From Sugarbags to Foodbanks

Written By: - Date published: 11:00 am, October 31st, 2012 - 60 comments
Categories: activism, class war, democratic participation, history, poverty, socialism, vision - Tags:

Sugarbags have become a symbol of the DIY response to unemployment in the 1930s Depression.  Foodbanks are now a symbol of the struggle to get by on low incomes in a consumer society.

Lately there have been claims that Labour should return to core values – those forged in the desperate times of the 1930s, and that triumphed with the first 1935 Labour government.  But exactly what are those core values, and when did Labour part company with them? During the Clark years of neoliberal compromise when they abandoned the Waitakere Man?  During the shameful days of Rogernomics?   When the hippy generation gave rise to the individualismof “identity politics”?

Tony Simpson, author of The Sugarbag Years (1973, 1984) claims that Labour had already lost touch with its founding ideals in the 1940s.  In The Sugarbag Years he attempts to make sense of the “communal trauma” of the Depression. It had impacted strongly on the life of his father: a man who had a very hard life, working on risky jobs in mill and mine.  Simpson’s father was a union deelegate, an had hoped for a better life for his son.  He always voted Labour, even though he became dispirited and very disillusioned with the party.

30s unemployment exploded at a time when there were no adequate welfare provisions.  Working people’s lives had been based on the expectation of hard work and available employment.  Out of this trauma came a belief in shared solutions.  The 1935 Labour government ended the grey horror, of men in relief camps, wearing clothes that never dried. According to the Auckland Weekly News, some men worked all day widening drains, standing in water sometimes waist deep: they bathed in drains and washed in horse troughs (Simpson, 1984). After internal struggles, which included the expulsion of John A Lee and the gradual erosion of “creative and adventurous spirits”, the labour movement was carved up between Peter Fraser (PM 1940-9) and Fintan Patrick Walsh: an authoritarian shift in desperate times.

Simpson claims it was really WWII that ended male unemployment. After that, shell-shocked returned servicemen were unable to revive the labour movement spirit before the National Party took power in 1949 (see also The Listener, December 2005)

The Sweating Crusade 1892         

While there are some similarities with the current GFC, the 30s were different times: men were expected to be the breadwinners, and women dependent on them; the labour movement was strongly dominated by white men.  Single women were employed, but many low-income women endured indentured domestic servitude or sweatshop conditions. They were largely marginalised by the Union movement.  In the Depression years, women were required to pay unemployment tax, but could not get state unemployment benefits.

Rather than a return to a reactive version of “old labour” authoritarian welfarism, the ‘left’ (Labour, The Greens and/or Mana) needs to forge ones relevant to the 21st century: values that embrace democratic collectivism, diversity, inclusiveness, sustainbility, a steady state economy, a good quality of life for all, protection of workers’ rights (whether the work is paid or unpaid), free educaton and health care, a living income for all, and much more.

Above all, these values should be grounded in enduring democratic systems, forged through active, grass-roots participation.

 

60 comments on “From Sugarbags to Foodbanks”

  1. js 1

    2013 marks 75 years since the 1938 Social Security Act which is considered the start of the ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state – an achievement in which NZ was among the world leaders. Next year would be a great opportunity to focus on reclaiming those values.

    • karol 1.1

      Now, that’s an interesting suggestion, js.  I’m all for those provisions intitiated by the 1935 & 38 labour governments.
       
      My main concern is that, there needs to be safe-guards to ensure that left wing parties continue to address the concerns of the people they represent.  It has taken less than 75 years for the system to unravel.
       
      People like Peter Fraser were well into participant democratic socialism at first.  Then when in power, in response to the Depression and WWWII, became increasingly authoritarian.  It did result in many great welfare provisions – but it hasn’t been sustained. 
       
      And now we have a Labour Party whose leaders treat the MSM as their main constituency, and over-ride the wishes of it’s members.
       
      How does a left wing party protect itself against such a corruption of its ideals and values?  And how does it continue to adapt to changing circumstances, and improve its inclusiveness?

      • Dr Terry 1.1.1

        Karol, a very good history here. I remember how indebted to Savage my parents were (yes, I am that old – a “depression baby”)!

        Words from Savage: “Let people govern themselves. Give them a fair deal to stop them going ‘bankrupt amidst plenty'”
        “I have implicit faith in the power of governments to improve the quality of people’s lives.”
        (But) “the optimism of the idealogues was constantly challenged by the greed of man” (people like capitalists).
        Historian Keith Sinclair wrote: “the 1938 Social Security Act was the greatest political achievement . . . in the country’s history.” (Agreed, undone with advent of Peter Fraser).

        There is much more from the much loved Savage. Naturally, things would have to be updated for the present day.

        • js 1.1.1.1

          Peter Fraser was one of the major players behind the 1938 Act, and may have been Minister of Health at the time. There was a huge battle with doctors who wanted to keep their ability to charge patients as much as they wanted.

          • js 1.1.1.1.1

            Peter Fraser was the main force behind the 1938 Act as savage was really ill by then http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Fraser_(New_Zealand_politician)

            • Colonial Viper 1.1.1.1.1.1

              Yes he was but many of the policies were founded on the detailed work done by the Kurow Three: Davidson, Macmillan and Nordemeyer.

              The dentists successfully fought off Labour’s wish that they also be included in the public healthcare system.

          • karol 1.1.1.1.2

            I think Fraser did some very good things.  But his manner of doing them was a problem, as far as I can see.  And eventually, his authoritarian approach led to the decline of the Labour Party for a long post war period: National in power from 49-57, then 60-69.  Labour’s periods in government were relatively short-lived compared with National.
             
            The problem with an authoritarian approach to government, is that it doesn’t enable the party to continually refresh itself with new blood always coming through.  It also risks losing touch with the people they represent.

            • Hilary 1.1.1.1.2.1

              What evidence have you got for Fraser’s ‘authoritarian approach’? It could be argued that he managed to keep Labour in power as long as it lasted – especially those last years when it was basically a coalition with the Maori MPs.

              • karol

                What evidence have you got for Fraser’s ‘authoritarian approach’?
                 
                Like the Labour Party and its leaders today, there are different views on this.  But it is indicated in the Te Ara article on Fraser that I linked to in my post.  It says this for instance:
                 

                He could be devious in action, intolerant of opposition, ruthless in maintaining his authority.

                 
                And he increasingly was seen as pushing through policies that were unpopular with unions and others who felt he had moved away from Labour’s original values.  The article says this:
                 

                Overall, however, the government seemed unable to do more than administer the welfare structure already in place. At the same time they faced a vigorous parliamentary opposition and bitter attacks from dissident groups among some of the trade unions, notably the watersiders. Fraser came to rely for support on the party machine and F. P. Walsh’s leadership of the right-wing unions represented by the New Zealand Federation of Labour. The price he paid was increasing isolation, the discouragement of young members and new ideas, and dwindling popular support for the party.

                 
                Others are more positive about Fraser’s strong leadership, seeing it as something NZ needed at the time, especially during WWII.  But even someone like Michael Bassett (in the fairly old book, now: Peter Fraser: Master Politician), makes him sound authoritarian to me. 
                 
                Bassett makes it seem like he’s using the TINA argument of its day.  i.e saying the government couldn’t afford the welfare provisions people wanted, and that he had to keep wages and subsidies under control. 
                 
                He also brought in some laws to restrict the unions.  And 2 years after the Fraser government ended, there was the 1951 waterside union strike.  I think it was on Fraser’s watch that popular opinion started to turn against the unions.  in my view, he probably had a role in that, by compromising with the anti-union people.
                 
                 

                • Colonial Viper

                  Fraser was also pretty uncompromising towards anyone who was considered a conscientious objector or anti-war activist during World War II. A lot of peoples lives were ruined unnecessarily due to that.

      • Draco T Bastard 1.1.2

        How does a left wing party protect itself against such a corruption of its ideals and values?

        By being democratic and by that I mean having the party members suggesting and deciding policies with the party administration then researching those policies. The research then made available to the members so that changes can be discussed.

        • Bill 1.1.2.1

          Or ‘somebody’ might argue that ….

          It’s past the time when the parliamentary left should have faced up to the fact that strategies that focus on empowering the state are ‘dead as dead ducks can be’. And it’s past the time for the parliamentary left to use what time it might have in power to invest in a genuinely empowering and resurgent left through enacting policies that devolve power and decision making to ordinary people in their daily lives as citizens and workers.

          The Only Vision….Left.

  2. freedom 2

    two simple steps to reclaiming the lost values that build a strong community

    1: be willing to help strangers,
    2: see 1

  3. ianmac 3

    I might be going bonkers but I was sure that the incoming Labour Government of 1935 gave 5 pounds to every family (worker?) which kick started the economy.
    I cannot find any reference to that but as a foil to Austerity it would have been relevant today. I must have been dreamin’.

    • karol 3.1

      In 1935 the Savage government, gave a Xmas bonus:

      The depression of the late 20’s and early 30’s marked Savage by the suffering he saw, and due to his canvassing efforts Labour came to power in 1935. Michael Savage, or “Mickey” as he became affectionately known, was now New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister. Immediately, a Christmas bonus was paid to the unemployed and poor, and a programme of state housing commenced.

      • Colonial Viper 3.1.1

        And at least some of that money was printed by the NZ Government, much to the annoyance of the Bank of England.

        The Savage Government also found monies to build 33,000 state houses in the middle of a deep economic depression.

        So when politicians today say that there isn’t money for this or for that social good, you know that they are either totally ignorant, completely maladvised, or just lying through their teeth.

        • Rogue Trooper 3.1.1.1

          and the show just keeps rolling along like some machine from Caligula

        • Gosman 3.1.1.2

          I think you miss the point in some of the links provided in the post here that NZ wasn’t in the MIDDLE of a massive depression but was recovering from it. Much easier to spend money when the economy is improving rather than doing so when it has none.

    • Sanctuary 3.2

      Labour won the general election of November 27th 1935 and within four weeks had issued a Christmas bonus of one weeks pay to the unemployed. Imagine the wailing and nashing of teeth of the mike Hoskings and the rest of the hate radio shock jocks if that were to happen today!

      The thing that that impresses me most though was the speed they moved to over-turn the do-nothing laissez-faire approach of the previous governments and enact their socialist agenda.

      Check out this legislative blitzkrieg in 1936 alone:
      -Enacted compulsory trade unionism.
      -A Factories Act amendment introduced a 40-hour, five-day working week, with eight public holidays.
      -Relief jobs were abolished and in 1936 (and 1937).
      -Sustenance rates of pay were increased by amounts of up to 100%
      -The Arbitration Court’s compulsory powers were restored
      -The Agricultural Workers Act
      -The Shops and Officers Amendment Act specified a maximum workweek of forty-four hours
      -The Industrial Efficiency Bill gave the government wide powers to regulate industries.
      -A large public works programme was initiated to provide employment on full wages instead of relief.
      -The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act (1936) restored full jurisdiction to the Arbitration Court.
      -Compulsory arbitration was restored.[
      -The government graduated the wages of young people so that year by year their rate of pay automatically increased until it reached a minimum standard wage when they reached the age of 21.
      -Relief workers were granted award wages.
      -The Court of Arbitration was required in 1936 to lay down in its awards and agreements a basic wage sufficient to keep a man, his wife and three children “in a fair and reasonable standard of comfort”.
      -A Profiteering Prevention Act
      -The Minister of Mines was empowered to establish central rescue stations in mines.
      -Improved rates of compensation were introduced for injured workers.
      -Penal rates of pay were introduced for weekend work and overtime.
      -Compensation was increased for the dependents of deceased workers.
      -The Finance Act required the reversal of all cuts made in wages and salaries during the Depression period.
      -The Reserve Bank of New Zealand was immediately nationalised.
      -The State Advances Corporation was set up.
      -A Bureau of industry was established.

      etc etc

      And the pace barely slackened through to 1940 – including the landmark Social Security Act on which Labour campainged in 1938 and won a huge mandate to implement.

      The point of quoting all that is Labour really has little excuse to not being able to reverse the entire neo-liberal, 1984-2000 project in less than nine months if it wished and to point out a blitzkrieg is as possible from the left as it is from the right. The difference of course between the traitors Douglas and Prebble and the likes of Savage and Nash is Savage never lied to the electorate, they knew exactly what sort of revolution he had mind when they elected Labour in 1935 because it was all in the Labour manifesto.

      • Wayne 3.2.1

        Reverse the entire 1984 – 2010 “neoliberal” period? So that would mean:
        1. Rigid currency controls
        2. Renationalise Telecoms, BNZ, State Insurance, THC, Forests, Glenbook steel mill, the rest of Air NZ, Auckland Airport, etc
        3. Compulsory Unionism,
        4. 60% tax rates, cutting in at twice the average wage,
        5. Import licensing for just about everything.

        The reason all this was abandoned is because it drove the country into the 1984 crisis, when we were on the verge of being bailed out by the IMF.

        No; a reimagined Labour Party will need to look forward , not back.

        • Draco T Bastard 3.2.1.1

          Did you, perhaps, notice the failing economic system that we have at the moment? You know, the one caused by the policies that were initiated in 1984 and which this government are continuing with?

        • freedom 3.2.1.2

          jeeez wayne, talk about riding with blinders on. By the 1980’s, decades of positive social growth showed wealth was being shared more widely than ever before and the burgeoning middle class had begun to use their wealth to educate their children, who in turn were beginning to demand more equitable and socially responsible dogmas for their world. They demanded such radical ideas as one person one vote, same job same pay and had the gall to publicly present the dastardly concept that peace might be more popular than war. This unacceptable situation led directly to the false flag wailing from the IMF. The Central Bank Cartels in turn demanded they hasten the mercenary takeover of Democracy via public service privatization and trillions of dollars in credit traps were delivered. Short fused and primed for massive collateral damage without overtly damaging the infrastructure that generated the profits they fed upon, the weapons were released onto an unsuspecting populace.

          Simply put, the greed is good parasites saw the work order, licked their lips and promptly hijacked Governments around the planet.

          Thirty years later the husk of Society lies desiccated and broken.
          Inequity is greater than ever before and empathy has been euthanased so as to save it further suffering.

          • Gosman 3.2.1.2.1

            Yes, how could we forget. Everything was sweetness and light prior to 1984.

            • Colonial Viper 3.2.1.2.1.1

              What, as opposed to 25% youth unemployment?

              • Gosman

                Yes, amazing what abolishing youth wages leads to.

                • McFlock

                  This would be the theory that youth unemployment is either unaffected, or at most affected to the same degree as the unemployment levels of adults, in a GFC. Treasury followed by Crampton, if I recall correctly.
                           
                  Which is about as retarded as economists can get. 

                  • Colonial Viper

                    Gossie also forgets that there is no demand for labour in the market place and masses of excess supply.

                    And that by making youth labour cheaper, adult labour simply gets even more insecure and precarious (oh the secret plan revealed!).

          • Draco T Bastard 3.2.1.2.2

            +1

        • bbfloyd 3.2.1.3

          Wayne(k)…. That’s an impressive set of assumptions there young feller….Do you have the list alphebatized? Or do you just pick them at random off the page??

          Although you do us a favor by reminding us of just how backward, and shallow the politics of the tory “heartlands” are…. sometimes we make the mistake of assuming too much intelligence to people who are afraid of anyone from out of town….

          • Wayne 3.2.1.3.1

            Really just the things that have stuck in my mind of the level of regulation and control of the NZ economy prior to 1984. I am sure most would agree these were the big things. One could add wage and price control, no trucking over 150 k distance, no private TV, all sorts of subsidies. There are many others. It was not tenable after the oil shocks and when the UK joined the EU. And probably depressed our growth rates right through the 1950’s and 1960’s.

            In case you have forgotten there was a huge desire by 1984 across the board to free up the economy – too many people (left and right) had travelled overseas and seen more open economies with more choice and more freedom.

            Anyway I thought the mission of Helen Clark was to provide some balance after the reforms of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

            Going futher than her does not make sense. That is why I said the answer is not looking to the past, but for new solutions for the future.

            In that regard I would want to see a much more fully articulated view on Innovation. The Nordics, Israel and Singapore have all done better than us on that score. Actually, this is not even a left/right view of the world. But it is an opportunity, which New Zealand has yet to fully realise..

            • lprent 3.2.1.3.1.1

              In that regard I would want to see a much more fully articulated view on Innovation. The Nordics, Israel and Singapore have all done better than us on that score. Actually, this is not even a left/right view of the world. But it is an opportunity, which New Zealand has yet to fully realise..

              I’d agree – of course I’m kind of biased having worked almost exclusively in export based tech across a number of companies in the past few decades. Needs a capital gains tax more than anything else so almost all of the available capital doesn’t get sucked into the ‘riskfree’ tax haven of real estate speculation. Many of our innovators eventually follow the capital and export themselves to where they can find it.

              Getting rid of the NZSX would probably help as well – a complete waste of time for raising capital.

      • ianmac 3.2.2

        Thanks for that karol and Sanctuary. I guess it could not have been 5 pounds but maybe 5 shillings? I do remember reading that the injection of the bonus was credited by some with kick-starting the Depression economy.
        It seemed to me that it was the opposite to the austerity policy of our current Government but what do I know about economics!

        And a pretty impressive legislative program in 1936 Sanctuary. Must have had a big team of planners and researchers and legal folk to process all that.

        • Sanctuary 3.2.2.1

          “…Must have had a big team of planners and researchers and legal folk to process all that…”

          I think Barry Gustafson tells a good story in his biography of Savage about Bob Semple when the 1935 government was elected. When Semple arrived for his first day in the new public works office he was greeted by a team of treasury officials brandishing memoes, charts and graphs showing how labour’s program was unaffordable, impractical, and could only be funded by printing money with disasterous consequences for inflation etc etc etc. Semple patiently heard them out then said “well boys. you’d better fire up the printing presses because we start on Monday”.

          • Draco T Bastard 3.2.2.1.1

            Semple patiently heard them out then said “well boys. you’d better fire up the printing presses because we start on Monday”.

            That was nice of him. Not sure if I’d have the patience to listen to them at all as the policies that they advocate are the problem.

      • Gosman 3.2.3

        That would be absolutely delicious from a right wing perspective if any left wing party attempted to reverse all the changes made since 1984. I can imagine the political adverts now. People having to wait weeks to get phones connected. Businesses having to lobby Government to get permission to import critical capital items from overseas. People being denied the right to buy better quality products at lower prices because we must ‘protect’ the right to reassemble the items here. Auckland suffering under the burecratic weight of Wellington. It would be simply too good a target to miss.

        • Colonial Viper 3.2.3.1

          Gosman has gone stupid here

          He thinks that “reversing neoliberalism” = going back to 1984, banning modern technology after the IBM AT and disallowing Thai takeaways (since there weren’t any in 1984)…

          Stupid is as stupid does

          😈

          • McFlock 3.2.3.1.1

            +1

          • PlanetOrphan 3.2.3.1.2

            Delusional at best M8!

            Like every half wit,
            GosMan thinks tearing everything down and starting again is what everyone does.

            It’s called change aye GosMan!.

            And don’t go putting words in my mouth either pilick

          • bbfloyd 3.2.3.1.3

            Sounds like gossamers over”fortified” himself again….. He needs to read the instructions on the bottle properly….

          • Monique Watson 3.2.3.1.4

            Four words: Fourth Labour Government & Rogernomics.
            So can you admit now that a left wing party was responsible for the introduction of Neoliberalism into NZ?

            • thatguynz 3.2.3.1.4.1

              Has anyone here ever denied it?

              • QoT

                Yeah, I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone, left or right, try to deny that one …

              • Draco T Bastard

                Well, sometimes Labour does seem to want to sweep it under the rug. They have a tendency to say bad things about the 4th National government while seemingly ignoring the 4th Labour governments actions in bringing about the 4th National government.

                • QoT

                  Well I suppose that’s true. But it’s hardly like CV’s ever gone on some epic commenting rampage of Labour-neolib denialism, so fuck knows what Monique was talking about.

            • Colonial Viper 3.2.3.1.4.2

              So can you admit now that a left wing party was taken over for the introduction of Neoliberalism into NZ?

              FIFY

              btw the neoliberals have not relinquished control of Labour yet.

          • fatty 3.2.3.1.5

            It the same old TINA ideology with blinkers on…
            capitalism = USA’s 1% in 1998
            any other system = a USSR winter in 1960

        • RedLogix 3.2.3.2

          People having to wait weeks to get phones connected.

          Typical goosie drivel. This was a consequence of the Post Office using the technology of the day which was essentially hard-wired. Additions and alterations were inherently time consuming. Muldoon’s government simply dodged the issue of upgrading (and to be fair it would have probably been pre-mature to do so anyhow) … so it fell to the Labour/ACT govt of the 1980’s to fund the upgrade to new technology.

          Instead the bastards used this as a weasel excuse to sell it off.

          The improvement in services that came after was simply the result of the technology wave that swept the telecomms world in the 80’s … regardless of public or private ownership.

          • Draco T Bastard 3.2.3.2.1

            …so it fell to the Labour/ACT govt of the 1980′s to fund the upgrade to new technology.

            They didn’t do that either. Even prior to the breakup of NZ Post Telecom was self-sufficient with digital exchanges being installed. The plan was to have all manual and step-by-step exchanges replaced by 1996 (this was actually completed in 1999 IIRC).

            The improvement in services that came after was simply the result of the technology wave that swept the telecomms world in the 80′s … regardless of public or private ownership.

            QFT

            and the fact is that if Telecom had remained in public ownership we would already have most cities with fibre to the home and rural sectors with ADSL if not fibre. I figure we’re between 5 and ten years behind where we would have been if Telecom hadn’t been sold and we certainly wouldn’t be giving the profiteers another $1.5b of taxpayer subsidy.

          • Wayne 3.2.3.2.2

            Not many publicly owned Telecoms left. There is a good reason; they are no longer monopolies. Imagine if you did not have choice for Mobile or Internet. It is the private ownership that provides choice.

            • Colonial Viper 3.2.3.2.2.1

              Idiot. The choice you are talking about is whether or not you want to be stabbed and mugged or shot and mugged.

              Instead, have a highly efficient single non-duplicated backbone running throughout the country, paid for and owned by the Government.

              Private providers can rent space off it to provide individual offerings to the market

              Plenty of choice

            • fatty 3.2.3.2.2.2

              The only choice we have is to which rich overseas prick do we chose to give our money to for an average service. But that’s neoliberal choice for you, that’s all that ‘choice’ really means.
              Unless you have different companies hooking you up to different internets?…is that the choice you mean Wayne? Are you on a different internet?

  4. Descendant Of Smith 4

    Still don’t know where Labour stand on 8 hour working day, 40 hour working week, the right to strike, raising taxes, etc.

    Technically I guess I do know – they don’t stand for any of those things.

    Noticed this new link on the MSD website that fits with this topic and a few other mentions in other posts.

    Puports to be a history of the state agencies responsible for welfare. I’ll get round to reading it at some stage – it’s there in pdf so I can drop it onto an ipad for browsing now and then.

    I’ll be interested how much of it involved discussions with advocacy groups (which in my view as being part of that in the 80’s) played a big part in opening up and challenging DSW at the time to pay people what they were entitled to (advances to the unemployed for instance only happened because an advocate took the issue to court, the passing of the OIA allowed advocates to get hold of policy manuals so they knew what staff guidelines were and could hold the department accountable, etc), how much it covers the change (both good and bad) and excesses of the George Hicton years at both NZES and NZISS (I’ve always found it odd that Chritine Rankin gets maligned for that when it was really Hicton but his media machine is obviously much better), whether it’s a Wellington perspective and whether any staff or regional perspective is included and lastly and importantly whether any client perspective is included.

    What’s missing may be as telling as what is there.

    http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/about-msd/history/social-developments-book.html

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