Archive for the 'Malcolm McKinnon' Category

25 years on – homosexual law reform in New Zealand

Homosexual law reform was what it was called, and it was also the name of the act of Parliament, but it was also an amendment to the Crimes Act 1961, sections 141 (indecency between males) and 142 (sodomy). To the lesbian and gay communities of the time – and the lesbian community played as much of a role in overturning the law as did the gay male community – those clauses criminalising male same-sex activity (female same-sex activity was not similarly criminalised) were themselves an offence.

They were also out of step with the spirit of the age. Politically minded adults in 1986 had been active over the preceding 20 years in the peace movement, the environmental movement, the anti-racism movement, the women’s movement and the gay-rights movement itself. Such people didn’t need to be convinced that the law needed to be changed.

People march in support of homosexual law reform

People march in support of homosexual law reform

The election of a Labour government in July 1984, with a leadership a generation younger than that of the outgoing government – 43-year-old David Lange replaced 63-year-old Robert Muldoon as prime minister – made the time auspicious.

The United Kingdom had decriminalised in 1967, Canada in 1969 and many US and Australian states and territories in the 1970s and early 1980s. And it was possible to point to many countries which had a long history of tolerance – Japan, France, Italy and the Netherlands, for example.

On the other side of the ledger there was the ‘let sleeping dogs lie argument’. Gay men in the late 1970s and early 1980s did not conduct their lives expecting at any minute to be arrested. I know this because I was one of them. The real stress, everyone understood, came not from fear of the police, but in dealings with family, friends and workmates, and for lesbians as much as for gay men. ‘Coming out’ stories were the stock in trade of getting to know another gay person and the questions were always the same: ‘Does your family know?’, ‘How many of your friends know?’, ‘Does anyone at your work know?’

So what would happen if law reform became a real possibility? It didn’t take long to find out. As soon as MP Fran Wilde announced her intention of introducing the bill into Parliament – in March 1985 – a tsunami of invective, outrage and anger filled the airwaves, the letters to the editor pages, and the mail bags of members of Parliament.

In an irony, which has since become familiar but at the time was not, it was the opponents of law reform, disgusted though they claimed to be about the whole notion of male-to-male sex, who seemed unable to talk of anything else. Homosexual men were not people; they were sex machines, and predatory, proselytising ones at that. To the observer it was puzzling that an activity that was so appalling could nonetheless be so seductive that the slenderest of exposures to it could lead a youth astray. Now we have a name for this mindset – homophobia – then we did not, or only just.

The onset of AIDS, a barely understood and terrifying disease at that time, added fuel to the fire. Not only were gay men indecent, they were bearers of contagion – never mind that they were also its victims.

In retrospect, the outpouring was cathartic. After that first wave of anger and hatred debate started to take place and slowly the middle ground shifted.

What middle ground? Lesbians and gay men did not need to be convinced that change was justified or overdue; the most vocal of their adversaries would never be convinced. It was those in the middle, who had never reflected on the matter, but who were probably prejudiced in an unthinking way, who shifted.

This is not to underplay the heroic efforts of the law reform campaigners, who demonstrated, lobbied and argued month after month. Without them there would have been no change at all. But someone had to be convinced and it was this middle ground that was.

In a fashion very much similar to the debate over the South African rugby tour four years earlier – but at even greater speed – dinner tables, kitchens, staff rooms, even classrooms were witness to heated arguments.

From my own recollection the vanguard in these arguments, which happened in my family as in so many others, was taken by women. It was women who ‘called out’ their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, all of whom generally felt more awkward and even more vulnerable with the issue. I don’t recollect there being lots of discussions amongst fellows at pubs, but when those men returned home and made the mistake of voicing a prejudice – ‘We don’t want a bunch of fags thinking they can drink with us’ – then the sparks flew.

This is of course not to say that all women were liberal and all men were conservative, but there was a gender dynamic in the debate. And maybe no surprise in that. After all law reform was in part about the right to love – men – and most women turned out to grasp that better than most men.

I was in Parliament the night the bill passed (the decriminalisation part; the human rights part had to wait another seven years) in July 1986, some 16 months, several million spoken words, hundreds of thousands of written words and hundreds of kilometres walked on demonstrations and protests, since that announcement by Fran Wilde in March 1985. The atmosphere was electric and the voting, as is well known, close. MPs were aware that the public mood had shifted – but how far, they wondered.

Many of those who voted against decriminalisation were not opposed to it (most indeed would have probably accepted an 18 years old limit – Wilde and her supporters rightly held out for 16). But they were spooked by the venom of the opposition and the likely effect at the next election of being seen to favour ‘immorality’.

That said, the night of 9 July 1986 was also a demonstration of the best side of democratic politics – accomplishing change through a blend of reason, passion and commitment.

New Zealand is a much different – and better – place for lesbians and gay men in 2011 than it was in 1986, and that means it has to be better for everyone else – if I don’t have rights, you lose out too. There are still struggles to be fought for lesbian and gay, not to mention bisexual and transgender rights, particularly in high schools and some churches. And many other struggles doubtless, where principles must dive into politics and take on prejudice.

The struggle for homosexual law reform, March 1985 to July 1986, which triggered social transformation as well as political change, is a reminder that it can be worth the effort.

A walk along the Waiwhetū

The Waiwhetū has seen better days

The Waiwhetū has seen better days

Waiwhetū has been in the news recently, with the controversy over whether the waka Te Raukura should have a home in the new whare waka on Wellington’s waterfront or at the Te Āti Awa marae in Waiwhetū, in the Hutt Valley. Waiwhetū is a river and was the name of an historic settlement at some distance from the present marae. On a recent weekend I walked the length of the Waiwhetū, from near its source in the hills above Naenae, to where it joins the Hutt River close to the latter’s estuary. This journey along the Waiwhetū from north to south was geographical, but it was also a journey through different settings, times and histories.

The hills where the Waiwhetū rises are home to the rather confusingly named Taitā cemetery – it is reached through Naenae. But the cemetery’s name is reminder of the fact that when it was established in the early 1890s Taitā was a farming district more extensive than the present-day suburb.

The Waiwhetū then takes a course through Naenae itself, a suburb that was an experiment in social engineering through state (public) housing, which was laid out in the 1940s and 1950s. The name of Naenae’s shopping centre, Hillary Court, honours the country’s hero of the time, Edmund Hillary, who reached the summit of Mt Everest in May 1953, along with Nepali climbing partner Sherpa Tensing Norgay.

There’s not quite the same spark in Hillary Court today, yet something of the vision that made Naenae survives. The Olympic swimming pool, opened in the 1950s, and Wellington’s first of such dimensions, remains a draw card. And Naenae’s ideals also express themselves in new ways. With depictions of a variety of ethnic groups, large colourful murals are a reminder of how much the ethnic composition of Naenae and its neighbours has changed in the last half century – Sherpa Tensing would not be as out of place in Naenae in 2011 as he would have been in 1953.

Multicultural mural at Hillary Court

Multicultural mural at Hillary Court

From Hillary Court it is only a short walk to Riverside Drive which – as its name suggests – follows the Waiwhetū, and does so for most of the rest of its distance. In this stretch the river has a tranquil, almost rustic, air and ducks settle in happily under pūriri trees overhanging the bank.

By this point we have reached the suburb of Waiwhetū itself, at the heart of which is the impressive Waiwhetū marae. Its meeting house dates from 1960 and is a confirmation of the tribe’s history of settlement in the Hutt Valley. Nearby Te Whiti Park, named for the great Taranaki pacifist leader, is a reminder of links with that part of the country, from which Te Āti Awa hapū migrated in the 1820s and 1830s. A new cultural centre, opened in 2005, has striking architecture, carvings and motifs.

For Māori in years gone the Waiwhetū was a fruitful source of food – both eels and other fish in it, and the plants that thrived along its banks. That’s not so today. The river has to cope with run-off of many kinds, much harmful, and the problems intensify as it enters an industrial area, as signs soberly indicate. Some of the factory names are very familiar: Griffins has long had a big plant not far from the river, whilst a Masterpet plant nearby caters not to man but to man’s best friends. On the opposite bank lies the Hutt Park raceway.

Ōwhiti cemetery

Ōwhiti cemetery

We approach journey’s end, in more ways than one. Near where the Waiwhetū joins the Hutt – and across the busy main road to Eastbourne – is Ōwhiti cemetery. It is on the site of the historical Waiwhetū pā, but rather unhappily penned in today between river and fuel storage tanks. It is a mundane end to the river too, but with a certain fitness that a water course that starts with a cemetery also ends with one, yet traverses in between such a variety of past and present lives and livelihoods.

Happy anniversary to The Prow

A waka prow, also from the Nelson region

A waka prow, also from the Nelson region

The Prow ( one of New Zealand’s most dynamic regional history websites, celebrated its second anniversary this week. The Prow is a history site for the top of the South Island, in Māori Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka-a-Maui, the prow of the waka (canoe) of Maui, and hence the site’s name.

A joint enterprise of Nelson city, Marlborough and Tasman district councils, the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) and the Nelson provincial museum, the site has now loaded no less than 226 historical stories from the region, 70 of which have been contributed by interested locals.

As the choice of name might suggest, the site is alert to the Māori prehistory and history of the region. One of the most recently loaded stories, about Nelson’s former Paruparu estuary, known to early settlers as ‘the Tideway’, recounts the Māori and colonial history of what is now the western margin of Nelson’s CBD.

A menu of ‘events,’ ‘places,’ and ‘people’ provides multiple visitor-friendly routes into the rich trove of material found on the site. For those of us working on Te Ara, this guide to facets of Nelson and Marlborough history has proved invaluable, not least as we have worked on our entries for the Nelson region (now online) and Marlborough region (only weeks away).

Events, places and people are complemented by the less common but equally useful ‘enterprise,’ ‘society,’ ‘arts and creativity,’ ‘Māori’ and ‘your story’. As this last suggests, The Prow seeks contributions from amongst its community and further afield. All stories are supplemented by web links and guides to further reading and study. The Prow also suggests ways in which its material can be used in the school curriculum, in particular in English, the visual arts and social studies.

The Prow has set a high standard for regional history websites. When a site is so good, it is tempting to think of ways in which it could be even better. A wish list could include:

  • links to relevant stories from the (digitised) pages of the Nelson Evening Mail and Marlborough Express from Papers Past
  • an inventory of images and maps on The Prow itself.

Yes, those are challenges but they are also compliments to a site which has accomplished so much in such a short time. Roll on third, fifth and 10th birthdays, when The Prow will doubtless have forged even further ahead.

On track

Malcolm at Mackinnon Pass

Malcolm at Mackinnon Pass

Can you be a New Zealander and not ever have walked the Milford Track in Fiordland National Park?

I must have decided ‘no,’ as that’s exactly what I found myself doing last week, first flying to Queenstown, then by bus to Te Anau and by boat up Lake Te Anau to the start of the track. For me there were two more reasons – I’d always heard that my great aunt Gertrude had walked the track around 1900 – in the days when you had to walk both ways. If ‘frail’ Gertrude (who lived to 86) could go there and back then I certainly could at least get there. And then one of the discoverers of the overland route to Milford Sound via what was to become the track was a Mackinnon, just like me, if the variation in spelling be overlooked. (Although, he actually seems to have spelt his name McKinnon, but official documents go with the Mac spelling).

Through the main tramping season 40 ‘independent’ trampers is the daily quota. The ‘independents’ are paralleled by the ‘guided walkers’ – it’s a curious system, arising out of the monopoly that the Tourist Hotel Corporation once had on the track, at which time you couldn’t go independently. In 2011 the two groups – the guided and the independents – have separate accommodation, at separate locations, with the effect that groups starting the same day don’t even see each other.

Sutherland Falls

Sutherland Falls

The independents have it ‘harder’ of course, as they have to carry their food, sleeping bags, and anything else they might want en route. But the track is not that difficult, the only really steep part is the climb to Mackinnon Pass (1154 metres) and that takes two hours at the very outside, and usually more like 70 to 90 minutes. After the descent from the pass, the side trip to the base of the 580-metre-high Sutherland Falls is a bonus.

I guess the experience was much as I expected, but there were particular aspects of it that weren’t. I wasn’t prepared for the amazing number of kōtukutuku (native fuchsia) on the track, the peeling light brown bark on their contorted trunks standing out sharply against the prevailing green. The range of flowers was a pleasure; as too the sighting of robins and whio (blue ducks) amongst other birds. ‘Sightings’ of sandflies couldn’t have been described as pleasure, but would it have been Fiordland without them?

Blue duck on the Clinton River

Blue duck on the Clinton River

I learnt the hard way that the track was 53.5 kilometres long – so a correction is on its way to Te Ara, where it is given as 52 kilometres – I can’t forget that last kilometre and a half! Interestingly the distance markers are still in miles – 33 of them – with the kilometre distances added.

Gentian (?) on Milford Track

Gentian (?) on Milford Track

The overnight huts, as well as being comfortable, had lots of interesting geological, botanical and historical information about the track and its surroundings – like a portable Te Ara you might say.

The track, and indeed the whole of Fiordland, are placed firmly in the Southland region in Te Ara, and I think that’s where they belong – certainly the national park is run out of Te Anau, a township with a strong rural Southland flavour. But the historical information showed how much the exploration endeavour in the late 19th century came out of Dunedin, whilst today many of the walkers on the track are Queenstown-based. They’re from all over the world – our cohort had Dutch, Germans, Japanese, Americans and Australians as well as Kiwis. Neither geography nor history stands still.

San Francisco, kauri and quakes

Taking a break from felling a giant kauri

Taking a break from felling a giant kauri

While reading the Te Ara entry on kauri forest, the comment: ‘after the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, [kauri] was used in rebuilding’ sparked my interest and surprise. I emailed the San Francisco public library’s ‘Ask a Question’ facility and heard back from librarian Tom Carey who wrote in part that ‘as San Francisco had access to its own redwood lumber from northern California, it strikes me as odd that we would rely on a supply from outside our shores, or that it would be cheaper.’

Tom made follow-up suggestions which led me to the California gold rush of 1848–1850s and a New Zealand trade in prefabricated houses. William Toomath’s book Built in New Zealand (p. 79) clarified; it cited a letter from Auckland timber dealer Thos Macky, who wrote that the houses he had shipped over to California ‘were expected to sell for five times their cost; but, by the time of their arrival, immense quantities coming from the eastern states caused a loss, the sale of 20 recovering only the cost of three’. Mike Roche, in his History of New Zealand forestry (pp. 47–49) corroborated with figures showing a rise in timber exports to California in 1850, which subsided as timber arrived in quantity from other sources.

That did not, however, get close to the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 quake. New Zealand statistics were silent – plenty of kauri gum, no timber. Searching the digitised issues of one California newspaper, the San Francisco Call, drew only the indirect finding that Americans knew nothing about kauri – the lengthiest discussion was on a children’s page in an April 1912 issue of the paper.

I was about to settle for a ‘no finding’ when a browse of the pages of a book on the Basin Reserve (the historic Wellington cricket ground) turned up a photo of a large group of people gathered at the Basin, holding up a sign on which was written ‘Save San Francisco!’ This photo, which can easily be found at Timeframes, the online database of images from the Alexander Turnbull Library, appeared in Wellington’s Evening Post newspaper in April 1906. Clearly it was recording a fund-raising venture triggered by sympathy for the plight of the quake-stricken city. This in turn dovetailed neatly with the account in Joanna Orwin’s Kauri: witness to a nation’s history (pp. 90–91), that three Weber brothers, all saw-millers, travelled from Auckland to San Francisco after the earthquake, to help rebuild the latter city.

So yes, some kauri went to San Francisco during the gold rush years. And some individuals, money – and maybe even some timber – headed that way after the 1906 earthquake. But the chances of finding a kauri timber house in San Francisco would appear always to have been small – which means, if you do find one, we want to know!.