In the pre-war years the Labour Government expanded public works as a means of boosting the economy and providing full-time work for those previously unemployed; but it would be quite wrong to imagine that public works expansion, as spearheaded by Minister of Works Robert Semple, had the absorption of spare labour as its only objective. On the contrary, expansion of public works in this period was characterised by the extensive use of labour-saving equipment. Heavy earthmoving equipment was imported and extensively used on public works projects. In fact Government imports of mechanical equipment contributed to pre-war shortages of overseas funds.
In the event, these imports, though not motivated by the threat of war, proved to be one of the most effective war preparations which could have been made. Without this heavy earthmoving page 48 equipment, wartime construction of airports, military camps and other defence works would have been seriously hampered.
Even pre-war, defence works were competing with highway construction for the use of heavy equipment. A speech by Semple in Parliament in July 19391 lists some of the projects and gives an impression of the vitality he had by that time instilled into public works:
‘…I am going to show tonight that we have saved the Dominion tens of thousands of pounds, and that we are giving services that would not have been available for many years to come had we clung to the old method of construction. I shall name one or two of those jobs and I shall ask honourable gentlemen opposite whether they would stop those jobs. We are building a military aerodrome at Whenuapai, near Auckland, and it is being constructed under military advice given us by Wing-Commander Cochrane,2 who was on loan to the New Zealand Government from the British Government for two years. He is an expert at his job. The job covers one square mile and involves the shifting of 1,100,000 yards of material. The essence of the contract is speed. The job has to be completed as quickly as possible, and the task has fallen to my lot. With the use of machines it will take eight months and a half, and will cost £81,700. Under the old method it would have taken two hundred and fifty men four years to do the job, and the cost would have been £272,000.
‘… Next year we shall be holding our centennial celebrations, and we are hoping that thousands of people will visit this city. Of the two approaches to this city one was a positive death-trap—forty-six dangerous bends on a narrow road leading to the Capital city of New Zealand….This Government is engaged on the job of making it safer, and it is a mighty big job to construct a 60 foot highway through the hills, some of them 160 feet high. The shifting of 450,000 yards of rock is no small undertaking. Under the old fashioned methods it would have taken four years to accomplish, at a cost of £225,000. I have undertaken to do the work in nine months, and at the present time we are well up to schedule, so the job will be completed and the road will be paved before Christmas. There will be a highway 60 foot wide where six months ago there were hills from 130 to 160 ft. high, and the total cost of the road will amount to no more than £80,000. At Paraparaumu we are to build an emergency-landing ground for aeroplanes, both military page 49 and civil. Rongotai Aerodrome is not always a first class aerodrome, and so it is necessary to have this emergency landing ground adjacent to the city.
‘… At Paraparaumu there are 403,000 yards of earth to be shifted, and this will be done by machines in three months, at a cost of £25,000. By hand labour it would take two hundred and fifty men fourteen months, and would cost £101,000….
‘…Let me give some idea of the Rangitata scheme, and of the smaller schemes, and the results obtained. The Rangitata Race is 50 ft. wide, 10 ft. deep, and forty-two miles long. It is designed to irrigate 420,000 acres, and also to generate 30,000 horse-power of electric energy during the winter months. At the end of the canal we are building a hydro-electric station that will generate that amount of current, so that in winter, when the load is at its peak in the South Island and the farmers do not need the water, we will be able to use that water to generate power for the whole of the South Island because it will be coupled up with the whole of our main supplies. Had that job been undertaken under the old system it would have taken the same number of men that we employ now seventy-five years to do the job! The existing generation of farmers would be dead, and the new generation would have dropped dead when they got their first water bill….We are shifting upwards of 7,000 yards a day digging that canal with machines. There is no record in Australasia or in any other part of the world that can surpass that. If the Ngahauranga Gorge is completed in nine months, that, too, will constitute a world record….’
Truly stirring words. The Gorge road and the coastal road from Paremata to Paekakariki were both opened in November 1939, vastly improving access to the capital city in time for the Wellington Centennial Exhibition and, incidentally, in time to ease the burden of wartime transport.
1 NZPD, Vol. 254, pp. 202–4.
2 Later Air Chief Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane.