To most historians, George Forbes personified financial orthodoxy’s rigid, blinkered reaction to the misery of the Great Depression: ‘party halfback behind a beaten pack’, W.J. Gardner wrote.
The rugby metaphor at least was apt for this courteous, amiable sportsman. ‘Honest George’ entered Parliament in 1908 for the Liberals, whose declining fortunes kept him from Cabinet for 20 years. Once there, he zoomed up, running the country for the ailing Sir Joseph Ward and becoming PM in 1930.
Times were tough. Forbes cut spending to reduce the deficit, further alienating the unemployed and their families. He persuaded Gordon Coates to join an anti-Labour coalition, and performed well overseas, but the public turned to Labour in 1935. Labour had made Reform and United seem mean, unimaginative and outdated.
If history does not remember Forbes kindly, some contemporaries did. Governor-General Lord Bledisloe, who in 1931 twice talked him out of asking for a dissolution, thought him sounder than the ‘jumpy and indiscreet’ Coates. It was no mean achievement to hold together the fragile United/Reform coalition government for four trying years. After leading the new National Party briefly, Forbes rejoined the back benches where he served until 1943.
By Gavin McLean