Michael Joseph Savage

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Michael Joseph Savage
Michael Joseph Savage Portrait.jpg
Iconic portrait of Savage, 1930s
23rd Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
6 December 1935 27 March 1940†
Monarch George V
Edward VIII
George VI
Governor-General George Monckton-Arundell
Preceded by George Forbes
Succeeded by Peter Fraser
Leadership positions
12th Leader of the Opposition
In office
12 October 1933 6 December 1935
Preceded by Harry Holland
Succeeded by George Forbes
3rd Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party
In office
12 October 1933 27 March 1940†
Preceded byHarry Holland
Succeeded byPeter Fraser
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Auckland West
In office
17 December 1919 27 March 1940†
Preceded by Charles Poole
Succeeded by Peter Carr
Personal details
Michael Savage

(1872-03-23)23 March 1872
Tatong, Victoria, Australia
Died27 March 1940(1940-03-27) (aged 68)
Wellington, New Zealand
Resting place Bastion Point, Waitematā Harbour, Auckland
Political party Labour (1916–40)
Social Democratic (1913–16)
Socialist (1907–13)
ProfessionTrade unionist
Signature Michael Joseph Savage signature.svg

Michael Joseph Savage PC (23 March 1872 – 27 March 1940) was a New Zealand politician who served as the 23rd Prime Minister of New Zealand, heading the First Labour Government from 6 December 1935 until his death.

First Labour Government of New Zealand

The First Labour Government of New Zealand was the government of New Zealand from 1935 to 1949. Responsible for the realisation of a wide range of progressive social reforms during its time in office, it set the tone of New Zealand's economic and welfare policies until the 1980s, establishing a welfare state, a system of Keynesian economic management, and high levels of state intervention. The government came to power towards the end of, and as a result of, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and also governed the country throughout World War II.


Savage was born in the Colony of Victoria (present-day Australia), and emigrated to New Zealand in 1907. A labourer, he became a trade unionist, and in 1910 was elected president of the Auckland Trades and Labour Council. Savage supported the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party in July 1916. He was active in local politics before his election to the House of Representatives in 1919, as one of eight Labour members returned in that election. Savage was elected unopposed as Labour Party Leader in 1933. He saw himself as spokesman on behalf of his entire party and successfully kept its multiple factions in harness.

Victoria (Australia) State in Australia

Victoria is a state in south-eastern Australia. Victoria is Australia's smallest mainland state and its second-most populous state overall, making it the most densely populated state overall. Most of its population lives concentrated in the area surrounding Port Phillip Bay, which includes the metropolitan area of its state capital and largest city, Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city. Victoria is bordered by Bass Strait and Tasmania to the south, New South Wales to the north, the Tasman Sea, to the east, and South Australia to the west.

The New Zealand Labour Party, or simply Labour, is a centre-left political party in New Zealand. The party's platform programme describes its founding principle as democratic socialism; observers describe Labour as social-democratic and pragmatic in practice. The party participates in the international Progressive Alliance.

1919 New Zealand general election Election in New Zealand

The New Zealand general election of 1919 was held on Tuesday, 16 December in the Māori electorates, and on Wednesday, 17 December in the general electorates to elect a total of 80 MPs to the 20th session of the New Zealand Parliament. A total number of 560,673 (80.5%) voters turned out to vote.

Savage led the Labour Party to its first ever electoral victory in the 1935 election. He won public support for his government's economic recovery policies and social welfare programme. His popularity assured the Labour Party of an even more significant electoral victory in the 1938 election. His government joined Britain in declaring war against Germany in 1939. Savage's health declined rapidly after Labour's second electoral victory and he died in office. He was succeeded as head of government by Peter Fraser.

1935 New Zealand general election

The 1935 New Zealand general election was a nationwide vote to determine the shape of the New Zealand Parliament's 25th term. It resulted in the Labour Party's first electoral victory, with Michael Joseph Savage becoming the first Labour Prime Minister. The governing coalition, consisting of the United Party and the Reform Party, suffered a major defeat, attributed by many to their handling of the Great Depression. The year after the election, United and Reform took their coalition further, merging to form the modern National Party.

1938 New Zealand general election

The 1938 New Zealand general election was a nationwide vote to determine the shape of the New Zealand Parliament's 26th term. It resulted in the governing Labour Party being re-elected, although the newly founded National Party gained a certain amount of ground.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 70 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Commonly known as the architect of the New Zealand welfare state, Savage is generally regarded by academics and the general public as one of New Zealand's greatest and most revered prime ministers. To date he is the only New Zealand prime minister or premier to serve under three monarchs (George V, Edward VIII and George VI).

Social welfare has long been an important part of New Zealand society and a significant political issue. It is concerned with the provision by the state of benefits and services. Together with fiscal welfare and occupational welfare, it makes up the social policy of New Zealand. Social welfare is mostly funded through general taxation. Since the 1980s welfare has been provided on the basis of need; the exception is universal superannuation.

Monarchy of New Zealand constitutional system of government in New Zealand

The monarchy of New Zealand is the constitutional system of government in which a hereditary monarch is the sovereign and head of state of New Zealand. The current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, ascended the throne on the death of her father, King George VI, on 6 February 1952. Elizabeth's eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales, is heir apparent.

George V King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India

George V was King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India, from 6 May 1910 until his death in 1936.

Early life

Born as Michael Savage in Tatong, Victoria, Australia, the youngest of eight children of Irish immigrant parents, he received a Roman Catholic upbringing from his sister Rose, after his mother's death when he was aged five. He spent five years attending a state school at Rothesay, the same town as his father's farm. From 1886, aged 14, to 1893 Savage worked at a wine and spirits shop in Benalla. [1] Savage also attended evening classes at Benalla College at this time. Although short in stature, Savage had enormous physical strength and made a name as both a boxer and weightlifter while enjoying dancing and many other sports.

Tatong Town in Victoria, Australia

Tatong is a town in north eastern Victoria, Australia. The town is on the northern foothills of the Blue Ranges, part of the Great Dividing Range, beside Holland Creek, 226 kilometres (140 mi) north east of the state capital, Melbourne. At the 2011 census, Tatong had a population of 350 declining to 287 in 2016.

In 1891 Savage was devastated by the deaths of both his sister Rose and his closest brother Joe. He adopted Joe's name and became known as Michael Joseph Savage from then on. After losing his job in 1893, Savage moved to New South Wales, finding work as a labourer and irrigation ditch-digger in Narrandera for seven years. Whilst there, he joined the General Labourers' Union and became familiar with the radical political theories of the Americans Henry George and Edward Bellamy, who influenced his political policies in later life. [2]

New South Wales State of Australia

New South Wales is a state on the east coast of Australia. It borders Queensland to the north, Victoria to the south, and South Australia to the west. Its coast borders the Tasman Sea to the east. The Australian Capital Territory is an enclave within the state. New South Wales' state capital is Sydney, which is also Australia's most populous city. In December 2018, the population of New South Wales was over 8 million, making it Australia's most populous state. Just under two-thirds of the state's population, 5.1 million, live in the Greater Sydney area. Inhabitants of New South Wales are referred to as New South Welshmen.

Narrandera Town in New South Wales, Australia

Narrandera until around 1949 also spelled "Narandera", is a town located in the Riverina region of southern New South Wales, Australia. The town lies on the junction of the Newell and Sturt highways, adjacent to the Murrumbidgee River, and it is considered the gateway to the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. At the 2016 census, Narrandera had a population of 3,746 people.

Henry George American economist

Henry George was an American political economist and journalist. His writing was immensely popular in the 19th century, and sparked several reform movements of the Progressive Era. His writings also inspired the economic philosophy known as Georgism, based on the belief that people should own the value they produce themselves, but that the economic value derived from land should belong equally to all members of society.

Savage moved back to Victoria in 1900, working a number of jobs. He became active in the Political Labor Council of Victoria, and in 1907 he was chosen as the PLC's candidate to stand for the Wangaratta electorate. Savage had to pull out after the party was not able to fund his deposit and campaign costs, and John Thomas stood instead. [2] [3] [4] He remained an active party member and became a close friend of PLC member Paddy Webb, with whom he was closely linked in later years. [2]

Arrival in New Zealand

After a farewell function in Rutherglen, Savage emigrated to New Zealand in 1907. [3] He arrived in Wellington on 9 October, which happened to be Labour Day. There he worked in a variety of jobs, as a miner, flax-cutter and storeman, before becoming involved in the union movement. Despite initially intending to join Webb on the West Coast, he decided to move north, arriving in Auckland in 1908.

He soon found board there with Alf and Elizabeth French and their two children. Alf had come to New Zealand in 1894 on the ship Wairarapa, which was wrecked on Great Barrier Island, and had helped in the rescue of a girl. Savage, who never married, lived with the French family until 1939, when he moved to the house Hill Haven, 64–66 Harbour View Road, Northland, Wellington, subsequently used by his successor as Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, until 1949. [5]

Political career

Savage (right, front row) at the Socialist Party's 1911 conference New Zealand Socialist Party, fourth annual conference.jpg
Savage (right, front row) at the Socialist Party's 1911 conference

Savage at first opposed the formation of the original New Zealand Labour Party as he viewed the grouping as insufficiently socialistic. Instead he became the chairman of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, known as the "Red Feds". [2] There, he assisted with organising meetings and group sessions and helped to distributed their socialist newspaper, the Maoriland Worker .

Socialist origins

In the 1911 and 1914 general election campaigns, Savage unsuccessfully stood as the Socialist candidate for Auckland Central, coming second each time to Albert Glover of the Liberal Party. [2] [6] During this time Savage was also involved in local union groups, becoming president of the Auckland Brewers', Wine and Spirit Merchants' and Aerated-water Employees' Union, president of the Auckland Trades and Labour Council, the Auckland organiser for the Social Democratic Party and supported striking miners at Waihi. [2] During the First World War he opposed conscription, arguing "that the conscription of wealth should precede the conscription of men". [2] Savage's opposition to conscription was not absolute, rather based on balance. Indeed, he complied with a conscription order and entered a training camp in 1918, aged 46. [7]

Savage openly supported the formation of a unified New Zealand Labour Party in July 1916, and became its national vice-president in 1918 and later the first permanent national secretary the next year. In 1919 Savage was elected as a Labour candidate to both the Auckland City Council and the Auckland Hospital and Charitable Aid Board in local body elections. He served on the Charitable Aid Board until 1922 and as a councillor until 1923 but was re-elected in 1927, remaining in office until 1935. [2]

Member of Parliament

Savage in the 1920s Michael Joseph Savage crop.png
Savage in the 1920s
New Zealand Parliament
1919 1922 20th Auckland West Labour
1922 1925 21st Auckland West Labour
1925 1928 22nd Auckland West Labour
1928 1931 23rd Auckland West Labour
1931 1935 24th Auckland West Labour
1935 1938 25th Auckland West Labour
1938 1940 26th Auckland West Labour

As the war came to an end, the voters of the Auckland West electorate put Savage into Parliament as a Labour member in the 1919 general election, an electorate that he held until his death. [8] He became one of eight Labour members of parliament. He formally became the party's deputy-leader after the 1922 election, defeating Dan Sullivan eleven votes to six. [2] Assuming an ever-increasing workload, he had resigned as Labour's national secretary and Auckland Labour Representation Committee secretary in July 1920.

For most of the 1920s Savage sought to expand Labour's support beyond urban unionists and travelled frequently to rural areas. He became the leading advocate for increases to pensions and universally free health care. [9] He is credited for the creation of the Family Allowances Act 1926, which the governing Reform Party openly commented that it had modelled the legislation on three earlier defeated bills introduced by Savage. [2] In 1927 Savage and several others persuaded the party to amend its land policy and recognise the right of freehold which was essential in gaining rural support for Labour. In doing so, Savage furthered perceptions that he was a more practical politician than then Labour leader Harry Holland. [2] In October 1933 Holland died suddenly and Savage took his place becoming Labour's third party Leader.

Savage later helped to engineer an alliance between Labour and the Rātana Church, which was gaining a large Māori following in the 1930s. When T .W. Rātana entered politics he allied himself with the Labour Party, which had consulted with his followers over Māori policy. The pact was formalised in a 1936 meeting between Rātana and Savage. [10]

In 1935, Savage was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal. [11]

Prime Minister

Savage and his ministers in the first Labour Cabinet, photographed in the Old Parliament Building, c. 1935 Labour Cabinet, 1935.jpg
Savage and his ministers in the first Labour Cabinet, photographed in the Old Parliament Building, c.1935

During the depression, Savage toured the country, and became an iconic figure. An excellent speaker, he became the most visible politician in the land, and led Labour to victory in the 1935 election. Along with the Premiership, he appointed himself to the posts of Minister of External Affairs and Minister of Native Affairs. [12] In 1936 the Weekly News featured Spencer Digby's full page iconic photograph of Savage which was often to be seen framed in many New Zealand homes through the following years. [13]

Despite questioning the necessity for Edward VIII to abdicate, Savage sailed to Britain in 1937 to attend the coronation of King George VI, as well as the concurrent Imperial Conference. While in London, Savage differentiated himself from the other Commonwealth prime ministers when he openly criticised Britain for weakening the League of Nations and argued that the dominions were not consulted with properly on foreign policy and defence issues. Savage's government (unlike Britain) was quick to condemn German rearmament, Japanese expansion in China and Italy's conquest of Abyssinia. Savage criticised Britain's appeasement policies at the conference, saying "Is your policy peace at any price; if it is so I cannot accept it". Anthony Eden replied "No, not at any price, but peace at almost any price", to which Savage replied: "You can pay too high a price even for peace". [14] Britain, Australia, Canada and the opposition National Party were critical of Savage for his stance. [2]

Savage demonstrates his common touch, attending a rugby league match between New Zealand and Australia at Auckland, 1937 Michael Joseph Savage Rugby League.jpg
Savage demonstrates his common touch, attending a rugby league match between New Zealand and Australia at Auckland, 1937

In April 1938 Savage and his Finance Minister, Walter Nash, began planning Labour's proposals on social security, in-line with their 1935 election promises. Responding to a suggestion from the Reverend W. H. A. Vickery, mayor of Kaiapoi, Savage began to use the term "applied Christianity" to describe the government's scheme. [15] The Social Security Bill put forward by the government boasted an unemployment benefit payable to people 16 years and over; a universal free health system extending to general practitioners, public hospitals and maternity care; a means-tested old-age pension of 30 shillings a week for men and women at age 60; and universal superannuation from age 65. [15]

The social security scheme was a collaborative effort, with the detailed negotiations and drafting of the legislation carried out by committees of MPs and public servants. However, Savage's personal involvement was pivotal, as he decided on the basic scheme, helped resolve deep divisions of opinion within the Labour caucus over principles and detail, made many of the major public pronouncements and guarantees, and astutely responded to opposition from the Treasury, the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association, and the National Party. [2] It was also Savage who insisted that the Act contain a provision that it would not come into force until 1 April 1939, thereby giving National the opportunity to revoke it if they won the 1938 general election. [2] The First Labour Government proved popular and easily won the election, with an increased popular mandate. The Social Security Act was eventually passed, establishing the first ever social security system in the western world. [2]

Savage led the country into the Second World War, officially declaring war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, just hours after Britain. [16] Unlike Australia, which felt obligated to declare war, as it also had not ratified the Statute of Westminster, New Zealand did so as a sign of allegiance to Britain, and in recognition of Britain's abandoning its former appeasement of the dictators, a policy that New Zealand had opposed. This led to Prime Minister Savage declaring (from his sick bed) two days later:

With gratitude for the past and confidence in the future we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand. We are only a small and young nation, but we march with a union of hearts and souls to a common destiny. [17]

Death and commemoration

The state funeral procession for Michael Joseph Savage, April 1940. Michael Joseph Savage's funeral procession, Lambton Quay, Wellington, ca April 1940.jpg
The state funeral procession for Michael Joseph Savage, April 1940.

Suffering from cancer of the colon at the time of the 1938 election, Savage had delayed seeking treatment, to participate in the election campaign. He died from the cancer in March 1940, although the terminal nature of his illness was still being denied at the beginning of March. [18]

Savage brought an almost religious fervour to his politics. This, and his death while in office, has made him become something of an iconic figure to the Left. Lauded for his welfare policies, Savage's picture reportedly hung in many Labour supporters' homes. His popularity amongst the voting population was so celebrated that he is said to have remarked in disbelief to John A. Lee that, "They [the people] think I am God" after Labour's re-election in 1938. [19] Savage returned to his Catholic roots shortly before he died. [20]

His state funeral included a Requiem Mass celebrated at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Hill St, Wellington before his body was taken amidst general and public mourning by train to Auckland, with frequent halts to allow local people and dignitaries to pay their last respects; the journey was carried live on the radio. The lugubrious funeral music and speeches was lightened on arrival in Auckland when the announcer intoned reverently "Sir Ernest Davis is passing round the bier"; Davis, the Auckland mayor was a wealthy brewer. [21]

He was interred initially in a temporarily adapted harbour defence gun installation. He was soon after removed to a side chapel of St Patrick's Cathedral in Auckland, while a national competition was announced, decided, and the winning design of the monumental tomb and memorial gardens at Bastion Point constructed, forming his permanent resting site.

Savage lies buried at Bastion Point on Auckland's Waitematā Harbour waterfront in the Savage Memorial, [22] a clifftop mausoleum crowned by a tall minaret, and fronted by an extensive memorial garden and reflecting pool. Savage's body is interred in a vertical shaft below the sarcophagus, as confirmed in 2003–05. [23]


Grave and memorial near Bastion Point. Michael Joseph Savage Memorial Park.jpg
Grave and memorial near Bastion Point.

Michael Joseph Savage is admired from many sides of the political spectrum and is known as the architect of the New Zealand welfare state. [2] His Labour government provided the foundations of the post-war consensus, based upon the assumption that full employment would be maintained by Keynesian policies and that a greatly enlarged system of social services would be created.

He is considered by academics and historians to be one of New Zealand's greatest and most revered Prime Ministers. [24] [9] Often called "Everybody's Uncle", his genial and charismatic personality, and his skills as an orator, were largely responsible for public acceptance of his government's radical policies. Exemplifying his enthusiasm for his government's policies, Savage personally assisted a family in Fife Lane, Miramar, Wellington, to move their furniture into the first of the government's 1930s state houses. [25]

Savage served as patron of the New Zealand Rugby League. [26]

Savage was retroactively awarded the title of "New Zealander of the Century" by The New Zealand Herald in 1999. [27]

See also


  1. Hobbs 1967, pp. 32.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Gustafson, Barry. "Savage, Michael Joseph – Biography". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography . Ministry for Culture and Heritage . Retrieved 11 December 2011.
  3. 1 2 "Rutherglen". Benalla Standard. 13 September 1907. p. 3. Retrieved 26 June 2015.
  4. "North-Eastern Ensign". Benalla Ensign . 22 March 1907. p. 2. Retrieved 26 June 2015.
  5. Dominion Post (Wellington), 2012: 1 December pE1 & 26 December pA14
  6. Scholefield 1950, p. 109.
  7. Gustafson 1980, pp. 112.
  8. Scholefield 1950, p. 137.
  9. 1 2 "Michael Joseph Savage memorabilia". Archives New Zealand. 18 August 2010. Retrieved 22 June 2017.
  10. "Rātana and Labour seal alliance | NZHistory, New Zealand history online". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  11. "Official jubilee medals". Evening Post . CXIX (105). 6 May 1935. p. 4. Retrieved 31 July 2019.
  12. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, Vols. 248–256 (1936–1939).
  13. 'Portrait of Mr Savage', The New Zealand Herald, 25 March 1936.
  14. Berendsen, Carl (2009). Mr Ambassador: Memoirs of Sir Carl Berendsen. Wellington: Victoria University Press. pp. 128–9. ISBN   9780864735843.
  15. 1 2 Whitmore, Robbie. "Michael Joseph Savage – New Zealand in History". history-nz.org. Retrieved 15 June 2017.
  16. "Fighting for Britain – NZ and the Second World War". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2 September 2008.
  17. Ministry for Culture and Heritage, "PM Declares NZ’s Support for Britain: 5 September 1939," updated 14 October 2014
  18. Hensley, Gerald (2009). Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and its Allies 1939–45. North Shore Auckland: Viking/Penguin. p. 74. ISBN   978-06-700-7404-4.
  19. Hobbs 1967, pp. 30.
  20. Gustafson, Barry. "Savage, Michael Joseph (1872–1940)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 22 June 2017.
  21. Hensley, Gerald (2009). Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and its Allies 1939–45. North Shore Auckland: Viking/Penguin. p. 74. ISBN   978-06-700-7404-4.
  22. Nathan, Simon; Bruce Hayward (27 October 2010). "Story: Building stone". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand . Retrieved 10 December 2011.
  23. Fletcher, Kelsey (10 February 2013). "King find recalls Savage mystery". Fairfax (Stuff). Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  24. "Who was our best Prime Minister? | Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:30 pm on 8 September 2016 | RNZ". Radio New Zealand. 8 September 2016.
  25. Stenson, Marcia (2003). Illustrated history of New Zealand ISBN   9781869416027, p. 55
  26. Jessup, Peter (12 October 2002). "Kiwi players let their hair down at Clark bash". The New Zealand Herald . Retrieved 25 October 2011.
  27. "NZer of the Year: Previous winners". The New Zealand Herald. 16 December 2005. Retrieved 13 June 2018.

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Further reading

New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by
Charles Poole
Member of Parliament for Auckland West
Succeeded by
Peter Carr
Political offices
Preceded by
Harry Holland
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
George Forbes
Preceded by
George Forbes
Prime Minister of New Zealand
Succeeded by
Peter Fraser
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by
Frank Langstone
Minister of Native Affairs
Party political offices
Preceded by
John Glover
Secretary of the New Zealand Labour Party
Succeeded by
Moses Ayrton
Preceded by
James McCombs
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Peter Fraser
Preceded by
Harry Holland
Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party