Michael Joseph Savage, New Zealand’s first Labour PM, was probably also its best-loved. His avuncular image hung in the homes of the Labour faithful for decades.
Savage was born into a poor family in Victoria, Australia. In 1907 he moved to New Zealand, where ‘Mick’ became ‘Joe’, and where the Auckland brewery cellarman rose through the labour movement. In 1919 he entered Parliament and three years later was Labour’s deputy leader.
Savage’s – and Labour’s – opportunity came in 1933 with the death of its leader, Harry Holland. Whereas the hardline Holland had scared middle class voters, the gregarious, soft-spoken Savage personified Labour’s diluted socialism, or ‘applied Christianity’. As one historian said, Savage ‘smelt of the church bazaar, not at all of the barricades.’
Labour won the 1935 election convincingly. Helped by a recovering economy, it unleashed a slew of popular reforms. Three years later it won again, backed by voter support for its plans for a comprehensive social welfare system.
Savage declared Premier House too grand for him and appeared folksy, but he ran Cabinet tightly and his desk was clear at the end of every day.
Labour refused to join Britain in recognising Italy’s annexation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Savage disliked British pomp. But on 3 September 1939 ‘both with gratitude for the past, and with confidence in the future,’ he joined Britain in declaring war against Germany. ‘Where she goes, we go; where she stands we stand.’
But Savage had already lost a more personal battle, and was dying of cancer. Fifty thousand mourners filed past his casket and he was given a lavish public memorial in Auckland (Seddon and Massey are the only other PMs similarly honoured).
Written by Gavin McLean