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estport ’s Pete Lusk,
70,isthelast of a
unique political breed
in New Zealand.
ex-communist, an ex-
member of the now defunct New Zealand
Communist Party, and a former reporter for
the party’s newspaper, The People’s Voice,
which has long gone out of existence.
It is probable that during his years of
activism he came under the scrutiny of the
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Last year files compiled by CIA agents of
communist activity in New Zealand from
the 1940s through to the late 1980s were
released in a lengthy on-line document.
“I joined the party when in Karamea,” Mr
“A couple of things made me join — a bad
experience working for a Canterbury farmer
in my teens. Then I lived in Thailand and
travelled to Laos, where I came across the
“I went in, they had Chairman Mao’s
Little Red Book on the counter; I took it
and read it, then after that a lot of other
stuff on Marx and others.”
When Mr Lusk returned to New Zealand
he became involved in the protest movement
— a nti apartheid, anti-United States bases
in New Zealand, Save the Beech Forests and
He says it was a time of ferment and often
he was going to two meetings a night.
For 16 years he stayed in the Communist
Party while living in Auckland, but with the
collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, so too
the party collapsed in New Zealand.
“I got out of the party before it died. By
then it was full of old men, most of them
in rest homes, and was down to 20 people
“It was never a successful party in New
Zealand and if it came to power it would
have been very brutal. Several I met would
have been dangerous.”
It was his Communist Party membership
that brought him into contact with a West
Coast coalminer, Bobby Closs, and has now
written a book about him, titled Bobby
Closs, a ‘Red’ in the West Coast Mines.
“Jack Locke, a communist in Christchurch,
said to me, ‘You’re living in Karamea, how
about looking up other militants on the
Coast?’ He gave me a list and I went to see
Bobby, who was still living in the family
home in Millerton.”
This was about 1978.
From that time Mr Lusk started writing
down stories Bobby Closs told him of life in
By then Millerton, a high-altitude
coalmining town in the ranges about 25km
north-east of Westport, had been classified
a ghost town with a population of under
40 — far distant from its peak mining years
when hundreds worked there.
The mine shut in the late 1960s.
While he was a militant socialist,
Bobby Closs was never a member of the
Communist Party although of his four
brothers, Bill, was a card carrying member
and another brother, Dave, was a member of
the Marxian Students’ Association.
“ When Bobby died I decided to put the
stories all together and did it like a photo
essay,” Mr Lusk said.
Bobby Closs was the son of a Scottish
miner and grew up in a number of places
around the West Coast because his father, a
socialist radical, would often be sacked.
The Millerton bosses showed a degree
of tolerance towards him, however, and
Millerton became the family hometown,
although the Westport Coal Company mine
was, to quote a miner, “absolute slavery”.
It was a tough, hard world, Closs told Mr
Many people travelled into Westport only
once a year and Closs remembered a man
who had not been off the hill in 20 years.
“The old man would be sitting at the mine
mouth ready for work at 6am. Start time was
7.30am but he’d sit and talk with his mates
— n o time to talk at work. The old miners
were like horses, bred to work. ”
A broad division existed also between the
bosses and the workers.
“The old man used to tell us, ‘You don’t
scab, you don’t crawl and you don’t steal
another man’s job.’
“ We were brought up to fight the boss.
We were taught the class struggle — the
working class against the capitalist class,”
Mr Lusk said.
“The law is capitalist law written for the
benefit of the capitalist class.”
Aged 15, Closs got a job in a Canterbury
coalmine, the Avoca, working underground,
although three years younger than the legal
age, then he went back to Millerton.
He wrote: “ When I started at Millerton
conditions were terrible. I don’t know what
slavery is supposed to be like but it couldn’t
have been much worse. ”
Closs then became a trucker for most of
his working life.
“The truckers were the most militant in the
mines because they were on wages, whereas
the miners were on contract and wanted to
keep working (longer hours).
“The truckers were treated worse. They
didn’t get things like wet time so between
the rope boys and truckers they were the
most militant. They ’d even stop the mine.
“A brother of Bobby’s in one section in
the Millerton mine would ring up and say,
‘Something’s happened, we’re all off home.’
Bobby said, ‘ We’re off too.’ They’d go and
leave it to the union to sort out.
“They were very militant in the 1920s and
Millerton then had the biggest pay cheque
of any industrial site in New Zealand, with
300 to 400 workers. ”
Even harder times came with the
“It started early in the coalfields, in 1927,
two years before the big crash.
“In 1929 they got the earthquake
(Murchison) and then the full force of the
Depression. The company laid off men
according to their family — if you were
from a militant family you’d get laid off,” Mr
Bobby Closs and other brothers who
worked in the mines were among hundreds
who lost their jobs in West Coast mines.
Not their father, however, who had started
working aged 10 and would continue until
he turned 65.
“Unemployed miners were sent into the
bush to work on schemes, into old goldfields
that were uneconomic. The government
would provide tucker and they could keep
the gold they found.
“Bobby was way up the Karamea on the
Fenian goldfield. The idea was to keep the
‘reds’ out of the cities.
“He was there a couple of years then the
1935 Labour Government was elected. ”
With this, Bobby Closs and those with
him thought the revolution had arrived.
They walked out to Karamea, and on to
Millerton where he could not get a job in the
mine so went for a labouring job in the Buller
Gorge railway. From there, he went to the
Millerton gravel pit and eventually, after some
assistance from the Millerton Miners’ Union,
he returned to the mine in the late 1930s.
The initial joy at Labour’s election victory
soon turned to disillusionment.
“Bobby didn’t like the Labour Party. He
felt they betrayed them. They had hoped for
great things but it (Labour) turned against
the militant workers.
“Semple (ex-West Coast miner and
Minister of Public Works) became anti-
union, McLagan (ex-communist and
Labour cabinet minister) became virulently
“ With World War Two coming, though,
there was a complete change from
unemployment to employment. Workers
were precious again and you could even
give cheek to the boss and get away with it.
Everyone was motivated by the war effort,
they needed skilled workers in the mines.”
Closs tried to enlist to ser ve overseas and
passed the medical, only to be declined since
he worked in an essential occupation.
“Bobby operated the central hub of
transport in the mine, he organised the
trucks to get them out of the mine.
“He was strong; every truck had to
be manhandled. He gave cheek to the
superintendent once and the boss said,
‘ You’re fired’ but the manager said, ‘You can’t
fire him; there’s no one to replace him’. ”
Coalmining started to fade in the 1950s
caused partly, Mr Lusk says, by railways
switching from coal to diesel.
“They closed Millerton and Bobby got
shifted to Stockton. By then the union
wasn’t anything like the militant union it
had been; the strength of the miners faded
as demand for coal faded and mines closed.
“Bobby worked on the Stockton aerial
bucket line; it ’s still there today. ”
The downturn of mining, the weakening of
the unions and more people coming to the
mines with no industry or union experience
saddened Close, Mr Lusk says, although he
remained an optimist.
“ Miners like him had seen a lot of gains
and a lot of losses; it was sad to see things
they had fought for lost, like the eight-hour
day and five-day working week.
“Things came in like Stockton working
round the clock 24 hours, seven days on,
seven days off, and in recent years Solid
Energy with 12-hour shifts
“The miners were on pretty good pay in
recent years but lost a lot working seven day
weeks, and 12-hour shifts, with marriages
breaking up and it all collapsed.
“ It was a lot less frantic in Bobby’s day.”
Bobby Closs died at Westport in 1995. He
“ Neither he nor his four brothers married;
they were standoffish and had been affected
by the Depression. They wouldn’t marry
unless they could support a family.”
Mr Lusk would like to write one more
book, a memoir of the time he worked for
the People’s Voice during the early years
of Rogernomics, attending meetings and
strikes in Auckland.
“ I was in a unique position with my
camera and notebook.”
While his communist days are long gone,
he remains active in protest organisations.
“ I’m now in Pike 29, anti-1080 and
(retaining) Buller Hospital. To be involved
in Pike 29 is to be part of an extraordinary
group of people. I don’t think a group has
been lied to and had their hopes raised and
dashed so much.
“ I told them, ‘You people are carrying on
the tradition of the old miners’.”
Remembering days when ‘reds’ filled the West Coast mines
PICTURE: Chris Tobin
Pete Lusk with a copy of his book Bobby Closs: A ‘Red’ in the West Coast Mines.
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