Monday, March 14, 2011

On the Holmes and Lewin case

An important example of this technique was the Holmes case in 1948. During that year state employees in all departments who co-operated on a body known as the Central Committee of the Combined State Service Organization, had been conducting a vigorous public campaign to bring the pay of the public servant to the general wage level prevailing in October 1947. The leader of this campaign was Lewin, chairman of the Central Committee and president of the Public Service Association, a man difficult to intimidate or subdue. The government were being politically embarrassed by these activities and Nash, as Finance Minister, did not want increased budgetary expenditure on public service salaries nor any more breaking the line on stabilization. This also was the view of Walsh. The political tactic decided on, therefore, was to discredit Lewin.

On 24 November 1948 the Government Film Unit delegate committee recommended a stop-work meeting to protest against inaction on the salary claim; Lewin and the Public Service Association secretary told the Unit they should meet outside working hours. Meanwhile, Holmes, an ex-naval officer, a film director in the Unit and its Association representative, had written to Lewin, at the direction of the Unit, urging the stop-work meeting and suggesting, in somewhat coarse but not unusual language, how the meeting should be handled.

The letter, which had been handed back by Lewin to Holmes with the intimation that it was no longer relevant, was in Holmes's satchel, together with personal and Association papers and his Communist Party card; this, with a camera, was left by Holmes in a government car which he was using to visit Parliament Buildings. The satchel and the camera were taken by an unnamed person and shown to Walsh, who saw their possibilities for making it appear that the state employee agitation was Communist-inspired. Nash did not at first agree to their use. The moral problem weighed on him. In addition, Lewin until shortly before had been his research secretary and a considerable originator of government economic policies. Nash also knew that Lewin's mother was dying. Nevertheless, in the face of an ultimatum from Walsh and some of his own colleagues that if he did not act they would do so over his head, Nash gave in and facsimiles of the stolen documents were released to the press 'from the Prime Minister's Department'. The most the heavily pressed Nash could achieve was to delay this until a week after the death of Lewin's mother. On 9 December 1948 Nash had sent Campbell, the chairman of the Public Service Commission, photostat copies of the Holmes letter together with a draft resolution allegedly written by Lewin 'so that the necessary action may be taken in terms of the Public Service Act 1912'. Lewin's mother died on 13 December and the stolen documents were released to the press on 21 December.

Two days before Christmas Holmes was dismissed without trial for 'an attitude of gross disobedience to authority'. The Supreme Court later set aside the annulment of Holmes's employment because it held that there had been a denial of natural justice in the method of his dismissal. The decision of the Supreme Court was upheld by the Court of Appeal, albeit on a different ground from that which had impressed the court of original jurisdiction. The government paid the equivalent of some nine months' salary to Holmes, who meantime had migrated to Australia.

But the object of the exercise, as the Public Service Association well knew, was Lewin and the discrediting of the salaries campaign, not Holmes. The idea was to show up Lewin as a Communist tool receiving familiar letters of instruction from a member of the party—this regardless of the facts that Lewin had had a hand in the drafting of the Labour Party's 1946 election manifesto and had in 1947, in the role of adviser, accompanied Nash on a round of important international economic conferences. However, an emergency session of the National Executive Council (the conference) of the Public Service Association, elected Lewin a life member. If necessary the Association was prepared to make him a paid president, and so united was it in his support that the move to sack him was abandoned. He was, however, 'kept in the deep freeze' in a technical branch of the Public Service.

This attack on the rights of trade unions and on individual liberty could have been made only in the hope that popular prejudice against Holmes's political affiliation would blind people to the sanction by the state of the theft of private correspondence. The tactic of 'smearing' was to be used again by subsequent administrations. [346-349]

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

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