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Peter Stead: Herald leads the charge backwards again

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It is amusing, although not in the least surprising, that the Herald has pursued such a sustained and vehement campaign against the Electoral Finance Bill. For the Herald, with much of the New Zealand press, has a history of outspokenly opposing measures which, at the time, they believed to be foolish, irresponsible and the negation of sound government, but which history later saw to be forward-thinking, provident and commendable.

I recall the 1938 general election (I was 15 at the time). The first Labour Government, led by Michael Savage, had come to power in 1935, swept in by reaction to the General Depression and the perceived ineptitude of the United-Reform Coalition.

With Keynesian economic policies, (which found no favour with British financial sources of direly needed overseas funds), the new Government set about lifting the country out of the doldrums. And as speedily as possible, it sought to meet the plight of the poor, notably the aged, widows, invalids and solo mothers.

Towards the end of 1938, social security legislation (to provide for the needy "from the cradle to the grave", as Savage monotonously droned) had been passed. It was to come into force early in 1939. That meant that the November 1938 election was fought mainly on the issue of social security.

And the country was strongly divided over this legislation.

Every daily newspaper in the country, except the Grey River Argus on the West Coast, opposed it. The only way to stop this unworkable, economically unsustainable, socially dangerous social security was to prevent the return of Labour. And the Herald - the most significant daily in the country - led the charge.

Leading articles in the Herald made much of the newly formed National Party's lineage (which actually was somewhat tortuous) from the great Liberal Party of Richard John Seddon in the late 19th century, notable, and now respected on all sides, for its pioneering social legislation.

Seddon, himself, was frequently referred to, with something approaching reverence, for his far-sighted policies and strength of purpose. The contrast between the principled and democratic old Liberals with this dangerously irresponsible Labour Government and its socialistic welfare provisions was constantly hammered.

The Herald was at its crusading best - delighting in fulfilling its duty to inform, warn and guide. Which sounded good, until one looked into the archives, and, in particular, the Herald leading articles at the time of the Liberal Government and the great Richard John Seddon of revered memory.

There, phrase for phrase - sometimes word for word - the Liberals were castigated exactly as, now, in 1938, the Labour Government was being hounded for its legislation. The ground-breaking pension provisions of the Liberal Government were, then, ridiculed and condemned in the same language as social security was now being described. And, in 1938, Savage was being accused in exactly the same terms as the Herald had roundly criticised Seddon.

It is all there, in black and white.

No doubt the constant pressure of the country's press had some effect on the electorate, and persuaded many how unwise they would be to vote for the return of Labour and such perilous social engineering as social security.

But in 1938 the Government was returned with a greater majority. So the initial social security provisions began, as planned, early in 1939 - and, despite the following 4 1/2 years' of World War II, neither bankrupted nor morally ruined the country. And in ensuing years in many overseas countries, New Zealand's progressive social welfare provisions were recognised, commended and, in some, were emulated.

So, while I find myself regretting today's Herald crusade, and being somewhat bemused by it, I am relieved the pressure of the press does not determine an outcome.

Despite that, I trust wise people will look beyond the rhetoric, and appreciate there is some democratic wisdom in limiting the power of wealth to try to persuade the electorate how to choose its government.

But it is encouraging for our democracy that in recent decades the New Zealand press, in general, and the Herald, in particular, have been appreciably less constantly conservative politically than in the past.

Frankly, I always turn first in the Herald to the leading article, and (despite its occasional lapse) can generally appreciate its wisdom and balance.

* Peter Stead, of Waiheke Island, is a retired Methodist minister.

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