My First Eighty Years
Chapter 14 — Gordon Coates
It was the work of the Women's Unemployment Commission that brought me in touch with Mr Coates. I had known him slightly from 1911 to 1914, when my husband was in the House, and had ben [sic] undiscerning enough to form a poor opinion of him. He was young — too young to be taken seriously as a politician — and I was blinded by party prejudice, for Mr Coates entered the House as an Independent.
He had nothing to do with my appointment to the Commission. He evidently was in the habit of delegating patronage to his subordinates for, when we were summoned to meet him as Minister of Employment, he was surprised to see me there. But, somehow, whether because he had known my husband, or because, in my effort to understand what had happened to the world, I was at the time taking a violent interest in finance, he spared more time to talk to me than my complete unimportance warranted.
He was not a good politician. He went straight to the business in hand and had forgotten — if he ever knew — how to receive electors with affable palaver; but if ever a man was wholeheartedly sincere and was striving with every strained nerve to restore order and equilibrium to this little corner of the collapsing world, that man was Gordon Coates. Unbiased judgment, coming chiefly from opponents and outsiders, invariably corroborates this opinion.
In the early stages of the slump my husband and I knew just as much as the ordinary man about the genesis of money — that is to say, we knew nothing at all. It had been demonstrated to me in my childhood that gold was divine wealth because God always saw to it that just enough was page 219 found to preserve its value through the ages. My first ray of light came when Keynes's Economic Consequences of the Peace fell into my hands and soon afterwards A. N. Field's Truth about the Slump. I was transported with enthusiasm. It was so new and, to my mind, so clear a light that I wanted to shout the thing aloud to everybody.
The Government (Mr Forbes was Prime Minister) was still retrenching drastically, still attempting to cut a coat out of the ever-shrinking cloth. At that time I was a member of the Waikato Hospital Board. It was maddening to be forced to be party to the cruel dismissals — wardmaids whose wages were needed for the support of their families, and whose duties must fall on overworked nurses; gardeners who had grown to feel that the Hospital grounds were their own. Each dismissal withdrew some money from circulation and so deepened the depression. And the irony, the tragedy of it, was that the Dominion was full to repletion with all good things for the use of man, especially food and clothing. Only cash for their purchase was lacking. This little country had put the whole globe under contribution. What bountiful supplies we had of everything. The best the world made and grew were ours for the buying — silks, fur, wines, spirits, olives, fruits, perfumes, tools, and every day some new mechanical attraction tempted the buyer. The generation growing up to-day has no idea of the abundance and choice that was ours, and all in exchange for the products of our flocks and herds.
Then suddenly, these products being no longer in demand, the plenty became a liability. Oh yes! We know now what should have been done. It did not look so simple then. Did any politician put a single helpful suggestion on record?
It is true that even before the depression there were many people who could not afford to buy the luxuries. I was one of them. All the same, it was stimulating to know they were there.page 220
Encouraged by Mr Coates's ready reception of problems and by the misery everywhere, I wrote to him asking if it would not be possible for the Government to issue, say, one million pounds to relieve the most desperate cases among the dismissals. I pointed out (I don't know where I found the courage) that a grant to the Hospital Boards would be giving relief to every class of the community from the big ratepayer to the poorest patient. He replied sending me a scheme that had been put before him. Our letters would now be interesting only to the detailed historian of the period but they showed that Coates, as a man, was always ready to explore new possibilities for the relief of distress.
It was not till 1933, when Mr Coates became Minister of Finance, that he was able to raise the exchange value of the New Zealand pound. This made him hideously unpopular. The measure was not understood by the ordinary man and the metropolitan papers that did understand it considered that it worked against their interests and spared no pains to discredit it. It was juggling with our currency — our sacred currency. It was a return to the shabby game that had been played in the past by inefficient rulers and monarchs when their exchequers were empty —merely debasing the currency. Subtly it was represented by his opponents that Mr Coates was guilty of some tricky manipulation for his own benefit or purposes. It gave rise to the wildest conjectures. It was declared to have been done at the request of foreign Jews and for their enrichment and I think I can assert that never during the vexed discussion did any article appear in any North Island daily explaining clearly the meaning of the altered rate of exchange.
It is true that, as the election approached, the Conservative papers piped down and told their readers that, after all, they had better vote for the Government, but the seed had been sown and had sprouted.
Yet it was by no means a new experiment, nor in any way peculiar to New Zealand. Every civilised country page 221 was employing some such inflationary measure. Mr Downie Stewart had long been considering its pros and cons.
Mr Coates himself was a poor exponent of his own policy. I doubt if he ever tried very hard to induce the public to understand and follow his actions. He was too busy. I asked him once why he did not take the country into his confidence concerning the motives and expected results of his regulations. He said that he had no organ for such matter, that no paper was willing to publish his explanations. I was not convinced; nor am I yet. Mr Forbes managed to have his Sunday-school maxims printed in every paper. He told the public that in unavoidable bad times people and governments must learn thrift, must cut their coat according to their cloth. People understood him. They knew that, like themselves, he was bewildered but impotent. Certainly he was the head of the Coalition Government but Mr Coates was recognised as its driving force and the one to whom the public looked for relief if relief were possible. He did wonders, but the country looked in vain for a clear explanation of his intentions and, not understanding, it became critical and — aided by his enemies — suspicious. The fact was that he was working prodigiously and seeking assiduously for remedies. He listened to financiers orthodox and unorthodox, and to schemes sane and insane, and weighed them all. The moment he was convinced that a scheme was advisable he acted. For a long time he had to be content with relief works such as the Women's Unemployment Commission. What he sought was something far-reaching, nation-wide and based on a principle. The exchange would have been such a measure if he could have popularised it.
In 1933 I represented the Women's Division at the opening of the Farmers' Union Conference where Mr Coates was to speak about the exchange. He spoke for over half an hour and was quite unable to give the meeting any idea of what it was about. Except the few who already understood page 222 something of finance the audience knew no more when he had finished than when he began. He would use technical words and then, making an effort to avoid them, he would become too colloquial. He said, ‘You say, and quite true, that it will make imported goods dear or wire will cost more. Well! You don't eat wire, do you?’ I remember the look of bewilderment on the face of the farmer who sat next to me. Most of them gave up the attempt to fathom the Abracadabra there and then, and planned to set their faces against all financial wizardry.
Never was a public man more violently traduced and more grossly slandered than Gordon Coates. It was freely said that his friends, as well as himself, had made huge fortunes from pre-knowledge that the exchange was to be raised. There was always somebody who knew a fellow with inside knowledge who had told them all about it. By accident, I was given personal disproof of this particular calumny. I was with my husband in Dalgety's office when Mr Bennett was general manager. He showed us book entries that proved that Rodney Coates had sold his sheep, representing practically the year's profits, less than a week before the exchange was raised.
‘If old G.C. didn't tip his brother the wink not to sell good assets for currency about to be devalued,’ laughed Mr Bennett, ‘it is hardly likely that he took much trouble to enrich his friends — especially as he and his brother are partners.’
Mr Coates could not be said to have suffered from a whispering campaign — his traducers shouted their accusations from the housetops. One story that flew from mouth to mouth and was widely credited was that he had told an assembly of hungry unemployed that they might eat grass. No one could ever be found who had heard him say it nor could it be suggested on what occasion it was said. Perhaps the case of the unfortunate Foulon, Mayor of Paris, was in the mind of the inventor. It was easily repeated and, by page 223 those who did not know Mr Coates, easily believed, though anything further from his mode of thought or speech would be hard to find. Epigrams, quotations, smart phrases were not in his line.
Mr Coates's electorate contracted a particularly severe attack of the Douglas Credit epidemic. The women of the meeting I held at Ruawai, when on Division business, were obviously intending to vote against him, but all the same they held him in high respect.
One woman made a disparaging remark and was immediately challenged. ‘Na, na,’ said an emphatic Scottish voice. ‘Gordon wouldna do the like o' that. The Coates are a verra religious family.’
When the second war came Gordon Coates thought of nothing but to give his services where they were most needed. Some men would have insisted on going to the front and with the rank they had already achieved, hoped to have won further honours. He went unostentatiously to work for the Government which had beaten him, putting his accumulated military knowledge at their disposal. He refused to be stampeded into throwing up his job even when his own party, for political reasons, requested him to do so. For this refusal some of its members pursued him with incredible venom. The party, or such of its members as lent themselves to that petty campaign of abuse and slander, must surely be ashamed of the means they took to discredit a man who was quietly giving of his best to the war effort.
Mr Coates's manner, however, offended many people. A deputation of very important gentlemen — all, as they were careful to explain, his ardent supporters — waited on him with the usual very important request. When he had heard them he stood up and without a word went and looked out of the window. Accustomed to properly-behaved politicians who obsequiously assured deputations that the matter was near their hearts and should receive every consideration, the potentates were outraged. They declared that the Minister page 224 must have been drinking and the discourtesy with which they were received was bruited abroad.
He did the same thing — perhaps with more circumspection — to a deputation sent from the Conference of the Women's Division. I will own that we were considerably surprised and looked at each other with lifted brows, but when he returned from the window we realised that he had been pondering our petition, had grasped its significance and would probably grant it on the spot.
Assuredly, if Gordon Coates had lived he would have had a triumphant comeback. Ability, coupled with energy and single-minded desire for the good of the country, must win in the end, if the end come not too soon. Age, in a statesman, has generally been found an advantage. In common with those who knew him better than I, it is my belief that he would not have remained a Conservative, if indeed he had ever at heart been one. Each year he inclined further to the Left. Indeed, it was one of the contributing factors to his spectacular downfall that his old die-hard supporters were saying, ‘He's nothing but a ruddy Communist. Look at the advisers with which he surrounds himself’, adding their comment to the vagaries of the great dailies which at first overpraised, overboosted, then vehemently decried his policy and at last damned him with faint praise.