Rona Bailey was an icon of left-wing politics in New Zealand as well as being a founding member of the Trade Union History Project Committee.
To acknowledge her massive contribution to both of these causes-and trade unionism in New Zealand-the committee determined after her death in September 2005 that it would commemorate her memory by holding a biennial lecture in her honour.
Historian and writer Dick Scott to gave the Second Rona Bailey Memorial Lecture in the Rona Bailey Room at Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School at 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, on 3 December 2009, at 7.00pm. The lecture was followed by Chris Prowse and fellow musicians performing songs from his recently written musical Trouble on The Waterfront.
Dick Scott had a long association with Rona Bailey going back to the 1951 waterfront lockout in which Rona played a leading role clandestinely printing and distributing the watersiders’ pamphlets and newsletters which were banned under the government’s emergency legislation. Dick was both active in, and writing on the dispute in The Transport Worker and this work later evolved into his first book, 151 Days (1952).
Dick Scott had a long association with Rona Bailey going back to the 1951 waterfront lockout in which Rona played a leading role clandestinely printing and distributing the watersiders‚Äô pamphlets and newsletters which were banned under the government‚Äôs emergency legislation. Dick was both active in, and writing on the dispute in The Transport Worker and this work later evolved into his first book, 151 Days (1952), an account of the dispute and its ramifications for the state of civil liberties and union ‚Äòfreedoms‚Äô in New Zealand.
Dick wrote a number of other stimulating New Zealand histories over a 50-year career, covering a wide range of topics: viticulture, local history, Pacific history, farming and business. Many people regard Ask That Mountain, (1975) ‚Äì a fuller account of his earlier work The Parihaka Story (1954) ‚Äì the story of New Zealand‚Äôs first peace activists Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi at Parihaka as his tour-de-force. My favourites among his other publications are Seven Lives on Salt River (1979) an account of settlement around the Kaipara Harbour, which won a number of awards; and Would a Good Man Die? Niue Island, New Zealand and the late Mr Larsen (1993), a damning account of New Zealand‚Äôs patronising colonial rule on Niue in explanation of the chief administrator‚Äôs murder. His last book, a memoir, A Radical Writer‚Äôs Life was published in November 2004 to enthusiastic audiences. The Labour History Project was instrumental in arranging a Wellington launch for this book in December of that year.
Text of Dick Scott’s Rona Bailey Memorial Lecture
Celebrating the life of Rona Bailey is celebrating significant years of New Zealand history. But my introduction to Rona was at the level of a 21-year old sharemilker who had just lived in a cowshed; one who was being granted temporary accommodation by an unknown fellow Communist when he found a Wellington friend’s house already full. I had joined the Communist Party in Palmerston North at 19 and joint political beliefs smoothed out my ignorance of Rona’s middle class life. I was to sleep on a divan – what was that? I was offered coffee – black or white? What was that? The only coffee I knew was a murky grey, a thick syrup from a big square Symington’s Coffee & Chicory bottle my father stirred with boiling water and heavy doses of milk and sugar.
The regular stream of visitors to Rona’s modern flat was just as daunting. The main New Zealander who had fed my political journey with a string of books was Dr William Sutch; about to take a high United Nations post, he was simply Bill Sutch. Another was an exciting left-wing economist, Wolfgang Rosenberg, a refugee from Nazi Germany (he became a friend). Well-remembered is Labour MP Martyn Findlay’s first wife Peggy who insisted on ironing my baggy grey flannel trousers when she learned I was about to wear them at my, so to speak, urgent and necessary marriage to Rona’s flatmate, 28-year-old Elsie Mary du Fresne.
High level public servants, union officials, actors and dancers (Rona later taught at the New Zealand Drama School) all populated my learning curve, but none struck me spell-bound like the New Zealand Rhodes Scholar, John Platts-Mills, who became a rebel Labour MP in the British House of Commons. He spent a magical evening with us unveiling the strategy and tactics of political powerhouses on the other side of the globe. He made the remedies of the left – most certainly the far left – the correct prescription for the post-war world.
Rona Meek, as she was then named, was living with her future husband Chip Bailey, a Marxist devotee later expelled from the Party as a case of chronic individualism. The previous marriage to Ronald Meek, a communist, but tightly academic university lecturer who played loud classical music on rising (not an easy start to the day for a folk-music enthusiast) was soon terminated. Meek, after all, was hardly the name for a vivid personality like Rona. Meek went to Britain where he became a highly-regarded political economy professor.
As the daughter of conservative Gisborne parents Rona had been pointed leftwards as a 12-year-old by a teacher (she was her aunt) who spoke of a growing gap between rich and poor, a lesson supported by the sight of the Gisborne unemployed protest march to Wellington.
Rona made an action-packed visit to America in 1937-39, one that consolidated her political view. She heard a speech by Harry Bridges, the great San Francisco waterfront leader, attended a concert of the famous black singer Paul Robeson, a former college football star, lawyer, and Communist who fought the cruel racism of his country, cruelty well emphasised for Rona by her experience seeing hooded night riders circling around a burning cross in Virginia. Even her study of dance in New York was a radical event, for left-wing theatre had rejected ballet and ballroom.
In 1947, she traveled overseas again to visit Britain, attend a World Youth Festival in communist Czechoslovakia and to visit Yugoslavia where for three weeks she joined an international group of volunteers who were helping to build a railway. A highlight was meeting Marshal Tito.
New Zealand was soon to offer its own contribution to high-level politics. In February 1951 the government imposed extreme restrictions on watersiders. In 151 Days, my history of the lockout, it was accurately described as a fascist blueprint. And this unlimited censorship of the written word, the spoken word and the people’s very thoughts was handed to the police with powers of enforcement to match.
Trial by jury was automatically jettisoned by the Public Safety Conservation Act under which the regulations were proclaimed, and the Court was also empowered to ‘admit such evidence as it thinks fit, whether such evidence would be admissible in other proceedings or not’. But in the regulations the Court itself was set aside.
The shipowners had asked for the American Taft-Hartley laws. Even unions in the land of Taft-Hartley were outraged by the severity of these regulations. Said Voice, organ of the U.S. Marine Cooks’ and Stewards’ Union:
‘If any relative of a New Zealand docker now on strike visits that docker’s home and gives him a couple of bucks to help feed his wife and kids a New Zealand police sergeant has the right to break into the house and arrest the relative… he can break into a citizen’s home just if he imagines the occupant is thinking ‘this strike breaking stinks’…. Fantastic? No. Fascistic. And it is the lengths to which the Government has gone….’
The supreme irony of the situation was that as the Governor-General put on his plumes, set his jaw in the vicinity of its stern 1913 lines and heralded the regulations by proclaiming a state of emergency because the watersiders had taken action ‘of such a nature and on so extensive a scale as to be calculated… to deprive a substantial portion of the community of the essentials of life’, 8000 watersiders were still offering each morning to work a 40-hour week and the Tasman Steam-ship Company’s Union Trader was being worked an 11-hour day by Auckland wharfies— for 5/2 an hour.
Hone Tuwhare, in his poem After 151 Days of Rain highlights the violence that descended on any protest:
‘Armed marines, steel-helmeted – running
That day in the streets, batons whistled just
like a tui strangling; a wharfie crumpled
in the gutter with blood rushing to his face.’
‘It was like being set down in a foreign land the first days,’ I later wrote in a history of 1951. ‘In streets warm with autumn sunshine the people hurried to work, shopped and went about their business, but under the pall of the regulations they could as well be in police-ridden Madrid.’
Blanket censorship left the Transport Worker, the watersiders’ monthly union paper which I edited, in deep trouble. Nothing could be printed or published ‘likely to encourage, procure, incite, aid or abet a declared strike or that is a report of any such statement made by any other person’. The wrong written word, like the wrong spoken word, was good for three months’ hard labour, a £100 fine, or both.
‘Do You Remember This?’ the first regulation-restricted front page asked in March, reprinting a 1933 London Times report of how ‘the great free trade unions of Germany were taken over by the Nazis… their newspapers seized….’ The parallel was spelt out:
‘If the regulations would or could be fully enforced, New Zealand would become a vast prison.’
A TUC reprint of the article, a Henry Lawson poem, I’m Too Old to Rat on the back page, was seized at the post office, the first pamphlet listed in government warrants ‘to open and detain mail’.
The April issue carried the Nazi analogy further:
‘One of the oldest and most famous union papers in Germany came out for the last time with its front page article on ‘How to Grow Tomatoes’. By the strict terms of the regulations the German editor would find that subject no protection in this country: For would it not help striking workers feed their families! (Section 8(c)). Would it not suggest a missile to be hurled at ‘free labourers’? (Section 15(4)). Would it ‘satisfy’ a constable! (Section 12(e)).’
The last reference mocked the power given a constable to arrest without warrant any person ‘at or near any premises’ who ‘fails to satisfy that constable that his attendance is not an offence against this regulation’. ‘This is not the joke it seems,’ I wrote.
‘No wrong-headed, foolish or vicious action is impossible where wrongheaded, foolish or vicious men are given unlimited licence without the check of Parliament or the people.’
The banner headline read, ‘How Not To Grow Tomatoes’, with a subheading, ‘Demand Parliament Be Called! Repeal the Regulations! Defend Trade Union Democracy!’
And so for five months the paper flirted with prosecution, framing articles with an eye to bringing ridicule on the government should charges be laid. Historical allegory, weapon of the silenced in dictatorships, must have had its successes. ‘A paper like the Transport Worker… should be controlled all the time,’ Police Minister Fortune told Parliament in defending the regulations; ‘It… should never have been born. There was no more scurrilous paper in New Zealand.’
Running through a notebook with jottings from earlier reading I was pleased to find the Russian poet Nekrassov’s lines had taken my student fancy:
‘We hear the voice of approbation
Not in dulcet sounds of praise,
But in savage howls and vituperation.’
The printed word as weapon, a recent memory of how the French underground press defied the Gestapo, gave defiance of our government’s edicts a crusading ring. In head-on confrontation a flood of illegal union bulletins, leaflets and posters poured across the country. Homes were raided in search of printing presses and people suspected of distribution were arrested in the street, but the flood rolled on.
I contributed several pamphlets, none more popular than government supporting union leader FP Walsh’s potted biography, If It’s Treachery Get Tuohy! (Tuohy was his original name). Copies of the first edition of 6000 changed hands for as much as £5.
The Walsh pamphlet was reissued in many forms around the country, taking the number produced to around 40,000, a printed edition organised by the poet Ron Mason, editor of Challenge, the Auckland Labourers’ Union paper, providing tasty additional paragraphs on the man’s financial gerrymandering.
Two friends, Max Bollinger and Chip Bailey, helped produce my underground work. Max, with almost larger-than-life zest for his freedom illustrations, made pygmies of the tyrants in more ways than one, while Chip typed the wax stencils always to an appealing layout, and operated the Gestetner duplicator. We worked as a team throughout the emergency, too security-alert to use the telephone (the government was ever indignant in its denial of phone- tapping) or to meet together at any stage of publication.
Late at night Rona and Chip distributed the leaflets and pamphlets around Wellington. There were police raids on both our homes. Our raid seemed a little less severe than the Baileys.
A late knock at the door, raincoated figures in the porch, police uniforms ringing the house – the night raids that had increased around the country had brought a search without warrant to our place. ‘Acting on information received,’ they said. We had floor-to-ceiling drapes the full length of the living room (tall windows retrieved from an earthquake-damaged wing of Porirua Mental Hospital explained such an unusual pre-Plischke innovation) and, pressing forward as if a battery of illegal printing presses lay ahead, the plainclothes team swept the curtains aside, almost stubbing their noses on the glass.
They went on to explore other rooms less enthusiastically. Paper seemed (seems) to accumulate in many piles around the house – until the squad leader, ‘Call me Dave’ Paterson, a journalist-turned-detective well named for his ever-friendly approach, pounced on red-hot evidence poking from a heap of newspapers. A corner of the cover of my pamphlet, Workers v Holland — Holland v NZ, was showing, one published by The Early Bird Press, its logo a crowing rooster perched on a police helmet. He snatched it out, Bollinger’s Sidney George Holland on display, limbs contorted to form a swastika – but it was only a reproduction of the cover in the Australian miners’ paper Common Cause. I could hardly be arrested for another country’s readiness to cast slurs on our National Party leader. There were more boxes of books, many more papers stored under the house but the search party left it all unexamined. ‘Call me Dave’ had had enough. Or perhaps, as a former Waikato Times reporter, he had retained some respect for freedom of the press. At the dispute’s fiftieth anniversary, the NZ Herald reported after interviewing him in his 80s that
‘Mr Paterson recommends that those wanting to know about that tumultuous event should consult a book by a man whose home he had once raided… Mr Paterson regrets lending out a copy which never came back.’
There was a similar raid on Rona and Chip’s home, which she described at the 50th anniversary of the lockout in 2001.
I left the Communist Party behind in my late 20s. Mostly an undercover member, I had been unaware of how the leadership operated. Rona remained a life-long member but our political differences did not ruin the friendship.
In 1956 we joined in a West Coast visit. She was collecting folk songs for Shanties By The Way and I was researching Coast memories of its radical Irish and industrial labour past.
Our last radical alliance was in the 1981 campaign against New Zealand playing rugby with racist South Africa. But we operated at different ends of the North Island. She was batoned and left bloodied in the battle of Molesworth Street, as David Grant has described it.
In my case I had paraded a Springbok tour banner with the figures of a government massacre at a black township, it read ‘Sharpville Score 128 to nil’. It triggered a raging response, one bulky football devotee pulling at the scoreboard with one hand and punching with the other. That the banner was nailed to a pole, nail ends protruding, left me still in possession when I hit the ground. My son Mark who planted the deciding heavy blow to the assailant’s jaw was rewarded by bleeding scratches on his own arm as it brushed past the pole.
With infrequent visits to Wellington in the years ahead I seldom called on Rona and with infrequent visits to Auckland to see her grand-daughter she seldom called on us. An extract from her 2003 letter indicates the situation:
‘Dear Dick, Good to hear your voice on the phone… still hope to get to Auckland later in the year. One realizes that at 88, the recovery time is much slower, especially as I am told I’m to have a whole knee reconstruction so I’ll just have to be patient! It’s balance that has gone, so I’m going to do some weight lifting to see if that will improve it! But enough – it’s a boring subject….’
Two years later Rona died. The 1500-word obituary by Peter Kitchin in the Dominion Post headlined ‘Unfettered by Convention’ gave a highly enthusiastic account of her life. The last words have this to say:
‘Mrs Bailey was no trendy gadfly. Her activism was born of a lifelong commitment to the disadvantaged and she put in the long hours – decade after decade…. In the pursuit of social justice she was tireless, but she also believed that while history was there to be shaped, life was also for living and to be enjoyed. She was actively involved in the country’s cultural life, particularly in theatre and dance. She taught movement to aspiring actors. She co-edited ‘Shanties By The Way’, a groundbreaking piece of research about New Zealand Folk Songs…. She always held dear central tenets of socialism, though she expressed more interest in ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity that the strict application of communist theory and its human cost.
I wrote to thank Rona’s daughter Meg for sending Kitchin’s obituary and an invitation for Sue and me to attend a celebration of her mother’s life. ‘As you can imagine’, she wrote, ‘we have a committee to organise the event but you can be sure it won’t run as smoothly as any Rona had anything to do with.’
’Dear Meg, thanks a million for the extraordinarily detailed obit’, I replied. ’Hard to believe a capitalist, overseas-owned newspaper would demonstrate the details of such a wonderful radical life. Before your letter arrived we had asked if a date had been set for the celebration as we want to attend.’
The celebration ‘Remembering Rona Bailey’ was alive with song and dance. To end this talk it would be fair to say that with Rona’s life so packed with activity I’ve only managed to cover a fraction of it. To face reality I must admit that at my age of 86, I would have needed all the energy she had to do justice to her.