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The Spike or Victoria University College Review September 1927

University Opinion at the Bar

page 25

University Opinion at the Bar.

The introduction into Parliament and the passing of the War Disabilities Removal Act, 1927, recall an expression of University opinion some years ago, which was the subject of much Unfavourable comment at the time, but which this Act has now completely vindicated. The issue of "The Spike" for September, 1923, at page 56, records that a Visitors' Debate was held by the Debating Society on 23rd of June, when the disfranchisement of conscientious objectors was discussed. Four members of Parliament occupied the platform, Messrs. J. A. Young and G. R. Sykes seeking to justify the disfranchisement, and Messrs. J. A. Lee and W. J. Jordan speaking against it. A number of students also took part in the debate, the motion was at the close voted upon by the meeting as a whole and by the students present in two separate votes, and by both votes the disfranchisement of conscientious objectors was condemned. Debaters of 1923 will remember that this was looked upon as the most important debate of the year; the Gymnasium was filled beyond its capacity, and besides the four M's.P. upon the platform, a number of others were present in the audience. A certain section of public opinion indignantly charged the Debating Society and the University with treasonable motives, and openly seditious utterances. This year's Act, in words which appear in "Hansard," "is an acknowledgement that Parliament was wrong in 1918," when the disabilities were imposed, and is a somewhat triumphant acquittal of Victoria University College.

The disabilities imposed were to disappear by lapse of time; but Parliament has now abolished them by express enactment before the time limit has arrived. A very brief survey of the legislation concerned may be of interest.

By Section 8 of the Expeditionary Forces Amendment Act, 1918, military defaulters were defined as men who had committed a military offence, or deserted, or in any other way indicated "in the opinion of the Minister (of Defence) an intent permanently to evade or refuse to fulfil their obligations of military service in the present war." The names of such men were to be placed on a "Military Defaulter's List," with the exception of such as could convince the Minister that their default was due to "bona fide religious objections to military service."

The subsequent sections of the Act imposed upon all men whose names appeared in the list the following disabilities: (1.) Any defaulter not in New Zealand at the passing of the Act was prevented from returning at any time within ten years, and if he did so, he must "on the expiry of the sentence imposed on him for the offence of so returning.....be deported from New Zealand by order of the Minister of Defence." (2.) All defaulters were deprived of civil rights for ten years, and this deprival involved the loss of any office or employment in the service of the Crown or any local or public authority, as well as of all rights as an elector, whether in national or local elections. (Apparently the vote upon the licensing issue was overlooked by the draftsman.) (3.) There was no limit to the time within which a charge of infringing the provisions of the Act might be brought, and the accused's right of trial by jury was taken away.

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The ten years' period of disability ran from 10th December, 1918, so that the disabilities imposed were due to be lifted by lapse of time on 11th December, 1928. The new Act, the "War Disabilities Removal Act, 1927," repealed the sections creating these disabilities, together with other provisions in other Acts, such as those prohibiting enemy aliens from holding any land in New Zealand. The Bill was introduced by the Hon. F. J. Rolleston into the House of Representatives, and after receiving the congratulations of the Labour members, and practically no opposition, was passed intact on the 1st September, whence the measure proceeded to the Legislative Council for its concurrence. It was introduced in that Chamber by Sir Francis Bell, who appealed to members of the Council to forget the animosities of the war period, and to pass the Bill in its entirety as an act of grace to those useful citizens in our midst who were still suffering under the penalties imposed upon them in the war years.

Most members agreed with Sir Francis on most points. But one hon. member, who shall be nameless here, but who is very anxious for school children to have read to them daily the sayings of the Prince of Peace, to his everlasting discredit moved that the disabilities upon conscientious objectors should be continued to the bitter end, upon the ground that a man who refused to fight was of all enemies of his country the blackest and worst. This amendment was carried, and the Bill proceeded in its mutilated form.

In our opinion the amendment of the Legislative Council, insulting- as it was to the conscientious objectors, in placing them below even men who may have fought in the German Army, was not of great consequence from the political point of view. It merely condemns its supporters as men who are prepared to travel through life with their chins on their shoulders, preferring to be guided by the dead hand of buried hatred, rather than by the voice of present-day justice. But our congratulations are extended to the broad-minded Minister who was responsible for the Bill, one of the very few University graduates in the present Parliament; and to the elected members who voted in accordance, we think, with the general opinion of the people whom they represent. And we venture to nominate for honourable mention, at lowest, the University that more than four years ago anticipated the turn of the tide of public opinion, and openly sided with tolerance and against injustice.

There is one issue everlastingly facing Universities and University students: to be the leaven or the lump. They cannot be both. Let us trust that Victoria will always choose to be the leaven, as she did in this present instance, for

........to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust, Ere her cause bring fame or profit, and 'tis prosperous to be just. Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside, Till the multitudes make virtue of the faith they had denied.