Stan Rodger, President of the PSA, addresses the annual conference in 1973

It was always the chuckle that seemed to define Stan Rodger, a beaming greeting to anyone who met him or even ran into him in a Parliamentary corridor.

Seemingly always calm, always organised; with his spectacles, bald head and a cardigan, he looked every bit the former civil servant he had been before he entered Parliament.

Yet his apparently benign external persona masked a highly skilled and effective political operator.

After a  long career in the Labour Party and the Public Service Association, he became one of the key members of David Lange’s Cabinet between 1984 and 1989.

Michael Basset listed him as one of the leading lights of that government, along with Lange himself, Roger Douglas, Geoffrey Palmer, David Caygill and Richard Prebble.

It was a reforming Government, and he was one of its leading reformers.

He was not an extrovert.

He was modest and, even in retirement, reluctant to claim too much credit for the quite radical reforms be brought to industrial relations, which won him the memorable sobriquet “Sideline Stan.”

His life was a remarkable journey from working class Dunedin in the 1950s to the Beehive in the 1980s and then back to his home town; the city he loved, where he died at the weekend.

He was an only child and something of a loner.


Perhaps that was why he instinctively avoided taking sides during Labour’s bitter internal wars between 1984 and 1990. Geoffrey Palmer said of Stan that he belonged to no faction.

It wasn’t that he was indifferent. His background was the Labour Party of the first Labour government.

But though in his early days in the party, he had been frustrated by the failure of the party to move much beyond that era, he was not really of the coming generation of University-educated bright young people with their own ideas who would come to dominate the Lange Government.

Ultimately Stan was old school Labour. 

Supplied Stan with his mother, Enid

He was the product of a Dunedin family of modest means, straight from school into a clerical job with the Ministry of Works and then a slow rise through the ranks of the Public Service Association and the Labour Party.

“Dad was a commercial traveller; he didn’t have a car, so he used to go by tram with a little suitcase with products in it to show the corner store operators what was available in the post-war few years.

“I was the only child. I was lonely. We didn’t have much money. Both my parents would have voted Labour; both families were Labour voting families living in the Kaikorai Valley.”

Stan’s loneliness as an only child was compounded by his father being away at war for six years. Perhaps that is why he didn’t follow his father’s passion for rugby and instead buried himself in books which he used to buy from Whitcombe and Tombs rather than borrow from the library.

“There was a big chunk of my early childhood where mum was the dominant figure.

“And ultimately, she became the most dominant figure throughout my life, really in terms of parenting.

“Right from the beginning, my interests were bookish, and the discipline of reading stuck with me throughout my life.”

It was his mother who introduced him to the Labour Party. In 1957, aged 17, he joined the Wakari branch.

“She became very active in the Labor Party, knocking on doors, collecting subs and memberships and stuff like that.

So in 1957, he joined the Wakari branch of the Labour Party.

But why Labour?

“It was in the drinking water; Labour had brought in benefits for the elderly, and I had some old maiden aunts, so they got pensions.

“I was a great admirer of the state housing developments, which all of  Walkley was covered in.

“But it was public health probably more than anything else, and the child allowance, which was quite significant to my mother, it was seven and sixpence a week at the end, which was quite a lot, so that gave her some leeway financially.

Overall it was an admiration for the delivery of a public health and social welfare system.

“And there was an emotional attachment to a political cause that ran right through my uncles and aunts and cousins.

“They were all consistent; they were all Labour.

“We were a Labour family.”

Stan had begun work as a clerk in the Ministry of Works in Dunedin and was almost immediately struck by what he saw as the injustice of female staff being paid less than their male counterparts.

“I joined as a career public servant.

“There was hardly a brown face in the place; every junior male employee was senior to every female that would have been there for 30 years.”

“You were expected probably at about the age of 21 to go to Wellington.

“I held it off. I got there at the beginning of 1962 when I was 22.

But importantly, every new clerical recruit was signed up for what was supposed to be a voluntary union, the Public Service  Association, on day one of their employment.

That would come to form the basis of his political career.

But at the same time, he was becoming more active in the Labour party.

Phil Connelly, a former unionist and naval officer, was the MP for Dunedin Central, which embraced Wakari.

He had a family of daughters and adopted Stan as a sort of surrogate son. He became his political mentor.

Connelly was part of a faction within the Labour Party that wanted it to modernise and who had tried in 1954 to depose the –then leader, Walter Nash, 72, and replace him with Arnold Nordmeyer.

But as Stan was to find out, the Labour Party of the early 60s had little interest in moving beyond the glory days of the Savage-Fraser first Labour Government.

Connelly retired in 1963, and Stan hoped he might be the new Dunedin Central candidate. Later Nordmeyer would tell him the party considered him to be too young. He was 22. Instead, he was sent off to contest the safe National seat of Central Otago. In 1966 he underwent a similar experience up against National’s Alan Dick in Waitaki.

He quickly realised that the Labour Party of the 1960s was no place for a young man.

“The branch meetings that I used to attend in Wakari used to dine out on the accomplishments of the first Labour Government.

“They never spoke about what was happening in the government that was a labour government that was by was then in office.

“My very first conference was in 1961 after the government had been defeated.

“It was just a sea of grey heads; old Walter (Nash), Mabel (Howard) HG R Mason — elderly people.”

Perhaps disillusioned by what he saw as the moribund state of the Labour Party and then his own move to Wellington in 1962, he began to focus on the Public Service Association.

But as he started to move up its ranks, he encountered a new obstacle; an organised underground movement within the PSA intended to advance the ideology and clout of the far left.

Stan might have been a member of a political party that was still nominally socialist, but like most Labour Party members, he subscribed to Michael Joseph Savage’s argument that the party’s philosophy was actually “applied Christianity.”

He had no time for pure socialism or Marxism.

But within the public service, a new cohort of university graduates with far-left views was making itself felt in Wellington.

Stan says that the wartime Labour Government had put many of them into the Department of Industries and Commerce, which would later in be headed by William Sutch, who in 1974 was charged with espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union but found not guilty.

However, Stan’s nemesis was John P Lewin, President of the PSA in 1946; a senior official in Industries and Commerce and ultimately Government Statistician.

Lewin was the unofficial leader of the far-left group within the PSA, which called itself the Korero group.

“It had many key activists in the PSA within it, with Lewin driving it out of the Trade and industry department.

“And Jim Turner, the last member that I knew that was in it, told me it always ran with huge discipline and would even expel people out of the Korero.

“It essentially ran the PSA at arm’s length through the executive.”

And then, a counter conservative group, the Tomato House Caucus, was formed. Stan has his suspicions as to who might have been behind that.

“I suspect that Catholic action had its influence.

“It was a time when Catholics took a keen interest in what the trade union was doing internationally, and I suspect they were in the Tomato House Caucus.”

But Barry Tucker became President of the PSA in 1965, and along with the secretary Dan Long, in the words of PSA historian, Bert Roth, allowed the Korero Group to “die quietly.”

Stan wryly observed that once it faded, the weekly newspaper “Truth” (which had close ties to the Security Intelligence Service) took much less interest in the PSA.

Meanwhile, Stan was serving his political apprenticeship in the Wellington branch of the PSA, learning how to manage often disputatious meetings of over 100  members. At the same time, he also did Polytech classes in company secretaryship.

His professional career at the Ministry of Works head office was also occupying more time as he headed the first joint Government-local authority house building projects.

Supplied In retirement at Taieri Mouth with his wife, Anne.

He had become vice president of the PSA in 1967 and then, in 1970, its President.

This saw him clash with the then Finance Minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, over the Stabilisation of Remuneraiton Act which directed that wages could not rise by more than seven per cent without the consent of the Remuneration Authority. This was at a time when prices were rising by more than nine per cent.

In 1971 he offered a hint at what his approach might be when he was to become Minister of Labour and State Services some 13 years later.

Addressing the PSA’s annual executive meeting, he said: “The last year has been marked by Government interference in wage negotiations between unions and employers, and the act has seriously strained industrial relations.”

He formed other views, too; that well resourced, bigger unions were able to be more effective unions.

In 1970 Bill Rowling had been elected President of the Labour party, and Stan was among a group of younger reformers who moved into positions in the party and began the long-awaited modernisation.

Norman Kirk led then the party to victory in the 1972 election.

In 1974 Kirk died, and Rowling, who replaced him, lost the 1975 election to Sir Robert Muldoon.

In 1976 Colin Moyle, MP for Mangere, resigned after allegations that he had been soliciting males in a Wellington public toilet.

The party had to select a replacement, and 18 people sought the nomination, including two former MPs, Mike Moore and Dorothy Jelicich.

Another candidate was David Lange, an Auckland barrister who had contested Hobson in 1975.

Lange, an untidily dressed man of imposing bulk, had had some involvement in civil liberties groups; his legal practice, which concentrated on criminal defence in the Auckland Magistrate’s Court, was not lucrative, and he was a Methodist.

Stan as the senior executive member chaired the panel. Joe Walding and John Wybrow were the other New Zealand Council representatives.

Party President Arthur Faulkner introduced Lange as the man who had had the longest wait.

“Mr President, not only have I had the longest wait but I am of the greatest weight,” replied Lange.

The selection process involved three people from the electorate and three from head office and with a vote of members in the hall having no formal authority but being available as a guide.

The three locals were pledged to Moore, but Stan felt that after everything the party had been through with scandals involving Gerald O’Brien and Colin Moyle, it needed a fresh face, not a former MP.

His long experience in the PSA came to the fore as he manipulated the meeting to get the result he wanted.

Eventually, the panel agreed that the choice was between Moore and Lange.

Stan said it would be good if Moyle could endorse the new candidate; did anyone think that they would endorse Moore?

“And I saw the eyes of one of them (the local representatives) flicker.

“The Labor Party used to come out of these sort of meetings and say it’s the unanimous decision of the panel that it’s so and so.

“That always seemed to me to be very Stalinist. I didn’t like it.

“Clearly, there are debates, and you come to a conclusion.

“So I said let me go out and say that the candidate is Mr Lange without any other adornment, just that he is the candidate.

“I waited a moment and not much more than a moment.

“Wybrow said nothing; Joe Walding hadn’t said anything.

“I slapped my papers together and said very well; that’s what I will do.

“So I stood up and did what I said I was going to do.

“And the hall broke into applause, and we had a new candidate.”

But the candidate didn’t have money, and the party had to put him on wages.

The party’s media adviser, the former TV interviewer David Excel, then went up to Lange and told him to be a conservative on abortion which was raging as an issue at the time.

“And Lange, I don’t think, necessarily had views much on abortion. From then on, he was plastered into the illiberal position.

Stan wasn’t to know it that night, but he had just paved the way for the entry into Parliament of Labour’s next Prime Minister.

That might have been the beginning of a close political partnership between the two men. But it wasn’t to be. (Part Two tomorrow will explore that relationship and the tensions within the fourth Labour Government.)