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Kōrero: Chapman, Robert McDonald

Whārangi 1: Biography

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Chapman, Robert McDonald


Political scientist

I tuhia tēnei haurongo e Elizabeth McLeay, ā, i tāngia tuatahitia ki Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau i te 2019.

Robert (Bob) Chapman, the inaugural professor of Political Studies at the University of Auckland, was an academic leader and an insightful and penetrating commentator on current affairs. He was involved in a wide range of cultural areas, including literature and the visual arts, but his greatest contribution to New Zealand life was in the study and analysis of politics.

Early life and education

Robert McDonald Chapman was born in Auckland on 30 October 1922, the son of Clarice (Claire) Langley Joyce Bridge and her husband, dental surgeon Dr Guy Brougham Chapman. Bob Chapman had a younger sister, Anita. After attending Auckland Grammar School (1937–1940), Chapman enrolled in Auckland Teachers’ Training College, completing his course in 1944. His early career was affected by the Second World War; he undertook home service in the Air Liaison Section of the army (1941–43) and in the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a meteorological observer (1944–45), postings which stimulated a lifelong interest in maps.

On 4 January 1946, in the Auckland Registrar’s Office, Chapman married fellow teacher Noeline Amy Thompson, who came from a Manawatū farming family. They had three children, who they raised in Remuera, Auckland. Noeline Chapman was her husband’s intellectual companion, research assistant and critic. It was her planning and generous hospitality that, throughout their lifetimes, made their home a welcoming and lively place to visit for their friends and colleagues.

While at Training College, Chapman enrolled in courses at Auckland University College. A successful student, he was awarded the Lissie Rathbone Scholarship in 1942, the Ex-Serviceman’s Senior Scholarship in 1946 and the Fowlds Prize for the top scholar of the year in 1948. Chapman graduated with an MA in History with first-class honours. His thesis, ‘The significance of the 1928 election: a study in certain trends in New Zealand politics during the nineteen-twenties’ was ‘path-breaking’ in New Zealand electoral studies.1 Chapman’s supervisor, Willis Airey, was an important intellectual influence on him and, indirectly, on the character of the courses offered by the Department of Political Studies that Chapman would later lead through its formative years.  

History and political studies lecturer

In 1948 Chapman was appointed to a lectureship in the Department of History at Auckland University College. He took up a research fellowship at the Australian National University between 1953 and mid-1956 while on leave from Auckland. He was promoted to a senior lectureship in 1957, and in 1963 became associate professor. Chapman’s experience in Canberra fostered his life-long interest in Australian politics, but also convinced him that he wanted to teach students in New Zealand rather than joining the ranks of New Zealand academics living overseas.  

In 1963, Chapman was appointed to the foundation chair in the new Department of Political Studies at Auckland. Until then, political science had been taught in the Philosophy Department (which had opposed the separate advancement of the social sciences in the university). Before Political Studies officially began in 1964, Chapman took leave to recruit staff internationally and to take up a Carnegie Fellowship to visit the USA. He chaired the department until his retirement in 1988.

Chapman was involved in New Zealand literary life, especially during his early years of teaching. He  spoke at the Writers’ Conference 1951, and wrote and published poetry; he co-edited An anthology of New Zealand verse (1956) with Jonathan Bennett. Among his essays is the influential and much-cited ‘Fiction and the social pattern: some implications of recent N.Z. writing’, published in Landfall in 1953. Bob and Noeline also took a lively interest in visual arts and developed a fine collection of paintings and drawings. Chapman sometimes spoke at exhibition openings; and was closely involved in developing the university’s art collection, which began in 1966.

As inaugural professor and departmental head, Chapman stamped his authority on the shape and foci of the Department of Political Studies, creating courses around both the expertise of those he recruited to teach them and his own views of the nature of the discipline. From the earliest days papers were included on New Zealand politics and government, the mass media, and African and Chinese politics, along with papers focusing on the great Cold War powers of the USSR and the USA, international relations, political theory and the history of political thought. The usual difficulties of establishing a new department were compounded by the ‘spy affair’ in the new department’s first years. An employee of the security services, David Godfrey, enrolled in courses to conduct intelligence-related activities on campus. This led to a student protest, followed by false accusations against Political Studies students and staff, including Chapman. The department was subsequently cleared of blame by an official inquiry.

Chapman taught American politics to first-year students, along with New Zealand politics, especially electoral behaviour and political parties. He also taught an innovative MA paper that compared ethnic politics in the USA with Māori politics in New Zealand, and encouraged research on Māori politics. Among his students were future Māori leaders, including Syd Jackson, trade unionist and Ngā Tamatoa member, who completed an MA supervised by Chapman. He was an excellent teacher: his lectures were clear, challenging, and knowledgeable; his seminars were unfailingly stimulating, and his classes were enlivened by stories and jokes. His intellectual legacy can be seen across New Zealand studies, but is particularly obvious in the many postgraduate theses on New Zealand history and politics he encouraged and supervised.

Chapman ran his department in the style of a traditional professorial head. He was kind and approachable when staff and students wished to discuss their problems, though he could be a formidable figure when opposed on a point of principle or departmental strategy. He could also be an outspoken foe if he felt that someone was attacking or undermining his authority or credibility, or invading his research area. However, many of his students and colleagues gratefully remember his sage advice on their research projects and their career plans. With Noeline, he counselled many people, including prominent politicians. Some had previously been students, including Prime Minister Helen Clark. Although most of Chapman’s instincts and close relationships were with the centre-left side of the political spectrum, he also counted National Party supporters among his friends. The Chapman home was open to those who needed to talk through problems and ideas, intellectual, political and personal. Many have fond memories of lively conversations with Chapman. His penetrating observations were punctuated by periodic replenishments of his pipe, which he waved emphatically to emphasise a point.

Political commentator

Robert Chapman was an innovative, articulate broadcaster on public affairs, especially elections. From his earliest days as a young academic, he commented on radio on social issues and politics. He pioneered television election night commentary in 1966, accurately predicting the general election result on the basis of extensive research on historical and contemporary voting patterns. He delivered further election-night commentaries in 1969 and 1972. One television device never used by Chapman, however, was the ‘swingometer’ (although he came to be associated with it). His view was that it did not allow for multidimensional politics, including the movements in and out of non-voting.

From the 1960s onwards, Bob and Noeline Chapman made audio and later video recordings of New Zealand current affairs broadcasts. These recordings, with print and further media archives collected by researchers in the Department of Political Studies, became the invaluable Chapman Archive deposited in the then New Zealand Film Archive (Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision) and the University of Auckland Library. Chapman understood early the impact that broadcasting, and particularly television, would have on New Zealand’s political life. He contributed to the development of the mass media in New Zealand through his work on several broadcasting advisory bodies. He was appointed to the Northern Regional Advisory Committee of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (1965–69); to the Ministerial Committee on Broadcasting (1973); and chaired the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Broadcasting and Related Communications (1985–86).

Intellectually, Chapman was instinctively interdisciplinary, partly because there was little published in New Zealand studies (including literature, history and politics) when he started out. Well-informed on international economic developments, Chapman believed in the merits of the social democratic mixed economy. He was also influenced by the major political debates and concerns of the wider world, including the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and early in his career had campaigned against their use. Chapman understood that contemporary political developments must be understood in their historical, economic and social contexts. At the same time, in order to interpret sweeping events, he recognised the need to heed the minutiae of political behaviour.

Before opinion poll analysis became the norm in psephological research, Chapman studied voting behaviour at the then lowest possible level, polling booth by polling booth, checking socio-economic factors against census data. Through this method, he developed his own interpretations of the interrelationship between stability of party preference and movement among parties and, importantly, between voting and non-voting, highlighting the significance of the latter in determining which of the two major political parties governed, Labour or National. Chapman demarcated the urban/rural voting cleavage and refined the socio-economic distinctions within urban areas (although he himself did not employ class labels). His work paralleled – and equalled – that of eminent international scholars such as Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan.

Chapman was deeply interested in Māori politics, contributing to the Royal Commission on the Electoral System, ‘Voting in the Māori political sub-system, 1935–1984’. Furthermore, he took a strong interest in the probity of political institutions, especially in terms of access to voting and the fairness of vote-counting. Although he wanted the flaws in New Zealand’s electoral system remedied, Chapman was conservative when it came to certain aspects of New Zealand democracy, believing strongly in parliamentary democracy underpinned by first-past-the-post voting rules. He opposed the introduction of proportional representation.

Later years and legacy

Chapman’s written legacy comprises two sole-authored and two co-authored books, three edited volumes and many chapters and articles on politics. His writings are uniformly erudite and elegantly written. He lived during an intellectually exciting era, a time when scholars were more consciously, and more confidently, exploring what it meant to be a New Zealander. Robert Chapman had no doubts about where his loyalty and intellectual interests lay: in developing New Zealand’s social and political culture. He used his considerable intellect and his interdisciplinary perspective to expand New Zealanders’ understanding of politics and government, and to teach others to follow his example.

In 1987, the year before Chapman retired from the university, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for public services. As Emeritus Professor after his retirement, Chapman continued his research into voting behaviour.

Robert Chapman died in Auckland on 26 May 2004, aged 81. Noeline died the following year, on 28 November 2005.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Aimer, Peter. ‘Robert Chapman’. Political Science 56 (June 2004), pp.75-6. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Elizabeth McLeay. 'Chapman, Robert McDonald', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/mi/biographies/6c5/chapman-robert-mcdonald (accessed 13 July 2024)