A look at New Zealand between the wars

Michael Joseph Savage, Labour Prime Minister from 1935, carrying furniture into the first state house in New Zealand.
ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY

Michael Joseph Savage, Labour Prime Minister from 1935, carrying furniture into the first state house in New Zealand.

New Zealand Between the Wars, Edited by Rachael Bell, Massey University Press, $45.

What went on in this country between the end of World War I in 1918 and the beginning of World War II in 1939 is finally getting some book-length attention from historians after for so long being tucked away in the likes of chapters, papers and theses.

Last year, there was Malcolm McKinnon's examination of the 1928-1939 period in The Broken Decade and now there is this collection of studies from 12 historians who seek to bring to the interested reader accounts of some of the latest thinking about the not-so-long-ago past in New Zealand.

New Zealand Between the Wars shines a light on a period of our history that's often overlooked.
SUPPLIED

New Zealand Between the Wars shines a light on a period of our history that's often overlooked.

Although dealing with widely differing aspects of the period, the point many of them make is that while great changes and events occurred, or were initiated, there was also a strong underlying current of continuity to be ferreted out that shows how the past shapes the present in which we live.

Take Labour's historic election victory in 1935, for instance, and its groundbreaking Social Security Act of 1938, the year the party was re-elected with an increased majority.

What Labour had offered was better times for the many who were not farmers – and accordingly it was the party that won the election game, for although farmers were the "backbone of the economy", urban voters outnumbered them and flocked to the polls to ensure first, Labour took office, and then stayed there.

A distant echo of the supposed rural-urban divide we heard about during the 2017 election campaign? Perhaps. No doubt the historians will find plenty to analyse in the years to come pertaining to such matters.

But Labour's offerings of a state pension at age 60, plus state-funded unemployment and disability benefits and a wide range of free healthcare services created the framework of a comprehensive welfare state as well as cementing the party's grip on power. That much we know and is re-worked here.

However, there is also a case to be made – as amplified in this volume – for seeing much of what occurred as continuing the expansion of the role of the state that was already so much a distinguishing feature of public affairs in New Zealand.

Indeed, it can be argued that such expansion was a trend begun as long ago as the 1870s and that the role and functions of the state had been on an upward trajectory since.

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But what Labour did, it seems, is make such a path a decisive force in the political and socio-economic landscape of the country that has featured ever since, if not always smoothly – as witness the neo-liberalism doctrine both Labour and National embraced for much of the 1980s and 1990s, when the push for "rolling back the state" was at its ideological zenith.

And to this day debate about the pension, for example, rumbles on, and inane questions to politicians like "would you resign rather than put up the age of eligibility from 65"? recur when what would be more germane to the centre of the discussion is the issue John Key singled out when he noted that while increasing the age might be good economics, it was bad politics.

So, there is much in this work – covering ground as disparate as public education and sport – that demonstrates how the past and present are linked and signals that a person needs to be aware of the fundamentals of one to properly understand the other. For the outlines of the world we live in today are to be found emerging from the shadows of yesterday.

But, as one of the book's chapter headings, "Contradiction and Contestation", suggests, although there is a road through time to be followed, it is a long and winding one, full of potholes and sometimes doubling back on itself.

 - Stuff

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