Keith Locke: Let’s honour centenary of those we jailed for opposing wartime conscription

(An opinion piece published in the New Zealand Herald, 13 December 2016.)

Most of us know there were conscientious objectors who refused to fight in World War I. Many were sent to jail for their stand. Less well-known are the 107 New Zealanders who were convicted for “sedition”, simply for speaking out against conscription or the war.

Sixty-seven of those so convicted spent time in jail.

Most prominent among those imprisoned were Peter Fraser, who later served as Prime Minister, and four future Labour Cabinet ministers: Bob Semple, Tim Armstrong, Jim O’Brien and Paddy Webb.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the first sedition convictions after the passage of the Military Service Act 1916, which brought in conscription.

Semple had challenged both conscription and the war: “Conscription and liberty cannot live in the same country,” he said. “Conscription is the negation of human liberty.”

Semple also didn’t think war was justified and predicted that “the day will come and may it arrive out of the dust of today when the working class will say to Kings and Kaisers, the Czars, Dukes and Earls: ‘If you are going to fight, cut one another’s throats. We will stay at home’.”

The Christchurch magistrate was not enamoured by Semple’s line of argument, saying: “I cannot sit here and allow men to express opinions that will prejudice those who, rightly or wrongly, are trying to uphold the traditions of the country and preserve the integrity of the Empire – an Empire which I am proud to belong to.”

The anti-conscription movement was not intimidated by the jailing of Semple. It proceeded shortly afterwards, with a big conference in Auckland. The police couldn’t detain all 500 participants, but they did arrest the conference secretary, Fraser.

It was reported that “as he [Fraser] moved away in the charge of Detective Sergeant Cox the assembled delegates gave him three ringing cheers, which were followed by the singing of the Red Flag”.

In his court defence Fraser argued that “it was still possible for the people of Germany and Britain and other nations at war to bring about a settlement”. Reflecting the chauvinism of the times, Magistrate Riddell replied. “Do you think we are concerned with the people of Germany?” Fraser responded that he “was interested in the working class of all the world”.

The magistrate wasn’t impressed with Fraser’s internationalism, as he had expressed it in a speech a few days earlier, on December 10: “For the past two years and a half we have been looking at the ruling classes of Europe spreading woe, want and murder over the Continent, and it is time that the working classes of the different nations were rising up in protest against them.”

The unsympathetic magistrate sentenced Fraser to one year behind bars for seditious utterances.

Also jailed for sedition that month were Tom Brindle, later a Wellington City Councillor and Labour Party president; James Thorn, subsequently both a Labour MP and a party president; and Fred Cooke, who took a seat on the Christchurch City Council.

Early in 1917 three other future Labour cabinet ministers were imprisoned. They were Tim Armstrong, Jim O’Brien and Webb.

Webb’s sedition conviction was the most grievous, because he was the West Coast’s Member of Parliament. There was no parliamentary immunity for him. Webb was jailed for three months for defending his constituents.

His crime was to describe a West Coast miners’ strike against conscription as a battle for democratic freedom. Webb was later stripped of his parliamentary seat and jailed for a second time, this time for refusing military service.

Through 1917 and 1918 many other dissenters were sent to jail, including six Huntly miners, for a “seditious strike”, and Maori from the Waikato, for opposing conscription.

In Auckland and Christchurch there will be commemorations for those imprisoned for exercising their right of free speech 100 years ago. The Auckland commemoration will be outside Mt Eden prison at 12.30pm on Thursday. In Christchurch people will be gathering outside the Museum at noon on the same day.

In both cities there will be re-enactments of the sedition trials.

NZ Herald;