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War Economy

The Commissioner of Defence Construction

The Commissioner of Defence Construction

The entry of Japan into the war in December 1941, and her successes in pushing the ‘Co-prosperity Sphere’ southwards into the Pacific, quickly raised the priority of defence construction work. Firm control was now necessary to ensure that nothing interfered with the progress of essential work. Firm control was indeed taken. Mr James Fletcher was appointed Commissioner of Defence Construction, with sweeping powers; so sweeping that they are worth quoting in full. On 11 March 1942 Mr Fraser, in Cabinet, approved the following:1


Mr James Fletcher to hold office as Commissioner of Defence Construction during the pleasure of the Prime Minister, and to act in accordance with all directions, general or special, given to him by the Prime Minister.


The general functions of the Commissioner shall be to organise and promote the undertaking of all defence works according to the importance thereof in the interests of defence, and for that purpose to determine the order of the urgency thereof, and to ensure the supply of materials, plant, and labour for the prosecution of defence works according to the order of urgency laid down from time to time by the Commissioner.


For the purpose of exercising his functions, the Commissioner may give such directions as he thinks fit to any officers of the Public Service in relation to the exercise of any powers possessed by them, whether under any Act or regulations or otherwise, including any powers that may be delegated to them by any Minister or other Authority.

1 Official War History of the Public Works Department, Vol. I, p. 165.

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In particular, the Commissioner may direct—


That any constructional work (whether commenced by the Crown, any local authority or public body, or any other person) shall be stopped:


That contracts for any defence works shall be let on such basis and on such terms as he thinks fit:


That such labour and materials and plant as he thinks fit shall be made available for any defence works at such places and times as he thinks fit.


Subject only to any special direction to the contrary by the Prime Minister, it shall be the duty of all officers to carry out all such directions of the Commissioner, and their respective Ministers (where necessary) will authorise and direct them to do so, notwithstanding any previous decision or instruction to the contrary given by the Government or any other authority.’

In spite of these very extensive powers given to the Commissioner by name, he was originally appointed as Chief Executive Officer to the Defence Construction Council, whose membership was the Prime Minister, as the Chairman, the Commissioner, as Vice-Chairman, the Minister of Defence, the Minister of Public Works, the Engineer-in-Chief of the Public Works Department, the Director of Housing Construction, and a representative of Treasury. However, after fourteen meetings, which seem to have been concerned mainly with rubber-stamping the Commissioner's decisions, the Council ceased to function in September 1942. In practice, Mr Fletcher kept only a small staff and maintained control of the industry by direct contact with the Departments or authorities concerned.

Thus was this most dynamic personality placed in the position where he could have the greatest effect on the war effort. Inevitably there were clashes with those normally in control of sections of the building and construction industry. On 28 September 1942, the Minister of Works wrote to the Prime Minister complaining that he, his Department and the Committee had been cut out of co-operation with the war effort, and that the Commissioner had exceeded his powers by negotiating contracts without reference to the Minister of Public Works, or the Defence Construction Committee.1

In a rather characteristic reply the Commissioner pointed out that he was in daily communication with the Government Architect, Mr Patterson of the Public Works Department, and that the need for accommodation at times was so great that he had ‘to commence construction while the Services were endeavouring to clarify the whole situation’.2

1 War History narrative No. 8, Commissioner of Defence Construction, p. 56.

2 Ibid., p. 57.

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Decisive action and straight talk. Meantime much was being achieved. In 1942 there was a dramatic diversion of the construction industry from civilian to defence work. In the year ended March 1943, defence construction work increased from £5·3 million to £17·6 million, and private building work fell back from £10·5 million to £3·5 million. This year saw the maximum threat of Japanese invasion and the drive to catch up with New Zealand's defensive works, as well as to build camps and hospitals for American forces who had started to arrive in June 1942.

It is perhaps significant that it was the Works Department, in its 1946 report, eighteen months after Mr Fletcher had returned to private enterprise, which said of his measures:

‘Points of criticism arose here and there as a result of these sweeping changes, but there was no doubt that the prompt and powerful measures taken were largely responsible for the dramatic speed with which New Zealand was provided with camps, air raid shelters, gun positions, and all the other buildings and construction works required by a nation preparing to defend itself against invasion.’1

1 Parliamentary Paper D-3, 1946. Report of the Commissioner of Works, p. 8.