Happy Birthday Labour – this is your life

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So, you’ve done it. Against all the odds, the struggles, heartache and pessimists talking you down, you’ve actually made it. You’re one hundred. By many accounts, you should probably be dead. But you aren’t, so let’s celebrate.

You join a fleet of global political parties in the one hundred club. In fact, the company is great here, and would appear to minimise the significance of your milestone – the UK Labour Party, Australian Labor, the British Tories, the Canadian Liberal Party… and nearing two hundred now are the US Democrats, and the hopelessly withering ‘Grand Old’ Republican Party. You’re in great company. Oh the stories these old parties have to tell.

There is no shame in being old. In fact, the good news is the oldest political parties around the world are generally successful above the newer minor parties, and despite critical pessimism most have reformed to fit modern climates and changing public moods as they come and go. So as you sit there, watching the younger, cooler and sexier parties go by, just remember – by all odds you’ll be the one to out-live the lot.

After all, look at all the parties you’ve already seen go in your time; the Liberal Party, Reform, Social Credit, the Alliance and the Progressives – the list goes on. They’ve all had their hay day. They’ve all had their moment in the spot light. Now they’re gone, and you sit in opposition, poll numbers teetering below 30, and the difficulty of facing a third term Prime Minister and a vocal, powerful and resurgent new opposition in New Zealand First and the Greens.

But, like a tattoo, the heart you wear on your sleeve cannot be erased. It’s a stamp of pride. What you’ve achieved in one hundred years is remarkable. The life changing policies made by New Zealanders, for New Zealanders; economics, social policy, civics, international and environmental – there’s barely a part of New Zealand that isn’t touched by one hundred years of Labour doing the hard yards in government – and in opposition too.

Every life, on every street, in every Kiwi town benefits from at least one decision Labour has made over its 100 years.


One hundred years ago a new political party was formed on the rugged coastline of the West Coast. One hundred years ago, Harry Holland led a group of men who were fed up with their working conditions, their housing, and thee outlook for their families and began the fight for something better. One hundred years ago, a young man, who would become New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister years later and lift a struggling country from its knees, put a pen to paper and joined New Zealand’s newest political party.

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By the end of Labour’s first term in government the world’s finest welfare state had been established, with New Zealand becoming one of the only countries in the world to offer completely free and universal healthcare coverage – saving lives and protecting families. State housing ensured all New Zealanders had a place to go home to, and children had a place to be safe in. Workers’ rights were improved, hours cut to workable levels and union membership made compulsory. The architects of this welfare state; the legendary, the iconic, ‘everybody’s uncle’ Michael Joseph Savage (1935-40) and his successor, Labour’s longest serving Prime Minister Peter Fraser (1940-9).

Compulsory unionism, the introduction of the 40 hour day and a five day week, the nationalisation of the Bank of New Zealand and universal superannuation were just some of the notable achievements of the First Labour government.

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The second Labour government, led to power by veteran Hutt MP Walter Nash, introduced a budget which was well ahead of its time. Proposed increases on petrol and tobacco were progressive in their intention and ultimately assisted the government’s premature downfall, making the Nash government New Zealand’s first one-hit wonder government (1957-60). The second Labour government, however, can boast such achievements as New Zealand’s first female member of cabinet, a 50% increase in support payments to families and the introduction of television and the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC).

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The third Labour government, led by Norman ‘Big Norm’ Kirk, restored Labour to its former glory following twelve years of conservative rule in 1972. On a wave of optimism and popularity, Kirk declared on parliament’s first sitting since his 1972 election victory over Jack Marshall’s National government that Labour was going to govern “for the next forty years”. And who could reasonably doubt him? Norman Kirk was a larger than life character with a strong working class background, and an undeniable Kiwi allure which put him in good standing with the ‘common man’. His government rose to power promising to be the voice of the working class, the poor, the elderly, the young and the disabled. The people to whom twelve years of conservative government has been most harsh. The ‘forty year’ government was to be cut to a tragic three following the death of Kirk in 1974. Rowling, Kirk’s successor, failed to capture the same inspiration as Kirk and ultimately failed to carry a parliamentary majority in 1975 – although, as opposition leader in 1978, Rowling’s Labour Party, despite losing government, won more votes than Muldoon’s governing National Party. Rowling is remembered as being New Zealand’s first openly pro-choice Prime Minister.

In just three years, the third Labour government lowered income taxes for working families, increased spending on health and education, introduced Waitangi Day as a national holiday and the introduction of the Christmas Bonus for the elderly and the DPB benefit for single parents were changing lives.

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By 1984 the economic landscape of New Zealand has changed considerably. Muldoon had mastered one of the most tightly controlled economies in the world, with his headline ‘think big’ projects tanking and the national debt soaring.

One political scientist describes the economic changes the Lange-Palmer-Moore persued over just six years in government. Six years that would forever change the direction of New Zealand’s economy, social life and democracy.

“New Zealand underwent radical economic reform, moving from what had probably been the most protected, regulated and state-dominated system of any capitalist democracy to an extreme position at the open, competitive, free-market end of the spectrum.”

Collectively known as ‘Rogernomics’ (after then finance minister Roger Douglas), the economic changes included the floating of the New Zealand dollar, the removal of farming subsidies, the introduction of GST, corporatisation of state-owned assets and giving autonomy to the Reserve Bank. The changes caused a everlasting rift in the party and led way to the creation of ACT New Zealand, the unwanted birth child of the Labour movement, where neoliberal members of the party vacated to following the eventual resignation of Douglas.

Socially the government offers some pride to modern day progressives. David Lange, off the back of his infamous “uranium” oxford union debate speech declared New Zealand as a nuclear-free nation, despite avid protest from the United States. Additionally the government legalised sex between consenting males over the age of 16 through the Homosexual Law Reform Act of 1986, legislated to make rape in marriage a criminal offense and abolished the death penalty. A liberal government inside and out, socially and economically, the 1980s were a defining moment for the Labour Party and the direction of the party. Following its heavy loss in 1990, party morale plummeted as polls showed the party allegedly fading away into the history records.

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The rest, as they say, is history. The Clark government through 1999 to 2008 brought Labour back to its founding roots and values, whilst adapting to the technological revolution and a forever changing economy.

Where Labour will land itself next, in what form, and whether or not it will find itself in government again remain to be confidently concluded. But it has something in its sails most parties can’t claim. A long, long (100 year) history, and countless features of New Zealand’s economic, social and democratic life that it can point to and call its achievements.

 Bennett Morgan

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