Page 1: Biography
Arthur, Basil Malcolm
Labourer, trade unionist, politician, parliamentary Speaker
This biography, written by John Henderson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Basil Malcolm Arthur was born in Timaru on 18 September 1928, the son of George Malcolm Arthur and his wife, Doris Fay Wooding. George was a foreman printer at the Timaru Herald and later a hotel proprietor. In 1946 he succeeded to a baronetcy that Queen Victoria had granted to his great-great-grandfather in 1841.
Basil Arthur attended Waimataitai School and Timaru Boys’ High School (1942–44). At 15 he took a job on a fishing trawler off the Otago coast and was then employed as a freezing worker. In 1947, aged 18, he enlisted in the army and served as a driver for a year with the occupation force in Japan. He was described at the time as being six feet tall and weighing 15 stone.
On 5 January 1950, in Auckland, Arthur married Elizabeth Rita Wells. He was working as a hotel manager, but before long became a clerk for the Ministry of Works in Mangakino. However, preferring hard physical activity to office work, he resigned after three years and worked at various labouring jobs. In 1949, on the death of his father, he had inherited the baronetcy, but a title fitted uneasily with the lifestyle of a working man and he was reluctant to use it. Not until the mid 1950s, when he was working as a concrete layer, was it generally known that he was a baronet.
By then Arthur was involved in politics. He had joined the New Zealand Labour Party at 16 and delivered its pamphlets during the 1946 election campaign. When working in a sawmill, he became secretary of the Waikato section of the New Zealand Workers’ Union. He was elected to the national executive of the union in 1956, and for three years served as president of the Auckland branch.
In 1957 Arthur unsuccessfully contested the Labour nomination for the Waitomo electorate. Three years later, in 1960, he gained the Hamilton nomination, but failed to win the seat. He spent much of 1961 in the United Kingdom on an Imperial Relations Trust Bursary, studying trade union affairs and the fishing industry. On his return, he stood at the 1962 Waitaki by-election. Although unsuccessful, he radically cut the New Zealand National Party’s majority. A few months later the Timaru seat became vacant following the resignation of the Labour MP Clyde Carr, who had held the seat for over 33 years. Arthur won the election for Labour and bettered Carr’s majority.
On entering Parliament he was, at 33, the country’s youngest MP. After his election, the Speaker, Ronald Algie, ruled that Arthur’s title should be observed in Parliament. Sir Basil reluctantly accepted the ruling. As a parliamentarian he gained a reputation as a fierce debater and a defender of his electorate’s interests. In the House he tended to specialise in rural and transport issues, and was for several years Labour’s spokesperson in these areas.
Arthur’s politics were generally moderate and he sometimes expressed a non-partisan point of view. He sought to move Labour beyond its trade union roots and in 1982 was to suggest the party change its name to the New Zealand Party or the New Zealand Action Party. He argued that Labour represented people from all walks of life, and only received a small proportion of its funding from the unions.
When Norman Kirk led Labour to victory in 1972 Arthur became minister of transport and minister in charge of state insurance. He later considered his greatest contribution in the former role was the establishment of the Shipping Corporation of New Zealand. As minister of state insurance he took pride in achieving a 50 per cent rebate on premiums for means-tested beneficiaries.
Labour was in opposition from 1975, and when it became the government in 1984 Arthur was one of the party’s relatively few MPs with cabinet experience. Although he could have expected to be a minister, he was offered the position of Speaker. His poor health and David Lange’s accession to leadership had not helped his career. In 1981, under Bill Rowling’s leadership, he had been ranked fourth in Labour’s parliamentary line-up, but the new generation of Labour MPs who had promoted Lange tended to regard Arthur as belonging to the old school of the party’s politicians. In a 1983 reshuffle he lost the important role of agricultural spokesperson.
During his short, eight-month term as Speaker, Arthur was regarded as colourful and unorthodox, but fair. He preferred to rely on the spirit rather than the letter of Parliament’s standing orders. Even the leader of the opposition, Robert Muldoon, gave him credit for his ‘innate common sense’. Arthur’s control over members was exercised through his booming voice – referred to by the junior government whip, Fran Wilde, as ‘Basil’s bellow’.
Basil and Elizabeth Arthur were divorced in May 1983, and on 1 July that year, in Wellington, he married Sandra Colleen Kennett (née Boaz), a secretary. Basil Arthur died in Wellington on 1 May 1985, survived by his wife, three children of his first marriage and three adopted children. The extent of his personal support in the Timaru electorate was evident when Labour lost the seat to the National candidate at the by-election following his death.
In his younger days Arthur was a keen sportsman, playing representative rugby, badminton and hockey. In later years he enjoyed working on his rural property, Green Gables, near Temuka, where he helped develop the Coopworth sheep breed and maintained a small apple orchard. He was a community-spirited, energetic and practical man who had, as David Lange observed, ‘the quality of basic earthiness’.