Island Life by David Slack


A devious and dangerous political operative

Chris Trotter and Random House have kindly given us permission to run two excerpts from No Left Turn, a splendid new book which the publishers accurately describe thus:

Not one to ever shirk a lively debate, Trotter rips through this country’s past like a Taranaki tornado, bowling over the elaborate facades of both the Right and the Left, and letting sunlight shine into the famous, infamous and murkier corners of our past.

It’s in your bookstore now, and this author highly recommends it for its engaging style, its fascinating tales, and its unimpeachable intellectual defensibility.

Today’s excerpt comes from Chapter 5: Jamming Uncle Scrim. Come back on Monday to find the Labour party in crisis, and for an elaboration of these passages, you can hear our interview with Chris Trotter on Public Address Radio tomorrow at 5.00 pm on Radio Live.

...With Massey’s death the political style of New Zealand conservatism changed dramatically. Driving that change was one of the most devious — and dangerous — political operatives this country has ever produced. Indeed, if one was asked to nominate a single individual to take the title ‘éminence grise of New Zealand politics’, it would be very hard to go past the figure of Albert Ernest Davy. The son of a Wellington policeman, Davy was the epitome of a right-wing activist. He began his career in the provinces as a small businessman, being variously a bootmaker, draper and hairdresser. Ambitious and highly competitive, he fed his passion for getting ahead by engaging (with considerable success) in competitive sport. Davy was also a bigot. Escaping the military call-up, he threw himself into the reactionary campaigns of the Gisborne branch of the PPA. In 1919 his innate political skills were put on public display for the first time when he organised W.D. Lysnar’s successful challenge to the Maori leader, and incumbent MP for Gisborne, Sir James Carroll.

Impressed, the Reform Party’s national secretary, E.A. James, took Davy under his wing and groomed him for a more important role in national affairs. In 1923 he was appointed a full-time organiser for the party, and prior to the 1925 election he spent several months in the United States studying the latest developments in electioneering techniques. He returned to New Zealand to find the right-wing political scene in turmoil. An attempt to bring about a ‘fusion’ of the two parties of the Right had run aground as a result of Sir Joseph Ward’s intransigence, and the belief of Reform’s new leader and prime minister, Gordon Coates, that the Liberal electoral threat was more apparent than real. Brimming over with confidence in the methods he had studied in the US, Davy convinced his party to put aside the amalgamation option for the duration, and allow him to run what would be, in effect, a ‘presidential’ campaign for its attractive new leader. He even had a slogan: ‘Coats off with Coates!’

In the course of his sojourn in the US Davy would have become familiar with the ideas of the celebrated political journalist Walter Lippmann. During World War I, Lippmann had served alongside Edward Bernays — founder of the ‘science’ of public relations — on the Committee on Public Information, the US’s wartime propaganda unit. Already hailed as America’s most respected political commentator, Lippmann welcomed the new science of public manipulation as a ‘revolution’ in the ‘practice of democracy’.

The ‘manufacture of consent’, declared Lippmann, must become a ‘self-conscious art and regular organ of popular government’. The whole process to be managed by a ‘specialised class’ dedicated to the ‘common interests’ of society, which ‘very largely elude public opinion entirely’. The ‘responsible men’ to whom the operations of society are entrusted, he concluded, must ‘live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd’. The crucial mission of public relations in liberal capitalist democracies was, therefore, to ensure that ‘the herd’ remained passive ‘spectators’ of the political process, and not active ‘participants’.

A contemporary of Lippmann’s, the philosopher John Dewey, cut through this elitist humbug with the pithy observation that modern politics was ‘the shadow cast upon society by big business’. According to Dewey, the key role of the new public relations industry was to keep society in the dark.

These were the ideas to which Davy hoped to give practical expression in the 1925 election. The days of sending in a squadron or two of mounted, baton-wielding cockies to sort out the rebellious working class were over. Those sorts of tactics merely hardened the resolve of capitalism’s enemies and provided them with the type of symbols public relations experts long for. If big business wanted socialism kept safely at the margins of the political arena, it needed to understand and embrace Lippmann’s art of public manipulation, and — most importantly — be prepared to pay for it.

Reform’s wealthy backers responded positively to Davy’s pitch, and he was given a free hand to run the most up-to-date and innovative election campaign New Zealand had ever seen. As Diana Beaglehole puts it in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography:

Employing the latest advertising techniques for the first time at a New Zealand election, he focused attention not on the party or its candidates, but on the leader, Prime Minister Gordon Coates. New Zealanders were urged to take ‘Coats off with Coates’, ‘the man who gets things done’, to vote for ‘Coates and Confidence’, ‘Coates and Certainties’. Appeals were made to patriotism, women voters were targeted, and the business community was promised ‘more business in Government, less Government in business’. Nothing was left to chance, ‘Coates’ candidates’ and their committees were issued with booklets, briefing them on how to best run their campaigns. The electorate responded by giving Reform its greatest victory and Davy gained a reputation as a superb political organiser.

With 46.7 percent of the votes cast and 55 seats, Reform and its leader appeared to be on the verge of exercising the sort of easy political hegemony last wielded by Seddon in the 1890s. The Liberals themselves, running under the new name of ‘National’, suffered grievously, losing nearly half their caucus. Labour, too, fared badly. Although its share of the vote went up slightly, its parliamentary contingent shrank from seventeen to twelve. Davy’s backers could hardly believe their luck.

But appearances were deceptive. By 1926 New Zealand was fighting against a strong economic headwind and Coates was looking for ways to weather the storm. As the first New Zealand prime minister actually born in this country, he demonstrated a considerably less deferential approach to dominion governance than his British-born predecessors. A successful Northland farmer and a war hero, Coates had a freewheeling and gregarious personality — John A. Lee dubbed him the ‘jazz Premier’. Throughout his career he consistently displayed a progressive and pragmatic flexibility towards the nation’s ills that left many of his conservative, urban-based colleagues feeling decidedly uneasy.

A succession of economic interventions and social initiatives under- taken by Coates throughout 1926 and 1927 (control of butter marketing, public transport licensing, state-funded family allowances) confirmed the growing suspicion among the Auckland business community that the man they had paid Davy to sell to the New Zealand public harboured dangerous illusions about the capacity of the state to both restrain and reorder the operations of the marketplace. To make matters worse, the relationship between Coates, Davy and the Reform rank and file had become increasingly strained as evidence accumulated concerning the political wizard’s unethical conduct of party affairs. By the end of 1926, Davy and Reform had parted company. According to Beaglehole: ‘Davy maintained he had resigned because

the party was being “governed autocratically” and he objected to its “socialistic legislation”.’

But this was very far from being the end of Mr Davy. In June 1927, one J.W.S. McArthur, an Auckland timber merchant, paid Davy the sum of £1,300 (roughly $200,000 in today’s money) to bring down Coates’ government. Since Davy had been careful to take with him copies of the Reform Party’s membership, canvassing and donation records before he left its employ, this was not quite the daunting assignment it appeared to be. By August he was hard at work soliciting support for a pre-party vehicle which he christened the United New Zealand Political Organisation. Such was the aura of political sorcery surrounding Davy’s name that by the following April he had convinced the ‘National’ Party leader, George Forbes, and most of the ‘independent’ flotsam and jetsam floating about in the parliamentary shallows to join him in launching the United Party. Knowing that to defeat Coates he would need another ‘presidential’ candidate, Davy took the precaution of securing the prior consent of the indefatigable Sir Joseph Ward to be called forward and (after long and careful consideration) to dutifully accept the new party’s leadership.

Davy’s political genius lay in his ability to keep the ends he was pursuing securely isolated from the means required to achieve them. The new United Party was conceived by its right-wing business sponsors as a shield against the full-scale socialism of the Labour Party and what they saw as Coates’ ad hoc version of the same thing. It was also to be their best guarantee that New Zealand’s economy would be properly managed according to orthodox capitalist principles. To the electorate, however, Davy cynically misrepresented his creation as being almost the exact opposite of its sponsors’ vision. As far as the voters

knew, the United Party was the old Liberal Party reborn, and Ward, the ‘financial wizard’ of the 1890s, became their unlikely saviour.

Proud, narcissistic, mentally frail and suffering from the onset of diabetes, it is most unlikely that Ward was ever viewed as a long-term proposition by Davy and his backers. This raises some rather disquieting questions about one of the most notorious incidents in New Zealand politics — the £70 million promise. Michael Bassett, in his 1983 monograph Three Party Politics in New Zealand, casts this extraordinary event in terms of a simple faux pas:

Mis-reading his speech notes, Sir Joseph Ward promised at United’s campaign opening in Auckland to borrow abroad £70 million [roughly $9 billion in today’s money] in one year for the purpose of lending it to ‘settlers’ and ‘home builders’ and ‘advancing the prosperity of the Dominion’. Handled astutely by the unscrupulous A.E. Davy . . . Sir Joseph Ward’s campaign riveted attention on this new, non-Labour alternative to the seemingly permanent Reform Government . . .

But wasn’t ‘permanent government’ precisely what the Right had in mind? The outward colour of that government was immaterial to Davy so long as it continued to serve the interests of the rural and commercial elites who paid him, and blocked the socialists’ path to power. This was not the sort of thing one could say out loud, of course, but it is difficult to discern any other objective in the extraordinarily cynical political behaviour of Davy and his allies. Ward may have misread his notes, or he may have innocently delivered the lines Davy had written for him. Obviously the £70 million promise was nonsense — as every person with an ounce of sense immediately realised — but it served Davy’s purposes admirably. As Bassett puts it: ‘Like a cardboard replica of Seddon’s Liberal coalition, it won seats in all sections of the country, principally at Reform’s expense.’

When all the votes had been counted the United Party had won seats, Reform 28 and Labour nineteen, with a further six seats shared between ‘Independent Liberal’ (four) the Country Party (one) and an independent. How Mr McArthur, the Auckland timber merchant, must have beamed with satisfaction. The £1,300 he had paid Davy to ‘organise nationally against the government’ had been exceptionally well spent. With the summoning of Parliament, it swiftly became clear that Coates’ days as Premier were over. Unable to see past Massey’s legacy, Labour joined with United in a motion of no confidence against their traditional Reform opponents, and on Friday 7 December 1928 the ‘socialistic’ government of Gordon Coates fell.

The events of the next four years, viewed from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, are bathed in all the fitful luminescence of decaying black and white fi lm. There are Davy and his parliamentary marionettes

dancing jerkily at the front of the political stage, while behind him, projected upon a giant screen, are the familiar images of the period: the Model-T Fords, the cloche caps, the droll scenes of holidaymakers bathing at the seaside. Long-dead New Zealanders, smiling bravely at the whirring camera. Then, very slowly, as the 1920s draw to a close, the mood changes, becomes sombre — almost threatening. We see Ward, his wheelchair swathed in a blanket, recording a ‘talkie’ from his garden adjoining the Heretaunga Golf Course in January 1930. And there he is again, in a hearse, in July of that same year — dead at last after a career spanning 40 years.

The newsreels from America and Europe contain even bleaker scenes: long queues of hungry men looking for work; the streets of European capitals filled with surging crowds, mounted police and hysterical politicians. Back in New Zealand, the government has finally begun to count the unemployed: the numbers fl ash by: 274; 588; 2466; 6000; 23,000; 38,000; 51,000 — onwards and upwards, rising like a great wave above a land grown ominously silent. Mr Davy’s political puppet show grows more manic as the economy spirals downwards into the worst depression in the nation’s history. The ‘permanent government’ ploughs on, the peripatetic Davy swapping sides according to need. There is Ward’s replacement — the red-faced and ponderous George Forbes — shaking hands with Gordon Coates as the Reform Party leader reluctantly assumes responsibility for Public Works in the new United- Reform coalition government. It is now September 1931 — two months before the next general election.

The image of the 1931 election with which New Zealanders are most familiar (although many do not realise it) is of the vast crowd gathered outside the offices of the Evening Post on

election night in anticipation of a Labour victory. It is often assumed that the famous photograph (a sea of upturned hats!) records the Labour landslide of November 1935. But entirely absent from that dispiriting December evening in 1931 is the great surge of hope and relief that will fl ow through the working class communities of New Zealand in four years’ time. To be sure, the ravages of the Depression have boosted the size of Labour’s ‘democratic public’ from a quarter to a third of the dominion’s population, but in rural and provincial centres the new ‘National’ government of Forbes and Coates continues to hold sway. The working men who had come to witness Labour’s red dawn trudged back to their homes with their heads down. Labour had won 33.68 percent of the votes and 25 seats, but the ‘permanent government’ had taken 52 seats and a crushing 58.5 percent of the popular vote.

In The Quest for Security in New Zealand the socialist historian Bill Sutch noted grimly that: ‘The country, having sown the wind, began to reap the whirlwind.’

Copyright Chris Trotter 2007

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