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Hazel Ashton writes:

Following devastating earthquakes in Christchurch (2010, 2011) there have been many calls for greater public participation in the recovery and rebuild.

Of note, a briefing paper by the prime minster’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, called for “local empowerment and engagement” (The Press, 10 May, 12)

However, even if Christchurch people were told tomorrow, “Yes, there will be local empowerment and engagement”, how would it take place?

How to set up a structure for public participation

I think it is useful to identify principles from models which have worked, but the problem is there are not many models for effective public participation.

Learning from successful Nuclear Free Peacemaking campaign

In New Zealand, it is generally agreed that a very successful model of public participation was Larry Ross’s Nuclear Free Peacemaking campaign: the 1984 nuclear-free zone campaign which resulted in the 1987 Nuclear-Free Legislation and subsequent increased peace-keeping and diplomatic peace-making activities.

Because Larry died last month (19 April 2012) it is particularly appropriate to remember his contribution at this time.

Larry’s was not the only nuclear-free campaign but his was notable for the large scale public participation.

Principles involved and why they worked

The following are some the key principles, alongside illustrations of the principles drawn from tributes to Larry given on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

1. Empowering people to take action

Many people want to contribute their skills and talents to making the world a better place. The problem is there is often no ready-to-hand means for individuals to come together and act in ways that are both collectively effective and personally meaningful.

Larry created opportunities for people to contribute by turning his home at Keyes Road, Christchurch, into a national coordination centre to support peace group formation and activities in localities throughout New Zealand:

I would say it was Larry’s gift that he could relate to mainstream people and empower them to take some action. This is what happened to me. Having absolutely no background in political matters, Larry got through the message of how important it was for ordinary people to make their feelings felt. Next thing, I’m inviting around 30 friends for an evening to discuss such matters with Larry as the guest speaker and he brought along Barry Metcalf. Next thing, the New Brighton Peace Group is formed.  From here I became involved at HQ with secretarial type duties and along with many others kept the office going as Larry set off on his trips to inspire people to set up local peace groups in all sorts of places.   Jenny Lineham

2. Clear vision of what ‘we’ want

Larry referred to ‘we’ – we in New Zealand, we in the world, we who share a concern for the future of the planet and we who think we have realistic visions of a more sustainable and peaceful world and how to get there.

He had a  clear vision for the  NZNFPA  and he didn’t let it get sidetracked. All his efforts were continually focused on that vision rather than his ego:

It only happened because people like you led the movement in an ego-free way. Your humility is something missing too often in people movements and when rare people like you spring up then nothing but good eventuates. Garry Moore – then Mayor of Christchurch

3. Opportunity to benefit from diverse talent

Larry attracted many people with diverse backgrounds and talents who wanted to contribute to the nuclear-free peacemaking vision. As a result, people working for the organisation experienced and shared in the benefits of this diversity. They met people they wouldn’t normally meet, learnt more and together, made contributions that they often did not realise they were capable of:

Through you, we met some of the most extraordinary people – people who like you, were deeply committed to working towards creating a world that was nuclear free; retired military men, scientists, politicians, writers, researchers, activists and artists from all around the world. Adrienne Thomas

4. Information and communication structure – technologies of participation

Larry used a photocopier and postage stamps, a home telephone and his car to set up a nationwide and international networking infrastructure before the Internet:

Wasn’t it great when we could chart the country going nuclear free – council by council – Not sure how you managed to chart and record all of that – pre-email but it was much appreciated. Maire Leadbeater

He created an organisational hub with many nodes:

Within weeks we had attended one of Larry’s public meetings on the nuclear weapons crisis and immediately joined his Nuclear Free Zone Committee along with several other peace people. We met regularly to help Larry in his work.  The work included travelling the country with Larry holding more public meetings and setting up the local nuclear-free groups that began declaring their towns and regions nuclear free.

Larry did the bulk of the travel and work of course.  He was a driven man with a compelling message – New Zealand must become nuclear free in a world facing mutually assured destruction.  We kept a map of the expanding nuclear free zones around the country and as they say, the rest is history.  In 1987 we got our legislation. Bob Leonard – fellow activist

5. Offering on-going encouragement and support

Most people work better when they feel appreciated and when they have support when and as needed:

By phone and mail Larry was very supportive to our small group and helped to enthuse us when energy ran low. Two young locals were so inspired by one of Larry’s ideas that they rode their horses from South Westland to Wellington and among other actions presented their views and a bag of horse produce to the French Ambassador’s officials. His regular mail-outs were always full of news and ideas and all of us were in awe of his news gathering skills and his ability to put it all together in an interesting manner.  This was all before word processors, the Internet, Google, etc. were in common use and made such work so much easier. It was very noticeable when NZ was declared Nuclear-Free that interest in the Peace Movement decreased but Larry knew there was much more to do and again his newsletters etc kept us all going. Jim Costello, For Hari Hari and South Westland Peace Groups.

6. Welcoming one and all

It wasn’t only work, people were made to feel welcome with talk and food:

My memories include the meetings putting together the Nuclear-Free newsletters, allocating space to the important issues of the day.  Each issue was a cover-to-cover masterpiece. …  We enjoyed meeting and encountering fine, decent people with real visions of a better world and how to get there. You always made everyone feel welcome and included. Rose and Don Craig

Larry was always ‘there’ completely devoted to his mission. I remember the vast arrays of ‘INFO’ at his Keyes Road home/cum office – boxes & boxes, shelves & shelves – flowing from one room to the next (but always time to share a cup of coffee!) Jill Wilcox

7. Branding and marketing

Larry brought a professional background in public communications from his work in advertising agencies in the United States and Canada that wasn’t common in the New Zealand NGO environment. He designed and stocked merchandise (bumper stickers, badges, recycling labels, clothing) for individuals and peace groups. He collected and disseminated information and documentation from high-level experts, organized high-profile speakers to tour the country and encouraged and equipped people to lobby decision makers across party lines at local and international levels.

One lesson learnt was the unstoppable value of people power, armed with knowledge and purpose. Don and Rose Craig

8. Collective learning – active learning

Most importantly, it was on-going, active engagement throughout the country. It was collective learning and active learning – learning embedded in the process of seeking to fulfil a mission and learning that brought about a major institutional change that people wanted.

I was discussing [the successful nuclear-free campaign] with Larry over lunch just this week and he said to me quietly, “It’s really embedded in New Zealanders”. Bob Leonard – fellow activist

I saw Larry inspire three generations of peace workers.  He was always poor in dollars but he was rich in knowing what mattered long- term.  With love and respect I say now that his adopted country, New Zealand, owes Larry more than any one of us can tell. Ken McAllister – optimist

Thank you Larry

Graphic: The Wizard of New Zealand (his mother was a regular worker at Larry’s place) Kirstie Salmi, the little witch (her mother also worked at Larry’s place) and Stan Hemsley -(he was an amazing supporter) see: Tributes to a Truly Great Man written by Larry.

See: Larry’s Letter to Prof. of Canadian History in reply to request for information on NZ Nuclear-Free

Thanks to Anna Allan for providing the “patchwork quilt” web space for people to share their memories and experiences of  New Zealand nuclear-free zone and peace making campaigns on the occasion of Larry’s 80th birthday.

Comments welcome – submit in box below, easy, no passwords or membership required


  1. Robert MORRIS says:

    This is the pedagogy of the oppressed by Paulo Freire. Great book how self education, and participatory learning overcame the public education system. Now known as participatory culture. I attended the Christchurch City Council meeting regarding this topic last year. But, it was a travesty. They did not consider the pedagogy of learning together, and instead had some wet behind the airs people from the CCC espousing limited understanding from, well, a media release! I was disgusted, disappointed and walked out knowing the CCC were paying lip service to Paulo Freire’s pedagogy. Which in essense requires rebellion. It is the rebel who learns. Who questions. Who searches out the truth. And that imperative was lost on the participants. It was a waste of ratepayers money, as are many corporate funded seemingly social, seemingly participatory projects.

    So, yes I agree with the writer. It is grassroots pedagogy. Learning together. Everyone with a voice. Constructive fearless debate, with follow up and action. That’s how we learn. Fortitude is key.


    • VIllage Connections says:

      Thanks for your comment Robert. The nuclear-free campaign involved a lot of grassroots, citizen learning and peacefully networking to press for related change (without becoming classical “rebels”).

      When the Labour politicians saw this public consensus emerge and got elected largely on the strength of it in 1984, they agreed to implement it.

      Larry also saw that a New Zealand nuclear-free zone needed to be complemented with an active peacemaking policy to replace the Anzus alliance relationship, which he called “positive neutrality.”

      Five annual Labour Party conferences accepted remits on this when they were in power, and it is exactly what the Asia-Pacific region needs now. Without it, the region will continue to lack the permanent peacemaking amenities it needs to be available at all times to all (Europe came through the Cold War with Switzerland, Austria, Finland and Sweden acting as neutral peacemakers).

      More specifically for New Zealand, its undefined but semi-aligned status will make it open to invidious pressures to take sides between the United States and China. This is something New Zealand would not need to do if it acted as a neutral, peacemaking broker. Instead, it could be available to contribute constructively as an honest communications broker between them.

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