Climate change and ‘generational moments’

by Don Franks

Many Greens are understandably dismayed that the incoming Minister for Climate Change is denied a seat in cabinet. Labour’s political clamp on Green co-leader James Shaw is the latest in a growing list of environmental political disappointments. As political reporter Marc Daalder noted earlier this year: “Jacinda Ardern launched her campaign in 2017 with the claim that climate change was ‘my generation’s nuclear-free moment.’ It was always an ambitious piece of rhetoric and now, after two-and-a-half years of retreat after retreat on climate policy, the promise seems a good PR line and little more”. I think there’s some point in looking back to see what the nuclear-free generation actually did come up with in their moment. Repeated propaganda from above usually gives total credit to Labour prime minister David Lange. My observations at the time told me different. Foremost in the struggle against nuclear weapons were not politicians. They were anti-war activists, afforded leverage by ordinary seafarers and waterside workers whose names never went up in lights. Below is a piece of these people’s history, the text of a talk I gave to Peace Action Wellington and later published in The Spark.

June 8 marked the 20th anniversary of Labour’s New Zealand Nuclear-Free Zone Disarmament and Arms Control Act, which established New Zealand as a nuclear free zone. Unsurprisingly, Labour politicians have been dining out on the occasion. Prime Minister Helen Clark and other Labour politicians in Parliament when the anti nuclear law was passed 20 years ago paraded for photo opportunities with anti nuclear “badges of honour” pinned on themselves. A Dunedin student told the Spark: “I noticed on campus yesterday that Young Labour have posters up everywhere trumpeting the anti-nuclear legislation as proof of how wonderful the Fourth Labour Government was, plus they have organised a public meeting to try and capitalise on the recent 20th anniversary.”

The mythology

Indeed, the mythology and general perception is that we owe New Zealand’s nuclear free status to the principle and will of Labour politicians. This version of history is summarized in a paper prepared for the San Francisco Peace Studies Association by Auckland academic Peter R Wills: “In the late 1970s … a Pacific-wide flax-roots movement for the creation of a nuclear free zone gained a foothold in mainstream politics in Aotearoa. Between 1971 and 1976, a period dominated by a Labour administration, visits by nuclear-powered vessels were temporarily halted due to concern about liability in the event of an accident in a local port. After gaining power in 1975, a new National government instituted formal safety procedures for the regulation of visits by nuclear-powered vessels and simultaneously accepted a secret assurance from the United States concerning liability in the event of a nuclear weapon accident in a local port. The government encouraged port visits by American warships as a direct challenge to intensifying anti-nuclear sentiment. The opposition Labour party developed a comprehensive anti-nuclear policy which was put into force after its election to power in 1984.

After its election in 1984, the new Labour government held to its declared anti-nuclear position, and in February 1985 refused permission for the American destroyer Buchanan to visit, because there was no guarantee that it did not carry nuclear weapons.”Most mainstream bourgeois historians do make something of a nod in the direction of the protest movement. Addressing the Auckland Branch of Engineers for Social responsibility, Dr Robert White credited the 1984 Labour Government with “the dedication to establish a nuclear-free policy”, adding: “At that time there were enormous protests in New Zealand about nuclear weapons. There were huge marches with tens of thousands of people, and the peace squadron flotilla, all with people protesting the possible presence of nuclear weapons in NZ on these ships.”

Harder to find among the thousands of words written on the mass anti-nuclear movement is acknowledgement of its strongest political component: organised workers. Labour’s refusal to dock the US destroyer USS Buchanan in 1985 was not the real engine room of anti-nuclear defiance. By 1985 the organised working class had already set and insisted on the anti-nuclear agenda. In 1976 the nuclear warship USS Truxtun first tried to harbour in Wellington. The response of maritime workers was to strike for the 6 days Truxtun was in port. Workers shut down the port again when the Truxtun revisited in 1980. As the anti-nuclear movement grew, the opposition pulled out every stop to try and derail it. Prior to Truxtun‘s third visit in 1982, US Vice-President George Bush came here in person demanding a welcome for his warship. Bush received the most humiliating political knock-back. At the Federation of Labour conference that year, workers’ antiwar feeling was so strong that a resolution was carried calling on all Wellington unions to strike against the Truxtun for 2 hours. This time, port workers were joined by 10,000 other unionists, from cooks and car assemblers to public servants. Even the cleaners at the US embassy stopped. This display of mass union power gave huge encouragement to the rest of the antiwar movement ­ and put heavy pressure on politicians.

Over the top of David Lange’s strenuous objections, his Labour Party conference called for unilateral withdrawal from military alliances with nations possessing nuclear weapons. It is no exaggeration to record that our nuclear-free policy was hauled into being on the backs of organised workers. Today it would be much harder to repeat that sort of performance. Privatisation reforms of the 1984 Labour government decimated the ranks of blue-collar unionists and demoralized organised labour generally. The fourth Labour government of David Lange ambushed, confused and weakened the union movement. In consequence, organised labour was in no fit state to oppose National’s union-busting Employment Contracts Act of 1991. Many unionists hoped that a future Labour government would repeal the ECA, and Labour was largely re-elected on a promise to do just that. However, being a party absolutely committed to capitalism, Labour retained almost all the anti-worker clauses of the ECA in its own Employment Relations Act. Consequently, workers striking today against nuclear weapons or any other political matter risk punishment by fines or imprisonment. As yuppie Labour politicians bask in the putrescent glow of their own self-praise, our job is to organise their downfall and replacement with genuine worker representation.