Accentuating the positive, Tom Brooking

The Mother of AlI Departments. The History of the Department of Internal Affairs
Michael Bassett
Auckland University Press, $39.95
ISBN 1 869401751

Safeguarding the Public Health. A History of the New Zealand Department of Health
Derek Dow
Victoria University Press in association with the Ministry of Health and with assistance from the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, $39.95
ISBN 0 86473285 6

The Historical Branch was established in 1941, partly to oversee completion of the New Zealand Historical Atlas (a task finally completed in l997!) and partly to co-ordinate the writing of state histories. The pre-eminent historian of the time (and some would argue our best historian to date) J C Beaglehole, had charge of a small team on a part-time basis. Then the dynamic bureaucrat Joe Heenan transformed this infant organisation in 1943 into the War History Branch to ensure that future generations had access to a much fuller record of New Zealand’s wartime exploits than had been the case after the First World War. This task was eventually completed with the publication of Nancy Taylor’s two-volume magnum opus on the home front in 1986.

Although the Branch remained committed to completing works on our involvement in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam, its future looked decidedly shaky, especially when the new chief historian, Jim Holt, died after only a few months in the job. So Michael Bassett himself established an advisory committee in 1987 to work out new strategies for the Branch. The Committee recommended a broadening of activities and concentration on producing crisp, single-volume histories rather than vast, multi-volume encyclopaedic histories, although its efforts came too late to stop the police history developing into an amazing five-volume epic. Jock Phillips was appointed new chief historian in 1988 and set about following these directives with energy and determination. Under his stewardship, productivity has increased remarkably and many institutional histories (including the two under review) have been published under his direction. Assisted by a large grant from the Lotteries Commission, the Branch now employs five full-time historians, provides assistance to authors and publishers, grants awards and oversees subcontracts (Jim McAloon’s recent history of Nelson being an example).

One of my fire-breathing ACT-supporting colleagues thinks the Branch should be abolished because it is controlled by that dastardly institution of repression – the State – but generally the Branch’s work is widely admired and appreciated. Visiting American academics also lament the fact that they lack a similar national organisation even though they are well served by their individual State historical societies. Certainly the two books reviewed here provide firm support for the Branch’s long-term survival.


Who better to write the history of the Department of Internal Affairs than Michael Bassett, a former Minister of Internal Affairs, and subsequently a productive historian who has written excellent biographies of Sir Joseph Ward and Gordon Coates? Bassett proceeds in his typically vigorous and precise manner to tell the tale of this rag-bag tidying agency of state, variously described as “the mother of all departments”, “the guts department” and a “home for waifs and strays”. He traces systematically its myriad activities (ranging from implementing quarantine regulations to organising royal tours), from its inception as the Colonial Secretary’s Office through its conversion to the Department of Internal Affairs in 1907 (renamed when we became a Dominion), and ends with a somewhat awkward epilogue bringing the story up to date.

The best and liveliest chapters are those on the Heenan era (1929-49) when the most interesting initiatives were taken in terms of helping the arts. The other chapters are less engaging but the author must be congratulated on keeping the detail under control. This is a major achievement because the archival resources on this apparently obscure corner of the state bureaucracy – unlike say those of Agriculture and Lands and Survey – have escaped the ravages of fire and are vast. Bassett never loses sight of his main purpose and imposes a strong narrative line on his material.

Unfortunately, the author gets into some awkward tangles when he writes about himself in the third person in the final section. He tries desperately hard to be objective but falls back on the Treasury/ New Right line that there was no alternative to the so-called “reforms” of Roger Douglas. Bassett should remind himself that some of his fellow practitioners consider many of the reforms as a jettisoning of very real advances, as a cynical and cowardly sell-out to powerful, uncaring multi-national corporations, and as a reactionary attempt to push New Zealand back to the gross inequities of the Victorian world. Most of his more centrist and moderate fellow practitioners would also question the costs of these changes even if they accept that chronic indebtedness provoked something like Rogernomics. Yet Bassett never pauses to consider the problems of incessant change even if he does occasionally criticise National for going too far, too fast. .Historians are trained to be sceptics and this final section has too much of the true believer to be convincing. It would have been much better if he had dropped the presence of objectivity and simply written a personal account of these years.

Despite these grumbles, this is the kind of highly polished, well-organised account one would expect from a professional historian and makes available a very comprehensive and generally readable record. The author also succeeds in sketching in the broader New Zealand context in a skilful and economical manner. It is, therefore, a highly competent book. Yet it is somehow unsatisfying. Something is missing. It seems to me that something is a refusal to consider broader theoretical questions raised by the study, particularly in relation to the ways in which this tale modifies our understanding of New Zealand history (what practitioners call historiography).

There is a large literature on bureaucracy and its workings produced by Marx, Weber and Michels and subsequent generations of historians, sociologists and political scientists. Bassett ignores the lot. At the other extreme Richard Hill – in his three volumes of the police history (which I have reviewed elsewhere) – goes overboard on theory and spends too long on addressing the big questions raised by his study. But at least he tries to tease out the broader significance of his findings. In contrast Bassett underdoes this requirement of academic history and the work faces the prospect of being condemned as little more than elegant chronicle.

There is, admittedly, little room in commissioned histories for such an exercise but a few pages comparing Internal Affairs with other departments on which we now have histories thanks to the Historical Branch, such as Health, Agriculture and State Services, would have made clear what has been distinctive about Internal Affairs. A brief comparison with its equivalents in Australia, Canada and Britain would also have been instructive. Bassett could thereby have made greater use of his strong narrative sense and insider perceptions. At the very least he needed to make more of his discovery that the State has played a vital role in performing some of the functions of government and that if there were no Department of Internal Affairs one would probably have to be invented. Bassett’s study seems to support W H Oliver’s remarks in Comment of 1982 that “in many aspects of New Zealand social life, economic as well as cultural in character, the state supports institutions and activities which would not otherwise survive”. This finding challenges directly much of the dogma which has justified large-scale dismantling of the apparatus of the State by arguing that the private sector always does things better than the public service.


Derek Dow, an emigré Scot and experienced author of the history of various hospitals, had an easier job than Bassett in that his story is more intrinsically interesting than that of a small, obscure department. Even so, he makes much of the opportunity by telling his story in lively prose and lifts it with well-chosen illustrations and helpful diagrams of institutional changes. He also helps the reader by providing useful summaries at the start of each chapter which point out how his findings challenge current orthodoxies and popular beliefs. Generally, his is a tale well told of how the Department finally came into being in 1900 in response to the bubonic plague scare of 1900 and evolved in fits and starts thereafter.

This book has, however, been the subject of a controversial review by an Australian historian in the New Zealand Journal of History. She suggested that Dow had been leant on by the Ministry of Health (which replaced the Department in 1993) to produce a somewhat sanitised and celebratory history from the centre. Dow replied in thunderous tones that nothing could be further from the truth and that he always had a free hand to exercise his professional judgement. He also argued that the mass of material he had to cover forced him to concentrate on operations from the centre.

To be fair to Dow, the somewhat naive Australian did not realise how little research and writing has been done on the wider topic of the history of health. Historians at Auckland, Canterbury and Otago, especially, have promoted research in this area in more recent times, but there is no large secondary literature Dow could synthesise. So, like Bassett, he had to slog through masses of primary material held at National Archives – a slow and laborious process. Bassett is quite right in complaining that our Archives service is far too slow in delivering documents, especially to historians based outside Wellington. One can only admire the speed and efficiency with which these two hardened old pros completed their tasks. Thanks to Dow’s efforts there is now a platform from which others can build.

As in most commissioned histories, Dow’s tone is perhaps a little celebratory in that it does not address the enormous health problems New Zealand still faces, especially in relation to the Maori and Pacific Island parts of our population, despite the herculean efforts of the individuals he mentions. Health lacked an undersecretary with the drive and influence of Heenan even if the likes of Dr Harold Turbott won a high public profile through his radio talks. The reader is definitely left with the feeling that even under the guidance of a person like Heenan, the State can only achieve so much in this extraordinarily expensive area. It seems that individuals will either have to do more for themselves, or the public will have to accept a redistribution of resources to help the young, whose problems can be addressed at a fraction of the cost of those of the elderly. Yet more education also seems to be required to reduce preventable damage caused by activities such as smoking and poor driving. Whatever, Dows study suggests that some kind of healthy utopia is beyond even the grasp of supermen and superwomen.

On the other hand, there have been many tangible improvements – as falling infant mortality and increasing life expectancy make clear. These achievements need to be celebrated lest our history becomes nothing more than a woeful lament over lost hopes. Dow accentuates the positive in convincing fashion and can feel well-pleased with his efforts even if they represent a beginning rather than an end.


Both books then support the case for continuation of the Historical Branch’s work even if they could have been better. If we let the market rule such activity, these books would never have been written because the costs of their production would far outweigh the returns from sales. If this happened, our history would become impoverished. So lets have many more such well-produced and professionally written publications, but ones which try a little harder to address the bigger questions concerning New Zealands past and future.

Tom Brooking is a Dunedin historian who as written biographies of Captain Cargill and John McKenzie.

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Posted in Health, History, Non-fiction, Review
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