New Zealand’s First Labour Party Administration Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The New Zealand Labour Party, once considered a fringe socialist group, emerged from the Depression of the 1930’s as the party with the most comprehensive support among New Zealanders. The easygoing and compassionate personality of Labour’s first elected prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage, helped unify New Zealand as the country experienced economic uncertainty and war, and helped consolidate New Zealand’s identity as a society that placed more emphasis on social equality than on free enterprise.

Summary of Event

Michael Joseph Savage, perhaps New Zealand’s most important prime minister, did not settle in the country until he was thirty-five years old. He came from the Australian state of Victoria, and many commentators noted that his antiauthoritarian populism had a streak of the larrikinism, or outlaw gallantry, often associated with Victoria and especially with the Irish-Australian bushranger Ned Kelly. Like Kelly, Savage was a Roman Catholic, which was rather unusual for New Zealand, which (unlike Australia) did not have a large Irish Catholic population and was dominated by an often puritanical Protestantism. Savage’s Catholicism was evident in his opposition to conscription during World War I, a cause popular among Catholics in the British dominions, who were anxious about the restive state of the Catholic portions of British-occupied Ireland. Savage’s religious beliefs also appeared in his social policies, which had an integralist aspect not far from the policies advocated by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891). [kw]New Zealand’s First Labour Party Administration (Nov. 27, 1935)[New Zealands First Labour Party Administration (Nov. 27, 1935)] [kw]First Labour Party Administration, New Zealand’s (Nov. 27, 1935) [kw]Labour Party Administration, New Zealand’s First (Nov. 27, 1935) [kw]Party Administration, New Zealand’s First Labour (Nov. 27, 1935) Political parties;Labour Party (New Zealand) Labour Party (New Zealand) [g]New Zealand;Nov. 27, 1935: New Zealand’s First Labour Party Administration[09060] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 27, 1935: New Zealand’s First Labour Party Administration[09060] [c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 27, 1935: New Zealand’s First Labour Party Administration[09060] Savage, Michael Joseph Fraser, Peter Nash, Walter Hamilton, Adam Lee, John A.

Savage drifted into the labor union movement more by chance than by ideological intent. Once involved, however, he became a radical who joined the faction of Red Feds associated with leaders such as Bob Semple. In his early political career, Savage was not content with simply improving the conditions under which workers labored; he wanted to make a fundamental change in society’s nature. However, Savage began to move away from his more extreme positions after he was elected a member of Parliament in 1919. After the death of Labour’s leader, Harry Holland, Savage worked throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s to redefine Labour’s image as a party capable of governing. His task was made easier as New Zealand voters looked for new ideas to help them overcome the the economic circumstances created by the Great Depression. Great Depression;New Zealand The Depression had catastrophic effects around the world, but it had a particularly harsh impact on New Zealand’s undiversified, resource-based economy. Prices for wool and lamb plummeted.

When the Labour Party was elected in 1935—with 90.8 percent voter turnout—Savage and an entire generation of leaders, including Peter Fraser and Walter Nash, were brought to power. Fraser, like Savage, had been a laborer; Nash had been a shop clerk and tailor’s assistant. All three leaders, however, had what the Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci termed an “organic” relationship to the New Zealand working class; these politicians came from backgrounds very similar to those of their constituents. The three were also united by the fact that, although they had not received much formal schooling, they had both intellectual and instinctive approaches to New Zealand’s social problems.

The new Labour government immediately gave unemployed New Zealanders substantial cash payments to supplement preexisting benefits. Housing was a huge problem in Depression-era New Zealand, and many unemployed farmers and factory workers became itinerants who traveled from homestead to homestead with no fixed address. The government committed itself to constructing a large number of new housing units and facilitated access to these units for the dispossessed and impoverished. Savage set minimum prices for dairy and other resources that helped New Zealand place its products in the world market. Members of the conservative opposition, however, such as Adam Hamilton, believed that some of the Savage government’s policies deprived workers of freedom of choice.

New Zealand’s first Labour government also made significant efforts to improve relations with the Maori, Maori New Zealand’s indigenous people, although efforts in this area were often underrated. Unlike Australia, where the Labor Party basically supported the reigning “White Australia” policy and called for assimilation of the Aborigines, the Savage government recognized Maori identity and sought—and largely achieved—a rapprochement with the Ratana movement, Ratana movement a syncretic religious group that espoused both Christian and indigenous Maori beliefs. Ratana essentially became the Maori arm of the Labour Party, as Ratana candidates dominated the allotted Maori seats and gave crucial support to Savage’s overall agenda.

Labour won the 1938 election, although Savage’s triumph required huge personal sacrifices: Before the campaign, he had learned that he had cancer but did not actively seek medical attention, both because he feared that treatment would take time away from the campaign and because he feared losing the election if his illness became public knowledge. By 1939, Savage was obviously ill, and his opponent John A. Lee was widely criticized for his attacks on the ailing politician. Although people in political circles were widely aware of Savage’s illness, the reluctance of newspapers to be candid about the health of political figures in that era meant that Savage’s death came as a shock to the New Zealand electorate.

By the time Savage died, World War II had begun. Ironically, the world’s second great conflict involved the physical environment around New Zealand less than had the first, in which German South Pacific territories had been involved; during World War II, the Japanese never seriously approached Polynesia. However, if New Zealand had fewer threats to its own security, it made more sacrifices in Europe and the Middle East. Despite their different ideologies, British prime minister Winston Churchill respected Peter Fraser, who succeeded Savage, as an Allied leader and kept him current on military planning efforts.


Although Labour prime ministers had served in Britain and Australia before 1935, they never exerted unchallenged authority and often headed coalition governments that diluted their political force. The government headed by Savage was the first Labour government in the English-speaking world to be voted into office by a groundswell of support from the populace, and it was the first to be secure in its ability to legislate its platform. Labour’s fate, however, might have been very different were it not for the outbreak of World War II, which cemented the Labour leadership position and swathed it in patriotism.

The precedents established by Savage, Fraser, and Nash formed the basis for Labour’s prestige and continued hold on power. Even as many of its economic policies were reversed and its social assumptions began to be seen as outdated, the Savage government still inspired warm feelings on the part of New Zealanders. Indeed, Savage remained one of the most popular of New Zealand’s prime ministers. His combination of charisma and idealistic views lent him a status somewhat similar to that of nationalist president Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico.

Like his fellow World War II leader William Lyon Mackenzie King of Canada, Savage never married and had an interest in mysticism. However, unlike King, who was rather remote, Savage was an unabashed populist. He also had a vulnerability, a humility, and a lack of interest in concealing his own failings that placed him in diametric opposition to the swaggering figures who dominated world politics in the 1930’s. In contrast to these administrations, New Zealand’s Labour government provided humane, accessible leadership for the island country at a time of worldwide turmoil and ideological upheaval. Political parties;Labour Party (New Zealand) Labour Party (New Zealand)

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. A negative assessment of Savage’s economic policies by a historian committed to free-market ideology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belich, James. Paradise Reforged. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. Emphasizes Savage’s role in the articulation of a distinct New Zealand identity, one based in the working class but sufficiently moderate to appeal across the population.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Michael. The Penguin History of New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin Books, 2003. Argues that though Labour in the Savage era did not have an ideology that was recognizable in the orthodox Marxist sense, it nonetheless had an articulated intellectual platform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Michael, and Merle van de Klundert. God’s Farthest Outpost: A History of Catholics in New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Viking Press, 1997. Depicts Savage as a pioneer for Catholics in New Zealand politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mein-Smith, Phillippa. A Concise History of New Zealand. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Provides insight into Savage’s Catholicism and the importance of his Australian background; also gives a good general sense of the first Labour government’s role in New Zealand history.

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First Woman Elected to Australian Parliament

Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations

Categories: History