The rise of the class-struggle wing of the labour movement in New Zealand in the decade from 1907 was rapid, spectacular – and well-documented. Beginning with the first challenge to the Arbitration system by West Coast coal miners, the movement quickly broadened to include waterside workers, seafarers, flaxmillers, labourers and others who gathered under the banner of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour. The struggle to wrest leadership of the union movement from the class-collaborationist leaders came to a head in two great industrial battles – the strike by the Waihi gold miners in 1912, and the Great Strike of 1913 centred on the waterfront.
The documents of these battles were themselves weapons of the struggle. Defeated on the industrial front at Waihi, Harry Holland wrote a book based on his reporting of the strike, The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike. It was widely read. The book carried on the Waihi fight in another form, won new support in the broader working class for the militants, and eventually turned defeat at Waihi into victory on the political front. The indomitable Maoriland Worker, newspaper of the Red Feds, edited by Holland from 1913, played a major role in shaping and educating a class-struggle cadre.
By 1916, when the newly-united labour movement of New Zealand entered on the road of political independence by forming its own political party, it was the class-struggle wing which won leadership of that party, and which made up the majority of its first elected members of parliament. The class struggle motion reached perhaps its highest point in 1917-18, as the Great War ended and first Russia, then the rest of Europe became engulfed in the flames of revolution. Across the Tasman Sea the labour movement in Australia erupted in a massive strike movement. Labour Party leader Harry Holland toured New Zealand in 1918 spreading the news of the Russian revolution to enthusiastic audiences, identifying himself as a Bolshevik and pointing to the revolution as an example of what he hoped to see in New Zealand.
The decline of the class-struggle movement after 1918 was as rapid as its advance, but was devoid of spectacle, and went almost totally undocumented. There were no pitched battles ending in defeat, no organisational or political fights wherein the class-collaborationist wing challenged the militant leaders and regained control of the union movement. There were no assassinations of the key revolutionary leaders as in Germany, no sweeping state repressions as in the United States. There was not even much in the way of reliable reporting or discussion of the decline in print: with Holland’s election to parliament in 1918, editorship of the Maoriland Worker passed out of the hands of the militants, and the paper too went into a rapid and quiet decline.
Given this dearth of documentation, the causes and forms of the decline are much more difficult to trace than the rise. We know the beginning of the process, and we know its end-point: by the middle 1920s, the Labour Party was a House-trained parliamentary party, increasingly looking to rid its ranks of communists and others who might spoil its parliamentary ambitions. Virtually all the class-struggle leaders of the earlier period were now espousing a programme of parliamentary reforms, framed as being in the best interests of the nation. Of the central leaders, Harry Holland alone continued to advance a broader working class politics, but he was increasingly isolated within his own party, and Holland himself was not immune to the conservatising process.
It is a commonplace of bourgeois history in New Zealand that the bloody sacrifice of soldiers at Gallipoli and in Europe during the Great War became the foundation of a national identity in New Zealand. This is highly disputable: the sense of ‘national identity’ in popular consciousness was weak before the War, and not a lot stronger in its wake.
The New Zealand ruling class did, however, make good use of the war to build an imperialist nation-state. The process owed less to the blood on the national banner at Gallipoli than to wartime censorship, repressions, and controls on workers speech and movements. These measures were very effective in breaking up workers solidarity, especially international solidarity, and setting the labour movement back into the channels of nation-building from which it had only recently emerged.
This is the context in which two parliamentary debates took place on the question of immigration, in 1919 and 1920. The first debate gives us a glimpse of the militant Labour Party in its first year in Parliament, making use of the parliamentary platform to advance working class politics. A year later, we see the party already in retreat, under colossal political pressure and bending to bourgeois politics, the leadership juggling the conflicting interests of nation and class.
In the first debate in 1919, there were two Labour Party Members of Parliament, both elected in by-elections the previous year: Harry Holland in the West Coast mining district of Grey, and Robert Semple in Wellington South.
The Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Bill was presented to parliament by Prime Minister William Massey of the Reform Party in 1919. Massey explained that it was needed because of the impending termination of the legal state of war with Germany and Austria. Under the War Regulations, Massey explained, the Attorney-General had been given “authority to prevent the landing in New Zealand…and to deport from New Zealand any person who is not normally resident here who is disaffected, disloyal, or of such a character that his presence in New Zealand would be injurious to public safety, or likely to be a source of danger to the peace, order, and good government of the Dominion.”
“If the war is allowed to terminate without enactment of such statutory provisions as are contained in this Bill,” Massey said, “the Government will have no power to impose any restrictions or prohibitions on the free entrance into New Zealand of Germans and other former enemies.” He noted that similar legislation had recently been passed in Britain.
Holland responded that the Bill was not directed at ‘former enemies,’ who were unlikely to migrate in large numbers anyway. Rather, its purpose was to perpetuate all the new anti-democratic police measures the government had claimed under the War Regulations. “The passport system, under whatever conditions, is an abominable system…that has always operated in the older countries – notably, in Russia under the Tsars and Germany under Kaiserdom – against the spirit of liberty and against the best interests of the people.” (Passports had been introduced in New Zealand and most European countries as a wartime security measure, but were retained after the war.)
Holland continued, “Clause 3 says that, save with the authority of the Attorney-General, no person shall land in New Zealand from any place beyond the sea until he has practically satisfied the Attorney-General he is a desirable immigrant. What does that mean?… Any man coming from another country, if he should come with a reputation as a fighter for freedom, would be in danger of being turned back.” In this ‘allegedly Christian country’, even ‘the Galilean carpenter himself’ would have a hard job to get into New Zealand, with the reputation he built up two thousand years ago, Holland said.
He pointed out that under the provisions of this law, ‘the Court may admit such evidence as it thinks fit, whether such evidence would be legally admissible in other proceedings or not.’ “What more vicious principle can you introduce into law-making than that?” Holland asked. “Under ordinary conditions you give to the man who is charged certain rights and certain protection, but you take away every protection here…”
“Only the Attorney-General is to judge whether that person is disaffected or disloyal, only the Attorney-General is to interpret what disloyalty and disaffection mean.” Holland went on to list prominent fighters for justice who had been labelled ‘disloyal.’
“If [Socialist Party leader] Mr Eugene Debs were to come here from America – and those who have read his speeches and writings know that there is no more admirable personality in the whole wide world than Mr Debs – he would be turned back.”
“If [Irish republican fighter] Professor [Eamon] de Valera came here from Ireland the Attorney-General could turn him back”
At that point, Massey interjected, “We would, most certainly. He is a disloyal man.”
Holland continued, “According to some people’s interpretation of disloyalty, but the trouble is in who is to interpret what ‘disloyalty’ means. Professor de Valera would be turned back, and [Unionist Dublin lawyer Sir Edward] Carson, the arch-conspirator, the gun-runner… would be allowed to come into New Zealand.”
“The day we seek to make of New Zealand a little close corporation – the day that we say that we are only going to allow people into New Zealand whom the ruling-class elements approve of, the day we say that we are going to join hands with the forces of narrow class prejudice and tyranny to prevent men from whatever countries coming here – on that day we are going to enter upon a dangerous course. Whatever country a man comes from, if he should come here with credentials from the labour organizations of his country, I say, speaking for the labour movement in this country, you have no right to prevent him coming inside New Zealand.”
The general election of December 1919 brought eight Labour Party members into the New Zealand parliament. Semple lost his seat, but Holland was re-elected as representative for the Buller district. Massey remained Prime Minister.
The following year a further immigration restriction was brought before Parliament. The Immigration Restriction Amendment Bill was, according to Massey, “the result of a deep-seated sentiment on the part of a huge majority of the people of this country that this Dominion shall be what is often called a ‘white’ New Zealand, and that the people who come here should, as far as it is possible for us to provide for it, be… people who will be loyal to the Empire…We want to keep the race as pure in this Dominion as it is possible to keep it.” Massey explained that the need for the Bill was prompted by a recent increase in migration from India and China, despite the array of ‘educational tests’ imposed on immigrants and £100 poll tax that Chinese migrants had had to pay since 1908. “The poll tax will not be interfered with. It will remain.”
“What of the Maoris?” asked Apirana Ngata, Liberal Party Member of Parliament for Eastern Maori. “The Maori is a European for our purposes,” Massey assured him. “The Maori has the same rights and privileges as the European, in every sense of the word.” Ngata refrained from questioning him further on what that implied for the ‘purity of the race.’
Holland’s speech on the Bill was awkward and contradictory. “This question of coloured labour is one of the most difficult that any Legislature could be asked to face,” he said. Holland took care to distance himself from the racist character of the Bill. “It would be well if we were to remember that the world is a very small place, and that, biologically speaking, the same red blood of humanity flows in the veins of all of us, no matter what piece of land we happened to be born upon. So far as I am personally concerned, I want to make clear the international viewpoint, which does not place a bar upon the individual because of the colour of his skin or the country in which he was born.”
He described some of the iniquities of previous immigration laws, such as the requirement that immigrants complete educational tests “in any European language.” “ ‘In any European language’ the [1908 law] provides…in Australia it has happened that when a man landed there who could pass the British test, they gave him a test in French or German, and when he passed those they gave him a test in Greek.”
Holland attempted to base his stance on immigration laws on a defence of workers living standards, both locally-born and immigrant. “Any vote that the Labour Party gives will be cast for the purpose of preserving our own standards [of living] and for the purpose of protecting the coloured workers who may be allowed or induced to come here from other countries. So far as any general influx is concerned we know, of course, that would only be likely as the result of organization on the part of some section of employers…”
“So far as the Indians in New Zealand are concerned, there is no danger, as far as I can see, of their being used to lower the standard of living of the rest of the working-men, if they are organised into the respective unions and if a condition is laid down that when an Indian is employed it shall be under the same conditions and at the same rate of wages as a white man. I do not know any reason why he should not be so employed… By the way, a number of the Indians here joined the unions, and the reports I received when editing the Maoriland Worker were to the effect that they made excellent unionists. They were exceedingly loyal to the rest of the men in the organization.”
Nonetheless, Holland said, “We think that a bona fide educational test should be imposed – a test in English and arithmetic to the New Zealand Sixth Standard; that there should be a definite limitation of the numbers of Asiatics entering New Zealand in any given year; and that the numbers so limited should be exceedingly lower than the numbers coming into New Zealand at the present time.”
Almost every other speaker in the debate raised the spectre of New Zealand being over-run with “a vast influx of Asiatics,” with a tendency to rapidly out-breed white people, bring tuberculosis and other diseases, practice a religion that “inculcates lasciviousness and teaches the worship of human sexual organs”, and drag down living standards, moral standards, and culture. Speaker after speaker praised the ‘white Australia’ policy across the Tasman and the Chinese Exclusion Act of South Africa.
“The class of Chinese who come here are evidently sent by syndicates…they are the coolie class. That is the very class that was originally supposed to be excluded by the poll tax. It was thought that the coolie class could not afford to pay the poll-tax,” said William Downie Stewart, Liberal Party Member for Dunedin West.
Alexander Harris, Reform Party Member for Waitemata: “I think we all agree that the first concern of the Legislature should be to keep New Zealand pure and white…As far as the Chinese are concerned, this restriction will probably have the effect of almost total exclusion. With regard to the Hindus, we are in a much more difficult position. Our immigrants are young Indians who were born in the Fiji group, and attended the European schools there, so that they are educated as well as most members of this House. The education test will not keep those Hindus out.”
Josiah Hanan, Liberal Party Member for Invercargill: “I am one of those who believe that if you allow an admixture of races – especially if you allow a race with different ideals from ours, with a different conception of moral standards and social conditions of life – there can be but one result, and that is a sad deterioration of our race…I think we should follow the policy and some of the laws of the Australian people. They are determined at all hazards to be a race of white people. I have read the speeches of Labour Members of Parliament, and I must say there is a decided and emphatic desire that Australia shall be a white nation.”
The reference to the Australian Labor Party’s support for racist exclusionary immigration laws was not by chance. Hanan also taunted Holland with being out of step with Members of Parliament from the class-collaborationist Labour party of earlier times who had enthusiastically supported anti-Chinese measures. The taunting increased as the debate proceeded, as ever-widening fears of hostile invasions were summoned.
“I have not heard one honourable member mention the fact that Bolshevists could come into this country under the education test,” exclaimed William Glenn, Reform MP for Rangitikei. “Only the other day a bureau was established in Sydney by Bolshevists or by representatives of that nation, and that is coming very near to New Zealand. I am sorry to say that I have not heard one of the Labour members say what they propose should be done about those people.”
This of course was aimed at Holland’s public identification with the Russian revolution and the Bolsheviks. (It is interesting to note that there was a small Russian community in Brisbane around this time, made up partly of political exiles from Czarism who had escaped Siberian exile by heading east to the Pacific coast of Russia. It included Artem Sergeyev, who took part in the 1912 Brisbane general strike. Sergeyev returned to Russia in 1917 and was elected to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. Sergeyev’s story has been told in fictional form in The People’s Train, by Tom Kenneally.)
Apirana Ngata also baited the Labour Party for the contradictions in its position. “I thought that one would have heard a good deal from the Labour members on the subject of universal brotherhood and the right of India to self-determination, and stunts of that kind, but we have had very little of that sort of thing tonight. Apparently the view is unanimous that the Chinaman, and the Hindu also, are not desirable immigrants to this country. As a representative of the aboriginal race of New Zealand, I sympathise with the first immigrants to this country – the British – in the attitude they take up with regard to the influx of Chinese and other Asiatics. My reason is this: that undoubtedly the best civilization that has so far appeared on the face of this globe is the civilization that is represented by the British race…in regard to morality, sense of justice, it is the best that had appeared so far. For that reason everything should be done to fill in the waste places of Australia and New Zealand with descendants of the race which represents this aspect of civilisation.”
In this debate, colossal political pressure was being brought to bear on the Labour Party parliamentarians, and Holland in particular, to support this Bill. The other Labour Party MPs capitulated to this pressure, adding to the pressure on Holland. Dan Sullivan, Labour MP for Avon, said, “The Labour Party is just as keen as any member of this house, or as any person or party in the country, to maintain racial purity here in New Zealand.”
“Let us appreciate that we are living practically a stone’s throw from teeming millions, who continue to increase by millions annually, and in our countries, Australia and New Zealand – there are millions of acres of uninhabited territory,” said the future Labour Prime Minister Michael Savage.
The Labour MP for Lyttelton, James McCombs, demonstrated to parliament the Labour Party’s support for immigration restrictions on ‘Asiatics’ by quoting from policy adopted at the party’s annual conference just two months earlier.
“We agree that for the proper development of the country it is essential that the white population of the country should be increased by immigration…Conference is also of the opinion that a more adequate check should be placed on Asiatic immigration… We are of the opinion that at the present time Asiatics are being induced to come here by capitalistic combinations, and that when they are here, because of their generally low educational standard, and because of the fact that their standard of living is not equal to that of Europeans, they are used and will be used by those combinations as cheap labour, to the detriment of the white workers, as a means to lower wages and reduce the standard of living. Further, we are of opinion that the presence of Asiatics in this country in any number and as permanent residents would result in an intermingling of the races detrimental to all.”
Apirana Ngata was not mistaken: this party policy was in direct contradiction to the principles of working class brotherhood and self-determination for oppressed nations on which the Labour Party professed to stand. It was also in direct contradiction to the political course suggested by Holland in his introductory remarks, the course of organising the immigrant workers into the unions and insisting that they receive equal wages. But Holland, too, was bound by this policy adopted by the party’s right-wing majority. The creation of an all-inclusive Labour Party, embracing the whole labour movement, owed more to Holland than any other individual. He naturally felt a sense of responsibility and loyalty to it, and felt bound by its decisions. By exploiting this contradiction, the capitalist forces very efficiently and swiftly brought the Labour Party to heel.
Reading these debates today one can’t help noticing just how low was the level of immigration from China that stoked these racist fears. By Massey’s own figures, 476 poll-tax-paying immigrants from China arrived in the previous 6 months, along with 174 new migrants from India, and a total of 18,744 migrants from the British Empire. The total New Zealand population was just over one million at the time – in some respects, the country was still just a fragile colony of British settlers. The ‘vast influx of Asiatics’ was a fantasy – with or without the new restrictions. The fantastic fears raised in the debate really came down to the question of loyalty, and specifically the Labour Party’s loyalty: was it to be loyal to the working class or to the ‘race’. Here was a stick the ruling class could use to beat the party, and they made good use of it.