Alan Austin celebrates the achievements of a great national leader, who is little known in his country of birth.
ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY years ago this week, Michael Joseph Savage was born near Benalla, in the Colony of Victoria, to a poor Irish immigrant family. He eventually became his country’s most celebrated and admired Prime Minister.
The reason he is virtually unknown in Australia is that it was New Zealand’s very good fortune that Savage moved there in 1907, at age 35. Historians have recorded much of his life and service, most of it in highly positive terms.
Undoubtedly the most loved of all New Zealand's prime ministers, Savage personified the social security system created by the Government he led. His kindly and genial personality, and his skills as an orator, were largely responsible for ensuring the policy's acceptance.
He had helped set the social pattern of New Zealand for two generations and had become its icon.
Historians are yet to draw parallels between Michael Joseph Savage and Anthony Norman Albanese, but in time they may. Similarities are apparent on multiple levels.
The early years
Both were brought up in financial hardship by single women. Albanese’s Irish mother, Maryanne Ellery, raised him by herself in public housing in Sydney after her relationship with his Italian father, Carlo Albanese, ended.
Savage’s mother died when he was five, so was nurtured thereafter by his sister, Rose.
One big difference in their upbringing is that Albanese was an only child, whereas Savage was one of eight.
Roman Catholic teaching strongly influenced the two young lads. Both then abandoned the institutional church but remained committed to personal integrity, social justice and the redistribution of wealth.
Albanese has said his mother raised him with “three great faiths: the Catholic Church, the Labor Party and South Sydney Football Club”, adding that he had always remained faithful to the latter two.
There are physical similarities also, both needing glasses, both ready with an engaging smile and both slim but fit and strong. Savage was a competitive boxer and weightlifter, despite being quite short. In Albanese’s case, his fitness came later in life after a concerted effort at slimming down following a car accident.
Each could speak passionately and compellingly, although neither had a classically strong voice. Albanese’s distinct nasal twang is often mentioned as a negative. Savage spoke with a soft, English accent despite his Irish-Australian origins. But both could inspire a crowd.
This description applies equally to both:
‘He had the ability to strike a chord in the average member of his audience. He did not impress with cleverness; the image was rather of humanity, sincerity and a fund of common sense. His appeal was essentially that of the average man, not of the intellectual or the expert.’
Rise to power
Both men began their activism early with strong engagement in the labour movement. Savage’s political journey began in Australia as a founder of the Labour League in the Rutherglen area in the early 1900s. On arrival in Auckland, he worked as a brewery cellarman and increased his activism.
In 1910, he was elected to the National Conference of the Trades and Labour Councils. He was a founding member of New Zealand’s Labour Party in 1916. He rose steadily through its ranks, entering Parliament at his third attempt in 1919, aged 47. Three years later, he became Deputy Leader.
Albanese joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP) as a student and worked as a party official and research officer before entering Parliament in 1996, on his 33rd birthday.
Both took the top job after the unexpected departure of the incumbent. Savage replaced Labour Leader Harry Holland who died suddenly in 1933. Albanese followed Bill Shorten who resigned in 2019 after Labor’s shock electoral defeat.
Both were of the hard left faction of their parties and strongly supported greater care for the disadvantaged, independence from Britain and the aspirations of Indigenous peoples.
Frenzied attacks from the craven anti-Labor forces
Both endured malicious attacks from right-wing opponents and media organisations prepared to falsify stories to damage them. Albanese is currently being attacked by the Coalition for not having delivered a federal budget. This is despite him having far stronger economic credentials than anyone in the Coalition.
Albanese was the principal architect of the massive infrastructure build from 2007 to 2013 which was widely acknowledged as the world’s best at the time. He was awarded International Aviation Minister of the Year in 2010 and Infrastructure Minister of the Year in 2012.
Savage was similarly pilloried unfairly. When he criticised Britain's 1938 acceptance of Hitler's annexation of part of Czechoslovakia, he was condemned by the New Zealand Herald for ‘this embarrassing and deplorable display of Empire disunity’.
Savage and Albanese both took leadership at a time of low party morale after humiliating election losses and had to rebuild internal cohesion, reshape policy positions and restore a positive public image. Savage succeeded admirably, winning the 1935 Election handsomely to form New Zealand’s first Labour Government. He increased the vote further in 1938.
Both were required to manage the aftermath of a devastating global recession – the Great Depression in the 1930s and the Global Financial Crisis from 2008 to 2013 – and did so effectively. Savage started New Zealand’s first social housing scheme to alleviate hardship during the Great Depression.
When fighting against Germany and Japan required conscription of men, he determined with impressive lateral thinking that the nation should conscript capital as well:
‘He warned that if conscription of “human flesh and blood” did become necessary, then it would follow the conscription of wealth so that soldiers and their families were adequately cared for and their children not saddled with a burden of war debt.’
Albanese, even if he never leads Australia, will leave a lasting legacy. His infrastructure will make the nation safer and more prosperous for the next century or longer.
Savage will always be honoured for New Zealand’s visionary social security system and for his Government’s low rate of ministerial departures due to corruption, incompetence or scandal.
Australia needs another Michael Joseph Savage, a reformist leader who can bring high values to the top job and transform the nation. And, importantly, win an election and stay in office.
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