Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Gordon Coates (1878-1943)

Text of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entry prepared in 1997.

Coates was Prime Minister of New Zealand 1925-28 and a controversial Minister of Finance 1933-35. He served in the War Cabinet and the War Administration between 1940 and his death in 1943.

by Michael Bassett

Gordon Coates, as he was known throughout his life, was born at Ruatuna on the Hukatere peninsular of the Kaipara Harbour on 3 February 1878. Edward, his father, had arrived from Hereford in 1866; Eleanor Aickin, his mother, had come from Northern Ireland in 1859. They had married in Mt Albert in 1877. Gordon was the eldest in a family of three boys and four girls. Of his siblings, his brother Rodney became a long-time chairman of Otamatea County while his sister Ada was an excellent farmer and sportswoman.

Gordon had a strictly Anglican up-bringing on what in those days was a remote farm, more easily approached by punt or by horse. He received his education at Matakohe School and from family friends as well as a governess. Both his father and mother were leading figures in the community until psychiatric illness cut short his father Edward's career. From an early age Gordon and Rodney began shouldering responsibility for the family farm; both shone at local shows with their athletic prowess. Gordon was the larger boy, growing to 6 feet with a solid physical build and a very strong constitution. All his life he exuded physical energy that people admired, and occasionally wilted before. An Auckland Star reporter wrote when Coates first entered Parliament that "there was some sort of magic about the glint of auburn in his hair".

Gordon Coates was first elected to the Otamatea County Council in 1905 and served as its chairman from 1913-16. In 1911 he was approached by a broad cross-section of people from all political parties to stand against the sitting Liberal MP, A.J. Stallworthy. Coates agreed to stand not as a Reform Party candidate but as an independent Liberal pledged to support the Government of the then Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward. He was elected on the second ballot and was as good as his word. However, when Ward resigned in 1912 Coates's campaign committee made up of people across the Kaipara electorate and led by the Hardings of Aoroa, Carey Carrington of Dargaville, and George Smith of Matakohe (a great uncle of Lockwood Smith MP), urged their MP to support the Reform Party of Bill Massey. Coates did so, and in July 1912 the Liberals were defeated in Parliament. Coates was now associated with the Reform Party which governed until 1928. He was Prime Minister for the party's last three years in office.

In August 1914, the same day that war broke out, Gordon Coates married Marjorie Coles, a woman fifteen years his junior who had recently arrived from London. They were to have five daughters, only one of whom, Mrs Sheila Pryde of Whangarei, still lives in Northland, the other three surviving daughters all living in the United States. Coates got leave from Parliament and went to France with the First NZEF, arriving there in March 1917. Within a year his extraordinary leadership skills in battle had won him a Military Cross and Bar. He returned home in May 1919 and within four months had been promoted by Massey to his Ministry. By this time Coates had become a legend in the north, and his victory in the 1919 election was by a huge margin.

Coates was now the youngest minister in the Cabinet and he made his mark in the portfolios of Works and Railways. Several of today's hydro-electric stations were commissioned by him, and he took a number of tough decisions cancelling construction of railway lines that were never likely to pay. One, however, avoided his pruning knife- the costly Kirikopuni loop to the Northern Wairoa Dairy Company- and stories of waste dogged his reputation, especially after the loop was closed. In fairness, however, Coates did more than anyone to put Northland on the map. He pushed for completion of the North Auckland railway and opened both the main north road in 1924 and the Dargaville bridge in 1925. By the time that Massey died in May 1925 Coates was his only logical successor. Indeed the Reform Party's heavyweights had been grooming him to take over. He became Prime Minister on 30 May 1925 and served till 10 December 1928.

In the election campaign of 1925 the Reform Party scored a runaway victory. Coates's popularity was at its zenith. In Dargaville he was mobbed, and his "old digger mates" turned out in force. The country expected much of him, but the economy did not allow him to deliver. Indeed, his period as Prime Minister was probably the least satisfying part of an otherwise distinguished career. By 1928 there was a pervading feeling of dissatisfaction in his government; farm prices had slipped, unemployment was rising, businessmen were unhappy and the Reform Party was divided. Coates went down to defeat, ironically at the hands of the man he'd originally been elected to support, Sir Joseph Ward. Coates was Leader of the Opposition until September 1931 when, in the face of economic collapse, he led the Reform Party into a coalition with the remnants of the old Liberal Party, now under the Prime Ministership of George Forbes.

Forbes held the top job, while Coates did the work during the Great Depression. He reduced farmers' costs, inflated their incomes by devaluing the currency in 1933 and provided farmers with security of title by way of reforms to mortgage legislation. A Reserve Bank was set up to ensure that decisions about New Zealand's currency were made in New Zealand. But it was the cities and unemployment that eventually killed the Coalition Government in November 1935. It was time for a change, and even Coates nearly lost his seat of Kaipara, holding it on election night by a bare 198 votes.

Coates was down, but not out. He and his family returned to live in the north at Hukatere. He took more interest in the family farm that Rodney and Ada Coates had been running for so long. His constituents saw him regularly at cattle sales, and he resumed his riding and shooting. When the National Party was established in May 1936 Coates was edged aside for Adam Hamilton who eventually was replaced in 1940 by Sid Holland. Coates never trusted. him. When war broke out in 1939 Coates offered to help the Labour Government with recruiting campaigns and in July 1940 he was appointed Minister of Armed Forces and War Co-ordination in Peter Fraser's War Cabinet, a position Coates held until his sudden death in Parliament Buildings on 27 May 1943.

Never a particularly strong party man, Coates would have done well in the MMP era. He drew his friends from all political quarters. He asked the Liberal, Tom Seddon, to be his best man in 1914, and throughout his life counted Paddy Webb, John A. Lee and Peter Fraser as friends. By the end he had decided to seek re-election as an independent once more, a decision that won the support of his campaign committee in Kaipara. Interestingly, it was Peter Fraser, not Sid Holland, who shed tears at Coates's funeral. And it was Fraser who made the decision to fund construction of the Matakohe Church which today stands as a memorial to Gordon Coates, a fine all-round New Zealander.

Michael Bassett is an historian by training who studied at the University of Auckland and in the United States. He entered Parliament as a backbencher in Norman Kirk's Labour Government in 1972 and then served as a Cabinet Minister (Health, Internal Affairs, Local Government and the Arts) in the governments of David Lange and Geoffrey Palmer from 1984-90. Choosing to retire in 1990 he has been writing and teaching each year at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He published a life of Sir Joseph Ward in 1993. The National Government appointed him to the Waitangi Tribunal in 1994. His wife Judith is Chair of the ASB Trusts and a director of the ASB Bank. They have two children, a daughter who is a lawyer and a son who is an accountant. Dr Bassett is currently writing a history of the Department of Internal Affairs.

Coates of Kaipara, published by Auckland University Press, and priced at $39-95 was launched at Premier House on 27 July 1995 by the Prime Minister. The event was chaired by Rt Hon Jonathan Hunt MP. Dr Lockwood Smith, one of Coates's successors in the Kaipara seat also spoke. A highlight of the evening was a brief speech by Mrs Sheila Pryde, Coates's eldest daughter, who lived in Premier House 1925-28 in the days when it was called Ariki Toa, translating as the Chief's House.