STATHAM, Sir Charles Ernest
Speaker of the House of Representatives.
A new biography of Statham, Charles Ernest appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Charles Ernest Statham was born in Dunedin on 10 May 1875, the eldest son of Charles Hadfield Statham, who retired after a long career as an accountant and at 70 was ordained an Anglican priest. Statham was educated privately and at the Otago Boys' High School. He entered his father's office to train as an accountant but, unsatisfied, turned to the law and was admitted as a solicitor in 1901 and as a barrister in 1906. In 1904 he started practice, establishing the firm of Statham, Brent, and Anderson.
He represented the High Ward on the Dunedin City Council from 1911 to 1913 and was chosen as Reform candidate for Dunedin Central at the general election of 1911, defeating the sitting Liberal member, J. F. Arnold. However, he just held the seat against J. W. Munro, a Social Democrat, in 1914. During the years of war he had differences with the Coalition (Reform and Liberal) National Cabinet, due to his representing a city and working-class electorate and to his belief that the private member should have more say in party policy. In 1920 he moved a motion proposing that Cabinet should be elected by members of the dominant party
Statham was returned in 1919 with a substantial majority as an Independent and in 1921 took a leading part in the formation of the short-lived National Progressive and Moderate Liberal Party, which with the Liberals became the United Liberal Labour Party. He withdrew to contest the 1922 election as an Independent. At this election the Reform Party lost seats, including that of the Speaker, and though still the largest party, had only 38 supporters. To have elected one as Speaker would have further reduced the number, and Statham was nominated against James McCombs of the Labour Party. He was elected by 61 votes to 17.
While Statham's legal knowledge and parliamentary experience were invaluable, he studied long and deeply the rules and practice which govern procedure, with the result that he had an outstanding knowledge of parliamentary law. In his first term, with the Reform Government in a minority, he held a position of power but he was able to continue to assert his authority when the situation changed. He was master of the House in all respects and, while his years of office were amongst the stormiest in the history of the House, his firm hand did much to reduce feelings and to keep members under control. At the same time he was fair and did everything possible to uphold the rights of the private member.
Generally, Statham followed British parliamentary practice as Speaker. As an Independent he had little difficulty in withdrawing from party politics, but his suggestions that the Speaker should be returned unopposed at a general election were ignored. He was returned with reduced majorities over his Labour opponent in 1925 and 1928, but when it fell to 262 in 1931, he decided to retire at the 1935 election. Statham was probably the greatest Speaker the House has known. His rulings have stood the test of time, and during his term the office was held in great respect. He was created a Knight Bachelor in 1926.
After his retirement he went into practice again in Wellington, where he died on 5 March 1946. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1936 but spoke rarely and took no active part in politics. He married Lilias Harata te Aho Burnett, of Dunedin, in 1905 and had one daughter.
by James Oakley Wilson, D.S.C., M.COM., A.L.A., Chief Librarian, General Assembly Library, Wellington.
- Otago Daily Times, 6 Mar 1946 (Obit).