John Kenneth McAlpine was born in Christchurch on 26 July 1906. He was the eldest son of Walter Kenneth McAlpine, a sheepfarmer, and his wife, Gwendolen Marion Wall. Educated at Christ’s College, he went straight from school to work as a shepherd on his father’s high country station at Craigieburn in the upper Waimakariri valley. He became station manager in 1929. Later, he also farmed at Spye, North Canterbury. On 13 February 1935 at Christchurch, McAlpine married Lesley Ruth Hay; they were to have three children.
McAlpine’s entry into politics was largely influenced by the death of his two brothers in the Second World War. A man with a strong sense of duty, he keenly felt his own military exemption, and decided to embark on a full-time career of public service as a way of attempting to repay some of his debt to his brothers. Already, at the age of 21 in 1927, he had joined the Canterbury Progress League – a pointer to his widening provincial interests – and in 1929 he had been elected to the Tawera County Council (and would remain a member until 1963). His introduction to politics at the provincial level was as member (1937–54) of the Lyttelton Harbour Board, serving as chairman from 1943 to 1945.
McAlpine was selected as New Zealand National Party candidate for the revived Selwyn electorate in 1946. He held straightforward conservative views on farming interests, and was a strong supporter of irrigation in Canterbury. His experience in the Sheffield branch of the North Canterbury district of Federated Farmers of New Zealand, of which he was president in 1946, fitted him for the role of farmers’ advocate. He was elected with a majority of 472; his last majority (1963) was 3,371. McAlpine was the chief political champion of the Christchurch International Airport (1950), which was in his electorate and set new standards.
As a backbencher, McAlpine showed the loyalty that was part of his character and which marked his political career at all stages. He was deeply committed to party policy and organisation, and demonstrated this commitment by working on the Lyttelton wharves during the 1951 waterfront dispute, despite threats to himself and his family. In 1954 he achieved cabinet rank under S. G. Holland as minister of railways and marine. McAlpine was a strong critic of current railway practices in employment and organisation, and tackled problems firmly despite union opposition. In 1956 he also became a reluctant minister of labour.
After a period in opposition (1957–60), McAlpine regained ministerial rank under K. J. Holyoake. As minister of transport (1960–66) he made his greatest contribution to New Zealand politics. He had widened his outlook from local, provincial and South Island perspectives to a pragmatic appraisal of national needs in communication and export facilities. His two watchwords were ‘efficiency’ and ‘modernisation’. Uneconomic branch lines were closed; road transport gained at the expense of rail; the replacement of steam by diesel–electric proceeded apace; new railway technology and better rolling stock improved capacity. The climax of McAlpine’s parliamentary career was the Transport Act 1962, a landmark measure controlling all aspects of road traffic, into which he put a tremendous amount of preparation. Yet his chief role was as administrator in a time of rapid development.
In 1966 McAlpine announced his decision to retire from politics in order to devote time to his other interests, including higher education. He was then 60, ranked fourth in the cabinet, and had been selected again as National candidate for Selwyn, which he had represented continuously for 20 years. He had been a member of the Canterbury University College Council (1950–59), and of the Canterbury Agricultural College (later Lincoln College) Council since 1954. He was Lincoln’s chairman (1968–74), and played an active role in the college’s rapid expansion. McAlpine looked for research which would benefit practical farmers, and was not impressed by theoretical studies.
In 1969 McAlpine was appointed first chairman of the New Zealand Ports Authority. This body had the task of allocating funds and functions between the country’s ports while containerisation was revolutionising sea trade. McAlpine visited a number of overseas container ports. With his political expertise he was well fitted to supervise urgent maritime changes in New Zealand. He resigned in 1977. His last years of public life were largely given to the promotion of tourism through the South Island Promotion Association, of which he was president.
Somewhat stiff and formal in manner, John McAlpine was a determined and effective minister despite lacking the ambition and talents for the highest political office. A solid party debater, he possessed great powers of concentration and was noted for the careful preparation of the cases he presented. His wide experience in many fields of public service and his open mind concerning technical change helped him to develop, within his political parameters, a sound judgement on both national issues and technical advice. His services to politics and public life were recognised in his appointment as a CMG (1970) and KCMG (1977). He died in Christchurch on 11 January 1984, survived by his wife and two daughters.