The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 5 (August 1, 1936)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 41 — Michael Joseph Savage — The First Labour Prime Minister Of New Zealand
For the first time in our history a purely Labour Government is in power in New Zealand, and its head is a man who within a few months has won fame as a vigorous and courageous leader of a great forward political policy. Michael Joseph Savage, Prime Minister since the end of last year, was practically unknown outside the bounds of the Dominion. He is now a great Empire figure, who has done much in a few months to shake up the dry bones of Government in this country. In last month's number of this Magazine I sketched the character of Mr. Savage's lamented predecessor in the leadership of the Labour Party, Harry Holland, whose career was cut short by death. Mr. Savage took up the burden where Mr. Holland dropped it, and carried the party on to a sweeping victory. Now with a clear mandate from the citizens of the Dominion, he is carrying on the duty of giving the country the administrative and economic and social reforms for which it has waited since Richard Seddon died. As he has made manifest, he is taking many stages onward the humanitarian labour legislation which Seddon and his party began. He is a Prime Minister with high ideals, and in the effort to put those excellent ideals into practice he has the help of a band of brothers who are students and thinkers and men of action, and men with a courage and an enthusiasm and an energy as great as his own.
Michael Joseph Savage has been a citizen of New Zealand for very nearly thirty years. His birthplace was Benalla, in Victoria; and, like more than one of his Australian-born colleagues in the present Cabinet, he toiled in mines in his youth. The Hon. P. C. Webb was a fellow-Benalla lad, and it was he who first turned young Savage's attention to New Zealand. Savage tackled many jobs; he held a certificate for driving a winding engine in a mine. In this country he saw something of work in a flax mill. Finally he entered the employment of Hancock and Co., the great brewery firm in Auckland, and he was there when he engaged vigorously in politics and before many years was elected to represent Auckland West in Parliament. Like all his eager Socialistic colleagues of those days, he read omnivorously; there is no greater and deeper reader than a Labour politician, who is usually an idealist with a diligently acquired knowledge of social science and economics and the theory of government. Michael Savage is best described as a practical idealist; a man who is a builder, not a destroyer, with the objective of a happy and contented nation ever before him. His religion has been summed up by a great and intimate friend of his in the words: “His religion consists in doing his duty towards his neighbour; his guiding principle is charity to all.” Now, I have not the honour and pleasure of personal acquaintance with Mr. Savage; my appraisal of his character and his gospel of life is based wholly on the testimony of those who know him well and on his public career, his accomplished work and his announced programme of work for the public betterment to come. Those who have known him in his day of small things, say that he was the most generous of men. When he became a member of Parliament he gave the greater part of his honorarium away in charity. On his initiative it was decided by the Parliamentary Labour Party that when the Party came into power, all the Ministerial salaries should be pooled and equally divided.
Mr. Savage's pleasant face is a happy index to his character. Yet that genial, easy smile can give place when occasion demands to a firm lipped air of determination. Resolute and downright and earnest, he can hold firmly to a course of direct action. He has gathered around him a band of tried and staunch comrades entrusted with the charge of the various Departments of Government, and it must be said that he has made an excellent choice in every one of them. I do not know one of them personally as yet; that is my loss; I can only offer my humble judgment upon them in terms of praise for their courage, their obviously able grip of the special business of their Departments, and their determination to use those Departments for the public betterment. I judge them by what they have done already in the short space of time they have had control of the machinery of State. The hammer strokes of Mr. Robert Semple, who can be described as in very truth the man who gets things done, have captured the fancy and the sympathy and hearty appreciation of the people. The work of Mr. Peter Fraser, Mr. P. C. Webb, and their fellow-members of Cabinet is already manifest in the stimulus given to departmental activities. The team spirit appears to be perfect, the soul of loyalty and co-operation. Mr. Nash has a task of enormous difficulty and responsibility as Minister of Finance; who would envy him his job? I am told that he toils at his desk day and night till the early hours of the morning. My only fear is that these great and conscientious men will wear page 10 page 11 out even their sturdy frames too soon. There is consolation in the knowledge that most of them are by healthy colonial instinct and upbringing, outof-door men, with a cheering taste for sport.
It has been well written of Mr. Savage that “he is an idealist whose whole political life has been a fight for the ultimate objective of a world where all men and women will live together in happier relationship; and he is practical in that he has never allowed that ideal to cloud his vision with fanaticism.” This good practical balance is reflected in his speech. He is not impetuous; he weighs his words, speaks leisurely, with often a whimsical kind of a drawl.
We have heard words poured forth, tumbling over each other, from the mouths of impetuous ones of the past. Anything that came into their heads; that haste often went with want of thought. Mr. Savage is an exemplar of the other kind of public speech.
The Liberation of the Samoans.
Had Mr. Savage and his colleagues done nothing else since their accession to office but attend to the necessary and pressing reforms in the mandated territory of Samoa, I consider they would have justified their positions in the Cabinet room. The daily telegrams from Apia have told us how joyfully the people received the news of the lifting of the atrocious sentence of exile on their beloved Taisi, and the lifting also of the various oppressive and coercive laws and regulations imposed on them because they had dared to press for their ordinary human rights. Mr. Savage held strong views on the subject of those extraordinary dictatorial measures directed against a peaceful patient people, who were treated as rebels and sedition-makers in their own country, and deprived of the right to travel about the islands, or even from village to village, without a police permit. That the Samoans continued to behave with such patience and forbearance towards the New Zealand administration and the little official tyrants who treated them as so many mere “natives,” with an uncomplimentary adjective, was a perpetual marvel to those who, like myself, had seen them in armed action in the lively days of old Samoa. Continually they were exhorted by their wise chiefs to remain patient; some day a liberator would arise. One of the last things Sir Maui Pomare said to me, in the sad final days of his life here before he was carried on board the steamer for California was: “Poor Samoa! Will she ever be free? Yes, but I won't see it!….” Pomare was not of the Labour Party but its opponent; yet I believe had he been alive today he would have counted his place well lost so that Samoa regained its rightful liberty—which after all is only the ordinary human rights we New Zealanders ourselves enjoy. He would have blessed M. J. Savage for his practical sympathy shown in the revocation of the hated ordinances and regulations. The Hon. F. Langstone was hailed as a deliverer, dispensing the “dew of heaven”; the warm-hearted people, in their relief, likened the tactful Minister to Tangaroa the god come to their help.
All this must indeed be gratifying to Mr. Savage and Mr. Langstone, and to all their colleagues, who have restored to a splendid and loveable race their ancient rights. A race of poets and orators and warriors, a race of culture and beauty, they are a finer people than the Europeans who have dictated what they shall do and say, and even wear. The race has suffered so much from white man's arrogance and interference that it is a wonder how it has continued to preserve so much of its charm and simplicity of character and life. Now that arrogant dictatorship has been demolished by a new regime in New Zealand, we may hope that the way is opening for the ultimate self-government of the islands under the benevolent and non-interfering protection of New Zealand.
Work for the Workless.
The responsible Minister, the Hon. Robert Semple, thus summed up the position after the new methods had been in operation a few weeks:
A Great Construction Plan.
“When I took over the Public Works Department 13,000 men were employed, while we now have 17,000 and probably more.” The Minister said engineers of the department had submitted proposals for a three years’ plan of works involving an expenditure of £17,500,000 and designed to employ up to a maximum of 20,000 men. “We are submitting the proposals to close examination,” he said, “classifying them into the categories page 12 page 13 of essential or non-essential. We want to be sure that works carried out will be some form of national asset, for it is no use retracing our footsteps.” Not many men were yet employed on the three main railway construction schemes, for much preliminary work was needed, including the establishment of proper camps. However, the point had been reached when some preparatory work had started on the South Island Main Trunk line on which it was hoped to employ 1000 men by the end of the year. By the end of the year it was also hoped to employ 1200 on the Gisborne line and 500 on the Westport-Inangahua line.
The decision to complete the East Coast line has naturally greatly pleased the Gisborne district, which will now at last realise its long-deferred hopes of rail connection with the outer world. So, too, in the South Island the completion of the Main Trunk line and the Nelson—West Coast section will carry to a logical and satisfying end the scheme of through rail connections that were left hanging as if the builders had suddenly been seized by a panic.
Mr. Savage and his colleagues have examined the country's education system, and we may expect to hear of improvements that will be in accord with modern requirements. In this department, under Mr. Peter Fraser's wise direction, there is apparent already the hand of reform.
The re-opening of the schools to the five-year-olds and the re-opening of the teachers’ training colleges are two good deeds to the credit of Mr. Fraser. The training colleges especially came as a blessing to many young men and women who had been deprived of their opportunity to enter the teaching profession.
The Leader's Heroic Effort.
A careful consideration of the new Administration's scheme of constructive legislation cannot but compel respect for the altruistic spirit in which that programme was framed. The plan as enunciated at various times by Mr. Savage, in Parliament and in speeches outside, is broadly to help increase the happiness, comfort and security of the nation, and to abolish as far as possible the misery and want which have afflicted a large section of the population for so many years. There is to be a fair opportunity for every man and every woman to earn a decent living wage; the exploitation of workers by the selfish and unscrupulous species of employer is to be stopped by the regulation of wages on a fair basis.
To Protect Our Industries.
The machine inevitably has displaced labour, and the new Government, to counteract the effect of this increasing mechanisation of work, has adopted a policy of shortening hours and raising wages. Industry in New Zealand is to be protected against the products of cheap labour from overseas. Protective tariffs are not the only way, says the leader, therefore we must have agreements with the outside world, beginning with the British Commonwealth and gradually extending to other countries. The agreements must be based on sound economic principles for both parties to the agreement.
We cannot produce everything in New Zealand; we must take so much from abroad and pay for it with the surplus of that which we can produce in New Zealand. Higher wages but not too high, reasonable hours of work and reasonable leisure, fixed prices (so far as they can be fixed) and planned production; a fair share of the means of existence and of the comforts and some of the luxuries of life for all; no artificial booms for land and prices, and no preventable depression—that surely seems an ideal to which all political parties should subscribe.
For another thing, the easy and costly practice of delegating Ministerial authority to this Board and that has been reformed drastically. Already three unnecessary and expensive Boards have been abolished.
Mr. Savage and his colleagues stand for an improved order of society and industry which cannot by any stretch of imagination be called violently revolutionary. After all, economic security is the practical heaven for which everyone wishes, but to which far too few attain.
“Doing a Christ-like Work.”
Thoughtful people in all sections of the community, who perhaps at first were disposed to distrust the ambitions of the Labour Government, have come to realise the unselfishness and altruism of Mr. Savage's scheme of life's effort. Courageous and sincere testimony from a perhaps unexpected source was recorded a few weeks ago. Archbishop Averill, in an address at the annual meeting of the Auckland City Mission, expressed thankfulness for what the new Government was doing for the “under dog.” He praised the policy of increasing the sustenance grants to a living wage. Those who were making efforts to alleviate the lot of their less fortunate fellows were doing a Christ-like work. He made an appeal to the people to withhold hasty criticism of those who were trying to solve problems of finance in their efforts to provide for the needy. “If people are trying to do their job, which appears to be that of helping their fellow creatures, it is up to us to assist those people as much as we can.”
A generous, noble, helpful speech, O Archbishop! It sounded the hopeful, cheering note. Give the new Government a fair show and your sympathy, and await results. I do not think Mr. Savage and his colleagues ask for more than that.