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A history of the CCNZ: Part One

From the archives: On his retirement Ron Tarr and his wife are presented with a silver tea set in 1972 (from the Auckland Branch) from NE (Baldy) Margan, the director of the NZ Contractors Federation. Ron later wrote a history of the federation called – A Strange Breed of Men.
Caption: From the archives: On his retirement Ron Tarr and his wife are presented with a silver tea set in 1972 (from the Auckland Branch) from NE (Baldy) Margan, the director of the NZ Contractors Federation. Ron later wrote a history of the federation called – A Strange Breed of Men.


Writing about the history of our civil contracting industry and of CCNZ, which this year is celebrating the 80thAnniversary of its founding in July 1944, is a fascinating project. By Peter Tritt, former CEO of the CCNZ and an industry historian.

It’s so easy to forget the past. Yet, looking back on our history is important. It not only provides a sense of where we have come from and what we have achieved to date, but it also illuminates our thinking for the future.

History tells us that Wellington’s ‘world-famous-in-Wellington’ Backbencher Pub and Cafe, that sits across the road from Parliament in Molesworth Street, played a role in the founding of CCNZ’s predecessor organisation, back in July 1944.

A lot else was also happening in July 1944 – like World War II. But the threat of Japanese invasion had vanished by mid-1942, and by July 1944 World War II was well on its way to being won. In Europe, France was being liberated following the Allied D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 (its 80th Anniversary was celebrated last month); Allied forces, including the 2nd New Zealand Division (including the 28th Maori Battalion), were advancing through Northern Italy; and the Soviet Union’s Red Army had advanced into Poland. In the Pacific, the Americans had taken Guam and Iwo Jima from Japan.

Although the war hadn’t yet been won, nations had begun working together to solve the problems of a post-war world. In July 1944, the Bretton Woods Conference established the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and the United Nations was a work in progress.

Here in New Zealand, people were also turning their minds to solving the problems of transitioning from war into peace. Among those thinking about their future was a group of five contractors led by Dan Sloan who, along with Vic Draper (Wellington), Noel “Baldy” Margan (Auckland), Harold Parsons (Wairarapa) and Sam Neville (Christchurch), would come to be acknowledged as the founders of the organisation that would become today’s CCNZ.

Dan Sloan was the proprietor of the Wellington Hotel (Today’s Backbencher Pub & Cafe), and his other major business interest was in the Gisborne Lime Company, which changed its name to Rock Quarries in 1950.

The Wellington Hotel, across the road from Parliament, had long been a watering hole for Members of Parliament and those who worked there. Its proprietor knew Bob Semple, the Minister of Public Works in the First Labour Government (1935-49), well.

Semple had worked in mining and civil engineering construction before becoming a unionist and a politician. He is remembered fondly for driving a D8 Caterpillar over a wheelbarrow at the official opening of the Lewis Pass Highway in 1937 – to symbolise the destruction of his one-time tool of trade and to emphasise the huge development potential of mechanised earthmoving.

Semple’s faith in the D8 was such that, at the height of the Japanese invasion fear, he had two dozers modified into what became known as the Semple Tractor-Tank. The Public Works Department advised that it had 100 tractors available for service in defence of the nation. Fortunately, the tanks (described as the worst ever) were not needed and were returned to civilian service.

It was Semple who had encouraged Sloan to form an organisation that could talk with one voice to the government, rather than the minister having to meet with contractors individually. Sloan’s daughter also happened to be Semple’s personal secretary! Yes, New Zealand only had about 1.65 million people.

Dan Sloan convened a general meeting of earthmoving and agricultural contractors in Wellington in July 1944 to establish the New Zealand Associated and General Contractors’ Federation. He was elected its first president and served from 1944-46.

Leaving aside the founding president’s close personal connections, the formation of national industry organisations to protect and promote the interests of an industry and its members was a natural response to the growing centralisation and power of the state. Federated Farmers was also founded in 1944 to unite various farmer organisations into one national organisation.

New Zealand’s First Labour Government had greatly expanded the state’s role, even before war broke out in 1939. It nationalised the Reserve Bank and Bank of New Zealand; nationalised coal mines; brought the airline and broadcasting industries under state control; brought the Main Highways Board under the control of the Minister of Public Works; and nationalised the principal highways to make the main arteries of road traffic the sole responsibility of the state.

It introduced tariffs and import controls to protect local industry and foster import substitution through local manufacturing. From 1938, importers had to apply for an import licence and the foreign exchange needed for purchases. Quotas were set based on the previous year’s imports, setting the amount that was imported. This would become a post-war issue that would hamper contractors’ access to imported machinery and parts.

Of course, these controls were meant to be temporary, but they remained in place until the 1980s, making our economy an outlier in the developed world.

Centralised planning was a centrepiece of a socialist economy, so the Government passed the Industrial Efficiency Act 1936, which established a Bureau of Industry to guide the Minister of Industries and Commerce on planning and development. The Bureau’s role was to plan new industries and reorganise existing ones through a licensing system – something the new contractors’ organisation was keen on implementing.

When war came, there was an unprecedented expansion of government controls. The government introduced military conscription, industrial manpowering to control the civilian workforce, rationing (which didn’t end until 1948), and a comprehensive economic stabilisation system.

The Economic Stabilisation Commission, established in 1942, implemented government policies to stabilise wages, salaries, farm payouts, commodity prices, and rents at December 1942 levels. It became the ‘command centre’ for the economy from then until the end of the war, but it too continued after the war ended.  It was eventually disbanded by the First National Government (1949-57), which was committed to deregulation and private enterprise.

When the Federation held its first Annual General Meeting in Wellington on 26 September 1945, with 23 members present, the war had been won. The Federation had gained 130 members, one-third of whom were earthmoving contractors, one-third of whom were agricultural contractors, and one-third of whom were both. Branches had been established in Hawkes Bay, Marlborough, Southland, Auckland, and Canterbury.

There were four major issues facing contractors, as reported in the 1945 Annual Report. The first was industry licensing: The Federation’s quest for industry licensing by the Bureau of Industry required a much greater membership to obtain government approval.

The second was the Public Works Department: Its ownership and operation of plant was encroaching on the private sector.

The third was hire rates: The Federation had prepared draft schedules of hire rates, but it was decided that it was best to work at fixing schedules locally, with uniformity in principle rather than in rates.

The fourth was industrial: The Federation, now established as an Industrial Union of Employers, reported that the Drivers’ Union was resisting the industry’s proposed driver classification system.

President Sloan, in his address to the Federations’ first AGM, spoke about his hopes that great development in the contracting industry could be expected now that production had turned over from war to peacetime requirements.

The many experiences gained from war would now be available for normal use, proving invaluable for developing New Zealand’s great potential. But, for now, the big problem was having more work than could be performed due to the shortage of machinery and manpower.

Next month’s column will take a look at the 1950s.

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