Saturday, 22 August 2015


A brief history of protests in New Zealand

This is a brief account of New Zealand’s long history of protests, some that were successful and some that failed, some that were worthy and some that were not. New Zealanders as a nation have always been ready to speak up and take appropriate action, usually lawful, when they see an imminent new law as something they won’t like. Similarly, changes in business, foreign ownership, banking, education, welfare, health, labour, immigration, and practically any other change in society that they suspect will be harmful in some way, will bring determined protest action.
Sir Walter Nash was New Zealand's
oldest Prime Minister

Many protesters are of the one-protest type. They go about their daily lives rarely making waves, until some imminent change has a galvanising effect on them, and they join, even lead, the marchers. When it is all over, win or lose, they go back to their previous lives, living quietly below the radar. A small number of protestors are more of the career type and can be seen actively engaged in an array of protests. Whenever there is protest, they will be there. Some of these career protestors have another overriding, perhaps hidden agenda, and may be political party activists or at least sympathisers. Many protest movements have within their ranks both kinds of protesters. The career types are usually a tiny minority, but often in a commanding role because of their experience and ability to organise.

So when did protesting start in New Zealand? The most likely date would have to be 18 December 1642, when the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sent some men to collect fresh water on the South Island’s north-west coast. The coastal area was an important agricultural place for local Maori and fearing that the foreigners were about to plunder their crops, they protested by killing four members of Tasman’s crew. Tasman subsequently called the place Murderers Bay, and sailed away never to return to New Zealand. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to say that the first known protest was highly successful, although somewhat misguided, and certainly a gross over-reaction. In later centuries, Maori would prove time and again that they were fully capable of mounting effective, determined protests, usually in a peaceful manner and within the law.
Nathaniel's Bloodline

Having been born in New Zealand some little time after Tasman’s fiasco, this writer’s memory of protests goes back only to the late 1940’s. I was at primary school in Warkworth when Mr Biro invented his famous ball-point pen to replace ink-wells and nibs, and the scratching sound of sharp instruments on delicate writing paper. Every parent in the district and, I discovered later, in the country and around the world, didn’t want a bar of the ball-point pens. It was claimed that the new pens would spoil children’s hand-writing if they were allowed into schools. Others claimed that the whole education system would break down, kids would grow up illiterate, and Kiwis would be the laughing stock of the world. Some people claimed that introducing ball-point pens was a conspiracy to destroy society so that the already rich and powerful people of the world would have complete world dominance. Some parents threatened to pull their children out of school. How stupid was that! But, as time went by, people got to like their new ball-point pens, schools eventually accepted them, and even the famous Parker Pen Company that had been producing upmarket fountain pens since 1888, came into line in 1960 and started producing ball-points. Meanwhile, the protesters melted out of sight and out of mind.
The Scapegoat

Before we leave education there is the case of Helen Connon (1859-1903). The Connons staged what was pretty much a one family protest as they railed against the exclusion of girls from many schools. This was in the day when a woman’s place was in the bedroom and the kitchen only, and they didn’t need to be educated for that. The Connons had to move to a new town to find a school that would accept Helen. Helen not only got into a school, but she excelled and went on to become the first New Zealand female university graduate (1881), and she graduated with honours, which was a first for a woman in the British Empire. Later she was a school principal.

Almost every invention has met with determined protest action before its launch onto the market. The telephone was no exception and even now, 135 years on, a very small number of people refuse to have anything to do with it.

Motor vehicles were widely objected to for a variety of reasons. People sited noise, pollution, and safety. Others objected because they saw motor vehicles as play things of the rich and famous. Still others objected because they feared that motor vehicles would frighten their horses. Even now many people believe that motor vehicles are the world’s greatest curse. But if they cared to think about the state of a world now without motor vehicles, they would realize that without them the world would be in a truly frightful state as we walked knee deep in horse manure, died early, and were mostly unemployed. The standard of living that we take for granted in the 21st century would not have been possible without motor vehicles. That protest was wrong, even though it may be right to campaign for safer vehicles and safer driving.
A Twist of Fate

Then there was the protest mounted by one man alone. Samuel Duncan Parnell arrived in New Zealand in 1840 and became self-employed because his conditions of employment were unacceptable to employers who could have given him work. He refused to work more than 40 hours a week. Parnell found little support during his lifetime and had been dead 46 years when the first Labour Government introduced the 40 hour working week as standard.

Changes to New Zealand’s voting system, however minor, have always attracted widespread protest. In the first general election in 1854 only male land owners over the age of 21 were qualified to vote. Non-land owning residents protested, but in vain. It wasn’t until 1874 that all males over 21 were able to vote. It took many years of highly organized protest to have women accepted as voters in 1893, the first country in the world to do so.

A minor change that involves fewer people has been the question of votes for prisoners, and their voting status has changed countless time. Labour usually changes the law to include prisoners and National changes the law to exclude them, and each time the debate gets heated.
Highway America

The campaign for the introduction of Mixed Member Proportional Representation goes back a long way and started as a protest movement, with government and conservative business interests leading the opposition to change. As pressure mounted the government agreed to hold referendums on the question, and subsequently there was a change and the first MMP election was held in 1996. But even now the system, although supported by a majority of electors, remains controversial.

In the early 1960's a decision was made to change New Zealand’s currency from pounds, shillings and pence (£.s.d.) to a decimal system of dollars and cents. Instead of 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound, New Zealand was to have 100 cents to a dollar. The protest ran on for years. As I remember, it was probably only exceeded in fiery debate and action by the Vietnam War and 1981 Springbok tour protests, both of which I support in hindsight. It is difficult to identify the main objection to the currency change, but one that springs to mind was the disrespect for our British heritage. It didn’t matter that the UK and Australia were also preparing to change. Another objection was that it was too American. People said that children would lose their mathematical skills because the new currency would be too easy to work with. Many people said that they would refuse to accept the new currency.  Inflation was another reason for opposing the new currency because half-pennies were going to disappear, and items priced at 11 pence would become 10 cents which was previously 12 pennies. The 1960s were comparatively good times economically for New Zealand, but people said it wasn’t the right time to change, and that it would cost millions of dollars (sorry pounds) to replace all the coins and banknotes. But in the end, the coins and notes were replaced as required over many years, and New Zealanders got on with life and other issues. 
Coming hard on the heels of decimal currency was the negotiations between New Zealand and Australia for a free trade agreement, which became known as CER (Closer Economic Relations). Of necessity the negotiations were conducted behind closed doors, but both governments were unfairly criticized for that. As it was every industry on both sides of the Tasman Sea wanted special consideration, and to negotiate publicly would have created a shambles that would have destroyed any possibility of agreement. Union leaders were particularly vocal in their conviction that unemployment would rise. The people of both countries were convinced that the other country would be the only one to gain any advantages.  But the politicians and departmental advisers beavered away for years before finally signing an agreement that did justice to the people of both countries. CER has been a success, and was a small step in the direction of trans-Tasman union, a future possible step that could also benefit both countries.

EFTPOS (Electronic Funds Transfer at Point of Sale) was created in the USA in 1981 as a secure and immediate system of payment using debit and credit cards. It was one of the greatest advances in retailing since the beginning of time, but it was bitterly opposed everywhere. In New Zealand the main objections included; it’s too American and the CIA is behind it, it will allow retailers and others to empty bank accounts with a simple zap of the card, and it will allow criminals access to your money. Most people said that they would refuse to have anything to do with EFTPOS. But by 1982 the first EFTPOS terminals were installed in New Zealand, and gradually the protesters faded away. Soon EFTPOS was so common that people started closing their cheque accounts, and even stopped carrying large amounts of cash. EFTPOS was an absolute winner, and today most people wouldn’t know how to shop without it.
The Tour Commentary

In the early part of the 20th century, New Zealand was a small colony with a lot of insecurity. The British had already sent a strong message urging us to find our own way in the world. They sent us a flag with a small union flag in one corner along with the stars of the Southern Cross. In 1907 they went a step further with the passage of the Statute of Westminster (an Act officially bestowing independence). But New Zealanders, led by farmers, resisted. They wanted to stay British. Without British citizenship, families would be torn apart, farm produce would rot at the farm gate, and the country which considered itself more English than England would be plunged into bankruptcy. The people spoke and the government listened. It took another 40 years for the New Zealand government to finally ratify the Statute of Westminster (Dominion Day, 26 September 1947), but the event went almost unnoticed and our most important day constitutionally is not even a national holiday, nor was a new flag adopted in recognition of independence. Meanwhile, generations of Kiwis have been born, lived and have died without understanding that their country is fully independent. As a protest, the resistance to independence was highly successful. As an exercise in national esteem, it has been New Zealand’s greatest failure.

Of less constitutional significance, and now also largely forgotten in the mists of time, was the Middle Island Association of Dunedin, which in the 1870’s demanded separation of the South Island from the rest of New Zealand. The meetings, protest marches and demands to Parliament went on for years before the protesters gave up. Just as surely as Tasmania is Australia’s smallest and poorest state, if the Middle Islanders had got their way they would only have succeeded in creating two Tasmania’s. The Middle Island protest failed in every way possible, except perhaps that they may have created a lineage that now includes some Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement protesters, who time will prove are entirely on the wrong track. Some people are so anti-free trade that they don’t even like one town trading with another town.

Even the medical profession has not been above making out-of-step protests. A 1913 medical conference held in Auckland set up a committee to lobby the government about the dangers of educating girls.

Although largely forgotten now, and pretty much ignored at the time, was the sit-in peaceful protest of the Parihaka Maori in Taranaki in the 1870’s and 1880’s. It was their land, but the government and land-hungry white settlers wanted it too. So the government had 400 protesters arrested and imprisoned without trial for 16 months. Their descendants had to wait 130 years for redress in the form of compensation and an apology. The land was never returned to them. That protest was admirable, but largely futile.

Public pressure and protest action stirred the government of the day to hold a referendum on the sale of alcohol in 1911. The result was that 55% of New Zealanders wanted a total ban on alcohol sales, but the government had already set the bar at 60%, so the protesters failed nationally but achieved some local dry areas. The three-yearly liquor licencing poll became a permanent feature of general elections for almost 100 years, but gradually the support for prohibition slipped away and all areas eventually became wet again. Had the protesters succeeded, it would have just needed an Al Capone to move in, and the crime rate and drunkenness rate would have soared. It was a protest that was determined and well-meaning, but sadly lacking in sound reasoning.

In 1972, New Zealand’s Equal Pay Act became law, making women legally entitled to the same pay as men for the same work. But in spite of bitter opposition and protests by business leaders and male working-class voters, the National Government of the day pressed ahead. It was claimed that equality would put businesses into liquidation, destroy the economy and be detrimental to the status of working men. But in the end, life went on and the standard of living was raised a notch for everyone. However, it has to be said that even today there are still some pay inequities involving female workers.

In the post WWII years, there was a perceived ‘juvenile delinquency’ epidemic as a crime spree gripped the opinion maker’s imagination. The cry went out loud and strong to imprison the offenders for longer terms with hard labour and bread and water, and to put them in the military to give them some discipline and training. In 1949, Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser finally acted by announcing a referendum on compulsory military training (CMT) for all males aged 18. The voters scooped up the opportunity (18 year-olds didn’t get a vote) and voted 77.9% in favour to 22.1% against. It was probably the most overwhelming vote ever affecting youth. But CMT did nothing to reduce crime and turned out to be one of New Zealand’s most expensive failures. A later Labour Government led by Norman Kirk, allowed CMT to slip quietly into oblivion. The protesters had been 100% wrong. However, in a footnote to the demise of CMT, people in the military were said to be ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ and letters from the government carried the OHMS message on the envelope. But then there was a protest movement called OHMS which was Organisation to Halt Military Service, and they won their war without firing a single shot.
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After eight years in power (1949-1957) the National Government (Holland and Holyoake) lost power to Labour led by Walter Nash, the oldest person to hold the office of prime minister in New Zealand. After electing a Speaker, Nash had a majority in the House of only one seat. He had the very able Arnold Nordmeyer as his Minister of Finance, and Nordmeyer could see that some economic reforms were needed to keep the country on the straight and narrow. In his first budget, Nordie as he was known, increased the tax on tobacco and alcohol. There was immediate and widespread protest and Nordie is only remembered now for his 1958 Black Budget. At the next general election Keith Holyoake’s National Party was swept to power with 46 seats to Labour’s 34. The beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking protester got their way and defeated a government that had faced up to its responsibilities, in spite of the obvious repercussions that lay ahead.

Also, in the year of the Black Budget, New Zealand’s first supermarket, Foodtown, opened in Otahuhu, after locals protested to stop it going ahead. Fearing the effect on small businesses, many people said that they would refuse to shop at Foodtown, claiming that by a combined effort they could send it broke and put a stop to all future supermarkets. Needless to say, Foodtown quickly became New Zealand’s busiest shop and branches opened throughout the country. Since 1958 the number of owner operated shops, and the number of wage earners in retailing, has continued to outstrip population growth.

The introduction of television in 1960 tells a similar story. Thousands of people said they would refuse to buy a television, and if everyone did that, the problem would go away. They were probably the sons and daughters of the people who said they would refuse to have a telephone in the house.

Much has been written about French nuclear testing in the Pacific, the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour, the sale of government assets, the Vietnam War, and many other issues and protests. For that reason they have not been included here. This is about other protests that were important in their own way, but are now largely forgotten.

Forgotten now, is the bail-out of Air New Zealand. The airline had been government owned from its inception in 1940, but in 2001 it was a public company listed on the stock exchange with many Kiwis holding small share parcels alongside corporate investors. But due to changing markets and some not so wise strategies, the airline hit head winds in 2001 and was in danger of collapse. The government of the day offered to buy into the company. They could see that a failed Air New Zealand would have ramifications beyond the airline itself, creating a domino effect that could cause a major economic downturn and large-scale unemployment. Almost to a man, the public were up in arms at the proposal. It was a waste of money. The airline should be allowed to fail. However, the Clark Government went ahead and acquired 75% of the increased capital of the airline at 25 cents a share and Air New Zealand survived to fly another day. However, the protesters were out in force again in 2014 when the Government sold part of its stake at $1.65 a share. To some people, government can do no right.

One of the longest and most bitter protests reached a peak in the 1970’s and 1980’s led by the unions and churches, unlikely bedfellows in the eyes of many. In 1936 it had become illegal to operate a retail business on a Saturday or Sunday. But with the introduction of supermarkets and generally larger retail shops, the movement to extend trading hours picked up some steam. The protesters came out in force declaring that weekend trading would spell the end of orderly society, workers’ rights, and about a million other lame reasons. In 1980, the law changed to allow shopping until midday on a Saturday, and in 1989 all day Saturday and Sunday became the rule. Now, the people who were going to boycott shops that changed to the new hours, can be seen filling the checkout lines in every shop and supermarket in the country.  Seven day shopping is now popular and convenient. But like so many other protests, before and after this protest, it is now conveniently forgotten.

As usual, when all the hoo-hah dies down, life goes on.