Community service, a desire to help people and loyalty were common factors which motivated the women who were celebrated at the opening of the National Party’s 75th annual conference.
One of those women was a founding member, the late Hilda Gardiner was a conservative with a social conscience.
The daughter of James and Jessie Patrick, she was born in August 1896 and grew up on farm on Taieri Plains. Her mother was a great role model and told Hilda ‘we are put on this earth to serve others’.
This was a guiding principle for Hilda though out her life and the major motivation for her political involvement.
Hilda was a stalwart of the local community, local organisations and political scene. She was very concerned about the welfare of young mothers and children not getting a good start . This led to her involvement in the Free
Kindergarten Association, Birthright, Plunket and IHC. She was also active in Women’s Division Federated Farmers.
Her life-long involvement in Red Cross started when driving during the flu epidemic in 1918. She was awarded the society’s highest honour and represented the organisation overseas.
Hilda was also awarded an MBE.
She was brought up on a farm with livestock, observed the seasons, the cycle of nature and cultivation of food and this planted the seeds which made her a conservationist. She was active in the Tree Planting Association, Beautifying Society, Soil Health Association and a founding member of the Compos Society. She was very aware of the need to tread lightly on the earth.
When the National Party was founded Hilda was living with her husband, Arthur and their seven children at Tokarahi in North Otago. She held office at branch, women’s section, electorate and Otago Southland divisional level, was a
member of the Dominion Council and served as Women’s vice president.
A high point of her involvement in National was when the party first came to power in 1949. She had been involved in the party from the start and had worked so hard for it, there was a real sense of achievement in the election
In A Pretty Piece of Driving, a book on Hilda’s life, her granddaughter Jan Bolwell wrote:
“1949. When our man Tom Hayman stood against Nordmeyer, I said, ‘Tom, if you win this seat for us, I’ll ride on a bicycle down Thames Street.’ When Tom won, I jumped on the back of a bike being ridden by George Elvidge, the
manager of Wright Stephenson, and sailed triumphantly down the main street of Oamaru. Everyone thought I’d had a few.
“Then when Tom died the party asked me to take his place.
” ‘Hilda,’ said Arthur, ‘if you become an MP I’ll divorce you.’ So that was that.”
Hilda threw herself into voluntary work instead.
Her party involvement necessitated many trips to Wellington where she loved discussing issues and policy. She was extraordinarily knowledgeable and didn’t just work off emotion. Her grandchildren would visit and find her
listening to parliament on the radio with a copy of Hansard under her arm.
Hilda was a woman of stature and presence with an astute political brain. She had huge admiration for Prime Minister Keith Holyoake who was a good friend. She enjoyed working with him and the men who served in cabinet.
The party was in power for so long there was a sense of mission. The government was able to not just take a short term view but develop and implement policy for the mid and longer term too.
“I loved those meetings at parliament. Keith and the other ministers would join us when they could get away from the House. Tom Shand, Ralph Hanan, Norm Shelton and Harry Lake. All good men. We would sit for hours discussing issues of the day . . .
“Strong, loyal women in the National party were listened to, I can assure you of that! Keith always said, ‘an ounce of loyalty is worth a ton of cleverness’ . . .
“Politics is not about brainpower, It’s about teamwork and being in touch with ordinary people. I learned that from Keith and from old Bill Massey . . .
“He was the Prime Minister. A mate of my father-in-law, Willie Gardiner. Farmer Bill we called him. Great mountain of a man with his busy moustache, huge paunch and bellowing laugh. On his tours around the country Bill Massey often stayed at the Grange, the family farm at Papakaio. That’s how I got interested in politics, listening to these two men talk about the latest events around the country. This was in the early 1920s before the Reform and Liberal parties joined to create our national party. We still had the remnants of the old Liberal Party in North Otago and they were dead against Farmer Bill and his Reform party. There was a real split between the farmers and the townies in those days. I remember one night old Bill was to address a crowd in Ngapara, but there was widespread flooding in North Otago and all the rivers were overflowing. Wee Willie Gardiner – you know what a massive man he was – heaved the PM on to his back and staggered across the swollen Windsor stream. It’s a wonder they weren’t both drowned. In Ngapara the Liberals gave him hell, booing and jeering and completely disrupting the meeting. ‘Listen to the lions roar’, old Bill shouted, ‘I didn’t know you had a zoo in here’. There was dead silence after that. Had them eating our of the palm of his hand. I learned a few tricks from Massey, especially those rallies I organised at the National Party rooms in Oamaru.”
Hilda was also a formidable worker and fundraiser.
“In 1940, just after he was elected leader, Sid Holland called in for lunch at Island Cliff with his secretary Tom Wilkes and our local MP David Kidd. He urged us to come up with fundraising ideas. Our National party was only four years old and desperately in need of decent premises. A group of us National Party women in North Otago decided to run a restaurant. In the end we had a fully equipped kitchen and restaurant that could cater for over one hundred folk. It wasn’t fancy tucker, just wholesome, cheap, food. People
brought in fresh vegetables and home killed meat and we relied on a network of volunteers. Our restaurant was very popular with the local community and we managed to raise thirty five thousand pounds!
The National Party rooms also hosted large meetings. Hilda’s strength of character, strong will and sense of duty were exemplified the day she was speaking at one of these. She had got the news of the sudden death of one of her sons that morning but carried on with the meeting.
Hilda was a pragmatist who took the highs and lows in her stride, knowing it was the cycle of politics. However, the 1984 election was a low point, she was disturbed not so much by National’s loss as the nature of it.
“What a fiasco. I was furious. It wasn’t the defeat. It was the way we lost. Besides licking our wounds I never imagined that as a party, we would also be forced to hang our heads in shame. How could Rob do that to his loyal followers? And not being straight with the new Prime Minister. Fancy Mr Lange having to fly Bernie Galvin, the secretary of the Treasury, and Spencer Russell, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, up to Auckland to tell him the true state of the country’s finances. Disgraceful. Nothing left to do except pick up the blue flag and march on before communism devoured us all.”
All Hilda’s community involvement was very much part of her life and times.
It started in the days before the welfare state when people had a responsibility to take care of the community, particularly the vulnerable. She firmly believed it was what you did; you didn’t and couldn’t rely on the state to provide.
Her service to National was part of her service to the community. Hilda Gardiner, the conservative with a conscience, was involved in politics to help people.
A Pretty Piece of Driving by Jan Bolwell is published by Steele Roberts. Jan also does a one woman stage show about her grandmother.
P.S. National ministers Paula Bennett and Hekia Parata were interviewed by Patrick Gower on women’s role in politics.