Monday, March 14, 2011

On the burning of the new Social Security department offices in Aitken Street

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To house the Social Security Department a new office building was approaching completion. This was in Aitken Street, Wellington, in the shadow of Parliament. For the voter it became the material symbol of the social security framework universal suffrage had erected. Such were the deep emotions stirred by the parliamentary struggle over the Social Security Act and the tension of the subsequent elections that the burning down of the unfinished social security building in February 1939 was felt by the majority not only as a national calamity but as the working of the dark forces they felt their votes had overcome. The majority of people had suffered in the depression, they were strongly moved when their leader, Harry Holland, died, they seemed almost exalted when his party steadily gave them warmth and hope.

The social security building had to be replaced and replaced immediately. While the fire brigade were still on the job the head of New Zealand's largest construction firm, James Fletcher, put his organization at cabinet's disposal and, with the help of the Public Works Department and the construction firm of R. C. Love, undertook within six weeks to build new social security offices on reclaimed land at Aotea Quay. The government paid for materials and labour. The contractors took no profit and the building trades unions worked two ten-hour shifts, night and day, in a six-day sixty-hour week while Wellington citizens daily visited the job to share, to encourage, and to offer, at breaks, refreshment to weary workers. Within six weeks the building was up and on 27 March 1939 it was officially opened by Savage in the presence of thousands of people, in time to mark, five days later, the defeat of poverty. [240-241]

W.B. Sutch. The Quest for Security in New Zealand, 1940 to 1966. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1966.

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