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Marshall, John Ross

by Barry Gustafson


John Ross Marshall was born in Wellington on 5 March 1912, the son of Allan Marshall, a clerk, and his wife, Florence May Ross. His father was from Perthshire, and his mother’s family had also originally come from Scotland. From the age of seven John lived with his family at Whāngārei, where his father was district public trustee, and in 1928 they shifted to Dunedin. John was educated at Whāngārei High School and at Otago Boys’ High School, playing in the First XVs of both schools. In 1930 he enrolled in a law course at Victoria University College, Wellington, and shortly after became a law clerk in the firm of Luke, Cunningham and Clere. He also attended St John’s Presbyterian Church, where he was to remain an active member for the rest of his life.

Marshall completed his LLB in 1934 and LLM in 1935. He then studied part time for a BA (majoring in political science), which he finally finished in 1946. In March 1939 he took leave of absence from the city solicitor’s office, where he was working, and travelled via Australia to England. Over the following six months he toured Britain and western Europe, crossing into Nazi Germany on 2 August and leaving a week before the outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September. He returned to New Zealand via Canada and the United States, arriving home just before Christmas.

In April 1941 Marshall entered the army and after officer training was posted to Fiji with the 36th Battalion. Subsequently, he served as a company commander with the garrison on Norfolk Island before transferring in March 1943 to New Caledonia. He then spent five months in the United States at a marine staff school in Virginia. He rejoined the New Zealand Division in the Solomon Islands in November 1943 with the rank of major. On 29 July 1944, while on leave in Perth, Western Australia, Marshall married Jessie Margaret Livingston, a nurse. The couple had met briefly in Perth in March 1939 and had subsequently corresponded, becoming engaged in December 1940.

Marshall embarked with the 14th Reinforcements for the Middle East and Italy on 5 January 1945, commanding D Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Battalion, which took part in the battle of the Senio river on 13 April 1945 and the subsequent liberation of Trieste. Two other members of the battalion during that offensive were to become New Zealand National Party members of Parliament: Major Duncan MacIntyre and Corporal Robert Muldoon.

Returning to Wellington at the end of the war, Marshall set up practice as a barrister. Within a few weeks of his return a deputation approached him to seek the National Party nomination for the new electorate of Mount Victoria, which was regarded as a marginal seat. Although Marshall freely admitted that he had once been an enthusiastic Christian socialist, by 1946 he regarded himself as a convinced liberal. He won the candidacy and went on to win the seat by 911 votes.

He nearly lost his seat in Parliament after the solicitor general ruled that he should forfeit it because he had received payment from the Crown for two cases he had started before becoming an MP, but which were concluded and paid for after he had been elected. When the solicitor general refused to change his mind despite pressure from Peter Fraser, the Labour prime minister, Fraser validated the fees retrospectively in the Finance Act 1948 and Marshall remained in Parliament.

One personal pamphlet, which Marshall posted to every householder in the electorate in 1946, was a summary of what he believed in; he was to send out the same pamphlet at each of the 10 elections he contested between 1946 and his final campaign in 1972. In it he stressed his belief in a philosophy of individual liberty and enterprise and in social justice and responsibility.

Marshall’s maiden speech was a carefully crafted exposition of the political philosophy of liberalism. While stressing ‘the infinite worth of human personality and of each individual man’ it also affirmed human imperfection. Marshall warned against selfish individualism, class warfare, pressure groups, the subordination of the individual to the greater good, and laissez-faire capitalism. He argued that duties were as important as rights and that ‘personality cannot be fully realised except in a community’. He affirmed four aspects of liberty – national, political, personal and economic – spending most time on economic liberty, which he believed was the major aspect on which Parliament was divided. He argued that economic liberty and social security were not alternatives, but warned that allowing governments too much economic power to achieve security was dangerous. His goal as a politician was a prosperous and just property-owning democracy, not an unrealistic socialist utopia.

From 1946 to 1949 Marshall continued to carry on his law practice part time, and inter alia represented the associated churches before a royal commission on gaming and racing. At the 1949 election the National Party won 46 seats to Labour’s 34, thus ending 14 years of Labour government. National would be the government for 20 of the following 23 years and Marshall would be a minister for all 20, deputy prime minister for 12 and prime minister for almost a year.

Sidney Holland, who became National’s first prime minister, chose Marshall to be minister in charge of the State Advances Corporation of New Zealand and also minister assisting the prime minister. Marshall was responsible for the government’s housing policies. While continuing with the construction of state houses for rent to low-income families, he expanded the scope and limit of loans at low interest rates so that lower-income earners could buy, build or renovate their own homes. State houses were also sold to their tenants on easy terms.

When National won the snap election following the waterfront dispute in 1951, Marshall became minister of health; he also remained minister in charge of the State Advances Corporation until 1953. At the 1954 election his electorate of Mount Victoria was abolished; he was nominated for the safe seat of Karori, which he would hold until he retired from Parliament in 1975. After the 1954 election he was replaced as minister of health and became minister of justice and attorney general. In these roles he proved a firm supporter of the death penalty for murder, but also became a vice patron of the Prisoner’s Aid and Rehabilitation Society, a position he held for the rest of his life. One legacy of his tenure in these portfolios was the creation in 1957 of a separate permanent Court of Appeal.

Holland’s ill health forced his retirement as prime minister and National Party leader in August 1957; Marshall was one of the small group who suggested to Holland that the time had come for him to step down. Keith Holyoake became the new prime minister and Marshall defeated the minister of finance, Jack Watts, for the post of deputy leader. Within weeks Marshall became deputy leader of the opposition when the National government lost the 1957 election and Labour, under Walter Nash, formed the new government. Marshall resumed a part-time private legal practice to supplement his parliamentary salary. He also accepted an invitation to visit the United States on a foreign leader exchange programme, looking particularly at the American legal and political systems and meeting numerous prominent Americans.

Marshall in later years frankly admitted that the National government’s failure to act to counter the drastic fall in overseas funds during the 1957 election campaign resulted in an economic crisis for the incoming Labour government. This was partly responsible, along with the implementation of Labour’s promised tax rebate and social welfare expenditure, for the ‘Black Budget’ in 1958, which doomed the Labour government at the 1960 election. National won and Marshall became deputy prime minister, attorney general and minister of justice again, and also minister of industries and commerce, customs, overseas trade and immigration.

The secretary for industries and commerce was W. B. Sutch and one of the assistant secretaries was J. P. Lewin, both strong supporters of the outgoing Labour government and its industrialisation policies. Inevitably, Marshall found it difficult on occasions to accept their advice and eventually the State Services Commission required Sutch’s retirement after 40 years’ government service, but before he turned 60. During the 1960s Marshall played key roles in producing the New Zealand – Australia Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), freeing up 70 per cent of all imports from controls, and setting up a Tariff and Development Board and the Development Finance Corporation. He also supported the formation of New Zealand Steel and the building of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter; accelerated the diversification of New Zealand’s agricultural and industrial production, exports and markets; and organised an Export Development Conference in 1963 and a National Development Conference in 1968.

National, at Marshall’s instigation, had promised at the 1960 election to introduce voluntary unionism. However, the New Zealand Federation of Labour and the Department of Labour persuaded the government in 1962 not to implement the policy. Marshall was furious at the government’s failure to fulfil its election promise.

Much of Marshall’s time and energy during the 1960s was devoted to Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community and the effect this would have on New Zealand’s economy. By early 1961 it was clear that Britain would, if allowed by the six foundation members, join the EEC. New Zealand asked for an assurance that special arrangements to maintain free and unrestricted entry for New Zealand products to the British market would be obtained by the British government before it accepted the Treaty of Rome. Marshall over the following 11 years repeatedly travelled overseas to lobby British and European politicians.

In January 1963 the French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoed the first British application, but the issue resurfaced in 1967 when Harold Wilson’s Labour government made a second application to join the EEC. Marshall again rushed to Britain to plead New Zealand’s interests. Again de Gaulle frustrated Britain’s negotiations. Despite these two reprieves for New Zealand, a third application by Britain to join succeeded in 1971. Prior to the final agreement between Britain and the six members, Marshall in tense negotiations with the British persuaded them, and through them the EEC negotiators, to agree to a five-year transition period, subject to review, allowing 80 per cent of New Zealand’s butter and 20 per cent of New Zealand’s cheese in exports to Britain. Together with continued concessions for lamb exports to Britain, the agreement saved New Zealand from a massive economic disaster and gave it time to diversify its products and find new markets.

By the time of the third EEC negotiations Marshall was not only minister of overseas trade but, following the 1969 election, had taken over as minister of labour from Tom Shand (who died 10 days after the election) and as attorney general from Ralph Hanan (who had died shortly before it). Marshall was already heavily loaded and frequently overseas, did not want the labour portfolio and fought hard to get Holyoake to change his mind. Holyoake insisted that he take on what Marshall regarded as ‘the most demanding, frustrating and thankless job in cabinet’.

Following the Court of Arbitration’s ‘nil wage order’ of 1968, direct bargaining and confrontation between unions and employers became more common and Marshall became personally involved in a tumultuous industrial scene. He was not helped by the public interference in industrial matters of the minister of finance, Robert Muldoon. Relations between the two men became very strained.

Surprisingly, in retrospect Marshall found he had more respect for the union leaders, Tom Skinner and Jim Knox, at that time than he did for the leaders of the New Zealand Employers’ Federation, who seemed to believe a National minister of labour should be more partial towards them and take a harder line against the unions. His critics among employers and backbench National MPs were somewhat mollified by Marshall’s deregistration of the New Zealand Seamen’s Union during a strike in November 1971. Worried by inflation and large wage increases, Marshall was also responsible for the Stabilisation of Remuneration Bill in March 1971, which set a guideline of seven per cent for annual wage and salary increases, subject to appeal to a Remuneration Authority.

Marshall, as minister of labour, inherited from Shand the report of a royal commission, chaired by Justice A. O. Woodhouse, on accident compensation. This report led subsequently to further reports and culminated in the Accident Compensation Bill, which Marshall introduced into Parliament in December 1971. The bill provided for the payment of income-related compensation to all employed persons who suffered an accident irrespective of the cause or fault. Marshall believed that his involvement in establishing the accident compensation scheme was one of the most worthwhile achievements of his 20 years as a minister of the Crown.

On 7 February 1972 Marshall succeeded Holyoake as prime minister and leader of the National Party, defeating Muldoon, the other contender for the position, who became deputy prime minister. Marshall restructured the cabinet and tried to project a new image and direction, but the media and the public continued to see a government in its 12th year of office, despite the changes at the top. No one could have led National to victory in 1972; it had only narrowly won in 1969 and at the 1972 election it suffered a shattering defeat. After less than a year as prime minister Marshall became leader of the opposition.

An intelligent and principled politician, an excellent manager of various ministerial portfolios, and an experienced and effective diplomat overseas, Marshall had the qualities to be a fine prime minister. He was not, however, by personality or nature comfortable in opposition, where he had constantly to attack and destroy a government’s confidence and credibility. He had also suffered a massive and nearly fatal heart attack in Tehran in 1964 and thereafter tried to pace himself and take care not to become overtired or too stressed.

Although during 1973 and 1974 Marshall, with the help of the new president, George Chapman, and others, rebuilt the National Party’s membership, finances, professional staff, and policy positions, in the House he proved no match for the prime minister, Norman Kirk, and the massive and aggressive Labour caucus. National backbenchers came more and more to look to Marshall’s deputy, Muldoon, for leadership. Finally, even most of Marshall’s former front-bench supporters deserted him and on 4 July 1974, after a poll of National MPs revealed that 19 wanted the leadership question raised in caucus and 13 did not, Marshall resigned and Muldoon became leader. He avoided testing the leadership in a ballot partly because he thought he would probably lose, partly because he did not want to split the party, and partly because he had recently had new heart disturbances that were causing his doctors and his family some concern.

Marshall was knighted in September 1974. He retired from Parliament at the 1975 election, but remained a force in the National Party, being regarded with respect and affection. Although for a time he gave his successor the charity of his silence, after the 1978 election he became publicly more critical of Muldoon’s aggressive personality, economic policies and, in 1981, his refusal to stop the Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. Some saw him as the conscience of the National Party and as a result relations between Marshall and Muldoon became, both privately and publicly, hostile.

In retirement Marshall became a consultant partner at the law firm of Buddle, Anderson, Kent, and a visiting fellow in public policy at Victoria University of Wellington. His honorariums for his university work were used to fund a Prime Ministers’ Prize in Public Policy Studies and the Sir John Marshall Scholarship for the top first-year student in political science. He also joined the boards of several companies, including the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society, Hallenstein Brothers, the National Bank and Fletcher Holdings.

He became patron, president or trustee of over 60 cultural, community or charitable organisations, many of them Christian. While he was a figurehead of some, he became active in others, notably as patron of World Vision New Zealand and president of the Bible Society in New Zealand. Between 1978 and 1981 he revised and published a number of children’s stories about ‘Dr Duffer’ and also wrote a two-volume autobiography, volume one of which was published in 1983. He died of a heart attack in Snape, Suffolk, England, on 30 August 1988, while on his way to Budapest to give an address at the world conference of the United Bible Societies. He was survived by his wife and four children. Marshall had completed the second volume of his autobiography only a few weeks before, ending by writing that ‘over the years of my life … fortune has smiled on me … I thank God continually for his goodness and mercy’.

John Marshall was a soft-spoken, courteous and considerate parliamentarian, known as ‘Gentleman Jack’. A pragmatic, patrician-type politician, he was strongly motivated by his Christian faith and by an equally deep intellectual commitment to the principles of liberalism. He could be, and as a minister frequently was, a tough negotiator and administrator, but he was not by nature or inclination a populist politician and found it difficult to deal with those such as Holyoake, Kirk or Muldoon who were. As New Zealand politics became more divisive and robust in the 1970s Marshall’s calm, quiet dignity appeared to many to be weakness, and his colleagues and the electorate turned to more aggressive leaders. As a result Marshall never really had the opportunity to prove that in different circumstances he could have been one of New Zealand’s great prime ministers.

Links and sources


    Gustafson, B. The first 50 years. Auckland, 1986

    Marshall, J. Memoirs. 2 vols. Auckland, 1983–89

    Obit. Evening Post. 31 Aug. 1988: 1

How to cite this page:

Barry Gustafson. 'Marshall, John Ross', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)