Labour 100: Gems from the Archives

Labour 100: Gems from the Archives

By Emma Kelly

As part of the Labour 100 Project, Archivist Dr Emma Kelly has been working with members or ex members of the New Zealand Labour Party to assess their records for potential deposit or donation to archives, museums or libraries. What follows is a snapshot of some of her recent work with Richard Northey and Therese O’Connell.

Richard Northey

Over the summer I visited Richard Northey, long time Labour Party member, scholar and MP who is currently a Waitematā City Councillor. Richard has kept an excellent collection of papers from his own personal work, but also diligently collated materials created by the Labour Party. Of particular interest are the Women’s, Youth and Māori Committee papers which were not originally
recorded as part of the formal proceedings at NZ Labour Party conferences, and the ephemera from various protests and rallies slipped into the NZLP conference attendee’s folders. Richard wrote an MA thesis on the Labour Party conference process and systems in the early 1970s. When asked why he kept everything so carefully Richard said that he wanted to ensure the Party did not forget what had gone before, and why various decisions were made.

Richard’s materials include communications with various Labour leaders; one such example being Bill Rowling at the time of Richard’s first campaign as a candidate, when he was standing against Robert Muldoon, the incumbent and Prime Minister, in 1981 in Tāmaki ward. Richard, as can be seen in his introduction to this piece, had been involved with Springbok Tour protests for quite some time as a young activist. However the Party did not feel it was proper for him to continue to do this once he was standing for a seat and both Jim Anderton as Party President told him so by phone, as did Rowling. Richard politely insisted that he would continue to campaign against apartheid. He did indeed, and also to fight for the rights of locals including Ngāti Whatua at Orakei.

One of his proudest moments was being invited back onto the marae at Bastion Point to see the development of the iwi’s plans there. Some of Richard Northey’s materials are already collected at the University of Auckland Special Collections as he is an alumnus of that institution. Other materials are currently being considered for deposit, and Emma Kelly is analysing a group of these related to central concerns of the Labour Party, and a box of records of Richard’s own long career in politics.

Richard Northey

Richard provided this contextual explanation of the archival document pictured above (a transcript follows):

‘I was proud of this particular research that I did in 1969 as part of an MA Paper on Māori and New Zealand parliamentary politics. In 1960 Labour Prime Minister Nash refused to intervene in the NZ Rugby Union’s decision not to select any non-European players for their scheduled winter 1960 tour of South Africa, as they had also done in 1949. I took part in my first protest march against that Tour and many urban, academic and young Māori and Pākehā were strongly opposed. The people that I interviewed are all dead now [Mat Rata (1), Brown Rewiti (2) and Ralph Love (3), are named in Richard’s notes] so I am happy that the hand-written notes can now also be released. I contacted and interviewed them all as people that I had come to know from involvement in the Labour Party, including at Labour Conferences. Steve Watene was the Labour MP for Eastern Māori from the 1960s. He was the first Labour Māori MP who was not a Ratana Church member so his selection by Labour as their candidate was path breaking (4).

It was interesting the contrast between Ralph Love, who joined the Labour Party before the Ratana connection and had some concerns about their influence, also believing that education and hard work were keys to Māori development; as compared to the Ratana Member Mat Rata who believed that there were continuing Treaty of Waitangi grievances that there was a priority to address.
Ratana Members are now nowhere near as numerous and influential in the Labour Party as they were in the 1960s although the Ratana relationship with Labour is still important.’

M.A. Seminar (Prof. Chapman)

R.J.Northey 24.6.69

‘Examine, and account for, the changing relationship between the Labour Party, the Ratana movement, and Maori voters from 1946 to the present day.’

The Labour Party’s attempts to set up their own Maori political organisation prior to 1935 were largely a failure. However the Ratana organisation had similar aims to Labour and was increasingly successful with Maori voters. The alliance between them meant that most of Labour’s Maori political organisation was set up outside the Party structure. When a Maori political structure was formally set up within the Labour Party it was dominated by and predominantly composed of Ratana adherents. Today Ratana adherents still make up more than half the membership of the Maori Policy Committee of the Labour Party’s Maori organisation in general, and have been the Labour Party’s parliamentary candidates except in Eastern Maori in 1963 and 1966.

This dominance has been retained although support for the Ratana movement has ceased to be the major reason for Maori voters supporting the Labour Party. The major reasons for this success by adherents of the Ratana Church are:

  1. Organisational ability and knowledge gained from activity in the Ratana movement and its youth organisation in particular.
  2. Experience and participation in a wide range of leadership positions in cultural, social and local government positions.
  3. The spiritual-political commitment of Ratana gives them a special loyalty to the Labour movement that keeps them active within it even when disappointed—and this continuing loyalty is an important factor in candidate selection.
  4. Because Ratana retains the ideal of holding the four quarters and Ratana adherents in the party have come to know and respect people they [sic] have come through Ratana organisations together, the Ratana majority within the Maori Party organisation tends to perpetuate Ratana members’ dominance of major positions in the Party.

When Labour’s Maori parliamentary candidates have been selected, pressure and activities from within the Ratana movement, although not from the official spiritual hierachy, have often played a very important role in deciding on the candidate. Steve Watene’s selection does not invalidate the importance of Ratana support in being selected because he was aided
by a split in Ratana’s ranks. Nevertheless the strength of Ratana adherents in the Labour Party’s organisation is not great by European political standards and could probably be overcome by people with sufficient organisational ability.

There has been a considerable change in emphasis in what has been the major concern of Maori members of the Labour Party over this period: i) Before and during the 1930s mainly land grievances. ii) During the Depression some desire for social welfare and equal rights. iii) After the war assistance in overcoming problems arising from urbanisation. iv) In the 1960s concern at the National government’s “integration” policies. v) A developing interest in national and international matters not of specifically Maori concern. This is novel and somewhat controversial among Maori opinions.

A revolution in Maori voting habits associated with the rise of the Ratana movement. It meant a break with sitting members, supporters of the party in power, candidates with mana derived from traditional attributes. Then from 1938 to 1954 the Labour share of the Maori vote continued to rise while its share of the Pakeha vote declined. Partly because of reassertion of the tradition of support for the sitting member but mainly appreciation of Labour’s politicy and the effects of urbanisation. This is confirmed by continued support for new Labour candidates in Western Maori in 1945 and 1949.

In 1960 Labour’s share of the Maori vote falls more heavily than any section of the European vote. A combination of the response of people on low incomes, and disappointment with the Labour government’s handling of the Maori Tour issue [this refers to Maori rugby players unable to travel to South Africa under the Apartheid regime to play] In the 1963 Northern Maori by-election Mat Rata suffered because of his lack of mana and traditional connections and continuing discontent with the Party of the ’57 to ’60 government.

Since then the Labour Party has gained from the recovery of the Maori political organisation and response to National Government measures. The Maori voters’ strong commitment to Labour is a result of:-

  1. Urbanisation and modernisation which has increasingly led Maori voters to view their voting in European-type terms of economic interest.
  2. A continuing appreciation of Labour’s policy and achievements for the Maori and a distrust of National Party policies and aims.
  3. The growing mana of the Maori members of parliament.
  4. The commitment to the Ratana movement is now less significant than any of these in Maori voting habits.

Appended to the document were handwritten notes from Richard Northey which said: ‘Please respect the privacy of my sources Mat Rata, Brown Reweti, and Ralph Love in particular’.

Therese O’Connell

I also visited with Therese O’Connell in Wellington to assess her archival materials for possible deposit or donation. Therese has been involved in the protest movements of the Left since the 1970s when she first came to Wellington from New Plymouth, where she grew up. She has also been a NZ Labour Party volunteer and member (currently of the Rongotai Women’s Branch). Therese
has been involved with the Irish independence movement through the H Block Committee and been lead singer for the resulting band ‘Ourselves Alone’; worked for Abortion Rights and Equal Pay, and was part of the Workers’ Communist League and the Clerical Worker’s Union, becoming the first woman to represent that Union on the Federation of Labour council (5).

In helping Therese to organise her letters, photos, flyers and posters, I learned much about Therese’s experience with the Labour Party and the union and protest movements, including difficult stories of standing up to sexism and bullying. Historian Grace Millar has simultaneously been interviewing Therese for the Clerical Worker’s Union project she is undertaking with Dr Cybèle
Locke, and between this group of women there is now an impressive collection of archival material. There is also an ongoing conversation about the struggles working women have to make to ensure their voices are heard within their own movements, as well as in the wider community. One of the striking things about this conversation is to find how many of the battles are ongoing—for equal pay, for equal rights to work, for the right to live without verbal or sexual assault as a constant threat, for the right to speak. In fact, Therese’s experience of singing came out of the women’s struggle to be heard in various union-related movements she was part of. She says that they weren’t always able to speak in various gatherings, but if they offered to be the entertainment, they could sing their concerns. Therese’s materials are a vital and valuable contribution to the archive and to her ongoing work (including her singing) which ensures that generations of women are able to work together, learning from each other to fight oppression.

Some of Therese O’Connell’s material has already been deposited at the Alexander Turnbull Library before this project began, and some as part of the Labour 100 Project. More will be donated to the J.C.Beaglehole Special Collection at Victoria University of Wellington. Items include papers, but also posters, badges, photos, flyers and a stamp Therese made in 1973 that says: ‘This Exploits Women’. Therese will be the speaker for the Rona Bailey Memorial Lecture this year, and she tells a great story as well as sings a mean song. She will be supported by a collective of feminist women singers called the ‘Feisty Feckin’ Fulltime Feminists’ who will sing some of the songs written by Therese and others, such as Pinky Agnew, that support the ongoing fight for social justice for women.

The card sent to Therese O’Connell by Belfast based feminists in the 1980s (shown in the print version of the bulletin) captures nicely the ongoing struggles mentioned by Therese in her conversations with us. The back of the card reads:

“None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter. In its march towards freedom the
working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off, and cheer all the louder if in its hatred of thraldom and passion for freedom the women’s army forges ahead of the military army of Labour.” James Connolly 1915 Card published by People’s Democracy, c/o New Horizon Bookshop, 6 Avoca Park, Belfast


1. Matiu Rata (26 March 1934 – 25 July 1997) was a New Zealand Māori politician from the Labour Party.

2. Paraone Brown Reweti QSO (17 November 1916 – 21 April 1996) was a New Zealand politician and Rātana morehu (adherent, literally ‘survivor’).

3. Sir Makere Rangiatea “Ralph” Love QSO JP (16 September 1907 – 22 August 1994) was a public servant and leader of the iwi Te Āti Awa.

4. The Ratana Church is based at Whanganui and is a predominantly Māori movement which has been associated with the New Zealand Labour Party since the 1930s.

5. “In 1975 the Working Women’s Council was formed, led by Sonja Davies. Two years later it issued the Working Women’s Charter, a bill of rights for working women. In 1978 Davies won a seat on the executive of the Federation of Labour (FoL). Joyce Hawe, the first Māori woman, followed in 1981. In 1986 a large hui (meeting) of Māori unionists, and representatives from other organisations, laid down conditions for remaining within existing unions. So did radical feminists. As well as traditional union concerns, wider social issues such as the Vietnam War and apartheid were now hotly debated at FoL conferences.” Erik Olssen, ‘Unions and employee organisations – Unions after 1960’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2017)