Michael Joseph Savage (1872-1940) was a prime minister of New Zealand and a labor leader. He won a high place in his nation's esteem for the social and political leadership he offered in a time of depression and economic insecurity.
Michael Joseph Savage was born on March 23, 1872, near Benalla in Victoria, Australia. His parents were among the first Irish settlers of the colony. Educated up to the age of 14 at the local state school, Savage worked as a store hand for some years, during which he and his family experienced the full weight of the depression of the 1890s. After a period of unemployment and farm laboring in New South Wales, Savage returned in 1900 to Victoria, where he took up gold mining for a living. Already known as a fine debater, he helped establish and manage a cooperative and a local labor league.
In 1907 Savage emigrated to New Zealand in order to join friends who had moved there from Victoria. Instead of going to the mining areas on the west coast, he stayed on in the North Island working as a miller and later as a cellarman. He never married.
Savage represented Auckland at the National Conference of Trades and Labour Councils of 1910 and in the next year stood as a parliamentary candidate of the New Zealand Socialist party for the seat of Auckland Central. He was unsuccessful, and he again failed as a candidate for the Social Democratic party in 1914. Despite the splintering of the unionist groups, the burly Savage was emerging as a popular figure.
When the New Zealand Labour party was formed in 1916, he became a member and was eventually elected national secretary in 1919. In the general election of December 1919 he won the seat of Auckland West and kept this seat for the rest of his life. In 1923 he was voted deputy leader of the parliamentary Labour party.
Prominent for his championing of the working man, Savage concentrated during his political career on social questions. When Harry Holland died in October 1933, Savage had become sufficiently trusted by his colleagues to be elected leader of the Labour party, and in the depression years from 1933 to 1935 he made a great impression on the New Zealand public with his sympathetic manner, humane sincerity, and common sense.
The election of 1935 was a spectacular victory for Labour, which under Savage's leadership had gained a moderate, or middle-of-the road, reputation with the electorate. As prime minister, Savage bore responsibility also for external affairs, native affairs, and broadcasting. He had a flair for publicity and in 1936 introduced the broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings.
In 1937 Savage went to London to attend the Imperial Conference and sought guarantees from the British for defense against possible Japanese attack. On his failure to obtain specific agreements he initiated a defense conference with Britain and Australia at Wellington in April 1939. Reluctantly he became concerned that New Zealand should rearm heavily, and he threw his considerable influence behind the recruiting campaign which preceded the outbreak of war in September.
During Savage's time as prime minister the foundations were laid for a very comprehensive social security scheme. He was not by any means a doctrinaire socialist, and he referred to his Social Security Bill as "applied Christianity." In 1938 his popularity assured the Labour party of an even more significant electoral victory than that of 1935.
In 1938 Savage's health deteriorated, however, and divisions within the party further sapped his strength and taxed his considerable skill in public relations. By August 1939 he was forced to hand over his duties to Peter Fraser, who became acting prime minister. Savage died in Wellington on March 27, 1940.
Not as well read or as able as Holland or Fraser, Savage was nevertheless an affable, popular, and shrewd father figure for a small democracy which seemed intent on giving high priority to personal and social security. His simplicity appealed to the plain man in the street and gave New Zealand government a human touch.
John A. Lee, Simple on a Soap-box (1964), is an autobiography by a former colleague of Savage and contains extensive material on him. His career is well covered in Bruce M. Brown, The Rise of New Zealand Labour (1962). For background material see Frederick L. W. Wood, The New Zealand People at War (1958), and Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand (1959; rev. ed. 1969).
Gustafson, Barry, From the cradle to the grave: a biography of Michael Joseph Savage, Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986.