that on to his family. I’ll give the man full credit for that.
Rod was indefatigable and at times I felt like an unpaid oncall researcher for him. He rang me once as he laboured up an East Coast hill to join Maori occupying Young Nick’s Head in protest at it being sold to an American; he rang me as he was driving to Comalco’s Tiwai Point smelter for a tour as a guest of the company, and wanted a fast briefing on everything to do with Comalco. Another time he rang, from Australia, minutes before he was due to do a Radio NZ national interview on the whole subject of foreign control and wanted some tips. I loved the breathtaking cheek of the fellow. Some of these calls were on sensitive subjects. It’s only a few months ago that he rang asking my advice on whether the Greens should vote for the Overseas Investment Bill because one of the amendments arising from its Select Committee stage was attractive to the Party and they were tempted by half a loaf being better than none. Fortunately, Rod and the Party saw sense and retained their credibility by voting against the Bill. I doubt that he ever read a Watchdog (he was neither a reader nor a writer), but he had an exceptionally good intuitive grasp of the subject and all its details. He was a wonderful contact to have in Parliament and ensured that we received a steady flow of material and information. He really is a great loss to CAFCA, possibly irreplaceable.
Throughout his whole time in Parliament, he was the Greens’ spokesperson on trade and he ensured that the Party fought all the multitude of free trade agreements being foisted upon the NZ people by both National and Labour. He fought equally hard on the issues of foreign control and free trade. In the latter campaign, I’m basically a foot soldier, so his close working relationships were with colleagues such as Bill Rosenberg and Leigh Cookson.
A Regular Happy Camper At Waihopai
Rod’s relationship with ABC was much more hands on and sociable. From the time he entered Parliament as an Alliance MP in Opposition he plunged into the campaign against the Waihopai spybase. He was elected in 1996; he paid his first visit to Waihopai during ABC’s January 1997 protest (the last time anyone was arrested there; tactics have been changed in recent years). Indeed he later appeared as a defence witness during the Blenheim court case of the 20 people arrested but got short shrift from the reactionary local judge who wasn’t going to have his courtroom turned into a “circus”. That first time, Rod came with new Labour MP, Marian Hobbs. We’re reliably informed that she got her head bitten off by Helen Clark, who so terrified Marian that she has never contacted ABC again, never been near Waihopai again, and never mentioned the subject again (even when she was Minister of Disarmament), preferring to stick to platitudes and bask in the glow of New Zealand being nuclear free.
Once the Greens stood on their own two feet in Parliament, and Keith Locke was elected (both happened in 1999), Rod and Keith became a standard feature of all subsequent Waihopai protest camps. In January 2000, the newly-elected Greens were flavour of the month and the media poured across from Wellington to cover it. The most recent Waihopai protest was in January 2004 – both were at it. And they didn’t just parachute in either. Both spent the weekend in a tent like the rest of us, using Portaloos and doing their share of the food preparation. Rod was invaluable for his ability to attract the media to events like that, he really did have them wrapped around his little finger. And he was an excellent liaison man with the publicity shy base commanders, to get us legal access to the inner gate of the heavily fortified spybase. He plunged into all our activities – I remember him as compere for a Best Dressed Spy contest, held in Blenheim’s central Seymour Square. He loaned us his family tent, he drove people around in his van (quite often having specially driven it from his family’s annual holiday in Golden Bay), and he led the trips to the swimming hole further up the Waihopai Valley. ABC didn’t go to Waihopai in 2005, instead we went to the other “ New Zealand” spybase, at Tangimoana on the North Island’s lower west coast. Rod and Keith played a leading role – Rod told me that it was the only time he’d ever been there.
Rod never missed a chance to put Waihopai in the spotlight – in August 2005, as part of its election campaign, the Greens toured Andrew Wilkie, an Australian former Intelligence analyst turned Iraq War whistleblower, author and Australian Green candidate. Rod accompanied him through the country, including to the inner gate of Waihopai (where he managed to wrangle a couple of muffins out of the base commander, having chided him about the lack of hospitality to an MP on previous visits). Indeed, Wilkie’s tour was the reason for my only ever visit to Rod’s home, to meet him, and we spent a very pleasant evening. At Wilkie’s well attended Christchurch public meeting, Rod kept plugging the ABC and invited me to speak. He had every intention of joining ABC again at the January 2006 Waihopai protest. Days after his death I was asked to come into his Christchurch office, where his shellshocked secretary handed me the e-mail I’d sent him inviting him to join us again. On it he’d written, “yes”. And to my rather tongue in cheek query as to whether he would have come if he had been a Cabinet Minister, he’d emphatically written “I sure as Hell would have come!”. That would have been an interesting situation that sure as Hell would have infuriated Clark and fascinated the media. Sometimes the latter reported the Waihopai protests (and the 2005 Tangimoana one) as if they’d been organised by the Greens, with no mention of ABC. We grinned and bore it, because we knew that without Rod’s unique charm and media savvy, they probably wouldn’t have given it any coverage at all, or definitely not as much. Rod was a bona fide celebrity and one of the few personalities among our otherwise grey and boring politicians. In gratitude to his years of work on the Waihopai campaign, we are dedicating the January 2006 protest to his memory and the Greens have organised a memorial planting of native trees at our campsite as part of our programme (they will also be dedicated to Owen Wilkes, at ABC’s request). We have urged Green Party members, and all the other people who took part in the outpouring of grief after his death, to come to Waihopai as a practical way to honour his memory and continue his work.
An Added Dimension
In all the issues with which we worked with Rod, his angle (and that of the Greens) was not necessarily the same as ours. I’ll give an example from each campaign. CAFCA had reservations about the Greens’ petition to ban foreigners buying NZ land, because we considered that they hadn’t thought through the implications – forests are land (huge amounts of it); to build a hotel, a supermarket or a cellphone tower requires land. You follow that one through to its logical conclusion and it becomes quite close to a blanket ban on foreign investment. Fine by us, but I’m not sure that’s what the Greens intended. On the trade issue, some of the Greens’ opposition to the proposed free trade agreement with China is simply good old fashioned Chinabashing, the sort of stuff that I grew up with as a kid in the 1950s and 60s. And on Waihopai, Rod had a bee in his bonnet about whether the spybase and the agency that runs it (the NZ Government Communications Security Bureau) provided “value for money”. That’s a slippery slope, as was his call for an inquiry into the base. We’ve experienced inquiries before, which completely whitewash their subject and set it in concrete. But none of that mattered in the bigger picture, because it brought an added dimension to all those issues and campaigns.
After Rod’s death, ABC is confident that the Greens will continue to support us on Waihopai ( Keith Locke will ensure that). But CAFCA is not so sure about whether the Party will continue to campaign so hard on the foreign control issue – that was very much Rod’s baby. It needs to be emphasised that the Greens are fundamentally a middle class party, they are not, at heart, a Leftwing party (Rod’s views on unions and a “third way”, cited above, are revealing). There is a definite Rightwing in the Party and a constant tension between those two contending points of view. CAFCA learned this for itself a few years ago after the Party, on Rod’s say so, approved the inclusion of Roger Award nomination forms with a Party mailout. I was subsequently stunned to be told by the person in charge of that she didn’t agree with the decision or the Roger Award itself, which she considered to be too “negative”, and that she thought that we should be encouraging the transnationals by having an award for the best behaved of them rather than the worst of them. She concluded by telling me that she didn’t know one single woman in the Greens who didn’t agree with her (a quick poll of Green women that I knew proved that assertion to be false). Fortunately she didn’t have veto power and the mailout went ahead. We‘ve always had plenty of Roger nominations from flaxroots Green members as a result of those mailouts. So, from CAFCA’s point of view, we have to wait and see whether we’ll still have that close working relationship that we enjoyed under Rod’s leadership and, indeed, whether the Greens will continue to give any emphasis to that issue.
We’ve All Lost Someone Unique
Rod himself had plenty of faults. In her funeral eulogy, his partner, Nicola Shirlaw, citing her privilege as his life partner, said that he could be “profoundly irritating” (Becky picked up on that and noted it for her eulogy at my funeral). He certainly hurt people, trod on toes and made enemies. One former colleague so despised him that he avoided attending any functions that Rod was likely to be at, including important CAFCA ones. Rod had been criticised as an egotist, self-publicist, careerist, opportunist, and all sorts of other things involving arrogance, attention-seeking, ambition and the desire for power. Not to mention being a walking, talking advertisement for cellphone transnationals. There is truth in all of the above. But fundamentally, so what? It goes with the territory, and those faults were far outweighed by his innumerable good points. Actually, I recognised a lot of myself in Rod, both good and bad. I never had a bad experience with him and have only positive memories from the three decades that I knew him. He was a true original and a person of quite unique energy and commitment (which, ironically, may have contributed to his sudden death). He was a genius at networking and as an organiser and motivator. Whatever he committed to do, he did fully and did it himself (it never ceased to amaze me that an MP, not to mention a Party Co-Leader, would personally come to the house to sell us tickets for fundraising movies). He led a campaign that gifted the country a whole new voting system, and he personified the Greens for the decade that he co-led the party. If there is one word that summed up Rod, it was charisma. He had it in buckets. The Party is bigger than one man, with an excellent Leader in Jeanette Fitzsimons (now flying solo) and it will survive his death (the same couldn’t be said for several of the other small parties). But it remains to be seen what direction it will take, and it will be a very different style of leadership and public presence. Politics, the progressive movement, and the nation as a whole, have all lost someone unique.
- Murray Horton
Ever since Lange’s death in 2005, much has been written about his life and personality. I can’t add anything to that, because I never met the man, never spoke to him, never had any dealings with him, and don’t remember ever setting eyes on him. As one of the few Labour Prime Ministers to serve more than one term and the leading figure in a pivotal period of change in New Zealand’s history, he will be judged by the legacy of the Government that he led for more than five years. And found seriously wanting.
Just as National elevated Piggy Muldoon to its leadership to counteract Labour’s charismatic Norm Kirk in the 1970s, so Labour, in the early 80s, dumped the thoroughly inoffensive and ineffective Bill Rowling (see my obituary of him in Watchdog 81, April 1996) and replaced him with the Kirkesque Lange to counteract Muldoon. Some very effective myths have become established as facts since the Rogernomics “revolution” (read “coup”). One of them is that “we couldn’t go on like that…NZ was like a Polish shipyard”. This was used to justify There Is No Alternative, the Big Lie of the 1980s – Labour copied that from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Let’s Refresh Our Memories About Muldoon, To Better Evaluate Lange
To quote from my obituary of Piggy (Watchdog 71, November 1992): “…I won’t waste readers’ time itemising the umpteen reasons why Muldoon, his political style and his policies were a disaster for New Zealanders. You all know them. But, from a CAFCA perspective, there were good reasons to praise some of his policies. Forget all this nonsense about labelling him a ‘socialist’. His version was more akin to ‘national socialism’. No, Muldoon was a reactionary nationalist (and by way of contrast, we define ourselves as progressive nationalists). He genuinely believed he was advancing the interests of ordinary New Zealanders; his boorish racism struck a responsive chord with many dinkum Kiwis (and I freely admit that I laughed at his riposte that New Zealanders who moved to Australia ‘raised the IQ in both countries’). He was lambasted in the media for ignoring the yuppie smartarses in Treasury. Well, we’ve had plenty of experience of the alternative, since then. And I’m prepared to believe that he was truly horrified at the mass unemployment started by his policies (he wanted it kept manageable).
“He’ll be rightly condemned for a number of landmark catastrophes. The (1981) Springbok Tour; the pharaonic Think Big projects and resulting debt; the Mussoliniesque capitalism of the wage/price freeze; nuclear warships. But in his first term (1975-78) he actually pursued a number of policies that put him on our side. His insistence on a $10 per barrel levy on Great South Basin oil finds drove Hunt Petroleum back to Texas. He was the only NZ politician ever to tackle the Japanese, in the famous “fish for beef’ battle, And while he fought his fellow yakuza, the gutless Bill Rowling ran around wringing his hands about this being no way to behave to a major trading partner.
“And, most notably, he grabbed Comalco by the balls, and showed a singular reluctance to let go. They tried all their usual public and private pressure tactics, but Piggy hung on, finally forcing them to accept a power price increase of 350% (but not the 650% originally demanded). He spoke their language (total bloodymindedness) and remains the only man to have made them blink (in comparison, they wiped the floor with Douglas, Prebble and Co in the 80s. The Rogernauts got rogered). And, yet again, Bill Rowling ran around saying this was no way to treat a major trading partner.
“…Of course, Muldoon didn’t continue his confrontational policy with multinationals and the gangsters who dictate trade policies. In his final two terms, he became entirely a creature of international lending agencies, oil companies, and even more so, Uncle Sam (who proved his undoing…”
To bring it right up to current issues of concern to CAFCA: when Michael Cullen was championing what is now the 2005 Overseas Investment Act (see any issue from the past two years for details), he justified the virtual removal of any official oversight of transnational corporate takeovers by saying that no such transaction had been refused by the Overseas Investment Commission since the days of the Muldoon government. Muldoon actually partially vetoed Australian corporate investment in NZ, as a bargaining chip to attempt to secure greater access for NZ businesses into Australia. Such a thing would be unheard of today, and the merest suggestion of it would send shudders through the ranks of the politically correct (or should that be the political elect?) in Parliament, officialdom, business and the media. There’d be a run on the stock market, God forbid, capital flight and no end of other horrors. It is quite likely that the sky would fall.
To conclude, from my 1992 obituary: “The great weakness of the massive opposition to Muldoon was that it demonised him, and it personalised the whole issue. People truly believed that if Piggy skewered himself on his little curly tail, then all would be well in Godzone again. They voted for Lange in 84, precisely because he wasn’t Muldoon, and instead they got Roger Douglas (no danger of personalising the issue there – Douglas didn’t have a personality to start with)…”. I wasn’t even in the country during the crisis before, during and after the 1984 snap election. I watched NZ election night from the TV lounge of a youth hostel in Glasgow, which was a suitably surreal experience. When I went away for three months rail travel around Europe (a busman’s holiday for a railway worker), Muldoon was Prime Minister; I came back to the Brave New World of David Lange and Roger Douglas.
Twin Legacy: Rogernomics & Nuclear Free NZ
For CAFCA’s view of each, I can do no better than quote from Watchdog 51, December 1985, from an article by Anon (nothing in Watchdog was attributed to anyone in those far off days) prosaically entitled:”Labour Party Conference Pickets”.
“CAFCINZ (as we were then. MH) took upon itself the task of organising pickets of the Labour Party’s annual National Conference, held this year (1985) in the Christchurch Town Hall. We chose two themes and held a picket on each – Labour’s economic policies and Labour’s defence policies. The tone of the latter was to congratulate Labour on its nuclear free proclamation and to urge them to make changes in its defence policy, primarily by getting New Zealand out of ANZUS*. The tone of the former was not congratulatory at all but strongly critical of Labour’s laissez faire capitalist policy. *The Australia, New Zealand, US military treaty that was the foundation of all New Zealand’s defence and foreign policy from its inception in 1951 until the US, under President Ronald Reagan, kicked us out in 1986. It remains in force today, but only between the US and Australia. NZ remains consigned to outer darkness, but thus far the world has not ended and our erstwhile Big Brother is the only country in the world going around invading other people’s countries. Perhaps we need a treaty to protect us from America. MH.
“The guidelines for both pickets were: they were not demonstrations and they were not to be abusive. We saw no point in alienating rank and file delegates…. We tossed a coin, picking Saturday morning for the economics one and Sunday morning for defence. By pure coincidence, the former coincided with the Goods and Services Tax debate, the latter with the foreign policy one. So we looked more clued up than we were. About 20 people took part in each picket, from CAFCINZ and other bodies (including at least one conference delegate).
The main banner for the economics picket read – “Free Market For The Rich – Charity For The Poor?” Tom Scott (the journalist and cartoonist. MH) so liked one placard (“Douglas – A Tory In Fiscal Drag?”) that he pinched it for his ( Christchurch) Star column… This picket was obviously hitting a raw nerve with many – a Cabinet Minister called us SUP*. We were also called National/PSA**/the poor (who are always with us) and the rich! A well dressed Polynesian woman specially came out of the foyer to loudly declaim: “What a load of shit”… *SUP=Socialist Unity Party, which was aligned with the former Soviet Union, and was influential in unions at that time. The bete noire of National, Labour and union Rightwingers, and the media. ** PSA= NZ Public Service Association. This is now such a craven proponent of “partnership” with employers and an apologist for Labour that it would probably sue anyone who mentioned it in the same breath as CAFCA. MH.
“The defence picket had a markedly different atmosphere. One delegate thanked us for being ‘friendly troops’, saying they’d been unfriendly the day before. He was taken aback when told they were the same troops. By judicious use of a truly vast banner, nobody could slip in the doors behind us (at least one Finance Minister did during the economics picket) and all were herded through our lines, rather in the manner of a sheepdog trial. Those who have seen Lange basking in the limelight of American TV may be interested to know that he personally refused to accept the leaflet being distributed to all going in…
“To those delegates who say we have no right to criticise Labour without joining the Party and working from within, we say – bullshit. Labour is the Government now, it must take the credit and blame for its policies, which affect all New Zealanders, not just Party members. Nor do we subscribe to the theory that says democracy consists of one vote* every three years, accepting or rejecting the entire package. We reseve the right to say we do/don’t like individual policies and will continue to do so. On foreign policy, Labour is doing a good job (as far as it goes). Its economic policies are a disaster”. * Obviously this pre-dated MMP. MH.
(The above is fascinating for a number of reasons. 20 years ago CAFCINZ routinely organised pickets and protests. CAFCA doesn’t – whenever we appear in the media now, we are described as a “lobby group”. 20 years ago CAFCINZ was very active on defence and foreign policy issues. CAFCA isn’t, although the invasion of Iraq has led us back in that anti-war, anti-imperialist direction. And, 20 years ago, CAFCINZ was prepared to publicly congratulate Labour about one of its policies. The next time CAFCA took part in a protest at a Labour Party conference in Christchurch – 2003 – we certainly didn’t congratulate them about anything, including their foreign policy).
Disastrous Economic Policies
Nothing in the past 20 years has altered our conclusion that the economic policies of the 1984-90 Labour government were a disaster. In fact, they still are a disaster, because every Government since (including the present one, which has lurched even further to the Right as a result of the 2005 election) has adhered to them, albeit with some refinements and tinkering. Lange, of course, was the Prime Minister who, when he belatedly realised the full extent of the madness of the mad bastards who comprised his Cabinet, famously called for a tea break. He was swept aside – vampires drink blood for sustenance, not tea. He baled out in 1989, becoming an irrelevancy for the rest of his political career (which went on way beyond there being any apparent point to it) and the bloodsuckers careered on in the runaway train of Rogernomics, firstly under Geoffrey Palmer (whom my late father immortalised as “the bellowing cold fish”) and then, for a matter of weeks, Mad Mike Moore.
Lange attempted to rewrite history by distancing himself from the economic and social legacy of his Government. So, as we said 20 years ago – bullshit. One of our members once wrote to the Press saying that, if one was to believe him, his time as PM was spent bound and gagged in the basement of the Beehive while others ruled in his name. There is plenty of evidence of his explicitly backing Roger Douglas and Rogernomics, basically along the lines of “where Roger goes, I go”. The best way to refresh your memory on this is to view Alister Barry’s excellent 2002 documentary “In A Land Of Plenty: The Story Of Unemployment In New Zealand”. To quote from my review of it (Watchdog 100, August 2002, which can be read online at http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/00/07.htm): “My favourite segment is Lange suggesting that redundant freezing workers should move to where the jobs are, which are always elsewhere” (“In A Land Of Plenty” is available for hire from CAFCA. Rental costs $10, including postage, for one week).
I personally experienced those economic and social policies. During that period (from 1976-91 inclusive, to be precise) I was a Railways labourer, and a union activist and officeholder for some of it. So I personally witnessed the upheaval and deliberate imposition of mass unemployment that afflicted that industry, as it did so many others. Mass unemployment that led to many adverse consequences, including death, in that industry. Being a union official in those years was like following an elephant around with a shovel, just constantly cleaning up the shit. I’d never personally had any illusions about, or affiliations to, Labour but the sense of betrayal among workers, who had seen Labour as their party, was palpable. In 1984, my union, the then National Union of Railwaymen, gave $40,000 to Labour to help it get elected. Within a very few years, it had disaffiliated from the Party (the union itself did not survive what Labour did to the Railways). All of this was fronted by the Minister of Railways, Richard Prebble (whose obituary I eagerly look forward to writing). In 1984 he led a march of several thousand Railways workers and their families through Christchurch as part of the union’s and Labour’s nationwide “Save Rail” campaign. Well, Prebble did save rail – he saved it for the Yanks to whom the next National government sold it for a song and they proceeded to asset strip it to such an extent that it became a national disgrace and a danger to the few remaining railway workers, its own passengers and the general public. Prebble did his job so well that there is no longer any such Cabinet portfolio as Minister of Railways. Thank you Richard, thank you David. What added insult to injury is that Labour came into office in 1984 saying one thing and then turned around and did the exact opposite. That led to such a profound sense of betrayal right across the spectrum of New Zealand society that MMP is one of its direct results.
He Happened To Be The Right Man In The Right Place At The Right Time
And I was personally and simultaneously part of the other part of Lange’s legacy, namely the drive to make New Zealand nuclear free. He, of course, got all the kudos for this, and has come to personify that policy (his famous joke during the Oxford Union debate, telling an earnest young questioner that he could smell the uranium on the callow youth’s breath, was replayed endlessly on TV following his death). Rather like his contemporary Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the former Soviet Union, Lange is considerably more famous and admired outside his own country than in it. He deserves full credit for standing up to Reagan’s America and the Australian Labor government led by the aptly named Bob Hawke (the latter came to power promising an inquiry into ANZUS. It was duly held and pronounced ANZUS to be the best thing for Australia since they started putting beer into cans. End of discussion). But Lange simply happened to be in the right place at the right time to surf the popular wave of overwhelming public opinion that demanded New Zealand be nuclear free. He hadn’t put himself on the line during any of the amazingly courageous waterborne protests that had hampered and stopped US nuclear warships and submarines in the preceding years. Some leading Labour figures did – I’m thinking of Phil Amos, a Minister in the 1970s’ Labour government, who was arrested and fined for sailing his yacht into the path of one of those vessels (he was no longer a Minister or an MP when he did so). But not Lange. What made New Zealand nuclear free and out of ANZUS was much more the blundering heavyhandedness of the American and Australian bullies than any visionary leadership by Lange. American pigheadedness has kept their nuclear warships out of NZ waters for 20 years now; it was the US which threw NZ out of ANZUS, rather than Lange leading us out. Whatever, the fact is that nuclear free NZ out of ANZUS is now the status quo, indeed a sacred cow, which even National is loath to touch, despite its occasional ideological twitchings in the direction of Uncle Sam. For that, all New Zealanders, and the world, can be truly grateful. But it is a vast oversimplification to present it as the work of one man. It would have been political suicide for him to have added that to the list of broken promises, betrayals and lies that characterised his government.
I can attest that this foreign bullying backfired from the experience of my own family. My late father (my obituary of him can be read in Watchdog 108, April 2005; online at http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/08/09.htm) was no supporter of either Labour or David Lange. He voted National at every election from 1960 until 1996 inclusive and routinely referred to Lange as “that fat bastard”. But he was outraged by the attempts by Reagan and Hawke to bully NZ back into line. The old man’s view was summed up as: “I didn’t vote for this Government or this nuclear free policy, but it is the democratically expressed wish of the New Zealand people, so outsiders must accept that and respect our decision”. What swung it for many ordinary, conservative Kiwis was when the amazingly arrogant and stupid French murderously bombed the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985. And there was not one single peep of condemnation of this act of international State terrorism from our “allies”, namely Reagan’s America and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
Lange played the nuclear free policy like a violin. It was presented as the carrot to keep the fundamentally middle class peace movement quiescent while it wrought havoc upon its traditional supporters in the working class and trade union movement. I well remember the tensions with friends in the peace movement who urged us not to rock the boat and jeopardise the re-election of Labour in 1987. It tends to be forgotten that Lange strung out and strung out the introduction of the long promised nuclear free law right throughout his first term (1984-87). That 1987 election was fought entirely on foreign policy (hard to imagine today. Labour did try it in the 2005 campaign, in a halfpie sort of way, but soon ditched that in favour of the bribes/tax cuts/what’s in it for me themes which dominated and sidetracked the latest campaign). Looking back at the 1987 campaign, the overriding impression is one of apocalyptic hysteria from National and the various covert pro-US, pro-nuclear, Rightwing groups* which campaigned to defeat Labour and reverse the nuclear free policy (the Exclusive Brethren played an equivalent role in the 2005 election). And the US tried to subvert and overthrow Lange using all the old tricks in the handbook of its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). There was the textbook “Maori Loans Affair”, which targeted Koro Wetere, the Minister of Maori Affairs, and which TVNZ, in one of its finest hours, tracked back to the CIA office in Hawaii. It was a deadringer re-run of the “Loans Affair” scam which played such a major role in overthrowing the Australian Labor government headed by Gough Whitlam in 1975. There was also the mysterious “Soviet submarine” allegedly spotted in the waters around the Cook Islands (NZ is responsible for the Cooks’ defence and foreign policies). Lange finally dismissed the speculation with one of his famous one liners, saying that the Air Force may have spotted a “flatulent whale”. * For a sample, read the section headed “Apparently, It Was All A Communist Plot”, in my obituary of Owen Wilkes, in Watchdog 109, August 2005. This can be read online at
Labour won that election with an increased majority, which is very unusual for a sitting Government – a sign of the times was that the true blue Tory seat of Fendalton (now Ilam), in Christchurch, came within a couple of hundred votes of being won for Labour by leading peace campaigner, the late Neil Cherry* (Labour nearly also won the Tory bastion of Remuera, in Auckland). They must have thanked their lucky stars that the election was over and won by the time of the October 1987 global stock market meltdown. No stock market melted down into a bigger pile of smelly gunk than the NZ one, dominated by the crooks, cowboy capitalists and get rich quick cronies of Douglas and co. From that point on, National knew that it only had to continue drawing breath to win the 1990 election. It pragmatically reversed its position on the nuclear free law, guaranteeing its survival, and waited for power to fall into its lap so that it could continue Roger Douglas’ unfinished business (which has never been finished, according to the Rogernauts). * Kate Dewes’ obituary of Neil Cherry can be read in Peace Researcher 27, August 2003;
Nobody should be under any illusions that Lange’s government was some sort of pacifist outfit. Bob Jones has claimed, with some justification, that his personal political vehicle, the former New Zealand Party (created out of Bob’s hatred of Muldoon), handed the 1984 election to Labour by securing a very respectable 12% of the vote (under MMP that would have made it a major player in Parliament, quite likely a coalition partner; under First Past The Post it got nothing). And what was one of the major policies of that Party? Not merely a nuclear free NZ, but a military free Pacific – not on any namby pamby Lefty grounds, but because Bob thought that the military was a waste of money. So 12% of Kiwis voted for that. By contrast, Lange was adamant that he didn’t want to do anything to spread “The New Zealand Disease” to the Pacific or anywhere else in the world (Roger Douglas and co had no such qualms about infecting the rest of the world with their virulent strain of the Kiwi bird flu). It was Lange’s government that committed New Zealand to the cripplingly expensive Anzac frigates, despite overwhelming public opposition. They were painfully keen not to be seen as soft on defence.
A Gaping Hole In The Nuclear Free Law
It’s called Harewood, the US military base at Christchurch Airport. For details about what Harewood does, check out the Anti-Bases Campaign Website, specifically
Waihopai: Lange’s Gift To The American Empire
That constitutes New Zealand’s single most important contribution to any and all American wars, much more so than a token military presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. Waihopai is the real deal, effectively a US spybase operating on New Zealand soil under a New Zealand flag, staffed by New Zealanders and paid for by you and me, the New Zealand taxpayer. It was Waihopai that led to the birth of the Anti-Bases Campaign and details about it can be found on the ABC’s Website at http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/waihopai.html.
As with Rogernomics, Lange subsequently claimed that he was conned and duped about Waihopai (he must have been a very gullible fellow). Indeed, in a 1994 letter to a Palmerston North correspondent, he wrote: “There are no foreign intelligence installations in New Zealand” (3/3/94). He spelled it out explicitly in his quite extraordinary Foreword to Nicky Hager’s seminal 1996 book, “Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role In The International Spy Network”. It was astonishing that a former Prime Minister (whose portfolio automatically includes NZ’s Intelligence agencies) would agree to write the Foreword to such an explosive book; what he said in it is equally astonishing. It is worth reproducing in full (it’s not long and is vintage Lange).
“Once upon a time, life was easy for the Intelligence community. Michael Joseph Savage made a mark in the sands of history with his ‘where Britain stands we stand’. It was only right that we saw the world though British eyes and, when Britain retreated, only sensible that we should go all the way with LBJ as an Australian Prime Minister (in whose honour a swimming pool in Melbourne was named) once declared. The Cold War kept us in line and on line.
“In the mid 1980s we bucked the system. We may have been ahead of our time on matters nuclear, but we were out of step with what was called the ‘ Western Alliance’. It took a break with the United States and Britain to make the people of New Zealand aware that we were part of an international Intelligence organisation which had its roots in a different world order and which could command compliance from us while withholding from us the benefits of others’ intelligence.
“L ife at the time was full of unpleasant surprises. State-sponsored terrorism was a crime against humanity as long as it wasn’t being practiced by the allies, when it was studiously ignored. In the national interest it became necessary to say ’ouch’ and frown and bear certain reprisals of our Intelligence partners. We even went to the length of building a satellite station at Waihopai. But it was not until I read this book that I had any idea that we had been committed to an international integrated electronic network.
“It was with some apprehension that I learned that Nicky Hager was researching the activity of our Intelligence community. He has long been a pain in the Establishment’s neck. Unfortunately for the Establishment, he is engaging, thorough, unthreatening, with a dangerously disingenuous appearance, and an astonishing number of people have told him things that I, as Prime Minister in charge of the Intelligence services, was never told.
“There are also many things with which I am familiar. I couldn’t tell him which was which. Nor can I tell you. But it is an outrage that I and other ministers were told so little, and this raises the question of to whom those concerned saw themselves ultimately responsible. It also raises the question as to why we persist with the old order of things. New Zealand doesn’t have much in common with Major’s Britain and probably less with Blair’s Britain. Are we philosophically in tune with Clinton’s USA? Is he? Does all of that prejudice our new orientation to Asia?
“There will be two responses to this book. One will be to take the easy course of dumping on Hager. He is quite small and can easily be dumped on. The other will be to challenge the existing assumptions and to have a rational debate on security and intelligence. I have always enjoyed taking the easier course but we may have been the poorer for it”.
I can’t imagine anything similar being written by any other NZ Prime Minister, certainly not Helen Clark, that most fervent champion of the secret State of the Intelligence agencies. But when Lange wrote it he had been out of Prime Ministerial office for years and it reeks of guilt, outrage, and regret at opportunities lost. I’ll give the man full credit for his honesty and courage in saying what he said, but what a pity he didn’t do anything about it when he had the opportunity and the power to do so. The man whose name is synonymous with nuclear free New Zealand, the man lauded for giving us an independent foreign policy, is the same man who gifted a vital spybase to the American war machine. No wonder he felt guilty.
The Damage Is Ongoing
Of course, some good things came out of that Labour government. Putting aside the CAFCA and ABC critiques of it and speaking personally, there were things like the landmark extension of the powers of the Waitangi Tribunal to consider historic Maori land claims; the legalising of homosexuality; the ending of sporting ties with the vile apartheid regime of South Africa, just to give a few examples. I had some admiration for Lange, but never particularly warmed to him. Basically, I considered him shallow and easily bored by what is actually required to run a country (when the going got too tough, he buggered off out of it and left others to try and clean up the mess). I pitied him in his long pointless life as a post-PM backbencher; thought that he had found his natural home as a post-politics stand up comedian (exactly as Muldoon did; they would have made a great double act if they’d gone on tour together); and was greatly saddened by his very long terminal illness. It got so bad that death, even at such a young age, must have been a great relief to him.
But, as with all Prime Ministers, Lange will be judged on his legacy. And that is one of immense damage to huge numbers of New Zealanders and to the country as a whole, a legacy from which we have yet to emerge (it certainly won’t happen under this Labour government). Does that mean that I am advocating “turning back the clock?” Of course not. But, putting aside any discussion of socialism (which remains my preference), there was plenty that could have been done within the framework of capitalism which could have avoided the extremes of either Muldoonism or Rogernomics. Not only was the baby chucked out with the bathwater, it was then kicked to death and sold off to be rendered down into soap (all while we were being told how good it was that we now have so much greater choice of cheaper soaps). He was the front man for a crime against his own people and his own country. That’s yet another David Lange one liner, but this one is no laughing matter. Too many people got hurt and the damage is ongoing.
There Really Is Such A Thing As A Free Drink
There is one thing that I can (indirectly) thank David Lange for. In 1988, I was on a west-east train crossing Australia (for details of what I’d been doing in Western Australia, read the section headed “Australian Adventures: Liberated Trophy & A Jandal Held Hostage”, in my obituary of Owen Wilkes, in Watchdog 109, August 2005. This can be read online at
There was a TV in the bar, which happened to be showing the news during the hubbub. Now, Australian media very rarely ever feature anything about NZ (if there was a cataclysmic disaster here, it would be reported as “Remote Offshore Islands Sink Without Trace, No Aussies Missing”). But this news bulletin actually featured an All Blacks/Wallabies test, and a report on Lange having to temporarily step down as PM to undergo surgery for heart trouble. To me, the former was more important than the latter, but I asked the Nullarbores behind the bar if they knew any more details. They didn’t but were intrigued as to why anyone would be interested. They reached the obvious conclusion and asked: “Are you a Kiwi?” I replied that not only was I a Kiwi, I was a Kiwi railway worker. This led to a conference among the bar staff and the announcement: “A free drink for the Kiwi railwayman. But only one, mind”. I made it a double whiskey (for strictly medicinal purposes, of course – it anaesthetised me until I could get to a doctor several thousand kilometres down the track). Thank you, David Lange, here’s to you, that was one shout that I did enjoy.
- David Grant
Rona Bailey was a CAFCA member from 1986-93. I only ever met her once or twice and although I knew of her as a legendary Communist and political activist in Wellington for many decades, I didn’t know her at all. I am indebted to David Grant for researching and writing this obituary specially for Watchdog. Ed.
It was a magnificent sendoff to a woman who bestrode both Leftwing politics and theatre in New Zealand for more than 60 years. On the evening of October 31, 2005 close to 400 people crowded the plaza of Te Whaea The National Dance and Drama School, in Newtown, Wellington not so much to farewell Rona Bailey but to celebrate her life and work.
Friends from all areas of her remarkably varied life eulogised Rona at this ceremony. Theatre director Sunny Amey and dancer and choreographer Jan Bolwell traversed her long and extensive contribution to Wellington’s theatre and dance world, trade union and Leftwing activist Peter Franks spoke of Rona’s activities in the Communist Party which she joined in 1943 and his personal admiration for her when they campaigned together in the Workers’ Communist League in the 1980s.Through Simon Wilson, Trevor Richards called on the audience to laud her unbending commitment to the anti-apartheid movement; Maori activist Moana Jackson spoke with admiration for her work among Maori, principally her leadership in bringing the importance of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi to the pakeha world and actor Wi Kuki Kaa talked of her guidance in Taki Rua theatre. Interposed with these memories were songs by the students of Toi Whakaari (the New Zealand Drama School), the Taki Rua Chorus and the Trade Union Choir which sang Union Maid. Kilda Northcott, Lynn Pringle, Anne Rowse, Dawn Sanders and Jennifer Shennan performed Air For G-String, a 1928 dance that Rona used to teach at the old New Zealand Drama School, and a recording of Paul Robeson’s “Freedom Train” speech delivered to a large crowd at the Addington Railway Workshops in 1960 was also played (Paul Robeson, 1898-1976, was a world famous black American singer, actor and Communist.Ed.).
Befitting the occasion, all of these speakers interspersed their comment with humorous personal anecdotes, just as many had also done when friends and colleagues organised an earlier, spontaneous wake just days after her death on September 7, in Wellington’s Playmarket in Kent Terrace.
Rona Bailey was in her 91 st year when she died. Some ten months earlier, in December 2004, committee members of the Trade Union History Project (TUHP), within which she had been active since its beginnings in 1987, celebrated her 90 th birthday at a Wellington restaurant with good cheer and fond reminiscence - some days after her multitude of thespian friends had done the same. Some of us who thought she would go on forever did not realise that this would be the last occasion for such a celebration. Just a week or two before her death she was still her feisty, inquisitive and supportive self at the regular three monthly TUHP Committee meeting held at her Roseneath home.
Rejecting Conservatism, Adopting Socialism
Rona Stephenson was born on December 24, 1914, the daughter of an immigrant Yorkshire miner who had achieved some measure of financial security as a shoe importer in Gisborne. From her educated and cultured mother she learned a love of learning but two events early stimulated her to reject the middle class conservatism of her parents and adopt socialist ideologies. The first was witnessing as a child, a protest march of unemployed workers starting out from Gisborne and heading for Wellington, which seemed to her to be a phenomenal commitment to a humanitarian cause; the second was when as a 12-year-old in 1926 she spent a year with her spinster school teacher aunt, Jessie Picken, who introduced her to ideas about the principles of justice and the growing disparities between the haves and have-nots of the world.
Her young world was not just focused on political activism. Sporting prowess led her to captain the Poverty Bay netball team and with the possibility of being chosen for the national squad she faced a dilemma - whether to continue and advance with her netball career or take up a scholarship to study physical education in the United States, having already trained as a primary teacher in Auckland. She chose the latter and never regretted it. An inspirational speech by well-known leader of the American longshoreman’s union, Harry Bridges, deepened her socialist and humanitarian ideals and later, as she studied dance with the esteemed Martha Graham at Columbia University in New York, she was further influenced by the egalitarian “revolution” then going on in dance as an antidote to the “highbrow” of ballet. It was there that she first became involved in Leftwing theatre. In the United States she also gained her first insight in the politics of race relations viewing, with apprehension, hooded night riders round a burning cross in Virginia, and later, during a side trip to Panama, attending a concert by black American bass Paul Robeson, whose Communism and stand against racial prejudice had caused fear and loathing in his own country.
Joining The Communist Party
Returning to New Zealand in 1939, Rona became physical welfare officer for the Department of Internal Affairs in Hamilton, coming to Wellington in 1941 to become the Department’s senior women’s physical welfare and recreation officer, a position she held until 1952 when she had to give it up after contracting tuberculosis. In this role, she pioneered the teaching of modern dance in New Zealand. The founding of the New Dance Group, and those that followed, was the result of her enthusiasm and drive to free the art form of its fixations with ballet and ballroom styles. In 1947, Rona traveled to Great Britain, to look at recreational centres and also visited the former Czechoslovakia - where she attended a World Youth Festival - Hungary and the former Yugoslavia where she joined a work gang to help rebuild a railway, and interviewed its Communist leader, Josip Tito.
Believing she needed to live her life according to her socialist principles and attracted to its key tenet of Democratic Centralism, Rona joined the Communist Party of New Zealand in 1943, influenced also by her fellow ideologues in the newly-formed Unity Theatre. Marrying and soon divorcing Communist writer Ron Meek, then, through Unity, she met and later married - in June 1945 - Chip Bailey, another Communist, and the true love of her life. In 1949, their only child, a daughter, Meg, was born. Here, as in all of the other organisations she joined or helped to found, Rona invested long, hard hours labouring at the coal face of the movement. It was difficult for her when Chip was banned from the Party post-war when questioning its policy. Party members were told not to talk to him, which did not make it easy for Rona.
1951 Lockout: Police Raid
Chip and Rona Bailey played vital roles during the 1951 waterfront lockout producing and distributing the bulk of Wellington’s illegal bulletins that told the worker’s side of the story. It meant skulking round central Wellington at the dead of night avoiding police to delivering these bulletins - [words by Chip Bailey, illustrations [cartoons] by Max Bollinger] - and finding a hiding place in their small flat for the Gestetner machine on which they were produced. In February 2001, she told a large audience gathered in Wellington to commemorate the 50 th birthday of the lockout, of her experiences during that tumultuous time. In June 1951, the Bailey’s flat was raided.
“For five months we had been living in this scary, unreal atmosphere and I was home one night when the doorbell rang. The adrenalin started pumping. I was on my own except for Meg, who was asleep in her bed. I went to the door to be confronted by two hefty policemen. One was the infamous Dave Paterson who was in charge of the whole area. He liked to be friendly. “Call me Dave”, he would tell people. So this became his nickname - nobody called him anything else.
“Under the Emergency Regulations any policeman above the rank of sergeant could enter anybody’s place without permission or permit. These two did exactly that, barging in and pushing me aside. I felt I was quite capable of taking them on and when they did try to go into my daughter’s room I did make a protest. They just shoved me aside and stormed into the room.
“This was the one time I really wished my daughter would wake up and yell her head off but Meg slept soundly right through it. I decided to ignore the policemen completely so I went into the lounge and began compiling some folk dances for teaching the next day. I tried to stay oblivious to them as they ransacked my house. They went in to every room. While they didn’t do any physical damage they did leave everything in a hopeless mess. Books and papers were strewn all over the place. It was when they went into the pantry that I thought this was it. To my huge relief they found nothing.
“Chip had bought a very big old printing machine that he used occasionally for leaflets. It was parked in the bedroom. Because it was a pretty small flat it was the only place it could go. So when ‘Call Me Dave’ and Knapp (the other policeman) saw it their eyes lit up. ‘We’ve got it at last!’ they exclaimed. I was nearly in hysterics by this time, knowing that this was not going to prove to be any help to them at all.
“I went to the landing and saw them lugging this huge machine down the stairs. They took it away and that was that. The court sent a note of prosecution. The Police accused us of having an unregistered machine! We pleaded not guilty. The fact that most government departments had never registered those types of machine did not seem to worry Scully, the magistrate. We were fined ₤14 for having an unregistered machine.
“I can see it now as if it was yesterday; the joy on these policemen’s faces when they thought they had found THE typewriter. They never did find it. The police never found the Gestetner either, and during those five months they also never fathomed where any of the distribution centres were. People have asked me whether I ever regretted being involved in all this because of the strains and stresses. My reply was always, ‘Never!’ It was a privilege to be involved in the struggle, and a phenomenal learning experience as well” ( Rona Bailey, in “Telling The World ‘The Other Side Of The Story’”, in David Grant (ed), “The Big Blue”, Wellington, 2004, pp 40-41).
Expelled From The Party, Batoned By The Cops
After recovering from tuberculosis Rona threw herself into full-time political activity. She increased her proselytising for the Communist Party - eventually, in 1963, becoming a National Councillor - as well as working as national secretary of the Society for Closer Relations with the (former) Soviet Union. She was also active in the Peace Council, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and, from 1959, the “No Maoris: No Tour” movement formed to protest the impending “white” All Black rugby tour to South Africa. In conservative New Zealand at the height of the Cold War, it was difficult being a Communist and outspoken activist. The Police, Special Branch and its successor, the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) kept a close watch on Rona and her colleagues and she became a particular antagonist among Truth reporters where she was regularly vilified and demonised. The bigger tragedy at the time was Chip’s premature death from a brain tumour in 1963, aged just 42. Chip had been largely responsible for unifying the split Wellington Drivers’ Union after the 1951 lockout and was becoming influential in the former Federation of Labour at the time of his death. As Peter Franks told the October 31 st audience, Rona lost a comrade, friend and lover at his passing. She never remarried.
The war in Vietnam and New Zealand’s support for American aggression sparked a new round of dissent. She was a key member of the Wellington Committee on Vietnam from its beginning in 1965, being treasurer for much of life until it wound up in 1976, and was to the fore in anti-Vietnam war protest marches through the streets of Wellington - becoming a key organiser of the increasingly populous mobilisations against the war from 1971. From 1965 to 1970 she was the New Zealand correspondent for the New China News Agency, Xinhua, yet, ironically, her activism during this period caused her problems inside the Communist Party. Its executive tried to expel her in 1966. She survived that but was by then becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the increasingly “otherworldliness” of the political stance of the New Zealand movement’s leadership in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in China. It denounced trade unions, sneered at the anti-war movement and in 1970 deregistered the Party’s entire Wellington district and expelled six leading members including Rona who was particularly singled out as a “threat” (during this period, the Party newspaper, the former People’s Voice, routinely referred to the “Manson-Bailey bandit clique”, by way of referring to its expelled Wellington members. Ed.).
She was unfazed. She founded the Wellington Marxist-Leninist Organisation and in 1980 helped to found the Workers’ Communist League. She worked as tirelessly for them, usually the backbreaking and unheralded administrative stuff behind the scenes, as she had for the Communist Party. She left the League in 1985. Like her former colleagues there was no animosity. In her typically selfless way, Rona told me that that she had nothing but the greatest respect for the rank and file of both organisations - their dedication, courage and genuine achievement in the fight for justice and a new social order.
In 1981, she was batoned and left bloodied in the “Battle of Molesworth Street’ during protests against the Springbok rugby tour. When she was named by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in his infamous list of 12 Communists whom the SIS alleged were responsible for organising the ‘radical’ opposition to the tour Rona took umbrage not because she was a member of the Workers’ Communist League at the time but because Muldoon had insulted the 100,000 people who had already protested against the tour when it was only halfway through. Muldoon referred to Rona at the “High Priestess of New Zealand Communism”. He was angry and disparaging of course, but as Peter Franks has commented, it was really a compliment to Rona; an acknowledgment of her spirit, influence, tenacity and courage.
Politically Active Until The End Of Her Life
After the tour, she became involved with a group of anti-racist pakeha activists determined to educate white New Zealand about the meaning and consequences of the Treaty of Waitangi. Project Waitangi: Pakeha Debate The Treaty was a campaign that began in 1985 projected to last for five years to coincide with the 1990 celebrations of the Treaty signing. This was effectively her last political campaign although she gave great support to the foreshore and seabed hikoi marchers in Wellington in 2004, providing them with hot soup and assisting two “old” kuia in their walk from their Te Papa base to Parliament.
Rona has also become a treasured stalwart of the Trade Union History Project since its inception, taking part in the organising of a number of its seminars and exhibitions and being the focus of one held in 1993 called “Dissenting New Zealand”. Between 1987 and 2005 only one other committee member has lasted as long and nobody else has attended as many committee meetings as Rona. In the very last months when we gathered to meet in Rona’s house she would provide goodies and glasses of wine.
Among all her other achievements, Rona was also a published author producing in 1967, with labour researcher Bert Roth, “Shanties By The Way”, a collection of popular and radical folk songs. Bert, Rona and friends scoured the country for material for this publication which is still a leader in its field. Active, energetic and feisty she was no shrinking social butterfly. She liked a drink and a bet. In 1967, after she had been a widow for four years, a substantial inheritance following her mother’s death enabled Rona to purchase a classy MGB sports car in which she hurtled around country roads and caused comment among observers to and from her Roseneath home.
She maintained her interest in dance and theatre all her life, teaching dance at Toi Whakaari until well into her 70s. She remained a close connection with Unity which evolved into the Depot Theatre or Taki Rua. As with the TUHP, she had become a treasured kuia to these organisations and it was fitting that on the evening of her wake in October that Toi Whakaari director, Annie Ruth, should announce that the movement studio at the school would be named and dedicated to her memory.
Selflessness has been the hallmark of Rona’s political life. She shunned the limelight preferring to graft behind the scenes. She despised trends. Her socialist activism was born of a lifelong commitment to humanitarianism first stimulated when she observed the doleful, down-at-heel unemployed in the streets of Gisborne when she was a child. Rona Bailey always held true to socialism’s central tenets. Dogma to her was its least attractive trait. She was more concerned with the ideology’s practical expression - liberty, equality, fraternity. Her compassion touched a lot of people; her socialist ideals influenced many in the generation which followed. She was one of a kind. This country has been the poorer for her passing.
Wellington labour historian David Grant has chaired the Trade Union History Project since 2002. He acknowledges the assistance of Peter Franks and Peter Kitchen in the preparation of this obituary.
DEATH IN THE FAMILY
CAFCA expresses our condolences to John Minto, veteran leading political activist, a long time member and Roger Award judge for several years, for the death of his mother Josephine Minto. She died in Napier in October 2005, aged 85, after several years of heart trouble. She was of Croatian and Irish descent and raised ten kids. Her first march was against the 1981 Springbok Tour, in Napier, where she lived the last 40 years of her life. John said:” She would not have described herself as politically active but became a very passionate advocate for the underdog in many situations”.
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