Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Ellen Melville, the Kosie vote splitter

Images: Left – Mayor Gunson, 1920, 1093-ALBUM-214-11, Sir George Grey Special Collections 
Centre – Kosie Theatre building, April 2017, Google view 
Right – Ellen Melville, 7-A10643, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Hard to believe that something happened here, in the Kosie Theatre building in Mt Albert shops back in 1926, that helped to bring down a government. 

It was March 1926. Christopher James Parr, the Reform Member of Parliament for the Eden electorate in Auckland from 1914, and before that a prominent mayor of the City of Auckland, took up an appointment as High Commissioner in London. This meant a by-election for the seat, and eight candidates from within the Reform Party, the conservative movement within Parliament and local government, put their hats in the ring. 

There were several well-known people among the nominees – Sir James Henry Gunson, then mayor of Auckland, and holder of a number of other high profile positions for his CV. From his biography online: “Gunson's mayoralty covered most of the period of the First World War. He was extremely active in recruiting while at the same time meeting criticism that he himself had not joined the armed forces. From 1918 to 1938 he was chairman of the Auckland Provincial Patriotic and War Relief Association and joint committee of the New Zealand Branch of the British Red Cross, and Order of St John. From 1917 to 1925 he was president of the Auckland Institute and Museum. In these roles, linked in a citizen's committee of which he was chairman from 1920 to 1927, he led the drive for funds for the building of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. This project derived considerable support from the Auckland City Council during his mayoralty.” 

Then there were a couple of borough mayors, William John Tait from Avondale, and Leonard Edgar Rhodes from Mt Albert. And (Eliza) Ellen Melville, the first woman elected to a city council in New Zealand (Auckland) from 1913-1946, Dominion president of the National Council of the Women of New Zealand, and generally today seen as one of the shining lights in the story for women’s rights in the country. 

On a Monday evening, 1 March 1926, members of the Reform party in the Eden electorate gathered at Mt Albert’s Kosie theatre to select their candidate. By the end of the week, the events within the theatre that night were splashed across the nation’s newspapers – and not for good reasons. 

It was Melville who was the spokeswoman for seven of the candidates, expressing their displeasure – seven, because the eighth candidate, Gunson, was not locked up in a room in the theatre with the others, let out of the room only under escort to speak for 15 minutes then escorted back to the locked room. Instead Gunson who after he gave his own spiel as to why he was the right person for the job, simply exited the theatre and waited by his car outside, as the electors within decided on who to have as their candidate, and was called back in after the ballot was held. The rest remained locked up in the room, wondering why they were suddenly in a prison. Gunson could hear the other’s speeches – but the rest could not. Gunson won the ballot that night, and was later endorsed by the Prime Minister Joseph Gordon Coates. 

Melville had run as an independent Reform candidate in Roskill in 1922 – but in 1926 had joined the main Reform fold. After that night, though, she told the party in no uncertain terms that while the party expected candidates to stick by their pledges to the party, candidates in turn expected fair play. It ended up with Melville running as Independent Reform again, against Gunson, in the Eden electorate for the by-election. 

“Vote-splitter!!” the Reform Party called Melville. Hecklers tracked her through her campaign, raising that cry. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened. The results of the election were: 
H G Rex Mason (Labour) 4580 (He’d lost to Parr in 1922 and 1925) 
Gunson (Reform) 4150 
Melville (Ind. Reform) 2193 

Neither Gunson nor Melville would ever succeed at a general election, while Mason went on to being one of the longest lasting members of Parliament, 1926-1966. Eden would not see a conservative MP winning the seat until 1946, after it was shifted away from Mt Albert. 

The issue that led to Melville splitting the vote also ended up helping to split the party itself – Reform tied with the United Party in 1928, after a number of Coates’ MPs criticised him and the party, and United went into an agreement with Labour, ousting Coates as PM in favour of the ageing Sir Joseph Ward. 

So – the old Kosie Theatre. Scene of local political ructions over 90 years ago that helped create shifts in our national history. 

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