The Goliath of public opinion, Gyles Beckford

Peace, Power and Politics: How New Zealand Became Nuclear Free
Maire Leadbetter
Otago University Press
ISBN 9781877578588

I remember that visit of the USS Truxtun to Wellington in August 1976. It was cold and dreary, matching the battle-grey paintwork of the ship. We were a loose amalgam of students, unionists, peaceniks, and a sprinkling of concerned suburbanites under the umbrella of the Campaign Against Nuclear Warships. We stood outside the Queen’s Wharf gates with banners and placards, and plenty of jeers and abuse for the small knots of sailors coming ashore.

We were chuffed because a poster we’d designed – a battleship with a gunsight sitting over it, with some slogan, printed on cheap blue lightweight card – had appeared in a scene in the local soap opera Close to Home. How was that for product placement?

Maire Leadbetter says we were part of a people’s movement. It didn’t feel like it at the time as we copped abuse galore and seemed outnumbered by worthy Wellingtonians offering hospitality through Dial-A-Sailor. But she’s right, of course. Right around the country, there were also other loose groups; of knowledgeable scientists, researchers, the ideologically driven, pacifists, communists, unionists, the peaceful and the fearful.

Leadbetter has the familial credentials to author a history of the country’s anti-nuclear movement: her renowned activist mother, Elsie Locke, wrote the 1992 prequel to this book – Peace People: A History of Peace Activities in New Zealand. The first half of this book traces the development of community action that was essential to shaping public sentiment and countering a political and military establishment that had set foreign policy and the rules of engagement since 1945.

Being anti-nuclear was easy while the French were exploding their bombs in “our” Pacific backyard in the mid-1970s, prompting the Norman Kirk-led Labour government to send a frigate, with junior minister Fraser Colman on board, to prowl the edges of the test zone in a figurative “J’accuse”. Suffice to say that whatever breezes of change might have blown through the corridors of power in New Zealand during the brief Kirk administration were stopped by the re-election of National under Robert Muldoon in 1975.

This is essentially where Leadbetter picks up the story from her mother, with Muldoon actively seeking United States warship visits to re-affirm New Zealand’s ANZUS credentials: a red rag to the progressive political bulls. Muldoon engineered three ship visits in five months and, along with an itch for nuclear generated power which gave rise to a Royal Commission, helped to swell the serried ranks of peace groups, academics, artists, unions, and those on the political fringe.

Leadbetter is well qualified to tell the story, having been a leading light in the Auckland branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and she tells tales of passionate people picking up banners, baking cakes for raffles, taking to the streets and the harbours. The tales are told in a matter-of-fact fashion, are well illustrated, well sourced and, if a little Auckland-centric, give a real feel of the grass roots nature of the protest movements, and the links that brought like-minded people together in a common cause around the country.

They were heady days, as the Auckland Peace Squadron fleet – from surf-boards to large yachts and launches – could not prevent, but at least succeeded in impeding, the entry of warships.

Running through the street-level narrative is a broader background of political, diplomatic and military factors, which provide the big picture, and highlight the gulf between the “people” (for want of a better term) and the establishment.

Did people think it would all change with the demise of Muldoon and the election of David Lange’s government after the “schnapps election” of 1984? Well, many did. The Vote For Peace campaign had sought to champion anti-nuclear candidates or, at the very least, embarrass the fence-sitters and cower the reactionaries. The result, so many thought, was a government willing to chart an independent foreign policy.

The test of the people’s will, as Leadbetter tells strongly, was demonstrated by the public reaction to the prospect that Labour might seek some compromise formula to allow a United States warship visit, while ostensibly sticking to its anti-nuclear principles. And so we were never graced by a visit from the ageing USS Buchanan, but you feel, reading this book, that it was a close-run thing, as Lange did not want to give in to the “flakies of the left”. The David and Goliath struggle, this time at least, was between an ambivalent Lange and the Goliath of public opinion.

After that, Lange’s historic quip about smelling “the uranium on your breath” at the Oxford debate, and the formal anti-nuclear laws, seem simple steps. The French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985 was probably the pivotal event in sealing the nuclear-free philosophy in the country’s social and political DNA.

But, as if to prove the maxim that the price of victory is eternal vigilance, Jim Bolger’s National government of the early 1990s looked to undermine or even throw out the anti-nuclear policies, with an official inquiry that concluded – surprise, surprise – there were no real risks from allowing nuclear- powered warships into the country. But Bolger never had the courage, or perhaps had too much sense, to tamper, and announced that National would not change the policy.

A win for the people, then. Although, given the revelation that Don Brash or Lockwood Smith was telling the Americans ahead of the 2005 election that National would get rid of the ban “by lunchtime”, vigilance was obviously still needed.

There is much to admire in this celebratory history of New Zealand’s peace movement in all its guises, and the transition from nuclear accomplice within the broad western alliance to a nuclear-free country with a more independent foreign policy. As Winston Churchill observed, the victors have the right to make sure that history treats them kindly, and Leadbetter has done just that. However, despite the plentiful and detailed accounts of who, when, where, and what, there is little about why.

A broader analysis of what changed in New Zealand’s national psyche that entrenched nuclear-free thinking would have been welcome, given that it was a break with the attitudes and alliances that had essentially been in place for the best part of half a century, and to which successive New Zealand governments had happily subscribed. This tells part of the nuclear-free story, but for a fuller picture it should be read in conjunction with the contributions of the bureaucrats, politicians and the “generals”.

And so, into the 21st century, is the battle for peace over? Leadbetter nominally stops in the mid-1990s, but she throws out the issues that linger still.

There will be no peace without justice in the Pacific, she says. There is Waihopai and the official surveillance apparatus that ties New Zealand to its traditional allies no less tightly than a real Japanese threat did in the 1940s, or the supposed communist threat did in the 1960s. New Zealand’s willingness to engage in Afghanistan, its reluctance to get involved in Iraq, but participation in the naval patrols of the Persian Gulf, suggest a policy ambivalence, which the dwindled numbers of peace campaigners will struggle to change for years to come. In a digital world, where social media can generate a tsunami of moral outrage in nano-seconds, could a people’s movement promote a philosophy that becomes a national ideal which politicians could not resist?

The past was another country, where they did things differently, but Leadbetter’s book offers a template for future generations.

Good luck, you’re going to need it.


Gyles Beckford is a senior correspondent for Thomson Reuters.


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