Holmes’ satchel affair

In 1948 an increasingly heated salary dispute between government and PSA boiled over into accusation and threats, ending in a smear campaign against the association.

PSA delegate Cecil Holmes worked at the National Film Unit, helping inform and entertain New Zealanders and an overseas public. While his car was parked in Parliament, a senior member of the prime minister’s department opened the door and stole Holmes’ satchel. Inside was his Communist Party membership card, a letter from Holmes to ‘Jack’ about a proposed stopwork meeting (Holmes advised Jack Lewin to ‘butter the buggers up a bit’), and a draft resolution for the meeting, alleged to have been written by PSA president Jack Lewin.

The government, then headed by Walter Nash, gave copies of these documents to every newspaper in New Zealand, claiming that a sinister force was using the pay dispute ‘to further its own ends’.

The Public Service Commission investigated Lewin and Holmes was fired, although with PSA help, he successfully challenged his dismissal and became a successful filmmaker in Australia However, the ‘Holmes Satchel affair’ managed to derail a combined state sector salary campaign. The first Labour government, then in its final years, was willing to treat an employee as a political football or move the pay-setting goalposts to avoid giving public servants a pay increase.

Bert Roth, Remedy for Present Evils: A history of the New Zealand Public Service Association from 1890, New Zealand Public Service Association, 1987

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