Massey Is Elected Prime Minister of New Zealand Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During and after World War I, Ireland native William Ferguson Massey was able to mobilize New Zealanders across the political spectrum by espousing Reform Party ideas and attitudes that avoided alienating both the British government and Massey’s most liberal opponents.

Summary of Event

William Ferguson Massey was born in Northern Ireland to Presbyterian parents. His family emigrated to New Zealand in his early adolescence, settling in the North Island, near Auckland. In the 1890’s, Massey became active in rural farmers’ associations that opposed the urban-centered Liberal Party, which dominated New Zealand politics under the leadership of Richard John Seddon. There was little organized political opposition to the Liberals at that time; Conservative forces had fissured after the retirement of the charismatic Julius Vogel. Vogel, Julius The Conservative Party that Massey helped organize was the heir to Vogel’s politics, although it adhered to a less strict version of Vogel’s free market doctrine and took a more prudent approach to fiscal matters, eschewing Vogel’s emphasis on heavy borrowing. Prime ministers;New Zealand New Zealand prime ministers;William Ferguson Massey[Massey] [kw]Massey Is Elected Prime Minister of New Zealand (July 10, 1912) [kw]Prime Minister of New Zealand, Massey Is Elected (July 10, 1912) [kw]New Zealand, Massey Is Elected Prime Minister of (July 10, 1912) Prime ministers;New Zealand New Zealand prime ministers;William Ferguson Massey[Massey] [g]New Zealand;July 10, 1912: Massey Is Elected Prime Minister of New Zealand[03130] [c]Government and politics;July 10, 1912: Massey Is Elected Prime Minister of New Zealand[03130] Massey, William Ferguson Coates, Joseph Gordon Bell, Francis Holland, Harry Semple, Bob

Massey’s efforts were beginning to gain momentum when the Boer War led to a patriotic rallying around existing authorities, increasing the popularity of the Liberal government. Massey reorganized the Conservative forces during the latter part of the decade of the 1900’s, rebaptizing the party as the Reform Party Reform Party (New Zealand) in order to take advantage of public concern about allegations of Liberal corruption. By 1912, the Liberals had been in office for two decades, and the electorate was ready for an alternative. A Reform government, led by Massey, was elected in 1912. Despite Massey’s rural background and his image as an advocate for less sophisticated, rural New Zealanders, many members of his cabinet were well-educated urbanites.

Massey immediately faced a huge labor crisis. The Waihi strike, Waihi strike Labor strikes;gold miners (New Zealand) already in progress when Massey assumed office, had erupted when owners of a gold mining complex endorsed the formation of a union that rivaled the existing one, an action that the miners saw as evidence of the owners’ wish to dilute miners’ power. By the end of 1912, the mine owners, frustrated by the ongoing strike, decided to reopen the mines using replacement workers. In November, some of the replacement workers attacked one of the striking miners’ strongholds, killing Fred Evans, one of the strikers’ prominent leaders. Another charismatic leader, Bob Semple, angry that the Massey government seemed to regard itself more as an ally of the employers than as a mediator, rallied New Zealand workers around the Waihi cause. Semple did not wish for widespread social unrest, however, and he adopted a conciliatory tone toward the government. Many of the future leaders of New Zealand’s Labour Party, such as Harry Holland and Michael Joseph Savage, Savage, Michael Joseph first emerged on the public scene with this strike. The following year, waterfront strikes erupted in Auckland and exploded onto the national scene.

New Zealand might have begun a streak of social crises in the 1910’s were it not for the outbreak of World War I. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];New Zealand New Zealand emerged as a key supplier of personnel to Britain in the European front, although an often-forgotten front existed much closer to home. Germany’s colonial holdings in Nauru, half of Samoa, parts of New Guinea, and the Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana Islands meant that World War I also had a Pacific dimension. War was declared between Britain and Germany on August 4, 1914, and on August 25 an expeditionary force from New Zealand occupied the German holdings in Samoa and was met with no resistance. The next year, New Zealand troops had a far more traumatic experience in the Gallipoli Campaign. Gallipoli Campaign (1915-1916) British commanders had hoped to capture Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, but the campaign failed and thousands of New Zealanders died. The Gallipoli Campaign created a national icon: the New Zealand soldier as a Kiwi fighting man.

On the home front, Massey proved a less divisive figure than might have been predicted. Although he was Northern Irish Protestant, and although he strongly disagreed with the groups (most of which were Irish Catholic) who resisted conscription of troops for the war effort, Massey did not come across as a sectarian extremist. He broadened his government to include figures in the Liberal opposition, such as Joseph Ward. Massey was popular with New Zealand’s troops, although this created more controversy than might have been expected: Often, any solidarity with the troops was seen as criticism of the official patriotic establishment, which saw any criticism of the war as an affront to British patriotism. Massey did not use the war to increase his country’s international profile, however. Instead, he preferred to stress the identity of New Zealanders as loyal, if geographically remote, Britons.

As important as Massey’s coalition with the Liberals was in promoting wartime unity, in a sense it succeeded all too well. The public’s sense of the Liberals as an opposition party was eroded, and the main organ of opposition on the political left became the Labour Party, now headed by Harry Holland and many of Massey’s old antagonists from the time of the Waihi strike. Massey’s government continued to win electoral mandates, but its margin was reduced. In addition, some of Massey’s lieutenants, such as Joseph Gordon Coates, became restive and yearned for a chance to hold executive power. Massey’s attorney general, Francis Bell, was also frustrated: He thought that Massey’s economic policies were overly moderate and not geared enough toward the business community.

In 1919, Massey followed the example set by his British counterpart, David Lloyd George, by calling a “khaki election,” trying to take advantage of the momentum lent by the successful completion of World War I. His efforts were successful, and the election gave Massey’s administration renewed life, especially as the power he acquired allowed him to govern without the Liberals for the final six years of his tenure. Massey’s popularity remained intact—his great political gift was that he did not deeply alienate even his fiercest opponents—but few new initiatives came from the government until Massey’s death in 1925.


William Ferguson Massey.

(Library of Congress)

Like Robert Laird Borden in Canada and William Morris Hughes in Australia, Massey was a wartime leader and saw his country emerge on the horizons of world awareness through the sacrifices made by its troops in World War I. Unlike Australia and Canada, however, New Zealand under Massey did not treat the war as a rite of passage into an emergent sovereign status. Canada, for instance, was far more enthusiastic about joining the postwar League of Nations than was New Zealand, even though New Zealand had been asked to hold a League of Nations mandate over conquered German Samoa. Massey’s devotion to Britain was so intense that he saw any separate role for New Zealand in foreign policy as inappropriate. This meant that the Reform Party was ultimately unable to tap into New Zealand’s growing nationalism.

Indeed, the Reform Party did not long outlast Massey’s career. Although its outlook was fundamentally conservative, Reform could never be a Tory party in the British or even Canadian sense because it lacked not only a landed aristocracy but also a traditionalist philosophy to buttress its policies. Furthermore, Massey’s base—which consisted of agricultural landholders—did not grow in the ensuing decades. Both Reform and Liberal Parties were opposed to Labour’s socialist policies, but the Great Depression’s economic pressures made Labour very popular. As a result, despite Massey’s status as New Zealand political colossus, he left no long-term institutional heritage. Still, the Massey era did establish the tradition of an alternation of power between the political right and the left in New Zealand. Prime ministers;New Zealand New Zealand prime ministers;William Ferguson Massey[Massey]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bassett, Michael. The State in New Zealand: Socialism Without Doctrines. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 1998. Argues that Massey’s free market rhetoric and practical economic policies became more interventionist during the course of his tenure in office.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belich, James. Paradise Reforged. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. Argues that Massey was a “British Israelite” who believed that the British were the chosen people and that New Zealand’s future was indelibly entwined with Britain’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Michael. The Penguin History of New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin Books, 2003. Provides ample discussion of Massey’s British orientation toward issues of foreign policy and cultural identity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mein-Smith, Phillippa. A Concise History of New Zealand. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Points out that Massey, a Protestant, was not bigoted against Catholics; also provides good general background on New Zealand’s role in World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oliver, W. H., ed. The Oxford History of New Zealand. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. One of the most detailed accounts of the politics of the Massey era available in book form.

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Categories: History