Bruce Beetham

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Bruce Craig Beetham (1936-1997) was an academic and politician from New Zealand, whose career spanned the [1970s]] and early 1980s.

A lecturer at Hamilton's Waikato University and at the Hamilton Teacher's Training College, he was elected leader of the Social Credit Party (which he had joined in 1969) in 1972, at a time when the party was in disarray and many were questioning its chances of survival. A brilliant organizer and an electrifying speaker, Beetham succeeded in rebuilding the party, and by the late 1970s it was challenging the stranglehold on the two-party system of the long-dominant National and Labour parties.

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Mayor of Hamilton

In 1976, Beetham was elected Mayor of Hamilton in a byelection to replace Mike Minogue, who had resigned to take up a seat in Parliament. One of his early ideas as Mayor was to finance municipal projects with interest-free "rates vouchers", but the council, dominated by his opponents, passed a 20 percent rates increase instead. His frustrations caused by political gridlock, as well as the difficulty of simultaneously leading a national political party while serving as a Mayor (a post generally expected to be apolitical in New Zealand), were factors in his decision not to seek a second term as Mayor in 1977. Ross Jansen succeeded him.

Member of Parliament

On February 18, 1978, Beetham won election to Parliament in a byelection for the Rangitikei electorate, to fill a vacancy caused by the death of its long-time member, the Parliamentary Speaker, Sir Roy Jack. He retained the seat in the general election later that year, and the Social Credit Party polled 16 percent of the vote nationwide, its best result to date. In the 1981 election, the party polled just over 20 percent - the best showing for a third party since the 1920s, but fell short of its goal of holding the balance of power; its support was too evenly spread to translate into more than a couple of seats under the First-past-the-post electoral system in use at that time. The party, and Beetham himself, strongly promoted a form of proportional representation, but this was not adopted till many years later.

In line with his party's policies, Beetham attempted to organize a barter trade deal with Fiji. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon vetoed the deal, preferring to borrow money and pay interest to international banks.

Political twilight

A number of factors resulted in a sharp drop in support for the Social Credit Party in the general election of 1984. One of these factors was Beetham's ill health. A major heart attack in 1983 curtailed his activities for much of that year and early 1984, and his disappearance from the public view made it possible for a new political party, the New Zealand Party (founded by millionaire businessman Bob Jones) to fill the vacuum. This party succeeded in attracting much of the protest vote that Social Credit had previously enjoyed.

Beetham lost his Rangitikei seat, mainly because of electoral boundary changes; suspicions have lingered since that the redistribution may have been politically motivated. (See: Gerrymander).

In 1986, Beetham lost the leadership of the party to Neil Morrison. The new leader, on the night he was elected, implied in a TV interview that the Social Credit national dividend policy was out of date and would be dropped. This was in response to a question from the interviewer, which he might not have listened to carefully. The next day Mr Beetham said he was considering resigning because the new leadership was rejecting basic Social Credit philosophy. This promoted Morriston to publicly retract his comments, and affirm that of course the national dividend would be retained as an important part of Social Credit policy.

Beetham remained active in politics despite losing the leadership. He contested his old seat under the party's new name (New Zealand Democratic Party) in 1987; in 1990 he assumed leadership of a new party, under the old Social Credit banner; in 1992, he attempted to put together a coalition of centrist parties, the New Zealand Coalition, but was overtaken by the course of events as numerous new parties were formed around that time and crowded out the political spectrum.

His last electoral campaign was in 1996 as an independent candidate for his old Rangitikei electorate. Although not elected, he received almost four thousand votes - one of the best-ever showings for an independent candidate.

Personal factors

Bruce Beetham was known as a liberal on human rights, a conservative on moral and social issues, and a pragmatist on economic matters. He disliked confrontation, preferring to work for consensus in decision-making. He was married twice, and had four children. He died of heart failure in 1997 at the age of 61.

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