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Page 5 – Massey at Massey

MASSEY@ MASSEY CONFERENCE (December 1–2, 2006)

This stimulating conference showed that William Ferguson Massey, the erstwhile scourge of the workers, has not merely been rehabilitated but is headed for the Kiwi pantheon. Though conference organiser James Watson promised that all shades of opinion would be canvassed, not one speaker hewed to the traditional leftist view of our second-longest serving PM (1912–25) as slow-witted ‘Farmer Bill’, a south Auckland cockie whose repressive strings were pulled by shadowy capitalists and bigots. Fair enough – that always had to be caricature – but I left Palmerston North uneasy at the amount of whitewash that had been applied to his hitherto florid image over the last two days.

The least positive view was probably Jock Phillips’ opening argument that Massey was typical of Ulster immigrants of his day. Bruce Farland then demolished several straw men (we know that the 1913 specials weren’t all farmers’ sons), and John Martin described the ultimate value to Massey of his lengthy political apprenticeship.

The second session dealt with Massey’s support cast. Malcolm McKinnon’s analysis of Downie Stewart’s ‘efficient capitalism’ was one of the best papers given at the conference. John Crawford dealt with James Allen, who as Minister of Finance and Education, wartime Minister of Defence, and acting PM for two years while the ‘Siamese Twins’ (Massey and Ward) were overseas must be just about the most important politician who never made PM. Linda Bryder discussed the role of Christina Massey and other political wives in Plunket’s early decades.

Religion was the topic of the next session. Peter Lineham made a good case for Massey as a comparatively tolerant Ulster Protestant (emphasis goes on the ‘comparatively’), and Toby Harper argued for Reform’s ‘practical Christianity’ (the ‘creed of the strong’) as a precursor to Nash’s ‘applied Christianity’. Rory Sweetman, evidently inspired by his researches into the Orange Order, asserted that Massey was a religious moderate who showed fervour only in an imperial patriotism that was underpinned by the peculiar tenets of British Israelism.

Michael Belgrave set out the social welfare continuities from the Liberals via Reform to Labour; Brad Patterson described Massey’s unswerving fidelity to land freeholding (while noting that this was always to be a matter of choice); Michael Roche discussed his pragmatic approach to forestry and conservation issues.

I missed Miles Fairburn’s evening lecture on ‘Who Voted for Massey’, and failed to glean much about it the next day. One finding evidently was that a significant proportion of the non-unionised working class eventually voted for Reform (which does not seem surprising, given the occupational data and the election results).

James Watson and Richard Kay (in absentia) argued for Massey’s importance on the world stage as (respectively) ‘the greatest commercial traveller in the Empire’ and a ‘robust imperialist’ during the war; in short, a precursor of Nash and Fraser in World War Two. Matt Henry brought a geographer’s perspective to the postwar influx control legislation; Greg Ryan’s interesting paper about imperial rugby relations in the 1920s had scant relevance to the conference theme (but did include the weekend’s only reference to ‘recolonisation’).

Glyn Harper gave a paper which sought to soften the perception that Massey and Ward were greeted with uniform derision by soldiers on their wartime visits to the Western Front. Ashley Gould attempted to show that Māori veterans more or less received the equal access to lands for settlement Massey had promised them. Gwen Parsons put the parsimonious assistance provided to Great War veterans in context, arguing that in contemporary terms it was in fact relatively generous and constituted a substantial extension of the role of the state in assisting the needy.

The last session was devoted to summing up. Erik Olssen traced his intellectual journey from repulsion with Massey to appreciation of his efforts as a wartime leader and in building the public service and postwar infrastructure (electrification, roads, etc.), thereby laying the basis for subsequent Labour policies. Tom Brooking (via video) compared Seddon with Massey, concluding that Seddon’s broader life experience made him the superior politician, and that he had created a durable template for democratic political leadership. Yet at the time Massey was the more successful prime minister and international statesman. Fairburn, ever the post-revisionist, argued that Brooking had misapplied his truth criteria (i.e., compared apples with oranges).

In short, most bases were covered. I’d like to have heard a bit more on Ward and on 1913, and something on Coates (the C-word was barely uttered). There were fewer than 50 attendees – the usual forest of beards, plus a smattering of graduate students. Publication of the papers is promised.

by David Green

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