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Salient: An organ of student opinion at Victoria University, Wellington. Vol. 23, No. 3. Monday, April 11, 1960

When To Retire

page 13

When To Retire

When will Mr Nash retire?

This seems to be a forbidden question in the Labour Party and in the Press. However, it must be occupying the minds of politicians quite as much as those of the rest of us. As it is, most New Zealand Prime Ministers or party leaders have left office in rather unhappy circumstances. Not one New Zealand Prime Minister has managed a graceful or orderly retirement while in office. The possible exception is Sir Sidney Holland in 1957, but even in this case there is evidence that some pressure had to be used by the National Party. Most other Prime Ministers who retired did so in circumstances that were unhappy for themselves, the country, or both.

The Rt. Hon. W. F. Massey

The Rt. Hon. W. F. Massey

Died in "Harness"

Some of New Zealand's greatest leaders have died in office. These, notably Massey, Seddon and Savage, took great amounts of work on themselves and found it hard to delegate authority. It certainly seems to be a tradition for New Zealanders to work their public men very hard. This, noticed by Pember Reeves 60 years ago, still Persists. Seddon, in particular, gathered so much political power in his hands that it would have been very hard to let go or it in an orderly fashion as age crept on. However, his unexpected death in 1906 took care of that with tragic finality. In some cases Prime Ministers, for varying periods before their deaths, have been incapable of handling their work but unwilling or unable to give up. These cases have not received much publicity in New Zealand—nothing like the publicity given Ramsay MacDonald's breakup in McNeil Weir's "The Tragedy of Ramsay MacDonald," in England.

Massey, Ward and Savage all virtually died from their last illnesses while still in office, although Ward resigned a month before his death in July, 1930. Massey died from overwork and the strain of keeping afloat a shaky government, but his illness was purely physical in its effects. The same was apparently not so of Ward and Savage. Ward was an old man, who had been in Parliament off and on for 40 years and P.M. from 1903 to 1911, when he became P.M. once again after the totally unexpected Liberal victory of 1928. The Government was very weak, and the magic of Ward's name a big asset to it. Because of this, and the difficulty of finding a successor, Ward hung on for as long as he could. John A. Lee, who remembers him during this period, wrote "Sir Joseph had moments of extraordinary lucidity, alternating with moments wherein physical illness made it difficult for him to understand any political issue."

Savage's case was different. Rather autocratic in his control of the Labour Party, he had alienated those in it who opposed him on policy by refusing to accept caucus decisions in some matters, and by the time war broke out he was determined to have a showdown with them. The outbreak of the war also made it unwise to make political changes, and Savage stayed P.M. until his death, in March, 1940. The whole affair was tragic, for on the day of Savage's death John A. Lee had been expelled from the Party ostensibly for writing an article. "Psychopathology in politics," in which he had inferred that the Prime Minister had been mentally sick as a result of physical illness. Few people now doubt that this was to some extent true, but Lee's article raised a storm of protest from many not normally opposed to him, and his enemies secured his expulsion from the Party at the 1940 Easter Conference.

No one who has has kept up with Mr Nash's work and travels inside and outside New Zealand could doubt for a moment that he is fully fit to carry out his duties. However, he is 78, and it would be a tragedy if his career ended among whispers that he was "too old," or unable to handle his work. The chances are that Mr Nash will be sagacious enough to retire before such rumours start.

The National Party

The National Party had been much the more ruthless one in getting rid of Leaders who were unsuitable or tardy in stepping down and making room. In 1940 Adam Hamilton, a solid but uninspiring leader under whom National had lost two elections and looked set to lose another, was replaced by Sidney Holland after local branches had reported that the party could not win an election without a drastic facelift. Although Hamilton was not keen to go caucus decided decisively for Holland. The change made a great difference to party fortunes. In 1957, however, it was again "time for a change" in the opinion of many Nationalists. This opinion was perhaps not wholeheartedly shared by Sir Sidney himself. The "Manchester Guardian's" New Zealand correspondent wrote,

The Rt. Hon. M. J. Savage

The Rt. Hon. M. J. Savage

"Delegates of the National Party today listened impassively as Mr Holland made his announcement and reserved the greatest applause for Mr Holyoake. Inevitably their reaction suggested that party pressure rather than the health issue had forced a decision on Mr Holland. That pressure has already led several stalwarts, including the Speaker, Sir Matthew Oram, and Mr J. N. Massey, son of a former Prime Minister to announce that they are not seeking reelection. The National Party intends to out away its dead-wood before the electorate decides to do so." Sir Sidney's departure was not as happy as it might have been, but it is the only example New Zealand has seen so far of a Prime Minister in office retiring gracefully and handing over power to a well-groomed successor.

The Lesson

The lesson for Mr Nash to draw is obvious. In the last 70 years four Prime Ministers have lost elections, no less than five have died in office, and only one has retired, and then under some pressure. The temptation fop a Prime Minister to remain in office indefinitely is obviously tremendous, but it is time someone broke the tradition that New Zealand public men must work until they drop. It would not be the least of Mr Nash's achievements if he were to set future Prime Ministers an example, when the time comes, of a graceful and orderly retirement.