Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 14. 1969.
Now Mythology — Once History . . . writes Owen Gager
Once History . . . writes Owen Gager
A wage increase refused. No action on student bursaries. Stalemate on staff salaries. The Omega station's military uses announced.
This combination of issues, only one year ago, set off the angriest demonstration in New Zealand since the late forties. This year, when Parliament opened, the fallout from Mr. Muldoon's explosions was reduced to so minimal a level that one could only suspect Government policies were now being tested underground. One hundred and fifty people, comprising the Communist Party and Auckland's currently most striking union, the electricians, dragged up Auckland's main street in symbolic light drizzle which became a downpour when marchers reached the Town Hall. In Wellington the Committee on Vietnam mustered about a hundred people for a vigil (no one would risk a demo this year), news of which didn't reach any students because George Fyson developed a comunications block. Though these events rocked the Government to its foundations as usual in the Communist Party press, the only other paper to notice them was Socialist Unity Party's Tribune which decided anti-Parliamentary protests were unethical because Parliament helped the workers now and then. So the local Sino-Soviet dispute went on its merry way, but nobody else reacted.
Sceptics have attributed the more morbid areas of this apathy to the wise decision to open Parliament during the university vacation. But the default came from unions as well as students: stuffed with a satisfying wage increase and a new model Arbitration Court procedure, nobody this year could rise enough class consciousness even to assail the Australian Ambassador's chauffeur. The new style in politics announced from Parliament steps last June had lost all impetus.
But the isues were still there. Auckland was having a larger than usual rash of strikes: arbitration was still not satisfying everyone. Bursaries were still where they were last June. Stall salary levels had just despatched another psychology lecturer (ironically quoted in Mr. Muldoon's last major speech) across the Tasman. Only institutions had changed. The Federation of Labour was demonstrating nonviolently at the National Development Conference that it could get along with the employers better than the Labour Party. (After the first major compromise, the rest is easy.) Victoria had a student executive so right-wing the knowing expected moral re-armament to pay Gerard Curry's way to South Africa any day. And last June had been turned from an event into a non-event by the Press, the heart of stability in New Zealand's coronary thrombosis. In a modern business community, one must take a sophisticated public relations approach to most things, especially facts, and there's nothing like violence to get suburban housewives kick out of the overwhelmingly non-violent demonstrations. But however it was done. June 26 has been transferred from history to mythology with the fake left agreeing enthusiastically there was violence because that's where they too get their kicks (often literally). (If violence is right in principle, irrespective of whether it gets you closer to socialism or not, you are not for socialism, you are for violence.) When the capitalist press and the Communist Party agree on a myth about the left, its very difficult to restore it to sober history. Perhaps that's why re-enactment of June looked too daunting for potential sponsors outside Skinner's or Curry's political mobs.
The June people, though, ought to have expected this. People who act like a crowd scene in an Eisenstein film (not choosing violence, but having violence thrust upon them) should expect the right to act like the villians in Eisenstein films, and one must say Tom Skinner, Gerard Curry, Norm Kirk and all, have all acted up to the best conventions of social realist melodrama. Even such a minimal acquaintance with socialist principles as one gets from a Howard Fast novel should dictate the next step: unity against the Right. If you don't like existing institutions, you form new ones. Unfortunately the international rapproachment between students and workers, seems to have imbued everyone with "hip" left-wingery: what you need for socialism is a few good happenings. (This seems to be Socialist Club's theory of revolution, if one takes Ernest Mandell's article in Red Spark seriously.) June was a Happening, and another one can be improvised next time everyone feels like it— this seems like the general attitude. A bit more than this is really necessary for student-worker unity, which did exist in June, to he consolidated. One of these things is agreement on a broad political perspective: it's not good enough to be all revolutionary together, especially when one remembers just how hard it was to persuade the Drivers' Union secretary to acept the student case on staff salaries. So long as workers demonstrate when the Arbitration Court knocks back wage increases, and students about bursaries or (typically unselfishly) about the Great Nuclear Threat, there is simply no real connection between the two kinds of demonstrators, except their being in the same place at the same time. The fact that there has been so little student-worker contact since June shows how little the real gulf between the two groups was bridged even then—all that has been created is friendly sentiment between the left-wingers on both sides, and a feeling that if you ring Salient three hours before a trade union demo you'll get five hundred students on the dot. Last year the attempt to bridge the gap was in terms of an argument that incomes policy had totally broken down—that the incompetence of the Arbitration Court and Government parsimony on education were part of the same syndrome, a failure to work out any systematic planned mode of income distribution. The more "left" unionists— those who read the New Statesman and understand British politics—have reacted to the term "incomes policy" predictably: anybody who uses this language is doing a Harold Wilson. If the idea of planning income distribution is rejected—and the point about Britain is that the wrong people planned the wrong way, and no matter what hangups you have about planning it can misfire badly as the NDC is proving—everybody might as well do their own thing about their own incomes. Either this is a political issue or should be abandoned to the pressure groups: and it is only if incomes become political that genuine student-work unity is possible. And surely this where the real case against Muldoon begins: that devaluation, though it has increased exports, has reduced wage and salary levels far below comparable Australian rates. Muldoon has increased exports at the expense of wage and salary earners. This is not to say (as the Labour Party does) that growth should not be exported; it is to realise that while this sort of growth is essential, it must, like any economic growth be accompanied by measures of income redistribution if it is not to bring New Zealand class and income structure much closer to that of Britain or other European more rigidly class-stratified societies. Economic growth in a more classless society: this is what union and students could both ask for, if the lessons of June are to be learnt.