Skip to content

‘Poi E: The Story of our Song’ wins 2017 Bert Roth Award

Each year the LHP gives out the Bert Roth Award to the best work in labour history.  The award was given at our AGM. We highly recommend all the works on the short-list to our members and everyone interested in Labour History.

This year’s Bert Roth Award short list shows the strengths of New Zealand labour history.  Over the last twelve months people have written books, directed movies, acted in plays and undertaken theses that explore the history of work and resistance in New Zealand.  The time periods depicted range from 1830 to the present day and describe the lives of miners and artists as well as discussing identify formation, resistance and state control inside and outside the workplace.

We awarded the prize to Poi E: The Story of Our Song. This beautiful, brilliant, joyful movie tells the story of Dalvanius Prime and Patea Māori Club’s song ‘Poi E’ – the first pop hit in Te Reo.  The song ‘Poi E’ was created at the juncture of two forces changing New Zealand society in the 1970s and 1980s – deindustrialisation and the flourishing of Māori political and social resistance.  Poi E was released in the aftermath of the closure of the Patea Freezing Works and that closure is woven into the history of the song.  The documentary Poi E vividly brings that history to life – we see meetings and marches about the closure of the freezing-works.  The complexities of the 1980s are brought to life with the footage of newly elected Prime Minister David Lange enthusiastically applauding the success of the song ‘Poi E’ at a fancy event celebrating the music industry.

As well as weaving the history and implications of deindustrialisation into the story of ‘Poi E’, this documentary also explores an important set of questions about cultural production and resistance.  The work of cultural creation is shown to include the work of creative individuals such as Davinius Prime and Ngoi Pēwhairangi and also a wide range of fundraisers, food providers and other community members.  We see the production of art in its larger social context.  In this document, art is both work and resistance; we see how the creation of this song was an act of resistance itself and also gave strength to generations that followed.   The documentary is energetic, engaging and joyous as befits the song. It’s a brilliant movie that everyone should see and we’re delighted to give it the award.

Short List

Nicola Braid. ‘A Man’s Environment’? The Petone Workingmen’s Club and Masculinity in New Zealand after 1945.  MA Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2016.

Barbara Brookes. A History of New Zealand Women, Bridget Williams Books, 2016.

Elinor Chisholm. ‘Individual and Collective Action for Healthy Rental Housing in New Zealand an historic and Contemporary Study’, PhD, University of Otago, 2016.

Jared Davidson. Fighting War: Anarchists, Wobblies and the New Zealand State, 1905-1925, Rebel Press, 2016 

Ngarino Ellis.  A Whakapapa of Tradition: 100 Years of Ngati Porou Carving, 1830-1930. Auckland University Press, 2016.

Peter Franks and Jim McAloon. The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016, Victoria University Press, 2016.

Pike River, directed by Rupert MacKenzie, Sofia Wenborn, 2016.

Poi E: The Story of our Song, directed by Tearepa Kahi, 2016.

Scarlet & Gold: Remember Waihi by Lorae Parry.  Directed by Kate Jason Smith.  Choreographer Jan Bolwell.  Circa Theatre, Wellington. 25 November – 22 December 2016

Elizabeth Stanley. The Road to Hell: State Violence against Children in Postwar New Zealand, Auckland University Press, 2016.

Like Poi E: The Story of Our Song, other works on the shortlist were innovative in the way they told labour history stories. Scarlet & Gold showed that a play can be a very powerful way to retell/re-member an historical event, in this case the 1912 Waihi goldminers strike: causes were personified in characters, background facts were conveyed through dialogue and events made real in action.   Lorae Parry discovered the story of the strike on a visit to Waihi researching the life of her great, great uncle William (‘Bill’) Parry who was President of the Waihi Miners and Workers Union at the time of the strike, and later a Cabinet Minister in the first Labour Government. 23 characters carried not only the details of the events leading up to the strike, the strike itself and its consequences, but the national and international contexts. The play opens with a Māori challenge to prospectors for gold on Māori land. The mine manager discusses with his wife the pressure from the mine owners in London to reduce production and expenses as share prices fall.  The manager’s wife talks to her maid about her suffragette sister at ‘home’ being force-fed in prison. The widow of a miner dead of lung disease and the mother of a boy injured in a mine accident join other wives, mothers, sisters and daughters continuing the fight when many of the men are arrested and imprisoned in Mount Eden gaol. We see dancing and singing at a solidarity social in the miners’ hall where Fred Evans will die a brutal death.  Scarlet & Gold premiered on the small stage in the little theatre at Circa, where a full house is 100 people.  The challenges of confining a play of such magnitude were met creatively and with great success.

Pike River, a docu-drama, made recent labour history much more accessible by dramatizing it.  The grotesque tragedy at Pike River has featured regularly on the Bert Roth award shortlist as the lies the companies told after they had caused the death of 29 people were exposed. This documentary uses a variety of techniques, including talking heads and re-enactments, to make what happened at Pike River widely accessible. Importantly, the documentary shows the long history of the mine and how systematic the contempt for workers’ lives was.  The documentary makers deserve enormous credit for their effort ensure that people knew what had happened at Pike River.

Jim McAloon and Peter Franks’ history of the Labour Party also sits squarely within Labour history, and this impressive and well researched book adds much to our knowledge. As well as covering the big names of the Labour Party there are glimpses of the culture of the labour party – debutante balls and fundraisers. The Preface is a tour de force with its close examination of the historiography of the Labour Party and its place in international social democracy and it will be essential reading for future students and militants. The rest of the book covers all the essential history in a readable and clear manner.

Jared Davidson’s history of resisting is part of a historiographical tradition that was started by those early resisters. Davidson’s pamphlet tells the story of men and women in Aotearoa who opposed the state, militarism and a world at war in the early decades of the twentieth century. The focus is on the activities of anarchists and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Their views were a minority, Davidson writes, and their influence hard to quantify. Nevertheless, they were of major concern to those in power. ‘Fearful of wartime industrial unrest and in order to avoid a repeat of the 1912 and 1913 strikes’, Davidson writes, ‘the National Coalition government used the pretext of war conditions to suppress any hint of labour military’, Indeed, the actions of anarchists and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) received intense state scrutiny, resulting in sedition charges, jail time, and deportation. Davidson’s pamphlet not only focuses on the years of the First World War, but includes to the pre-war period of militarism, evident by the introduction of Compulsory Military Service (CMT). It also extends to the period after the war. As Davidson notes, despite the end of the war, surveillance of anarchists and the IWW continued.  In these years of commemorative events and histories for the First World War, Davidson adds what he calls a sub-narrative to New Zealand’s home front experience, and wider conscientious objection to the First World War.

Barbara Brookes’ A History of New Zealand Women is labour history and also so much more than labour history.  Brookes explores many aspects of women’s lives in this tour de force. The incredible collection of photographs in this book are by themselves a major contribution to understanding women’s history in Aotearoa. Each chapter, often each page, has examples and discussions of the work women have done. It’s a book dense with information, but a delight to read. It covers a huge range of women’s experiences. It’s a major contribution to New Zealand historiography in general and labour history in particular.

Nicola Braid’s thesis also demonstrates the importance of looking at gender when writing Labour History.  Braid makes an important contribution to our understandings of masculinity in New Zealand, by adding men’s voices, their lived experience, to the written record. The  men she interviewed were members of the Working Men’s Club, a manifestation of the ways the men ‘directly equated their sense of self with their working lives or according to their work ethic’.  The men were born in the 1940s and ‘50s and occupied an ‘intergenerational’ space between WWII ‘Hard Man’ masculinity and today’s ‘New Man’ ‘sensitive new age guy’ they showed in the interviews ‘how expectations of men have changed over time’ and how they understood and responded to those changes. They constructed their young, educated, female interviewer as either an ‘honorary male’ or a ‘nurturing female‘ according to what they found was convenient or comfortable at the that stage of the interview. The men’s use of different models of masculinity within their interviews suggests that masculine identities are ‘plural, moveable discourses that the men could choose to engage with or not.’  The significance of this thesis is in its complicating of our understandings of masculinity, by including working class men’s articulation of their own identity.

The remaining three nominees probably did not think they were writing Labour History, but nonetheless shone important life on people’s work, life and resistance. Like Poi E: The Story of Our Song, Ngarino Ellis’s history of carving shows that art can be a site of resistance and explores the way its creation is shaped by material circumstances. Over 1830-1930, a century of social-cultural upheaval, Māori art and architecture underwent a ‘radical transformation’: ‘Three dominant art forms – whaka taua (war canoes), pātaka (decorated store houses) and whare rangatira (chiefs’ houses) – were replaced by whare karakia (churches), whare whakairo (decorated meeting houses) and wharekai (dining halls).’  Ngarino Ellis focuses on what became known as the Iwirākaukau School of Carving, and the ‘Super Six’ Ngāti Porou carvers in particular, to explore continuity and change as they negotiate ‘retaining and breaking with tradition.’ New skills, new tools and new ways of working necessitated by the size of the new buildings are shown to enable specialization, separating the role of carver and builder, which had, in the past, been one.  Increasing Māori engagement in a cash economy, adds money to the food, housing, entertainment and gifts ‘paid’ to the carver, the size of these sums demonstrating the status and value of the carver. Two case studies comparing Māori and Pākehā patrons and projects demonstrate differing definitions of tradition and the role of the worker/carver. In this comprehensive consideration of the reframing and re-forming of traditions to retain their meaning and purpose, the author details innovation, change and continuity in the work and working lives of a group of Ngati Porou carvers.

There is no question that Elizabeth Stanley’s book The Road to Hell: State Violence against Children in Postwar New Zealand is important – and brilliant – research.  The question for our committee was is it Labour History? We decided that it is an important part of post-war Labour History. Stanley’s book is about working-class children. She showed how the state policed certain types of working-class families. Her research is important in its own right. In addition, without understanding the harsh punishment the state meted out to young people whose existence crossed certain boundaries, we cannot understanding working-class families in the post-war period. Stanley’s work is upsetting and important and must be integrated into historians’ understanding of the time.

Finally, Eleanor Chisholm undertook her PhD thesis in a public health department and used history to show how important tenant’s advocacy is to good housing. Following a discussion of how housing effects health, and how tenants represent their interests both as individuals and collectively, Chisholm details five key phases of tenant protest in New Zealand. Early tenant protest (1916-1922), Depression era tenant protest (1929-1935), tenant protest in the 1970s and 1980s (1969-1986), protest during the housing reforms of the Neoliberal era (1991-1999) and more recent protest against community re-development (2011-2015). During each period, tenant protest responded to different issues, and with varying strategies. But what connects the historic case studies is the focus on power as the social determinant of health and the ability of tenants to individually and collectively represent their interest in order to obtain healthy housing. Chisholm also effectively demonstrates how tenant protest contributed considerable gains for tenants. For labour historians, of particular relevance are the sections that detail the connections between tenant protest and the labour movement.