Labour’s racist roots

Labour's Michael Joseph Savage: Labourites are still covering up for his anti-Chinese racism
Labour’s Michael Joseph Savage: Labourites are still covering up for his anti-Chinese racism

by Philip Ferguson

The racist, anti-Chinese ‘dog whistle’ statement by Labour’s housing spokesperson Phil Twyford in relation to people with “Chinese-sounding surnames” buying houses in Auckland and pushing up prices to where they make housing in the city impossible for most New Zealanders to buy has prompted a range of reactions.  National has rightly, but hypocritically, pointed to this being sheer racism.  The left has been divided between their commitment to anti-racist principles and their inability to totally break with the Labour Party.  A tiny number of Labour Party members have attacked the ‘dog whistle’ racism, while pro-Labour blogs have generally attempted to cover for the outfit’s virulently anti-Chinese racism, as have many Labour members and supporters.

People who have disgraced themselves over Labour’s anti-Chinese racism include veteran left political commentator Chris Trotter.  To his credit, Trotter parted company with Labour in 1989 and was a prominent figure in the early NLP/Alliance.  More recently, however, he seems to have made peace with Labour and his disgraceful position on the attempt to stir up anti-Chinese prejudice is part of the price he seems willing to pay to be a member of the club.

Matt McCarten, another founding figure of the NLP/Alliance and later the key figure in the radical Unite trade union, has also since made peace with Labour taking the job of chief-of-staff to the current Labour leader and his predecessor.  It seems likely that McCarten would have been an integral figure in the decision to play the anti-Chinese card.  And so much for the position of Unite leader Mike Treen who declared, at the time of McCarten’s defection to Labour, that the left should welcome this.

Labour’s anti-Chinese antics have, however, also occasioned strong criticism from other progressives.  For instance, Morgan Godfery of FIRST union, who also blogs at Maui Street, particularly on Maori rights issues, took a strong stand.  The anti-capitalist left, as opposed to the merely anti-National party left, have rejected the dog-whistle racism, although some yet to clearly abandon their flirtation with NZ nationalism.

In this article, however, I want to primarily look at the anti-Chinese racism of the early Labour Party, because this capitalist management team have form.  Big form.  Most of what follows is drawn from an article called “Labour’s racist roots” which appeared in issue 17 of revolution magazine, March-May 2002.  That, in turn, drew on some of my PhD research; in particular a section on the Labour Party that was part of chapter 9 of my doctoral thesis and which went up on Redline a few weeks ago.  (See the chapter links here; the references for all the quotes below are in the relevant part of chapter 9.)

The White New Zealand policy

In early 2002 Labour prime minister Helen Clark apologised to New Zealanders of Chinese descent for racist treatment through the immigration poll tax which was in place from 1881 to 1944.  What she didn’t do, of course, was apologise for the Labour Party, whose early leaders and MPs were virulently anti-Chinese and who campaigned for expanding the White New Zealand policies and attempted to outdo the Liberal and Reform parties to see who could be most racist against the Chinese in the few years after the First World War leading up to the legislation of 1920 which shut off Chinese immigration to New Zealand.

Over the years 1881-1920, when the door was finally firmly shut on Chinese workers, a number of measures were adopted to discriminate against the Chinese here, encourage those who were here to leave and discourage others, especially workers, from coming here.

In 1881 a poll tax was imposed on Chinese coming to New Zealand.  Originally set at £10 (already a lot money then), it was increased in 1896 to £100, a huge sum.  Additionally the number of Chinese to be allowed on ships was increasingly tightly restricted and in 1899 a language test was brought in.  Chinese immigration came to a virtual halt and Chinese numbers in the country fell substantially, from 5,004 in 1881 to 3,374 in 1921.  During the same time the total non-Maori population grew from 489,993 to 1,271,741.  The Chinese thus dropped as a percentage of the non-Maori population from 1.02 percent to 0.27 percent.

The roles of the liberal middle class and elite ideas on race

The driving force in the legislation here, as in Australia and Canada, was the liberal middle class social reformers, the same section of society that today gives us political correctness and apologies, albeit taking none of the responsibilities themselves for past sins.  Elite ideas on race also played a significant part.

However, the domination of the labour movement by bourgeois ideology also ensured that a number of trade unions and the early Labour Party were enthusiastic advocates and campaigners for White New Zealand.  A number of unions excluded the Chinese from membership and national gatherings of trade unionists demanded tighter restrictions.  From the early 1900s they often explicitly adopted the middle and upper class language of race and these privileged elements’ calls for a White New Zealand.

The place where such ideas were strongest was the Labour Party.  Indeed, while many on the left in this country argue that Labour was some kind of militant socialist party from its inception in 1916 until at least the 1930s, when Michael Joseph Savage took over following the death of Harry Holland, its first leader, an examination of Labour’s position on anti-Chinese and pro-White New Zealand policy indicates that this was not the case at all.

Labour on ‘race’ after World War 1

Labour gatherings after World War 1 indicate that both industrial unions and the party were strong supporters of the White New Zealand policy, increasingly using racial rather than economic arguments as justification.

For instance, the 1919 LP conference featured a remit from the Auckland Printers’ Machinists Union, “that conference appoint a committee to approach the Government with a view to prohibiting members of any colored race from entering New Zealand; failing this a more severe test of education should be placed on Hindoos.”  Instead of opposing such blatant racism, Savage and Holland succeeded in getting a motion passed to establish a committee to examine the immigration question.  As we shall see, this committee reported to the following year’s Labour Party conference.

At the start of June 1920, Auckland watersiders decided not to work ships carrying ‘Asiatic’ migrants.  A union official claimed, “The Chinaman is fast ousting the white man in the retail fruit trade.”  The ‘Hindoos’, meanwhile, were allegedly committing the terrible sin of hawking butter door-to-door.  The watersiders’ action was directed against what they saw as a “continuous stream” of Chinese and ‘Hindoos’ “pouring into” New Zealand.  The Auckland watersiders also warned of the danger of a “pibald population” if ‘Asiatics’ and whites merged.

Pushing for restriction

In April 1920 Labour MPs Michael Joseph Savage, Bill Parry and Frederick Bartram telegrammed Reform Party prime minister Massey asking that “steps be immediately taken  to deal with (the) menace” of an “alarming influx of Asiatics and other classes of cheap labour. . .”  The Labour figures argued that this influx inevitably involved “the lowering of the living standards of our people, as well as the probable deterioration in the physical standard of all races mixing indiscriminately. . .”

Here was a eugenics-type racist argument by Savage, Parry and Bartram, showing the degree to which middle and upper class racial ideology had penetrated the labour movement.

When the committee set up by the 1919 Labour Party conference reported to the 1920 conference, it criticised the existing levels of immigration from Europe but nevertheless felt that the “proper development” of New Zealand necessitated such white immigration.  It therefore criticised the government for not adequately curbing Asian immigration.

As well as repeating the old labour movement racialised view that Asians were being brought in as cheap labour, it expressed the now-dominant view from above that an Asian population in New Zealand “would result in an intermingling of the races detrimental to all”.  (Funnily enough, this was the argument the racists in South Africa used a few decades later to legitimise apartheid!)

The LP conference report called for a more difficult educational test to help keep the Chinese out.

Labour ditches internationalist pretences

Fighting for all workers to be covered by award wages, and welcoming and unionising migrant workers, were surely the best ways to prevent Asian, or any other, workers being used as cheap labour.  Yet the unions and the Labour Party did not draw this conclusion: racism got in the way.

The ‘cheap labour’ argument was not eclipsed by a radical, socialist alternative – open entry and the organisation of all workers – but by a more openly racialised standpoint, centred on racial purity.

Thus while one delegate, Kennedy, asked for more time to discuss the immigration committee’s report and criticised the lack of internationalism in the industrial wing of the labour movement, Red Fed ‘firebrand’ and leading LP figure Pat Hickey called for the racist report to be adopted without further ado and accentuated the racial argument.  The party’s paper, The Maoriland Worker, summarised Hickey as arguing that “It was as far as possible their duty to keep New Zealand white.  Internationalism did not mean a reckless intermingling of white and coloured races.”

In bed with the head of Massey’s Cossacks against the Chinese

Labour’s racism put it in bed with some interesting people, such as the right-wing nationalists of the National Defence League, which had been established from an April 9, 1920 meeting in Wellington.  Its president was Major-General Sir Andrew Russell.  Russell, who had been the head of ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ during the 1913 waterfront dispute, was a special guest at the Labour Party’s 1920 conference.  Russell, reported in the Maoriland Worker, told the assembled Labourites he was “strongly opposed to the invasion of German territory by uncivilised Black troops and thought such action was a grievous mistake”.  (A common racist upper class position of the time was that peoples of colour should not be armed or, if they were, they should never get the chance to beat whites, even your own white enemies.)

Russell told the assembled Labourites that he felt, in relation to the Massey government that if it “did not believe in a White New Zealand he would favour turning it out” and that “The danger to New Zealand unquestionably comes from the East”.

Russell’s speech to the conference is interesting not only for the racism it shows at the top of New Zealand society but because it shows that the NDL tried to appeal to the Labour Party on a racist basis and that Labour was only too happy to be appealed to on such a basis.

Labour MPs and the parliamentary debate on the 1920 Immigration Restriction Act

During the parliamentary debates on the 1920 anti-Chinese exclusion legislation, the Immigration Restriction Act, the Labour MPs’ speeches were consistent and uniform – and racist.  They indicated the party’s MPs’ acceptance of the racist outlook towards the Chinese.  In fact, what is interesting about the Labour MPs’ arguments is the degree to which they had shifted from the old argument of exclusion centred on economics, where the Chinese were attacked as cheap labour competition, to more explicitly racist and eugenist arguments.  Indeed, the way in which Labour MPs repeated the arguments of the elite politicians on the other benches is striking.

Moreover, like good school pupils seeking approval by their teachers, they went out of their way to emphasise how strongly they held these views.  Thus Michael Savage, for instance, declared that what was at issue was not only living standards but the “very law of life itself”.  Savage, whose knowledge of geography was perhaps in inverse proportion to his racist paranoia, fretted, “we are living practically within a stone’s throw of teeming millions, who continue to increase by millions annually, and (in Austraia and NZ) there are millions of acres of uninhabited territory”.  The education test needed to be made more severe, he argued.  (This was often known as the ‘Natal formula’ as it had been used in South Africa to have a racist law which could be presented as non-racist.)

Savage wanted not only a lot less Asian immigration, but for the reduced number to be made up of the better-educated only, a rather snobbish view for a party which claimed to represent those at the bottom of society and be internationalist.

During the passage of the legislation through parliament, both Savage and party leader Harry Holland attempt to make the legislation more restrictive.

Labour MPs also took great umbrage during the debate when any other MPs suggested they were in any way less reliable in maintaining the white racial purity of the country.  As Dan Sullivan (Avon) put it: “What I want to say quite definitely to the House is this: the Labour party is just as keen as any member of this House, or as any person or party in the country, to maintain racial purity here in New Zealand.  There can be no question at all about that. . . I desire to say further, in connection with the discussion, that the Labour party are wholly in accord with the desire to reduce Asian immigration to this country; we are satisfied that there is too much of it already.”

Sullivan then assured Invercargill Liberal MP Hanan that any impression he might have had about the lack of commitment of the labour movement to White New Zealand was quite wrong.  In fact, Sullivan attacked the bill for not going far enough, absurdly claiming “it is just as much an Asian immigration promotion Bill as it is an Asiatic restriction Bill.”

Apparently not understanding that the Liberal and Reform parties were just as racist as himself, he fretted that the discretionary power contained in the bill for the admission of immigrants might be used in future to let in Asians.  Then he emphasised, for the third time in his speech, “the fact that the Labour Party of this country is as keen to retain and preserve racial purity as any other party in this House.”  After yet another call for a more rigid education test and rigid numbers limits, he stated, for the third time in his speech, Labour’s opposition to miscegenation and support for “racial purity”.

‘Very definite and clear statement’

As if there could still be any possible doubt as to where the party stood, Labour’s Lyttelton MP, James McCombs, rose shortly afterwards and declared, “I want to put on record the very definite and very clear statement of the attitude of the Labour party on this immigration question, written before this bill was drafted.”  In other words, Labour was there before Reform and the Liberals, and this was something to be proud of.  He then read from a report from the party’s fourth annual conference, held that July: “That for the proper development of the country it is essential that the white population of the country should be increased by immigration. . . that a more adequate check should be placed upon Asiatic immigration. . . (and) that the presence of Asiatics in this country in any number and as permanent residents would result in an intermingling of the races detrimental to all.”

William Parry (Auckland) reiterated Labour’s hostility to Asian immigration, focusing again on racial purity.  Labour, he said, was “decidedly” and “absolutely” opposed to “unrestricted immigration of Asiatics” because “we believe that it wlould not be conducive to the best interests of this country for the indiscriminative intermingling of the races.”  The concern with the “best interests of the country”, rather than working class solidarity and internationalism, is also interesting as it shows the early Labour Party here, as in Australia, was primarily a nationalist party not a socialist party, despite the (essentially rhetorical) gestures towards the interests of the working class here and globally.

Frederick Bartram (Grey Lynn) whined that some non-Labour MPs who had spoken had been “far more anxious to slate the Labour party than to keep out Chinamen.”  Some MPs, he said, had argued that New Zealand should emulate Australia in keeping the country white.  “But it seems to me,” he said, “that we want to do something better than Australia, because Australia has not been at all successful in keeping out the Chinamen.”  Having criticised Australia for not being sufficiently racist, this Labour MP went on to criticise Nelson Liberal MP Harry Atmore, a strong advocate of White New Zealand, for not being sufficiently anti-Chinese.  (Atmore had favoured the use of Chinese labour in Samoa, whereas Labour wanted to kep them out.)

Having stated his support for White New Zealand and his hostility to the Chinese in the most forthright manner, Bartram went on to claim that he favoured the “brotherhood of man” and that Labour’s reason for opposing Chinese entry was to “keep as high as possible our standard of living”!

Bartram’s paranoia about the Chinese was quite extraordinary, even by Labour Party standards.  For instance, he even suggested that letting Chinese into Samoa was a risk to New Zealand security as “Such Chinamen, after they are sent back to their own country, are sure to become missionaries in China to spread the gospel of where to attack us in time of trouble.”

Ted Howard (Christchurch South) said that he had a very bad cold and so could not speak at length, but rose only long enough to record his “entire agreement” with the other Labour speakers.

Harry Holland

The most left-wing of the party’s MPs, Labour leader Harry Holland, opened his parliamentary speech on September 14 with the necessary internationalist bow that the same red blood ran through the veins of all humans, before proceeding to deal with the actual issue at hand – the exclusion of those same-blooded international brothers and sisters, the Chinese.  If anything, Holland favoured even tighter exclusion than that of what he viewed as the two Tory parties.  Presenting Labour’s position, he declared:

“We think that a bona fide education test should be imposed – a test in English and arithmetic according to the New Zealand Sixth Standard; that there should be a definite limitation of the numbers of Asiatics entering New Zealand in any given year; and that the numbers so limited should be exceedingly lower than the numbers coming into New Zealand at the present time.”  (In committee, on September 16, Holland failed to get his proposal passed for tightening the education test.  Massey, for instance, argued that Holland’s proposed restrictions were too extreme.)

In committee, he also moved a motion that the total number of “Asiatic immigrants” per year not be allowed to exceed 100.  Only the Labour MPs and Downie Stewart supported Holland’s motion; Savage then moved a motion that the number be restricted to 110; this received 20 votes.  During the main debate in parliament, Sullivan suggested only 50-100 Chinese be allowed in per year.

Of course, the numbers coming in were actually very, very small and the Chinese population in New Zealand, as noted above, was minuscule.

Moreover, Holland shared not only Reform and the Liberals’ desire for a Chinese-free New Zealand but also their view that this was a country in which British citizenship was central.  One of his complaints about the draft legislation was that it undermined the value of British citizenship!

Independent Labour MPs Edward Kellett (Dunedin North) and Sydney Smith (Taranaki) spoke as keen supporters of White New Zealand.  Kellett favoured outright exclusion rather than some form of diplomatic agreement with China to keep immigration from there to New Zealand as low as possible.  “I object to one coming in,” he continued.  He also claimed “the evil of mixed breed” was evident in Samoa, in Wellington and, indeed, “all over New Zealand: and it is time we stopped it absolutely, and the only way we can do so is by restricting the entry of even one Asiatic.”

Kellett also seemed to find the competition of Chinese especially objectionable not so much in the labour market, but in the small business sector, for instance in laundries and among traders.  Smith, meanwhile, declared, “As a young New Zealander who has an intense love of his country, I believe in the prevention of Chinese and  Hindus coming into this country, as I consider their presence here is a menace to our people.”  He quoted from a press clipping of a talk given in Sydney by a missionary in Fiji, Rev. Piper.  Piper feared the “native races” of the Pacific passing away and that Fiji would become a “little India”.  The missionary worried that Indians in Fiji had lost caste distinctions and become slum dwellers divorced from religion and morality.

As the legislation was going through, we also find racist sentiments in the Maoriland Worker.  For instance, the ‘Parliamentary Notes’ in the paper expressed pleasure that the debate on the new legislation showed that “the menace of the East was more clearly feared than any Bolshevik bogey.”

Of the Labour Party MPs who spoke, it said, “All of them pointed out that while they give whole-hearted adherence to the working class principles of internationalism, they were most certainly opposed to any influx of Asiatic workers and would vote for drastic restriction.”  The “colour problem” would be fatal to New Zealand workers’ living standards and worker solidarity, it claimed.

In fact the view expressed in the Maoriland Worker, along with the speeches of the Labour MPs, shows that was fatal was the distinct lack of real internationalism.  If a Chinese presence in New Zealand would undermine workers’ solidarity, as the Maoriland Worker claimed, then what is really being argued is that internationalism and class solidarity are to apply only to white workers rather than to all workers.  Or, at best, that working class internationalism was simply a flowery phrase to be trotted out for high-minded speech-making, used to try to fool the gullible, but certainly not to be applied in practice.

Thus the 1920 conference, which wanted stiffer controls on Asians and expressed horror at racial “intermingling”, could simultaneously adopt motions in favour of equal opportunity for all on the planet regardless of colour, creed, sex, nationality or culture!

Given the actual practice of the party, these latter motions should be taken as seriously as the long-time Labour official policy to nationalise the means of production, distribution and exchange.

Massey was certainly happy with Labour’s position, noting that the debate was free of the acrimony that was often found in debates over other issues in parliament.  As one of his fellow Reform Party MPs, David Jones (Kaiapoi), noted, “There is not a member of this House that is not desirous of excluding the foreign element – not a member of it.”

The 1920 legislation in practice effectively cut off Chinese entry and therefore the labour movement, especially the Labour Party, had essentially gotten what they wanted.  Mainstream agitation against Chinese immigration therefore largely ceased, although anti-Chinese campaigns certainly didn’t stop.  For instance, several years later, there was a moral panic, stirred up by people like Ngata, over Chinese market gardeners allegedly making out with young Maori women in the vegetable patches!

Some Labour MPs, like Savage, were also so anti-Chinese that they simply couldn’t leave things alone, even though they had helped cut off Chinese immigration.  Thus on October 4, 1920, he raised a question in parliament about some Chinese allegedly entering the country without having paid the poll tax.  The minister of customs assured him that this was not the case.

One comment

  1. Do you see the world merging into one culture, sort of like an unstreamed educational scenario? Do you agree with keeping places for education for Maori doctors?

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