First Labour Government of New Zealand: Wikis


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The First Labour Government of New Zealand was the government of New Zealand from 1935 to 1949. It set the tone of New Zealand's economic and welfare policies until the 1980s, establishing a welfare state, a system of Keynesian economic management, and high levels of state intervention. The government came to power towards the end of, and as a result of, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and also governed the country throughout World War II.


Significant policies



  • Enacted compulsory trade unionism.
  • Introduced the 40 hour working week.

Foreign affairs and military

In the 1930s, Labour was a supporter of the League of Nations (a forerunner to the United Nations), seeing the League as the best way to prevent another major war. However the League proved to be ineffectual, and was unable to prevent the Japanese invasion of Manchuria or the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Under Labour, the New Zealand representative in the League spoke strongly against appeasement of aggressors, particularly the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. When World War II broke out, New Zealand immediately declared war on Germany, with Savage saying that 'where Britain goes, we go'. During the war, conscription was introduced. This led some to accuse Labour of hypocrisy, as it had strongly opposed conscription in World War I. The government argued that while the First World War had been an unnecessary imperialist scuffle, the Second World War was a just war against fascist aggressors. Following the war, Fraser became involved in the setting up of the United Nations, and was especially concerned that small countries not be marginalised by the great powers.


  • Increased government spending in an effort to stimulate the economy.
  • Introduced wide-ranging tariffs and other import controls.


  • Introduced welfare benefits for invalids and the unemployed.
  • Removed most fees for healthcare and secondary education.
  • Began the state housing programme, providing rental houses for low-income workers.


Treaty and Māori


The immediate context of the 1935 election was the Great Depression which had started in 1929 and affected New Zealand as badly as most other Western countries. Following the 1931 election the Reform and United (also known as Liberal) parties had formed a coalition to deal with it. The Labour Party formed the opposition, arguing that the only way out of the depression was socialism. The coalition government instead supported the economic orthodoxy which was that a balanced budget was of paramount importance and that state spending had to be cut in order to offset the decline in taxation revenue. They also believed that to provide the unemployed with money without making them work was morally wrong, and so put thousands of unemployed to work on often-pointless 'relief work'. Labour argued that the government needed to increase spending and create real jobs. By 1935 - after the election had been delayed a year because of the depression - many voters who would not otherwise have trusted Labour were disillusioned with the economic orthodoxy and prepared to try something new. Labour was helped by a change of leadership in 1933, after leader Harry Holland died and was replaced by Michael Joseph Savage, who did not seem to be a frightening communist but rather a kindly uncle figure. Labour achieved an overwhelming victory, taking 53 out of 80 seats. A further two were won by the Māori Ratana movement, which formed an alliance with Labour. Despite the size of its victory, Labour won only 46.1% of the popular vote; the government vote was split between Reform and United, and both parties lost votes on the right to the Democrats and the Country Party.

The 1938 election

The government increased in popularity during its first term, as people felt the benefits of its policies and of economic recovery. It cannot realisticly be credited with ending the Depression in New Zealand, as most economic indicators were showing signs of improvement before the 1935 election[citation needed]. However government policies such as an increase in pay for relief workers, job creation and generous education policies did bring major benefits to many. Labour's share of the popular vote increased by nearly 10%, but it did not gain any new seats. While in 1935 the anti-Labour vote had been split between two major and two minor parties, by 1938 the United and Reform parties had merged into the New Zealand National Party, which was able to achieve 40.3% of the popular vote and win 25 seats. The Country and Democrat parties' share of the vote collapsed, with the Country Party losing both its seats. From this point on, New Zealand politics would be dominated by the Labour and National parties.

The 1943 election

The 1943 election was held during World War II, and had been postponed by about two years due to the war. Conscription was a minor issue in the election; although both major parties supported it, some saw Labour as hypocrites as they had strongly opposed conscription during World War I. The issue may have lost Labour some support on the left, to the Democratic Labour Party, which had been formed by dissident Labour MP John A. Lee following his expulsion from the Labour Party. However the new party received only 4.3% of the vote and won no seats. Labour was given significant help by the votes of New Zealand soldiers overseas, who turned an apparent election-night victory for National into one for Labour. The election was also notable for the defeat of Māori statesman Apirana Ngata, by the Labour-Ratana candidate Tiaka Omana. Labour was to hold the four Māori seats until 1996.

The 1946 election

By 1946 the National Party had gained in strength and credibility. However its support was strongest in rural areas, and in previous elections it had benefited from the country quota, which organised New Zealand electorates so that rural electorates had fewer voters, and therefore rural votes were worth more. In 1945 the government had abolished the quota, which may have cost National the election. Labour gained nearly 4% of the popular vote, but lost three seats, reducing its majority to four. Since the seats it held included the four Māori seats, the government was said by its opponents to rely on a 'Māori mandate'. It was insinuated that Labour would need to pass unwise pro-Māori policies in order to stay in power.


By 1949 the government had been in power for 14 years, five of them in wartime. It seemed increasingly worn out and uncertain. The three referendums held in 1949 (in addition to the usual referendum on alcohol licensing, which was held in conjunction with every election), were symptomatic of this. Meanwhile, National had announced that it would not repeal any of Labour's welfare state policies, which endeared it to many who had supported and benefitted from these policies but were tired of the government. National won 51.9% of the popular vote and 46 of out the 80 seats in parliament. Labour would be out of power for another eight years, and would not be in government for more than a single term until the 1980s.

Electoral results

Election Parliament Seats Total votes Percentage Gain (loss) Seats won Change Majority
1935 25th 80 46.1% +11.8% 53 +29 26
1938 26th 80 946,393 55.8% +9.7% 53 - 26
1943 27th 80 47.6% -8.2% 45 -8 10
1946 28th 80 51.3% +3.7% 42 -3 4
1949 29th 80 1,073,154 47.2% -4.1% 34 -8 -

Prime Ministers

The government was led by Michael Joseph Savage until his death in 1940. He was succeeded by Peter Fraser, who was Prime Minister for the rest of the government's term.

Cabinet Ministers

Ministry Minister Term(s)
Attorney-General Rex Mason 1935–1949
Minister of Defence Frederick Jones 1935–1949
Minister of Education Peter Fraser 1935–1940
Rex Mason 1940–1947
Terry McCombs 1947–1949
Minister of Finance Walter Nash 1935–1949
Minister of Foreign Affairs Michael Joseph Savage 1935–1940
Frank Langstone 1940–1942
Peter Fraser 1942–1949
Minister of Health Peter Fraser 1935–1940
Tim Armstrong 1940–1941
Arnold Nordmeyer 1941–1947
Mabel Howard 1947–1949
Minister of Justice Rex Mason 1935–1949
Minister of Māori Affairs Michael Joseph Savage 1935–1940
Frank Langstone 1940–1942
Rex Mason 1942–1946
Peter Fraser 1946–1949
Minister of Railways Daniel Sullivan 1935–1941
Bob Semple 1941–1949
Minister without portfolio Mark Fagan (MLC) 1935–1939
Minister without portfolio David Wilson (MLC) 1939–1949


See also


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