Keith Jacka Holyoake (1904-1983) was a New Zealand prime minister and leader of the National Party who subsequently became his country's governor general. An astute politician, he led his party to four successive electoral victories and presided over material prosperity and rising social expectations from 1960 to 1972.
The Right Honourable Sir Keith Jacka Holyoake was born near Pahiatua in the lower part of New Zealand's North Island on February 11, 1904. He was the third of seven children and descended from settlers who had migrated to New Zealand from England in 1842. Holyoake's father ran a small general store before eventually taking over a mixed hops, tobacco, fruit, and dairy farm at Riwaka near Motueka in the South Island.
At the age of 12, when his father became ill, Holyoake left school to help on the farm. His ex-schoolteacher mother continued to teach him at home in the evenings. Although he later in life joined the Presbyterian Church, Holyoake was raised in the Plymouth Brethren religion, and his social life as a child was very restricted.
As a young man "Kiwi Keith" Holyoake became much more involved with the wider community as a tennis and rugby football player and rugby administrator. He also served on the executive committees of various farming organizations, eventually becoming the president of the Nelson Province of the Farmer's Union (later known as Federated Farmers) and then that organization's New Zealand vice-president. In 1938 for a time he was acting dominion president of the Farmers' Union.
At the age of 28 Holyoake was elected to the House of Representatives in a 1932 by-election for the seat of Motueka, following the suicide of the member of Parliament from that district. Holyoake had contested the seat unsuccessfully as a coalition government supporter at a general election the previous year. Following the landslide Labour Party victory of 1935 various antisocialist groups and parties formed the National Party, and Holyoake joined it. He held the Motueka seat until 1938 when, following extensive boundary changes and the influx into the electorate of hundreds of relief workers employed on public works, he lost to a Labour Party candidate.
For the next five years, 1938 to 1943, Holyoake returned to farming, first at Motueka. Following Ransom's retirement in 1943, Holyoake was selected unopposed as the National Party's candidate and was re-elected to Parliament as the representative for Pahiatua at the 1943 election. He held that seat until his retirement following his appointment as governor general in 1977.
Holyoake and his wife Norma (nee Ingram) had two sons and three daughters, and Holyoake always treasured the occasions he could escape from public life and spend time with his family on the farm or later at his holiday home on the western shore of Lake Taupo.
Rise of the National Party
When the National Party became the Government of New Zealand for the first time following the 1949 elections, Holyoake became deputy prime minister and minister of agriculture and marketing, negotiating minimum prices for wool in 1952, meat in 1955, and dairy produce in 1956. At the age of 53 he succeeded an ailing Sir Sidney Holland as prime minister three months before the 1957 election. Unable to establish himself sufficiently in the short time available, Holyoake and his party were defeated by the Labour Party, which won the election with a working majority of one seat in Parliament. For the next three years Keith Holyoake effectively led the Opposition.
In 1960, after Holyoake had stumped the country criticizing the new Labour government's economic management and "the Black Budget" of 1958, the National Party swept back into office and Holyoake again became New Zealand's prime minister. He won four elections in succession and remained the country's leader for over 11 years. During that time he also held the foreign affairs portfolio and frequently travelled overseas to attend conferences and meet other world leaders.
A realistic tactician and pragmatic and effective manager of both cabinet and caucus, Holyoake created the public image of a government that was reluctant to intervene in the economy or in the affairs of the individual New Zealanders and that practiced cautious but liberal government by consensus. His 1963 election slogan "Steady Does It" summed up his approach to politics. Only the corrosive controversy of New Zealand's limited involvement in the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s divided the electorate seriously during that time.
Holyoake was not an innovator, but he presided over a period in New Zealand history during which there was considerable economic growth, material prosperity, and upward social mobility. It was also a time of considerable social and technological change during which the country only partially started to recognize that it had to become economically and diplomatically more self-reliant. The seeds of serious future conflicts over foreign affairs, defense, and race relations were being sown, though they did not become major issues until after Holyoake relinquished office.
In February 1972 Holyoake, who had been knighted in 1970, stepped down as prime minister and leader of the National Party. Only two New Zealand prime ministers had served longer—Richard John "King Dick" Seddon (1893-1906) and William Ferguson "Bill" Massey (1912-1925). Holyoake stayed in Parliament as an "elder statesman, " and his experience and advice became essential to the National Party when it again tasted a bitter electoral defeat in November of that year. Within three years the National Party, under a new leader, Robert Muldoon, admirer of Holyoake, had won back the treasury benches, and in late 1975 Holyoake became minister of state in a new National Party government.
Tradition was broken in 1977 when the government appointed Holyoake as governor-general of New Zealand. Despite the controversy surrounding the nomination of an active politician as the queen's representative, Holyoake's three year term in the post passed without incident and he occupied the position with distinction and impartiality.
In 1980, shortly before retiring as governor-general, Holyoake became the only resident New Zealander ever to be honored by the queen as knight commander of the Order of the Garter. (Holyoake replaced the queen's uncle, Lord Mountbatten, who had been recently assassinated.) In addition to Knight of the Garter, Holyoake also could claim several other (lesser) honors.
Holyoake appeared somewhat aloof and sounded a little pompous in public. In fact he was a sensitive man who was remarkably modest about his role in New Zealand politics. Throughout his long public career—of over half a century and 16 election campaigns—Holyoake rarely if ever indulged in personality politics. He demanded and received from his National Party colleagues loyalty, "an ounce" of which, he frequently stated, was "better than a ton of cleverness." As prime minister Holyoake certainly earned for himself a place in New Zealand history as one of its greatest political figures. He died on December 8, 1983.
Further Reading on Keith Jacka Holyoake
The only biography is by Ross A. Doughty, The Holyoake Years (1977). Keith Jacka Holyoake will be listed in the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography being prepared for publication during New Zealand's 150th anniversary in 1990. Holyoake is also discussed in two books by a successor as the National Party's leader, R. D. Muldoon: The Rise and Fall of a Young Turk (1974) and Muldoon (1977). See also B. S. Gustafson, The New Zealand National Party: The First Fifty Years (1986).
Additional Biography Sources
Doughty, Ross Alexander, The Holyoake years, Fielding: R. Doughty, 1977.