The sound of his own drum, Barry Gustafson

Nordy: Arnold Nordmeyer: A Political Biography
Mary Logan
Steele Roberts, $49.99,
ISBN 9781877448331

Sir Arnold Nordmeyer (1901-89) was a Presbyterian minister, the son of a German seaman and a Northern Irish mother. A Labour MP from 1935-49 (Oamaru) and 1951-69 (Brooklyn until 1954 and then Island Bay), he served as Minister of Health (1941-47) and Industries and Commerce (1947-49) and, later, as Minister of Finance (1957-60), during which his name became inextricably attached to the 1958 “Black Budget”. He succeeded Walter Nash as Labour’s leader from April 1963 until December 1965, when he was overthrown by Norman Kirk.

Elsewhere, I have argued that Nordmeyer was “a politician of principle, integrity and courage”, advocating radical social policies in the 1930s and 1940s, economic policies in the 1950s, and foreign policies in the 1960s, that he thought were both necessary and morally right.

He played a crucial role in creating a universal health system that served New Zealand well for 40 years. He attempted to restructure, rationalise and extend New Zealand’s economy. He took a strong and principled stand against New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War. And he sought to reform the Labour Party so that it represented and governed in the interests of all New Zealanders and was not simply the political wing of the Federation of Labour.

But although both Labour supporters and National opponents recognised Nordmeyer’s intelligence, integrity, incisive debating skills and managerial competence, even many in his own party never warmed to him but saw him as an austere puritan who lacked the common touch and sought to control not only the economy but people’s moral and social lives.

I admired and supported Nordy, with whom I was acquainted during the 1960s, and, therefore, I looked forward to reading Mary Logan’s biography, which she began researching over 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, my major reaction to this large book of 488 pages is that it is much more about the times than it is about the man. Nordmeyer repeatedly vanishes or is pushed to the margins of the story by the detail of what was going on generally in the Labour Party, the Labour Government or the country as a whole. Indeed for the first several hundred pages a reader will find out as much, if not more, about Michael Joseph Savage, John A Lee, Peter Fraser, Walter Nash and Gervan McMillan as about Nordmeyer.

When Nordmeyer does appear periodically in the narrative, and he is more to the forefront in the second half of the book, the reader is told, usually accurately, what he did and when, but with little insight or analysis of why, how or with what effect.

Logan is scrupulous in acknowledging her sources in her endnotes, and they reveal her dependence on a limited range of secondary references. Throughout the first half of the book, this reviewer found it flattering but somewhat disconcerting to read page after page of summaries and quotations from three of his books on the early Labour Party, Savage, and the National Party, supplemented by similar passages from Lee’s published diaries and recollections, and the biographies of Lee and Nash by Erik Olssen and Keith Sinclair.

In the second half of the book, Logan is similarly indebted to Mike Hirschfeld’s 1970 MA thesis, The New Zealand Labour Party in Office 1957-60, John Lovell-Smith’s The New Zealand Doctor and the Welfare State (1966), and again Sinclair’s Walter Nash and my history of the National Party, The First Fifty Years (1986).

For a book based largely on summarising, synthesising and quoting other relevant published secondary sources, there are some glaring omissions. The most obvious are Michael Bassett and Michael King, Tomorrow Comes The Song: A Life of Peter Fraser (2000); Margaret Clark (ed), Peter Fraser: Master Politician (1998); Graeme Hunt, Black Prince: The Biography of Fintan Patrick Walsh (2004); Barry Gustafson, Social Change and Party Reorganisation: The New Zealand Labour Party Since 1945 (1976); and three essays on Nordmeyer by Keith Eunson, Mirrors on the Hill. Reflections on New Zealand’s Political Leaders (2001), and Gustafson and Bruce Brown, both in Margaret Clark (ed), Three Labour Leaders: Nordmeyer, Kirk, Rowling (2001). Nor does Logan appear to have consulted Brown’s earlier essay on Nordmeyer in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Volume 5 (2000).    

Logan does use some original archival material, including Nordmeyer’s own apparently limited papers and those of several contemporaries. She consulted documents on health and social security in the National Archives, the Turnbull Library and the Parliamentary Library, and made somewhat more extensive use of New Zealand Parliamentary Debates. She also interviewed Nordmeyer himself a number of times during 1985 and 1986 and had conversations with Lady Nordmeyer and a few other family members and acquaintances.

Although there are some interesting quotes from these interviews, Nordmeyer, as Logan herself admits, was not particularly forthcoming and was reluctant to express negative comments about anyone or share his own inner thoughts and feelings. When pressed by Logan to be franker and more revealing, he agreed to write down some carefully prepared paragraphs but suffered a debilitating stroke and never recovered sufficiently to do so.

As a result of the limited use of manuscript material and interviews with participant observers, Logan rarely gets behind the scenes. One wishes for more information and insight into the battles Nordmeyer had with colleagues and opponents over the Social Security Act of 1938, the expulsion of Lee, and the establishment of the universal health system in the 1940s; over the 1958, 1959 and 1960 budgets and his attempts at economic restructuring and diversification; over the Vietnam War; over his battle with more conservative contemporaries to modernise the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s; and over his long quest to become leader of the Labour Party and his unsuccessful attempt to retain it in 1965.

Nordmeyer was a man who in many ways marched to the sound of his own drum. He was a self-proclaimed Christian Socialist, not a Marxist, and remained a committed and active Presbyterian until his death. He was not a trade unionist and did not have the mutual empathy with union leaders enjoyed by most other successful Labour leaders before him and Norman Kirk after him.

He repeatedly damaged his prospects of becoming or remaining leader of his own party and prime minister of New Zealand by doing what he thought was right, irrespective of the political consequences. As a result, and to his surprise, he often found himself out of step with his caucus colleagues and others in the Labour Party; for example, in his support of Lee after 1935, his “Black Budget” in 1958, and his belief that he had the numbers in caucus to withstand a challenge from Kirk in 1965.

Most readers will be tantalised but somewhat frustrated by Logan’s two brief references to Nordmeyer’s views on the fourth Labour Government and its economic and social agendas, and achievements after 1984. He observed in 1985 that, among Labour’s pioneers, Nash would probably have been happy but others, and by implication himself, “might feel that the party of 1935 was so vastly different to 1985 that they would not see much in common.”

Four years later, shortly before his death, he “showed his bitter disappointment at their abandonment of many of Labour’s traditional values”. As with much of the rest of the book, the reader is left wishing for more of the man, his thoughts, character, personality and motivation, and perhaps a little less of the context in which he lived such a long, fascinating and productive life.


Barry Gustafson is Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Auckland. 


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category