Story: Coates, Joseph Gordon

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Coates, Joseph Gordon

1878–1943

Farmer, politician, soldier, prime minister

This biography, written by Michael Bassett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.

The Coates brothers, Edward and Thomas, who sailed into the Waitemata Harbour on 19 October 1866 aboard the Winterthur, came from a long-established Herefordshire gentry family. As younger sons of a large family they would not inherit land, but in New Zealand their brother-in-law George Washington Charters had a friend, Francis Hull, who was prepared to buy land which they could farm. On arrival in Auckland the brothers went north. After investigation they found the Unuwhao block of 2,500 acres on the Hukatere peninsula, jutting south into the Kaipara Harbour. Hull bought 2,420 acres of this land on behalf of Charters on 8 June 1867 from its Maori owners for £950, and Edward and Thomas became tenant farmers. In June 1871 they acquired grazing and other rights to a further 10,410 acres.

Thomas Coates married in 1873, then moved east to Kaiwaka in 1886. Edward remained at Hukatere and appeared to be a man of substance. He was soon a justice of the peace and the first president of the North Kaipara Agriculture Association. On 16 May 1877 he married Eleanor Kathleen Aickin. Of Irish birth, she had come to Auckland with her parents in 1859 aboard the Mermaid. Eleanor was well educated, and had attended an exclusive ladies' college in Remuera for several years.

Edward and Eleanor Coates took up residence at a house, Ruatuna, built by Edward on the Hukatere block. On 3 February 1878 their eldest son, Joseph Gordon Coates, was born. There were two further sons, Rodney and William, and four daughters, Eva, Ella, Ada and Nina. Gordon grew into a tall (six-foot), handsome, broad-chested man with auburn hair. He learned to ride a horse when very young – indeed, since there were few roads, horses and the punt on the river were their main means of transport. He rounded up cattle that ran wild down the peninsula, could handle a gun by the time he was a teenager, and loved shooting pheasants, ducks and wild pigs. An early riding accident left him with a swagger to his walk, and a horse's kick disfiguring his upper lip caused him to wear a moustache for the rest of his life.

Coates received several years' schooling at the small Matakohe School. He was no scholar, although governesses and his mother gave him polish. Eleanor read widely, had a good command of English and ensured that her children's biblical studies were never overlooked. Surviving recordings of his speeches reveal an educated voice with clipped, well-formed vowels, but all his life he had a taste for the vernacular. By the time he was 10, he and Rodney would often ride four miles to the Sunday Anglican church services in Matakohe. His family were natural leaders in the small, isolated Northland society of the 1890s.

In 1899 Charters gifted the freehold of the Unuwhao block to the Coates family. In the meantime they had difficulty securing badly needed loans for development. Gordon, who was then running the farm with Rodney because of their father's manic depression, learned the importance of freehold, which he was to uphold for the rest of his life. He was also showing a capacity to lead men; in 1900 he joined, and soon led, the Otamatea Mounted Rifle Volunteers. He commanded B squadron of the 11th (North Auckland) Mounted Rifles from March 1911 to May 1912, when he transferred to the reserve of officers. In November 1905, after his father's death, Coates was elected to the Otamatea County Council, and from 1913 to 1916 was its chairman. His local authority experience taught him administrative skills and he learned much about roading that was later to stand him in good stead.

Coates was what used to be called 'a man's man', yet his appearance and pleasant manners also made him very attractive to women. He fell in love with a young teacher whose father forbade marriage in case Edward's psychiatric illness should prove hereditary. For several years Coates enjoyed a relationship with a local Maori woman, by whom he is said to have had a daughter and a son. When he entered Parliament in 1911 the relationship seems to have ended, and the surviving daughter went to live with her Maori relatives. On 4 August 1914 Coates, now 36, married Marjorie Grace Coles at Wellington. Marjorie was 13 years younger than him, a good dancer, pretty, vivacious and always well dressed. She adored Coates, whom she called 'Joe', and she gave birth to five daughters over the next decade before the onset of painful arthritis. He was fond of her, wrote regularly when away on political duties, and always contrived to spend as much time as possible with his family, sometimes at great personal inconvenience. Rumours about Coates's 'other life', however, circulated for the rest of his life.

Coates won the parliamentary seat of Kaipara on the second ballot on 14 December 1911. He was to represent it until his death. He was initially an independent Liberal who had the backing of many local opposition supporters. He was pledged to supporting Sir Joseph Ward, and on a motion of no confidence in Ward's government in February 1912 Coates voted with the Liberals, helping them to hold on to office by the barest margin. Coates was offered a ministerial position in the restructured Liberal ministry that followed Ward's resignation in favour of Thomas Mackenzie. He declined. Over the next three months he drifted away from the Liberals because of the dominance of leasehold advocates within Mackenzie's ministry. When another confidence vote was taken in early July 1912, Coates again voted with the winning team, William Ferguson Massey's Reform Party, who were pledged to the maintenance of freehold land tenure. By 1914 Coates had joined the Reform Party and become their official candidate in Kaipara.

At first Gordon Coates was not a major political figure in Wellington. He spoke seldom, concentrating on issues of interest to the 'roadless north' or to the mill workers and gum-diggers prominent in his electorate. He seemed to possess no natural gifts as an orator. He fraternised with younger MPs of all parties, such as Paddy Webb, T. E. Y. Seddon and, after 1914, William Downie Stewart, and was one of the least partisan members at a time of intense political partisanship. He played tennis and, whenever possible, rode horses.

Coates had learned English patriotism on his father's knee. On the outbreak of war in August 1914 he became quickly involved in recruiting campaigns; he enlisted, and was keen to go to the front with his brother William, but Massey, whose majority was virtually non-existent after the election of 1914, would not release him. In November 1916 Coates was eventually able to leave for France with the infantry's 19th Reinforcements to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. In March 1917 he was posted as second in command of the 15th (North Auckland) Company of the 1st Battalion of the Auckland Infantry Regiment. Love of empire and the adventurous spirit instilled by his upbringing drew him to the front.

The glamour of war had long since worn off by the time Coates got to Ypres (Ieper), but he proved to be an efficient, highly respected soldier. On 31 July 1917 he won a Military Cross at La Basseville. Transferred to the Somme and promoted to company commander of the 3rd (Auckland) Company of the 1st Battalion, Coates won a bar to his MC at Mailly-Maillet on 26 March 1918.

He injured his leg that day, and for several months was out of action and able to visit his Hereford relatives. Promoted to major, Coates was involved in the push north into Germany late in 1918. He did not sail for home until March 1919, arriving in Auckland on the Remuera on 5 May. The Kaipara electorate treated him as a returning hero. After Ward collapsed the wartime National government in August 1919 Massey decided to give his tired ministry a touch of glamour. On 2 September Coates accepted the positions of minister of justice, postmaster general, and minister of telegraphs. At 41 he was a junior minister, a full decade younger than anyone else in the government.

After being re-elected handsomely in December 1919 Coates was made minister of public works in March 1920; in June 1923 he became minister of railways as well. The economic boom at the end of the war greatly inflated public expectations. By the end of 1920 these were collapsing fast as export prices dropped. The challenge for Coates was to produce results at a time when money was in short supply. This he did by diverting money from a myriad of branch railway lines, concentrating instead on completing the three main trunk lines: the Midland, East Coast and North Auckland lines. People accustomed to railways being built for political reasons were disconcerted, but his businesslike decision-making won praise for Coates. He also centralised hydroelectricity construction and pushed ahead with several projects on the Waikato and Waitaki rivers. He then turned his attention to roading. There were nearly 30,000 cars in New Zealand by the end of the war and financing the construction and maintenance of roads, especially main highways, was a vexed question. The Main Highways Act 1922 established 18 highway districts, which designated main highways and shared their costs with central funds generated from a tax on tyres, on motor vehicle registration and, eventually, on fuel.

Coates was regarded as an active, hard-working minister. He quickly understood arguments and got on well with officials. With a cigarette constantly in hand he would drop by, sometimes unexpectedly, at construction sites and share a drink with the men. He developed the reputation of being a minister who was fair, but brooked no nonsense. This distinction was enhanced by the tough line he adopted during the short-lived rail strike in April 1924.

From March 1921 until December 1928 Coates was native minister. He spoke some Maori and understood a great deal more, and was sensitive to land grievances. He counted Apirana Ngata a close friend and between them they drew Te Puea Herangi of Waikato into support for a commission to investigate the confiscation of Maori land after the wars of the 1860s. In 1926 a Maori Arts and Crafts Act was passed to enhance knowledge of Maori arts and crafts and to protect Maori antiquities.

Meanwhile Coates's growing family was residing in a ministerial house at 123a Tinakori Road in Wellington. His two eldest daughters, Sheila and Barbara, and ultimately the three others, Patricia, Irirangi and Josephine, attended Samuel Marsden Collegiate School. They always holidayed in the north at a bach Coates had bought at Baylys Beach west of Dargaville. Coates would surf-cast and swim vigorously, and enjoyed cooking toheroa and bacon. Rodney was now managing the farm at Hukatere, and they had acquired between them another smaller, heavily mortgaged block at Ruawai for fattening stock.

By 1925 Coates had been singled out by his colleagues as the natural successor to the ailing Massey, who died on 10 May. He won a ballot in the Reform caucus over William Nosworthy, and on 30 May 1925 succeeded the stop-gap Sir Francis Bell as prime minister. The 47-year-old Coates was associated with no distinct philosophy or faction. He had no love for party politics or political theories, endured 'the cumbersome machinery of Parliament' simply because it must be endured, and cared only for practical achievements.

Coates in 1925 was a 'tall, lithe man, erect and soldierly in figure, a stranger to fatigue,' with 'clear eyes, a tanned face, and a kindly mouth'. His genial progressivism made him one of the most popular MPs, and the press liked his breezy informality. John A. Lee labelled him the 'jazz Premier'. A political advertising agent, A. E. Davy, was able to turn these characteristics into election-winning hype that carried Coates to a great victory on 4 November 1925. It was the only substantial win ever enjoyed by the Reform Party. The Coates family moved into the old prime ministerial house at 260 Tinakori Road named Ariki Toa (warrior chief).

Coates was unable to live up to the high expectations of the 1925 election campaign. He performed creditably in London at the Imperial Conference in 1926, but domestically he lacked basic political skills. Indeed, there was a sentimental streak that caused him to retain Massey's lacklustre cabinet. However, deteriorating economic conditions lay behind many of the problems that beset his ministry. The British economy was depressed and the prices for New Zealand's farm produce ebbed steadily in 1926. In an effort to stabilise farmers' incomes, the New Zealand Dairy-produce Control Board embarked on an abortive scheme to fix the price of butter on the British market. The government was forced to persuade the board, in March 1927, to desist, and the high hopes of farmers had to be deferred until the British market improved. Coates got the blame. An early effort to license urban public transport to stop costly duplication of services irked private enterprise, as did Coates's Town-planning Bill of 1926. The introduction of family allowances for families with three or more children in 1926 was the product of his progressive approach to welfare, but it further alienated his government from Reform's conservative, urban, commercial constituency.

Davy abandoned the Reform Party and in March 1927 announced a revival of the Liberal party, which soon took on the name 'United'. A number of businessmen were drawn to the new party, which stressed free-enterprise policies, and Ward was persuaded to become its leader. At the beginning of his election campaign in October 1928 Ward promised to borrow £70 million to cure New Zealand's economic problems. Coming at the end of a year of fumbles by Coates's ministers over various reforms, Ward's promise rekindled his earlier image as a financial wizard.

On 14 November 1928 Coates's government was humiliated at the polls. Reform's parliamentary seats dropped from the 55 of three years before to 28 in a Parliament of 80. The United Party won 27, Labour 19, and there were 6 independents. Coates agreed to call Parliament. On 7 December, after what was described as one of his most powerful speeches, he was defeated on a confidence motion by 50 votes to 28. Gracefully, and with many plaudits from friend and foe, Coates tendered his resignation as prime minister. On 10 December Ward took office and Coates became leader of the opposition.

It was the first time since entering Parliament 17 years earlier that Coates had not been part of the government of the day. The sudden drop in income from £3,600 a year to £630 plus expenses caused problems. All his life Coates had been generous to a fault, and was a soft touch for anyone with a hard-luck story. Coates drew a small supplement from his share of the profits of the farm, but with the onset of the depression that source dried up. Apart from the bach at Baylys Beach, Coates owned no home. The family rented a small house in Wellington.

Coates hoped that he would be able to turn the three-cornered political situation to advantage. But when Ward resigned in May 1930, Coates, fearing Labour's spending policies, edged the Reform Party towards United. He held out against any formal deal with the new prime minister, George Forbes, and succumbed only under heavy pressure from economists and businessmen. On 18 September 1931 a coalition government between the two non-Labour parties was announced. The wily, if uninspiring, Forbes had successfully manoeuvred to remain prime minister, but Coates and his Reform colleagues held the key portfolios. On 22 September 1931 Coates took office again as minister of public works and minister of transport, with responsibility also for employment. William Downie Stewart was minister of finance. Coates returned to his original ministerial house at 123a Tinakori Road.

The coalition retained power in the election on 2 December 1931 although Labour's vote jumped. Unemployment soared as the new government retrenched even more vigorously, and peaked officially at about 80,000 in September 1933. Coates sought to reduce public works construction and to fund those made redundant into small farms in an effort to increase New Zealand's production. His more conservative colleague, Downie Stewart, rejected a request for the necessary money. As the depression worsened a series of skirmishes broke out, culminating in Auckland's Queen Street riot on 14 April 1932 in which most shop windows were broken and displays looted. Coates's reputation touched bottom about this time. False rumours circulated to the effect that he was drinking heavily, and that he had told a deputation of unemployed to 'eat grass'.

In July 1932 Coates attended the Imperial Economic Conference, Ottawa, as leader of New Zealand's delegation. After weeks of careful negotiation, the dominions gained a 10 per cent preference over other exporters to Britain for a range of agricultural goods. Coates played a key role in discussions, chairing the group dealing with dairy produce. He did much to promote the success of the conference as a whole, regarding it as a landmark in the economic and constitutional development of the empire.

By the time Coates returned to New Zealand, pressure was building from agricultural interests for devaluation of the New Zealand currency. Coates's farming background convinced him it was essential to boost producers' incomes. Urban commercial interests, Treasury and Downie Stewart opposed this argument. Cabinet eventually accepted Coates's viewpoint and on 20 January 1933 Downie Stewart resigned. Coates became minister of finance. From then until November 1935 he was the driving force in the government. He worked long hours, was methodical, and was always considerate of his staff and officials, who in turn respected him.

Coates spent much of 1933 sorting out with the banks the repercussions of devaluation. He introduced his Small Farms (Relief of Unemployment) Bill to help workers on to the land, and later in the year Parliament passed his Reserve Bank of New Zealand Bill which established a central bank – partly state-owned, partly private – to assist banks to pool their reserves and to take over the issue of banknotes. Over time the Reserve Bank was to become a central feature of governments' monetary policy.

Coates gave himself a degree of independence from Treasury by establishing a brains trust within his own office, consisting of R. M. Campbell, W. B. Sutch and Horace Belshaw. With their help, in 1935 the Mortgage Corporation of New Zealand was established to help farmers refinance loans at lower interest rates while spreading any risk for bonds that were issued by the corporation. With the Rural Mortgagors Final Adjustment Amendment Act 1935 further steps were taken to reduce farmers' overheads in the hope of restoring profitability to the rural sector. The government also took the power to regulate dairy marketing internally.

Conservatives were outraged at the state's encroachments into the marketplace. In October 1934 William Goodfellow of the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company employed A. E. Davy to start a new political party, the Democrat Party, in opposition to the coalition. Coates shrugged off the criticism; as ever he was impervious to ideological debate, seeking only to do what seemed likely to bring New Zealand out of its economic crisis. To this end he was obliged, also, to go quickly to London in April 1935 to forestall an attempt by the British government to withdraw from the meat quotas negotiated by each dominion at Ottawa. He succeeded in patching up an agreement that ran through until 1937.

Back home the government's popularity was low, despite clear signs of the economic recovery Coates had been working for. On 27 November 1935 the coalition went down to a humiliating defeat, Coates almost losing his Kaipara seat. The Democrats split the anti-Labour vote but won no seats. It was Michael Joseph Savage's Labour government that came to power with 53 seats, the coalition being reduced to 20. Once more Coates was out of office, his income drastically reduced, and his family without a home. He was nearly 58, seemingly fit and unbowed by many years of gruelling work.

In March 1936 a group of Coates's friends and constituents held a function in Dargaville in his honour. It was a thanksgiving occasion for his years of service, and Coates was presented with a cheque for £1,000. This enabled him to buy and modify a Public Works Department house, which he erected on the farm. At the end of 1936 his family moved north. Coates's lifestyle slowed somewhat. He and Rodney re-established their partnership, G. & R. Coates, Breeders of Stud Hereford Cattle and Stud Southdown Sheep.

Politically, Coates lowered his profile, although there remained journalists and political supporters who believed him the best-qualified person to lead the New Zealand National Party, which was established by a merger of Reform and United in May 1936. Certainly Coates was much in demand as a speaker, and was the shrewdest parliamentary critic of the government. Within the National Party caucus, however, there were new faces, many of them anxious to break with the political past.

The worsening international scene and the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 led Coates to offer his assistance to the government. He was drawn into the confidence of ministers, and Peter Fraser, who succeeded Savage as prime minister on the latter's death in March 1940, formed a close personal friendship with him. By May 1940 the National Party was urging the formation of a national government. Fraser would not agree. Instead, he asked Coates to join a war cabinet consisting of three government ministers and two from the opposition – Coates and Adam Hamilton. On 16 July Coates was sworn in as a member of the Executive Council. Fraser, realising that Coates had an appetite for hard work and was loyal, commissioned him to look into all aspects of defence preparedness, and the two were in daily contact. Coates travelled the country urging an end to partisan politics, a view that further endeared him to Labour and distanced him from his former National colleagues, especially from the new leader, Sidney Holland.

From mid May until late July 1941 Coates was in the United States and Canada searching for war supplies to boost New Zealand's meagre stocks. In November he was in Fiji discussing the islands' state of readiness to withstand a Japanese attack that seemed increasingly likely. In February 1942, with New Zealand at war with Japan, Coates held discussions in Canberra with Australian prime minister John Curtin and his cabinet about supplies and the need to improve strategic co-operation in the south-west Pacific.

On 30 June 1942 Coates became minister of armed forces and war co-ordination in the short-lived War Administration. When it collapsed because of the withdrawal of National Party members following a controversial settlement of a miners' strike in Huntly, Coates and Hamilton accepted Fraser's invitation to continue in the War Cabinet. Coates now worked even more closely with Fraser, especially over the decision to keep the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force fighting in the Middle East. Coates was openly critical of Holland's reasons for ending the War Administration and there was now an open breach between him and the National Party. In May 1943 Coates began preparing to stand again for Parliament as an independent National candidate.

A strenuous workload meant that Coates had great difficulty getting home at weekends. Nevertheless, he regularly took the express to Auckland on a Friday evening, motoring three hours to Matakohe on the Saturday, then returning on Monday. His heart was beginning to give trouble although he never complained, and only a secretary knew that he had consulted a heart specialist. A lifetime of heavy smoking caught up with him on the afternoon of 27 May 1943 when he collapsed and died in his Wellington office. It was his Labour colleagues and constituents, more than those in his own party, who mourned his passing. He was survived by his wife and daughters.

Assessments of Coates after his death were universally generous. Fraser called him 'a statesman of the front rank' who on the battlefield and elsewhere 'proved himself to be of the truest steel – a trusted counsellor, a true friend and comrade, an intrepid leader'. Newspapers referred to his arresting physique and prodigious energy. Others called his work with roading and electricity generation his enduring monument. Yet it was his courageous approach to the depression, when all about him seemed to have given up hope, that made him a transitional figure between the Liberals of the Seddon–Ward era and the more active state that became a feature of New Zealand governments after 1935.

How to cite this page:

Michael Bassett. 'Coates, Joseph Gordon', first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 3, 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3c24/coates-joseph-gordon (accessed 21 July 2017)