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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


SAVAGE, Right Hon. Michael Joseph


Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party and Prime Minister of New Zealand.

A new biography of Savage, Michael Joseph appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Michael Joseph Savage, the sixth son (and eighth child) of Richard and Johanna Savage, was born at Rothesay, near Benalla township, Victoria, Australia; on 23 March 1872. His parents were of Irish stock. Richard Savage, son of Richard and Mary-Anne Savage, née Keenan, was born at Downpatrick near Portaferry, Ireland; his mother, Johanna, daughter of Joseph and Mary-Anne Hayes, was born at Limerick. His father had immigrated to Australia in 1856 and eventually settled in the Benalla district, working two sections at Tatong and Rothesay. Michael left the Rothesay State School at the age of 14 years and for the next seven years worked for a Benalla storekeeper. He was an athletic and powerful youth and earned some local fame as a weightlifter and also as a debater. His mother had died when he was only six years of age and his early life was saddened by further family bereavement. In the two years following 1891 he lost his sister Rose and brothers Joe and Hugh. In 1893, a year of financial crisis, he found himself unemployed and went to New South Wales where he worked on the properties of Sir Samuel McCaughey and, later, on farms in the Riverina district.

In 1900 Savage returned to Victoria and began work in the alluvial gold mine at North Prentice near Rutherglen where he met the young “Paddy” Webb. Webb, Savage, and George Hunter established the first Political Labour League in North Prentice and also a local cooperative society of which Savage was, for a time, manager. When Webb left for New Zealand in 1906 (attracted as were many other Australian workers by Seddon's reputation for enlightened labour legislation) Savage took over much of his political work. At Webb's repeated urging he himself left for New Zealand the following year and arrived in Auckland on Labour Day, 1907. He originally intended to go on to Denniston but was deterred by reports of the West Coast climate and remained in the North Island. After a short time in a flaxmill in the Manawatu he took a job as a cellarman in Hancock's Brewery, Auckland, which he retained until his election to Parliament. It was in Auckland incidentally that he began to use his second name, because he was told that it was harder to get a job if one's name was “Mick”; hence he was usually known as “Joe” Savage to his intimates in New Zealand.

Savage soon became active in the trade union movement in Auckland. In 1910 he was an Auckland delegate to the National Conference of the Trades and Labour Councils which showed in its deliberations a rather greater militancy than was the norm in that highly moderate organisation. (Webb was, of course, at this time, a prominent leader of the rival organisation, the militant Federation of Labour, formed on the West Coast in 1908–09.) In 1911 Savage stood for Auckland Central as a candidate of the New Zealand Socialist Party which allied itself to the “Red Federation”, but although he polled quite well he was soundly beaten by the Liberal incumbent. In the 1914 elections he was again unsuccessful in Auckland Central, this time as a candidate of the Social Democratic Party, the political party which, with its industrial counterpart, the United Federation of Labour, was formed at the Unity Congress of July 1913. Savage was a prominent member of both organisations but at this stage he was not in the first rank of leadership.

Savage joined the New Zealand Labour Party on its formation in June 1916 and at its first annual conference the following year he caused a considerable stir by moving a remit “that State ownership and manufacture and sale of liquor be added to the State ownership section of the platform”. The proposal was amended merely to provide for the inclusion of the alternative of State control on the ballot paper for the triennial liquor referenda (which in those days aroused as much interest as general elections); yet even this caused the resignation of James McCombs, the first president of the party and a staunch prohibitionist. Despite the controversy, Savage was elected national secretary of the party in 1919. That same year he was elected to the Auckland City Council and Hospital Board, and in the general election in December he won Auckland West for Labour, a seat which he retained for the rest of his life. After these successes, pressure of work obliged him to relinquish the post of party secretary. In 1923, on the resignation of McCombs, who had rejoined the party late in 1918, he was elected Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party.

Savage played a conspicuous, but in no sense a predominate role in the affairs of the Labour Party in these years. In the House he was, of course, a leading speaker and he interested himself particularly in social questions. In his maiden speech in Parliament he strongly advocated the establishment of a pensions system based not on the poverty of the recipients but on the service they had rendered to the community. He was usually a member of the principal committees set up from time to time by annual conferences, to study various policy matters: notably the Land Policy Committee, which he chaired, and which recommended to the 1927 conference a complete review of the Party's land policy. It is not unfair to say, however, that Savage was not a principal architect in policy making – in this sphere he was less influential than either Peter Fraser or Walter Nash. Nor was he well known in the country when, after Harry Holland's death in October 1933, he was elected Leader of the Parliamentary Party. In the infancy of broad casting and in the absence also of much personal publicity for Labour members in the press, either by advertisement or otherwise, it was, of course, difficult for any Labour figure to make a wide spread public impression.

In the years between 1933 and 1935 Savage worked hard to remedy this defect and there can be no doubt that his personal appearances were of considerable advantage to Labour. Savage was a very different personality from Holland, for he radiated amiability and he possessed a sympathetic platform manner. He had the ability to strike a chord in the average member of his audience. He did not impress with cleverness; the image was rather of humanity, sincerity, and a fund of common sense. His appeal was essentially that of the average man, not of the intellectual or the expert.

In his speeches in the 1935 election campaign Savage made great efforts to allay middle class fears, to minimise the novel, radical, or socialist content of the party's policy (which had in truth been heavily eroded in the years since 1916), and to emphasise that Labour sought only to perpetuate the New Zealand progressive tradition. The result of the election was a smashing victory for Labour. There can be little doubt that in any case the Government would have been decisively beaten, but that the margin was so great may be attributed in some measure to Savage's personal role.

As Prime Minister, Savage took the portfolios of External Affairs, Native Affairs, and Broadcasting, but he did not permit himself to become immersed in departmental detail. Rather, he concerned himself with the overall direction of policy and particularly with the image the Government presented to the public. He became, in effect, something of a specialist in public relations. He had developed an effective broadcasting technique and once in office he determined to use the radio to the utmost in order to counter the lack of sympathy, often amounting to hostility, displayed towards his Government by the bulk of the daily press. For the same reason, in 1936, he instituted broadcasting of the proceedings of Parliament and so added a new dimension to New Zealand politics.

Although he had not played any notable part in Labour's considerations of international matters in earlier years, the Prime Minister made some personal impact in world and Commonwealth affairs. The new Government was from the first disturbed at the trend of world events, both in Europe and in the Pacific. In 1937 Savage attended the Imperial Conference in London – where, as a Labour Prime Minister, he attracted considerable publicity – and he sought to obtain from the United Kingdom Government some specific assurances concerning the speed and the weight of British assistance which might be available to aid Australia and New Zealand in the event of Japanese aggression. The United Kingdom was, however, understandably vague and the New Zealand Government became increasingly anxious. On its initiative a defence conference between Britain, Australia, and New Zealand was held in Wellington in April 1939. The conference did much to convince the Government and the personally optimistic and anti-militarist Prime Minister of the need to strengthen the Army. In consequence, with considerable success (and perhaps at the prompting of his senior colleagues, notably Fraser), Savage lent the full weight of his personal popularity to the Army recruiting campaign. Despite his and his Government's doubts about some earlier aspects of United Kingdom policy and despite his personal reluctance to come to terms with the realities of the situation, Savage concluded that the Commonwealth “must sink or swim together”. The Government's approach was epitomised in his broadcast at the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939.

In domestic affairs his Government fared well although it had its share of problems, particularly in the exchange crisis of 1938–39. Labour fought the 1938 general election on its overall record, but as the campaign developed, two issues became paramount: the introduction of the social security scheme, and the personality of the Prime Minister. The two became fused in an aura of humanism and welfare (not socialism), aptly symbolised in Savage's description of the Social Security Bill as “applied Christianity”. The 1938 victory, even greater in terms of real support than that of 1935, was in part a personal tribute to the Prime Minister; the year 1938 represented the summit of his career.

The excitement of the campaigns and the victories, however, and the élan which the party generated in these years, concealed for a time a growing division in the ranks of the Parliamentary Party. There had developed within it a monetary reform wing, whose most articulate spokesman was John A. Lee; and as early as 1932 and 1933 there were some differences on the relative merits of borrowing or the issue of credit to finance recovery. Savage's own views on financial questions were vague and many of his public statements would seem to support an approach akin to Social Credit. Yet this must be assessed in the context of the time, for Labour agreed with the Social Credit contention that there was a lack of purchasing power in the economy. Moreover, Savage qualified his more important statements with warnings of the inflationary dangers of the excessive issue of credit and in office he firmly supported the cautious policies of his Minister of Finance. The developing conflict, however, throws further light on his personality. Contrary to the prevailing popular image of almost undiluted benevolence, he could be wilful and arbitrary. Under pressure of work and failing health, Savage controlled the Labour Caucus in a manner sometimes tactless and autocratic, which goaded his critics. The impetuous Lee burst forth with intemperate public criticism of the Government and, most sharply of all, of Savage himself.

The Prime Minister's health had begun to deteriorate seriously in mid-1938 but the gravity of his illness was known to few even of his colleagues until he underwent a major operation in August 1939. Perhaps because he did not know that his condition was incurable, Savage did not resign; instead, Fraser became Acting Prime Minister. These circumstances gave to the Lee affair a terrible bitterness and the 1940 annual conference expelled Lee from the party. Savage died at his home in Wellington on 27 March 1940, while the conference was in session. He was buried in Auckland. He had remained a bachelor throughout his life and had no relatives in New Zealand.

The special circumstances of his career make Savage a very difficult man to assess. He became leader at a time when the particular qualities he commanded were most opportune. In 1933 Labour needed not so much strength or brains as public benevolence, which Savage personified; he led a vigorous Government which knew what it wanted to do and was able to carry it out partly because it enjoyed a following wind in the form of rising prices; he gained sympathy by being subjected to sharp personal attack while in failing health; and he died in the midst of the chastisement of his tormentors and while the popularity of his Government, if not at the peak of 1938, was yet at a very high level. In consequence, public grief at his death assumed proportions never before known in New Zealand and in memory he has become enshrined to many both as martyr and as saint.

Savage was not as able intellectually as were his principal lieutenants; he was not nearly as well read as Holland or Fraser, and he had a simplicity of approach which sometimes amounted to naïveté. There were even doubts in some quarters at the time of his election as Leader whether he had sufficient ability and personality for the job. Yet from that time he grew in stature. He could be shrewd, logical, and tough-minded, and he had two priceless gifts for the politician: the ability to take the public's pulse, and to project a personal warmth and friendliness to a mass audience. The secret of his remarkable appeal must, however, lie to a great extent in the New Zealand of the early thirties, in an electorate more hungry in a social than in a physical sense, longing for reassurance, and for personal security. Savage's personality provided the public with a sense of kindliness in government. Moreover, as far as the general public were concerned, this simplicity was by no means a handicap. The world experts had prescribed, in vain, for the Great Depression: let a plain man have his say. One must conclude therefore that, pre-eminently, Michael Joseph Savage was the man for his times.

by Bruce Macdonald Brown, M.A., New York Office, Department of External Affairs.

  • Michael Joseph Savage, New Zealand Labour Party (1940)
  • The New Zealand People at War, Wood, F. L. W. (1958)
  • New Zealand Truth, 27 Mar 1940 (Reminiscences of Hon. P. C. Webb)
  • The Rise of New Zealand Labour, Brown, Bruce (1962).


Bruce Macdonald Brown, M.A., New York Office, Department of External Affairs.