For the most part, New Zealand has missed the kinds of ultra-reactionary mass movements which typified fascist and otherwise hardline nationalist politics during periods of crisis in various other countries. Classical fascist movements or contemporary populist chauvinism (such as, say, ‘Powellism’ in Britain or ‘Hansonism’ in Australia) has largely failed to attain the same kind of mass following. That said, New Zealand is far from free of reactionary politics as a whole, and the social forces underlying such politics are neither absent nor silent in New Zealand. Part one of this multi-part series on the New Zealand far right covers early xenophobic organisations in the late 19th century through to consolidated white supremacist organisations and the White NZ Policy in the 1920s.
White New Zealand Policy 1880s-1930s
The earliest forms of popular organised racist movements in New Zealand began to gain influence in the later decades of the 19th century. In his seminal work on the extreme right in New Zealand, The Politics of Nostalgia, Paul Spoonley identifies groups that formed in response to a growing fear of certain immigrants who they believed were a threat to British racial supremacy. Given that the government at the time was implementing increasingly hardline racial border policies, these organisations were somewhat irrelevant as a political force beyond that of a lobby group. A significant amount of legislation passed from the 1880s to the 1930s targeted both specific groups and non-British immigrants in general. Before getting into the organised groups who formed in response to this perceived threat, it is worth detailing the scope and scale of this legislation.
From around 1881 onward, the government enacted policies targeting Chinese, Indian, Samoan, Dalmatian (now Croatian), Italian, and Jewish immigrants. Since a sizable number of the small Dalmatian community worked in the kauri-gum industry, legislation to restrict licensing to British gum diggers was passed in 1898, 1908, and 1910. After the passing of the Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act 1919, people from the former German and Austro-Hungarian empires required a license from the Attorney-General to enter New Zealand. Although the legislative council found more difficulty in legislating against Indian immigrants, given British opposition on the basis that they were British subjects, the Undesirable Hawkers Prevention Bill was passed in 1896 with the aim of restricting their movement within New Zealand. The 1899 Immigration Restriction Act requiring non-British immigrants to make their applications in a European language was an attempted workaround of British opposition.
The most significant series of legislative actions to be taken were against the Chinese. Beaglehole notes in Refuge New Zealand that some 21 pieces of legislation were passed against the growing Chinese community from 1879-1888 alone. The 1881 Chinese Immigrants Act initiated a £10 poll tax, and restricted the number of Chinese immigrants to one per 10 tons of the vessels weight on which they arrived. This was cut in 1888 to one per 100 tons and again in 1896 to one per 200 tons, with the poll tax increased to £100 (a full decade’s earnings for the average Chinese worker). The poll tax remained in place for over 63 years, only being repealed in 1944 by the Finance Act (No. 3). Naturalisation laws were altered in 1892 to be free for all immigrants bar Chinese, and again in 1908 to end any path for Chinese to be naturalised citizens. Naturalisation for Chinese only began anew over four decades later in 1952. In 1907, Chinese immigrants were required to undertake an additional English reading test. Then in 1908, Chinese people were required to undergo thumb-printing in order to acquire re-entry permits when leaving the country. They were also barred from receiving several state benefits by legislation passed in the 1890s-1920s.
The ‘White New Zealand Policy’, as it came to be known, had thus materialised out of a complex web of specific and generalised legislation largely but not entirely focused on the entry of new non-British immigrants. It formally came into being through the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920. This created a requirement to apply for permanent residency before arrival, effectively placing discretion for every applicant at the hands of the Minister of Customs. This was further extended by the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1931 which prevented the entry of the majority of European immigrants from the continent. Although a very small number of immigrants still arrived, the arrival of Asians and southern Europeans almost halted. It would not be until the aftermath of WWII that these policies would start to relax.
This legislation was not without its critics at the time (albeit small in number); Legislative Council member Henry Scotland was an early, prominent, and vocal opponent to restrictions on Chinese immigration. However, as the democratic state was already implementing hard-line immigration policies, early organised racist groups merely needed to call for existing policy to be maintained and expanded. Both historically progressive and reactionary governments alike pursued such policies; many of the aforementioned pieced of legislation were introduced under the first Liberal government’s five successive terms in office from 1890-1911. Even William Pember Reeves, who represented the most radical left faction of the party (the ‘state socialists’ as they were dubbed), was a vocal proponent of severe curbs to Chinese immigration. However, the deeply conservative Reform government, who took office with the end of the first Liberal government, introduced the harshest of the White NZ Policy laws. Beaglehole quotes Reform PM William Massey on the White NZ Policy:
“the result of a deep-seated sentiment on the part of the large majority of the people of this country that this Dominion shall be what is often called a ‘white’ New Zealand.”
Such policies alone do not make NZ any more of a proto-fascist state or any more racist than the Anglosphere or much of Europe at the time. Racism alone does not a fascist make. It did, however, form a template that some fascists in the present day still use as a basis for their vision of New Zealand, and can be considered one of the main pillars of openly ethno-nationalist politics here.
Racial Supremacy Leagues 1890s-1920s
Early racist organisations appearing at the end of the 19th century aligned broadly in purpose with the White New Zealand Policy. The cross-class support within Pākehā society for severe immigration measures formalised largely in anti-immigrant leagues such as the Anti-Asiatic League and the Anti-Chinese League. Campaigns opposed to Yugoslav (Dalmatian) and Indian immigration likewise formed at the same time around the 1890s-1920s. These organisations were far from isolated, and did not require front groups to gain public support like later far right formations would. The Anti-Chinese League and Returned Services Association (RSA) forged an alliance which proved a driving civic force in support for the Immigration Amendment Restriction Act 1920.
Several explicit white supremacist organisations existed somewhat separate from the various anti-immigrant campaigns. The White Race League formed in 1907, with the goal of establishing a ‘white race congress’ in Europe to ensure the survival of the white race, considered to be facing an existential threat from Asian immigration. This internationalist outlook of encompassing the entirety of the ever ephemeral ‘white race’ the world over, rather than merely New Zealand, made the League a somewhat unique organisation. In effect, this amounts to the white genocide meme but many decades too early for the term. However, this ideological outlook made little difference in local practice, amounting to anti-Chinese lobbying similar to the anti-immigrant leagues of the time.
The White New Zealand League is the most well-known league from the period, formed by, of all people, racist potato farmers from Pukekohe in 1925. Their activities mirrored those of similar leagues in the hosting of public talks and publishing of widely-distributed pamphlets decrying the immigration of ‘lowly Asiatics’. The initial thrust of the organisation was to pressure the government to pass legislation further cracking down on Chinese and Indian immigrants, in order to undercut the perceived threat of Asian landowners to the largely white rural farmers. This would develop over time at the behest of the League’s chief ideologue and secretary, Pukekohe potato farmer George Parvin. His own efforts to research and present various internationally-sourced articles on the subjects of eugenics, ‘scientific’ race theory, and ‘problems’ with immigrant communities in other white-dominated parts of the Commonwealth, heavily influenced the thinking and rhetoric of the League. Their most infamous pamphlet, Citizens of the Future are the Children of Today, drew on contemporary figures from Australia and the US. In 1926, they sent a request to 200 local bodies throughout NZ to pass resolutions supporting the League’s aims, for which they received positive replies from 160 of the bodies. According to Spoonley in The Politics of Nostalgia, those 160 bodies represented some 670,000 New Zealanders at the time (about 47% of the population).
The League produced, stoked, and kept alive a national hysteria around the supposed imminent collapse of New Zealand as a ‘white’ Dominion. The League was supported by prominent civil society groups (the RSA, for example), early nationalist groups (such as the NZ Natives Association), and several particularly rural MPs. This was largely motivated by fear from the white petit-bourgeois (small-scale business people and landowners) of competition in the local market by (typically Asian) foreigners. Although the League would largely be dead by the 1930s, Parvin remained a vocal figure in Pukekohe politics until the 1950s. The policies of the League would likewise be taken up after its demise by organisations including the RSA and the Pukekohe Federated Farmers (who argued as late as 1952 for the seizure of all Asian-owned land and their forced repatriation).
Like many movements to come later, the leagues faded away and were confined to the obscurities of history. Their legacy, however, survived long into the 20th century, in the form of both near-exclusively British immigration policy and a strong influence over future far right organisations. As the White NZ League vanished in the early 1930s, new reactionary forces emerged.
The Politics of Nostalgia: racism and the extreme right in new zealand, Paul Spoonley, 1987
Refuge New Zealand: A nation’s response to refugees and asylum seekers, Ann Beaglehole, 2013
In Defense of Race & Empire: The White New Zealand League at Pukekohe, Jacqueline Leckie, New Zealand Journal of History, Vol.19 No.2, 1985
‘No “White Policy” in NZ’ Fact & Fiction in New Zealand’s Asian Immigration Record, 1948-1978, Sean Brawley, New Zealand Journal of History, Vol. 27 No.1, 1993
A short summary of the various pieces of anti-immigrant legislation from the 1880s-1920s is available here (at Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand). Otherwise, there is little written work on the subject. I am no more an expert on it than anyone else who could take the time to track down the material available. If there are any substantive works I’ve missed on this period, let me know through the contact page!