William Edward Barnard was born in Carterton, Wairarapa, on 29 January 1886, the son of Ellen Banks and her husband, Charles Leonard Barnard, a watchmaker. He attended Levin School and at 13 began work as an office boy for a local lawyer. He later studied law at Wellington’s Victoria College and started practising as a solicitor in 1908. After about a year in Foxton he moved to Te Aroha, becoming a founding member of the Hamilton District Law Society in 1912. He also made his first mark in politics, serving on the Te Aroha Borough Council from 1911 to 1913.
In 1915 Barnard travelled to Britain and enlisted for military service. He served as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, mostly in Egypt, from February 1916 to March 1918, then as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery in Palestine. Returning to New Zealand in August 1919, he settled in Helensville and established a successful legal practice. On 26 October 1921, at Takapuna, he married Elfreda Helen Eames.
In these years Bill Barnard became increasingly attracted to radical politics. In Auckland in 1920 he met a young New Zealand Labour Party activist and fellow returned soldier, John A. Lee; they were to be close friends and political comrades for more than 20 years. Barnard joined the Labour Party in 1923 and helped establish a branch at Helensville, serving as its secretary for the next five years. From 1924 to 1928 he was president of both the Kaipara Labour Representation Committee and the Kaipara Chamber of Commerce; he was admitted as a barrister in 1925.
Barnard's rise to prominence in the Labour Party began with his election to the national executive in 1924. He contested the Kaipara seat the following year, but made little impression against Prime Minister Gordon Coates. Intelligent, thorough and well read, he played a significant role in the redesign of the party's troublesome land policy in the late 1920s, and served on the national executive until 1934. In 1928 he stood for the marginal seat of Napier. He attacked the government over land settlement, taxation and rising unemployment, and defeated Reform MP John Mason by 418 votes.
As the depression deepened Barnard won praise for his efforts to place local unemployed in public works schemes; he also criticised the Napier Borough Council for its failure to do more. However, he soon faced a greater challenge when his electorate was devastated by an earthquake on 3 February 1931. The following day Barnard became vice president of the Napier Citizens’ Control Committee, set up to co-ordinate rescue and relief efforts. He was also a member of the government’s Central Earthquake Relief Committee and lobbied tirelessly to secure adequate funding to reconstruct the town. He was comfortably returned at that year's election and in 1935 his majority soared to over 4,000.
A quiet, courteous man 'of rather slight build, with a keen, thin face’ and thick, dark hair, Bill Barnard was a devout Anglican and Christian socialist. Like many Labour MPs, including Lee, Frank Langstone, Jim O'Brien and Rex Mason, he was influenced by the social credit ideas of Major C. H. Douglas. In 1934 he even suggested (unsuccessfully) that the party should formally welcome Douglas on his visit to New Zealand.
After Labour’s victory in 1935 Barnard was widely tipped for cabinet rank. Prime Minister M. J. Savage initially favoured him for the justice portfolio, before preferring the longer-serving Mason. A somewhat disappointed Barnard was chosen as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and was duly elected in March 1936. Although he was a staunch guardian of tradition, Barnard adopted a more relaxed style than his predecessors and broke with convention by taking part in debates during the committee stage.
In 1939–40 the government was increasingly troubled by internal strife. One of the most articulate leaders of the credit reform faction in caucus, Barnard clashed with the prime minister on several occasions. He also took a keen interest in defence policy, highlighting New Zealand’s unpreparedness for war and urging the appointment of an ex-serviceman to a cabinet that had no military experience. Although he expressed concern at Lee's increasingly vicious attacks on the ailing Savage, Barnard was dismayed at his friend’s expulsion from the Labour Party in March 1940, and after Peter Fraser's election as leader on 4 April, he resigned from the party.
In a public letter to Fraser, Barnard lamented the decline of democracy in caucus and the growing influence of powerful industrial chiefs; criticised Labour's economic and defence policies; and, as 'a native-born New Zealander’, condemned the government’s servility to Britain: 'Apparently Mr Chamberlain calls the tune and we are to dance to it’. The press dismissed it as a 'strange and contradictory document’. Barnard joined Lee’s new Democratic Labour Party and helped draft its platform; one of his particular concerns was to provide a Christian ethical basis for the party. Despite his defection from the government he continued to serve as Speaker, to general approval, for the next three years.
By April 1943, however, Barnard had tired of Lee's egotistical and autocratic behaviour, and after a painful meeting the old friends quietly parted ways. At that year’s general election he stood as an independent candidate in Napier, but was easily defeated by Labour’s A. E. (Tommy) Armstrong. The following year he moved to Tauranga and set up a legal practice with his son-in-law. From 1950 to 1952 he was the town’s mayor.
Outside of law and politics Bill Barnard was a keen student of international affairs, literature and religion. In July 1941 he helped establish the Society for Closer Relations with Russia, and became its first president. He also served as president of the New Zealand branch of the Institute of Pacific Relations and the New Zealand Five Million Club, an organisation formed to promote population growth. In 1948 the Chinese government appointed him to the Order of the Brilliant Star in recognition of his work as president of the New Zealand Council for the Adoption of Chinese Refugee Children. He was made a CBE in 1957.
Barnard established an impressive personal library and wrote several pamphlets on religious topics. He was a strong advocate of the ecumenical movement for worldwide Christian unity, and became one of New Zealand’s leading authorities on Buddhism, which he studied on visits to Japan and other Asian countries. Although he had little time for sport, in the 1930s he toured much of New Zealand by bicycle during his summer vacations.
Bill Barnard died in Auckland on 12 March 1958, survived by his wife and a daughter. Although chiefly remembered for his association with Lee, he was a significant figure in his own right: an active participant in the policy debates that prepared Labour for power, a popular local MP, a distinguished Speaker of the House, and a respected commentator on international and religious affairs.