Opinion & Analysis
A profile of Labour leader Michael Joseph Savage, 1935
Australian-born, the son of a farmer in Victoria; a New Zealander since 1907; a worker since he was 13 years of age; a bachelor; a quiet, earnest man with a vein of Irish humour; a man beloved of his friends.
Such is Michael Joseph Savage, the leader of the party which the people yesterday chose to form the Government; the man, therefore, who shortly will be the head of His Majesty's Government in New Zealand.
Political considerations apart, there is no man in the House of Representatives who is more respected and more affectionately regarded than Mr. Savage. His supporters on the Labour benches give him intense loyalty, and his opponents the regard due to a man who at all times has shown honesty and steadfastness of purpose, fairness and a reasonable spirit.
Mr. Savage is a practical idealist. He is an idealist in that his whole political life has been a fight for the ultimate objective of a world where all men and women will live together in happier relationship - and he is practical in that he has never allowed that ideal to cloud his vision with fanaticism.
He gives calm consideration to all questions that are presented for his judgment, and those who submit the questions know that his answer is based on a summing up of all aspects. He is not given to emotionalism, and it is known both inside and outside his party that he keeps a restraining hand on such of his colleagues as would allow "their hearts to run away with their heads."
Perhaps it is best expressed in the words of a man who knows him intimately - "Joe Savage is a builder -not a destroyer."
It is indicative of the man that such stories as are told of Mr. Savage have their point in expressing some characteristic which is admirable. No one would deny him a sense of humour - he is an Irishman by descent- but it is expressed more in his appreciation of another's humour than in active witticism.
"There have been times when his rejoinder to a sally from the Government benches has drawn the laughter of the whole House, but on such occasions he has not been seen to laugh himself or to give any indication that it was conscious humour.
That sense of humour can be seen more readily in the twinkle in his eye as he sits in a characteristic attitude in an armchair, pipe in mouth, in the fellowship of a few friends.
He is an experienced speaker, and an impressive one, with the ability to express himself clearly. His voice is even-toned, and he makes his point without flight or rhetoric. It is said of him that he shares one thing in common with the late Mr. W. F. Massey; he rises to greater heights in the House than he does on the hustings. In Parliament he speaks with conviction, slowly and in phrases inviting reasoned consideration.
Capacity as Leader
His selection as Leader of the Parliamentary Labour party, following the death of the late Mr. H. E. Holland, was welcomed throughout New Zealand. It was the logical selection. Mr. Savage was the deputy-leader, and during the latter years of tho 1928 Parliament it was generally considered that he shared the leadership with Mr. Holland.
His opinion was regarded as expressing the policy of the Labour party. His personal popularity and the respect given to his administrative capacity by the members of his party were other reasons. Essentially Mr. Savage is a party man and not an individualist, and his concern, it is recognised, is to get the best out of every member of his team. To that end ho is prepared to make any personal sacrifice.
It is related by Mr. J. A. Lee that in 1922, when it was current rumour that Sir Arthur Myers was about to retire, Mr. Savage approached him repeatedly with requests that he should contest the seat for Labour. Mr. Lee was then in business, and although president of the Labour party was at first unwilling to stand as a candidate. If it meant any business sacrifice, said Mr. Savage, he was willing to give every penny he had to assist.
"I knew he meant it," said Mr. Lee. "He thought more of the cause he represented than of the few shillings he had. Even then I objected. I told him that I was trying to build up a position in life and/ that I was unwilling to expose myself to a position, where, in a few years, I might be called a humbug and a political faker, and be despised and rejected.
Mr. Savage's answer is worth dwelling on: 'I can't promise you any better fate than the one which awaits in store for all of us, however sincerely we serve. Thousands are always ready to misunderstand. You'll share that fate with the rest of us -but all the same we want you."
There are other similar stories, and the enthusiasm with which they are told by his followers shows clearly the affection in which Mr. Savage is held.
"A gain made by subtlety can only be held temporarily," Mr. Savage is said to have remarked on one occasion, when insisting that the party should lay all its cards on the table on a particular question, and to that belief he has rigidly adhered in party conferences.
Of his generosity, too, they speak. It it related that he gives the greater part of his honorarium away. It was on the motion of Mr. Savage that it was decided that in the event of the Labour party gaining the Treasury benches all honorariums should be pooled and equally divided, the party members being teamed under the various Ministers to control different Ministerial Departments.
Gentle of manner Mr. Savage has yet a firmness which will brook no indiscipline within the party. It is a firmness that he has rarely been called on to exercise, for he has the knack of handling men.
"I have watched him closely for a quarter of a century in respect to his ability to handle serious questions and serious positions," relates Mr. W. E. Parry, "and I have never met a man in my life with whom I would sooner discuss a problem with the object of overcoming it than I would with our leader. The same opinion I know is held by every man in our movement."
Lost Job in Bank Crash
Mr. Savage has had a. life of varied experience, his parents having been farmers at Benalla, Victoria - the same town being the birthplace of Mr. P. C. Webb, M.P., who was mainly responsible for Mr. Savage's coming to New Zealand. His first job was in a general store, and was taken when he was about 13 years old.
But after seven years the bank crash of 1893, when many people were ruined, threw him out of work. He travelled to New South Wales and held all types of jobs, from station work and mining, to the management of a cooperative store, which was principally a bakery.
Mainly he was engaged in mining, and he holds a first-class certificate for trucking and driving of a winding engine. But from New Zealand came rosy pictures painted by Mr. Webb, and in 1907 he sailed to this country. For a time he was employed in the flax industry at Takamarua, and then he came north to Auckland to join the staff of Hancock's. He was elected to Parliament for the Auckland West seat in 1916, and he has been continuously a member since then.
Mr. Savage is an omnivorous reader, particularly on social and economic subjects, but his interests do not rest entirely there. It is recorded that when he first went to Parliament he could dance an Irish jig. Now, when opportunity is available, he is very fond of a day's shooting - usually in company with Mr. Parry.
Like all true Irishmen, he is fond of horses, and he admits that one of his greatest pleasures in these days is a visit to Ellerslie. As a young man he played Australian code football and cricket. Now he has ambitions to play bowls - when he gets the time. But the exercise of a Parliamentarian is limited, and in Wellington
Mr. Savage finds most of his in a three-mile walk taken in company with several colleagues every evening before dinner. He is a bachelor - one of the few in Parliament. "One of these days," remarked an enthusiastic colleague, "Joe will stand on a hunk of granite outside the House - and he'll be honoured."
- This article first appeared in the Auckland Star, November 28 1935.