by Michael Bassett
I first met Martyn Finlay forty years ago when he became president of the Labour Party. What struck me then, and was reinforced many times later, was his extraordinary skill with words. Seldom did I listen to a speech of his without realising how many unexplored parts of the English language there still were. This stemmed, he told me later, from an excellent English teacher, Barney Campbell, at Otago Boys High. His blackboard was always full of new words, or doublets, or idioms, and the boys were regularly tested on their precise meanings. The exercise appealed to Finlay, and I would hazard a guess that no other MP in New Zealand's history has had quite his vocabulary.
Closely allied to this was Finlay's erudition. Throughout his life he read widely while his passion for classical music came from his crippled older brother, a scientist who made a name for himself as an oil explorer, and was a good pianist. Martyn could recognise a tune instantly and provide its precise name. So, too, with poems and paintings. His excellent classical education and his wide interests in the arts made him a figure of respect in the company of literati, painters, musicians and craftspeople.
But of course his chosen career was the law, and after that, politics. He stumbled into law, he told me, because he could clerk for a Dunedin firm while studying, and eventually, after graduating with an LLM with first class honours, it was a Law Travelling Scholarship that meant that this widow's son could go to Britain to further his studies. Not Oxford or Cambridge (they were too expensive) but the London School of Economics where he met student leaders from around the Commonwealth. Here he got his first taste for politics, working on Edith Summerskill's celebrated by-election campaign in 1937, then travelling to Prague in the summer of 1937 as well as working for a month or two with the League of Nations secretariat. Finlay was essentially a man of peace throughout his life, and ten years later found Peter Fraser's crusade to introduce Compulsory Military Training personally distasteful. At LSE Finlay attended classes of Harold Laski who went on to become president of the British Labour Party. It was Laski who told him about a scholarship to Harvard which was available to one graduate in law from a British university. Having completed his PhD in 1938, Finlay beat off the British competition and in September arrived in Boston where he was initially affiliated to the research team of Felix Frankfurter, soon to become a distinguished Supreme Court Judge. Finlay then worked on a crime study in Boston, but spent an hour every day with the New York Times monitoring the world's collapse into the abyss of war.
Returning to New Zealand in the middle of 1939, Finlay joined a prototype law reform committee in the office of Rex Mason, then Attorney General in the First Labour Government, before undertaking some law drafting. He became Arnold Nordmeyer's private secretary in 1941 and sat in on the final negotiations of the General Medical Services Benefit. Meantime, he had joined the Wellington North Labour Party and made friends with Jack Lewin of the PSA, Bill Sutch who was in Walter Nash's office, and Ian Milner of the Department of Education. In 1943 he had his first tilt at politics as Labour's candidate in Remuera. He couldn't beat the former professor of Law, Ronald Algie, but his meetings attracted Auckland's left intelligentsia of the time. Finlay stayed in Auckland, setting up what became known as Finlay Shieff Angland. He specialised in company law, trade union law and eventually criminal law. In 1946 he narrowly won the new North Shore seat in the last term of the First Labour Government. With Ormond Wilson, the Oxford educated MP for Palmerston North, and several younger MPs like Alan Baxter and Warren Freer, they formed a group within the caucus trying to push Labour further to the left. All except Freer lost their seats in 1949. Finlay found himself back at his Auckland law office where he became embroiled in several high profile criminal cases and a murder case which he lost, resulting in a hanging. To his dying day Finlay was an opponent of capital punishment, a cause to which he added divorce law reform (his own divorce in the 1950s was particularly fraught), homosexual, and abortion law reform. Finlay's reputation as an advanced liberal on social issues attracted the support of younger party idealists as much as it repelled Labour's more conservative wing, especially Catholics. Finlay's marital complications irked the puritanical Walter Nash, who did nothing to advance his return to Parliament, and seems not to have welcomed his election as party president in 1960.
Finlay, however, was set upon a political career. He used his presidency to advance a variety of causes and eventually bullocked his way into selection for the seat of Waitakere, winning it comfortably in the election of 1963. With Mason in his last term, Finlay as the only other lawyer was assured of a place in any Labour cabinet. Once more he revealed his extraordinary grasp of issues in parliament and was one of the party's best debaters. For a time, some saw him as the only possible replacement for Norman Kirk. But Finlay never warmed to the cabals that are a part of parliamentary life; indeed he was something of a loner, preferring his books and music. When Kirk died in 1974 several of us advanced his name as a possible successor but found no depth of support. The partisanship required of an ambitious MP did not appeal to Finlay either; when he tried it in 1965 with a round arm swing against the National Party president, J.S. Meadowcroft, for trafficking in import licences, he withdrew bruised. Nor was Finlay an administrator. The Department of Justice purported to welcome his arrival in 1972 but Finlay tolerated their pedestrian pace for three years. The Police Offences Act was reviewed, suppression of names before conviction passed into law, our modern Motor Vehicle Dealers Act which has changed the second hand car market was enacted, and most of the work that resulted in the Matrimonial Property Act, 1976 was done under his direction. But he will be best remembered for his solo performance at the Hague. Backed by the caucus which had recently farewelled a frigate to Muroroa, Finlay presented elegant and convincing arguments against French nuclear testing in the Pacific and won his case. In later years he mourned the fact that he failed to advance penal reform, and he deeply regretted having so much of 1975 side-tracked into abortion law reform and the decision which he reluctantly had to make to prosecute his old friend, W.B Sutch, under the Official Secrets Act.
In 1978 Finlay contemplated standing again. He had two possibile electorates, but his propensity for occasional indecision told against him. In the end he decided to retire. At 67, and a QC since going to the Hague in 1973, his legal options were limited. He sat on several tribunals, and in 1985 presided over a seemingly interminable inquiry into work practices at Marsden Point. By the time of his report events had moved on. He lived in retirement in Freeman's Bay with his second wife Peggy. Together they retained their interest in a wide array of reform issues and maintained an eclectic group of friends. An agnostic in his personal life, Finlay never lost his faith in the old time socialist religion, finding anathema many aspects of the Fourth Labour Government's free market approach to the modern world. His legal colleagues enjoyed his occasional barbs, though he will be better remembered for his ability to express them than for their effect. To a wide array of younger, urban-based liberals, many of them spread across a wide spectrum of parties these days, Martyn Finlay will be remembered as the most articulate, and possibly the first political champion of several causes which today they take for granted.