From the earliest days of the Public Works Department through to the present day, it’s always been the people that make our organisation so special. Here we look at some of the iconic characters that have shaped WSP over the last 150 years.
Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Undoubtedly the most influential figure in the history of the Public Works Department (PWD) was the politician responsible for establishing it in 1870, Julius Vogel.
Vogel is credited as a bold visionary, particularly his plan to revive New Zealand’s faltering economy. In setting up the PWD he initiated an ambitious 10-year programme of public works and large-scale assisted immigration, funded by extensive borrowing on the London money market.
The success of this policy depended on the rapid and cheap acquisition of Māori land by the Crown, a policy that is completely at odds with the way we would approach things today.
However, Vogel and his supporters were certain that Māori and settlers would be reconciled after the New Zealand Wars once Māori – and their land – were fully integrated into the European economy.
Not all his ideas were supported. Vogel advised setting aside land for debt repayment, but this was largely ignored. Had this approach been taken it may have lessened the severity of the 1880s depression. Since the 1860s he had argued for higher education for girls and in 1887 he introduced the first women’s suffrage bill in parliament. Although unsuccessful it was only six years before women were given the vote here, the first country in the world to do so.
Some things worked however. His policy to encourage immigration doubled the population of New Zealand in the 1870s. Along with roads and railway, public works laid telegraph cables to improve international communication and trade.
He also advocated setting aside intact old growth forest and replanting cut forests.
Vogel was also much more than a politician. Prior to standing for representation in public office he started the Otago Daily Times, and once he left politics he penned a novel about life in the year 2000.
Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman’s Destiny is regarded as New Zealand’s first science fiction novel, was uncanny in its predictions and well ahead of its time.
In his fictional Y2K, men and women ‘take part in the affairs of the world on terms of equality, each member of either sex enjoying the position to which he or she is entitled by reason of his or her qualifications.’ Women take leading roles in areas such as science, business and particularly politics, in a world in which every 18-year-old man and woman is eligible to vote and stand for election.
Women hold the most powerful political positions in that world. The president of the United States is a woman, and an Irish woman is prime minister of a federated British Empire.
Interestingly, in 2000, New Zealand’s Head of State, Governor General, Prime Minister, Chief Justice and Attorney General were all women, as was the CEO of Telecom.
Unconventional agitator Bob Semple was one of the more colourful personalities of the Public Works Department. He arrived in New Zealand under an assumed name from Australia, where he was blacklisted following a failed miner’s strike in 1903. Here, he was jailed in 1913 for supporting the general strike and again in 1916 after fighting conscription for overseas service during WWI.
A staunch unionist, Semple was never far from politics and stood for Wellington City Council and later the 1925 general election. In 1935 when Labour won office he was chosen by Michael Savage as the Minister of Public Works.
Anecdotes from this period show Semple in an amusing light with one staffer recollecting, “Bob had a habit of potting off rabbits, hares, hawkes and other game from the fast-moving ministerial car on his trips around the country.”
He was seen by many as the public face of the first Labour government’s infrastructure investment. He reshaped the PWD by resuming its original function as the development arm of the government by phasing out its focus on relief work from the Great Depression.
He had a genuine enthusiasm for public works and a total commitment to their efficient construction. His belief that society could be transformed by improving the physical condition and environment of New Zealanders gave public works an idealistic rationale.
He recognised that during the depression the professional staff had been expected to use archaic methods and determined they should have all the plant and machinery necessary to undertake work. The mechanisation of the department in the late 1930s is seen as one of the great achievements of the Semple ministry. This caused a dramatic reduction in the time taken to complete major projects and their cost.
For example, had the Nelson aerodrome been constructed using the depression methods of hand shovels and wheelbarrows, it would have cost $350,000 and taken three years to complete. Using earthmoving equipment and other machinery meant the job was done in 16 months, for $70,000.
Semple was also a prolific user of ‘unparliamentary language’ during his time as an MP and was fond of insulting colleagues by calling or comparing them to Australian animals such as kookaburras, kangaroos and dingoes.
Ironically, given his criticism of compulsory military training that led to his prison sentence, Semple is largely remembered for the WWII ‘Bob Semple tank’. The tank was made from corrugated iron and a tractor base. Although it had numerous design flaws and other practical problems and was never put into production, it continues to be regarded with affection by many New Zealanders.
Another larger-than-life personality, Max Smith was a controversial figure, well-respected by his staff but at odds with authority.
A civil engineer by trade, Smith went to Twizel to put into practice the National government “Think Big” policy, including a series of dams and canals across the Mackenzie Basin.
Smith was responsible for the upper Waitaki development scheme. At the time it was the largest development of its kind with workers operating around the clock, shifting mountains of earth, pouring thousands of tonnes of concrete, fabricating steel and installing complex electrical systems.
When he took over as project engineer in 1970, he had a vision for the Upper Waitaki and Mackenzie areas: he wanted to create a resource that could be used by New Zealanders with small pay-packets or older folk living on little more than their pension.
He barely tolerated any interest from head office in Wellington in various aspects of the development, and his pragmatic attitude towards what he felt was good for the newly born town of Twizel meant he was sometimes referred to by locals as ‘God’.
The Otago Daily Times reports that during the project, prefabricated toilet blocks, water supplies, boat harbours and ramps, trees and concrete fireplaces suddenly appeared at key spots, often without planning consents.
Smith was notoriously dismissed from the Ministry of Works for misuse of public funds after he authorised the spending of $130,000 to build a rowing venue.
Lake Ruataniwha was formed by damming the Ohau River and the rowing course wasn’t part of the hydro scheme. While head office was aware of the project the final straw was the financial contribution to ensure the regatta control building was constructed in time for the official opening of the lake as a public facility.
He also spoke out against the MOWs plan to abandon Twizel when the project was completed.
His daughter told the Otago Daily Times that her father was in no doubt that the workforce should be kept intact for future projects outside the region and that Twizel should be retained.
“It was a new town with all-new infrastructure and people wanted to remain living there for all sorts of reasons. Many of these workers and their families had known no other lifestyle and Max felt a duty of care for them to be able to purchase their homes and remain there if they wished.’’
His legacy is wide-reaching. From the Lakes Aviemore and Benmore recreational, camping and boating facilities to the huge canal-based power scheme wending its way from Lake Tekapo to Lake Benmore with its five power stations, the last commissioned in 1985. The construction town of Twizel survives as a result of his determination to prevent its being bulldozed.