McNab was born in 1864 at Dunragget farm near Invercargill. His parents were Janet and Alexander McNab, a runholder. His father represented the Murihiku electorate on the Otago Provincial Council (1858–1861), and the Cambelltown electorate on the Southland Provincial Council (1861–1865), and was for short periods on the Southland Executive Council and the council's Speaker.
Robert McNab received his education from Invercargill District High School and the University of Otago, from where he graduated with a BA in 1893, an MA in mathematics and mathematical physics in 1885, and LLB in 1891. He was admitted to the bar in 1889 and had a law practice in Invercargill from 1890 to 1896, which was followed by running the family farm on the upper Mataura River.
|Parliament of New Zealand|
He represented the Mataura electorate from 1893 to 1896 when he was defeated by George Richardson. In 1898 Richardson was adjudged bankrupt. McNab won the subsequent by-election, and held the seat again to 1908 when he was again defeated, by George James Anderson. In 1914 he won the Hawkes Bay seat, which he held until he died in 1917.
He was a Cabinet Minister, and was Minister of Lands, and Minister of Agriculture, from 1906 to 1908 in the Ward Ministry. He was Minister of Justice, Minister of Marine, and Minister of Stamp Duties from 1915 to his death in 1917 in the Reform Government when Reform was in a temporary wartime coalition with the Liberals.
McNab began researching New Zealand history in the late 1890s, and published numerous articles and books including the Historical Records of New Zealand at the request of the government. In 1913 McNab donated his collection of 4,200 books on history and geography to the Dunedin Public Library, with the condition the collection be added to continually. As of 2008[update], the McNab New Zealand Collection contains around 83,000 items.
- Scholefield, Guy (1950) [First published in 1913]. New Zealand Parliamentary Record, 1840–1949 (3rd ed.). Wellington: Govt. Printer.
- Wilson, James Oakley (1985) [First published in 1913]. New Zealand Parliamentary Record, 1840–1984 (4th ed.). Wellington: V.R. Ward, Govt. Printer. OCLC 154283103.
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|Minister of Justice
|New Zealand Parliament|
|Member of Parliament for Mataura
George James Anderson
|Member of Parliament for Hawkes Bay