Statesman, administrator, and Prime Minister.
A new biography of Coates, Joseph Gordon appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
J. G. Coates was born at Pahi on 3 February 1878, the son of Edward Coates, and Eleanor Kathleen, née Aickin. Coates received primary education at the Matakohe School, and then worked on his father's farm. Later, with his brother Rodney, he established a well-known herd of Herefords. While still in his twenties, Coates was elected to Otamatea County Council, and was its chairman for four years before his election to Parliament. He was prominent in the local and Auckland Farmers' Union, in the Kaipara A. and P. Association, and in the Otamatea Mounted Rifles. Coates was drawn into politics at the end of the long Liberal epoch and his début was symbolic of the transition to Reform. The “roadless North” was despairing of the Liberals, but not yet prepared to trust Reform. Its members had always been independent, whatever their label, and won their votes as local notables. Coates, a vigorous local body chairman, came forward in the traditional guise, with ambiguous backing, label, and policy. He styled himself an “Independent Liberal”, but was nominated chiefly by Oppositionists. His pledge to the Liberals could hardly have been more limited and lukewarm: he would support Ward if his land policy was freehold, and would give him a year to bring forward the necessary legislation. Coates defeated the sitting Liberal, John Stallworthy, at the second ballot, with the help of Reform votes. Though solicited by both sides in February 1912, Coates kept his counsel, and voted with Ward. When the Mackenzie Ministry was formed, Coates claimed that it was “leasehold”, and that his pledge to the Liberals was now voided. He crossed the floor with three other freeholders, and helped to vote Reform into power, to the chagrin of the local Liberal paper, the Wairoa Bell.
When he left for France in 1916, Coates had shown himself a good local member, but had not made any marked advance in the Reform ranks. He proved a brave officer and leader of men, gaining the M.C. and Bar, and the rank of Major. Returning to New Zealand, in May 1919, he was given a tremendous welcome in Dargaville. With the collapse of the National Government in August 1919, Massey was free to reconstruct his Cabinet from the Reform Party. Passing over the claims of some senior men, he made Coates his Postmaster-General, Minister of Telegraphs, and Minister of Justice, an odd combination for the inexperienced newcomer. It was suggested that Massey's strongest motive for promoting J. B. Hine and Coates was the urgent need to demonstrate his Government's concern for the returned soldiers. Thus, within a few days of his return to the House, Coates took his place on the front benches. His immediate preparation for the post was three years of soldiering. Yet Massey got a fine (perhaps unexpected) bargain in his “returned soldier” Minister. Among a rather mediocre team Coates stood out for initiative and vigour. By his sustained use and encouragement of experts, by his disregard for the time-honoured “roads and bridges” system, Coates broke new ground in New Zealand administration. As Minister of Public Works (1920–26), he was the first to modernise equipment, and make substantial improvements in the conditions of public works camps. To keep pace with the demand for new construction, he went outside the Department and the old cooperative system, letting large contracts to British firms, notably for the Arapuni dam. As Minister of Railways (1923–28), he tried to bring the system up to date, and to enable it to compete commercially with road haulage. He played a prominent part in ending the railway strike of 1924. By the establishment of the Main Highways Board, in 1922, Coates eliminated a great deal of the old political scramble for public works.
When Massey died in May 1925, Coates had a wide and justified reputation as administrator, which in the event was to win him the Premiership. Yet it is only just to add that claimants further up in the party hierarchy eliminated themselves in various ways. D. H. Guthrie's health gave out, and Willian Nosworthy had no clear claim beyond that of seniority. A. D. McLeod was virtually Massey's deputy in the Political Reform League, but was junior to Coates, and still had his reputation to make. Massey's deputy in the House in 1924 was W. Downie Stewart, the party's best debater and most intelligent mind. Stewart, however, was a war cripple, and was actually in New York undergoing treatment in 1925. There is some evidence that Massey looked to Stewart to succeed him. By the time that Bell, as stop-gap Prime Minister, called a Reform caucus, Stewart had withdrawn, recognising his physical limitations. Yet a ballot was held, Nosworthy's name being put forward out of respect for his seniority. The result was a foregone conclusion – almost a victory by default for Coates.
In his last years, Massey had dominated the House as well as his party, holding the political reins tightly in his own hands. His death left a vacuum in political management, which Coates, with his very limited debating powers and inexperience in party control, could not possibly fill at once. Boldly and astutely, Coates's campaign manager in 1925, A. E. Davy, set out to recapture the initiative for Reform and its leader. He engineered the greatest advertising campaign in our political history, using the image of “Coates, the Young New Zealander”, “Coates, the Man who Gets Things Done”. With “Coates and Confidence”, Reform was blazoned forth as virtually a new party. J. A. Lee, with some feeling (and truth) called Coates “a jazz Premier”, but it was Davy's Coates, not the straightforward, unvarnished original, he was castigating. Various factors (including Davy's campaign) combined to give Reform 54 seats in the House. It was an unwieldy and largely inexperienced following that Seddon could have managed at the height of his powers, but it is perhaps fair to say that Coates in the 1926–28 Parliament did not show himself a successful leader of Cabinet, House, or party. Yet the fundamental factors in Reform's defeat in 1928 were that New Zealand's overseas markets were crumbling, and that the speculation of the war and post-war periods had left the country with a cost structure that became crippling as the depression deepened. The electorate's reaction was to blame the Government, especially one headed by the political Moses of 1925. Coates was caught in the backwash of Davy's campaign, and as harshly cried down as he had been extravagantly praised. He became the centre of more slanderous rumours than any other New Zealand politician except Seddon, but lacked the Seddon touch in fighting back. His reaction to attack was characteristically defiance, sometimes headstrong, occasionally even impudent. He had too little of Massey's old combination of courtesy and cunning in dealing with party notables, and made powerful enemies in the highest councils of Reform. Right wing business men formed the “1928 Committee” to demand “less government in business” from Coates, whom some of them branded as a “socialist”. Debt-burdened dairy farmers, on the contrary, looked for relief from the Government. Coates could not prevent a large desertion to the new United Party, organised by Davy, with whom he had fallen out.
The strange election of 1928 ended the long reign of Reform, and many were only too ready to blame Coates. Paradoxically, he made the speech of his career in gallantly surrendering power to Ward. Determined to make a come back in 1931, Coates set about reorganising his party, with considerable success. However, Reform leaders in business and farming forced him into coalition with Forbes in September 1931. Thus he was deprived of the chance of again becoming Prime Minister, though he was in fact to be the leader, in all but name, of the Coalition Ministry of 1931–35. Historians now recognise the courage and ingenuity which Coates and his “Brains Trust” showed in tackling economic problems that were overwhelming governments on all sides. A strong imperialist, Coates negotiated in London and at the Ottawa Conference (1932) to keep open British markets for New Zealand, deserving well of his country. At home, he outraged right-wing supporters by mortgage relief, the forcing down of interest rates, and the lowering of the exchange rate. The establishment of the Reserve Bank (1933) ensured better monetary planning, and the Executive Commission for Agriculture (1934) was a startling (though abortive) essay in state control of farm production. Coates got little credit for his leadership and initiative in a desperate situation. Instead, he became to a great number of New Zealanders the hated symbol of Depression government. The defeat of 1935 released him from thankless tasks, but not from ingratitude in his own party. He concurred unwillingly in the merging of Reform into National (1936), and recognised that he could not seek leadership. His friend, Adam Hamilton, was elected to the position, and possibly Coates hoped that the way might be clear for his return in a few years, as Depression memories faded. However, there was a strong movement in the National Party, especially outside Parliament, to break with the men of 1931–35, and S. G. Holland was chosen leader in 1940. The well-known antipathy between Coates and Holland underlined the fact that the party was casting Coates aside. Yet, by a strange turn of historic justice, the latter had just entered (August 1940) on his third, and perhaps greatest, period in office. With Hamilton, he joined the War Cabinet, (August 1940), and as Minister of Armed Forces and War Coordination, demonstrated all his old powers, now fully matured. Fraser, formerly among his bitterest opponents, came to value Coates as a loyal colleague and close friend. When Holland resigned from the War Cabinet and Administration (October 1942), Coates considered him to be putting party before country, and remained in office. He planned to continue his political career as he had begun it – by standing as an Independent for Kaipara. A contest between local loyalties and party feeling in the constituency was forestalled by his death in Wellington on 27 May 1943.
Gordon Coates's career, when seen in perspective, is one of the most remarkable in New Zealand politics. It compels reconsideration of what constitutes success or failure in a party leader. By the crude tests of popular reputation and tenure of chief office, Coates may be reckoned a failure. Seddon, Massey, and Fraser were skilful managers of party and House. Coates, by contrast, did not show enough judgment and patience in handling politicians. His laudable readiness to accept new men and new ideas was not necessarily an asset to him as Reform leader, and he showed the defects of his virtues in giving his confidence to plausible but unsound men who damaged his reputation in the party. Coates was unhappy, dilatory, and not greatly successful in his political promotions. Yet, in significant contrast, he was usually wise, and sometimes brilliant in his appointments of, and relations with, civil servants. His practical mind could choose between competing schemes of development, but not between competing politicians. In a word, Coates was great as a leader in government, as a statesman, but not as a politician. Potentially, he may have been our greatest political leader, but he lacked full control of his many gifts.
Perhaps his occasional lack of self-restraint (some thought, even self-respect) sprang from his uncompleted education, and from his limited rural background. It was not so much that he came, like Reeves, too quickly to power – he was 47 in 1925 – but that he came too easily, and by a wrong route for a party leader. What Massey had learned years before 1912, Coates had to absorb in the humiliation of defeat after 1928, when it was too late for his highest ambitions. Though capable of a dapper showmanship, Coates was fundamentally sincere and honest. Breezy, and even brusque in manner, he inspired personal devotion in a wide and varied circle of friends, and his mana among the Maori people was unsurpassed, at least till 1935. The Maori legislation which he introduced, with Ngata's help, was most promising, but some of it was, unfortunately, allowed to lapse. His courage and coolness in the face of hostile crowds during the Depression won respect for the man, but could not efface the unpopularity of the political figure.
As a speaker, Coates was probably the least like an orator in our front rank of politicians. His delivery was staccato, and his sentences frequently jerked along in chaotic fashion. Observers noted with amusement that he often started with “point number one”, and did not get beyond it in his promised sequence. Yet the force of the man's character shone through even his most involved periods. Those who saw it cannot forget the way drowsy Labour benches awoke to alert hostility as Coates rose to speak in the House. It was the greatest compliment they could pay to the one man who was their master in the art of applying State power to practical, progressive ends, but who was the principal obstacle in their road to office.
On 4 August 1914, at St. Peter's Church, Wellington, Coates married Majorie Grace, daughter of Dr Walter Coles, of Sydney, and by her he had five daughters.
by William James Gardner, M.A., Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Canterbury.
- N.Z.P.D., Vol. 262 (1943) (Obit)
- New Zealand People at War, Wood, F. L. W. (1958)
- Sir Francis Bell, His Life and Times, Stewart, W. D. (1937)
- Ends and Means in New Zealand Politics, Chapman, R. M. (1961)
- New Zealand Herald, 28 May 1943 (Obit).