Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 13 — The Opposition Opposes
The Opposition Opposes
THE formation of New Zealand's War Cabinet in July 1940, said the Prime Minister to Parliament, ‘will find an echo in the hearts of the people, as it should give to all sections of the community confidence in the unity of Parliament and the country's political leaders….1 It would ‘enable us to play our full part in the conflict by an effort of both parties in the House, and to avoid the embarrassment of political dissension and criticism.’ These high hopes were, perhaps inevitably, frustrated. In November the National Party took action expressly to demonstrate that New Zealand's political leaders differed, and to ensure that criticism should be sharp; and in the second half of 1940 party politics somewhat revived, as a result of internal readjustments in the Opposition rather than of direct conflict between the two main parties. Indeed there were notable occasions when clashes were sharper in the country than when leaders met face to face in Parliament.2
1 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 512.
2 Ibid., Vol. 258, p. 298.
These conflicting currents of opinion were clearly expressed in public. In his view, said J. G. Coates, in a debate at the height of the crisis, on 30 May 1940,1 ‘All members of Parliament can be relied upon to think in one direction only at the present time, and that is, how best to achieve the common object we have in view. No member is likely to put any question that will embarrass the government or impede that ultimate object of ours.’ ‘But,’ said F. W. Doidge during the same debate,2 ‘it is our job to criticize. We are His Majesty's Opposition, our job is to criticize. Further, we know that the greatest spur in the world is criticism, and we would not be doing our job if we did not criticize, feeling, as we do, that the Government is not making the maximum effort to assist the Motherland.’ In the view of many, the Opposition's capacity to criticise was gravely impeded by its leader's association with Government ministers in the War Cabinet. Nor were malcontents appeased when they observed Hamilton and Coates ‘criticizing with all their former enthusiasm their colleagues in the War Cabinet on general political subjects’;3 for the deduction was then drawn that the War Cabinet could itself scarcely be a satisfactory institution, certainly not one whose existence jeopardised the Opposition's traditional right to criticise, on principle, all things that a government did.
Further, some at least of the Opposition publicly rejected the view of their leaders, now installed in the War Cabinet, that New Zealand was making a satisfactory contribution to the Commonwealth war effort.4 ‘New Zealand,’ said F. W. Doidge on 19 June 1940, ‘has put forth only a fraction of the maximum effort of which she is capable.’ He quoted Churchill's statement that, if France fell, Britain, the Dominions, and the Navy would carry on still. ‘It was the lion roaring out defiance and calling out to his cubs.’ New Zealand, he said, had missed ‘a glorious opportunity. There was a chance of telling Great Britain that we in this Dominion can find two hundred thousand men5.’
1 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 8.
2 Ibid., p. 11.
3 Round Table, December 1940, p. 179.
5 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 230.
Coates spoke with responsibility: a former prime minister, who was about to join the War Cabinet and help to implement a policy to which he had given general approval. His viewpoint was endorsed by his leader, Hamilton. Those who rejected it formed a powerful group within the party. In spite of—even because of—the crisis, they argued that the war effort should be radically recast, in ways as yet undefined, and that the Opposition should resume its essential function of opposing. For them, existing leadership was clearly seen as an obstacle, together with the leaders' membership of War Cabinet. In October and November this point was clearly illustrated, for a somewhat controversial election campaign had to be fought without much campaigning by Hamilton, who was occupied by his War Cabinet duties. S. G. Holland, being free of such public responsibilities, participated freely.2
1 NZPD, Vol. 257, pp. 243–4.
Rumour and occasional press reports kept the public reasonably well informed of developments, so that a change in the leadership of the Opposition was not unexpected. The election of Holland was, however, accompanied by the decision that he should not enter the War Cabinet. The request by the National Party that Hamilton and Coates should remain members of War Cabinet was, in one aspect, a well earned vote of confidence in distinguished men; but more than anything else it emphasised the intention of the party's change in leadership, and it placed the Prime Minister in an exceedingly awkward position. No stipulation had been made in July that the Opposition should be represented in War Cabinet by its leader, partly, perhaps, because at that time there could be no doubt as to the two members of the Opposition most suitable for appointment to War Cabinet. It had, however, always been understood that the Leader of the Opposition should be there. It was not a matter of individuals, said Fraser, and he paid high tribute to the work of Hamilton and Coates. It was ‘a question of the coming together of parties for a common end’, the furnishing of public and impressive ‘evidence of that national unity in the war effort which we all desire2.’
1 Press, 27 Nov 1940.
Holland did not closely define the word ‘socialisation’, nor for that matter did anyone else in public life, but his statement put two-party co-operation beyond the range of practical politics, and left his hands free for the election that was due towards the end of 1941. It indicated a revival of the main line of criticism brought by the Opposition against the Government before the war: and in fact in the first month of 1941 the new leader of the Opposition resumed the peacetime practice of a pre-sessional political tour of the country. His criticisms of the Government were far sharper than those used by his predecessor in wartime; the Opposition had indeed refreshed the acerbity of its attack, following lines which remained basically familiar. ‘New Zealand today is fighting two wars,’ said Holland, ‘—one as part of the British Empire against an enemy seeking to destroy the rights and independence of the people of the Dominion; and another on the home front against a Government that is taking advantage of the war overseas to implement its full programme for the socialisation of New Zealand's industries.’ There were indeed signs of willingness to base criticism on the handling of the war. In December, for instance, the Prime Minister complained that members of parliament who had criticisms to make were given an opportunity to do so in secret session, and those who then kept silence were in some part responsible for what was done and should not make public capital of defects in the war effort; and Holland complained on occasions that some matters concerning the war effort had not been referred to War Cabinet.2 In the main, however, the Opposition's official campaign was based on internal affairs. As to the future, Holland suggested that those elected at the next general election should hold office for the duration of the war, and that the two parties should agree that, whoever won, a non-party national government should be formed.3 Meantime, party warfare seemed to have been re-established in New Zealand, with recrimination as to who it was who had brought about this somewhat unedifying if superficial conflict.
1 NZPD, Vol. 258, pp. 281–2; Press, 31 Dec 1940.
2 NZPD, Vol. 258, p. 591; Manawatu Times, 6 Feb 1941.
2 Cf. NZPD, Vol. 259, pp. 292–5.
3 Standard, 24 Apr 1941.
A truce thus based was not likely to last. That which to one party politician was ‘fair and reasonable comment’, or an essential elucidation of Government policy in reply to criticism, was to another ‘obvious propaganda’, and ‘unprovoked, unnecessary and very offensive’. When Parliament met there was a marked difference in attitude among members of the Opposition. The ‘old gang’ continued to follow something rather like a non-party course. The ‘new gang’ followed Holland in an incessant attack on the Government, seizing upon every opportunity for criticism.2
1 Star-Sun, 19 Apr 1941.
2 Ibid., 8 Sep 1941.
3 Fraser to Nash, 29 Jul 1941.
1 Nash to Fraser, 5 Aug 1941.
2 NZPD, Vol. 259, p. 710.
4 The negotiations were reported in some detail to Parliament: NZPD, Vol. 260, pp. 1153–66.
The problem of the general election was solved, but not that of party conflict. During the next three months there followed, in fact, a series of by-elections, which the Opposition fought on party lines, mainly on domestic issues, though there was a Labour candidate only for the vacancy caused by the death on active service of a Labour MP. The Prime Minister criticised these proceedings with the greatest vigour, particularly after the Expeditionary Force went into action again in Libya on 20 November; but the campaign continued without remission in the weeks that followed Pearl Harbour. The Prime Minister said with some sharpness that the arguments against by-elections were very similar to those against general elections, which both he and the Leader of the Opposition wholeheartedly endorsed; and that he had assumed accordingly that the agreement between the two parties for the postponement of the general election covered also the avoidance of by-election campaigns.2 It had not, however, been so specified. The Opposition exercised its rights, though not without dissent in the ranks of the Government's persistent critics,3 and as 1942 began, full of menace from overseas, spokesmen of both parties accused each other vehemently of jeopardising national unity in the interests of party programmes.4
In short, the mounting tensions of 1941, even when crowned by the long-feared emergence of Japan as an active enemy, left party politics in New Zealand ostensibly very much alive. Yet the basic importance of vociferous public acrimony may be somewhat discounted. The real running of the war was in the hands of a two-party War Cabinet, which worked without publicity or consideration for party interests. The most frank and thorough parliamentary discussion of war policy took place in the fairly frequent secret sessions. Their secrecy was well preserved, at the time and later; but there is reason to think that with publicity absent, party rancour was, to say the least, notably softened. Further, though Holland insisted throughout on keeping his freedom of action by refusing to join the War Cabinet, he was consulted upon occasions and given highly confidential information. This happened, with beneficial results to domestic harmony, when the decision was made to send New Zealanders to Greece. It happened again when Fraser explained to him in October 1941 his reasons for thinking that the elections should be postponed.5
1 NZPD, Vol. 260, p. 1144. Mr Holland: ‘until I received the honourable gentleman's letter I was unaware of the Government's decision to introduce this Bill…I thought an election was on—that was my guess.’
4 Cf. Round Table, March 1942, p. 333.
5 NZPD, Vol. 260, p. 1155.
It may be presumed that the Leader of the Opposition was out of touch with the disturbing confidential information which reached New Zealand while he was absorbed in the by-election campaigns that followed; but with them safely over, the impact of Japanese successes led New Zealand politicians once again to experiment with unity, and to show briefly that on fundamental things their agreement was close.