Bill McAra on Auckland's housing crisis
The Housewives' Union was a small and short-lived organisation set up by the Communist Party of New Zealand. One of its most prominent members was Connie Birchfield, who contested several local body elections as a communist candidate and was for a while a member of the party's central committee. The pamphlet was written, though, by Bill McAra, a long-time central committee member, and has survived amongst the papers he bequeathed to the University of Auckland.
Katherine Pawley, who works in the superb Special Collections centre of the University of Auckland library, told me that McAra died of a heart attack late one night whilst sitting in his study trying to bring some order to the mass of papers he had collected during his long political career. Katherine and her fellow archivists were given McAra's document-hoard, which includes news clippings and photographs and letters as well as lengthy theoretical treatises, and have survived the task of cataloguing it.
In 1956 Nikita Krushchev admitted some of Stalin's crimes, and revolts spread across Eastern Europe. When tanks were sent to Poland and Hungary to restore the Soviet empire, the revolt spread into the communist parties of the West. In New Zealand Connie Birchfield was one of many communists who were expelled after supporting the protesters in Eastern Europe and demanding that the Soviet leadership make a proper break with the politics of Stalin. Bill McAra sided with the Soviet regime and the local party leadership. A photograph from 1959 shows him addressing a congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The honoured guest's face is swollen with pride, or hubris, or both. McAra was eventually expelled from the Communist Party in 1974.
Even if some of the texts in the McAra archive are best forgotten, the pamphlet on housing seems prescient. McAra was writing during World War Two, when housebuilding was almost abandoned in favour of the construction of fortresses along the nation's coast and bomb shelters and tunnels under cities. The war created a housing crisis so serious that in the late '40s some of the barracks left behind by American soldiers were turned over to young married couples and other Kiwis struggling to find places to live. Hundreds of civilians dwelt for years in the old American camps in Auckland's domain and its Western Springs reserve.
The left wing of New Zealand's trade union movement demanded that the Labour government of Peter Fraser build thousands of new homes for workers, but it did not support all housebuilding. Luxury homes were seen as burdens on the New Zealand economy, because they required large amounts of scarce materials and labour. Before it was smashed by Sid Holland's National government in 1951, the Waterside Workers Union stood against the building of luxury homes, and called for a ban on the import of materials for such homes.
It was in this context that Bill McAra presented luxury buildings as a threat to the poor. He was right in the '40s, and he's right today, as the empty homes of overseas-based millionaires show.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]