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

XXVIII.—Enthroning Prussianism

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XXVIII.—Enthroning Prussianism

On December 5, the Expeditionary Forces Amendment Bill was brought down "by message from His Excellency the Governor-General." The legislative fiction of the "first reading" was gone through. Then, immediately, the Minister of Defence moved the second reading, briefly explaining the several clauses.

The Bill sought to "extend by six months the period of enlistment of members of the Expeditionary Force." This was the language in which the Minister described the proposal. What it really meant was the extension of Conscript Service for an additional six months to the term prescribed in the principal Act. The Minister became angry when, during the debate on the third reading, I put it this way. His reason for proposing the change, he said, was that the troops could not be demobilised in the time provided in the principal Act. The clause (2) which covered this proposal and clauses 3 and 4 appeared to me to be designed to tighten the military bonds. Clause 5 had to do with military hospitals, and clause 6 was purely a washing-up clause, to give effect to the section of the principal Act which provided for the abolition of the Expeditionary Force Reserve after the termination of the war. Clause 7 was the best clause in the Bill. It provided for the payment of bonuses to soldiers, but still it was made clear that this was not to be given as a right, but was to be regarded as a "free gift," which might be withheld or deferred or subjected to terms and conditions at the Minister's will.

Clause 8 enacted that: (1) The Minister of Defence, as soon as practicable after the passing of this Act, shall cause to be prepared and published in the Gazette a list, to be called the Military Defaulters' List, in which shall be set out, so far as ascertainable, the names, occupations, and abodes of all men who since the commencement of the present war with Germany and before the passing of this Act—(a) Have been convicted by courtmartial of any offence of such a nature as to indicate, in the opinion of the Minister, an intent permanently to evade or refuse to fulfil their obligations of military service in the present war; or (b) having been called up for service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force under the Military Service Act, 1916, have deserted from that force or have otherwise made default in the performance of the obligations imposed on them by or in pursuance of that Act in such manner as to indicate, in the opinion of the Minister, an intent permanently to evade or refuse to fulfil their obligations of military service in the present war; or (c) having been members of the Expeditionary Force Reserve constituted by the Military Service Act, 1916, have illegally evaded enrolment in that Reserve in such circumstances as to indicate, in the opinion of the Minister, an intent permanently to evade military service in the present war.

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Under clause 9, Religious Objectors (i.e. Objectors who were members of churches which declared military service to be contrary to divine revelation) were exempted from the Military Defaulters' List. Clause 10 provided for the amendment of the list "by deleting the names of men inserted therein in error by adding thereto the names of men who have been omitted therefrom in error, and by correcting or supplying any error or defect in the name or description of any military defaulter," with the proviso that "the entry of any name in the Military Defaulters List shall not be invalidated by any error in the name or description of the military defaulter so referred to." By clause 11 it was provided that "any man whose name has been entered in the Military Defaulters' List within the time and in the manner prescribed by regulations under this Act may appeal to a Stipendiary Magistrate on the ground that he has been entered in the list in error, and the magistrate shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine such appeal, and if the appeal is allowed the name of the appellant shall be removed from the list."

Clause 12 prohibited the return to New Zealand of military defaulters who were not in New Zealand at the time of the passing of the Act for 10 years after it was passed rendering them Liable, so often as they returned within that period, to arrest with warrant, to twelve months' imprisonment on summary conviction, and to deportation on the expiry of the sentence.

Clause 13 provided that—(1) All military defaulters are hereby deprived of civil rights for a period of 10 years from the passing of this Act. (2) Every man so deprived of Civil rights shall be incapable—(a) Of being appointed or of continuing to hold any office or employment in the service of the Crown or of any local or other public authority; (b) of being elected or appointed or of continuing to hold office as a member of either House of Parliament or as a member of any local or other public authority; (c) of being enrolled as an elector or voting at any election of a member or members of either House of Parliament or of a member or members of any local or other public authority.

Clause 14 constituted any exercise or attempted exercise of civil rights by a military defaulter an offence rendering him liable to 12 months' imprisonment; and under a similar penalty clause 15 prohibits any change of name by military defaulters.

The discussion on the second reading of this vicious measure was brief indeed, only the Minister and Sir John Findlay speaking on the motion. No adequate opportunity was allowed members to make themselves acquainted with the main features of the Bill. It is a sound contention that no measure involving great changes should be carried through its second reading until the full text of it has been at least 14 days before the people, so that the electors may have the opportunity of objecting to its provisions if they desire, and also in order that the members of Parliament may know what they are asked to page 161vote upon. This Bill was rushed through its three readings in two days, not withstanding that its enactment involved the ruthless destruction of a principle held dear in British law for long years: the principle that a man should not be punished twice for the same offence. The members of the National Government had endeavoured to excuse their jailing of Conscientious Objectors two and three times over for the offence of refusing to be a soldier by speciously pronouncing that every time a man was given an order to take a kit and failed to obey a new offence was constituted. This plea won a hearing from a few people; but the new law was designed to add an extra punishment which could not be explained away by any process of plausibility. The man who had already served three sentences was now to be further punished by having his franchise taken away from, him and by being deprived, so far as the Government had the power to deprive him of the right to earn bread and butter for his children worse still, it was to be retrospective in its application—a retrospective punishment that was to hit the helpless child, the innocent wife, harder even than it could hit the husband and father who had refused to be a soldier. It was a law that was aimed at the opponents of the Government which framed it. It was read by some for an effort on the part of the Government to save itself from the votes of the victims of its own wretched wrong-doing. Again, not only was it a retrospective law, but it was a retrospective law made after the war had ended and when there could be no suggestion that such a law was needed for the purpose of assisting to improve the war situation.

When the House went into committee there was again little discussion on the various clauses. The Labour Party was suffering seriously as a result of the influenza epidemic. Mr. Hindmarsh had died; Mr. Walker was ill; Mr. Fraser had not wholly recovered from his attack; and I was in bed, not yet recovered from my relapse.

Clause 12 apparently did not prove stringent enough to suit a majority of the members. In its original form (as proposed by the Minister) it read: "If any military defaulter is not in New Zealand at the passing of this Act, it shall not be lawful for him at any time within ten years after the passing of this Act to return to New Zealand, and if and as often as he does so he may be arrested by any constable without warrant, and shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for any term not exceeding 12 months." Illogical, illegal, and vicious as the proposal was in this form, it was still not considered drastic enough, and Mr. Statham (Dunedin Central) secured the insertion of the words "or remains in New Zealand" after the words "as often as he does so."

Mr. McCombs sought to add a new clause which, if carried, would have prevented the additional punishment contemplated by the Act from being inflicted upon men who had already endured legal punishment for refusing military service. Mr. McCombs's proposed new page 162clause read: "Notwithstanding anything hereinbefore contained, the name of any man who has before the passing of this Act been convicted by courtmartial of any offence of the nature indicated in paragraph (a) of section 8 of this Act shall, after the expiry of the sentence of imprisonment or detention imposed on him for that offence, be omitted from the Military Defaulters' List, and notice of such removal shall be published in the Gazette." This sensible amendment was emphatically negatived on the voices.

Late at night on December 5 I received a telephone message from Mr. Fraser to the effect that the Expeditionary Forces Amendment Bill had been that day rushed through its first and second reading stages, was almost through the committee stage, and that the third reading would be taken next day. Mr. Fraser explained the anti Labour nature of the Bill; and I resolved that I would get to the House next day in time for the third reading. We agreed that a fight against the Bill should be made along the lines of the Labour Party's declared policy.

Mr. Fraser had not fully recovered from his illness, and I was a very sick man when we met in the Chamber on the 6th. It was on this day that Mr. McCombs's amendment was defeated in committee. It was in fact, the last item in committee, all the Bill's clauses having been disposed of on the previous day. Immediately following the rejection of Mr. McCombs's clause, the third reading of the Bill was proceeded with. The Government was forcing the already indecent pace of its rush legislation to permit Mr. Massey and Sir Joseph Ward to leave for the Peace Conference—which, in any case, they were not morally entitled to attend as representatives of the people of New Zealand. Every public interest in the matter of legislation was being ruthlessly sacrificed to facilitate that quite unnecessary trip—the whole harmfulness of which in its results we have yet to learn.

Had it not been for the Labour Party, the third reading would have gone through without discussion. We found there were times when, the Government whips having cracked, the Government supporters—Tory and Liberal alike—were prepared to function dumbly. This was one such time apparently. But our attack produced the miracle. The dumb spake.

It was 10 p.m. when Mr. Fraser rose (in accordance with our arrangement) to oppose the third reading. His speech was unimpassioned, unanswerably logical, and deeply convincing. But Reason found no abiding place in the Chamber on this occasion. Mr. Fraser declared that it was a well-known principle in jurisprudence that retrospective laws were bad, and pointed out that such laws were beyond the power of Congress in the United States. The Bill before the House was not only retrospective, but provided for punishing men who had already been punished. He appealed for the widest possible tolerance, and also for an effort on the part of honourable members to understand a point of view foreign and antagonistic to their own. He. page 163quoted from utterances of Professor Gilbert Murray, the Earl of Selborne, and Lord Parmoor in support of tolerance, and mentioned that men like Lord Hugh Cecil, Lord Henry Bentinck, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Lord Kitchener had favoured reasonable consideration of the claims of Conscientious Objectors. He twitted the Liberals in the Cabinet with having abandoned their Liberalism, and declared that the House had no right to pass this legislation. He questioned, indeed, if it had the right to pass any legislation at all. Parliament, having extended its own life, was not representative of the people, and the Government was exercising its power to disfranchise a section of the people who might reasonably be expected to vote against it. Therefore, the Government's policy was to disfranchise its political opponents. If, some day in the future, a Labour Government, following the precedent created by the National Government, should set out to disfranchise the property-holders, would any one in the House say a word in defence of that action? Yet this was exactly what the National Government was now doing—disfranchising its opponents. The war was over and finished, and so far from serving any useful purpose this Act would only drive certain men (who could be used not in any military capacity but in a social capacity in many directions) into the position of permanent outlaws in the community. The most useful legislation that could be passed to cement the harmony and goodwill of the people would be to follow the example of South Africa and bring in a Bill of indemnity and oblivion. The number affected by this revengeful and vindictive penal legislation was comparatively small. By no stretch of the imagination could their punishment be of any use to the State, but by persisting in this sort of legislation the members of the Government were providing that while they professedly set out to defeat Prussianism in Europe, they were enthroning it in New Zealand.

While Mr. Fraser was speaking, irritation and discomfiture were written very plainly on the faces of the extreme militarists, and it was natural to expect that the more uncontrollable among them would be on their feet when the member for Wellington Central had finished speaking. But discipline overcame desire, and no one arose. I was, therefore, compelled to follow my colleague. (I do not propose outlining my speech here. It will be found in Hansard's pages.)

Then the storm broke loose. Even in Parliament men are to be found who mistake hysterical declamation for effective reply, fierce invective and frothy verbiage for argument, windy shriekings and torrential outpourings for proof of patriotism. All these manifestations were in evidence on December 6. Round about midnight the three speeches in reply to Mr. Fraser and myself were made. Rarely have Parliamentary speeches achieved a lower standard. One was a frenzied diatribe—just that and nothing more; and some one has said that frenzied diatribes are ever the rotten-ripe fruit of attenuated mentalities. All of the speeches rang like the bellicose pro-page 164duct of militaristic minds inflamed with age. In none of the speeches was there an absence of misrepresentation. In at least two of them there were regrettable and discreditable slanderings of honourable and courageous men. It was made to pass for a clinching argument that "if a man would not fight for his country he should not be accorded citizen rights in that country." But the fact was ignored that the very men who were speaking had refused to let the people decide whether any man should be required to go out of the country to fight in a war that he was not permitted to have any voice in entering, as was also the fact that they reserved to the leaders of their party alone the right to decide whether when a man went to war he was really "fighting for his country." Not only so, but they ignored as well the case of the men who not only did not fight for "their country," but as profiteers took advantage of the war conditions to actually plunder the wives and children of the soldiers who were doing the fighting for them.

There was no measure of difference in the intolerance displayed by the Tories and the Liberals. An incident which revealed the state of the Liberal mind occurred while Mr. Fraser was speaking. He had made reference to the Quakers who, during the time of the Commonwealth and Charles II., had been sentenced again and again to imprisonment because they thought it an act of idolatry to take off their hats in court, and the Hon. T. M. Wilford interjected: "Do you state that the men who are in jail are of that class?" Mr. Fraser replied; "I know that some of them are." Mr. Wilford then asked: "Would you like me to read what they have written?" (It should he mentioned that Mr. Wilford was then Minister of Justice, and by reason of his Ministerial office in a position to know the contents of private letters written to their friends by the prisoners.) Mr. Fraser retorted severely: "If the Minister is capable of so dishonourable an action as taking private letters and reading them publicly." "But," he added, while the Minister nursed his chagrin, "some of those men, are men of intellectual and scholastic attainments higher than any member of this House." "Bosh!" said the Minister of Justice, inelegantly. "It is not bosh," replied Mr. Fraser; "and the Minister who is interrupting shows that he has not taken the trouble" Then Mr. Wilford, beaten back to his last line of defence, went off at a wild tangent and irrelevantly asked: "Are you loyal?"

Now, it happened that a day previously I had received a letter from Mr. Webb, in which he informed me that 21 C.O.'s in Kaingaroa had addressed a letter to Mr. Wilford, offering to go out and act as attendants and helpers in connection with the fight against the influenza epidemic. The only condition the C.O.'s laid down was that the time so occupied should not be counted off their sentences. When I suggested to Mr. Wilford that he might read to the House this letter he admitted having received it, but added that he had also received a similar letter from the long-sentence men.

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When the Minister of Defence, in making his reply at the close of the debate, referred to the offer of the C.O.'s to help to fight the influenza epidemic, the Liberal Minister of Mines found himself capable of making the spitefully mean interjection: "It would have been a worse epidemic." And the Reform Minister of Defence was capable of agreeing. "Yes," he said; "it would have been a worse epidemic." I have no doubt that both gentlemen, as soon as they were able to think calmly, deeply regretted the incomparable unfairness of their remarks (all the more so because the suggestion was quite as untruthful as it was unfair).

When eventually the House divided on the third reading of the Bill, the voting was 54 to 2—the two being Mr. Fraser and myself. Mr. Walker was ill at the time, and Mr. McCombs had left for home some time before the division—which took place well on towards 1 a.m. I may mention that our determination to divide the House was made for the purpose of securing a record of the members ready to inflict on this country the wickedness of such a measure as that designed by Mr. Massey and Sir Joseph Ward and their colleagues in the National Government. The division list as it appears in Hansard reads:—

Ayes: Allen, Anderson, Anstey, Bollard, Buddo, Carroll, Craigie, J. M. Dickson, J. S. Dickson, Ell, T. A. H. Field, W. H. Field, Forbes, Sir W. Fraser, Guthrie, Harris, Henare, Hornsby, Hudson, Hunter, Jennings, Lee, Luke, McCallum, MacDonald, Malcolm, Mander, Massey, Myers, E. Newman, Ngata, Nosworthy, Parr, Pearce, Pomare, Poole, Reed, T. W. Rhodes, Russell, Scott, Sidey, S. G. Smith, Statham, Sykes, Stewart, Talbot, Veitch, Wilford, Wilkinson, Witty, Wright, Young.

Noes: P. Fraser, Holland.

Enemies of the Labour movement have endeavoured to make capital out of the allegation that in opposing the third reading of the Bill the Labour Party opposed bonuses to soldiers, etc. This, of course, is not true. The Labour Party has consistently fought for better conditions for the soldiers, whether on service or returned. But it is an old trick of the political adversaries of Labour to attempt to make things look awkward for Labour members by sandwiching something that meets with popular approval between the vile clauses of what is generally speaking a bad measure. It was a tactic that was not unknown to Bismarck in the worst days of Prussianism. The Labour members were obliged in this particular instance to vote against the Bill both by reason of its attack upon the vital principles of Liberty for which Labour stands, and also because our conference decisions imposed on us the obligation to fight against any intensification of militarism. From the viewpoint of the Labour movement, there was nothing that could have been put into the Bill to make it good enough for any well-informed Labour Party or any honest Labour man to lend support to page 166while its major clauses challenged Magna Charta itself, provided for the strangling of Liberty and the destruction of the prerogatives of the people; while the Bill as a whole proposed to add tyrannical punishments to punishments already inflicted, to take away from upright, clean-living, pure-minded men of Religious and Socialist principle the right to work for the State and the right to vote—a disability not imposed on the vilest criminal. If the murderer escapes the gallows, when he has paid the penalty the law demanded, his civil rights are restored to him; the child-ravisher, notwithstanding his awful crime, has his right to work and vote restored to him; likewise the burglar, the embezzler, the pickpocket, the common thief. But the class-consciousness of the ultra-militarists of the National Government could not tolerate the extension to the highest type of Christian or the loftiest-minded idealist among the working men and the intellectuals the privileges of citizenship they readily restored to the proved criminal. The harm that accrues to Society when the ruling class imposes such a condition is incalculable. Morality is in its decadence.