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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter XXIV. — Massey's Last Parliament, 1923 to 1925

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Chapter XXIV.
Massey's Last Parliament, 1923 to 1925.

The 1922 Election—Massey's difficult position—Bell's views on situation—His second term as Acting Prime Minister—Massey's death.


The overwhelming electoral victory achieved by Massey in 1919 was not repeated in 1922, for in the interval the country had suffered a severe depression which necessitated heavy retrenchment and reductions in salaries and wages.

"I claim no credit," said Bell in a speech to the Legislative Council, "for having resolved to do our duty irrespective of popularity or unpopularity, and irrespective of the consequences. The Government had the opportunity of continuing extravagant expenditure with popularity and success at the polls and office. Such considerations appeared to us to be beneath contempt, as compared to the duty we owed to the country, and the honourable duty we had assumed when we took office eleven years ago."

Thus it came about that at the election of 1922 both the Liberal Party and the Labour Party increased their strength so greatly at the expense of the Government that at first Massey found himself in a minority. page 229The Labour Party increased its membership from 8 to 17, the Liberals from 20 to 24, whereas the Government fell from 49 to 38. This result should hardly have surprised Massey, however much it may have disappointed him, as if there is one political maxim that holds good in New Zealand, it is that the fortunes of a government closely depend on economic conditions. Nevertheless, when we recall that Massey had been fighting strenuously ail his political life; that he had borne the immense burden of the War with courage and tenacity; and that he had faced the subsequent depression in such a way that even the Opposition Press gave him high praise, it seemed hard that his last term of office should have been one of unceasing storm and strain.

At that time I was his bench-mate, and, when the election was over, I found him so dispirited and depressed by its results that I arranged with Bell to ask us both to his home at Lowry Bay where we spent some hours discussing the situation. Bell was of opinion that we should call an immediate session of Parliament to ascertain how we stood, and that if we were out-voted by a combination of Liberal and Labour Parties we should at once resign "with dignity." He was strongly opposed to any idea of political manoeuvring or bargaining to try to retain office.

Massey did not dissent from Bell's advice that Parliament should be summoned, but he was too old a campaigner to take it for granted that all was lost save honour. For although Labour held the balance of power, the Liberal leader had often declared that he would not hold office dependent on Labour. However, page 230the uncertainty of the situation arose from the fact that at a later date the Liberal leader had declared that he would combine with Labour to oust the Government, that he would then pass an Act providing for proportional representation and seek a fresh election.

A few days later, on January 14, 1923, Bell wrote to his brother, Arthur, in a more hopeful tone:

"I am trying," he wrote, "to get out of the Government, but of course cannot desert at this political crisis, and Massey won't let me go. We are only thirty-eight pledged in a House of eighty, but we are more than double the Labour Party and fifty per cent. more than the Liberals. Some of the Independents will support us on a vote of no-confidence, and I suppose we shall emerge with a majority from the short session to be held next month."


Massey called Parliament together in February to ascertain his fate. In the interval he had learnt that two Independent members and one Liberal had pledged themselves to their electors that, rather than see Labour controlling the balance of power, they would vote with the Government on a no-confidence motion. There was therefore no loss of dignity in accepting their help. Furthermore, when the House came to elect a Speaker, the Liberals supported Massey's nomination of Statham, who was an Independent. The final result was to give Massey a majority of three, and he survived the crisis without having recourse to any of the forms of political bargaining to which Bell had expressed so strong an aversion.

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But it will be readily understood that, with so small and precarious a margin, from then onwards Massey was under a strain that was both harassing and incessant. Several times he told me that he would be glad to lay aside the burden of office and go back to his farming life. Some people are apt to regard such protestations of political disillusionment as insincere, but they forget that a political leader is, to a great extent, the servant of his party and cannot abandon it to suit his own wishes without being regarded as a deserter.

The political position was such that Massey found it necessary to keep his whips incessantly active and to impose a strict discipline on the Party. Sometimes his exasperation led to outbursts that seem amusing in retrospect. When he was told that one member was absent from the House through sickness he exclaimed:

"I won't have members going to bed merely because they are ill. If they want to die, they must die in the House!"

On another occasion he said to me:

"Never try to carry on a Government with a majority of only two or three; it is hell all the time."

Bell wrote to his brother, Arthur, on June 25, 1923:

"The session is in full swing—so is a vote of no-confidence. We shall probably have a majority of three on that, but we are in a precarious position. Personally, I should be delighted to be free of office, but must sink or swim with the others."

Bell to Sir James Allen (High Commissioner)July 2, 1923:

"I have been under great pressure preparing confounded Bills for Massey to occupy the House with. page 232That job begins two months before the session and continues into the first three weeks of the session.

"The present session which began more than a fortnight ago has so far been occupied by futile amendments to the Address-in-reply, the Labour men wanting to delay business to effect their object of keeping the session going after the date when Massey must leave for England. So far we keep our majority of three on no-confidence. But keeping a House for Government Bills may be much more difficult. We have, I think, made a mess of the readjustment of portfolios … a number of men hoping for office are disgruntled. I take only Attorney-General and External Affairs. In the latter I hope I may continue your success but an impar congressui to you …

"But I want to shed all my portfolios and transfer the salary to the House to give Massey another appointment there. He would take it if he were not afraid of again offending various claimants."


Nevertheless, Massey had one compensation before he died. He was summoned to London in October, 1923, for the Imperial and Economic Conference. This was the fifth occasion in seven years in which duty had called him to London, where he was now well known and held in high esteem. Moreover, it seemed as if the New Zealand electors wished to make amends for their treatment of him at the last election, for he set out amidst a chorus of goodwill and admiration.

During his absence Bell was again called on to page 233preside over the Cabinet, and his work as Acting Prime Minister drew a further eulogy from Lord Jellicoe.

Jellicoe to Bell, January 25, 1924:

"Once again I write to thank you for the work which you have done in carrying on, or rather, presiding over the Government of New Zealand in the absence of Mr. Massey. I know well how heavy your labours have been in view of the absence of so many of your colleagues, but no one would guess that you have been overworked from your manner.

"Indeed the promptitude with which all matters from the Colonial Office passing through my hands have been dealt with has earned my warm admiration and gratitude, and I cannot let the occasion pass without expressing that gratitude most sincerely."

And again on the eve of his departure on November 14, 1924, Jellicoe wrote:

"Your father and you are such great figures in the history of New Zealand that to me you almost represent the progress and development of the Dominion."


Throughout the session of 1924 the Government, as Bell said, were living politically from hand to mouth, but what was more serious was that Massey showed increasing signs of failing health. Lord Jellicoe left New Zealand in November, 1924, and the following month Bell wrote to him:

"Mr. Massey is still far from well and is keeping house, and I am imperfectly running his official work."

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Lord Jellicoe (in England) to Bell, April 10, 1925:

"Ever since our arrival we have been in a state of great anxiety about Mr. Massey. To-night Sir James Allen tells me that Mr. Massey's condition is gradually becoming worse. I can quite believe the sorrow that will be so general throughout the whole Dominion amongst men and women of all shades of political opinion.

"I have only made one speech since arrival in England, at a dinner of the Associated Chambers of Commerce, and I took the opportunity of referring to the great Imperial work of Mr. Massey, and the Empire-wide sympathy with him in his illness.

"I heard from Mr. Downie Stewart from New York a few days ago. I do hope his treatment will cure him. I fear that Mr. Massey's illness may have the effect of hastening his return to New Zealand.

"I greatly fear that the heavy burden of work thrown upon your shoulders may be trying to you, although from my experience I know how well able you are to take on the greater part of the work of the Cabinet, and yet not seem to be overworked. I always noticed that work seemed to bear lightly on your shoulders, and put it down to a genius for organization and decentralization."

On March 30, 1925, Bell again reported to Jellicoe that Massey had steadily gone down-hill, that the surgeons declared his case was hopeless, and that, at most, he had only a few weeks of life remaining.

"I hope still, for you know how intimate my long personal and public association with him has been and my strong respect and attachment for him, page 235but I can suggest no ground for hope. Meanwhile I am carrying on as I did under you in Mr. Massey's absence and am not nervous about that part. There will be some instability when the session comes, but at present the Party is contented with me as substitute, though they would certainly not allow me to succeed."

Bell to Sir James Allen, March 30, 1925:

"You and I have many memories in common of association with Massey and I am more moved than I care to write of. The political situation is more difficult than it would be if the first lieutenant were in the House instead of the Council. We were certain to win the next election if he had been Leader —as it is no one can prophesy. The more urgent point to arise soon (if the doctors are right) is for whom the Governor-General will send, and you will see that as I am out of the question it is probable he will insist on my advice being given."

Massey's death on May 10, 1925, ended what had been in effect a long and notable political partnership, extending over nearly thirteen years. It left Bell as the last of the older statesmen of the War period still in office, for Sir James Allen had become High Commissioner in 1920, and Sir William Herries and Sir William Fraser had both predeceased Massey.

"I have been proud to be his friend," said Bell, "happy to have had a part to play, however small, in his work. I have known no man in my time so manly, so straightforward, so just and fair. I have known no man so devoted to his duty … His page 236confidence and courage inspired us in time of War, and none knew better than we his strength and wisdom in time of peace … It is given to few men to hold, and to fewer men from the Dominions and Colonies to hold, to the extent that he held, the confidence of his sovereign and of successive Ministers of the Home Government."