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Joseph Ward

Sir Joseph Ward, New Zealand’s political Lazarus, led governments nearly a quarter of a century apart.

Ward was a former telegraph boy who became a prosperous Southland merchant. He entered Parliament in 1887 and used his interest in technology and business to strengthen the early Liberal Cabinets.

He came unstuck in the mid-1890s when his business failed. Ward resigned from Cabinet in 1896 and was declared bankrupt in 1897. Yet before the year was out, he had staged the first of his remarkable recoveries. He was discharged from bankruptcy and re-entered Parliament through a by-election. He rebuilt his fortune and in 1899 became Richard Seddon’s deputy.

Ward’s Liberals won the 1908 election easily, but the magic was fading. Unlike Seddon, Ward was a dandy (fine clothes, waxed moustache) and a title chaser (knighthood in 1901, baronetcy in 1911), turn-offs for workers attracted to socialism. Caught between rising parties on the left and the right, Ward wobbled into the centre.

He was notoriously wordy: ‘Listening to his sentences I always feel like the man who watched the slow procession of the dredge buckets, dreamily waiting for the last bucket to come up’, an observer wrote. ‘Time disappears, the world fades away.’ At the 1911 imperial conference Ward delivered a waffly speech favouring imperial federation that stunned fellow prime ministers. Later that year, after he appeared to lose his parliamentary majority in December’s election, the governor had to cajole him to call Parliament to test the waters.

In March 1912 Ward resigned as PM and was replaced by Thomas Mackenzie. The Liberal era ended on 6 July when defectors backed William Massey (Reform). Ward resumed the Liberals’ leadership and Massey barely won a majority in 1914. A year later the two parties formed an uneasy wartime coalition. Ward fancied himself as co-prime minister and trailed the real one everywhere, earning them the nickname ‘the Siamese Twins’.

Ward lost his seat in 1919 but returned in 1922. Six years later, to great surprise, he led his reconstructed party (now called United) back into power. But he was old and even sicker than the struggling economy, and in 1930 colleagues persuaded him to step down.

By Gavin McLean

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Joseph Ward, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated