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Armageddon or Calvary: The Conscientious Objectors of New Zealand and "The Process of Their Conversion"

IV.—The Flood-Tide of Repression

page 14

IV.—The Flood-Tide of Repression.

No sooner was the campaign for Conscription seriously entered upon than the large halls, principally in the metropolis, were closed against the Labour Movement. Even the Wellington Town Hall was refused for the purpose of holding a public meeting under the auspices of the Labour Party to discuss the proposal. The proprietors of a local theatre tore up their agreement with the Social Democratic party; and when the people filled the Alexandria Hall to overflowing and hundreds clamoured outside for Anti-Conscriptionist speakers to address them, the speakers—Mr. P. C. Webb, M.P., Miss Adela Pankhurst, and the author—were prosecuted and penalised on a charge of "obstructing the traffic," notwithstanding that Abel-Smith Street on Sunday evening is positively devoid of traffic. On the same day, Mr. W. F. Massey addressed a crowd in Cuba Street—one of the city's busiest thoroughfares; but the class line was drawn far too rigidly to permit of any prosecution in his case.

The repressive War Regulations multiplied with the enactment of Conscription. Detectives were told off to follow up Labour meetings, and in due time Hansard reporters were sent to take verbatim reports of Labour speeches. When in December, 1916, the second great Anti-Conscription Conference, representing 50,000 Workers, was sitting, detectives appeared with orders to demand admittance—a demand which was, however, not complied with. Mr. Peter Fraser (now M.P. for Wellington Central), secretary of the Conference, was arrested while Conference was sitting; and the arrests of Messrs. Brindle, Armstrong, and a number of others followed in rapid succession. Messrs. Semple and Cooke had been arrested a few days earlier. Almost half the effective platform propagandists of the Labour Movement were placed behind prison bars. Then the pursuit of the men who voiced Labour sentiments became still more determined. For months, at every meeting I addressed—it did not matter what the subject was—a "Hansard" stenographer took a verbatim report at the press table, while a detective took notes in the body of the hall (apparently for the purpose of checking the shorthand reporter's notes), while two or three other detectives were also in the body of the hall.

A system of far-reaching espionage became part of the official programme. The letters of the Government's principal anti-militarist opponents were subjected to a censorship intended to be secret, but so clumsily carried out that it told its own tale. For considerably more than a year every letter which came to myself, whether addressed to my home or office, was opened and read and then reclosed neither neatly nor with regard for method or cleanliness. My letters were held up for periods which ranged from three days to a month. Letters to my wife from our sons in Australia were sub-page 15jected to the same scrutiny. Even the Christmas cards which came addressed to our children did not escape. This was not my experience alone. It was the experience of every person prominent in the Labour movement, the Peace Council, the Freedom League, the Women's League, and other organisations whose work menaced the interests of the Prussianists and the Profiteers. Of course, it was inevitable that in due time intelligence methods would be developed within the Labour movement which would render the system of espionage largely ineffective.

About this time two determined attempts were made from within to induce Cabinet, by War Regulation, to make it an act of sedition to advocate the Parliamentary repeal of Conscription. Fortunately for New Zealand—perhaps, also, for the Prussian-minded men responsible for the proposal—the infamous attempt against Constitutionalism was not agreed to by Cabinet.

Early in 1917 there came the first miners' go-slow strike, constituting an effort to secure a 17½ per cent, wages increase to enable the miners to meet, to some small extent, the enormous increase in the cost of living, which increase was largely the direct outcome of war profiteering. The Miners' Executive members were dragged away to jail, and a new Executive came into office; whereupon the rank and file, going over the heads of the Executive, declared a strike against Conscription. The strike was eventually called off as the result of a bargain between the Acting-Prime Minister and the Minister of Mines on the one hand and the Miners' Federation on the other hand, practically guaranteeing that the miners would not be conscripted for the army, and that the men concerned in the strike would not be prosecuted. Needless to say, the terms of the bargain were not honoured in their entirety, for the ink was scarcely dry on the signatures when Messrs. O'Brien and O'Rourke were arrested and sent to jail.

As a result of the strike, Mr. P. C. Webb, M.P. for Grey, was arrested on May Day of 1917, held without bail, and at last sentenced to three months' Jail. On his release he was accorded a reception by thousands of citizens of Grey, Westland, and Buller, which lives as the greatest event in the history of the West Coast.