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Creating a National Spirit: Celebrating New Zealand's Centennial

3: The Highway to Health and Happiness in the Government Court

page 54

3: The Highway to Health and Happiness in the Government Court

The Hon D.G. Sullivan, Minister of Industries and Commerce and chairman of the directors of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition Company, presented New-Zealand's centennial exhibition in the context of the Labour government's social reforms.1 The goal of settlement had been to build 'an even brighter Britain of the south'. In the first instance the settlers had to separate themselves from the institutions and facilities of 'developed civilisation' and win the fight against nature (Maori not being mentioned). This was in order to create a new civilisation through political struggles involving 'new social conceptions, rooted in Christianity itself, which ultimately wrote into the laws the rule that man had a duty to his fellows, a duty to care for the aged, the invalid, the sick and the poor', so that New Zealand would avoid the 'human degradation' of the Old World and be recognised as 'the world's leader in matters relating to social reform'.

Jock Phillips, reflecting on the place of the Centennial Exhibition in our history has suggested that it proclaimed New Zealand to be an 'economically progressive welfare state because the Labour government wished to announce its success in pulling New Zealand out of the depression'.2 In so doing Labour had resurrected the spirit of the social laboratory in order to forge a renewed sense of national identity.

In this essay we shall consider the extent to which and how New Zealand was represented as a renewed social laboratory. It is not immediately evident, at least from the Government Court in the Exhibition itself, that it was represented in this way—in strong contrast to the Christchurch Exhibition of 1906-7 which was determined to demonstrate that New Zealand through its progressive social and labour reforms had tackled and avoided the evils of the Old World.3 For a country coming out of an extremely serious depression the court seemed remarkably free of references to the immediate past and to these dramatic social and labour reforms. Instead it focused upon health and education. The emphasis was on providing a 'highway to health and happiness' for the future rather than the rectification of the ills of the recent past. Why was this?

Why did the organisers of the Government Court fail to dwell upon the achievements of the Labour government? Was it because the court was more intent on looking at the full one hundred years of progress? The centennial was of course page 55 a celebration of a century of organised settlement in this country. Was the depression uncomfortably close? Was an emphasis on social security considered too negative? Was the government acutely aware that, with troublesome economic conditions and war looming, it was better to concentrate upon lofty, general goals such as good health and education? Was the government uncertain that it could achieve all that was promised in the way of social security ? After all, key public servants and overseas advisers considered New Zealand's scheme fiscally irresponsible, extremely risky and untried. Attempts at projecting future funding of the scheme gave little confidence, and the doctors were obdurately opposing the integration of health into the scheme.

Or should we look for simpler explanations? Was the new Social Security Department, formed in April 1939, just a little late to take its place amongst the twenty-six other government departments in the court? Or did it have too much on its plate—with the creation of a new state department, the destruction of its brand new offices in Wellington by fire shortly before their completion, and the need to establish a new comprehensive system of social security benefits? It was not listed amongst the committees involved in preparing the Government Court.4 Or were Labour and National agreed that party politics should be kept out of the centennial celebrations?5

The shape that the Centennial Exhibition took, together with other decisions related to the centennial celebrations, meant that the specific social and labour reforms of the Labour government got very little exposure indeed. It would appear that Joe Heenan, who as undersecretary for Internal Affairs had charge of planning and promoting the centennial celebrations, had not been directed to highlight Labour's reforms. Indeed, perhaps the reverse was the case—that there was a conscious effort to highlight broader national progress over the full century.

Such an effort was evident in the pictorial surveys. They underlined national progress, from the days of immigrants, colonists and pioneers, through the development of the land and infrastructure, to modern-day industry, buildings, electric power, housing, recreation and sports—but did not include anything on health, education or social services.

The centennial surveys too, as the dust jackets noted, were to present 'a comprehensive picture of the nation's development' with an underlying theme of adaptation. The common vision was 'that New Zealand today is the result of a century's struggle by a British community to adapt itself to a new environment', and that the country was 'Old World still in our politics and culture, New World in our attitude to material and social questions'. But this combination did not translate into statements about recent social reforms.6 While the place of the state was acknowledged and discussed in several volumes, the notion of the 'social laboratory' was not prominent.7 A general survey volume on education, although referring briefly to the renaissance of the last five years, looked backwards, with cultural continuity page 56 with Britain as its motif.8 The content of W. B. Sutch's social services contribution resulted in its exclusion from the series.9 His emphasis on conflict and struggle ran counter to expectations of an uncontroversial and consensual discussion.

The overall tenor of the Exhibition had little to do with the social laboratory, at least overtly. It spoke of an apolitical national integration, modernity, infrastructure and productive and technical progress into the future. As Lord Galway, the Governor General, stated at the opening of the Exhibition, New Zealand was on the eve of arrival at maturity and the Exhibition would 'present a clear, unified and comprehensive picture of a century of modern progress and civilisation'.10 There was a deliberate effort to avoid the intrusion of politics. The Hon W. E. Parry, who as Minister of Internal Affairs was in charge of the centennial celebrations, wanted New Zealanders to be 'one big family, a family wholly free from political considerations'; he elaborated that 'from the outset it has been the wish of the Government to encourage and maintain that national spirit5 of 'whole-hearted, whole-minded cooperation in a great cause' in which 'the nation should be the dominant figure and not persons'.11 When he introduced the New Zealand centennial legislation into the House of Representatives in 1938 in terms of an emerging state-orchestrated cooperative national pride, the opposition wholeheartedly supported it. As Parry had urged and as had been endorsed at the centennial conference in 1936, in the year of 1940, 'the year of our national coming-of-age', we should cease to labour the point of being a young country and look to the future rather than the past.

The assertion of a future-oriented 'national spirit' was not deflected by the declaration of war. The original motives for the centennial, agreed upon in 1936, were reaffirmed in September 1939 and it was agreed that it would be 'a most valuable aid in strengthening that national spirit so necessary in time of national crisis'.12

The Dominion Court—an exemplar of national integration—was designed as a single display, in order to get away from previous parochial 'provincial' efforts at self-promotion.13 The country was to be presented as a unified whole—its beginnings, its development, industries, scenic attractions, and city and country. Entry to the court was via four points corresponding to the four ports of Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Port Chalmers. Each entryway was treated symbolically with a tall pillar (described as a 'glazed tower of knowledge') rising from the centre of a wide circular pool. Beyond were twin pylons in which decades of regions' development were illustrated.

Simplicity and modernity went naturally with this approach. As one newspaper feature suggested, 'at the Exhibition visitors will see set out for the first time the full material proof of New Zealand's progress . . . [the Exhibition] will truly epitomize the New Zealand of the present day. Its architecture will be modern, clean-cut, simple, the vision of New Zealanders'.14 Displays were to be consciously integrated into their designated space, and coordinated with the overall architecture; emphasis was placed on lighting and on the movement of visitors within the space. As the page 57 Centennial News commented, the Exhibition would follow international trends in exhibition techniques, involving architects and technical experts 'for the designing of buildings and spectacular expression of ideas, as distinct from the "shop window" method of yesterday'.15 Instead of carcases of frozen lamb 'glistening in long stiff rows', the products and processes were to be symbolised by models—sheep country, roads, railways, freezing works, wharves, and shipping. Consistent with this approach there was an emphasis on maps and murals (and in the case of the Education Department a globe of the world) to provide a broader and more abstract message.

These design elements created an impression different from that of previous exhibitions held in New Zealand, of being confronted head-on by the overflowing of primary produce or of mineral resources. Gone were the days of cramming in all available examples of nature's bounty as might be experienced in a wharf shed full of goods ready for export. New Zealand was now producing and exporting instead a carefully constructed visual and symbolic image for itself. Visitors were able to look down on the entire country from on high, to gain an overall impression of integration, order and civilisation, combining the economic and productive base with the social dimension.

Now, to turn to the Government Court itself. Here we need to understand the image of the state portrayed in the court. Parry, when introducing the New Zealand Centennial Bill in 1938, had gone so far as to suggest that the centennial itself commemorated organised government: 'The year 1940 marks the centennial, not of private effort or of private enterprise in New Zealand, but of organized government-It is, above all, a centennial of government'.16 The state had been integral to the process of colonisation, settlement, development and progress from the start. Now its benevolent assistance was to take an all-embracing and coordinated form as expressed in the Exhibition. The modern centrally directed state was like a coordinated machine that efficiently provided the necessary planning and development of physical and social infrastructure. As described in the official history of the Exhibition, the Government Court was 'in every way an interpretation of the very spirit and idea of the age'.17 It was comprehensive and completely modern. The progress of government departments 'was presented, not as an individual growth, but as a progressively inter-related whole. The visitor was able to grasp easily the importance of cooperation among Government Departments to make the working of the state machine efficient'.

In order to demonstrate this a range of government services were provided within the court so that visitors could 'book a tour, make a will, telegraph friends'.18 Alongside the state 'in operation' the displays emphasised the infrastructural and developmental government departments strongly and in particular those related to land and transport and communications.

The design of the Government Court was intended to promote this impression of coordination and integration, firmly anchored in development. The main entrance page 58
Layout of departmental exhibits in the Government Court. New Zealand Centennial Exhibition: Official Guide to the Government Court.

Layout of departmental exhibits in the Government Court. New Zealand Centennial Exhibition: Official Guide to the Government Court.

hall had a large picture of Prime Minister Savage and a Maori man shaking hands under the dates 1840 and 1940. Visitors then passed into the Hall of Progress, containing a composite exhibit from government departments concerned with land development. Around the outside of the hall individual departments within the land development group had their displays. In the centre of the Government Court was a large circular space formed by four tall concave pylons on which were murals depicting the development of New Zealand in four phases, largely based on the land: Europeans in New Zealand prior to 1840, organised settlement, land, bush clearance and cultivation, and modern communications and transport.

Within the court at large the emphasis was on simple modern lines, models, movement and light. The Air Department had a large revolving globe showing air routes and a map with lights; the Housing Construction Department included revolving models of houses and life-size models of the kitchens of today and yesterday; in the centre of the Hall of Progress was a large model of New Zealand and the various departmental displays included models of, for example, a sawmill, bridges and viaducts, the entire province of Canterbury, Arapuni hydro station, mineshaft head-gear and the Waihi underground gold mines. The Railways Department's exhibit was based around probably the most ambitious model of — a railway system with 1000 feet of track.

Health and education featured as the social equivalents of the physical infrastructure necessary for a modern nation. The Health Department's exhibit was page 59 dominated by the robot Dr Well-and-strong, and displayed a large number of models in twelve bays around which the Doctor toured. The Doctor, handsomely dressed in a tailored suit, was made of papier mache and had a loudspeaker in his chest. His speech and movement were produced by a specially adapted 16mm film projector using a sound film, while an 'electric eye' (which detected blank segments of film) and control gear timed his actions and movement from bay to bay.

Every thirty minutes his consulting-room door opened automatically for the assembled visitors and the Doctor, 'looking the part in every way', walked out the door and in a 'pleasant and cultured voice' invited the visitors to join him in a tour of fifteen minutes.19 He opened with, 'Greetings; here's health to you! Welcome to the "Highway to Health and Happiness".' He then walked, talked, used his arms and turned his head to engage the fascinated, stopping at each of the twelve bays arranged in a long oval. At the climax of the first half of the tour, where 'the healthy family in a happy home' is depicted with two children on tricycles, father cutting the grass and mother bringing out afternoon tea, the Doctor provided a 'talk on life with a capital L'. At the end of the tour, he closed with: 'You have seen how this valuable gift of health is not a matter of chance, but that it can be demanded as a right, if we do what is right.'

Dr Well-and-strong at the Highway to Health and Happiness. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Eileen Deste Collection, P-AC 0765-5, PAColl-0765.

Dr Well-and-strong at the Highway to Health and Happiness. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Eileen Deste Collection, P-AC 0765-5, PAColl-0765.

page 60

The Doctor attracted large numbers, with small crowds waiting for him to emerge and do his round. While a model of probity throughout the Exhibition, its closure proved too much for him. He was 'discreetly silent, ashamed perhaps of his closing night behaviour, when he was seen staggering round his stand attired in a straw boater, singing "Roll out the barrel" and other intemperate ditties' as 'some of the young attendants in the court had prepared for the occasion with some more hilarious if less educational records than the usual repertoire'.20

The bays mentioned focused on the healthy family (using the modern exhibition technique of 'a theme worked out in stages'), and were divided into six dealing with how to develop good health—hospitals, health at school, at home, at play and at work, culminating in 'the healthy family in the happy home'—and another five on how to protect your health: prevention of diseases from entering the country, immunisation, TB, and personal hygiene.21

Attached to the health exhibit but in no position of prominence and not part of any display, was an information bureau for the new Social Security Department's monetary benefits and a bookstall with books and pamphlets on health and welfare matters.22 The Social Security Department was present as just one part of the state's social services at large.

A Labour Department exhibit, tucked away in a corner of the Court, was not imaginative and did not attract a great deal of attention. Although the department was the means by which the Labour Government implemented its progressive labour legislation, it had become something of an organisational backwater during the depression and would remain so until after the war. The Social Security Act had torn away the core of the department's employment functions, and the war would soon create a new manpowering agency that marginalised the Labour Department further.

The department's exhibit was a series of static displays, dealing with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and a range of administrative measures— the Factories Act, the Scaffolding and Excavation Act, weights and measures, and the footwear regulations, for example.23 There did not appear to be any dramatic emphasis on the improvement of conditions since the depression, such as might have underpinned the exhibit, nor was attention devoted to new initiatives. The message seemed to be simply that the department was a well-oiled cog in the state machine. Indeed, although it was part of the mechanism for introducing the forty-hour week, the provisions of the Factories Act 1936 concerning occupational safety and health were in dire need of improvement. This would not take place for a decade. The obsolescence of the legislation was to be highlighted under wartime conditions.

The major emphasis was on the ILO, consistent with the general approach of underlining New Zealand's relationship to the world. Following the election of the Labour government New Zealand had belatedly begun to take an active role in the ILO, quickly ratifying a large number of conventions. Prior to that New Zealand page 61
The Department of Education exhibit. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Dominion Post Collection, PAColl-0765-11-04, PAColl-7327.

The Department of Education exhibit. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Dominion Post Collection, PAColl-0765-11-04, PAColl-7327.

governments had been noticeably unenthusiastic about involvement, arguing at one and the same time that the country had little to learn from others in matters of progressive labour legislation and that the low level of industrialisation exempted New Zealand from consideration.

The Education Department's exhibit was much more spectacular. It was dominated by an eye-catching revolving five-ton globe of the world some twenty-four feet in diameter, 'reminding people of the unceasing course of educational progress, and of its world-wide scope'.24 This was mounted above a sunken court with additional courts to the side, and a raised stage opposite the globe for school pupils and other students to give demonstrations in arts and crafts and the 'active side' of school life.

The globe was designed with a winding stairway outside and up to the North Pole, and a circular stair around a column in its centre for visitors to return to the ground via Antarctica but this appears to have been abandoned because of difficulties in constructing the globe.25 At the foot of the globe was a thirty-foot map of New Zealand, with lights for major schools and other educational institutions and dots for others.

The stated purpose of the exhibit was to ensure that the visitor would 'realise what the education system of New Zealand is doing to prepare our children for page 62 work and leisure in a democratic society'. Its emphasis was on how much schools had changed and it reinforced Peter Fraser's declaratory statement on equality of opportunity and access for all. But further, as was commented, while the 'three R's' were still taught as well as ever, 'education is concerned with the whole child', with the body as well as the brain, with emotions as well as the intellect, and with leisure as well as livelihood. The displays certainly reinforced this broader 'cultural' notion of education, with many of the displays dominated by arts and crafts and other creative work.

The flavour of the Education Department's exhibit was consistent with the major initiatives of educational reform that were taking place at that time under the Labour government.26 Full development of the individual was to be couched within the context of democratic citizenship and orchestrated by the central state machine. Education and health were intertwined elements for maximising mental and bodily opportunity for the individual.

Walter Nash's New Zealand: A Working Democracy', published in 1944, perhaps captures the feeling of the time, as it was expressed in the Exhibition.27 He identified a change of attitude in New Zealand during the 1930s, that suggested a greater sense of distinctive identity was being achieved, as a model for and contributor to 'the greater family of nations'. Pioneering self-reliance was being replaced by an awareness that it was necessary collectively to ensure 'the welfare and security of the individual and the nation'; and, after some decades of marking time since the Liberal social laboratory of the turn of the century, New Zealand once again led the world. It offered a practical example for tomorrow in its 'economic control' and 'integrated social organization' which had been 'consciously guided to serve the best ends of the community'. In Nash's words, 'New Zealand has become a young and enterprising democracy advanced in social legislation, in labour laws, and in economic policies designed to give the fullest possible freedom under a collective and cooperative organization for production and distribution'. These efforts were directed at raising the standard of living and promoting a 'healthier and happier community', a phrase encapsulating the country's social goals.

Looking back over a hundred years Nash observed, 'New Zealand has been transformed from a rugged wilderness into one of the most productive and prosperous areas on the face of the globe'. The project of providing a model for and leading the world was to be exemplified by painting with a broad brush the extent of development from that rugged pioneering wilderness to a modern prosperous economy and society, and by complementing it with a positive and modern image of an efficient, integrated and coordinated state providing social services that promoted health and happiness.

Hence the focus was on health and education, and particularly on their modern, rounded and integrated nature as part of community life, which affirmed and enhanced the image of prosperity and a sense of moving into the future. The social security provisions and labour reforms did not convey the same sense of looking page 63 forward, dealing as they did with casualties, industrial strife, exploitation, hardship and poverty. The politically contested immediate past would sit uncomfortably in the milieu of the centennial celebrations,

Peter Fraser as Minister of Education articulated these centennial sentiments well. In a speech to primary and secondary school teachers in 1938, after reviewing the government's achievements and referring to those of the pioneers, he suggested that the country had become great 'because it is offering educational, social and economic opportunity and security to all its citizens in return for loyal service5 and together with the country's citizens the government could cbuild Jerusalem in our green and pleasant land'.28 Jerusalem was to take a state-directed collective and cooperative form within an egalitarian democracy. 'Onward and upward'— the slogan of the mid-1950s that focused on the rectification of the ills of the depression—had become the 'Highway to Health and Happiness'. It provided the social accompaniment to one hundred years of economic progress founded on the green and pleasant land, as built by the pioneers and organised settlement from 1840. It emphasised the preventative and integrated nature of health and education as social infrastructure oriented to the future to develop individuals5 abilities to the fullest, and to prepare them as citizens in a world of prosperity. It is thus not surprising that labour legislation and social security, described in other contexts as the crowning glories of the Labour government and pivotal to its re-election in 1938, did not feature in the Centennial Exhibition of 1939-40. So, while puzzling perhaps to modern-day historians, their omission was a natural consequence of a consciously adopted orientation of the time, one that sought a positive future and not a problematic past.

1 N. B. Palethorpe, Official History of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, 1939-1940 (Wellington: New Zealand Centennial Exhibition Company, 1940), p.54.

2 Jock Phillips, 'Our history, our selves: the historian and national identity', New Zealand Journal of History', vol.30, no.2,1996, p.l 16. This approach is manifest in the centennial part of Te Papa's 'Exhibiting Ourselves' installation.

3 John E. Martin, 'The "social laboratory" writ large? The Department of Labour's court'; Jock Phillips, 'Exhibiting ourselves: The exhibition and national identity', both in John Mansfield Thomson ed, Farewell Colonialism: The New Zealand International Exhibition, Christchurch, 1906-7 (Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1998).

4 I have checked Industries and Commerce and Internal Affairs series lists in National Archives in some depth for relevant policy discussions but without success.

5 W. J. Poison, speaking for the opposition on the New Zealand Centennial Bill, emphasised the importance of a 'national point of view' and the absence of party politics. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol.253, 1938, p.451.

6 Chris Hilliard, 'Stories of Becoming: The Centennial surveys and the colonization of New Zealand', New Zealand Journal of History, vol.33, no.l, 1999, p.15, citing Duff's advice to authors.

7 Hilliard, 'Stories of Becoming', p.8.

8 A. E. Campbell, Educating New Zealand (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1941), p. 183 and chapter 1, 'Geography and history' (written by C. E. Beeby).

9 Hilliard, 'Stories of Becoming', pp.6-7.

10 Official History of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, p.57.

5 W. J. Poison, speaking for the opposition on the New Zealand Centennial Bill, emphasised the importance of a 'national point of view' and the absence of party politics. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol.253, 1938, p.451.

11 New Zealand Centennial News, no.l, 15 August 1938, p. 1, foreword. The sentiments were endorsed by Prime Minister Savage in issue no.3, 25 October 1938.

12 New Zealand Centennial News, no.ll, 30 September 1939, pp.1, 3, 6.

13 Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL), New Zealand Centennial Exhibition newspaper clippings 1937-40, 20 July 1939.

14 ATL, newspaper clippings 1939-40, 9 December 1938, feature, 'New Zealand prepares for her 100th birthday'.

15 New Zealand Centennial News, no.l, 15 August 1938, p. 16.

16 New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol.253, 1938, p.448.

17 Official History of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, p.83.

18 ATL, New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, newspaper clippings 1937-40, 6 July 1939.

19 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition: Official Guide to the Government Court (Wellington: 1939), p.ll. ATL, New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, newspaper clippings, 1937-40, 3 November 1939; newspaper clippings, 1937-40, volume with photographic clippings, p.32, n.d.; newspaper clippings, 1939-40, 1 November 1939.

20 ATL, New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, newspaper clippings, 1937-40, 7 May 1940.

21 Official Guide to the Government Court, p.ll.

22 ATL, New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, newspaper clippings, 1937-40, p.144, n.d.

23 Official History of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, p.88. We have only the barest description of the exhibit, together with a single photograph. It attracted very little attention.

24 Official Guide to the Government Court, p.8. ATL, New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, newspaper clippings, 1937-40, 8 September 1939.

25 New Zealand Centennial News, no.l, 15 August 1938, p. 16.

26 Roger Openshaw et al., Challenging the Myths: Rethinking New Zealand's Educational History (Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1993), chapter 9, 'Towards common schooling'.

27 Walter Nash, New Zealand: A Working Democracy (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1944). See pp.4, 11, 20, 27 for following quotations.

5 W. J. Poison, speaking for the opposition on the New Zealand Centennial Bill, emphasised the importance of a 'national point of view' and the absence of party politics. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol.253, 1938, p.451.

28 William Renwick, 'Fraser on education', in Margaret Clark ed, Peter Eraser: Master Politician (Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1998), p.87.

5 W. J. Poison, speaking for the opposition on the New Zealand Centennial Bill, emphasised the importance of a 'national point of view' and the absence of party politics. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol.253, 1938, p.451.