Savage led the New Zealand Labour Party to its first ever electoral victory in the 1935 election. He won public support for his government's economic recovery policies and social welfare programme. His popularity assured the Labour Party of an even more significant electoral victory in the 1938 election. His government joined Britain in declaring war against Germany in 1939. Savage's health declined rapidly after Labour's second electoral victory and he died in office. He was succeeded as head of government by Peter Fraser.
Commonly known as the architect of the New Zealand welfare state, Savage is generally regarded as one of New Zealand's greatest and most revered Prime Ministers. He is the only New Zealand Prime Minister to serve under three monarchs (George V, Edward VIII and George VI).
Born as Michael Savage in Tatong, Victoria, Australia, the youngest of eight children of Irish immigrant parents, he received a Roman Catholic upbringing from his sister Rose, after his mother's death when he was aged five. He spent five years attending a state school at Rothesay, the same town as his father's farm. From 1886, aged 14, to 1893 Savage worked at a wine and spirits shop in Benalla. Savage also attended evening classes at Benalla College at this time. Although short in stature, Savage had enormous physical strength and made a name as both a boxer and weightlifter while enjoying dancing and many other sports.
In 1891 Savage was devastated by the deaths of both his sister Rose and his closest brother Joe. He adopted Joe's name and became known as Michael Joseph Savage from then on. After losing his job in 1893, Savage moved to New South Wales, finding work as a labourer and irrigation ditch-digger in Narrandera for seven years. Whilst there, he joined the General Labourers' Union and became familiar with the radical political theories of the Americans Henry George and Edward Bellamy, who influenced his political policies in later life.
Savage moved back to Victoria in 1900, working a number of jobs. He became active in the Political Labor Council of Victoria, and in 1907 he was chosen as the PLC's candidate to stand for the Wangaratta electorate. Savage had to pull out after the party was not able to fund his deposit and campaign costs, and John Thomas stood instead. He remained an active party member and became a close friend of PLC member Paddy Webb, with whom he was closely linked in later years.
After a farewell function in Rutherglen, Savage emigrated to New Zealand in 1907. He arrived in Wellington on 9 October, which happened to be Labour Day. There he worked in a variety of jobs, as a miner, flax-cutter and storeman, before becoming involved in the union movement. Despite initially intending to join Webb on the West Coast, he decided to move north, arriving in Auckland in 1908.
He soon found board there with Alf and Elizabeth French and their two children. Alf had come to New Zealand in 1894 on the ship Wairarapa, which was wrecked on Great Barrier Island, and had helped in the rescue of a girl. Savage, who never married, lived with the French family until 1939, when he moved to the house Hill Haven, 64-66 Harbour View Road, Northland, Wellington, subsequently used by his successor as Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, until 1949.
Savage served as patron of the New Zealand Rugby League.
Savage at first opposed the formation of the original New Zealand Labour Party as he viewed the grouping as insufficiently socialistic. Instead he became the chairman of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, known as the "Red Feds". There, he assisted with organizing meetings and group sessions and helped to distributed their socialist newspaper, the Maoriland Worker.
In the 1911 and 1914 general election campaigns, Savage unsuccessfully stood as the Socialist candidate for Auckland Central, coming second each time to Albert Glover of the Liberal Party. During this time Savage was also involved in local union groups, becoming president of the Auckland Brewers', Wine and Spirit Merchants' and Aerated-water Employees' Union, president of the Auckland Trades and Labour Council, the Auckland organizer for the Social Democratic Party and supported striking miners at Waihi. During World War I he opposed conscription, arguing "that the conscription of wealth should precede the conscription of men". Savage's opposition to conscription was not absolute, rather based on balance. Indeed, he complied with a conscription order and entered a training camp in 1918, aged 46.
Savage openly supported the formation of a unified New Zealand Labour Party in July 1916, and became its national vice president in 1918 and later the first permanent national secretary the next year. In 1919 Savage was elected as a Labour candidate to both the Auckland City Council and the Auckland Hospital and Charitable Aid Board in local body elections. He served on the Charitable Aid Board until 1922 and as a councillor until 1923 but was re-elected in 1927, remaining in office until 1935.
As World War I came to an end, the voters of the Auckland West electorate put Savage into Parliament as a Labour member in the 1919 general election, an electorate that he held until his death. He became one of eight Labour Members of Parliament. He formally became the party's deputy-leader after the 1922 election, defeating Dan Sullivan eleven votes to six. Assuming an ever-increasing workload, he resigned as Labour's national secretary and Auckland Labour Representation Committee secretary in July 1920.
For most of the 1920s Savage sought to expand Labour's support beyond urban unionists and travelled frequently to rural areas. He became the leading advocate for increases to pensions and universally free health care. He is credited for the creation of the Family Allowances Act 1926, which the governing Reform Party openly commented that it had modelled the legislation on three earlier defeated bills introduced by Savage. In 1927 Savage and several others persuaded the party to amend its land policy and recognise the right of freehold which was essential in gaining rural support for Labour. In doing so, Savage furthered perceptions that he was a more practical politician than current Labour leader Harry Holland. In October 1933 Holland died suddenly and Savage took his place becoming Labour's second party Leader.
Savage helped to engineer an alliance between Labour and the Rātana Church, which was gaining a large Māori following in the 1930s. When T .W. Rātana entered politics he allied himself with the Labour Party, which had consulted with his followers over Māori policy. The pact was formalised in a 1936 meeting between Rātana and Savage.
During the depression, Savage toured the country, and became an iconic figure. An excellent speaker, he became the most visible politician in the land, and led Labour to victory in the 1935 election. Along with the Premiership, he appointed himself to the posts of Minister of External Affairs and Minister of Native Affairs. In 1936 the Weekly News featured Spencer Digby's full page iconic photograph of Savage which was often to be seen framed in many New Zealand homes through the following years.
Despite questioning the necessity for Edward VIII to abdicate, Savage sailed to Britain in 1937 to attend the coronation of King George VI, as well as the concurrent Imperial Conference. While in London, Savage differentiated himself from the other Commonwealth prime ministers when he openly criticised Britain for weakening the League of Nations and argued that the dominions were not consulted with properly on foreign policy and defence issues. Savage's government (unlike Britain) was quick to condemn German rearmament, Japanese expansion in China and Italy's conquest of Abyssinia. Savage criticised Britain's appeasement policies at the conference, saying "Is your policy peace at any price; if it is so I cannot accept it". Anthony Eden replied "No, not at any price, but peace at almost any price", to which Savage replied: "You can pay too high a price even for peace". Britain, Australia, Canada and the opposition National Party were critical of Savage for his stance.
In April 1938 Savage and his Finance Minister, Walter Nash, began planning Labour's proposals on social security, in-line with their 1935 election promises. Responding to a suggestion from the Reverend W. H. A. Vickery, mayor of Kaiapoi, Savage began to use the term "applied Christianity" to describe the government's scheme. The Social Security Bill put forward by the government boasted an unemployment benefit payable to people 16 years and over; a universal free health system extending to general practitioners, public hospitals and maternity care; a means-tested old-age pension of 30 shillings a week for men and women at age 60; and universal superannuation from age 65.
The social security scheme was a collaborative effort, with the detailed negotiations and drafting of the legislation carried out by committees of MPs and public servants. However, Savage's personal involvement was pivotal, as he decided on the basic scheme, helped resolve deep divisions of opinion within the Labour caucus over principles and detail, made many of the major public pronouncements and guarantees, and astutely responded to opposition from the Treasury, the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association, and the National Party. It was also Savage who insisted that the Act contain a provision that it would not come into force until 1 April 1939, thereby giving National the opportunity to revoke it if they won the 1938 general election. The First Labour Government proved popular and easily won the election, with an increased popular mandate. The Social Security Act was eventually passed, establishing the first ever social security system in the western world.
Savage led the country into World War II, officially declaring war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, just hours after Britain. Unlike Australia, which felt obligated to declare war, as it also had not ratified the Statute of Westminster, New Zealand did so as a sign of allegiance to Britain, and in recognition of Britain's abandoning its former appeasement of the dictators, a policy that New Zealand had opposed. This led to Prime Minister Savage declaring (from his sick bed) two days later:
With gratitude for the past and confidence in the future we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand. We are only a small and young nation, but we march with a union of hearts and souls to a common destiny.
Suffering from cancer of the colon at the time of the 1938 election, Savage had delayed seeking treatment, in order to participate in the election campaign. He died from the cancer in March 1940.
Savage brought an almost religious fervour to his politics. This, and his death while in office, has made him become something of an iconic figure to the Left. The architect of the welfare state (see Social welfare in New Zealand), his picture reportedly hung in many Labour supporters' homes. His popularity amongst the voting population was so celebrated that he is said to have remarked in disbelief to John A. Lee that, "They [the people] think I am God" after Labour's re-election in 1938. Savage returned to his Catholic roots shortly before he died.
His state funeral included a Requiem Mass celebrated at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Hill St, Wellington before his body was taken amidst general and public mourning by train to Auckland where he was interred initially in a temporarily adapted harbour defence gun installation. He was soon after removed to a side chapel of St Patrick's Cathedral in Auckland, while a national competition was announced, decided, and the winning design of the monumental tomb and memorial gardens at Bastion Point constructed, forming his permanent resting site.
Savage lies buried at Bastion Point on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour waterfront in the Savage Memorial, a clifftop mausoleum crowned by a tall minaret, and fronted by an extensive memorial garden and reflecting pool. Savage’s body is interred in a vertical shaft below the sarcophagus, as confirmed in 2003-05.
Michael Joseph Savage is admired from many sides of the political spectrum and is known as the architect of the New Zealand welfare state. His Labour government provided the foundations of the post-war consensus, based upon the assumption that full employment would be maintained by Keynesian policies and that a greatly enlarged system of social services would be created.
He is considered by academics and historians to be one of New Zealand's greatest and most revered Prime Ministers. Often called "Everybody's Uncle", his genial and charismatic personality, and his skills as an orator, were largely responsible for public acceptance of his government's radical policies. Exemplifying his enthusiasm for his government's policies, Savage personally assisted a family in Fife Lane, Miramar, Wellington, to move their furniture into the first of the government's 1930s state houses.