George William Forbes was born in Lyttelton, New Zealand, on 12 March 1869, the son of Annie Adamson and her husband, Robert Forbes, a sailmaker. After attending Lyttelton School and Christchurch Boys' High School (1882–83), he worked for a Christchurch merchant and then in his father's store. In his spare time he read widely on British political history and joined a Christchurch debating society. His youthful interest in politics was first aroused by hearing Sir George Grey speak in Christchurch; he was also impressed by George Laurenson, who later became left-wing Liberal member of the House of Representatives for Lyttelton. Forbes was a good athlete, rower and footballer; as halfback he captained the Canterbury rugby team in 1892.
In November 1893 Forbes drew a 226-acre section in the first Cheviot estate ballot, and a small grazing run of 1,377 acres in the third. Family help and the advice of neighbours enabled him to become established. He was a foundation member of the Cheviot County Council, and prominent both in the Cheviot Settlers' Association and in the campaign for a railway extension to Cheviot. On 12 December 1898 Forbes married Emma Serena Gee at Cheviot.
In spite of Premier Richard Seddon's warning to bide his time, Forbes stood unsuccessfully for Hurunui in 1902 as an independent Liberal. As a Cheviot settler and champion of state leaseholding, he was appointed to the 1905 royal commission on Crown lands, thus gaining a wider reputation. In 1908 he was elected for Hurunui as a Liberal candidate. His enduring local popularity enabled him to hold the seat continuously until 1943.
As a party back-bencher Forbes was the embodiment of the Liberal tradition of the 1890s: he had made the transition from town to country by way of state leasehold. However, by 1912 he found himself to be one of a diminished band of rural Liberals who opposed the freehold policy of W. F. Massey, leader of the Reform Party. When the Mackenzie ministry was formed in March, Forbes became a Liberal whip, holding office until 1922.
In post-war politics the Liberal party faced encroachment from both left and right. In 1922 Forbes supported a change of name back to Liberal–Labour, but by 1925 the party leader, T. M. Wilford, thought that fusion with Reform seemed inescapable. After Massey died in May Wilford presented a plan for immediate union in a National party. Forbes led the Liberal party's delegation to a joint conference, but J. G. Coates, the new Reform prime minister, quashed the proposal. Shortly before resigning, Wilford announced that his side would take the name National, and on 13 August 1925 Forbes was elected leader of the party. Even in his home province there was surprise: 'The people of Canterbury…have seen him play magnificent football. But they have not begun to think of him yet as a political leader'.
The general election of 1925 did not advance Forbes's prospects. He ran only a limited South Island campaign, while W. A. Veitch covered part of the North Island. National secured only 11 seats to Reform's 55, and in 1926 Forbes lost his status as leader of the opposition to H. E. Holland, leader of the New Zealand Labour Party.
Then, in a series of spectacular, even bizarre, developments, Forbes was transmuted from leader of a party in decline to head of a nation in crisis. In June 1927, Veitch, with a measure of Forbes's approval, sought a Liberal–Labour revival, and linked up with A. E. Davy. Davy had masterminded Coates's campaign in 1925, but had since fallen out with him. Forbes remained as parliamentary leader, but Sir Joseph Ward, after being persuaded by Davy to offer himself as party chief at the United Party conference in September 1928, gained the leadership. Two deputy leaders, Forbes (South Island) and E. A. Ransom (North Island), were appointed.
The United Party won more seats than either Reform or Labour in the general election of October 1928; Ward became prime minister with reluctant Labour support and Forbes minister of lands and agriculture. However, by September 1929 Ward was seriously ill; he could not lead, but would not hand over the leadership. It was an impossible position for Forbes, who presided informally over cabinet while the pretence was kept up that Ward would soon return. At last, on 14 May 1930, Ward resigned. The United caucus elected Forbes leader in preference to Ransom, and he was sworn in as prime minister on 28 May. He retained all but one of his old colleagues, and added three new members. One of them was his friend and mentor, Robert Masters, MLC. The two men went for daily walks, and Forbes was mockingly dubbed 'His Master's Voice'.
By this stage depression gripped New Zealand. As minister of finance Forbes introduced orthodox deflationary measures, but in 1931 faced a heavy deficit. He appeared to be simply marking time, waiting for something to turn up. In exasperation, W. Downie Stewart privately described him in June as 'apathetic and fatalistic' but acknowledged that he had to do 'a rotten job'.
In 1930 Forbes left for the Imperial Conference. In his absence the Unemployment Act, which promised relief payments, was passed. However, on his return in January he announced that there would be no pay without work under the act, thus alienating Labour. The final break with Labour came over his Finance Bill of 1931, which proposed 10 per cent wage cuts and virtually gave the Court of Arbitration power to lower award rates. The ministry was now kept in power by Reform support, given with reluctance. Nevertheless, the prime minister gained considerable support in business and farming circles as 'Honest George', the blunt announcer of unpalatable truths. The next three years harshly tarnished this public image of courageous integrity into one of short-sighted stubbornness.
Coalition government was now being widely demanded and an inter-party conference was held from August to September 1931 to draw up an agreed economic policy. After some weeks, Forbes brusquely told the conference that he was not prepared to commit political suicide by introducing the even more drastic measures he considered necessary. He demanded a coalition government to share responsibility. Labour withdrew, accusing Forbes of concealing his hand and wasting the conference's efforts. However, J. G. Coates, leader of the Reform Party, could no longer resist Forbes's call, which was supported by Stewart.
The coalition government was formed on 22 September 1931. In the tense negotiations Forbes greatly relied on Masters, to the annoyance of his colleagues. He even retained the leadership, which he had previously been prepared to give up. Many Reformers accepted Forbes to keep Coates out, but the latter drove a hard bargain and Forbes lost nine of his colleagues and most of the chief portfolios. Stewart, as minister of finance, controlled policy along orthodox lines, enjoying Forbes's full support. Appeals for national solidarity found a substantial response in the general election of December 1931, and Forbes conducted a New Zealand-wide campaign. Despite needing a police escort to get away from a hostile audience in Christchurch on 23 November, he achieved his highest Hurunui vote, 6,151.
In April and May 1932 the accumulated strains of depression, wage cuts and unemployment erupted in brief urban demonstrations and riots, and resentments simmered on until 1935. Under Stewart's direction the government appeared to be locked in a deflationary stalemate. The more flexible Coates now advocated new and bolder solutions, and Forbes hovered uneasily between Stewart (whose policy he preferred) and Coates (who had widespread farmer support). The raising of the exchange rate primarily for the benefit of farmers became a crucial cabinet issue, and in January 1933 Coates got his way. Stewart resigned and Forbes parted with him reluctantly.
As minister of finance Coates now became de facto head of government and Forbes presided in his shadow. In September 1935 Stewart complained that 'the Prime Minister is too passive and the Minister of Finance is too active'. This was a common perception. Forbes was overseas for long periods: in 1933, at the international Monetary and Economic Conference, and in 1935 at the Dominion Prime Ministers' meeting during the silver jubilee celebration of George V. By 1935 the worst of the depression was over, and the coalition might have expected some credit for the improvement. Yet six years of depression had left unhealed wounds in the electorate. Forbes and Coates could not rid themselves of their image as joint architects of social disaster.
At the delayed election in November 1935 the disarray of conservative forces and the long frustrations endured by wage-earners and unemployed reduced Forbes's followers to 19. For the first time he was elected on a minority vote. Though 'weary' and 'fed up', Forbes was elected leader of the opposition and the New Zealand National Party (formed in May 1936) primarily as a stop-gap. To Stewart he wrote: 'I have enjoyed the time since the election, the relief from pressure was very welcome, you were right when you said "Slavery that is miscalled power" is the correct description of office.' He resigned from the leadership at the end of the 1936 session but retained his seat. Forbes did not stand for Parliament in 1943. He died at Crystal Brook, his Cheviot farm, on 17 May 1947, survived by his wife, Emma, two daughters and a son.
Political commentators have expressed astonishment and sometimes derision at Forbes's rise to power. His stolid, slow-moving figure was not fitted for the centre of the political stage but he had power thrust upon him. He had some of the qualities for high office, including his 'rare debating skill' and an impressive memory for marshalling his arguments. Capable of summing up a situation quickly and effectively, he could often gauge the feeling of the House in difficult situations. Once he had made a decision he stuck to it and remained imperturbable under attack. Friendly, courteous and possessing a good sense of humour, he enjoyed the liking and respect of colleagues – and most opponents – until he was submerged in depression policies.
Forbes was neither as good as he was sometimes painted in 1931, nor as bad as he was made out to be in 1935. Many of the policies over which he presided were unwise and unpopular and his chief political role was in defence. As party halfback behind a beaten pack, he was thoroughly hardened to going down on the ball in the face of dangerous rushes. Averting defeat was his main aim as leader; outright victory was beyond his powers and his expectations. Forbes regarded the British market as basic to the New Zealand economy, and British depression policies as a model for his government. Considering it his duty to follow the example of the conservative British establishment, the old Liberal of Lyttelton and Cheviot struck down the twin pillars of Liberalism: graduated land tax (in October 1931) and compulsory arbitration (in April 1932). D. G. Sullivan thought he should be 'haunted by the ghosts of the great men of that old Liberal Party – John Ballance, Richard John Seddon, Sir John McKenzie and the others'. Forbes retorted that the current crisis lay beyond the precedents of the 1890s. George Forbes was an amiable man but his lack of initiative and his intractability made him unsuited to the office of prime minister, especially at a time of national crisis.