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Frontier Of Dreams

Sundays 6.40am | TV ONE

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage was an ordinary bloke who would redefine what 'ordinary' meant in New Zealand. He filled us with hope and expectations and helped create the idea that government should care for us from the cradle to the grave.

Savage was an unlikely man to be Prime Minister, for a start he was Australian. When he came to New Zealand he got involved in unions and politics and in 1933 became leader of the Labour Party.

On Wednesday 27 November 1935 New Zealand had its 25th general election. The Labour Party swept to power taking 53 out of 80 seats in Parliament. Savage arrived in Wellington five days after the election. His welcome was tumultuous with thousands of people packing the streets.

Savage gathered talented men around him. These men had been waiting a long time for this moment. Many had been activists in their youth and now they could put their radical ideas into practice. With men including John A. Lee and Walter Nash, it's been said a new class had taken over the government.

Savage wanted to promote the state as the chief caregiver and source of welfare for all people. The first thing the government did was give a Christmas bonus to the unemployed and a week's holiday to people on relief work.

By creating the welfare state, Savage had a deeper personal impact on ordinary New Zealanders than any Prime Minister in our history. He died in 1940 after he'd been diagnosed with colon cancer a couple of years earlier. The nation was shocked and news of his death led to an unprecedented public outpouring of grief.

50,000 mourners filed past his body in Parliament and 200,000 Aucklanders lined the streets as the coffin was taken to the burial vault on Bastion Point. It's now hard to appreciate the intense feelings many people had for their Prime Minister, but for many New Zealanders a secular saint had gone.

The grave of Michael Joseph Savage is still hallowed ground. And his portrait would hang like a shrine in many New Zealand homes for generations.