Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph SavageMichael Joseph, ('Mickey') Savage was born in Tatong, a small north-east Victorian farming community in 1872, the seventh and youngest child of struggling Irish migrant selectors, Richard and Johanna Savage. He remained in the Benalla district till 1893, when, having lost his job as a grocery clerk, he packed his swag and took to the road. He eventually found work as a farm labourer in the Riverina, where he stayed until 1900, when economic circumstances drove him back South, this time to Rutherglen, and hard work in the North Prentice gold-mines. He was there for seven years, during which time he became involved in industrial unionism and Labour party politics.

In 1907 Savage followed his mate, Paddy Webb, across the Tasman, eventually settling in Auckland. There he resumed his political career, becoming President of the Auckland Trades and Labour Council in 1910, and, after the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1916, its candidate for the parliamentary seat of Auckland West in 1919. He won the seat by 400 votes, and held it for the rest of his life. In parliament throughout the 1920's he served as a spokesperson for humanitarian reform, for assistance to ordinary men and women, rather than as an advocate of class warfare. As such, he was a key player in softening the public image of the Labour Party, in making it electorally acceptable.

Savage became the Party’s deputy leader in 1929, and took over the helm in 1933, on the death of Harry Holland, thus becoming Leader of the Opposition. In 1935, in the maelstrom of the Great Depression, he led the Party to electoral victory becoming New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister. Seizing the moment, he began the work of reconstructing the country along fairer, more egalitarian lines, aiming to provide a basic level of social security for all, comprehensive health care, and equality of opportunity through the provision of a decent public school system. By 1938, he had effectively built New Zealand’s welfare state, and the Government was triumphantly re elected as a consequence. By this time, Savage had come to epitomize the Government’s humanitarian ideals. No New Zealand Prime Minister has aroused more genuine affection from the people than he.

Just over a year later, on March 27, 1940, Michael Joseph Savage died of cancer. He was taken by rail from Wellington to Auckland amidst scenes of public grief never seen in New Zealand before or since. His tomb and memorial, on Bastion Point, overlooking Auckland Harbour, bear the simple inscription:
"Michael Joseph Savage, 1872 - 1940"