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Political and External Affairs

CHAPTER 13 — The Opposition Opposes

page 163

The Opposition Opposes


THE formation of New Zealand's War Cabinet in July 1940, said the Prime Minister to Parliament, ‘will find an echo in the hearts of the people, as it should give to all sections of the community confidence in the unity of Parliament and the country's political leaders….1 It would ‘enable us to play our full part in the conflict by an effort of both parties in the House, and to avoid the embarrassment of political dissension and criticism.’ These high hopes were, perhaps inevitably, frustrated. In November the National Party took action expressly to demonstrate that New Zealand's political leaders differed, and to ensure that criticism should be sharp; and in the second half of 1940 party politics somewhat revived, as a result of internal readjustments in the Opposition rather than of direct conflict between the two main parties. Indeed there were notable occasions when clashes were sharper in the country than when leaders met face to face in Parliament.2

In principle, all members of the National Party agreed that the war effort was of paramount importance, and that the Government's domestic policy was in some ways misguided; but this agreement did not give a basis for consistent political action. For some, the war was so supremely important that minor differences should be submerged, especially since the Government's war effort was on the right lines and on the whole well run. There were, however, those who bitterly rejected this point of view. Some urged that the war effort itself was quite inadequate. Others stressed that in their view domestic and war policy could not be disentangled, and the Government's policies in general were so unsatisfactory that the Opposition's only possible course was the traditional one: to eject the existing government with all expedition and install in its place a cabinet both wiser and more competent. This last viewpoint amounted to the outright revival of party politics. The only possible alternative was to persuade the Labour Government, which had won an overwhelming victory in 1938 on a platform which referred predominantly to

1 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 512.

2 Ibid., Vol. 258, p. 298.

page 164 domestic affairs, to set up a two-party government and modify its internal policy accordingly.

These conflicting currents of opinion were clearly expressed in public. In his view, said J. G. Coates, in a debate at the height of the crisis, on 30 May 1940,1 ‘All members of Parliament can be relied upon to think in one direction only at the present time, and that is, how best to achieve the common object we have in view. No member is likely to put any question that will embarrass the government or impede that ultimate object of ours.’ ‘But,’ said F. W. Doidge during the same debate,2 ‘it is our job to criticize. We are His Majesty's Opposition, our job is to criticize. Further, we know that the greatest spur in the world is criticism, and we would not be doing our job if we did not criticize, feeling, as we do, that the Government is not making the maximum effort to assist the Motherland.’ In the view of many, the Opposition's capacity to criticise was gravely impeded by its leader's association with Government ministers in the War Cabinet. Nor were malcontents appeased when they observed Hamilton and Coates ‘criticizing with all their former enthusiasm their colleagues in the War Cabinet on general political subjects’;3 for the deduction was then drawn that the War Cabinet could itself scarcely be a satisfactory institution, certainly not one whose existence jeopardised the Opposition's traditional right to criticise, on principle, all things that a government did.

Further, some at least of the Opposition publicly rejected the view of their leaders, now installed in the War Cabinet, that New Zealand was making a satisfactory contribution to the Commonwealth war effort.4 ‘New Zealand,’ said F. W. Doidge on 19 June 1940, ‘has put forth only a fraction of the maximum effort of which she is capable.’ He quoted Churchill's statement that, if France fell, Britain, the Dominions, and the Navy would carry on still. ‘It was the lion roaring out defiance and calling out to his cubs.’ New Zealand, he said, had missed ‘a glorious opportunity. There was a chance of telling Great Britain that we in this Dominion can find two hundred thousand men5.’

On the other hand, in the same debate J. G. Coates rejected the view that fighting a war meant simply helping Britain, along the lines of British suggestions. In fact he disagreed in some respects with British estimates of the strategic situation. ‘We had to stand on our own feet as far as was practicable,’ he said, and take more precautions to defend ourselves than seemed necessary to those whose

1 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 8.

2 Ibid., p. 11.

3 Round Table, December 1940, p. 179.

4 Interview with Hamilton, Evening Post, 21 Sep 1940.

5 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 230.

page 165 calculations began in London. ‘The defence of the Empire includes the defence of New Zealand, and there are people overseas who are not so concerned about our defence as we are ourselves.’ He added that his remarks were not meant as criticism of the New Zealand Government. ‘It does not meet the position to say that the Government has done splendidly. Do not let us think of what has been done and what has happened; the vital thing is to know what we can do now and how quickly we can do it1.’

Coates spoke with responsibility: a former prime minister, who was about to join the War Cabinet and help to implement a policy to which he had given general approval. His viewpoint was endorsed by his leader, Hamilton. Those who rejected it formed a powerful group within the party. In spite of—even because of—the crisis, they argued that the war effort should be radically recast, in ways as yet undefined, and that the Opposition should resume its essential function of opposing. For them, existing leadership was clearly seen as an obstacle, together with the leaders' membership of War Cabinet. In October and November this point was clearly illustrated, for a somewhat controversial election campaign had to be fought without much campaigning by Hamilton, who was occupied by his War Cabinet duties. S. G. Holland, being free of such public responsibilities, participated freely.2

As late as 4 September 1940 the Dominion Council of the National Party unanimously pledged loyalty to Hamilton;3 yet the stage was being set for his replacement. Holland was a successful Christchurch businessman, who had just bought a farm and could therefore claim status with both main sections of the party. He was relatively inexperienced in national politics, but had the immense advantage that he had not been in parliament during the depression and was therefore untainted by the unpopularity still clinging, however unfairly, to Hamilton and more particularly to Coates. His record in Parliament was one of consistent activity, with a taste for the polemical use of figures, and for the determined pursuit of political opportunities. In the cut and thrust of party warfare, he had shown shrewdness and dexterity, and if he had not been prominent in the formulation of higher policy, there had been no strong call on him to be so; and it was indeed a certain advantage that he was not too deeply committed on major current issues. He was, in fact, well suited to give edge to Opposition criticism. He was apparently acceptable to businessmen and the non-parliamentary wing of the party, and his promotion would avoid some of the difficulties that might have arisen with some of the older parliamentarians. On

1 NZPD, Vol. 257, pp. 243–4.

2 Round Table, March 1941, p. 386; ChristchurchPress, 7 Nov 1940 and 24 Dec 1940.

3 Evening Post, 5 Sep 1940.

page 166 1 November, accordingly, the Divisional Executive of the party decided that he should replace Hamilton. The parliamentary party, however, had the undoubted right to choose its own leader, and the change was not completed till caucus met at the end of November. On the 26th Holland won the leadership by a decisive majority. ‘I lay down the burden of my task at the request of my colleagues without any regrets at the steepness of the grade the party has faced and climbed successfully,’ said Adam Hamilton. ‘The relief from my position as leader of the Opposition will enable me to give my absolutely undivided attention to the work of the War Cabinet, which every day becomes more urgent and important1.’

Rumour and occasional press reports kept the public reasonably well informed of developments, so that a change in the leadership of the Opposition was not unexpected. The election of Holland was, however, accompanied by the decision that he should not enter the War Cabinet. The request by the National Party that Hamilton and Coates should remain members of War Cabinet was, in one aspect, a well earned vote of confidence in distinguished men; but more than anything else it emphasised the intention of the party's change in leadership, and it placed the Prime Minister in an exceedingly awkward position. No stipulation had been made in July that the Opposition should be represented in War Cabinet by its leader, partly, perhaps, because at that time there could be no doubt as to the two members of the Opposition most suitable for appointment to War Cabinet. It had, however, always been understood that the Leader of the Opposition should be there. It was not a matter of individuals, said Fraser, and he paid high tribute to the work of Hamilton and Coates. It was ‘a question of the coming together of parties for a common end’, the furnishing of public and impressive ‘evidence of that national unity in the war effort which we all desire2.’

Fraser expressed such views in Parliament and in national broadcasts, suggesting that if the Opposition persisted in its attitude the whole question of the War Cabinet might have to be reconsidered. Holland replied that he and his party were ‘absolutely determined to make New Zealand's and the Empire's war effort our first and main consideration’; and that the Opposition had increased its contribution to that effort by enabling Coates and Hamilton to give their full time to war-work. The Government, he said, had no more right to choose the Opposition's representatives in War Cabinet than the Opposition was entitled to choose members of cabinet. The only solution, said Holland, was that both

1 Press, 27 Nov 1940.

2 NZPD, Vol. 258, p. 281; Evening Post, 30 Dec 1940.

page 167 parties should sink their differences and form a national government with full responsibility for all the country's affairs; but, he added, ‘the Opposition is not going to remain silent while the Government goes full speed ahead with its socialisation programme1.’

Holland did not closely define the word ‘socialisation’, nor for that matter did anyone else in public life, but his statement put two-party co-operation beyond the range of practical politics, and left his hands free for the election that was due towards the end of 1941. It indicated a revival of the main line of criticism brought by the Opposition against the Government before the war: and in fact in the first month of 1941 the new leader of the Opposition resumed the peacetime practice of a pre-sessional political tour of the country. His criticisms of the Government were far sharper than those used by his predecessor in wartime; the Opposition had indeed refreshed the acerbity of its attack, following lines which remained basically familiar. ‘New Zealand today is fighting two wars,’ said Holland, ‘—one as part of the British Empire against an enemy seeking to destroy the rights and independence of the people of the Dominion; and another on the home front against a Government that is taking advantage of the war overseas to implement its full programme for the socialisation of New Zealand's industries.’ There were indeed signs of willingness to base criticism on the handling of the war. In December, for instance, the Prime Minister complained that members of parliament who had criticisms to make were given an opportunity to do so in secret session, and those who then kept silence were in some part responsible for what was done and should not make public capital of defects in the war effort; and Holland complained on occasions that some matters concerning the war effort had not been referred to War Cabinet.2 In the main, however, the Opposition's official campaign was based on internal affairs. As to the future, Holland suggested that those elected at the next general election should hold office for the duration of the war, and that the two parties should agree that, whoever won, a non-party national government should be formed.3 Meantime, party warfare seemed to have been re-established in New Zealand, with recrimination as to who it was who had brought about this somewhat unedifying if superficial conflict.


The political position was in fact stronger than appeared. In all the public controversy there was essential agreement in the community, and two leading men from the Opposition (with promise of

1 NZPD, Vol. 258, pp. 281–2; Press, 31 Dec 1940.

2 NZPD, Vol. 258, p. 591; Manawatu Times, 6 Feb 1941.

3 Dominion, 20 Feb 1941; Round Table, June 1941, p. 615.

page 168 party support) laboured valiantly in War Cabinet. That was well, for grave decisions had to be made to meet calamities abroad. Indeed, while the new leader of the Opposition campaigned through the country, making unmistakably plain his interpretation of the duties of his office, War Cabinet was wrestling with the elusive political and military problem of Greece (see Chapter 14). The significant fact was, however, that in the upshot the campaigns in Greece and Crete did not become a matter of party controversy in New Zealand. Indeed the vital decision was made unanimously by War Cabinet, approved by every member of the ordinary cabinet, and by the leader of the Opposition.1 It evidently was closely in line with the community's sentiment, and in so far as the campaigns influenced thinking about war policy, it was on lines independent of party; for there were influential men on both sides of the House who considered that more effort should be put into local defence and the Pacific area, and less into far-flung battlefields where factors were hard to assess, and where someone else had primary responsibilities.2 Yet, if the controversial decisions and military disasters concerning Greece and Crete did not feed party politics, neither did they, nor Allied defeats and anxieties in North Africa, nor yet the tense hopes and fears roused by Russia's entry into the war, do anything to promote outward political unity in New Zealand. Between the Government and the Opposition as led by Holland deadlock remained complete and at times acrimonious.
On 17 April, while the New Zealand Division was retreating through Greece, the Opposition renewed its appeal for ‘a truly national non-party government’. The Prime Minister was about to visit Europe; such a revolutionary internal change, involving no doubt an Opposition claim to veto ‘contentious’ legislation, could scarcely be contemplated in the few days that remained. Fraser accordingly promised3 to consider the matter on his return, giving his followers a strong exhortation to take the matter up in his absence, if circumstances seemed to demand it. Meantime, he again appealed to the Leader of the Opposition to join the War Cabinet, even if only temporarily, and he urged again the desirability of minimising political controversy in the Dominion during his absence, suggesting ‘that both the Government party and the Opposition party should agree at least to suspend their active public platform propaganda4.’ Holland's reply was clear. In his view nothing short of a non-party national cabinet with full responsibility would meet the position. He declined to join the War Cabinet; to do so

1 AucklandStar, 24 Apr 1941.

2 Cf. NZPD, Vol. 259, pp. 292–5.

3 Standard, 24 Apr 1941.

4 Dominion, 18 Apr 1941.

page 169 ‘would not meet the fundamental issue, as party politics would still divide the country.’ He agreed ‘that active public platform propaganda should be reduced to a minimum….It is understood, however, that the Government does not desire that its activities and other important public questions should be immune from fair and reasonable comment or discussion or that normal election preparations should be suspended1.’

A truce thus based was not likely to last. That which to one party politician was ‘fair and reasonable comment’, or an essential elucidation of Government policy in reply to criticism, was to another ‘obvious propaganda’, and ‘unprovoked, unnecessary and very offensive’. When Parliament met there was a marked difference in attitude among members of the Opposition. The ‘old gang’ continued to follow something rather like a non-party course. The ‘new gang’ followed Holland in an incessant attack on the Government, seizing upon every opportunity for criticism.2

As Fraser cabled from London, his personal view, which was strengthened by his experiences abroad, was that ‘the formation of a National Government on a basis of party representation in the proportion of numbers of members of Government and Opposition respectively without any conditions but majority decision would be advisable from both the country's and the Labour Party's point of view. I think greater national unity in war effort and during the war period among people as a whole would be attained and the responsibilities for difficult and sometimes unpopular tasks would be shared and Labour would emerge from the war period stronger and in a better position to fight future contests.’ Further, he reported that Japan's entry into the war seemed ‘likely and imminent’, and ‘I have been of the opinion for some time that if Japan came into the war and our country's position became more dangerous, a National Government would likely become inevitable.’ However, he emphasised the extreme importance of continued unity in the Labour Party and wrote that, in spite of his personal opinions, he would ‘abide by the decision of the Party expressed by Caucus, by National Executive and, if necessary, by a special Party Conference3.’ The decision of the party was, in fact, clear. Caucus's view was that with present feeling in the country, a national government was impossible, and the members of the National Executive were unanimously against it. In general terms, reported Nash, ‘the opinion of the Movement is at present strongly opposed to any suggestion

1 Star-Sun, 19 Apr 1941.

2 Ibid., 8 Sep 1941.

3 Fraser to Nash, 29 Jul 1941.

page 170 of a National Government and, unless something untoward happens, is certain to remain so1.’ Nash, as acting Prime Minister, publicly repeated the invitation to Holland to join the War Cabinet and stop party bickering. He remarked, however, that in his view the formation of a non-party national government had been made impossible by the Opposition's recent tactics.2
The Prime Minister returned to New Zealand on 13 September and took up the whole problem again. Action was urgent. There was a considerable body of opinion against holding the general election, which was imminent, while the overseas situation remained so tense; there were admitted objections to postponing an election in circumstances which would maintain a party government in power; and yet it was clear that the Labour Party was adamantly opposed to a coalition with the kind of Opposition represented by S. G. Holland.3 Fraser decided to make the best he could of existing machinery. He felt that so grave a step as prolonging the life of Parliament should only be taken with the concurrence of the Opposition, and accordingly, after verbal discussions, he formally asked Holland on 7 October what would be the attitude of the Opposition if it were proposed to postpone the election for a year, as a wartime measure.4 At the same time he again invited him to join the War Cabinet, or to suggest some alternative method for promoting unity and improving co-operation. Holland replied that the Opposition, as a minority party, would have to accept the postponement of the election if the Government decided upon it. He again refused to join the War Cabinet, and added: ‘I presume a postponement of the elections would mean that no contentious legislation would be introduced, or, virtually, that legislation and regulations would only be passed with the concurrence of the Opposition.’ This last demand was rejected by the Prime Minister: it would amount, he said, to government by the Opposition. He undertook, however, to use his influence to ‘reduce legislation on purely party lines to a minimum for the period’ during which Parliament's life was extended; and he asked for a plain answer as to whether the Opposition would support or oppose a measure postponing the general election. On 13 October he was given the assurance he required. Armed with it, he obtained the approval of his own parliamentary party on the 15th and wrote at once to Holland, sending him a copy of the Bill. It was accordingly introduced that same night and passed without opposition, though

1 Nash to Fraser, 5 Aug 1941.

2 NZPD, Vol. 259, p. 710.

3 Ibid.; and Evening Post, 23 Sep 1941.

4 The negotiations were reported in some detail to Parliament: NZPD, Vol. 260, pp. 1153–66.

page 171 with a suggestion from Holland that the Government's decision had been sprung on him.1

The problem of the general election was solved, but not that of party conflict. During the next three months there followed, in fact, a series of by-elections, which the Opposition fought on party lines, mainly on domestic issues, though there was a Labour candidate only for the vacancy caused by the death on active service of a Labour MP. The Prime Minister criticised these proceedings with the greatest vigour, particularly after the Expeditionary Force went into action again in Libya on 20 November; but the campaign continued without remission in the weeks that followed Pearl Harbour. The Prime Minister said with some sharpness that the arguments against by-elections were very similar to those against general elections, which both he and the Leader of the Opposition wholeheartedly endorsed; and that he had assumed accordingly that the agreement between the two parties for the postponement of the general election covered also the avoidance of by-election campaigns.2 It had not, however, been so specified. The Opposition exercised its rights, though not without dissent in the ranks of the Government's persistent critics,3 and as 1942 began, full of menace from overseas, spokesmen of both parties accused each other vehemently of jeopardising national unity in the interests of party programmes.4

In short, the mounting tensions of 1941, even when crowned by the long-feared emergence of Japan as an active enemy, left party politics in New Zealand ostensibly very much alive. Yet the basic importance of vociferous public acrimony may be somewhat discounted. The real running of the war was in the hands of a two-party War Cabinet, which worked without publicity or consideration for party interests. The most frank and thorough parliamentary discussion of war policy took place in the fairly frequent secret sessions. Their secrecy was well preserved, at the time and later; but there is reason to think that with publicity absent, party rancour was, to say the least, notably softened. Further, though Holland insisted throughout on keeping his freedom of action by refusing to join the War Cabinet, he was consulted upon occasions and given highly confidential information. This happened, with beneficial results to domestic harmony, when the decision was made to send New Zealanders to Greece. It happened again when Fraser explained to him in October 1941 his reasons for thinking that the elections should be postponed.5

1 NZPD, Vol. 260, p. 1144. Mr Holland: ‘until I received the honourable gentleman's letter I was unaware of the Government's decision to introduce this Bill…I thought an election was on—that was my guess.’

2 Fraser to Holland, 4 Dec 1941; Evening Post, 5 Dec 1941.

3 Evening Post (editorial), 5 Dec 1941.

4 Cf. Round Table, March 1942, p. 333.

5 NZPD, Vol. 260, p. 1155.

page 172

It may be presumed that the Leader of the Opposition was out of touch with the disturbing confidential information which reached New Zealand while he was absorbed in the by-election campaigns that followed; but with them safely over, the impact of Japanese successes led New Zealand politicians once again to experiment with unity, and to show briefly that on fundamental things their agreement was close.