Intriguing Last Words. Remembering Stan Rodger (1940-2022)

STAN RODGER, Minister of Labour, and Minister of State Services in the Fourth Labour Government, died on Sunday, 29 May 2022, aged 82. Between 1978 and 1986, Stan was my Member of Parliament. In 1984, that crucial year which saw the fall of Robert Muldoon and his right-wing populist National Government, I found myself on Stan’s campaign team for the Dunedin North Labour Electorate Committee.

The Labour Party of 1984 was a monstrous creature. It’s branch membership, alone, was close to 100,000, with another quarter-of-a-million trade union members affiliated to the party. It also possessed a large and highly vocal left-wing: people who took the Party’s pledge to promote the cause of “democratic socialism” seriously.

One morning, early in 1984, three old comrades from the student protest movements of the 1970s chanced to run into one another in the student union cafeteria at the University of Otago. To our considerable consternation, we discovered that all three of us were working on the campaign committees of Labour MPs and candidates. Radical leftists who had laughed at the pretentions of Labour claimants to that title, now found themselves designing pamphlets, organising photo-shoots, and analysing canvassing returns. “Has it truly come to this?” We asked ourselves. “Have we all become fucking social-democrats!”

Within days of that embarrassing reunion, I had put a new set of words to the tune of Cliff Richard’s 1963 hit “We’re All Going On A Summer Holiday”.

We’re all working for a Labour victory

No more Trotsky, no more Lenin or Mao.

We’re all working for a Labour victory,

I’m glad the comrades cannot see us now!

Stan Rodger had a pretty good feel for the political leanings of the people he worked with. Certainly, he could recognise the many and various shades of red radicalism with relative ease. I was not the only “democratic socialist” on his campaign committee, although it is fair to say that we were easily outnumbered by the Labour moderates among whom Stan felt most comfortable. What distinguished him from practically every other member of the Labour caucus at that time, however, was his conviction that, to retain its political “soul”, the party needed to encompass the full range of democratic left-wing opinion. In the hierarchy of Labour’s “broad church”, that made Stan an Archbishop – at the very least!

Before his death, Stan Rodger allowed himself to be interviewed by the veteran political journalist, Richard Harman. In the course of that interview, Stan revealed something very few people outside the upper echelons of the trade union movement of the 1960s – and the Security Intelligence Service – knew anything about. Stan only learned the secret because he was a rising star in the Public Service Association (of which he would eventually become president) as well as being a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Works.

According to Harman, as Stan started moving up the ranks of the PSA he encountered a highly organised underground movement within the PSA intended to advance the ideology and clout of the far-left.

“Stan might have been a member of a political party that was still nominally socialist,” writes Harman on his Politik website of Tuesday, 31 May 2022, “but like most Labour Party members, he subscribed to Michael Joseph Savage’s argument that the party’s philosophy was actually ‘applied Christianity’. Stan, said Harman, “had no time for pure socialism or Marxism.”

But, Marxists there were in the public service: “a new cohort of university graduates with far-left views was making itself felt in Wellington.” According to Stan, the wartime Labour Government of Peter Fraser had placed many of these young firebrands in the Department of Industries and Commerce (DIC).

Now, as any good Kiwi leftist knows, the Department of Trade and Industry (as the DIC was renamed) came to be headed-up by New Zealand’s most effective left-wing intellectual, William (Bill) Sutch – the man who, in 1974, was charged with espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union – and acquitted.

Stan’s principal antagonist, however, wasn’t Sutch, but John P Lewin. Lewin, a former President of the PSA, senior official at Industries and Commerce and, ultimately, Government Statistician, was the man who, according to Stan, became the unofficial leader of a far-left group within the PSA, calling itself the Korero Group.

“It had many key activists in the PSA within it,” Stan told Harman, “with Lewin driving it out of the Trade and Industry department. And Jim Turner, the last member that I knew that was in it, told me it always ran with huge discipline and would even expel people out of the Korero. It essentially ran the PSA at arm’s length through the executive.”

What Stan Rodger has held back until he was safely beyond the reach of controversy are the bones of an explanation for one of the most devastating hit-jobs in the history of New Zealand political journalism. The exposé was published in the right-wing weekly newspaper, Truth, in July 1975, and it purported to expose a “plot” to socialise much of the New Zealand economy which had been hatched on behalf of Labour Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, by Labour MP, Gerald O’Brien, Bill Sutch and Jack Lewin.

Dismissed by Labour supporters at the time as just one more example of an increasingly sinister series of leaks and rumours (what we would, today, call “fake news”) intended to disorient and dismay the electorate in the run-up to the 1975 general election, Truth’s “Plot” may have been something else altogether.

If Stan Rodger knew about the Korero Group, so, almost certainly, did the SIS. Unable to prevent the likes of Sutch and Lewin rising high in the government department at the cutting edge of economic policy, the Security Services likely became increasingly fixated on the extent to which the “far-left” bureaucrats at Trade and Industry were influencing the direction of New Zealand economic development.

It is possible, therefore, that right through the 1960s, and into the 1970s, there was a race between the Left and the Right to find a group of politicians with the courage to undertake a drastic reform of the New Zealand economy. The persecution of Sutch, and the “fake news” about a plot to socialise the New Zealand economy (almost certainly leaked to Truth by the SIS) both bear testimony to the “Deep State’s” fear that the “hugely disciplined” left-wing “cell” in Trade and Industry had already found, or was about to find, the group it was looking for.

As the man who made certain that David Lange entered Parliament, Stan Rodger, set in motion the political sequence of events that culminated, ironically, in an equally disciplined group of ideologically-driven bureaucrats – this time concentrated in the Treasury – finding the group of politicians it had been looking for. The politicians who were to give us “Rogernomics”.

With Stan Rodger’s passing it is no longer possible to ask him if he saw the rise and rise of the neoliberal “cell” at Treasury as clearly as he saw the defusing and dispersal of the Trade and Industry Marxists and the Korero Group. I wonder if he would have agreed that there was a moment, at some point during those extraordinary post-war years, when New Zealand could have gone in an entirely different direction.

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