While the New Zealand Legion’s initial policy was deliberately vague, it contained several key elements that were central to the movement’s ideology throughout its life. Chief among these was its opposition to party or ‘machine’ politics. The Legion believed that political parties were anti-democratic – pre-selection required candidates to follow the party line, preventing them from voicing their own opinions.
Rather than representing the interests of the nation as a whole, parties were dominated by the sectional interests of their caucus. The Legion called for the abolition of political parties, believing that independent candidates would be better equipped to represent the entire community.
The Legion’s appeal to the national interest included a call for the moral rejuvenation of society. For too long, the Legion argued, citizens had depended on the state to solve all their problems – it was time for New Zealanders to surrender ‘the great illusions and delusions of State paternalism.’ The movement’s concept of moral rejuvenation aimed to rouse in the public a patriotic conscience, a spirit of self-sacrifice that would see them place the national interest before their own petty squabbles.
Give us a common basis on which we can agree – first principles, fundamentals. In short, give us a creed, a confession of faith, high in its ideals, daring in its demands. (Will Lawson, 1933)
The Legion also defined itself by highlighting what it was not. By the beginning of 1933 the New Guard of New South Wales had fallen into disrepute – its plans to kidnap the state premier had been splashed across the news, and its leader Eric Campbell was beginning to adopt the trappings of fascism. A January 1933 rumour that a branch of the New Guard was being formed in New Zealand caused alarm in Parliament. In almost all of his official speeches, as well as in Legion publications, Campbell Begg stressed that the Legion was ‘not a New Guard … or a Fascist body’.
The Legion was an intensely patriotic organisation, although its loyalties were split between Britain and New Zealand. On the one hand, Begg stressed that the movement was ‘sturdily loyal to the Crown and Constitution’; on the other, many of its members condemned the ‘international financiers’ of Tooley Street (a kind of British Wall Street for investors in colonial agriculture) who were supposedly holding the New Zealand economy to ransom. The Legion’s journal, National Opinion, was full of rhetoric extolling New Zealand to become something more than ‘a mere appendage of Great Britain’.
The Legion’s most consistent policy was its desire to reform local and central government. At the time, local bodies in New Zealand were a mess of overlapping authority and repetition. The Legion proposed dividing the country into several ‘Shires’, within which local bodies would be amalgamated and rationalised. Elected Shire Councils would then be completely responsible for all local matters, freeing Parliamentarians to focus solely on national concerns.
To minimise the influence of political parties over central government, the Legion proposed several constitutional reforms. A Preferential Voting system would prevent one party from dominating Parliament, and an elective Cabinet would ensure adequate representation of all parties in the Executive. The introduction of the powers of Initiative, Referendum and Recall would provide further checks. These policies, however, were not an end in themselves – the true transformation of New Zealand politics required ‘a new conception of government.’