Heinrich Arnold Nordmeyer, later known as Arnold Henry Nordmeyer, was born at Dunedin on 7 February 1901, the son of Arnold Nordmeyer, a German seaman who worked on a gold dredge at Alexandra, and his wife, Martha Dunn (née Walker), a widow with three children, who came from County Tyrone, Ulster. He was educated at Waitaki Boys’ High School and the University of Otago, where he graduated with a BA and diploma in social science. He then studied at the Theological Hall, Knox College, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1925.
Nordmeyer was appointed to Kurow, North Otago, and served as minister there from 1925 to 1935. He married Frances Maria Kernahan in Ōamaru on 28 October 1931; they were to have a daughter and a son. In Kurow he met two men with whom he later shared a political career: D. G. McMillan, the local doctor, and C. F. (Jerry) Skinner, a trade unionist then working on the Waitaki hydro scheme. Spurred by the harsh conditions of the workers on the Kurow dam, Nordmeyer developed an active interest in politics. In 1935 he resigned his ministry to contest the Ōamaru seat for the New Zealand Labour Party in the general election. He was one of the tide of new members swept into Parliament by Labour’s crushing victory.
As a backbench MP Nordmeyer soon displayed obvious intellectual and debating ability. During the first term of the government, he and McMillan were among the new members who supported John A. Lee in his criticism of the older and more cautious leadership of Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, Deputy Prime Minister Peter Fraser and Minister of Finance Walter Nash. In essence, the dissidents thought that the government was in a strong enough political position to take more positive socialist measures. Lee and others were persistent advocates of monetary reform and the use of state credit rather than borrowing to finance the government’s programme. Nordmeyer supported and defended Lee in his campaign to secure the election of cabinet by the parliamentary caucus rather than appointment by the prime minister, and for the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank and the Bank of New Zealand. But he grew to doubt Lee’s judgement – so egotistical and vain, he remarked in later life – and to urge, unavailingly, greater caution upon him.
Nordmeyer took an active role in the development of social security policy, itself a subject of considerable division within the government. Nash first proposed a contributory, insurance-type scheme which the caucus rejected. Nordmeyer subsequently chaired both the caucus committee and the parliamentary select committee which considered the matter. The caucus committee recommended a scheme for a means-tested pension of 30 shillings per week at 60 years of age (more generous than first contemplated) and, at 65, universal superannuation with no means test, beginning at £10 per year (a Nordmeyer suggestion). It also provided for universal medical benefits including hospital treatment, maternity benefits and general practitioner consultations, all to be financed from taxation. At Nordmeyer’s suggestion, the two schemes – health and pensions – were combined in one measure. The recommendations were incorporated in the Social Security Act 1938, which became one of the main issues in that year’s election campaign.
Divisions within the government worsened after that sweeping victory and led ultimately to Lee’s expulsion from the party at its 1940 annual conference, during which Savage had died. Nordmeyer spoke against Lee’s expulsion but did not seek to defend all his actions. The division in the caucus was illustrated when Fraser was elected to succeed Savage. Nordmeyer nominated McMillan to oppose him and Fraser won with 33 votes out of 45 cast. Fraser then conceded to caucus the right to elect members of cabinet. Nordmeyer was himself elected in 1941 and was given the important portfolio of health.
Throughout 1941 Nordmeyer and Nash battled with the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association over the introduction of the social security benefit for general practitioner consultations. The doctors refused to accept a state fee for service, contending that the unique doctor–patient relationship depended on the patient paying directly. Late that year Fraser suggested a compromise whereby doctors would charge directly if they wished and the patient would claim a social security refund. It was conceded, also, that doctors might charge more than the refund. With this agreement, and a generous fee which Nordmeyer negotiated (although below the maximum cabinet had approved), doctors then accepted the scheme. From then until 1947, Nordmeyer introduced benefits for hospital outpatients, pharmaceutical prescriptions, X-ray diagnosis and dental treatment.
In that year, on the death of Dan Sullivan, Nordmeyer was appointed minister of industries and commerce, a field of close interest to him. He had been a member of a caucus committee in 1937 set up to consider the establishment of new industries and had advocated greater protection for New Zealand industries. His department was an important one, charged with the administration of a comprehensive system of import licensing, and it was clear in the late 1940s that Nordmeyer was one of the three key ministers of the government.
In 1949 Labour was defeated in the general election and Nordmeyer lost Ōamaru. After Fraser died in December 1950 Nordmeyer was elected for his seat of Brooklyn (later incorporated into Island Bay) on 17 February 1951. The election by caucus of a new leader, Walter Nash, and his deputy, Jerry Skinner, was held on 17 January, before Nordmeyer could re-enter Parliament. This haste was an indication that despite his ministerial service Nordmeyer was not then in the inner circle of the party.
His real problem at the time was the distrust in which he was held by the dominant faction of trade unionists, powerful within the party following the enactment of compulsory unionism, and led by F. P. Walsh, vice president of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL). This distrust was not so much a question of major differences on policy as the feeling of Walsh and his followers that Nordmeyer was not one of them – although in later years Walsh came to change his view.
Union opposition was a significant factor in the defeat of Nordmeyer’s challenge to Nash in 1954. There had been growing disenchantment within the parliamentary Labour Party at Nash’s leadership. He led as a one-man band, neither organising the party himself nor allowing anyone else to do it; morale was low. One senior member, Rex Mason, urged Nash to retire; Nash resisted. Matters came to a head at the first caucus in February 1954. To pre-empt a move against Nash, Angus McLagan, a veteran trade unionist and MP for Riccarton, moved a vote of confidence in him. To Nash’s consternation, this was in effect nullified by an amendment by Mason that caucus should set a date for consideration of the leadership.
There followed a campaign within the party. The National Executive of the Labour Party, the FOL and the Joint Council of Labour (the combined council of the NZLP and the FOL), rallied by Walsh, came out publicly in support of Nash, as did many party branches, despite the fact that Nordmeyer, party president from 1950 to 1955, chaired the National Executive. A caucus vote was held on 23 June 1954 and Nash and Nordmeyer were nominated; Nash won clearly, but was shaken by the extent of Nordmeyer’s support.
Nordmeyer’s frustration in opposition in these years was obvious, and in late 1957 he suffered a severe heart attack. He gradually recovered full health but took part in the 1957 general election campaign only in its last stages. The central issue of the campaign had been the introduction of Pay As You Earn (PAYE) taxation. Both parties agreed on this, but Labour offered a higher maximum rebate on the tax assessed in the first year – ‘the £100 rebate’. When Labour narrowly won (41 seats to 39), Nordmeyer was appointed minister of finance and ranked number three in the government.
The new government soon realised it faced a severe and fast-developing balance of payments crisis, triggered in large part by a collapse of butter prices in London. It imposed stringent import and exchange controls from 1 January 1958. The situation deteriorated over the next few months and was exacerbated by generous tax rebates accompanying the introduction of PAYE taxation. Nordmeyer sought to postpone some of the other expensive promises in Labour’s election policy but met strong opposition from caucus members. In consequence, on 26 June he produced a tough budget: significant increases in indirect taxation, particularly on cars, petrol, tobacco and alcohol, overshadowed some increases in benefits. The opposition, under Keith Holyoake, skilfully exploited this and succeeded in labelling it the ‘Black Budget’ (a term first used publicly by Walsh).
That became a political burden for Nordmeyer for the rest of his career. It left an imprint in the public mind that he was a ‘wowser’, a teetotal, non-smoking Presbyterian puritan who cheerfully taxed the workers’ pleasures – beer and smokes. The public also felt cheated by the election campaign, during which Nash had said there would be no increase in taxation ‘in normal circumstances’. A Minhinnick cartoon in the New Zealand Herald of 27 June 1958 brilliantly summed up the mood: Nash, as ‘Robbin’ Hood’ in Sherwood Forest, beatifically handed out £100 goodies to a queue of surprised but grateful taxpayers; Nordmeyer, as Friar Tuck behind a tree, wielded a huge cudgel (the budget) and took it all back. The government’s defeat in 1960 was probably sealed in 1958.
When Nash finally, and reluctantly, retired on 26 February 1963, Nordmeyer was at last elected parliamentary leader of the Labour Party (the first to be both New Zealand-born and a university graduate) and hence leader of the opposition. His only convincing rival, Jerry Skinner, had died in April 1962; Fred Hackett, another contender, had died in early 1963. Nordmeyer led the Labour campaign for the 1963 general election in which Labour gained one additional seat.
Norman Kirk, who was then also president of the Labour Party, was Nordmeyer’s obvious heir apparent. He had assured Nordmeyer that he would not seek the leadership until Nordmeyer was ready to step down, but, concerned about his long-term health, he was impatient. A majority of caucus felt that Nordmeyer was still associated with the ‘Black Budget’ and the past and wanted a younger man to lead them into the 1966 election. At a meeting on 9 December 1965 the leadership was put to the vote following reports that Kirk was expected to challenge Nordmeyer. Nordmeyer’s supporters were less prepared then Kirk’s, and the result was a victory for Kirk by 25 votes to 10. Nordmeyer thereafter went to the back benches but continued to speak for Labour in Parliament and outside it.
After his retirement from politics in 1969, Nordmeyer’s public reputation steadily grew as his ability and integrity were increasingly recognised. He was invited to arbitrate or conciliate in several difficult industrial disputes in the meat industry. He served on the Wellington Hospital Board, as a director of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and of Māui Development Limited, and as chairman of the New Zealand Superannuation Corporation. In 1970 he was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Otago. He was appointed a CMG in 1970, promoted to KCMG in 1975, and appointed to the Order of New Zealand in February 1987 as a foundation member.
Arnold Nordmeyer was a strong personality of great intellectual integrity, firm but not dogmatic in his views, honest in their expression and possessed of a delightful, self-deprecating sense of humour perhaps too rarely displayed in public. He had a keen intellect and while his Christian social conscience placed him on the left of the political spectrum, he was a political realist who became increasingly pragmatic. Efficient and well-organised, he was a very good administrator who clearly was frustrated by being obliged to spend what might have been his best political years in opposition. He was an excellent public speaker and formidable debater who disciplined himself to master his subjects. Nordmeyer was a joy to Hansard reporters, who in those days depended solely on shorthand: his case was always well-marshalled and his syntax rarely required editing. One disadvantage was his voice: while not unpleasant in conversation it tended to become higher and harsher in public speaking mode. His high-domed forehead and baldness made ‘Nordy’ a cartoonist’s delight. It was his misfortune to spend too many of the best years of his life in opposition and to be denied the opportunity to use his talents to the full.
Arnold Nordmeyer died in Wellington on 2 February 1989, survived by his wife and their two children. The family declined a state funeral, and his ashes were scattered by Lake Ōhau.