Embers of hope, W H Oliver

Sir Joseph Ward: A Political Biography
Michael Bassett,
Auckland University Press, 1993, $39.95

There is a paradox in the 6 November election. Voters objecting to the trend of the past 10 years toward less and weaker government have, in their attempt to halt the trend, voted in an electoral system which will make strong government more difficult and thus ended a habit instituted by the Liberals in the 1890s of turning to governments for action. But has the habit really died? What will happen if New Zealanders tire of stagnation and vacillation?

The election result gives an added pertinacity to the publication, at last, of a biography of Sir Joseph Ward, one of the most prominent of the Liberals and a believer in active government.

The lack of a biography of Ward, who was for some 40 years at or near the top of New Zealand politics, has been rightly identified as a major gap in our historical literature. Now that we have a full-scale biography of the old kind (no psychoanalytical nonsense here) the gap might be thought to have been filled. In a sense it has been. This well-written book is the product of years of faithful research and it comes from an author who himself, as a politician, must have shared many situations with his subject. Except, of course, a reluctance to retire ‑ one wonders, did the spectacle of Ward’s inglorious later years help Michael Bassett decide to get out while he was ahead? (Or, at least, not too far behind.)

To suggest there is still a gap is no reflection upon the author ‑ though, perhaps, he should have chanced his arm with some in-depth guesswork in answer to the questions which still occupy the gap. Why did Ward so love the trappings of position and power? Why was he, for all his courtesy and charm (Irish blarney would be a less sympathetic label) so single-mindedly intent on being No 1? Why did he not get out (say, in 1919) and stay out? Who, really, was Ward? Even when the author is himself a politician it is surely not too much to ask of him that he should dig down below rather shallow answers to the effect that he wanted to help his fellow men?

Dr Bassett does, if rather briefly, venture a view about what Ward stood for in the hearts and minds of New Zealanders. He quotes, approvingly, a 1907 newspaper: ‘Hope, hope, bright, beautiful hope is through him warp and woof, and his is like the central sun of a small universe, radiating it in every direction… ‘ Ward is the leader whose glowing if slightly tawdry vision of a bright future could still stir embers of hope in the voters’ breasts even in 1928 when they were (or should have been) nearly dead. Ward emerges as the apostle of hope in a hopeful young country, it has to be added that he is dose to being the apostle of hope deferred and inevitably dashed.

This was as far as I had got before the review was interrupted by the electoral events of 6 November. I planned to go on, in a conventional way, to identify the many merits of the author’s achievement, to link his picture of Ward as apostle of hope to David Hamer’s description of the Liberals as small-town boosters (The New Zealand Liberals, 1988) and to conclude with some sage reflections up on the Liberal era in New Zealand history. Well, I will get back to something of that, but the events of 6 November rivet attention on a different range of hopes and fears.

After all (before supplementaries were in) Radio New Zealand at one point gave us the author himself, in company with Barry Gustafson, reflecting upon those two earlier hung Parliaments of 1911 and 1928 with which, of course, Ward was much involved. He made a tactical retreat after the former, leaving the luckless Thomas Mackenzie to be outmanoeuvred by William Massey. From the latter he emerged as, surely, the most improbable Prime Minister New Zealand has ever had.

In a situation in which all bets are off, it may or may not be pertinent to recall that the hung Parliament of 1911 led to Massey’s dozen inglorious years at the top, and that of 1928, after death had removed Ward, to the even more inglorious Coalition led by George Forbes ‑ not strong enough to do much but just strong enough to frustrate its only purposeful politician, Gordon Coates.

But it is more certainly relevant to present-day concerns to note that the 20-year period of Liberal rule brought to an end in 1911-12 was the time in which two prominent and closely related features of New Zealand politics over the last century were established ‑ party government and executive dominance.

That surely sounds familiar, isn’t that what the majorities of 6 November were protesting about? There were plenty of quite similar protests during the years (1893-1905) when Richard Seddon created, and was created by, both, even if in a more shaky form than they were to assume by the middle of the twentieth century.

The protests were unavailing then (and we have yet to see if they will be of any lasting effect now). With gaps and hesitations (including Ward’s first prime ministership), party government and a dominant party-based executive have prevailed from the 1890s for the best part of a century. Though there have been surges of often localised support for short-lived third parties, the two-party model, reshaped when Labour ceased to be a third party and drove the other two together, seemed until quite recently to be the norm to which through all aberrations (even long-lived Social Credit) the country eventually returned.

As long as that was so, the winner-take-all electoral system was satisfactory enough for most of us. Some people felt excluded: they were, but most of us were happy enough to see that happen. FPP appealed to a conservative electorate as a good way of keeping the idiots either out or subject to party discipline.

It was perhaps rather dimly felt that it was a good idea to keep them out just as long as it was generally agreed that governments were there to do something. Granted that, a dominant executive derived from a dominant party (Liberal, Reform, Labour, National, each with long terms in office) was satisfactory enough ‑ politics, after all is the art of the imperfect.

Over the last three terms, these dominant executives have gone too far, and this time for most people, not just some. Sir Roger Douglas’s dictum, consensus follows a quality decision, has been rejected.

But the rejection brings with it a paradox. Over the last three terms the dominant party-based executive has certainly been active, but in reducing, not extending, the scope of government, to a shadow of its former self. Aptly enough, at the same time as we have hamstrung the two main parties, we have opted for an electoral system likely to produce governments which will do less, if not quite nothing, simply because it will install less unified and so weaker executives.

The paradox is this: many, probably most, of the majority that has brought in MMP desperately want a government which will do something about employment, social services, health and education. On the other side, those who stood firm for FPP did so because the system produced governments which were strong enough to keep on doing less and eventually, in the economic and social spheres, do more or less nothing.

Perhaps fortunately the crystal ball clouds over. Could it be that those who are so concerned for the unemployed, the sick and the aged, and those others who are concerned to let the market expand over the whole of life, are unlikely allies within the trend of history away from strong government, the former by using strong government to get rid of government, the latter by bringing in an electoral system which will ensure that government is weak, and weak even on behalf of its victims?

All this may seem and probably is, a long way from Ward. But perhaps not so far. He was in the front rank of those we can now see as the first generation of state activists empowered by a strong party-based executive. Dr Bassett makes a good case that Ward should not be ranked lower than his colleagues Mackenzie and William Pember Reeves, and certainly not dismissed as just a financial wizard with dubious business ethics. His achievements caused less of a stir at the time, but they were solid and have (at least until quite recently) lasted: financing settlers to stay on the land (not just to get there), improving transport and communications, building up the public service and reforming health services and superannuation.

In late 1993 it is worth remembering that he did these things (and others did a good deal else of lasting importance) as a powerful minister in the first strong executive produced by a functioning political party. If this analysis is anywhere near the mark, we are not likely to see more Wards in the next few years. Instead, we are likely to have a Massey or a Forbes presiding shakily over a slim and unreliable majority or an uneasy and divided coalition.

To return to the book: on whose behalf and for whose benefit did Ward (and the other Liberals) want to get things done? The features of his life outside politics are instructive here. Ward was the poor kid with brains, the child of a family which had lived down domestic disorder, an Irish Catholic who made good in a Protestant world, a small businessman who became (twice) a big one, a bankrupt who survived bankruptcy. He was one of the self-respecting thrusters; he was not among the casualties and victims of colonisation. In politics he was concerned to enhance the opportunities of people like himself, to help those who had shown that they could help themselves.

He began his career as mayor of Bluff and chairman of its harbour board. He was one of Hamer’s small-town boosters, a species produced by dozens of towns emerging from frontier rawness into civility and envisaging a great future for themselves. These towns, Professor Hamer argues, constituted the Liberal heartland for just as long as the dream remained not wholly implausible.

Dr Bassett, who is perhaps rather too strictly intent upon being a mere biographer, does not explore this connection. But he has given us some justification for thinking that ‘Joe’s mob’ was recruited from the small-town ambitious and their booster spokesmen.

A more famous mob, that supporting Sir Robert Muldoon and now (perhaps) assembling behind Winston Peters, could well prove to be similar in essence if not in specifics ‑ people who want to make their way and care little for those who cannot, more impatient at the restraints of government than seeking its support, intensely ambitious and intensely materialistic.

Apart from such peripheral matters as courtesy, charm and unfailing good temper, Sir Joseph is in some respects closer in spirit to Sir Robert than to any other politician who came after him. There is the same vaulting ambition and materialistic vision, the same sympathy with the aspirations of the ordinary bloke, the same love of position and of sitting behind the biggest desk, the same capacity to juggle with figures and dazzle with statistics. And, at least some have said, the same well-hidden sensitivity and capacity to be hurt, the same nagging awareness of humble origins. But the comparison should not be pushed too far; Sir Joseph was clearly a much nicer man.

Suppose, though, to return to the sub-plot, that we are now entering upon a new period of stagnation and vacillation and that we get tired of it. Whom will we call upon to cut through the tangled knot and get us moving again? Sir Winston?


Bill Oliver is a former professor of history at Massey University. He edited the first edition of the Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand History and the first instalment of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.


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