Page 1: Biography
Beetham, Bruce Craig
Teacher, lecturer, politician
This biography, written by Neill Atkinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2020.
Bruce Beetham was one of New Zealand’s best-known politicians during the 1970s and early 1980s. Under his leadership the New Zealand Social Credit Political League mounted a sustained but ultimately unsuccessful third-party challenge to the post-Second World War ascendancy of the Labour and National parties. Known for his broad smile, which invariably dominated cartoonists’ portrayals, he was a skilled communicator on television, a medium then rapidly reshaping electoral politics.
Early life, education and marriage
Born in New Plymouth on 16 February 1936, Bruce Craig Beetham was the first child of Frances Agnes Amy Watts and her husband, Stanley Develle Beetham; they later had a daughter, Ruth. Wellington-born Stanley, who had been studying in the United States when the First World War broke out, joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was seriously wounded in France. He later worked as a carpenter and building company foreman. With his father often away working for months at a time, Bruce formed a close relationship with his mother, an ‘avid listener to Parliament’ who deeply admired Labour Prime Minister M.J. Savage.1
Bruce attended New Plymouth Boys’ High School, where he enjoyed history, sports, drama and debating. His family were Anglican, but he joined a Presbyterian bible class and considered entering the ministry. Instead he took up a post-primary teachers’ bursary at Auckland University College, and his interest in religion faded. After completing a Master of Arts (with honours) in history in 1959, and a year at Auckland Teachers’ College, he taught the subject at his old school, and then at Taupō and Piopio. As a young teacher he earned the nickname ‘Bodgie’ for his stovepipe trousers and hairstyle.
On 21 August 1965, Beetham married 21-year-old dental nurse Raewyn Natalee Mitchell in Matamata. They settled in Hamilton and were to have three sons and a daughter. From 1967 to 1976 Beetham lectured in social studies and history at Hamilton Teachers’ College. He also studied part-time at the University of Waikato, completing a Master of Philosophy in political science in 1972.
As a young man Beetham showed little interest in party politics; he voted Labour as a student before switching to National once he began teaching. The 1969 election campaign sparked an interest in the policies of a third party, Social Credit, which had a loyal following in Waikato. After carefully studying its programme and meeting Hamilton West candidate Don Bethune, Beetham decided to join.
The social credit movement was based on the interwar monetary theories of British engineer C. H. Douglas, who argued that the state should create cheap public credit and regulate prices to support producers and consumers. Social credit ideas proved popular in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, especially among dairy farmers and small business owners in regional centres. Formed in 1953, the New Zealand Social Credit Political League first tasted electoral success in 1966, when it claimed 14.5 per cent of the national vote and Vernon Cracknell won the Hobson seat in Northland. Cracknell made little impression in Parliament, however, and was defeated three years later as the League’s vote slipped to 9 per cent.
The 1969 disappointment triggered a period of internal turmoil. As a delegate to Social Credit’s 1970 conference, Beetham supported John O’Brien’s campaign to oust Cracknell as leader, but O’Brien’s confrontational style soon alienated many colleagues. Meanwhile, Beetham rose swiftly through the League’s ranks: he became chair of its research council in 1970 and the following year was elected one of four vice-presidents. When the president resigned shortly before its May 1972 conference, he was chosen as an interim replacement acceptable to all factions. He presided over a chaotic conference: O’Brien, aware of moves against him, stormed out and formed a breakaway New Democratic Party. Having skilfully distanced himself from the infighting, Beetham was installed as Social Credit’s new leader.
Party leadership and mayoral interlude
The 36-year-old took over a demoralised party languishing at around 3 per cent in public opinion polls. Up against not just National and Labour but also the New Democrats and the environmentalist Values Party, Social Credit faced oblivion at the November 1972 election. Fronting a campaign focused on ‘Bright Leadership’, Beetham won praise for his performance, especially on television. Social Credit earned a respectable 6.7 per cent of the vote, while O’Brien’s New Democrats were, in Beetham’s words, ‘annihilated’.2
Beetham now sought to modernise the League’s antiquated party machine and broaden its appeal as a progressive, centrist force. Determined to shed ‘the boring “funny money” image which had dogged the party since its inception’, he downplayed obscure monetary theories and borrowed policies freely from Labour and even Values, emphasising regional development, co-operative shareholding, environmental issues and opposition to nuclear weapons.3 On moral issues, though, Beetham adhered to Social Credit’s traditional conservatism, being strongly opposed to abortion.
Despite Beetham’s personal appeal, the League experienced further disappointment at the 1975 election, which was dominated by National’s combative leader Robert Muldoon. Turning to local politics, in April 1976 Beetham surprisingly won a by-election for the Hamilton mayoralty. He proposed an ambitious rate voucher scheme but struggled to manage a divided council. In August 1977, with an eye on Parliament, he announced that he would not seek a second term.
Electoral opportunity came earlier than expected when the National member for Rangitīkei, Roy Jack, died in December 1977. Fortuitously, Beetham had already contested the seat twice, finishing a creditable second in 1975. With National fielding an inexperienced candidate in the February 1978 by-election, media attention was drawn to the ‘amiable grin’ of Social Credit’s handsome ‘television matador’.4 Buoyed by the customary by-election protest vote and tactical voting by Labour supporters, Beetham won a stunning victory.
In his maiden speech in Parliament, Social Credit’s leader promised a ‘bold, fresh strategy’ to replace National’s ‘discredited’ economic policies and Labour’s ‘sterile socialism’.5 He railed against ‘Money manipulators’ and the international financial system – traditional Social Credit targets – but also championed decentralisation, tax reform and domestic alternatives to imported fossil fuels.6
Beetham was just the second incoming member since 1946 who did not represent either Labour or National. Although he was a more confident performer than Cracknell, he waged a similarly lonely battle against the ‘cosy two-party club’ that set Parliament’s rules.7 His arguments for equal speaking rights, committee membership and a fair share of television and radio airtime during election campaigns achieved mixed results. Several private member’s bills, including one proposing comprehensive credit and currency reform, attracted attention but ended in inevitable failure.
At the November 1978 general election Beetham more than doubled his February majority to 2853, as Social Credit won an impressive 16.1 per cent of the national vote – the largest third-party share in 50 years. He remained a lone voice in Parliament, however, until September 1980, when fellow Social Credit candidate Gary Knapp won a by-election in East Coast Bays. It was the first time in four decades that a party other than National or Labour had two members of Parliament. With public confidence in the two main parties wavering, Social Credit’s popularity soared. In December 1980 it topped 30 per cent in several opinion polls, leapfrogging Labour into second place. According to the Auckland Star, the ‘Bruce Beetham band-wagon’ was ‘rolling so strongly that National Party strategists fear it cannot be stopped.’8
Social Credit’s rise came at a personal cost. Beneath Beetham’s calm, professional persona was a driven, even obsessive figure who regularly worked long hours and smoked 25 cigarettes a day, and he could be prickly and intolerant of others’ views. The demands of party leadership, Parliament and a huge electorate (which he toured in a beaten-up 1963 Ford Falcon) left little time for family life. His marriage to Raewyn ended in 1978, and she remained in Hamilton with their four children; they were divorced two years later.
On 6 December 1980, in Hamilton, Beetham married Beverley May Clark (née Morrison), who had a family connection to Social Credit and two sons from a previous marriage. Shortly afterwards they moved into a large, two-storey Tudor-style house on the leafy outskirts of Marton. An interior decorator, Beverley claimed credit for sharpening her husband’s dress sense.
The balance of responsibility
The winter of 1981 was dominated by the controversial Springbok rugby tour. Despite concern over the disruption, Beetham supported Muldoon’s decision to allow the tour to proceed, believing that it was not the government’s role to stop it. Although Social Credit’s polling slipped as November’s election approached, it still won 20.7 per cent of the vote. Beetham and Knapp were both returned, but two seats (out of 92) was poor reward for the backing of one in five voters – an apparent injustice that would contribute to growing public support for proportional representation, which the League had long advocated. Even with only two seats, on election night it appeared that Social Credit might hold the balance of power – or ‘balance of responsibility’, as Beetham called it.9 As it turned out, the final results gave National a bare majority.
The Muldoon government’s third term was intensely difficult, as backbench dissidents threatened its tenuous hold on power. Beetham and Knapp voted with Labour on anti-nuclear legislation but often backed the government on other issues. Although Beetham and Muldoon had frequently clashed on the campaign trail, on a personal level their relationship was usually courteous; Beetham recalled that they got on remarkably well on a 1982 trip to Antarctica.
On one issue, Social Credit’s support for the government would prove particularly damaging. In May 1982 Muldoon announced plans to progress a controversial dam project at Clyde, despite legal obstacles and caucus unease. Beetham and Knapp initially confirmed their opposition, but following a visit to Otago, announced that they were prepared to reconsider. After what Beetham described as ‘the toughest bargaining session’ of his life, Social Credit agreed to back the necessary legislation in return for policy concessions from the government.10 Muldoon’s smug declaration of victory made Beetham and Knapp look naïve; the media, environmental groups, Labour and many Social Credit supporters accused them of betrayal.
Decline and division
As Social Credit’s poll numbers tumbled, ill health added to Beetham’s worries: he was hospitalised twice in early 1983, on the second occasion after suffering a mild heart attack. He reduced his smoking but his performance during the 1984 election campaign was described as tired; he later admitted to being ‘mentally and physically worn out’.11
In July 1984, when David Lange’s resurgent Labour Party swept Muldoon from office, Social Credit’s vote slumped to 7.6 per cent. For the first time in its 30-year history the perennial third party finished fourth in terms of votes, eclipsed by the libertarian New Zealand Party. In Rangitīkei, Beetham was narrowly defeated by National’s Denis Marshall – in part because of an unfavourable redrawing of electoral boundaries which excluded his home town, Marton, from the electorate. Despite its poor showing nationally, Social Credit claimed two seats, with Knapp being joined by Neil Morrison, who won Pakuranga.
Out of Parliament after six years, Beetham considered resigning as leader but was persuaded to stay on in a full-time salaried role. The change, he claimed, restored both his passion for politics and his health. In 1985 Social Credit attempted its own rejuvenation, becoming the New Zealand Democratic Party, but its popularity continued to slide, fuelling internal dissent. After failing to convince his leader to stand aside, Knapp resigned as deputy. When Morrison won a leadership vote at the 1986 conference, an angry Beetham briefly threatened to form a breakaway party.
The Democrats performed poorly at the 1987 election, losing both seats. The following year Beetham quit to revive the Social Credit brand, contesting the Palmerston North electorate in 1990 while his wife, Beverley, stood in Rangitīkei. Between them, Democrat and Social Credit candidates gained only 2.7 per cent of the national vote. The remnants of the Democrats soon joined the new left-wing Alliance, and in 1993 Beetham promoted a centrist New Zealand Coalition, which failed to gain traction in an increasingly crowded field. In 1996 – the first election under the new mixed-member proportional system – he stood for Parliament for the last time, contesting Rangitīkei as an independent.
Later life and legacy
After losing the Democrats’ leadership Beetham taught at Marton’s Nga Tawa Diocesan School and returned to local politics. In 1986 he was elected to the Marton Borough Council and appointed deputy mayor. He served as deputy chairman of the Wanganui (later Manawatu–Wanganui) Area Health Board and in 1989 was elected to the new Manawatu–Wanganui Regional Council. He chaired the Palmerston North College of Education Council (later the Massey University College of Education Board) and from 1994 lectured in history and politics at International Pacific College, Palmerston North. Beetham died of heart failure at Palmerston North Hospital on 3 May 1997, aged 61; he was survived by Beverley, his four children and two stepchildren.
Between 1972 and 1981 Bruce Beetham’s ‘charm, confidence and charisma’ had propelled Social Credit’s unlikely emergence as a credible political force in New Zealand.12 He often claimed, with just a hint of exaggeration, that he had lifted the League from 1 per cent to 30 per cent in the polls. Ultimately, he was unable to broaden or concentrate its support sufficiently to overcome New Zealand’s disproportionate first-past-the-post voting system, and its decline in the 1980s was swift and acrimonious. Nevertheless, Social Credit’s frustrated popularity under Beetham’s leadership helped foster public support for electoral reform and foreshadowed the emergence of a multi-party system in the 1990s.