Michael Savage was born on 23 March 1872 at Tatong, near Benalla in Victoria, Australia, the youngest of eight children of Irish immigrants Richard Savage and his wife, Johanna Hayes. Michael's mother died in 1878 when he was only five, and he was raised thereafter largely by his sister Rose. Brought up in the Roman Catholic religion, Savage for much of his life was a militant rationalist but returned to the Catholic church a few years before his death.
After attending for five years the tiny state school at Rothesay, where his father owned a small farm, Savage worked in a Benalla wine and spirits shop from 1886 to 1893. During that time he also attended night classes at Benalla College. He was spirited, knowledgeable and kindly, and fond of dancing and sport. A short but very strong man, Savage became well-known as a boxer and weightlifter. He was secretary of the Benalla fire brigade and a member of its champion competition teams, and treasurer of the fund-raising committee for the local hospital and asylum.
In 1891 Savage was shattered by the deaths of his sister Rose, in childbirth, and his closest brother Joe; he adopted his brother's name, and from then on was known as Michael Joseph Savage. When, during the drastic depression, he lost his job in 1893, Savage walked to the Riverina district of New South Wales. There he found work for seven years as a labourer and irrigation ditch-digger on the huge North Yanco station near Narrandera. While at North Yanco, Savage became a member of the General Labourers' Union. He also became familiar with the radical political theories of the Americans Henry George and Edward Bellamy, who were to remain an influence on him throughout his life.
In 1900 Savage moved to North Prentice, near Rutherglen, Victoria, becoming a goldminer, stationary-engine driver and foundation manager of a co-operative bakery. Influenced by the British socialist evangelist Tom Mann, Savage became active not only in the local miners' union but also in the Political Labor Council of Victoria. Although chosen as the PLC's candidate in the state electorate of Wangaratta and Rutherglen in 1907, Savage was forced to withdraw when his party decided it could not fund his deposit and campaign costs. He continued to be active at both the local and state levels of the PLC and became a close friend of two other PLC members, Paddy Webb and Harry Scott Bennett, with whom he was later to be closely associated in New Zealand. The closure of the Rutherglen mines and the creation and break-away of the Socialist Federation of Australasia from the PLC unsettled Savage, and in response to a suggestion from Webb, who was already in New Zealand, he emigrated, arriving in Wellington on the Manuka on Labour Day, 9 October 1907.
Although he had intended to join Webb at the Denniston coalmine on the West Coast, Savage decided instead to move north. After working for six months cutting flax in the Manawatu swamp and visiting Waihi, he arrived in Auckland in 1908. There he found board with Alf and Elizabeth French and their children Aruba and Bob. Savage, who never married, was to live with them until his death. Within a short time he secured employment as a cellarman at the Captain Cook Brewery in Newmarket. He impressed workmates as quiet and studious, and spent much of his money on radical literature.
Savage was soon involved in unionism as president of the Auckland Brewers', Wine and Spirit Merchants' and Aerated-water Employees' Union. In 1910 he was elected president of the Auckland Trades and Labour Council. Savage, who from 1908 had been secretary of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party, opposed the formation of the first New Zealand Labour Party in 1910 because it refused to include socialist objectives in its platform. He resigned as president of the Auckland Trades and Labour Council in 1911 and became instead Auckland branch chairman of a rival and more radical new trade union organisation, the New Zealand Federation of Labour, commonly known as the 'Red Fed'. Savage and other leading Auckland socialists such as Scott Bennett, Tom Barker, Tom Bloodworth and Peter Fraser organised educational, social and propaganda meetings almost every night of the week and also distributed the Red Fed newspaper, the Maoriland Worker.
At the 1911 parliamentary elections, Savage stood as Socialist Party candidate for Auckland Central, coming second of four candidates and polling 1,800 votes to the 4,061 of the successful Liberal. The endorsements he received from moderate union leaders showed his ability to inspire confidence in others. In February 1912 he resigned as secretary of the Socialist Party's Auckland branch, intending to return to Australia; instead, he became caught up in the Auckland labourers' strike. Later in the year he was prominent in organising support for striking miners at Waihi. Savage was among the leaders of the July 1913 Unity Congress that attempted to bring together all the union and socialist factions in a new Social Democratic Party, for which he became the Auckland organiser. Within a short time he was embroiled in the 1913 waterfront dispute, which escalated into a bitter general strike and the defeat of the unions. In 1914 Savage again stood unsuccessfully for Auckland Central, this time as an SDP candidate.
Immediately after the 1914 elections Savage commenced organising the Auckland political labour movement, and in January 1915 an Auckland Labour Representation Committee was formed with Savage as its secretary. It ran nine candidates at the 1915 local body elections, only one of whom, Dr Florence Keller (who topped the hospital board poll), was successful.
During this time Savage became involved with the WEA and was particularly influenced by the monetary reform views of Irving Fisher, professor of political economy at Yale University. The writings of Fisher reinforced Savage's belief, derived from his earlier reading of Henry George, Edward Bellamy and Karl Marx, that gross under-consumption, economic deprivation and social misery existed in the midst of plenty because the means of distribution and exchange were unsatisfactory. The state alone should have the right to issue money and regulate its value and to control credit through a government-directed banking system.
Savage lent his voice to the anti-conscription cause during the First World War, arguing at public meetings that conscription of wealth should precede conscription of men. He also continued to advocate direct industrial bargaining, the formation of one big universal union, and public ownership and control of industry. He supported the formation of a united New Zealand Labour Party in July 1916, becoming its national vice president in 1918 and its first permanent national secretary in 1919.
At the 1919 local body elections Savage was elected as a Labour candidate to both the Auckland City Council and the Auckland Hospital and Charitable Aid Board. Although he served as a councillor only until 1923, he was to be a member of the hospital board from 1919 to 1922 and again from 1927 to 1935. Later in 1919 he stood for Parliament for the third time, winning the Auckland West seat with a majority of 533 and becoming, at the age of 47, one of eight Labour members of Parliament.
From 1920 Savage often chaired meetings of the Labour caucus even when its leader, Harry Holland, was present. His deputy-leadership was formalised after the 1922 election when he defeated Dan Sullivan 11–6 for the position. Although he had resigned as national secretary and Auckland Labour Representation Committee secretary in July 1920, Savage still assumed a heavy workload. From 1922 he set out to expand Labour's support beyond unionists, travelling frequently to rural areas. In an attempt to strengthen the party's organisation in Auckland and overcome factional infighting in the Auckland LRC, he became its representative on the national executive in 1926 and joined its own executive in 1927. In September 1926 he attended the Empire Parliamentary Association Conference in Australia and spent the next two months travelling there.
Until Walter Nash entered Parliament in 1929, Savage and James McCombs were Labour's principal finance spokesmen. Savage became a major advocate for increased pensions and the establishment of a completely free health service, declaring that all people as a right of citizenship were entitled to 'a reasonable standard of living in the days when they are unable to look after themselves, whether it be because of old age or physical infirmity'. He was also largely responsible for the Family Allowances Act 1926, which the Reform government freely admitted it had modelled on three earlier bills moved by Savage.
Savage was increasingly showing himself to be more of a practical politician than Holland. In 1927 he and his allies persuaded the party to recognise the right of freehold in its land policy; this was essential to gaining rural support. After the 1928 election Labour held the balance of power in Parliament, and by 1930 Savage was urging that the party should be more active in attacking the United government. Holland died in October 1933 and Savage succeeded him as leader.
The onset of the economic depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s and the deprivation and suffering that many people, especially the unemployed and the elderly, experienced put tremendous pressures on members of Parliament. Savage was distressed by the hardship he encountered, and in 1931 was admitted to Auckland Hospital with mysterious abdominal pains; they were to recur throughout the 1930s. From 1933 he traversed New Zealand repeatedly with an intensity and evangelical fervour previously unknown in New Zealand politics. In the months leading up to the 1935 election Savage came to personify the Labour Party's commonsense humanitarian approach. He spoke with sincerity, eloquence and power, convincing many voters that he and his colleagues not only understood their problems but could be trusted to solve them. Savage refused to indulge in recrimination and divisive politics but sought to unite as many people as possible behind a common dream of a better and fairer society. With the addition of two Ratana MPs elected in Maori seats, Labour came to power at the 1935 election with 55 of the 80 seats in Parliament.
The incoming government immediately paid a Christmas bonus to the unemployed and charitable aid recipients and approved seven days' annual holiday for relief workers. In 1936 there was a landslide of legislation, much of which, by increasing community purchasing power, stimulated the economy, thereby creating jobs and, in turn, further demand. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand was made a state-controlled central bank and union membership became compulsory. A programme of state house construction was started, commercial broadcasting was nationalised, guaranteed prices were paid for dairy produce, and the political alliance between Labour and the Ratana movement was cemented by ending some discrimination against Maori and by giving increased attention to Maori employment, education, health and land settlement.
In 1937 Savage sailed to Britain to attend the coronation of King George VI and the Imperial Conference. He had earlier questioned the need for Edward VIII's abdication. At the conference Savage distinguished himself from his fellow prime ministers by criticising Britain for weakening the League of Nations, damaging the concept of collective security, and failing to adequately consult the dominions on matters of foreign policy and defence. He referred particularly to Britain's appeasement of Japan over its invasion of Manchuria, of Italy over the conquest of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and of Germany over that country's rearmament. He dismissed a British report on economics and foreign policy prepared for the conference as 'bunkum from end to end'. The British, the Australians, the Canadians and the New Zealand National Party all criticised Savage's remarks.
Savage was unimpressed, and at further meetings challenged Britain's commitment to the defence of Australia and New Zealand and the viability of Britain's Singapore base and Pacific fleet in the event of a Japanese attack in the Pacific. He also suggested that New Zealand might need to foster secondary industry or find a market other than Britain for its primary products. Subsequently, New Zealand was to distance itself from Britain at the League of Nations, opposing Britain's further appeasement of Franco in Spain and its unwillingness to allow the League to take a firm stand against Japan's invasion of China. In 1938 Savage publicly criticised Britain's acceptance of Hitler's annexation of part of Czechoslovakia; this led to his being condemned by leading New Zealand newspapers such as the New Zealand Herald and Dominion for 'this embarrassing and deplorable display of Empire disunity'.
In April 1938 Savage outlined the government's social security proposals. Responding to a suggestion from the Reverend W. H. A. Vickery, mayor of Kaiapoi, he started to use the term 'applied Christianity' to describe the government's scheme, now before Parliament. The Social Security Bill provided for a universal free health system covering general practitioners, public and mental hospitals, and maternity care; a means-tested old-age pension of 30 shillings a week for men and women at age 60; and a universal superannuation payment at age 65.
A week after the Social Security Bill was introduced to Parliament on 12 August 1938, Savage collapsed in Auckland. The diagnosis was cancer of the colon necessitating immediate surgery. Any delay, Savage was informed, could be fatal. Although he realised his medical advisers were probably correct, Savage was reluctant to be incapacitated over the next two months during which the Social Security Bill had to be enacted and a critical election fought against a revitalised opposition. A change of leadership would be very destabilising for Labour. The threat of war in Europe was a further concern, as was the erosion of New Zealand's overseas reserve funds. Savage decided to delay the operation until after the election and in the view of one of his confidants, the Anglican bishop of Wellington, 'thereby signed his own death warrant'.
The social security scheme was a team effort and other MPs and public servants had more to do with the detailed negotiations and drafting of the legislation than Savage. But Savage himself decided on the basic scheme, kept pushing his colleagues, helped resolve deep divisions of opinion within caucus over principles and detail, made many of the major public pronouncements and guarantees, and cut ruthlessly through the opposition from the Treasury, the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association, and the National Party. It was also Savage who insisted that the act contain a provision that it would not come into force until 1 April 1939, thereby giving National the opportunity to revoke it if they won the election. Savage thus set the agenda for the election, virtually guaranteeing a Labour victory.
Savage's 1938 speeches to crowds of up to 30,000 were among the most moving and inspiring ever made in a New Zealand election campaign. Labour's share of the votes rose from 46 to 56 percent. Immediately after the election, at the first Labour caucus on 3 November, John A. Lee, who had increasingly opposed Savage since having been excluded from the first Labour cabinet, moved that caucus elect a new cabinet rather than endorse either the existing one or one nominated by Savage. After a bitter debate caucus narrowly passed Lee's motion. Savage refused to accept the decision until it had been endorsed by the party's national executive and annual conference. Lee, who realised that Savage was dying and that he also had to be in cabinet in order to have a hope of defeating Peter Fraser for the leadership, now started a vicious and sustained personal campaign against Savage.
The prime minister was ailing but continued to play a decisive role in government. He intervened personally in negotiations over a free health system, issuing an ultimatum to the doctors and breaking their resistance, which a more cautious Peter Fraser, minister of health, had been unable to overcome. He took over as acting minister of finance when Nash went to England in May 1939 to raise overseas loans and was furious at the humiliating terms Nash was forced to accept. But the day after reading the budget on 1 August, Savage collapsed and on 4 August had the operation he had postponed almost a year before. A week after he returned home from hospital, New Zealand, on 3 September, declared war on Germany.
Savage reluctantly spearheaded, particularly through broadcast 'fireside chats', an effective campaign to recruit volunteers for the armed forces. He refused to countenance a jingoistic or militaristic appeal and ruled out conscription in the early stages. He warned that if conscription of 'human flesh and blood' did become necessary, then it would follow the conscription of wealth so that soldiers and their families were adequately cared for and their children not saddled with a burden of war debt.
During Savage's illness, Lee increased the pressure not only on the prime minister but also on Fraser and Nash. Worried that Lee might be on the verge of organising a majority in caucus, Savage determined to destroy the colleague whom he may have seen as a potential threat to New Zealand's democracy. Lee gave Savage his opportunity by publishing in the left-wing journal Tomorrow an article entitled 'Psychopathology in politics'; although it did not name Savage directly, it implied unmistakably that Savage's physical condition had destroyed him mentally. Although Lee's supporters worked hard to build up support at the Labour Party conference which opened in Wellington on 25 March 1940, the majority of the delegates, led by Fraser and a phalanx of ruthless trade union leaders, were implacably opposed to Lee.
The emotions of the majority were raised to fever pitch when Fraser read a surprise addendum to Savage's report to conference. In it Savage told the delegates that for 'about two years my life has been a living hell' because Lee had disloyally and in defiance of earlier conference decisions attacked him 'through the public press with all the venom and lying innuendo of the political sewer'. He claimed that Lee had attempted 'largely during my illness, to destroy me as a political force'. Lee was expelled from the Labour Party by 546 votes to 344, and a little more than 24 hours later, early on 27 March 1940, Savage died at his home in Wellington. It was four days after his 68th birthday. Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders paid their respects in Wellington and Auckland and at 20 stops along the main trunk railway line as the body was transported to its final resting place at Auckland's Bastion Point, overlooking the Waitemata Harbour. Above the grave was erected the Savage Memorial.
Undoubtedly the most loved of all New Zealand's prime ministers, Savage personified the social security system created by the government he led. His kindly and genial personality, and his skills as an orator, were largely responsible for ensuring the policy's acceptance. But Savage was more than just a great communicator. He was also the architect of the first Labour government's achievements just as he had been one of the chief organisers of its rise to power. He died at the height of his popularity; for decades afterwards, his photograph hung on the wall of thousands of New Zealand homes. He had helped set the social pattern of New Zealand for two generations, and had become its icon.