New Zealand Labour History Conference: Culture and the Labour Movement

Several members of the Sydney branch were privileged indeed to attend the recent New Zealand conference on culture and the labour movement, held in Wellington on 20-21 October. Labour history would appear to be booming in west Bondi, and the editor feels an attack of superlatives coming on. Stimulating. Certainly! Thought-provoking. Indeed! Yet also heart warming for there is something reassuring about encountering so many grand labour historians working so energetically across the Tasman. (It is, after all, only three hours away and the plane fare is cheaper than going to Melbourne.) From the distinguished veterans like Bert Roth, whose work most Australians would be very aware of, (see Hummer 16) to the up and coming younger historians like Kerry Taylor who is working on a history of the N.Z. Communist Party, there is an abundance of talent and interest in the discipline of labour history.

On top of the local talent, the conference organisers had seen fit to import several ‘foreigners’ whose opening performances were also outstanding. Lenore Layman from Western Australia presented an erudite overview of the Australian labour history scene in the 1980s and directions for the 1990s. Alun Howkins, one of the History Workshop collective and from Sussex University, gave an entertaining address in which he outlined the ways in which British labour historians are currently approaching the subject of ‘culture’. He also confessed to both not understanding many of the articles in History Workshop, which is reassuring, and also to riding pillion on a motor scooter, as a mod, to participate in one of the famous battles between the mods and the rockers at Brighton (U.K.) in 1962. Make of that what you will! These addresses, together with the opening presentation of Nora Remeka, Joe Tepania and Tom Murray on ‘Maori and trade unions’ were an ideal appetiser for the weekend’s activities. The following papers were invariably well-researched and well-delivered. These will be published, so Hummer will keep readers aware of how this publication can be obtained.

The conference was sponsored by the (N.Z.) Trade Union History Project and they (especially big Francis Wevers, ‘the uncrowned king of Wellington labour’, together with Kerry Taylor and John Martin) are to be congratulated whole-heartedly. Clearly we must seek to maintain the closest possible links with our Kiwi comrades. Other pleasing features of the weekend activities were the plethora of social occasions, surrounding book launches and other such excuses for a Steinlager, together with the extensive press coverage which the conference generated. It seems unlikely that the Age will feature our forthcoming conference in July 1991 to the same extent as the Dominion did of this conference.

As a fitting finale to the conference most of its 150 or so participants then took part in the following day’s resurrection of Wellington’s Labor Day parade – a commemoration of its centenary. For the benefit of the New Zealand SIS, ASIO, MIS and others who continue to believe in the international Bolshevik conspiracy theory, the names of the foreign agitators were:

BURGMANN, B. (Australia)
JAMES, R. (Australia)
LAYMAN, L. (Australia)
MOORE, A. (Australia)

The parade’s numbers and enthusiasm suggested that even if the New Zealand Labour Party is well and truly moribund, the New Zealand labour movement is alive and well!