The Path to Nuclear Free Nelson
The campaign to declare New Zealand nuclear free in the 1980s began at the local level throughout the country. In September 1983 Nelson City was declared a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. This is the story of this historic decision and the notable events and characters involved.
The campaign in Nelson started in October 1980 with the visit of the US destroyer Turner Joy. This triggered a 700 signature nuclear free petition to Nelson City Council. As well as calling for the city to become nuclear free, the petition called for the Council to stop welcoming foreign warships. The petition was considered by the Council’s Administration Committee, most of whom approved a motion that the matter not go to full council. Councillor Potton spoke against the motion.
The nuclear free idea was not new. On the global scene, it featured in a number of international treaties – Antarctic Treaty, the Treaty of Tlatelolco, the Outer Space Treaty, an Indian Ocean Zone of Peace, the Seabed Treaty. In the Pacific, Vanuatu, Fiji, Belau had declared themselves nuclear weapon free. In New Zealand, the Borough of Devonport was the first to make such a declaration, followed by Lyttelton Borough and Christchurch became the first nuclear-free city after a petition submitted by the Values Party, supported by the Sumner Peace Group and the NZ Nuclear Free Zone Committee.
While the nuclear-free campaign in Nelson was locally organised, it was part of an increasingly active national movement supported by the NZ Nuclear Free Zone Committee, Peace Movement Aotearoa (PMA), the Foundation for Peace Studies, the National Consultative Committee on Disarmament (NCCD), the Christian Pacifist Society (CPS), the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Greenpeace, Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom (WILPF), the Peace Council, and occupational groups formed by doctors, lawyers, scientists and teachers.
Factors contributing to the eventual success of the nuclear free Nelson campaign were:
- Vietnam War and Springbok Tour, which energised radical activists in the 1960s and 1970s
- A political tradition of independence and liberalism, as shown by local MPs Bill Rowling, Philip Woollaston, and Nick Smith.
- Three well-established peace groups providing a solid organisational base: Nelson Action Committee on International Affairs (NACIA) which grew out of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and which became the Nelson Peace Group; the Golden Bay Peace Group; and Riverside Community at Lower Moutere. There were other peace groups in Waimea/Richmond and Motueka which operated similarly during the campaign and disbanded after it. Among Nelson doctors there was a very high degree of membership of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Other local organisations supporting the campaign were Amnesty International, many churches, unions, local iwi, the National Council of Women, and the Nelson Environment Centre which provided a crucial physical base.
The first mention of bringing the nuclear-free concept to the streets of Nelson was in a letter from Home Base Pacific Pilgrimage discussed at a NACIA meeting in early 1981. A sub-group, known as the Peace Coalition, was formed to concentrate on the local nuclear-free campaign. Tony Martin, a curator at the Suter Gallery, a young man with considerable personal magnetism, acted as coordinator.
At the first Peace Coalition meeting it was decided to launch a local Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone petition with the following wording:
“We, the undersigned petitioners, respectfully submit that to promote the health, safety, and general welfare of the people and the amenities of our area and region, that Nelson City be declared a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.”
In the lead up to canvassing, homes, shops, streets, churches, and meeting places were encouraged to declare themselves nuclear free zones. Sub-groups of the Coalition were set up for such things as petition recruiters, petition boards, fundraising, petition tables, publicity, special events, education, visual aids, leafleting and newsletters.
Seventy people took part in door-to-door canvassing of the city. Over 60 per cent of those approached signed, with a good cross-section of the city covered and little difference between more and less affluent areas.
Petition tables were also organised at the Saturday market and elsewhere, and activities were held to keep the issues before Councillors and the general public. These included photo displays, films, a totem pole to record petition progress, debates, warship protests, banners, a women's day of action, Hiroshima Remembrance Day activities, speakers, articles and cake stalls. Plus:
- NACIA Fair at Stoke Hall
- Peace Festival at Fairfield House
- Conference organised by the local United Nations International Year of Peace (UNIYP) Committee in 1986
- With the cooperation of Council staff, a Peace Grove was planted on the verge of QEII Drive at Sovereign Street in 1986 (subsequently moved to next to Miyazu Gardens in 2013)
- The First Earth Run – beginning at the United Nations on 16 September 1986 with a flame created in a sunrise ceremony by native Americans, torches were carried by relay runners worldwide over 86 days though 57 countries, including New Zealand. Nelson runners picked up the torch at Renwick and brought it to the Cathedral Steps were it was given a civic reception from the Mayor, Peter Malone
- Peace Walk from Branford Park to the Centre of NZ, featuring bands and dancing
During the nuclear-free campaign, Nelson schools were visited by the Peace Van set up and run by Jim Chapple, a retired school teacher. The van carried stocks of books, pamphlets and posters on peace and environmental topics and Jim was prepared to address classes when permitted by school authorities.
In early 1982, at the height of the campaign, two large secondary schools, on the initiative of students, declared themselves Nuclear Weapons Free Zones. Nayland College was the first of these, becoming the first Nuclear Free College in New Zealand. This move was started by a group of senior students in the College’s Human Rights Club. It gained wide acceptance by students and had the tacit approval of staff. The Board of Governors accepted the pupil’s wishes while making it clear they were not making the declaration on their own behalf.
Things were not as straightforward for Nelson College for Girls, the second local college to declare itself nuclear-weapon-free. The debate was triggered by a talk from Larry Ross, founder of the NZ Nuclear Free Zone Committee to the College assembly. This led to a group of senior girls, with some staff, organising a referendum on whether the school should be declared a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. The matter was treated as a democratic educational exercise, with considerable debate over a two week period before voting. There was poetry, dance and drama – and an address by Councillor Seddon Marshall criticising the poll saying students were too young to understand the issues; some had been brainwashed; the matter was not in the school’s sphere; and it could possibly encourage children to undermine national security. The results of the poll were not officially released – however it appears that 281 students voted for a nuclear weapon free zone, 161 voted against.
Blessed are the Peacemakers
Notable Christian involvement in the campaign came from the following people:
- Bernard Wells, the chairperson of NACIA when the campaign started, was a life-long Methodist and peace activist
- Archie Barrington from Riverside Community had been an outspoken Methodist Church leader.
- Reverend Kim Bathgate, Presbyterian minister at Trinity Church, succeeded Bernard Wells as NACIA chairperson. His stance was regarded unfavourably by more conservative members of his congregation and he was the subject of a church commission of inquiry. He pointed out that the Presbyterian church was formed as an act of protest and that it was his duty to interpret life in the light of his Christian faith.
- Reverend Wallace Chapman was for a time Kim Bathgate’s deputy in NACIA and his Methodist church in Nelson was declared a nuclear free zone.
- The Friends meeting house in Nile Street was declared a nuclear free zone and the traditionally anti-war Quakers supported many of the campaign’s activities.
- Tony West, one of NACIA’s most active members, was the chairperson of the Nelson branch of the Catholic Commission for Evangelisation, Justice, and Development.
- Bishop Anthoni Zavgorodny of the Russian Orthodox Church visited Nelson during the campaign and spoke at an ecumenical service in St Mary’s church. He hoped that all nations could support the nuclear free concept.
After several unsuccessful approaches to get the Council to declare Nelson a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, Tony Martin, representing NACIA and the Peace Coalition, presented the petition, from over 9000 people, to full Council in August 1983. Speaking in support were Nelson MP Philip Woollaston, Mrs Shirley Ellis from the National Council of Women, Dr Brian Neill from IPPNW, and Captain Cyril Simister, former Nelson Civil Defence Officer. Mayor Malone thanked the deputation and invited them to listen to the debate in September.
At the September meeting the Mayor moved and Councillor Craig Potton seconded a motion “that the Council as an expression of its concern about the proliferation of nuclear weaponry declare the city a nuclear weapon free zone”. The motion was accompanied by a long preamble, which said the Council accepted:
- The public concern at the proliferation of nuclear weapons
- That the Council had no legal capacity to control such proliferation or the location of nuclear weapons
- Many citizens thought concern about proliferation could be expressed by declaring the city a nuclear weapon free zone
- Proliferation could be finally controlled and eliminated through the multilateral decision of countries with a nuclear weapon capability
- New Zealand’s responsibilities under its defence treaty obligations.
The motion was passed, Councillor Seddon Marshall being the only dissenter.
The Council’s action met the approval of the Nelson Evening Mail, an editorial article on the 14 September 1983 declared “it symbolises a community’s rejection of nuclear weaponry as an instrument of national policy”.
Following the Council’s declaration, NACIA wrote to the Select Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control, pointing out the strength of support for nuclear weapon free zones locally and nationally, asking them to take the necessary steps to ensure that Parliament enacted a weapon free zone at the earliest possibility.
About a month later the Nelson Bays United Council declared its area nuclear weapon free, following a deputation by representatives of NACIA, IPPNW, and National Council of Women, as well as MPs Sir Wallace Rowling and Philip Woollaston. The motion was put by Mayor Malone and seconded by Councillor Elma Turner.
In September 1993 Nelson City Council again reconfirmed its Nuclear Weapon Free policy and expanded it to include chemical and biological weapons, and to prohibit the establishment of nuclear power, the disposal of nuclear waste, and the use of nuclear propulsion in the city area.
Sources used in this story
- Foote, W. J. (1999) The Power of the People: How Nelson Province Became Nuclear Free. Nelson [N.Z.] : W.J. Foote
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Further sources - The Path to Nuclear Free Nelson
- Bester, R. (2010) Harvest of grace : essays in celebration of 150 years of mission in the Anglican Diocese of Nelson. Nelson [N.Z.] : Standing Committee of the Diocese of Nelson
- Clements, K. (1988) Back from the brink : the creation of a nuclear-free New Zealand. Wellington, N.Z
- Foote, W. J. (1999) The Power of the People: How Nelson Province Became Nuclear Free. Nelson [N.Z.] : W.J. Foote
- Foote, W.J. (1997) Quest for peace confessions, lies and heroes. Nelson [N.Z.] : W.J. Foote.
- Lange, D. (1990) Nuclear free the New Zealand way. Auckland, N.Z. : Penguin, 1990.
- Leadbeater, M. (2013) Peace, power & politics : how New Zealand became nuclear free. Dunedin, New Zealand : Otago University Press.
- Locke, E. (1992) Peace people : a history of peace activities in New Zealand. Christchurch, N.Z. : Hazard Press.
- Templeton, M. (2006) Standing upright here : New Zealand in the nuclear age 1945-1990. Wellington [N.Z.] : Victoria University Press, in association with the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.
- Book records no nukes campaign (1999, July 12) Nelson Mail, p.3
- Neal, T. (2012, August 9) Nuclear free city position avowed. Nelson Mail on Stuff:
- Bernard Wells collection [Documents comprised of NACIA (Nelson Action Committee on International Affairs, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Nelson Peace Group associated with Wells, Bernard L.] Nelson Provincial Museum.
- Golden Bay Peace Group. [Radio New Zealand podcast] Spectrum, 20 October, 2011
- Wilfred John Foote archive - manuscript minutes of meetings of the Nelson Action Committee on International Affairs, 1973-1977. Christchurch City Libraries
- Derby, M. (2012) 'Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism - Pacifism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12:
- 'Nuclear-free legislation' (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Mar-2015