New Zealand in a New Phase

By Spencer Brodney

[The New York Times/Current History, November 1916]

The New Zealand Military Service bill, which became law on Aug. 1, 1916, has come as a surprise to those who have always associated New Zealand with radical and progressive politics. How is it, one asks, that such a country could take a headlong plunge into militarism and adopt conscription just as determinedly as if it were a European power? Is not New Zealand ruled by the working class, which is everywhere opposed to compulsory military service?

The answer to these questions is that in New Zealand the working class no longer exercises the political influence it did during the long progressive regime which began in 1890 and continued under the successive Premierships of Ballance, Seddon, and Ward till a little while after the outbreak of the war, when the Conservatives led by Massey returned to power. Subsequently Massey formed a coalition with the Liberals, whose leader, Sir Joseph Ward, had become a very lukewarm radical. The object of the coalition was to eliminate party politics and concentrate upon the work of helping the empire in its hour of need. But its effect was also to close up the ranks against labor. From the moment the Massey-Ward Ministry took office the political power of the working class was practically extinguished and the only possible opposition to an ultra-imperialistic policy destroyed. In fact, it was a repetition of what had happened in England when the Liberal Prime Minister called the Tory chieftains to his side and squelched radical, labor, and Socialist opponents.

But even if the New Zealand Liberal Party had not been swallowed up by the Conservatives, it would be a mistake to suppose that New Zealand radicalism was ever opposed to the kind of patriotism which has for first article of belief the greatness and glory of the British Empire. The great leader of the Liberal-Labor forces was the late Richard Seddon, who was Premier uninterruptedly from 1893 to the time of his death in 1906. Originally a Lancashire workingman, he remained throughout his career an intense democrat and a bold experimentalist in politics. But he was also the most fervent of British imperialists, enthusiastically advocating Chamberlainism on every occasion that problems of empire came up for discussion. For that reason he was as great a favorite with British Tories as the Australian Prime Minister, Hughes, who is a Socialist, has since become.

The British Tory imperialists are always ready to forgive radicalism in the domestic politics of the self-governing dominions so long as colonial statesmen are "loyal to the empire." Seddon could have turned New Zealand into a Socialist State and the British jingoes would not have turned a hair so long as New Zealand kept to the policy which sent troops to fight in South Africa, contributed battleships to the British fleet, and supported proposals at the imperial conferences in London which aimed at destroying liberalism in Great Britain. Seddon's successor, Ward, was not so trustworthy a democrat as Seddon, but he was, and is, no less imperialistic; and in this he represents the prevailing sentiment of the New Zealand people.

New Zealand is undoubtedly the most loyal and patriotic of all the British self-governing dominions. Its population contains no separate national element, as in Canada and South Africa, nor has it ever received any influx of discontented emigrants from the British Isles, as has Australia. In New Zealand, which was almost exclusively colonized by Englishmen and Scotsmen, the mother country is deeply revered and loved without question.

This is due not merely to the character of the colonists and their children, who have been bred in the tradition of loyalty. There is also a geographical reason. New Zealand is a small country and a lonely one. It consists of a couple of islands, with an area about the same as that of the State of Colorado, that is, a little over 100,000 square miles. Even Australia is four days distant across the Tasman Sea, while it is a voyage of nearly three weeks to the North American Continent. Thus the New Zealand people, at once the most loyal of Britishers and the most isolated, feel that their safety depends upon the strength of the empire, above all on the strength of the predominant partner, Great Britain. If, for example, Germany were victorious and British power waned in the Pacific, what would be the fate of New Zealand? Visions of conquest and occupation by Germans or Japanese or some other aggressive people haunt the minds of New Zealanders, intensify their devotion to the cause of the mother country, and impel them to the sacrifice they are making of their manhood on the slaughter grounds of Europe.

There are other important circumstances which explain New Zealand's militarism. The working class, as we have seen, has lost the advantageous position it held so long in politics. Now, the reason it was ever able to enjoy any influence at all was that during the progressive period the workers were not organized as a separate political force, but formed part of the Liberal Party, the leaders of which were courageous and enlightened men, and which drew an equally large share of its strength from the small farmers. New Zealand is of no importance as a manufacturing country. The wealth it produces consists mainly of foodstuffs and raw materials, and its industrial establishments are for the most part connected with sheep raising, agriculture, and mining. Agrarian interests are easily the most important.

Originally the issue was between the small farmers and workmen who wished to become farmers, on the one side, and the great land monopolists on the other. The so-called semi-socialistic legislation of New Zealand has been the result of a pact between the workers and the small farmers, with a decided balance in favor of the latter. The great hindrance to economic development was the holding of land in large estates, and the policy of Ballance and Seddon was to break them up into small farms. And so New Zealand radicals borrowed the single-tax idea of the American economist, Henry George, and adapted it to their purposes. A graduated tax was imposed on land values and the Government was given power to secure large estates by compulsory purchase, subdivide them, and resell to small farmers on the easiest of installment terms. The small farmers received further aid from a Government system of rural credits; the railways were completely nationalized, and the State, through the Department of Agriculture and other channels, directed its energies to the creation of a prosperous peasantry. And it has succeeded; but as this new class has grown more comfortable it has lost sympathy with the humane social philosophy to which it owed much in the beginning.

The workers also secured benefits under the regime of the progressive leaders. A democratic franchise, including votes for women, old-age pensions, assistance to widowed mothers, and a whole series of excellent laws for the protection and safety of workpeople were enacted. Labor unions were placed en a firm basis under the law, and State activity extended in many directions. Most noteworthy of all experiments in labor legislation was the establishment of a system of compulsory arbitration in disputes between employers and workers. That system has been the subject of much controversy. It has not altogether prevented strikes, for there has been at least one very serious revolt against it. On the other hand, it is claimed that had there been no such system strikes would have been more numerous and more disastrous, and there seems no doubt that it did bring about a general rise in real wages in a peaceful manner, thus increasing the spending powers of the working class and thereby contributing to the prosperity of the country. Compared with other countries, New Zealand has good results to show in its social conditions. Its health statistics place it ahead of any other country in the world, and in other respects the showing is just as good.

But the class which gained most from the progressive regime has been undoubtedly that of the small farmers, who, while they have grown in wealth and political influence, have lost a good deal of their enthusiasm for radicalism and are actually now opposed to their old allies of the working class. Thus has come about a change in political parties of quite recent date.

The workers, finding that they could not depend upon the Liberals, no longer led by a genuine man of the people like Seddon, have at last organized as a separate political party to safeguard their own interests. The movement, begun in 1912, was not established on a solid basis until June of this year, when at a joint conference of the United Federation of Labor, the Social Democratic Party, and the Labor Representation Committee of New Zealand it was decided to found the New Zealand Labor Party with a definitely socialistic objective. This party has not yet had an opportunity of making itself felt in Parliament, and so there is no effective opposition to the capitalistic combination under Massey and Ward. The rise of a Labor Party on one side and the fusion of Liberals and Conservatives on the other are indications that the realignment of parties is now complete. Thus it has come to pass that New Zealand, for more than a quarter of a century an object lesson to the whole world in progressive politics, has returned to the fold of conservatism and is ruled by men who are ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of British world power.

It is therefore not surprising that New Zealand has in the most thorough manner copied the militarist methods of the mother country. In addition to enacting a compulsory service law, the Government has adopted repressive measures against the minority, which is described as "anti-war," and it has also recently passed an act to extend the duration of the present Parliament for a year beyond the term for which it was elected. This last measure seems to indicate some sort of belief that the newly organized Labor Party might provide a vigorous opposition to the Conservative-Liberal fusion Government, and to attempts by that Government, on the plea of imperial safety, to annul ideas which are the foundation of New Zealand's progressive democracy.

It is in the light of such a setback to social progress that we see the devastating results of this war. In all the belligerent countries the war is destroying almost every peaceful, humanizing activity, intellectual as well as political, besides exacting its frightful toll of human life. It seems incredibly stupid that the hideous folly of European statesmen should reach right across the world and lay wanton hands on a country from which we were all learning something of the new science of curing the ills that afflict modern society, for had not New Zealand earned the title of the "social laboratory" of the world? Alas! The "social laboratory" is now closed and the staff have turned preachers of the gospel of hatred.

[The Australian Parliament recently passed a bill for a national referendum on conscription, to be taken on Oct. 28, thus leaving the question to the decision of the people.—EDITOR.]

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury