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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 12. 1966.


John A. Lee was a great disappointment. In his first (and last) political speech for 17 years, he did little more than offer an apology of New Zealand of which even the most Right-wing labour MP would have been ashamed. The most obvious reason for this is that he is a sad reflection of the degeneration of political acumen which has occurred since the flush of labour's victory in 1935. In this historical context Lee's political philosophy is little more than the culmination of the true ideological roots of Labour in New Zealand. His reputation for radicalism is just that.

In no ideological sense could Lee be viewed as a radical in the socialist tradition. This is seen no more clearly than his present commitment to "progressive humanitarianism".

"At no stage in New Zealand's history," Lee began, "had any party seriously attempted to challenge the existing social system." But he evoked no real sympathy from the audience until his seemingly dutiful references to Labour "bureaucrats". John A. Lee stands, simply, as a symbol of the crass intolerance of a Labour government in power. His expulsion is the cross born by all who dare to speak out with conviction, fearless of the consequences. Other men have been dealt with summarily for deviation, but few have been so publicly humiliated as was Lee. Yet, like many heretics, Lee has emerged and in so doing has eclipsed the reputation of those at whose hands he suffered.

What was it that forced his expulsion? Perhaps we will never know. We know Lee's own vivid account in Simple On A Soapbox. Labour Party historians have given us the official apologia. Much was antagonism of a personal nature, but perhaps the key to it lies in Lee's own economic theories of social credit, and the bitter frustration he felt when his pleas were ignored. Basically Lee's socialist panacea was the socialisation of credit and tacked on to this was the "water and gas" socialism of the Fabians who sought the extension of state control in public utilities.

A colonial society like New Zealand could not rely on private investment for economic development, hence the burden fell upon the State with its apparently limitless sources of finance. The argument in New Zealand politics was not, as is commonly believed. Socialism versus Capitalism, but how far and how much should the State support and maintain private industry. Lee's own task in the first Labour Government was the extension of State housing, which resulted in the multi-thousand-pound building enterprise of Sir John Fletcher and the greatest urban blight in the South Pacific.