This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
Michael Joseph Savage (1872-1940), Labour prime minister of New Zealand, was born on 23 March 1872 at Tatong near Benalla, Victoria, youngest of eight children of Irish parents Richard Savage, farmer, and his wife Johanna (d.1877), née Hayes. Mick was educated in 1879-84 at the tiny Rothesay State School. In 1886-93 he worked in a Benalla wine and spirits shop. He also attended night-classes at Benalla (North-Eastern) College, became well-known as a boxer and weight-lifter, and was secretary (1892) of the Benalla fire brigade and a member of its champion competition teams.
In 1893 Savage lost his job during the depression and 'humped the bluey' into the New South Wales Riverina where for seven years he was a labourer and irrigation ditch-digger on North Yanco station, with membership in the General Laborers' and Australian Workers' unions. In 1900 he moved to North Prentice near Rutherglen, Victoria, becoming a goldminer, a stationary engine-driver and foundation manager of a co-operative bakery. He joined the miners' union and was largely responsible for the construction of the North Prentice Hall. Converted to socialism and active politics by Tom Mann in 1904, Savage became a branch and electorate secretary of the Victorian Political Labor Council, unsuccessfully advocating the socialist objective at its 1906 and 1907 conferences. Selected to stand for the State seat of Wangaratta and Rutherglen in 1907, after missing selection narrowly for the Federal seat of Indi, he had to withdraw because of financial difficulties.
He migrated to New Zealand in October 1907. After working briefly as a flax-cutter he became a cellarman in an Auckland brewery and president of the brewery workers' union. Secretary (1908-10) and chairman (1910-11) of the Auckland Socialist Party, Savage was foundation president of the Auckland Social Democratic Party in 1913 and the first secretary of the Auckland Labour Representation Committee in 1915. He was president of the Auckland Trades and Labour Council in 1910, then Auckland chairman of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, and was prominent as a union spokesman during the 1912 Waihi miners' strike and the 1913 waterfront and general strike. During World War I Savage opposed conscription and after the war advocated the formation of 'one big union' to cover Australian and New Zealand workers. In 1919 he became national secretary of the three-year-old New Zealand Labour Party. After contesting unsuccessfully the Auckland Central seat in parliament, he won Auckland West in 1919, holding it until his death.
Having been deputy-leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1922-33, Savage succeeded H. E. Holland as leader. His charismatic campaign was a major factor in the election of New Zealand's first Labour government in 1935. Savage was prime minister and minister of external affairs from 1935 until he died in Wellington of cancer on 27 March 1940. He had never married and returned to the Catholic Church shortly before he died; he was buried at Bastion Point, Auckland. The achievements of the first Labour government, especially its system of pensions and medical care, became personified in this slightly built, modest man. For years after his death his picture hung on thousands of living-room walls.
Barry Gustafson, 'Savage, Michael Joseph (1872–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/savage-michael-joseph-8346/text14647, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 1 November 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988