Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

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Being a Liberal in New Zealand Politics


Wellington 11 September 2009

Josiah Ralph Hanan was born in Invercargill on 13 June 1909, one hundred years ago. He was the youngest son of a local draper, and the nephew of Invercargill's Liberal Party MP, Josiah, better known to colleagues as Joe Hanan. The Liberals were an interesting lot. They passionately believed in education and its capacity to improve man, and this included an interest in penal policy that would re-educate those who fell by the wayside. Equal opportunities were another central belief. Mainstream Liberals had a strong imperialist streak as well. But they were not consistently passionate believers in freedom of speech. At the time of Ralph's birth, the Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward, was in the process of firing his garrulous Minister of Labour, A.W. Hogg, for a speech advocating land nationalization. Some might recall that Ralph in later life was involved with the News Media Ownership legislation that protected local journalistic mediocrity from competition.

Ralph Hanan was nearly three when his uncle first became Minister of Education and Minister of Justice for a few months in the short-lived Mackenzie Government of 1912. For virtually all of Ralph's primary schooling in Invercargill his uncle remained the local MP, and was Minister of Education once more, then, again briefly, Minister of Justice. Joe Hanan's wife, Susanna, was a tireless community worker, a good public speaker, who held strong views on child rearing. Both of them were interested in penal policy and were involved with the establishment of Invercargill's borstal in 1910. Uncle Joe had defended Minnie Dean in 1895, and like his partner in the case, Alf Hanlon, was convinced she was wrongly hanged. The Hanans always had causes.

It is difficult to imagine a more political, socially active environment for a small boy's formative years. Ralph would say later that he learned a great deal about politics from his uncle. What raised the level of debate at home was the fact that an idealistic Minister of Education was able to achieve so little because his party was the lesser partner in a wartime coalition under Bill Massey. Joe Hanan's initiatives were sometimes over-ridden, or delayed by Massey's lieutenants. Achieving things required building coalitions of support, something that Ralph understood when he became Minister of Justice in 1960, and initially lacked the numbers to abolish capital punishment. He was an MMP politician before MMP.

It's worth pondering for a minute the meaning of that label "liberal" that Ralph Hanan always used, sometimes with a capital letter, other times without. The word was much used by early New Zealand politicians. Until there was a party that formally took the name in 1889, most politicians seemed to regard themselves as liberally inclined, especially at election time. It was a younger person's doctrine. But the word Liberal didn't have all the same connotations that it had in Britain. Our early settlers weren't much concerned about the established church, nor about the emancipation of Catholics and Jews over which political battle lines had hardened in early nineteenth century Britain. New Zealand's Liberals, however, were the more tolerant of the two main parties because their party was a smorgasbord of beliefs. Battles over manhood suffrage that rocked British politics in the 1830s, 1860s and 1880s were resolved about the time our Liberal Party was formed. One-man-one-vote, and then women's suffrage, tripled the total number of voters in New Zealand within four years between 1889 and 1893.

What the word liberal did mean to early settlers was progress. That meant state spending. Everyone supported that, particularly when it involved borrowing for infrastructure or for on-lending to those without capital - which was most of them. Few early politicians called themselves "conservative". The parliamentary grouping that opposed Ballance, Seddon, Ward and Joe Hanan dabbled with using the title, but preferred most of the time to describe themselves simply as the "Opposition". They finally settled on the name "Reform" in 1909, the year of Ralph's birth.

Conservatively-inclined MPs were always rather coy about naming themselves in earlier days. Sir Francis Bell, our first New Zealand-born Prime Minister, who provided much of the Reform Party's gravitas, is a case in point. He wanted to be seen as progressive, and he was, especially when Mayor of Wellington. He described himself as a "socialist" in 1893. Most opponents of Seddon and Ward were riled by the fact that the government had appropriated the title Liberal. When the Reform Party finally toppled the Liberals in 1912 and installed Massey, Reform MPs argued in Parliament that they were the REAL Liberals. So powerful was the association between the words "liberal" and "progress" that the description lasted much longer than the party. In his memoirs Jack Marshall describes himself as a "liberal", and yet, 27 years after Ralph Hanan had successfully disposed of capital punishment using classic liberal arguments, Marshall expressed sorrow that the hangman had gone. I think the difference between the two was that Marshall came from a conservative, Scots Presbyterian background, but was a liberal in his approach to the economy. Hanan was an economic liberal, but also a lifelong social liberal.

Ralph Hanan was always proud to claim political descent from Richard John Seddon. In his maiden speech in Parliament in 1947 he quoted chunks of King Dick. This was twelve years after Michael Joseph Savage and his Labour Party had claimed that they were "taking up where Seddon left off". By the middle of the twentieth century the Liberal tradition was espoused by all sides. King Dick was everyone's political father. To Savage, Seddonism meant welfare reforms - housing, old-age pensions etc; for Hanan it meant freedom, education and private enterprise. Let me quote Ralph Hanan: "Richard John Seddon believed in individual thrift, private enterprise, and co-operation between labour and capital." In answer to an interjection he added: "Liberalism, with its progressive spirit, will revive in this country, and it will defeat socialism".

I am reminded of the cartoonist around the turn of the Twentieth Century who drew Seddon as a circus performer with a foot on one galloping horse labelled "capital", his other foot on another horse labelled "labour". By the time Ralph Hanan entered Parliament, Seddon was long dead, and the beasts had cantered off in different directions. By the 1940s you took your pick as to which Liberal horse you wanted to ride. Ralph chose private enterprise, what he called "proper incentives" for the creative impulse, and rewards for hard work and skills. However, this never meant that he favoured unbridled private enterprise. He told Parliament: "We must devise a system which will take away from private enterprise the opportunity to exploit". He wanted an end to central planning that he described as "the cruel grip that results in paralysis of effort and restrictions on the freedom of the people". Hanan, too, was straddling horses. But his right leg was more firmly in place, and he always kept his balance.

Growing up in Southland, Ralph witnessed the benefits of private enterprise and an active state operating amidst a religiously diverse population. Invercargill was a melting pot. The original Scots settlers had been joined by a substantial Irish Catholic minority after the gold rushes. The Catholic Sir Joseph Ward was the Liberals' leader, and Invercargill's principal political panjandrum. Ward owned a large farmers' merchant company in the centre of town. He proved it was possible to be a Liberal, a Catholic, and a successful capitalist. In his decrepitude in 1925, Ward took over the seat of Invercargill when Joe Hanan retired from the House. Interestingly, Ward still called himself a Liberal in that election; he was the last person left in the country using that designation and soon dropped it. Yet, the Liberal tradition remained strongest in the south. In 1938 National's Invercargill candidate did something that was also exclusive to that city: he billed himself "Liberal National", although he didn't win.

Using the state to promote equal opportunities was one of Ralph Hanan's core beliefs. However, in his mind, as in Seddon's and Ward's, and in Uncle Joe's, there were limits to the things that the state should do. In 1960 Ralph twitted the Labour Opposition for being big on spending promises, but vague about their source of money, implying that Labour would raise taxes and reduce rewards for personal effort - another of liberalism's fundamentals.

These issues came more to the fore in the 1920s and probably explain why old Joe Hanan, and eventually young Ralph, associated themselves with activist members of the Reform Party, including Prime Minister Coates after 1925. Coates appointed Joe Hanan to the Legislative Council in 1926. By the time Ralph turned 20, his uncle's old party was, like Sir Joseph Ward, on its last legs. One can imagine that as a student at Waitaki Boys' High, then at Otago University, Ralph and his family were searching for a new political horse to ride. While Uncle Joe was eligible for Ward's last cabinet in 1928, there is no evidence that he was invited. I suspect that by now the Hanans had ceased to belong to any political party. There was no Liberal Party left; they weren't "United", which was Ward's new steed; but they hadn't yet joined Reform.

When the National Party was formed in May 1936 only a handful of MPs still used the term Liberal. It remained a convenient term to distinguish oneself from those coming into National from Reform. Some like Gordon Coates never used the L word in later years. Ralph Hanan, however, kept describing himself as a liberal longer than anyone. In his letter to electors as late as the 1957 election he said that he had always supported the "liberal view" in politics, adding: "I joined the National Party because I believe in the freedom of the individual, in equal opportunity for all and special privileges for none. I am proud to be associated with the liberal and progressive sentiments for which [Invercargill] is known.

To a considerable extent Ralph Hanan's career mirrored his uncle's. After law school, he became a solicitor in Invercargill, and was then elected an Invercargill councillor in 1935, aged 25. Ralph's civic pre-occupations reflected those of earlier Liberals. Like Ward, he wanted better public transport, and advocated "more modern and progressive business methods". On 11 May 1938, with his uncle at his elbow, Ralph topped the poll for the council, and became Deputy Mayor. He was only 28. When the Mayor died suddenly four months later, Ralph presided over the obsequies, and was then elected to the office on 19 October 1938 with a huge majority. His campaign slogan was "Advance Invercargill", and amongst his promises were concession tickets for workers on buses.

Those were the days before a later Minister of Local Government - me - sanctioned reasonable allowances for mayors and councillors, so Hanan had to continue at the bar, especially after he married in March 1939. War interrupted both his legal and local body careers, and it nearly snuffed out his life in the Western Desert where another soldier found him unconscious on the ground and heaved him on to the back of a lorry. He was invalided home in 1944. Almost certainly his relatively early death at 60 can be linked back to the war.

Home in Invercargill, public life held more allure than legal practice. Ralph found the Invercargill National Party looking for a high profile candidate for the 1946 election. It was a tough fight to dislodge the Labour MP, something Hanan managed by only 200 votes on the night. He traded on his reputation as a social liberal. Yet Invercargill never became a safe National seat, and Hanan always had cause to be nervous at election time. For political effect he continually played on his Liberal ancestry.

There were eight relatively young new backbenchers in the National caucus after 1946, with several others who had been elected three years earlier. Together they packed considerable punch against Peter Fraser's tired Labour Government. Tom Shand who was one of the new chums, spoke of rivalry. When it came to selecting a cabinet in December 1949, the new National Prime Minister, Sid Holland, picked only Jack Marshall and Wilf Fortune from the class of 1946. Nor did Holland pick Hanan after the waterfront election in September 1951, meaning that Marshall, a superior lawyer academically, and three years younger than Hanan, had a five year lead on him by the time Hanan first entered cabinet as Minister of Health and Minister of Immigration in 1954. It wasn't until Keith Holyoake's second ministry after the 1960 election, that Hanan caught up. He was ranked number 3 in the cabinet, just behind Marshall, now Deputy Prime Minister. Marshall's old portfolios in the Second Holyoake government were more to Hanan's liking: he was Attorney General, Minister of Justice, and, to his surprise, Minister of Maori Affairs.

From the beginning Hanan was a more active Minister of Justice than Marshall had been. Indeed, Hanan ranks with H.G.R. Mason, Jim McLay, and Geoffrey Palmer for the initiatives that poured from his office. From earlier lectures you'll be familiar with some of Hanan's achievements. Together, Secretary of Justice Jack Robson and Hanan made a remarkably active pair. Jim Cameron says of Robson: "[He] saw his role as one of taking the initiative, and that of the minister as telling him what the public would NOT stand". The two worked fairly harmoniously. Robson talked of Hanan's "fertile mind", and his "zest for politics", describing him as a "master tactician". In a nice line, Robson likened Hanan to a political rugby player who could pick the ball off his opponents' toes when they were about to score, break out of a back bench tackle, avoid the fellow from the weekly newspaper, and then pursue a zig-zag course to score in the corner.

As befitted two social liberals, Hanan and Robson worried about the growth of crime. Their prison reforming zeal was restrained, however, by the experience of the Mt Eden riots in 1965. Paremoremo maximum security prison resulted. Together Hanan and Robson commissioned a study called Crime in New Zealand. It traversed the psychological and sociological factors that lay behind crime in a manner that probably unnerved some National backbenchers, but the book won Hanan plaudits in avant garde legal circles. Minister Chris, as the intellectual descendant of Hanan, it might be time to commission another such study, looking at, amongst other things, the contribution that easy access to welfare makes to crime - a new factor since Hanan's time.

Jim Cameron argues that Robson influenced Hanan's thinking about establishing an Ombudsman's office, but it's a safe bet that neither man had any idea about what the office would grow into over the years. The Indecent Publications Act 1963 finally got to grips with an issue that had been around for years. The Tribunal had to decide on whether material submitted to it was beyond the pale. What should be submitted to the Tribunal became an interesting challenge. When Mick Connelly was Minister of Police 1972-75 he seemed to feel that as minister, he ought to decide personally. I well recall Mick sitting in Parliament one dreary evening surrounded by masses of indecent magazines. His leg bounced up and down at the best of times: it worked overtime that night. Journalists in the press gallery made their way to the Visitors' Gallery above Mick to enjoy an informal peep show.

I could talk about Ralph Hanan's time as Minister of Maori Affairs, but won't, except to make two points. Like many an old Liberal, Hanan displayed a theatrical streak by claiming to have discovered a "dust covered" Hunn Report and deciding to act on it. Actually, it had been published barely four months earlier, and his Secretary of Maori Affairs was none other than Jack Hunn himself. In my view that report needs re-reading, given the abject failure of much subsequent social policy for a majority of Maori.

Hanan's best-remembered contribution to the statute book, of course, was the abolition of capital punishment. The issue had been a live one for more than a quarter of a century. In 1935 Labour promised to abolish it, but, as Charles Ferrall and Rebecca Ellis have shown, the government found the time not politically opportune in 1936 when Eric Mareo was twice convicted of murder in two sensational trials. Repeal didn't take place until 1941 while Prime Minister Peter Fraser, an opponent of abolition, was overseas.

Capital punishment was Robson's preoccupation. Hanan consistently opposed it too, calling it "a very great moral issue". He fought its re-introduction in 1950, but felt constrained by the doctrine of cabinet solidarity when Roger Douglas' grandfather, W.T. Anderton, introduced a private member's bill in 1955 to banish the hangman. Hanan wanted a referendum. He believed that the abolitionists might win. Jack Marshall was certain they wouldn't, and that public opinion was firmly on the side of the hangman. Nothing resulted. The Nash government after 1957 had a majority of one. It simply commuted death sentences. Robson didn't rest. On 18 April 1961 abolition became the subject of a substantial submission to the new Minister of Justice. At first, Hanan wasn't keen to tackle the issue because of the numbers in his caucus preferring the noose. Robson reports that he was "somewhat dispirited and despondent," and contemplated resignation. But the National Committee for the Abolition of the Death Penalty was gaining publicity. Britain, too, was debating the issue after the Gower Commission's report in 1957. Everywhere opinions were turning.

In late 1961 I was at graduate school in the United States when the "Old Fox", as Hanan became known to his colleagues, carried off his coup, and had the death penalty abolished. Early in my time teaching at the University of Auckland, one of my students, now Dame Sister Pauline Engel, wrote her master's thesis on abolition. I supervised. Her father had been a member of the Public Service Tribunal. She knew Sam Barnett, John Robson, Eric Missen and Don Mackenzie personally. Donning her habit as a Mercy sister opened Justice Department files, and she gained an extensive interview with Ralph Hanan himself. All this was reported back to her fascinated supervisor. The thesis was published by the Department of Justice in 1977.

Both Robson and Engel tell the story of the end to capital punishment. Faced with a majority for the death penalty for "aggravated murder", Hanan decided to be upfront with colleagues and the public. He would shepherd the Bill through Parliament, but exercise his own conscience vote on an amendment removing the clause providing for the death penalty for "aggravated murder". Hanan's office informed the Committee for the Abolition of the Death Penalty when the clause would be debated, leading Holyoake to inquire of his dog-loving Attorney General whether he lifted his leg whenever he leaked. Lobbyists wound up the pressure on MPs. The churches became active, and the Evening Post and the Auckland Star were very vocal, the latter appealing to its readers with a banner headline: "Abolish and Be Done With It". Only the Otago Daily Times thought Hanan's conduct questionable.

Meantime, Hanan worked on National colleagues he believed susceptible, hoping to bring enough of them to the abolitionists' side. Astute as ever, he told them that if Parliament threw out the death penalty altogether, he would toughen up other penalties on crime, and would not seek to legalise homosexuality, another moral issue coming to the fore. Enough was enough for 1961.

As Pauline Engel shows, Hanan could never have succeeded had not Prime Minister Keith Holyoake adopted a benign attitude to his activism. Holyoake liked Hanan, describing him as "constructive, imaginative and creative". Hanan was also a useful counterweight to Jack Marshall, in the same way as Holyoake had used Jack Watts in his first ministry in 1957. Initially, the Prime Minister told Hanan not to overdo it lest there be a reaction within the National Party. But once he perceived that the numbers were shifting towards Hanan, Holyoake urged speed, even though he didn't intend personally to vote for abolition. He refused to refer the Crimes Bill to a select committee. Furthermore, he tolerated Hanan's fairly rough demolition job on Marshall's arguments for the noose for "aggravated murder" during the Second Reading debate. Between them, Hanan, and Labour's Arnold Nordmeyer, dented Jack Marshall's reputation as a liberal. Marshall was too polite to say it, but there seems to have been little love lost between the two after 1961. However, it suited the Prime Minister to have numbers two and three in his cabinet, one a provincial lawyer, the other a city legal heavyweight, uneasy with one another.

So Foxy Hanan's best-known achievement came partly courtesy of an equally foxy Prime Minister intent on self-preservation. Holyoake was a good reader of public opinion; abolition was not going to go away and needed settling once and for all.

Reviewing Hanan's role, tenacity of purpose from this scion of an old Invercargill Liberal family, resolute support from his departmental officers, artful lobbying of colleagues, and a bit of opportunistic encouragement from the Prime Minister, won the day for what was always a liberal's issue. Despite a number of further reforms, some of them illiberal, like the News Media Ownership Act, abolition secured Hanan's place in legal history. It certainly entitles him to the description of "liberal" - but with the qualification that it will always be hard to define exactly what that term means in modern New Zealand politics.