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MacIntyre, Duncan


Politician, farmer, soldier

This biography, written by Neill Atkinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021. It was updated in August, 2022.

Duncan MacIntyre was an important figure in the National Party governments that held power for all but three of the 24 years between 1960 and 1984, serving as a cabinet minister for 15 years and as deputy prime minister from 1981. A tall, lean man with sandy hair, a moustache and (in later life) long sideburns, the pipe-smoking MacIntyre was often likened to a Scottish laird. He was also widely admired for his pragmatic, consensus approach to politics, cheerful informality and wry sense of humour.

Early life

Born in Hastings on 10 November 1915, Duncan was the eldest of six children of Esther Mary Bell and her husband, Archibald MacIntyre, who farmed near Bridge Pā. At the time of Duncan’s birth Archibald was serving with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli; he later fought on the Western Front, attaining the rank of second lieutenant.

After beginning his schooling in Hastings, Duncan was sent to his father’s homeland, Scotland, to attend Larchfield School, before completing his education at Christ’s College in Christchurch. He started work as a farm cadet and from 1936 managed a farm at Punakitere, Northland. On 10 January 1939, in Havelock North, MacIntyre married Diana Grace Hunter, the daughter of a Hawke’s Bay farming family. They had three daughters and two sons together.

Military service

In June 1939 MacIntyre enlisted in the 15th North Auckland Regiment, Territorial Force. After completing officer training in Australia, he joined the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry in North Africa in early 1943 and then served throughout the Italian campaign. By December 1944, having risen to the rank of major, he was commander of the Cavalry’s C Squadron (D Squadron would soon be led by a future parliamentary colleague and prime minister, Jack Marshall). In April 1945 the ‘Div Cav’ helped spearhead the New Zealand Division’s final offensive in Italy, sweeping northwards in the face of crumbling but occasionally sharp German resistance. MacIntyre was made a DSO for personally leading a ‘vigorous counter-attack’ across the Gaiana River on the night of 17/18 April; the next day he clambered onto a knocked-out Sherman tank to fire its machine gun on enemy positions.1

On 7 August 1945 MacIntyre, now a lieutenant colonel, assumed command of the Divisional Cavalry, which was still based in Italy. When Jayforce, New Zealand’s contribution to the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, was formed he volunteered to lead its Cavalry component, which was reinforced by 270 troops from the 28th Māori Battalion. He arrived in Japan with the Italy draft of Jayforce in March 1946, but in late April was hospitalised with appendicitis; after returning to duty he relinquished his command on 28 June.

Back in New Zealand, MacIntyre returned to farming and in the early 1950s purchased a sheep farm near Pōrangahau in southern Hawke’s Bay. He continued his military career with the Territorial Force, variously commanding 1 Hawke’s Bay Regiment, 1 Armoured Car Regiment, 2 Infantry Brigade and 4 Armoured Brigade. Attaining the rank of brigadier, he was made an OBE (1956) and an associate member of the Army Board (1960); later, in 1976, he was appointed colonel commandant of the Royal New Zealand Armoured Corps.

Into Parliament

MacIntyre’s early interest in politics centred on defence issues, especially compulsory military training, which he strongly supported. Experience with the Hawke’s Bay Catchment Board and local branch of Federated Farmers aided his selection as National candidate for the marginal Hastings electorate in the 1960 election. He narrowly defeated the Labour incumbent and was to hold the seat for the following 12 years.

In Parliament MacIntyre formed a close friendship with other new National members, especially J.B. (Peter) Gordon and Robert Muldoon (who had also served with the Divisional Cavalry in Italy). They regularly discussed issues of the day over late-night drinks and their wives also became friendly. The trio’s willingness to challenge senior National ministers as well as the Labour opposition earned them the nickname ‘Young Turks’. In 1961 MacIntyre was one of ten National members who voted with Labour to abolish the death penalty.

Following his third election victory in 1966, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake refreshed his ministerial line-up by promoting MacIntyre, Gordon, David Thomson and Muldoon to cabinet. MacIntyre’s work in the lands, forests and valuation portfolios earned him a reputation as a capable and hardworking minister. He supported the professionalisation and expansion of the national parks programme, including the development of public walking tracks, and was a strong advocate for exotic forest planting on private land, recognising its potential to boost farmers’ incomes, provide employment and support processing industries.

Māori affairs

In 1969 MacIntyre succeeded the late Ralph Hanan as minister of Māori affairs and of island affairs. One of his first challenges was to deal with fierce opposition to his predecessor’s Māori Affairs Amendment Act 1967, which threatened to accelerate the alienation of Māori land.

Influenced by Hanan and by Norman Perry, who had served as YMCA secretary with the Māori Battalion in Italy, MacIntyre foresaw economic opportunities for Māori in forestry and fisheries, emphasised ‘self-help’ and urged iwi and hapū to develop their lands or risk losing them.2 He lauded the Race Relations Act 1971, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race and established a race relations conciliator, but Māori critics were less impressed, demanding the government honour its obligations under te Tiriti o Waitangi.

An admirer of Māori culture, he supported the teaching of te reo Māori in schools and often evoked his Scottish ancestry, explaining that ‘we Scots were evicted from our lands too’.3 In 1972 he donated a trophy, which would bear his name, for the winning performers at the first New Zealand Polynesian Festival (the forerunner of Te Matatini), an important milestone in the Māori cultural renaissance.

MacIntyre’s war record, and his warm relationship with Māori Battalion veterans, earned him respect in many Māori communities. He mixed easily with people of different backgrounds, whether playing guitar with a group of Māori schoolchildren or riding a gang member’s motorcycle in Ōtara. His visits to the East Coast and Te Urewera regions, including sleepovers in meeting houses at Ruatōria, Ruatāhuna and Te Kaha, attracted much media interest – but also reportedly made him ‘the butt of jokes of Cabinet colleagues and offended self-styled elitist National groups in the constituencies’.4

Advocate for the environment

In February 1972 Jack Marshall succeeded Holyoake as prime minister. MacIntyre, who retained his existing portfolios, was appointed New Zealand’s first minister for the environment. The appointment reflected mounting public concern over environmental issues, illustrated by strong opposition to the Manapōuri hydroelectric scheme. The Marshall administration also established a Commission for the Environment, a forerunner of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, and enacted the Clean Air Act 1972, aimed at reducing air pollution.

MacIntyre saw his role as being like an ‘ombudsman’ for the environment, seeking to balance conservation and economic development.5 In June 1972 he represented New Zealand at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, where he surprised many with his forceful condemnation of French nuclear testing in the Pacific. He also made headlines by travelling between his hotel and the conference venue by bicycle. 

National was routed at the November 1972 election, however, and MacIntyre became its highest-profile casualty, losing his Hastings seat. The Dominion called his defeat the ‘roughest justice’ of the election, describing him as ‘the one politician the country least deserved to lose’.6 A philosophical MacIntyre returned to his farm, and was appointed export committee chairman for the Meat Producers’ Board.

Return to power

He would not be out of politics for long. When the Bay of Plenty seat became vacant prior to the 1975 election, he won selection as its National candidate and moved to Whakatāne. He was comfortably returned to Parliament as National swept to victory under its abrasive new leader, Muldoon. Ranked fourth in Cabinet, MacIntyre was given Māori affairs again but not the lands and forests portfolios he also sought; instead he received the agriculture and fisheries role, which he had not wanted. Despite that disappointment, he returned to Muldoon’s inner circle, reviving his late-night drinking sessions with the prime minister and Gordon.

Working with Kara Puketapu, secretary of the Department of Māori Affairs from 1977, MacIntyre oversaw some important initiatives, including the adoption of the Tū Tāngata (‘stand tall’) philosophy, from which kōhanga reo preschool language centres later emerged, and community engagement through Kōkiri (outreach) centres. He was less comfortable responding to the growing demands for government action to address systemic racism and inequality, or dramatic land protests at Bastion Point (Takaparawhau) and Raglan (Whāingaroa).

In 1978, following an electoral redistribution, MacIntyre contested and easily won the new East Cape electorate, which stretched from Whakatāne to Gisborne. He relinquished Māori affairs to Ben Couch, National’s first Māori minister, but retained agriculture and took on the now-separate fisheries portfolio. An innovative agriculture minister, MacIntyre encouraged farmers to diversify into forestry and horticulture, especially the burgeoning kiwifruit industry, and was heavily involved in trade negotiations with the European Economic Community. As fisheries minister he sought to protect overexploited inshore fisheries, oversaw the establishment of New Zealand’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone and urged the industry to ‘think big’ by embracing deepwater fishing.

In mid-1980 MacIntyre became embroiled in a controversy that cast a shadow over his later career. The previous year his daughter Audrey, a Wellington regional councillor, and her husband, Jim Fitzgerald, had purchased the 994-hectare Long Gully station, near Karori. After two unsuccessful applications, the couple were granted a $137,000 loan from the Marginal Lands Board to develop the property. A board member resigned, alleging pressure had been applied by MacIntyre and family friend Venn Young, who was minister of lands and chairman of the board. After months of intense media scrutiny, a commission of inquiry found no wrongdoing by either minister but described MacIntyre’s conduct as ‘extremely unwise’.7

Muldoon’s lieutenant

Although he conceded that the Marginal Lands affair would be ‘a ghost that haunts me for the rest of my life’, it did not affect his close relationship with Muldoon, who dismissed the controversy as a media witch hunt.8 In late 1980 MacIntyre played a vital role in defending his leader against the so-called ‘Colonels’ coup’, when a group of senior ministers plotted to oust Muldoon in favour of his deputy, Brian Talboys, while Muldoon was overseas. Although he recognised the prime minister’s faults, MacIntyre was incensed by the conspirators’ ‘underhand’, ‘Mafia-style’ tactics and believed they should have ‘fronted up to Muldoon’.9

When Talboys stood down as deputy leader, Muldoon made it clear he wanted caucus to select MacIntyre as deputy leader rather than the ambitious Derek Quigley. MacIntyre, who openly admitted he would be a ‘caretaker’ in the role, narrowly defeated Quigley in the February 1981 vote. In July, acting as prime minister in Muldoon’s absence, he had to confront the most difficult moment of that winter’s divisive Springbok rugby tour. After protestors forced the cancellation of the Hamilton match, he gathered senior ministers at his Thorndon home, where they agreed that the tour must continue.

On 7 April 1982 MacIntyre suffered a heart attack after attending a fishing industry meeting in Auckland, and had open-heart surgery. He returned to Parliament five weeks later, promising to give up the pipe he had smoked for more than four decades; despite medical advice to undertake only light duties, he was soon acting prime minister when Muldoon again departed overseas. In March 1984 he announced he would retire from politics at that year’s election, in which National was heavily defeated.

Later years and legacy

In 1992 MacIntyre was made a CMG for public services. His son Hamish had won the Manawatū seat for National in 1990, but resigned from the party the following year in protest at its neoliberal reforms; he helped form a new Liberal Party, which then became part of the Alliance, but was defeated in 1993.10 Diana MacIntyre died on 4 January 1996, and on 9 May 1998 Duncan married widow Jacqueline Gilbertson at Pātangata in central Hawke’s Bay. He died on 8 June 2001, aged 85, at his home, Taikura. He was survived by Jacqueline and four of his children (his eldest son had died in 1991). At the request of local Ngāti Kahungunu, his body lay overnight at Rongomaraeroa marae, Pōrangahau.

MacIntyre was part of a generation of Second World War veterans who dominated the National Party and New Zealand politics from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. He was a passionate advocate for forestry and the environment, and his sensitivity to Māori concerns and aspirations influenced later National politicians who sought to address longstanding grievances, including Jim Bolger, Doug Graham and Doug Kidd. He continues to be honoured in the name of the overall prize awarded at Te Matatini, the national Māori performing arts festival, now known as the Ngāpō Pīmia Wehi Duncan MacIntyre Trophy.

  1. Duncan MacIntyre, Online Cenotaph Record, accessed 10 June 2021. Back
  2. New Zealand Herald Weekend Magazine, 30 January 1971. Back
  3. Ibid. Back
  4. Dominion, 7 December 1972. Back
  5. Press, 1 February 1972. Back
  6. Dominion, 7 December 1972. Back
  7. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of Impropriety in Respect of Approval by the Marginal Lands Board of an Application by James Maurice Fitzgerald and Audrey Fitzgerald, Part I, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, H-5, 1980, p. 103. Back
  8. Evening Post, 5 February 1981. Back
  9. B. Gustafson. His way: a biography of Robert Muldoon. Auckland, 2000, p. 301. Back
  10. New Zealand Herald, 16 August 1991. Back
How to cite this page:

Neill Atkinson. 'MacIntyre, Duncan - Biography', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2021, updated August, 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6m10/macintyre-duncan (accessed 14 April 2024)