Michael Joseph Savage

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For other people of the same name, see Michael Savage (disambiguation).
The Right Honourable
Michael Joseph Savage
Michael Joseph Savage.jpg
Michael Joseph Savage in the 1920s.
23rd Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
6 December 1935 – 27 March 1940
Monarch George V
Edward VIII
George VI
Governor General George Monckton-Arundell
Preceded by George Forbes
Succeeded by Peter Fraser
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Auckland West
In office
1919 – 27 March 1940
Succeeded by Peter Carr
Personal details
Born (1872-03-23)23 March 1872
Died 27 March 1940(1940-03-27) (aged 68)
New Zealand
Political party Labour
Spouse(s) Never married
Children None
Profession Trade unionist
Religion Roman Catholic
(For a time Rationalism)

Michael Joseph Savage (23 March 1872 – 27 March 1940) was the first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand. He is commonly known as the architect of the welfare state and is constantly regarded as one of New Zealand's greatest and most revered Prime Ministers. He was given the title New Zealander of the Century by The New Zealand Herald in 1999.

Early life[edit]

Born in Tatong, Victoria, Australia, Savage first became involved in politics while working in that state. He emigrated to New Zealand in 1907. There he worked in a variety of jobs, as a miner, flax-cutter and storeman, before becoming involved in the union movement. Savage initially opposed the formation of the 1910 New Zealand Labour Party as he viewed the grouping as insufficiently socialistic. Instead he became the chairman of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, known as the "Red Feds".[1]

Political career[edit]

Socialist origins[edit]

Parliament of New Zealand
Years Term Electorate Party
1919–1922 20th Auckland West Labour
1922–1925 21st Auckland West Labour
1925–1928 22nd Auckland West Labour
1928–1931 23rd Auckland West Labour
1931–1935 24th Auckland West Labour
1935–1938 25th Auckland West Labour
1938–1940 26th Auckland West Labour

In the 1911 and 1914 general election campaigns, Savage unsuccessfully stood as the Socialist candidate for Auckland Central, coming second each time to Albert Glover of the Liberal Party.[1][2] During World War I he opposed conscription, arguing that the conscription of wealth should precede the conscription of men. After the war the voters of the Auckland West electorate put Savage into Parliament as a Labour member in the 1919 general election, an electorate that he held until his death.[3] He became one of eight Labour Members of Parliament, and in due course became the party leader following the death of Harry Holland in 1933. He helped engineer the Labour/Rātana alliance (formalised in 1936).

Prime Minister[edit]

Grave and memorial near Bastion Point.
The state funeral procession for Michael Joseph Savage, April 1940

During the depression, Savage toured the country, and became an iconic figure. An excellent speaker, he became the most visible politician in the land, and led Labour to victory in the 1935 election. Along with the Premiership he appointed himself the positions of Minister of External Affairs and Minister of Maori Affairs.[4] The first Labour government swiftly proved popular and easily won the 1938 general election with an increased popular mandate. Savage, suffering from cancer of the colon at the time, had delayed seeking treatment to participate in the election campaign. He died from the cancer in 1940.

Savage led the country into World War II, officially declaring war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, just hours after Britain.[5] Unlike Australia, which felt obligated to declare war, as it too had not ratified the Statute of Westminster, New Zealand did so as a sign of allegiance to Britain, and in recognition of Britain's abandoning its former appeasement of the dictators, a policy that New Zealand had opposed. This led to Prime Minister Savage declaring (from his bed) two days later that:

With gratitude for the past and confidence in the future we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand. We are only a small and young nation, but we march with a union of hearts and souls to a common destiny.

Savage brought an almost religious fervour to his politics. This, and his death while in office, has made him become something of an iconic figure to the Left. The architect of the welfare state (see Social welfare in New Zealand), his picture reportedly hung in many Labour supporters' homes. Savage rejected rationalism during later life and returned to his Catholic roots. His state funeral included a Requiem Mass celebrated at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Hill St, Wellington before his body was taken amidst general and public mourning by train to Auckland where he was interred initially in a temporarily adapted harbour defence gun installation. He was soon after removed to a side chapel of St Patrick's Cathedral in Auckland, while a national competition was announced, decided, and the winning design of the monumental tomb and memorial gardens at Bastion Point constructed, forming his permanent resting site. While younger generations have less awareness of him, many older New Zealanders continue to revere him.

Death and commemoration[edit]

He was a lifelong bachelor, and lived with Alf and Elizabeth French in Auckland from 1908 until 1939. Alf came to New Zealand in 1894 on the ship Wairarapa which was wrecked on Great Barrier Island, and helped in the rescue of a girl. From 1939 Savage lived in a house “Hill Haven” at 64-66 Harbour View Road, Northland, Wellington, which was subsequently used by Peter Fraser until 1949.[6]

Savage served as the patron of the New Zealand Rugby League.[7]

Savage lies buried at Bastion Point on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour waterfront in the Savage Memorial,[8] a clifftop mausoleum crowned by a tall minaret, and fronted by an extensive memorial garden and reflecting pool. Savage’s body is interred in a vertical shaft below the sarcophagus, as confirmed in 2003-05.[9]


Michael Joseph Savage is revered from many sides of the political spectrum and is known as the architect of the New Zealand Welfare State. He is considered by academics and historians to be New Zealand's most loved Prime Minister. He was often called 'Everybody's Uncle' because of his kind and friendly nature. He once helped a family in Miramar, Wellington, move their furniture into their new state home.[10]


  1. ^ a b Gustafson, Barry. "Savage, Michael Joseph - Biography". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 11 December 2011. 
  2. ^ Scholefield 1950, p. 109.
  3. ^ Scholefield 1950, p. 137.
  4. ^ New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, Vols. 248-256 (1936-1939).
  5. ^ "Fighting for Britain – NZ and the Second World War". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2 September 2008. 
  6. ^ Dominion Post (Wellington), 2012: 1 December pE1 & 26 December pA14
  7. ^ Jessup, Peter (12 October 2002). "Kiwi players let their hair down at Clark bash". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  8. ^ Nathan, Simon; Bruce Hayward (27 October 2010). "Story: Building stone". Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 10 December 2011. 
  9. ^ Fletcher, Kelsey (10 February 2013). "King find recalls Savage mystery". Fairfax (Stuff). Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  10. ^ Illustrated history of New Zealand by Marcia Stenson, page 55


  • Scholefield, Guy (1950) [First published in 1913]. New Zealand Parliamentary Record, 1840–1949 (3rd ed.). Wellington: Govt. Printer. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
George Forbes
Prime Minister of New Zealand
Succeeded by
Peter Fraser
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by
Charles Poole
Member of Parliament for Auckland West
Succeeded by
Peter Carr