HOLLAND, Sir Sidney George
Prime Minister, 1949–57.
A new biography of Holland, Sidney George appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Sidney George Holland was born on 18 October 1893 at Greendale, Canterbury, the fourth son of Henry Holland, later Mayor of Christchurch and a member of Parliament. In 1898 the family moved to Christchurch where Holland was educated in the primary and secondary departments of the West Christchurch School. He left school at 15 to enter the employment of a hardware firm, but later worked in his father's firm as an accountant. After the outbreak of war he joined the Army, entering camp in December 1915 and going overseas as a second lieutenant in the New Zealand Field Artillery with the 17th reinforcements in September 1916. During the Battle of Messines in June 1917 he became seriously ill and was invalided home to be discharged in the following November. After a long period of convalescence he entered business with his brother, eventually extending his activities, becoming a director in several companies and taking a leading part in provincial business and political organisations. Holland senior entered Parliament as the representative of the Christchurch North electorate in 1925 and the son was his secretary and organiser during the three campaigns he fought. Just before the 1935 election, however, his health forced him to retire and his son was given the National Party nomination, to become the only new face among the 19 who remained after the Labour victory.
During the next few years he was a backbencher, but his shrewdness and dexterity in the cut and thrust of party warfare, combined with his vigour and good-humoured determination brought him into favour with the younger members of the National Party. After the 1938 election dissatisfaction with Hamilton, the leader of the Party, increased, and in 1940 it was clear that to make any impression on the electorate it was necessary to have a leader untainted by the party's depression policies.
Hamilton was also handicapped because, like Coates, he was a member of the War Cabinet, while Holland was able to campaign vigorously against Labour's domestic policy. In November 1940 at the party caucus he was elected leader with a majority on the first vote. In June 1942 Holland became a member of the war administration as Minister in Charge of War Expenditure and deputy chairman of the War Cabinet. The joint control of the war effort ended a short time later when the Director of Publicity refused to allow the publication of a statement of Holland's on war expenditure, and there was trouble about the treatment of the Huntly coal miners illegally on strike. Holland has been criticised for his part in ending the joint War Cabinet, but the majority of supporters of both parties were not in agreement with the arrangement. Party relations became normal and Holland set about rebuilding his party.
The split between the older and newer groups, which ended after the 1943 election, gave the latter a large majority and allowed Holland to get on with the task of rewriting the party policy, not as a negation of that of the Labour Party but on the basis that a system of aggressive free enterprise was preferable to State regulation. In the years prior to the 1946 election, Holland did everything to raise the party status in the eyes of the public but the Labour Party was returned with a majority of four. In 1949, however, the National Party gained 46 seats and Holland became Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. He quickly set about removing the remaining controls which had been retained since the war. Some difficulties resulted, partly due to his optimism and partly from the fact that business moved quickly when State control was dropped; but he learnt his lesson and some controls were retained. He called for greater production and did everything to see that it was brought about.
Within two years of assuming office, Holland was involved in the two most controversial acts of his administration, the abolition of the Legislative Council and the waterfront strike. The abolition of the Council had been first mooted in 1946, and in 1947 and 1949, as Leader of the Opposition, Holland had introduced a Bill to bring it about. In 1950 he packed the Council and with the National majority in the Lower House passed the Abolition Act. He has been criticised for not replacing the old Upper House with another, but more powerful, body. This was difficult without asking the Lower House to give up some of its powers. To date, however, single-chamber government has worked comparatively well.
The waterfront strike began in February 1951 when the Waterside Workers' Union withdrew its labour in a wage dispute. After a few days the Government declared a state of national emergency and used all its powers to break the strike. While Sullivan, the Minister of Labour, took charge of the negotiations, Holland was generally responsible for the Government action. He saw the struggle as one to decide who was to rule the country, and one to which there could be only one satisfactory answer. His handling of the strike was strongly criticised by the Labour Opposition when Parliament met. But he quickly and shrewdly took up the challenge when he dissolved Parliament and used the issue as one on which to fight the election. The result was most satisfactory for his party and showed that his actions generally had the country's approval. As Minister of Finance he was favoured by increasing prosperity though he had to face two balance of payments crises. These were due partly to inflation and partly to the relaxation of controls over imports.
His budgets were orthodox and the later ones reduced the proportion of the national income going to the State in taxation. In 1954, after the party had been returned with a somewhat reduced majority, he dropped the portfolio of Finance. The strain of office, however, continued to take its toll and during 1957 signs of deterioration in his health were obvious. At the National Party conference he nominated K. J. Holyoake as the new leader and shortly afterwards resigned the post of Prime Minister to remain in the Holyoake Cabinet without duties until after the general election.
He was nominated to the Privy Council in 1950 and appointed C.H. in 1951. On his retirement he was created G.C.B.
He lived quietly in Wellington for much of his retirement and for some time showed signs of improved health. During 1960 he suffered a stroke from which he did not completely recover. He died in Wellington on 5 August 1961.
Holland, though a New Zealander in every way, had a profound respect for the country's ties with Britain and the Empire and for maintaining its affection for the Queen and the Royal family. It was a source of great pride to him that the first visit of a ruling monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, to New Zealand took place during his term of office, marred though it was by the Tangiwai disaster.
As a young man, Holland was a keen sportsman, playing hockey for his province. He was later a leading referee and managed the New Zealand representative hockey team which toured Australia in 1932.
In 1920 he married Florence Beatrice Drayton. There were two sons and two daughters by the marriage.
Holland was a forthright man of great sincerity, widely respected for his frank and friendly manner. Though he could and did delegate work, he was a strong leader ruling his party with a firm hand. He proved himself a good administrator, sensitive to public feelings, but towards the end was disappointed to find the popularity of his party declining. He did not possess Fraser's knowledge of standing orders but he was a good Leader of the House, while his tact and obvious sincerity did much to soothe ruffled feelings. Despite his belief in the principles of private enterprise, he was not a deep political thinker definitely committed to party doctrine. Rather he was a practical New Zealander who looked at a problem and found what he thought was the most satisfactory solution regardless of politics. The result was that he was regarded as travelling down the middle of the road, leaving much of Labour's work untouched to the disappointment of some of his supporters.
Probably Holland's greatest work was the reshaping of the National Party to the changed political situation that resulted from the economic depression and the work of the Labour government. He gave the party a mission and moved it to a position somewhat to the left of that which it had held previously, and more in keeping with the feelings of the electors.
by James Oakley Wilson, D.S.C., M.COM., A.L.A., Chief Librarian, General Assembly Library, Wellington.
- Evening Post, 5 Aug 1961 (Obit)
- The Times (London), 7 Aug 1961 (Obit).