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Gordon Coates

Gordon Coates
Gordon Coates

Gordon Coates seemed unbeatable. Tall and handsome, this affable war hero embodied modernity – he was the ‘jazz premier’. In 1925’s presidential-style election voters chose to take their ‘Coats off with Coates’. Three years later they hung him out to dry. Why?

Coates was intelligent and worked hard, but did he really hunger for power? He failed to rejuvenate William Massey’s old Cabinet and his government seemed to drift as the economy slid. In 1928 the publicist behind his landslide switched to United, the former Liberals, and sold the geriatric Sir Joseph Ward as a financial wizard.

Policy meant more than party to Coates. When elected in 1911, he supported Ward despite being a freeholder. No socialist, he nevertheless saw a role of the state, and as a consequence, some on the right never entirely trusted him. In 1919 Massey brought him into Cabinet, where he performed well.

As Native Minister from 1921 to 1928, Coates was determined to ‘remove old grievances so that economic and social change could proceed.’ He settled Te Arawa and Ngati Tuwharetoa lakes claims, investigated Tuhoe land claims, and set up the Arawa Trust Board. He also established the Sim Commission to look into land confiscations, which had caused much bitterness.

After his 1928 defeat, Coates reorganised Reform and persuaded colleagues to merge with United against Labour. In 1931 he was back in Cabinet, where he upset conservatives by devaluing and by founding the Reserve Bank.

Coates again put country ahead of party during the Second World War, when he defied colleagues to work with Labour. He was minister of armed forces and war co-ordination when he collapsed and died in Parliament in May 1943.

By Gavin McLean

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Gordon Coates, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated