Two prominent former members of the Communist Party of NZ’s, rebellious Wellington branch have died recently. Rona Bailey died in September, Tama Te Kapua (Tom) Poata in November, 2005. Both played a big role in the movements of their day and both are worth study by those who wish to understand NZ today. This is my profile of Rona Bailey.
Rona Stephenson was born in 1914 in Wanganui. She grew up in Gisborne, as the well off daughter of an ex Yorkshire coal miner, turned shoe importer. After leaving Gisborne Girl’s High she trained as a primary school teacher in Auckland, then undertook a physical education scholarship in the US in 1937.
Ironically it was the US that turned her towards communism. She was inspired by a speech by the communist leader of the Longshoremen’s Union, Harry Bridges. During a trip to Panama she attended a concert by black communist singer, Paul Robeson. The famous singer and the sight of a group of KKK cross burners in Virginia were to spark beginning of an interest in race politics that would last her life time.
Her courses in modern dance at New York’s Columbia University also led her into the left wing theatre movement then flourishing.
Returning to NZ in 1939, Rona Stephenson became physical welfare officer for the Department of Internal Affairs in Hamilton. She moved to Wellington in 1941 to a position as the Department’s senior womens physical welfare officer, which she held until 1952 when she contracted tuberculosis.
In Wellington, Rona Stephenson became involved in the communist dominated “Unity” theatre group. She formally joined the Communist Party in 1943. She also married and quickly divorced communist writer and student activist, Ron Meek. In 1945 she married another Communist Party member, Chip Bailey. They had one daughter, Meg in 1949.
Rona Bailey’s two main interests were dance and communism. She founded the “New Dance Group” and traveled to the UK in 1949 to visit recreational centres. She managed a side trip to Czechoslovakia where she attended a festival of the Soviet Front, “World Federation of Democratic Youth”. Bailey also visited Hungary and Yugoslavia where she joined a railway work gang and interviewed the communist leader Josip Tito.
Back in NZ, Rona Bailey became active in the campaign for equal pay for women. Before this successful campaign, women were paid less than men in the public service. Rona bailey was president of the “Public Service Association’s” womens committee and used her position to promote the cause. The communists found it easy to gain support for this campaign.
The Bailey’s also endured a difficult time, when Chip was briefly expelled from the Communist Party and ostracised by party supporters, for questioning the “party line”. Chip Bailey was however, quickly rehabilitated and played a leading role in the “Wellington Drivers Union” and the campaign to establish the “Federation of Labour”.
In 1951, the Bailey’s played leading roles in communist support for the waterfront strike. Chip Bailey wrote and the couple distributed, the bulk of the illegal, pro union, bulletins circulated in Wellington. This involved smuggling literature around the capital by covert means, often in the dead of night.
The Bailey’s hid a “Gestetner” in their flat and it was discovered during a police raid. They were fined 14 Pounds, a large sum of money in 1951, for possessing an unregistered printing machine.
Through the 1950’s and early ’60s Rona Bailey was active in several party fronts, including The NZ Peace Council and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She was also national secretary for the “Society for Closer Relations with Russia” and represented the society on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1962.
The timing of this visit was interesting, coming as it did just before the Sino- Soviet split of 1963. Some intelligence experts such as Soviet defector Anatoly Golitsyn have claimed the split was bogus and part of a long term communist disinformation campaign. Certainly Rona Bailey followed the NZ Communist Party in adopting the Chinese line. Some students of communism, however believe that though Rona Bailey worked with pro Chinese factions, she was in reality a Soviet agent. Maybe some future release of Soviet archive will be able to confirm this theory.
Rona Bailey was also a pioneering anti Apartheid activist, marching up Wellington’s Lambton Quay in mid ’50s, waving banners at the uncomprehending public. In 1959 she played leading role in the “No Maoris No Tour” campaign against sporting ties to South Africa. This campaign was run by the “Citizens All Black Tour Association”, another Communist Party controlled organisation.
Chip Bailey died in 1963 of a brain tumour, aged only 42. Rona Bailey never remarried.