Farmer Bill, Doug Munro

A Great New Zealand Prime Minister? Reappraising William Ferguson Massey
James Watson and Lachy Paterson (eds)
Otago University Press, $39.99,
ISBN 9781877578076


New Zealand political biography is in good shape, largely thanks to Barry Gustafson and Michael Bassett. Between them they have written biographies of six 20th-century prime ministers – Gustafson: Michael Savage, Keith Holyoake and Robert Muldoon; Bassett: Joseph Ward, Gordon Coates and Peter Fraser. These are scholarly and heavily-referenced works, and a credit to their authors, as is Ray Richards’s recent biography of Geoffrey Palmer. Discounting the more impressionistic memoirs that appear from time to time, there are obvious gaps in the coverage. A decent biography of Richard Seddon is at least in the pipeline but a proper biography of Norman Kirk is nowhere in sight. There is a full-scale biography of New Zealand’s second longest serving Prime Minister, William Ferguson Massey (1912-25), by Bruce Farlane, but he is, frankly, not in the same league as Bassett and Gustafson.

Massey’s reputation has taken a bashing down the years, not least, as Watson and Paterson point out, because New Zealand historical writing has been dominated by the political Left. Here one is reminded of Bill Oliver’s wry remark that there “is a germ of truth in the charge that the New Zealand left is constantly winning in books the battles it long ago lost in reality”. Certainly Massey won the fight against militant unionism in 1912-13 and he deployed staunch strike-breaking techniques in doing so. The legacy of bitterness it left has been seen as in keeping with other aspects of Massey’s generally negative reputation – the country bumpkin (“Farmer Bill”), bereft of ideas, lacking in vision, an arch-conservative, the bum-boy of international capitalism. Throw in jingoism and sectarianism and you complete the picture. I wonder whether David Low had Massey half in mind when he created his cartoon character Colonel Blimp. The physical resemblances between the two seem more than coincidental.

Massey’s popular image is a one-dimensional caricature. There is a great deal more to him than the stereotypes into which he has been cast, and the book under review is part of an ongoing reappraisal of Massey’s life and work. What is singularly lacking is any attempt, beyond the occasional passing reference, to confront and address the manner in which Massey crushed militant labour in the 1912-13 strikes. Whether it is a case of avoidance, denial or inadvertence is beside the point. Quite simply, to evade Massey’s role in industrial relations makes as much sense as assessing Sid Holland without reference to the 1951 waterfront dispute.

Questions of coverage and balance hang over this book, in particular the uneven treatment of Massey’s career. He became a consummate politician but there is little on his work as a parliamentarian and political strategist on the domestic front, whether the consolidation of his party, forging political alliances, his adeptness in parliament, relations with senior colleagues and public servants, the quality of his leadership, and the management of his own Cabinet. The bitsy, pick-and-miss character of the book can best be illustrated by contrasting it with a comparable volume, Peter Fraser: Master Politician (edited by Margaret Clark in 1998). Also a volume of conference proceedings, and only slightly longer, it covered the ground more comprehensively. This was partly because the individual chapters were more broadly based and less specialised, and a similar approach would have given the present volume greater coherence.

In the Fraser volume, for example, there is a chapter on Fraser and Maori, whereas the present volume contains a more narrowly focused chapter by Ashley Gould on Maori participation in the soldier settlement scheme. It is an able and well-researched chapter, but one that would have been more suitable as a journal article. Both volumes rightly have separate chapters on Massey’s and Fraser’s wives. Christina Massey, as Linda Bryder shows, was more than helpmeet. She also extended her skills to the public sphere as a prominent figure in the Plunket Society. Overall, more chapters along the lines of Brad Patterson’s discussion of Massey’s fight for freehold land tenure, which was central to his philosophy, were needed.

In certain respects Massey may be compared to Keith Holyoake. Both were on the conservative side of politics, and both were part of New Zealand’s then tradition of farmer prime ministers. Just as Holyoake cannot be dismissed as a “pompous ass”, so Massey has been generally underrated. A point of difference between Holyoake and Massey is that the latter was prime minister in far more turbulent times, including a world war, and Holyoake did not have to build a political party. He inherited his predecessors’ creation. There are certainly grounds to reappraise Massey, and the opening chapter sets the tone of the book. Rather than asking why the stereotypes attaching to Massey have persisted, Eric Olssen elaborates on his own more positive reevaluation of the man and in doing so provides personal reflection and historiographic discussion.  His chapter is worth the price of admission alone.

Several of the other chapters suggest new ways of looking at Massey. In examining the repercussions of Massey’s Irish origins, Jock Phillips remarks that his low-church Protestant background meant that ”His experience was the experience of thousands, and the values which that background produced were shared by many others”. More controversially, the chapter by Miles Fairburn and S J Haslett on voting patterns suggests that the vote for Massey between 1911 and 1914 was “remarkably broad-spectrum”, meaning that Massey may well have had to contend with “less intense” social divisions than has hitherto been imagined. Rory Sweetman does not question the extent of Massey’s jingoism and rampant Empire loyalty but suggests that his anti-Catholicism was based less on sectarianism and more on his perception of Catholics as a threat to the British Empire.

Despite these reservations about the essays’ uneven coverage, A Great New Zealand Prime Minister?, as a whole, takes several steps in the right direction towards the necessary reassessment of Massey and, hopefully, towards the type of full-scale biography that is so much needed.


Doug Munro is a Wellington-based biographer and historian.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
Search the archive
Search by category