Michael Joseph Savage portrait

Michael Joseph Savage portrait

This portrait of Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage was taken in 1935, the year the Labour government he led swept into power. This government is best remembered for its landmark social welfare reforms, especially the Social Security Act of 1938 and the state housing scheme.

Savage came to New Zealand in 1907 and quickly established himself in the local trade union movement. By 1911 he was Auckland branch chairman of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (or 'Red Feds'). After an unsuccessful bid for Auckland Central in the 1911 general election, Savage was active during the bitter 1913 waterfront dispute. He made another unsuccessful attempt to enter Parliament in 1914.

When conscription was introduced during the First World War in 1916, Savage maintained the socialist line that conscription of wealth should precede conscription of men. The same year he helped establish the second New Zealand Labour Party. At the 1919 election he was one of eight Labour candidates elected to Parliament. He became deputy leader in 1922 and leader when Harry Holland died in 1933.

Savage was greatly distressed by the suffering he witnessed during the years of the Great Depression. He travelled the country spreading the Labour message with an intensity and evangelical fervour seldom matched in New Zealand politics. He maintained that all citizens were entitled to 'a reasonable standard of living in the days when they are unable to look after themselves'.

This message struck a chord with voters and in 1935 Savage led Labour to a resounding victory. As a statement of intent a Christmas bonus was immediately paid to the unemployed and those receiving charitable aid. Relief workers were given seven days' annual holiday. In 1936 there was a landslide of legislation aimed at stimulating the economy, including a programme of state house construction.

In race relations Savage formalised a relationship with the Rātana movement. He felt that equal opportunity for Māori could best be achieved through a comprehensive welfare system and greater development of Māori land. Under Labour, Māori received – at least in theory – equal access to unemployment benefits and housing finance.

Shortly before the 1938 election Savage was diagnosed with colon cancer. He ignored advice to have immediate surgery to lead the fight in the election against a refreshed opposition. The key election issue was the Social Security Bill, the embodiment of Savage's welfare vision for New Zealand. This comprehensive policy of looking after New Zealanders from the 'cradle to the grave' helped ensure a comfortable Labour victory. Savage showed no sign of slowing down. After collapsing in August 1939 he finally had the operation he had been advised to have almost a year earlier. By now it was too late.

Shortly after his discharge from hospital on 3 September, New Zealand declared war on Germany. Despite having previously criticised Britain for its appeasement of Japan, Italy and Germany, on 5 September Savage declared the country's loyalty and support for Britain: ‘Where she goes, we go. Where she stands, we stand’.

Savage's last months were dominated by the simmering row with John A. Lee. Many had expected Lee to enter Cabinet in 1935 but Savage had considered him too ‘radical and uncontrolled’. Lee became a vocal critic of the party's leadership, accusing it of behaving autocratically and of betraying the party's roots. Lee was censured by the Labour Party conference of 1939 for his attacks on Savage. Later that year his Psycho-pathology in politics – while not naming Savage directly – implied unmistakably that the prime minister's physical condition had destroyed him mentally. Even many of Lee's allies thought he'd gone too far.

Savage was too sick to attend the Labour Party conference when it opened in Wellington on 25 March 1940. Peter Fraser instead read Savage's report, in which he accused Lee of having made his life ‘a living hell’. Lee was expelled from the party. Two days later Savage died at his home in Wellington.

There was a massive public display of grief at Savage's passing. The train that carried his body to Auckland made 20 stops along the way to allow people to pay their respects. He was buried at Bastion Point (Takaparahwā), overlooking Waitematā Harbour.

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