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Armageddon or Calvary: The Conscientious Objectors of New Zealand and "The Process of Their Conversion"

XX.—P. C. Webb. M.P

page 109

XX.—P. C. Webb. M.P.

Mr. P. C. Webb, M.P. for Grey, took a most prominent part in fighting Conscription both on the public platform and dining the passage of the Bill through Parliament. Along with other members of the Labour Party and some non-Labour members, he was responsible for beating the proposal, backed strongly by Sir Joseph Ward, that the soldiers' pay should be restricted to 25/- a week, with sixpence per day allowance for each child. The Labour members and those who thought with them were able to add 10/- per week to the soldiers' wage, and 1/- per day to the child's allowance. When he was drawn in the ballot, Mr. Webb made it clear that he would not go into camp unless his constituents desired him to do so. His letter to Sir James Allen, printed below, fully explains the position he took up. During February of 1918, he was engaged in vigorously supporting my candidature for Wellington North, and took part in the great public meeting held immediately after the contest. After being drawn in the ballot he tendered his resignation as M.P. for Grey to give the Government an opportunity to test the will of the electorate; but the Government was so well satisfied that the constituency was against its member being conscripted that it made discretion the better part of valour and refused to accept the challenge. Mr. Webb was returned unopposed. His appeal was duly dismissed by the Military Board, and representations made to the Minister of Defence by Mr. P. J. O'Regan, counsel for the Miners' Federation and the Grey political Labour bodies, produced negative results.

Under date March 7, 1918, the following letter was addressed to Sir James Allen by Mr. Webb:—

Sir,—In view of the replies sent to Mr. O'Regan in answer to that gentleman's representations in my behalf under instructions from the New Zealand Coalminers' Federation and the Grey District Labour Council, I feel it incumbent upon me to address this letter to you.

First, I would remind you that a General Election took place in 1914, notwithstanding the fact that the war was then raging and that the enemy was threatening Paris. On that occasion the Grey electors returned me with an increased majority. From the soldiers entitled to vote in the electorate, I received almost unanimous support, and they in particular requested me to look after their interests and the interests of their dependants, and solicited my assistance in protesting against the shameful manner in which their dependants were being exploited by means of unnecessarily excessive prices. I have done my best to conform to their wishes, but being in a minority in Parliament, have been powerless to do more than protest. Further, my soldier-constituents expressed the wish that, in the event of their page 110returning to New Zealand incapacitated, suitable employment should be found for them, together with reasonable recompense for their injuries. Again, I have complied with their wishes in that connection, and have protested emphatically against the way in which many disabled men are being turned adrift unable to follow their ordinary occupations, and yet deprived of pensions. That the Government has failed lamentably to cope with the problem of excessive prices, and that men who have returned disabled are not being properly provided for is due to no fault of mine, inasmuch as I have repeatedly drawn attention to these grievances.

After my election in 1914, I stated publicly that if the Grey electors considered my services more essential at the front than in Parliament, on receipt of a requisition, signed by 1000 electors, I would resign my seat and abide by the will of the majority of the constituency. No requisition was ever presented, and on my being balloted for military service, numerously-signed petitions were presented from my electorate and from the West Coast generally, asking: for my exemption, and I may say that the signatories to these petitions included a large number of parents who had sons at the front as well as a considerable number of returned soldiers and men in camp. Moreover, these requisitions were supported by the whole of the miners' organisations of this country, The Military Service Board, however, saw fit to ignore these representations, and dismissed the appeal, although the said Board has repeatedly granted exemption in other cases on much more slender grounds. I then resigned my seat and placed myself unreservedly in the hands of my constituents, who re-elected me without opposition, My constituents then asked for a re-hearing of my appeal, but this was refused without anyone being heard in support. Now that my constituents are to be denied the right of representation, in that I am not to be allowed to prepare for and attend regularly in my place in Parliament during the coming session, I feel that but one honourable course is open to me. I have either to remain true to my constituents or obey the command of a Board which, they believe, has not treated my case judicially, and which I believe to have been influenced by a strong spirit of political prejudice against me. In other words, I have resolved to disobey the Board and to take the consequences. Incidentally, I intend my action as a protest against the utter failure of your Government to deal fairly with the disabled soldiers and their dependants or indeed with the masses of the people of this country. That your Government has failed lamentably in its duty by the returned soldiers and their dependants and by the masses of the people of this country is fully evidenced by the fact that it has won the support of every person who profits by the sufferings of the masses of his fellow-citizens. Perhaps under the circumstances it is only common gratitude on the part of such people that they should have sent their motor-cars to assist in defeating the representative of Labour in the recent by-election. I page 111would add that it is not surprising that a Government with such a record as yours should have postponed a General Election.

In conclusion, I may state that my address is Post Office Box 1500, Wellington.

I have the honour to remain, Sir, yours truly,

P. C. Webb.

On March 11, at Wellington, Mr. Webb was entertained at luncheon by representatives of the industrial and political Labour movement; and at 2.30 on the same day he was arrested and conveyed to Trentham by the military. On March 22 he was courtmartialled at Trentham, when he pleaded guilty to the charge of disobeying an order. He, however, desired to state his position. During the course of his address he was repeatedly interrupted by the Court. When he made the charge that discrimination had been employed by the Boards, he was ruled out. He was also prevented from referring to the Laidlaw case to illustrate his argument. When he showed how the police had been specially exempted, and contended that a member of Parliament was just as essential as a policeman, he was told: "The Board does not think that Parliament can be regarded as essential. It thinks that the men at the head of affairs are capable of governing the country." (To many in the Labour movement this remark read like a clear indication of the extent to which the military mind is capable of travelling in the direction of oligarchic rule.) Mr. Webb remarked that this resembled the autocracy the war was ostensibly being fought to crush, and the President ruled out all reference to autocracy Shortly after this the President informed Mr. Webb that the people of New Zealand, through the Government, had told him to go to the front. Mr. Webb retorted that he was elected to oppose the Government, and that his constituents were entitled to consideration anyhow. The President then lectured Mr. Webb on the text that the New Zealand Government was much more clear-sighted than some other governments. Mr. Webb thought this was a matter the people might be left to decide, and when the President remarked that the people had elected the Government, Mr. Webb reminded him that the issue then was not Conscription. Mr. Webb, continuing, pointed out the implications of Conscription in that under the prevalent secret diplomacy men could be compelled to fight for principles their own governments had denounced. He said it was, therefore, autocracy and despotism. The President said the Court was in possession of enough information to judge the "accused's" attitude, and thought he ought to sit down. He also drew attention to the capacity of the Court to understand the Labour problem. All its members had been two years at the front, and knew the feelings of the soldiers. Later on he delivered a homily on the virtues of supporting the Government, else the victory of Germany would destroy the freedom of Labour members of Parliament and everybody else. He said that "if 'Private' Webb page 112believed that the Government he had been maligning did not contain any man capable of looking after the interests of his constituents he was justified in his attitude." Mr. Webb was just about to interject upon the President's verbosity that he had "good justification in that case because my constituents would certainly not allow themselves to be represented by any member of the Government," when Colonel MacDonald saw fit to check the President by remarking "that the accused should be allowed to make his statements and only interrupted when he has to be stopped." At this the President subsided into a silence long enough for Mr. Webb to finish his speech without further interruption. Concluding, Mr. Webb said that it was evident that had he the eloquence of a Gladstone or an O'Connell he would not be able to secure a mitigation of his sentence. He had no regret for the stand he was taking. He asked for no clemency. He was proud to be able to carry his principles to the prison gates. If his principles were not worth suffering for they were not worth having. He was sure the day would come when the Government would pay the penalty for its outrage against his constituency and for the policy of oppression and exploitation it had pursued ever since the war began.

When the sentence of the Court was promulgated, it proved to be the usual two years' hard labour; and Mr. Webb was taken to the prison camp on the Kaingaroa Plateau, near Rotorua, to serve his term, which will have expired ere this book is in the readers' hands.

On April 6 a public demonstration of protest was held at Greymouth, the citizens of the Grey Valley generally and the Labour organisations in particular, participating. The following resolution was carried unanimously:

"That this large gathering of electors of Grey views with indignation the action of the military authorities in seizing and imprisoning Mr. P. C. Webb, M.P., and calls upon the Government to secure and preserve the rights of a member of Parliament to attend to his Parliamentary duties and to provide him with the means of attending to the business of his constituency. We beg to remind the Government that, according to the decision of the Crown Law Officers, Mr. Webb has committed no crime within the meaning of the Legislature Act; and we protest strongly against military authority denying political expression to an electorate of 8000 electors, backed up by the determined effort of 20,000 industrialists, of whom Mr. Webb is the only direct and practical representative and expression. We place before the authorities the case of Mr. Laidlaw, of the firm of Laidlaw Leeds, of Auckland, who was exempted by an Appeal Board to serve the economic interests of his firm, and urge that Mr. Webb's presence in the House and attending to the business of his constituency is an absolute and urgent necessity. We hold that it is an absolute and inalienable right of an electorate to choose its own member of Parliament, and we trust for the sake of political liberty in New Zealand page 113that the Government will ponder long and carefully before it denies this right to the electors of Grey and to the industrial unions of New Zealand, of which Mr. Webb is the only practical exponent in the House of Representatives."

On April 12 a Labour deputation waited upon the Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward, Sir James Allen, and Mr. Wilford to urge the unconditional release of Mr. Webb. This deputation included representatives of the Grey Labour Representation Committee, Miners' Federation, United Federation of Labour, New Zealand Labour Party, Drivers' Federation, Seamen's Federation, Tramway Federation, Wellington Trades and Labour Council, Auckland L.R.C., Wellington S.D.P., A.P.U., Waterside Workers' Federation, Enginedrivers' Federation, Wellington L.R.C., Otago Trades and Labour Council, Housewives' Union, Women's International League, and others. Mr. James O'Brien, representing Mr. Webb's constituents, presented the resolution already quoted, and a strong point made by the deputation was that the Imperial Government had not forced any member of the House of Commons from his constituency to the battlefield. The Government, however, refused to accede to the deputation's request, and maintained its attitude notwithstanding that from every part of New Zealand protests came from the Labour movement against the conscription of the Labour M.P.

In April a lightning session of Parliament was held; and, during this session, a motion to grant the Member for Grey leave of absence was defeated. This meant that, although Mr. Webb was held not to be disqualified by the terms of his sentence from remaining a member of the House, his seat became vacant by reason of his absence from the House for one whole session without leave. A fresh election was accordingly called. The industrial and political organisations of Labour in the electorate honoured me with an unopposed selection, and a main feature of the contest was made the Government's Conscription policy and its jailing of Mr. Webb. The Tory and Liberal supporters of the Government consolidated their forces behind the most popular local man who could be induced to stand. With a lively appreciation of the Government's unpopularity, they sought to camouflage their campaign with "Independent" colourings. The result of the contest was a decisive defeat for the Government, and a triumphant vindication of Mr. Webb's attitude.

The imprisonment of Mr. Webb was deeply resented by the returned soldiers in the constituency, as was evidenced by the large deputation of returned men, which, introduced by myself, waited upon the Hon. Mr. Wilford at Greymouth in the early part of this year to demand the release of their late member. It is, perhaps, significant that, with the exception of two local dailies, no newspaper in New Zealand was prepared to print a comprehensive report of this remarkable deputation.