Nationbuilding in Nelson

Today is Budget day in New Zealand and so no one is probably much interested in reading about other economic stuff.  And after the ickiness and dysfunction of some of the stuff I dealt with in yesterday’s post, I wanted a change too.  After my post the other day about nationbuilding, a reader sent me a few links to pieces about the planned Nelson railway and cotton-mill, the economic case for which might, as he put it, be considered ‘thread-bare’.

For younger readers, this all happened a very long time ago.  In fact, I first recall reading about it in 1974 or 75.  I was a budding (very young) political junkie, and my grandfather  – a denizen of the “elite Glandovey Road” (Brian Easton’s term in The Nationbuilders)  – had been given a (distinctly unwanted) copy of Robert Muldoon’s first book, The Rise and Fall of a Young Turk, which he had passed on to me.   In that book, Muldoon recounts his role in a backbench rebellion that helped overturn this nationbuilding, or blatant electioneering, project.

In the 1950s Nelson appears to have been something of a backwater –  a rather pleasant one, no doubt, to judge from Geoffrey Palmer’s account of growing up there then, as the son of the local newspaper editor.  There had long been a hankering for a rail connection from Nelson to the main trunk line.  But the National government of the 1950s had actually been bold enough to close down the local railway line that had operated, wildly economically, for a long time.  As the 1957 election approached, Labour promised to build a railway line from Nelson to Blenheim, thus connecting with the main trunk line.  Labour took the seat in that election, and became government on a rather slim majority.

In March 1960, the Prime Minister went to Nelson to start the earthmoving machines on the new station.  As Muldoon puts it

The railway, of course, should normally have been commenced from the Blenheim end, which was the railhead, but the votes were in Nelson

Sir John Marshall’s memoirs –  he was the minister who had to deal with all after the 1960 change of government  – record of Nash

At the same time he announced –  rather prematurely, since no agreement had been signed –  that Nelson would also have a new cotton mill to provide freight for the railway and jobs for Nelsonians.

This announcement apparently went into quite some detail. Nash’s biographer, Keith Sinclair, records

The boards of the companies had not yet approved the project. Neither they nor the Department nor the Minister wanted the project announced. But Nash liked giving away presents.  At the railway ceremony he said that Nelson was to have a 4 million pound cotton spinning, weaving, and processing mill. Initially it would produce meat wraps, denim, drills, sheetings and the like.

The 1957-60 government had devoted a lot of effort to attracting foreign companies to manufacture here, to take advantage of the high protective barriers –  raised further by that government –  which made local production cheaper than importing finished product, if one could even get a licence to import the finished product.

The next election was approaching and initial negotiations for the cotton mill fell through, which left the government in something of a bind.  The government had to secure a deal, and did so “after talks between the company and the Department which lasted only a few days”.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the deal proved to have a lot of loose drafting.

A British company would import cotton from Britain (in turn presumably imported from India or the US), and would be guaranteed 80 per cent of the New Zealand market for the first few years.  There was even talk of export markets developing.

As Sinclair records, “there was a public outcry”.  Most newspapers opposed it, as did many business groups.  Even the Manufacturers’ Federation couldn’t support the deal, as it had many clothing and textile manufacturers among its members.    As Sinclair records

“The cotton project was criticized on many grounds. For instance, it hindered the expansion of trade with Asia. To many conservatives and economists the whole concept of a state-guaranteed monopoly was anathema.  But probably more important was a feeling that there was something ludicrous about starting a cotton industry, based on imported cotton in New Zealand.”

Labour lost the 1960 election – doomed by the 1958 “Black Budget” rather than by industrial policy.  Labour’s share of the total vote dropped by 5.87 percentage points.  As Sinclair records, however

Labour’s biggest gain was in Nelson, were the vote rose 2.76 per cent. Apparently the cotton mill had pleased some people.

Shortly after the December election, even the feisty head of the union movement –  F P Walsh –  attacked the deal as the “best racket ever”.

The British company, Smith and Nephew, had moved fast once the deal was signed and within months had, in Marshall’s terms “lost no time in purchasing land, planning the mill, and letting contracts for plant and machinery”. [Could anyone move that fast with today’s planning and resource management laws?] so that things were well underway by the time the government changed.      Approached by the British company, the new government agreed that the contract the previous government had signed was binding and must be honoured.   They had badly misread public and business sentiment.

In Marshall’s words

Throughout the year 1961 these pressure groups grew in strength and vehemence.  As time went on others joined the fray: the Meat Board, the Constitutional Society, the Chambers of Commerce, the Plunket Society, the Social Credit Political League, and some branches of the National Party

We had the unusual spectacle of the Labour Opposition, which had signed the deal, and the National Government, who had confirmed it, standing side by side, with their backs to the wall, trying to defend it. No one else came to their aid.

Muldoon records that he first got involved when, as a first year backbencher out mowing his lawns one Saturday, he was accosted by a neighbour who owned a clothing factory.

“He asked me why we were permitting the Nelson cotton mill project to go ahead when it would cost New Zealand so much in dearer goods and lack of variety.”

He and some backbench colleagues started asking awkward parliamentary questions of ministers of their own government.  Not content with being fobbed off (including being told “importers should now deal with the Nelson mill”), Muldoon pursued the matter in a general debate, noting explicitly that responses from the Minister (Marshall, the Deputy Prime Minister) had not been satisfactory and highlighting a wide range of concerns about the project.  The backbench group concluded that the cotton mill deal was the worst of the “ten new monopolistic industries” set up by the previous government, and became determined to stop it before it went into production.

The controversy heightened further, with the British company seeking reassurances, officials arguing that the mill should proceed, but with Cabinet increasingly rankled by the backbench discontent.  Long caucus and Cabinet meetings ensued in early January 1962, with the Prime Minister telling caucus his personal view was that “For my part, I’d close it tomorrow”.  Some months earlier Smith and Nephew has indicated that they would be will to withdraw, subject to receiving reasonable compensation.   Cabinet finally accepted that proposal on the evening of 12 January 1962. Company representatives were summoned to the PM’s office and a deal was agreed in the early hours of the following morning.  Smith and Nephew was reimbursed for its actual costs, and the Crown took over the assets.  The planned Nelson-Blenheim railway project had by then already been abandoned.

Muldoon notes that he and his colleagues

had saved the right of choice for the consumer and scuppered a proposal that should never have been started. The final cost of buying out the contract was money well spent and has already been repaid many times over in economic terms.

Marshall notes

from this time on, the policies, plans and projects for industrial development became matters of much wider public interest and more critical community assessment. Secondly, we set in motion, through the new Tariff and Development Board, a complete review of the criteria for approving new industries.

The citizens of Nelson were rather less impressed. Geoffrey Palmer notes that

my father wrote strong editorials condemning the decision to stop the mill….The decision caused outrage in Nelson.

This piece from a contemporary publication captures some of the local mood, in words and pictures.  Labour retained the Nelson seat for many years.

All in all it seem like a fairly good outcome for the country.  Public and business opinion combine to resist a particularly egregious example of manufacturing protectionism and the advance of the Labour Party “manufacturing in depth” strategy.  And for all the later concerns some had about the FPP electoral system, stroppy backbenchers acting behind the scenes and in public made a real difference.

Then again, when the cotton mill building was completed it was sold to another protected business –  becoming an assembly plant for British Leyland for the next few decades.

It was a signal victory for its time –  marked in part by the space key figures give it in their later books.   The cotton mill was closed before it became a long-term drag on the economy.   But it isn’t that obvious that the quality of decision-making is much higher, and more rigorous, than it was in 1960 when Walter Nash kicked off this project.  These days perhaps it isn’t import protection that is at stake, but sports stadia, convention centres, “roads of national significance”, and –  perennially –  railway lines. I guess Project Palace isn’t quite at the level of the cotton mill but it isn’t clear why we need taxpayers’ money spent trying to identify how many hotels might, or might not, be needed, and marketing the opportunities to foreign investors.  Fortunately, we got rid of the Tourist Hotel Corporation some decades ago. It isn’t obvious what any market failure might be in the market for the provision of accommodation for overseas visitors.

Oh well, I guess one has to take wins where one finds them.