Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 11. 22 July 1970
Yellow Peril in Palmerston
Yellow Peril in Palmerston
As part of its celebration of Independence Day (4 July), the Massey University Students' Association hosted a Seminar on Indo-China. Speakers at the Seminar, on the subject "Prospects for Peace in the 70's", included the Minister of Defence, David Thomson, Les Hunter, a Social Credit Political League spokesman, former NZUSA President Alister Taylor, Tim Shadbolt and Bill Lee, a member of the Auckland PYM. The Labour Party was invited to send a speaker to the Seminar but declined a further opportunity to be embarrassed by its own intellectual poverty. Owen Gager reports on proceedings:
The Indo-China War has reached the provinces. Palmerston North took its turn to register the impact of the invasion of Cambodia at a Massey University teach-in earlier this month.
It was, as might be expected in Palmerston North, very quiet. A speech by Defence Minister Thomson, which would have led in Auckland to pitched battles between police and a PYM Kamikaze squad, or in Wellington to a restrained and bureaucratic student riot, led Palmerston North only to polite laughter at the more obvious pomposities. The transposition to this tranquil and only mildly cynical atmosphere of Auckland's two best-known radical activists foreshadowed things to come. Tim Shadbolt's wit overwhelmed the audience, which gave Shadbolt the best reception it gave any speaker. Bill Lee's blunt vulgar Marxism—"the United States is scuttling horn Indo-China like a frightened rat" is a choice pearl from his rhetoric—alienated some people but attracted no hostile questioning whatever and a surprisingly substantial body of applause. Indo-China, even in Palmerston North, is becoming less and less an academic problem.
But it will be some time before Palmerston moves toward the street action both Lee and Shadbolt advocated, even if the move seems inevitable sooner or later. A motion that Palmerston support the national mobilisation was not put at the teach-in which its organisers claimed was official neutral pro or con the Indo-China war. Between solidarity with the Vietnamese and its fulfilment in radical action falls the shadow of bureaucratic leadership.
In terms of conventional politics, Social Credit emerged at the teach-in as a definitely anti-war party, while Labour, which failed to put in an appearance at all, showed signs of ravage from the dissension within the Parliamentary Party over events in Cambodia. National, in fact, appeared to feel that the teach-in rated a high priority by sending a Cabinet Minister to a university that the Party may hope to preserve as a bastion of conservatism in the student radical upsurge. Here was a situation in which Social Credit could have exploited its 'new look' policies credibly at the expense of both National and Labour, but its new leader, John O'Brien, failed to put in an appearance, and political executive member Les Hunter—given an hour's notice—made an ineffective substitute. Social Credit's ability to perform at an hour's notice nevertheless contrasted favourably with Labour's inability to perform at a fortnight's notice. Hunter's speech was an exercise in watered-down Labour Party-type soapbox oratory with a more naive political and economic content. Both the 'Marxist expert' Henry Chan (who chaired the meeting) and PYM leader Bill Lee immediately labelled Hunter's approach 'Marxist'. This is how extremes meet, whether in parliamentary or extra-parliamentary politics.
At a seminar where Les Hunter could be labelled a Marxist, it was not surprising that ex-student leader Alister Taylor could appear radical Predictably, Taylor urged a return to a 'national' foreign policy instead of one dictated by an overseas country—not a new plea, and one not greatly in conflict with the main lines of the Defence Minister's speech, which was well received.
The seminar, then, was a reasonable index of the movement of New Zealand opinion on the Indo-China war: National, like Nixon, growing more aware of the dangers of extreme student reaction against its foreign policy, but unable to check this reaction significantly; Labour, moving to the right, and fearful of identification with student dissent; Social Credit trying to jump on the anti-war bandwagon far too late, and finding, to its surpirse and disappointment, that the only place this electoral manoeuvre can get it is a left-wing position it is afraid to occupy. In this political confusion, the mindless activism of the Auckland PYM leads only to an identification with the equally minless economics of Social Credit.
The only positive voice emerges as Tim Shadbolt's: "If you were being raped, would you ask for negotiations or immediate withdrawal?"—a sane and radical view of the present Indo-China situation. His second question about the war is even more crucial—what sort of "quality of life" are we "defending" (the quotes are from Thomson) when the penalty for distributing jelly beans to the members of the Auckland City Council is four months preventive detention? It is a pity that these questions have to come from a figure who, although charismatic and immensely popular, admits that he has no idea of any strategy for the growth of radical political opposition in New Zealand, and whose basic political attitudes are close to Labour's empty options of 'Humanitarianism' and 'nationalism'. Henry Chan, the teach-in's chairman, suggested after Lee and Shadbolt had spoken that their future lay as foreign policy spokesmen for the Labour Party. With this verdict, no one at the teach-in disagreed; though such a possibility must haunt Kirk's nights.