Norman Vazey Douglas was born in Hikurangi, Northland, on 15 March 1910, the son of Ellen Margaret Vazey and her husband, George Nicole Douglas, a police constable. Transfers for his father saw him raised in several small towns. Having passed the proficiency examination at the end of 1925, Norm left school at Mercer to become an apprentice baker. However, the loss of his left arm in a duck-shooting accident in May 1927 proved a major turning point of his life. He undertook secondary schooling at Pukekohe Technical High School (1927–29) and became an avid reader. More importantly, under the influence of his teacher, Norman Shields, he was introduced to a variety of left-wing ideas.
After George Douglas died in 1929, the family moved to the Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn. Norm spent a year studying basic accountancy by correspondence and took up a short-lived clerical position. During the depression, however, he spent four years either unemployed or in casual work. Finally, in 1934 he was employed as a part-time clerk by the Department of Labour.
Having heard John A. Lee speak in the 1931 general election campaign, Norm Douglas joined the Grey Lynn branch of the New Zealand Labour Party early in 1932. He soon became a protégé and close friend of Lee. From 1933 he was also encouraged and assisted by Bill Anderton, a prominent party activist who was soon to become an MP. On 29 January 1937 he and Bill’s daughter, Dorothy Jennie Anderton, were married by Colin Scrimgeour at the 1ZB ‘Friendly Road’ radio broadcasting studio in Auckland. The couple were to have three sons and a daughter. Neither Norm nor Jennie was interested in the acquisition of material wealth, and from 1940 they lived in a modest state house in Ellerslie.
In 1935 Douglas became president of the Labour Party’s Grey Lynn branch. That year he was elected to the Auckland City Council on the victorious Labour ticket. Although both Douglas and the Labour-controlled council were defeated three years later, he derived much satisfaction from chairing the library committee. In 1936 he became assistant secretary of the Auckland Coach and Car Builders’ Union and the Auckland Brewers’, Wine and Spirit Merchants’ Employees’ Union. The following year he took over the secretaryship of both, holding the latter until 1963.
By the late 1930s Douglas had developed the personality traits that were to remain for the rest of his life. The influence of John A. Lee was reflected in his oratorical style and mannerisms, self-confidence and optimism, a sometimes scathing sense of humour, and probably his atheism. From the intense and often harsh environment of the Auckland Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and the Auckland Trades Council (of which he was secretary from 1939 to 1941) he developed a sometimes fierce, combative demeanour and an antipathy towards communists. From his leadership of the Labour Party’s Junior Labour League he formed an empathy with young people.
When Lee was expelled from the Labour Party in March 1940 Douglas followed him and helped set up the Democratic Labour Party (DLP). During the early to mid 1940s he was president of the party’s Grey Lynn branch, secretary of its district council and a member of its national executive. From 1940 to 1954 he edited John A. Lee’s Weekly and its successors. As a DLP candidate he was convincingly defeated at the Waitematā by-election of July 1941 and in Onehunga at the 1943 general election. Years later Douglas came to believe that his time with Lee in the political wilderness not only deprived him of the prospect of a safe Labour seat, but spoiled a career which may otherwise have culminated in the leadership of the party. However, his devotion to Lee suggested that he was more of a follower than a leader.
For about 15 years from late 1944 Douglas ran a bookselling business, first in partnership with Lee then, after they fell out in 1954, on his own account. In addition to his long-term secretaryship of the Auckland brewery workers’ union, he was at various times during the 1940s and 1950s secretary of other small Auckland unions. Consistently and firmly in the moderate wing of industrial unionism, Douglas strongly believed that strike action was a last resort. His reputation in the union movement assisted his tacit reconciliation with and quiet re-admission to the Labour Party in 1952.
From 1955 to 1959 Douglas served as vice president of the Auckland LRC and from 1959 to 1961 was its secretary. From 1958 to 1961 he was vice president of the Auckland Trades Council. He was also secretary of the Labour Party’s Auckland Central branch throughout the second half of the 1950s and, in addition, undertook much constituency work on behalf of his father-in-law and local MP, Bill Anderton. When, in August 1960, Anderton announced his retirement from Parliament, Douglas was well placed, fully qualified and thoroughly deserving of his party’s nomination for the safe seat. Many in the Labour Party, however, regarded the succession as an act of nepotism.
Douglas’s election to Parliament in 1960 was followed by 12 years in opposition. Although he was defeated for the party’s deputy leadership in 1965, he served as party president (1966–70) and from 1967 to 1972 sat on Labour’s front bench, as spokesman on education, social security and industrial relations. At the outset of his parliamentary career Douglas’s vigour in debate and wide experience made him a valuable member of a then somewhat demoralised, aged and uncertain Labour caucus. Perhaps his finest hour was in 1964 when he introduced his Contracts (Racial Equality) Bill. Although the government ensured that the bill lapsed, Douglas had the satisfaction of seeing many of its anti-discriminatory provisions enacted the following year in the Property Law Amendment Act. He took a keen interest in ethnic minorities, particularly Pacific islanders, within his Auckland Central electorate.
Disillusionment with parliamentary and party life began to set in during 1970. Douglas was disappointed at Labour’s unexpected loss in the 1969 general election and downhearted by continuing rivalry with several colleagues. Perhaps mindful of the growing number of bright young Labour MPs, and probably aware that in the age of television his image was increasingly anachronistic, he notified the party’s national secretary that he would retire at the 1972 election. His subsequent reversal of this decision led to the most bitter disappointment of his life when, in November 1972, he narrowly missed election to Norman Kirk’s cabinet. His age, his renowned temper and often abrasive manner, a plethora of Auckland MPs, and the successful candidacy of his son, Roger, all counted against him.
For months Douglas was inconsolable. Turning down the offer of a position as under-secretary, he demoted himself to the government back benches. When a complete re-selection of cabinet occurred following Kirk’s death in 1974, Douglas allowed his name to go forward again. Although a narrow defeat ensued, he accepted it with relative equanimity and decided to retire at the 1975 election. In his last years in Parliament he derived great satisfaction from chairing the select committee which, in June 1975, brought down a landmark report on discrimination against women and their role in New Zealand society.
In addition to his work in the union movement and politics, Douglas, despite the loss of his arm, enjoyed a variety of recreational pursuits. During the 1930s athletics had been his forte, and he enjoyed woodwork and carving, gardening, fishing and reading throughout his life. In the mid 1950s he built a bach at Orere Point, where family and friends often stayed. In retirement he worked in the family’s herbal products business, Red Seal Laboratories, and was also intensely involved in his son Malcolm’s campaign for the Hūnua seat at the 1978 general election.
From May 1983, when he was briefly admitted to hospital, Douglas’s health began to fail. He died in Auckland on 26 August 1985 and was cremated following a non-religious service at the Auckland Trades Hall. He was survived by his wife and children, including Roger, who by then had become minister of finance in the fourth Labour government.