The New Zealand Legion

Page 3 – The desire to 'do something'

The New Zealand Legion was much more than a conservative protest against the coalition government. It was the focal point for a wide range of individuals, overwhelmingly from the conservative side of the political spectrum, who desired to ‘do something’ to fight the worsening economic conditions.

A Legionnaire looks back

‘We were interested in the depression & the effect on our new-born practices, and on our friends, particularly farmers. There were also street riots to be feared. The Govt. of the day seemed as confused as we were and we heard the self-appointed saviours professing new economic doctrines, particularly Social Credit ... When Dr Campbell Begg, a urologist in Wellington – in good professional status – started to raise his voice ... we sniffed a saviour.’ (Sir Douglas Robb)

At the time the Legion was born, the Depression had been ravaging New Zealand, and much of the world, for three years. Governments had maintained their legitimacy by claiming, over and over again, that recovery was ‘just around the corner’. But for all the average farmer, businessman or worker in February 1933 knew, the worst was yet to come.

This sense of urgency is highlighted by the number of protest organisations that formed during the Depression, ranging from the National Unemployed Workers' Movement to the Douglas Social Credit movement.

Dozens of monetary reform movements, dubbed ‘funny money’ by their opponents, warned that a secretive cabal of international financiers was holding the world to economic ransom. The single tax movement was also revived in the form of the Commonwealth Land Party.

The Australian right mobilises

Australia was home to dozens of radical conservative movements during the Depression. The New Guard, a New South Wales paramilitary movement that planned to overthrow the state’s Labor government, attracted considerable publicity in New Zealand in the first six months of 1932. The All for Australia League, which amassed a membership of 130,000 in New South Wales in 1931, similarly sought to unite the nation through appeals to patriotism and the national interest.

News from Australia reached New Zealand in many ways. The exploits of the New Guard, including Francis de Groot’s protest at the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening ceremony in 1932, were regularly reported in the New Zealand press. One key individual was Will Lawson, a trans-Tasman journalist and author. He had worked for the Evening News in Sydney during the formative months of the New Guard and the All for Australia League, before moving to New Zealand to work for the Mount Cook Tourist Company.

‘Patriots of the highest calibre’

After observing the April 1932 riots in Auckland first hand, Lawson praised the New Guard and the All for Australia League in the New Zealand Observer, describing them as ‘patriots of the highest calibre’. When the New Zealand Legion launched its own journal, National Opinion, in mid-1933, he was hired as its editor, working alongside Campbell Begg in the Legion’s Wellington Head Office.

The Legion was part of a long tradition of conservative organisations in New Zealand. Its most important predecessor was the Welfare League, an anti-communist group formed in 1919 by several Wellington businessmen. It sought to educate the public on the merits of capitalism and encourage harmonious relationships between employer and employee. More importantly, it decried the sectional interests of political parties, and claimed to represent the national interest. Many of its members, including James Begg, Campbell Begg’s older brother, would later join the Legion.

How to cite this page

' The desire to 'do something'', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/the-new-zealand-legion/desire-to-do-something, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2016