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War Economy

Attitudes to Conscription

Attitudes to Conscription

Not surprisingly, the resistance in the early stages of the war to any form of conscription of manpower was centred in the trade union movement. Among the workers was a considerable proportion of the fit men of military age. They would be most affected by conscription.

By the time the disasters in France, in May 1940, had brought to a head a strong public feeling that all resources of the country should be mobilised in the interests of New Zealand's war effort, the Labour Party was becoming aware that a strict application of its pre-war policy of conscription of wealth before manpower was not going to prove a very practical proposition. A similar change was taking place inside the trade union movement.

On 23 May, two thousand people attended a public meeting in Auckland to ‘urge that the Government should immediately mobilize all New Zealand's resources, if necessary by compulsion, to defend the Dominion and help in winning the war’.2 Manpower was the resource which most speakers at the meeting seem to have had in mind for immediate mobilisation, although there was a section of the public which spoke rather vaguely of the conscription of wealth as well as men.

On 30 May the Labour newspaper, the Standard, reported:

‘In view of the sudden emergence of crisis conditions of a magnitude and an acuteness never before imagined, emergency conferences of the New Zealand Labour Party and the New Zealand Federation of Labour will be held at the week-end.

‘With the same full representation as for their ordinary annual conferences, these two bodies will define their attitudes to and discuss co-operation in the emergency measures that are being submitted to Parliament this week by the Government.

‘Conscription, in all the implications of the term, will doubtless be the subject uppermost in the minds of all delegates. Historically, both the political Labour Party and the trade union movement have been against conscription of human life for the business of war.

‘That objection has derived largely from the fact that, during past wars, governments that were in power were of a reactionary, page 450 capitalist nature and freely allowed money-power to batten off the misery of mankind while sending the workers to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields.

‘In view of the world-shattering threat of Hitler's total warfare and of the fact that the present New Zealand Government is determined that conscription of finance and productive institutions shall accompany, if not precede, any compulsory utilisation of manpower, there undoubtedly exists a strong feeling that the historical attitude of the working-class movement needs shaping to the special circumstances of today.’

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives on 30 May gave power to require persons to place themselves, their services, and their property at the disposal of the State. Conscription of men for the armed forces became effective in October 1940, but conscription of men for industrial purposes did not follow until January 1942, after Japan had entered the war.1

2 Dominion, 24 May 1940.

1 See also Chapter 5.