Wellington: 30 years proudly nuclear-free

Helene Ritchie looks back on the day Wellington City declared itself a nuclear-weapon-free zone with a satisfied smile on her face.

Her council motion, which passed by 10 votes to nine on April 14, 1982, was, as the count suggests, not easily achieved.

The Labour faction she led at the time was behind her but Sir Michael Fowler, then the mayor, was not, and he had a relatively loyal band of followers in the Citizens caucus, which held the balance of power on the council.

In the end, Ms Ritchie needed support from at least two Citizens caucus members to win the day, and that is exactly what she got when councillors David Bull and Betty Campbell effectively crossed the floor.

"Both had a welcome presence of mind, even though they were part of the Citizens team, which, I believe, was block-voting back then," Ms Ritchie recalls. "Michael Fowler was absolutely ropeable. He just couldn't accept what they had done."

It appeared Sir Michael had misjudged the city's, and indeed the nation's, mood when it came to nuclear ships and weapons.

Wellington became a benchmark for others.

By the end of 1984, 40 local authorities had nuclear-free policies and by 1988, 72 per cent of the population was living in 105 locally declared nuclear-weapon-free zones.

"The declaration had repercussions way beyond anything I anticipated at the time," Ms Ritchie says. "I'm pleased that it has stood the test of time. To have it stop at Wellington would have been insufficient."

To even be able to put such a motion before council was a privilege, Ms Ritchie says; in today's climate of local government being told to keep their nose out of non-essential matters, it probably would not have happened.

"It was in the days when we could actually do this sort of thing politically, which was great. We could move a motion that was not related to rubbish, rates or drains. Not even related to the agenda. Now, you can't do that."

Thirty years later, Sir Michael still believes the anti-nuclear debate was more about political grandstanding. "It just seemed that the people who were always against everything were against that. They jumped on the bandwagon and had a good time, and were quite successful."

The former mayor still believes our ties with the US were not worth severing over the anti-nuclear issue. But he concedes every government since has made the policy work.

"Looking back on it, I think there were some very good, sensible and informed intellectual people [involved] who were probably right ... and good on 'em."


Musicians Don McGlashan, Warren Maxwell and Anika Moa will headline a free concert in Civic Square from 10.30am today to commemorate 30 years since Wellington became a nuclear-weapon-free city.

The family-friendly event will also feature children's activities, community stalls and brief speeches from key figures involved in the historic movement.

There will be food and drink vendors, community information stalls and a special activity area for children where they can make their own peace badge, flags and various other mementoes.

A mayoral reception will also be held in the Wellington City Council chambers from midday for invited guests, diplomats and participants in the Nuclear-Weapon-Free movement.

The Dominion Post