Photo: FAREWELL FROM KUROW. PHOTO: NICK AINGE-ROY
What a small town in the Waitaki Valley has to do with universal health care.
SPEAKING AT AN EVENT MARKING ITS 70TH ANNIVERSARY, THEN- PRIME MINISTER HELEN CLARKE TALKED ABOUT WHAT THE 1938 SOCIAL SECURITY ACT MEANT TO NEW ZEALAND.
More than just a piece of legislation, it stood for an idea. It was born from a new way of thinking, one that held that “the care and welfare of citizens was a government responsibility.” A community, she said, should care for its members. Life doesn’t need to be a Darwinian free for all.
It was a novel way of thinking. In fact, according to historian Keith Sinclair, the 1938 Act was considered “the first comprehensive and integrated system of social security in the western world.” And it all started in a small town on the banks of the Waitaki River.
One year before the stock market crashes of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, workers broke ground on construction of the Waitaki Dam, seven kilometres upstream from Kurow. The scheme was masterminded by L.J. Hancock, an American engineer and evangelical hydro enthusiast, who saw in the technology the revolutionary potential to deliver clean, plentiful energy that would attract industry and catapult the average citizen into a standard of living unmatched in the “old world”.
In order to maximise employment, the dam was built nearly exclusively with manpower. Up to 1500 men worked on the site using nothing but picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. A single crane was the only piece of modern machinery. It was backbreaking and perilous; injuries were common, deaths not unheard of.
Despite the harsh conditions, and the constant risk of being plunged back into poverty by an employment policy that amounted to “no work, no pay”, workers travelled great distances to the site with their families, hoping for a chance to earn a wage. Some trudged up the Waitaki Valley from Ōamaru with shovels on their backs.
Those who didn’t get jobs settled in shanties along the riverbank in an area that came to be known as The Willows, where they built tents and huts from willow branches and flattened fuel cans.
As quoted in David Haigh’s ‘Early welfare in Kurow, New Zealand’, Michael Joseph Savage, leader of the Labour Opposition, visited the site in 1934 and was taken aback by the conditions: “The icy wind from the Alps lanced down from the Waitaki Valley, freezing not only the men … but also the women and children inadequately clothed in cotton frocks and threadbare jerseys, without stockings or shoes.”
Social security is defined as a system that provides for those who are in need, such as the unemployed, retired, sick or injured. Prior to the 1930s in Aotearoa, social security was not seen as the remit of the government; instead, support had historically been delivered by benevolent societies such as the Ancient Order of Foresters and the United Ancient Order of Druids.
In Kurow, once such benevolent society, the Waitaki Hydro Medical Association, partnered with the Waitaki Hospital Board to provide some relief in the form of ambulance services and medical care, with workers contributing to the scheme through monthly deductions from their wages. Three local men, Dr David Gervan McMillan, Presbyterian church minister Arnold Nordmeyer and school headmaster Andrew Davidson, had helped devise the plan. And in it, they saw potential for more. Could the “Kurow cure” work for the whole country?
In 1935, two of the “three wise men”, Nordmeyer and McMillan, entered parliament as part of the new Labour government. They set to work applying the lessons learned in Kurow nationally. McMillan chaired the National Health Insurance Investigation Committee, while Nordmeyer chaired both a caucus and parliamentary select committee charged with assessing the viability of a healthcare scheme for New Zealand.
It was their findings and recommendations, and in particular those of Arnold Nordmeyer, that became the basis of the Social Security Act 1938. Financed by a tax of one shilling on the pound, it extended support for widows, orphans, the disabled, families, war veterans, and the unemployed. It also created subsidised medical care, including the semi-funded visits to the doctor we still have today – one of the first examples on earth of universal healthcare.
The man who was Prime Minister when the act passed was Michael Joseph Savage. After what he had seen during the Depression, he hoped, he said, to “see humanity secure against poverty, secure in illness or old age.”
Today, the Waitaki Dam stands as it has for almost a century. It
has no spillway, and gusts of wind carry waves over its shoulders to dribble down its chest, then carry on downriver to Kurow. No longer a rural railhead, it’s a budding tourist destination, famed as the hometown of former All Black captain Richie McCaw, and home to a handful of cosy cafes and a growing number of wineries.
“The icy wind from the Alps lanced down from the Waitaki Valley”
There is little to indicate Kurow’s role in world history, save for a few information panels at the back of its small museum, and a colourful sign on the way out of town: Farewell From Kurow, World Birthplace of Social Security.