Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 16. September 8th 1971
National's Wet Weekend
National's Wet Weekend
Did anything at all happen at the 1971 National Party Conference? Already at five weeks distance it seems clouded in obscurity. A weekend of debate, politicking and socializing — all to what avail?
It could have been an historic conference. There was an unprecedented leadership challenge, a presumed indicator of internal dissatisfaction. The agenda contained a number of seemingly liberal remits, close in style to some of the Labour Party Conference. In general, an unusual amount of interest was being shown in what was after all a mid-term conference. The ensuing weekend was an utter letdown; a complete victory for the status-quo. The message emerging from Dunedin was one of self-satisfied complacency.
So what did happen at the National's 1971 Conference?
Friday's official opening, though mainly a formality, had the atmosphere of expectancy. The speeches were predictable — parochial advertising from Dunedin's mayor, and inter—party flattery from the local divisional chairman. Mr Holt (Dominion President) delivered what on paper made a quite inspiring address (someone elses undoubtedly) — but from his lips was lifeless to the point of boredom. His heavy disinterested voice was to dampen most of the later proceedings.
With the stage rearranged, delegates turned to consideration of remits. The atmosphere of excitement continued perhaps until Friday tea. Two fairly mild remits exposed a number of deep-seated attitudes.
One was a request for an enquiry on the law on abortion. (An enquiry mind you, and what could satisfy an inaction-oriented party more?) But out came the strong anti-abortion prejudices and evidence of a positive fear of change. "A wolf in sheep's clothing" was the label one delegate gave the remit. "Pass this and you show the National Party in favour of changing the law," said another. "Too sensitive an issue to be tampered with." And so on. Hardly the talk of a socially concerned party, actively seeking change. The remit passed, but only by a majority of 161 to 141, which in any case hardly presents the government with a mandate for action.
There was also the rather incredible treatment of a remit asking that the People's Republic of China be recognised provided that Nationalist China continue to be recognised. An innocuous remit considering the mutual incompatibility of the countries anyway. In any case, it merely presented a restatement of the government's "two Chinas" policy. The Wellington Young Nationals, who had brought forward the remit attempted to amend it so as to remove the need for a continued recognition of Taiwan which was, needless to say, heavily defeated. A few hints of the underlying anti-Communist prejudice emerged. One speaker rather arrogantly referred to the recovery of good sense in China after the socialist madness of the cultural revolution. But at least shaken feelings produced lively debate.
The incredible outcome was the total rejection of the remit on the grounds that the issue should be left to the good sense of the government. The pleasure that the decision gave Sir Keith up on his platform position was obvious. No wonder he was later to call this a "working conference." If every issue is to be left to the good sense of the government then why bother forwarding remits to conference at all?
The first session took one and a quarter hours to deal with three rather innocuous remits. Hardly impressive progress. So much of the discussion showed an inadequate appreciation of the issues and a tendency to stray from the subject and air prejudices.
Friday evening brought the only real life to the conference, courtesy Tim Shadbolt, followers and a few hundred Otago University Students. The main anti-War mobe ended in front of Robbie Burns' statue in the octagon with a semi-dramatised reading of the Pentagon Papers juxtaposed with official statements. From there to the Town Hall was an easy move. For some strange reason, what Dunedin lavished on the interior of its hall it scrimped on the entrance. Even to find the entrance is a problem. It consists of three ordinary-looking doors opening immediately on to the footpath of a back area of Moray Place, (outer ring of the Octagon). The waiting crowd spilled out over, the road and helped by a natural slope, exerted pressure on the policeman guarding this entrance. Returning delegates were greated with a barrage of insults. Full treatment was unleashed particularly on Sir Keith and the Press had much glee in reporting, he was momentarily forced up against the wall.
Vigorous protest to what purpose? The decision to withdraw troops has been made and it wasn't hastened by the July 30 marches. Sir Keith was reported as saying that he found it all rather boring. The party delegates treated Vietnam as a non-issue and refused to receive a message from the organizers of the mobe. The only effect it seemed to have on the calm complacency of the conference was to bring out occasional disparaging comments about 'dissident minorities' and 'long-haired protestors.' Inside the main hall the shouting of those on the footpath and the distant smell of smoke bombs had an air of unreality.
Not that discussion of remits was any more real. The conference did not seem to have its heart in the task. The only issue to raise any feelings was the proven one of anti-unionism. A resolution calling for enforcement of the Stabilisation of Remuneration Act was passed unanimously, a tribute more to social pressure than undivided concern. The ancient call for abolition of compulsory unionism was again passed and again will be ignored because neither management nor workers want any change.
Discussion of other remits was generally lifeless. Probably the pending leadership vote was a stifling influence. Full conference remits on doctor shortages, housing finance, road safety pollution, the economic state of the Chatham Islands, were discussed without much enthusiasm.
The remit committees passed the expected remits on issues concerning farmers, businessmen and so on. That radical proposal for the free prescription of the contraceptive pill to married and unmarried women met an ignominious end. How it ever emerged from the branch, electorate and divisional structure is an amazement. Its function at Dominion Conference seemed to be light entertainment for a room full of middle-aged ladies who treated it much as a room full of teenage girls would treat a first discussion of sex. The final vote - unanimous rejection, was a further indictment of the proceedings. It was far from clear that the vote was not in fact on a procedural motion. In any case the original supporters had been forced into retirement as figures of amusement.
A serious issue this, one might have thought, but in the environment of a 'working' conference it was unacceptable. The overall effect of remit discussion was to reinforce the status-quo. Not that any more than a polite statement of party thinking, to be acted on if the government thinks it expedient, is expected. Dunedin most certainly failed to produce any new philosophy for the party that two years ago was supposedly moving into the seventies.
The party faithful atmosphere could be sensed most strongly during the addresses of various ministers. This was a Holyoake conference. His Saturday address produced a display of enthusiastic unity. From his opening 'My fellow freedom fighters' (Yes!) through his lavish praise of top ministers to the standing ovation he exuded confidence and complacency. 'Our great National party is the most stable influence in New Zealand at this time' he pontificated. With a prime-minister of such belief how can one expect change anyway? It was all really a very ordinary Holyoake speech complete with resonant overemphasis of figures and anti-Labour rallying cries - this time the Stabilisation of Remuneration Act. (a new clarion call to replace the worn-out Black Budget?) The delegates lapped it up. It was the speech of a leader secure in his post and ready to contest the 1972 election that fifth in a row that was mentioned like some monotonous theme.
The Saturday night address was heralded as the highlight of the conference - a sad reflection on the other events.
The same over enthusiastic reception greeted Mr Muldoon on Monday. Into the atmosphere on anti-union prejudice he cynically blew his latest trumpet and to maximum effect. Starting with a dull description of the state of the economy he launched into a tirade against the disruptive Communish elements allegedly within the Trade Union movement. Nothing could have been more calculated to delight his party. Simplistic statements like 'We're going to deal with industrial unrest' and 'We can beat the Labour party and will' brought delegates out cheering wildly. The final political cynicism of his speech 'We have but one leader and he is Sir Keith Holyoake' had delegates applauding and clamouring for more. It was a disgusting display of opportunism and depressing witness to party gullibility. Little matter that he produced virtually no elaboration of his assertion, they cheered him all the same.
Other ministerial speeches came from Mr Allen, whose outline of all the ministers concerned with the environment only served to emphasize the need for a single controlling force; Mr Talboys, who gave a fairly sympathetic account of the needs of the universities; and Mr Marshall, who gave a low key account (not surprisingly in view of the leadership struggle rumours) of his Overseas Trade and Labour portfolios.
Sunday, for senior delegates was a day for socializing, and presumably lobbying for the Monday election. Sunday was also the day for the Young National's national conference, held unbelievably behind doors closed to the press. (I was allowed in to listen, but not report, not that the proceedings were worth reporting anyway) If the Young Nationals wish to establish themselves as a creditable political force they will have to show considerably more vigour than they did at Dunedin. From an afternoon's talk only three rather innocuous political remits emerged. Sample: a call for a commission into the cause of violence in cities - yes, another commission. If you thought the government was already commission happy then its party is worse. Soon there will be a shortage of suitable people to sit on all these commissions. Four remits were still untouched at 5.30, and rather than miss some of their teatime socializing, the Young National's decided to refer these back to the divisions. Which is tantamount to shelving them.
Hardly the fruits of a politically aware and active organisation. If the main National Party fears to rock the governmental boat, then the Young National's seem to go one worse in not wanting to even disturb the main party. So at Sunday night's function, Sir Keith praised his Young Nationals for their emotion backed with logic. (as opposed to the emotion of those unwashed longhairs on the streets).
That evening function produced the nadir of the conference. A panel of four party members, including Mr Thompson, wasted an hour giving banal answers to questions on topics such as protest, dringing licences, population maximum, the Treaty of Waitangi, and probably others. The atmosphere was stifling with party-faithful intolerance. The new Chairman of the Young Nationals drew some rumblings from the back when he dared even to suggest that the July 30 protest had attracted a sizeable following. To see him back-peddle and qualify his rashness was not exactly edifying.
Sir Keith himself deigned to utter a few platitutdes for the credulous gathering and proceeded to give a description of the Vietnam war that leant largely on the discredited domino theory.
If the Young Nationals deserved no credit for their afternoon performance they deserved even less for arranging this entertainment.
The lifelessness of proceedings on Friday and Saturday could perhaps be excused in the light of the historic leadership challenge. For weeks before the conference, political commentators had been assessing the motives and chances of Mr Chapman. Here was a confrontation between the Hawkes Bay farmer and an Upper Hutt accountant - a progressive - conservative split, or rural urban? The frustration that must have initiated the challenge could be appreciated after hearing Mr Holt's address and seeing the heavy and dispirited manner in which he controlled full conference. Mr Chapman, by way of contrast, brought humour and subtlety into his chairmanship of one of the remit committees. The loss of Marlborough had first jolted National's sense of security and there was probably a feeling that next time they would be out of office if tactics were not modernized.
Friday and Saturday had this issue hanging over them. Certainly the main hall on Monday moring had a tenseness about it. This was undoubtedly the testing point of the conference the historic moment of utter anticlimax.
In fact of course inertia won. The party delegates, lulled into a slumber by the harmoney of self-congratulation of the previous few days were not ready to acknowledge the need for change. What the margin for voting was cannot be known. So National maintained an air of solidarity and 'we're all right'. And the conference subsided into irrelevance. That weekend in Dunedin might have refreshed and enthused more susceptible party members. To the general public, it deservedly passed unnoticed. On New Zealand politics it will have left not a trace.
For the National party, the only hope of change would seem to be a resounding defeat at next year's election.