EJANZH: Graeme Dunstall reviews John E. Martin

John E.Martin, Holding the Balance. A History of New Zealand’s Department of Labour 1891-1995, Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 1996, 478 pp.

Reviewed by Graeme Dunstall, Department of History, University of Canterbury.

New Zealand’s Department of Labour has been a pivotal agency in the development of a highly centralised and interventionist state. It acquired a greater range of functions than similar agencies elsewhere. Beginning as an employment bureau, it experimented with a short-lived state farm. The Department soon became responsible for enforcing a wide range of labour legislation, including the creation and administration of New Zealand’s first state housing scheme. It supervised weights and measures, controlled rents, established a Home Aid Service, registered those liable for military training, ran hostels, became involved in promoting and controlling immigration, and (from the late 1970s) organised job-creation and training schemes as part of an extensive involvement in the labour market. Yet in no respect has the extent of the Labour Department’s direct intervention in New Zealand’s economic life been so significant than in its regulation of workplace and industrial relations.

All these elements of the Labour Department’s activity, and more, are covered in what is a `public history’. This currently fashionable term defines the book’s origins and approach. Written by a senior historian in another state agency, the Historical Branch, it reflects both the desire of the Labour Department to have its `organisational story’ told, as well as the Branch’s objective to produce a well-researched account, accessible to a non-specialist reader, setting the development of a state agency’s activities in a wider context.

Measured by these broad objectives, it is an effective `public history’ – detailed, lucid, and attractively presented with a variety of illustrations and panels containing potted biographies breaking up the text. Snippets from interviews periodically breathe life into personalities. Appendices contain a chronology, lists of ministers and Departmental heads, organisational charts, statistical tables and graphs. Relevant archival and printed sources have been mined; comprehensive footnotes and bibliography point the way for future researchers. Martin, who has already made an important contribution to New Zealand’s labour history, is sometimes a revisionist, both on points of detail and on larger themes in the historiography of New Zealand’s industrial relations and the state’s employment policies. But apart from explicitly siding with Gary Hawke’s view of the government’s response to the depression of the early 1930s, revisionist comment is confined to the footnotes.

Rather than adopting a fully thematic approach, Martin’s discussion of diverse departmental activities is integrated into an organisational story divided into seven chronological chapters: the 1890s, 1900-13, 1914-28, 1929-45, 1946-67, 1968-84, and 1984-95. Thus the development (or stagnation) of policies and administration is set within the main phases of New Zealand’s political and economic life. The Labour Department is not, however, seen within a wider bureaucratic context. There is little comparative comment to assess its distinctiveness or otherwise in its leadership, patterns of staff recruitment (including women), or its processes of administrative change, for example.

Typically, this public history is a narrative, rather than argumentative; bland rather than critical; aimed at a reader looking for information and an overview rather than a close appraisal of policies and administration. It tells a story of institutional accomplishments rather than failure.

What then is Martin’s perspective? An important element is summed up in the title: `Holding the Balance’. Martin notes the `crusading, reformist role’ of the Department under its first administrative head, Edward Tregear, and the shift to a `more neutral stance’ thereafter. In part, Martin sees `neutrality’ as serving `political masters even-handedly’ – necessary when the Reform party supplanted the Liberals with new attitudes to a system of industrial relations based on state-enforced arbitration. Another dimension of ‘neutrality’ was the shift in the Department’s position by the late 1920s away from protecting wages and conditions and towards `the broader national interest’ – a `third party’ stance espoused more clearly from the 1940s as control of industrial relations became increasingly centralised `in corporatist decision-making structures’. As the balance swung between the interests of unions and employers however, the Labour Department’s promotion and enforcement of workplace and industrial relations legislation could be seen by either of the contending parties (and especially by the unions) as lacking neutrality.

In fact, Martin’s account suggests that, as experience showed the futility of penalising unions for striking, the departmental view developed from the 1960s that the state should not intervene in industrial disputes. This bureaucratic perspective diverged from that of governments until accepted by a new Minister in the third Labour Government from 1984. Remedies for strikes and lockouts were then provided through civil law in a Labour Court. Though the Department then supported the national award system (a legacy of the arbitration system as it had evolved since the 1890s), the withdrawal of the state from intervening in industrial relations set a path towards the dismantling of the hundred-year-old framework of industrial relations by a National Government in its Employment Contracts Act 1991.

A parallel transition in the departmental role can be seen regarding occupational health and safety. For nearly a century the scope of direct departmental policing of workplaces expanded. From the 1970s, departmental thinking changed, and eventually the politicians were ready: in 1992 state-monitored self-regulation by employers and workers replaced a reliance on external policing.

Such changes raise questions about the relative influence of bureaucrats and politicians in shaping and reshaping the Department’s role; and about the impact of departmental activities. Martin provides no assessment concerning the first question, and only a brief answer for the second. The fundamental changes of the 1990s might suggest long-term inadequacies rather than accomplishment. Martin, however, sees the Department’s role as having been `vital’ in protecting working conditions and in the functioning of the labour market. Clearly the impact of a court-based arbitration system was profound in New Zealand’s industrial relations, and in economic life and social welfare more broadly. But Martin provides no overall appraisal of the Department’s role in shaping its impact.

Altogether, this is a substantial contribution to the history of New Zealand government departments. Historians with specialist interests may well find that it provokes more questions than it answers.

First published on-line 8 June 1997