A Definitive Ranking of NZ Prime Ministers from Lamest to Coolest
History has given us 39 leaders. Was anyone cooler than Aunty Helen?
Image via John Key's Facebook page.
The election is looming, which means politicians are being even more insufferable than usual. If you look out the window, at least one of them is probably erecting a giant billboard of their face on your lawn.
Some commentators will try to evaluate candidates' actual policies, poring over healthcare costings and infrastructure investment and such. Don't let all this deep and nuanced blather distract you from what really matters in a nation's leader: Who would you like to crack a cold one with as you slap a steak on the barbie?
It is a well-known truism that those who cannot learn from the lameness of history are doomed to be uncool forever.
Can any former leader top Bill English's desperately contrived spaghetti-on-pizza stunt? Which PM was so dangerously cool that the CIA was rumoured to have assassinated him? New Zealand needs to know.
With that in mind, I've put together a list of all our premiers, in order of ascending hipness. The ranking is totally blind to the morality of their actions and effectiveness of their policies, except where those things have inadvertently made them look particularly cool or lame.
39. William Fox, 1856, 1861-1862, 1869-1872, 1873
Confiscated nearly three million acres of Māori land then blamed them for starting the wars, which is a real dick move. Fox cemented his place as the lamest leader in New Zealand history by going on to become a strident campaigner for prohibition.
38. Walter Nash, 1957-1960
A boring old paper-pusher who droned on and on until he was finally shuffled out of office at age 78. His favourite colour was beige, and his biggest thrill was having an occasional gin with his orange juice. The Nash government's 'Black Budget' taxed the shit out of petrol, cigarettes, and beer, which the public was understandably Not Happy About.
37. William Massey, 1912-1925
Basically a white supremacist. Would turn in his grave if he saw all the dirty foreigners soiling the Anglo-Saxon purity of Massey University.
36. Geoffrey Palmer, 1989-1990
A brainiac lawyer and pedant who struggled to bridge the intellectual gulf between him and the peasants he reluctantly ruled over. Once told journalists that New Zealand was an "irredeemably pluvial" country (translation: rainy).
35. Harry Atkinson, 1876-1877, 1883-1884, 1887-1891
Another big fan of nicking land, Atkinson fought several battles and even organised volunteer squads to help suppress "the savages" (his words, not mine). Remembered as a good keen man, i.e, a gun-slinging, bush-whacking, piece of shit.
34. John Hall, 1879-1882
Started charging Chinese people a £10 tax to enter New Zealand. On the other hand, he played a big role in giving women the vote. Who knows? Let's err on the side of lameness.
33. William Hall-Jones, 1906
A seat-warming PM who was truly, deeply passionate about frozen meat. Basically the Mad Butcher of his age, but without the charisma.
32. Bill Rowling, 1974-1975
This meek and mild Labour leader was unlucky enough to be sandwiched between the colossuses of Norman Kirk and David Lange. As if that wasn't bad enough, the poor bastard lost three elections to Muldoon, who described him as "a shiver looking for a spine to run up". Zing!
31. Francis Bell, 1925
Scrapes into the list with just 16 days in office, so hardly worth bothering with. Apparently he played cricket. Sports = a bit cool?
30. Sidney Holland, 1949-1957
Bought a farm and vacationed in an old shearers' cottage to try and get onside with the rural community, despite being an urbanite at heart. Poser = deeply uncool.
29. Bill English, 2016-present
An advanced robot whose programmers recently uploaded a cringey 'every-man' persona. The robot's clumsy and transparent attempts to impersonate a real person would make for the plot of a touching sci-fi film. Bill, mate, you were much cooler as a glorified human calculator. Now you're just a poor man's John Key.
28. Frederick Whitaker, 1863-1864, 1882-1883
A gambling man, and also the first Atttorney-General, which is a weird combo. Quite impressive muttonchops.
27. George Waterhouse, 1872-1873
Always sickly and resigning from stuff, but despite being a dweeb somehow managed to become Premier of two colonies (South Australia and then NZ).
26. Jim Bolger, 1990-1997
I initially thought Bolger was literally known as the MASTER OF COOL but that turned out to be an Irish racehorse trainer of the same name. Our Jim is a bit meh. He weakened the unions and championed neoliberal policies, then supported the exact opposite position this year. Who knows?
25. Alfred Domett, 1862-1863
A hero to the hipsters of Wellington, Domett tabled the resolution to make the windy city the capital instead of Auckland, and wrote the sort of long, terrible poems beloved by Vic Uni creative writing alumni.
24. Frederick Weld, 1864-65
A shy and gentle Victorian of delicate sensibilities, Fred was fond of music, literature, and art, which is kind of sexy. While his watercolours are part of NZ art history, his most pantry-dropping masterpiece was surely the pamphlet 'Hints to intending sheep-farmers in New Zealand', which ran to four editions.
23. Richard Seddon, 1893-1906
Swaggering and pugnacious, 'King Dick' was a sort of prototypical Winston Peters. He compared the Chinese to monkeys, was a populist and anti-elitist, and, much like Winny, refused to ever fucking go away, racking up a record 13 years and 44 days as premier.
22. Robert Stout, 1884-1887
Campaigned tirelessly to give women the vote, and, as Chief Justice, had all sorts of whacko ideas about actually rehabilitating criminals. Gave speeches with three feet of John Stuart Mill works piled in front of him. Confirmed cool.
21. Jack Marshall, 1972
A follower of what used to be the popular 'lawyer, soldier, politician, Prime Minister' career progression. He was a good rugby player, a major in the army, and a bit of an overachiever, but '"Gentleman Jack" didn't let it go to his head. Definitely a GC.
20. Mike Moore, 1990
As Jane Clifton once observed, Mike Moore is like the opposite of L&P: world-famous, just not in New Zealand. As US Ambassador, he got to hang out Obama, so he is at least sort of cool by association.
19. Edward Stafford, 1856-1861, 1865-1869, 1872
New Zealand's youngest leader (37) was reportedly handsome, charming, and one of "the best judges of horseflesh in New Zealand". Tick... tick... TICK! Of course, our golden boy had to go and fly too close to the sun, tragically wearing a cocked hat that all his rivals laughed at.
18. John Ballance, 1891-1893
This brainbox was immortalised with a statue in front of the Parliamentary Library, but he was no puny bookworm. Ballance got locked up for refusing to join the militia, founded a cavalry unit on his own terms, and made a name for himself as a soldier and war correspondent.
17. Joseph Ward, 1906-1912, 1928-1930
Not only threw off the shackles of colonialism, but somehow managed to lead governments more than 20 years apart.
16. Thomas Mackenzie, 1912
If Mackenzie was born a century later he'd have rocked gnarly dreads and been a Reiki practitioner or some shit. This tree-hugger and explorer discovered all sorts of cool places, suggested Fiordland should be made into a national park, and fought for the protection of seals and birds.
15. George Forbes, 1930-1935
The sort of PM who would roll up his sleeves and help load sheep from his farm onto the wagons for market. Strong 'beer with the boys' potential.
14. Peter Fraser, 1940-1949
The cofounder of Labour had terrible eyesight and worked insanely long hours, which doesn't exactly scream 'cool dude'. On the other hand, he did help beat that nasty-sounding Hitler guy. Churchill vouched for Fraser, which makes him OK by me.
13. Jenny Shipley, 1997-1999
In retrospect, Shipley was surprisingly edgy, lowering the drinking age to 18 and attending the Hero parade. Never mind the whole first women PM thing—she'd still be a legend for getting the better of Winston Peters, whom she sacked from her cabinet in 1998.
12. Henry Sewell, 1856
Our first ever premier was born waaay before his time. He hated New Zealand, but grew to sort of secretly like it, which is of course very trendy these days. While his successors blamed the bloody natives for everything for the next ~100 years, Sewell resigned in protest of the land confiscation policy, and promoted the idea of Māori self-government. Respect!
11. Daniel Pollen, 1875-1876
Bought his own island. A Tory who not only tolerated women and brown people, but advocated for them. No-one knows much about his origins. A mystery wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in an enigma.
10. Keith Holyoake, 1957, 1960-1972
A populist who kept his number listed in the phonebook, championed New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy, and fought apartheid. His middle name was 'Jacka', which elevates him several spots up the list. Jackaaaaa mate!
9. John Key, 2008-2016
Basically a chilled-out entertainer, JK warbled terrible karaoke, humiliated himself on American talk-shows at every opportunity, and confessed to peeing in the shower (to his credit, he pleaded the fifth on whether he'd had a wank recently). This walking, talking dad joke pulled off an incredible feat; acting so painfully uncool that he went right out the other side and somehow became cool again. John Key is utterly shameless and completely at ease in his own skin, and his popularity ratings speak for themselves.
8. Julius Vogel, 1873-1875
The first New Zealander to write a sci-fi novel, which basically predicted the future with its utopian world where women were allowed to be in charge of stuff. Holy shit! Did not invent Vogel's bread, or he would definitely be number one on the list.
7. George Grey, 1877-1879
An explorer who led a disastrous expedition to northwest Australia, Grey was wrecked, almost drowned, and stabbed in the hip by an Aborigine. That didn't stop him returning two years later, when he was wrecked again, had to walk to Perth, and survived by drinking liquid mud. Grey was one of the first white fellas to learn the Noongar language, and got mad respect from the Māori in New Zealand, where he traveled with an entourage of chiefs, learned Te Reo, and was a bona-fide badass Prime Minister.
6. Gordon Coates, 1925-1928
The gossip is that Coates had two children by a Māori woman before his marriage, which is the closest thing to a sex scandal I could shoehorn into this list. Besides this, the tall, dark, and handsome Coates was a war hero, and good mates with Sir Āpirana Ngata. The 'jazz premier' had a cigarette constantly in hand, and would randomly drop by at construction sites to crack a cold one with the boys.
5. Norman Kirk, 1972-1974
Kirk headed an activist government that pulled all New Zealand troops from Vietnam, refused to give visas to an all-white South African rugby team, and pressured the French to stop testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific. Kirk died suddenly at the height of his popularity, making him the Kurt Cobain of NZ politics. According to the conspiracy theorists he was actually assassinated by the CIA, which further cements his place in the echelon of cool.
4. Robert Muldoon, 1975-1984
Muldoon radiated a thuggish, intimidating cool, and ran the country like a mob boss. This is more than just a metaphor, in the sense that he liked drinking with gang members and was the patron of Black Power. Muldoon called his aggressive communication style 'counterpunching'. I would probably shit my pants if I'd ever had to interview him.
3. David Lange, 1984-1989
An all the way big dude, Lange was scruffy, obese, and hilariously witty. His best quote, "What a friend we have in cheeses", was somehow overshadowed by the famous 'uranium-on-the-breath' quip. I encourage you to go read them all.
2. Helen Clark, 1999-2008
Clark was, until recently, one of the most powerful people in the world. I met Aunty Helen when I was a young teen, and watched in disbelief as she vigorously blew her nose and excavated errant bits of mucus without breaking eye contact. Clark straight up DIDN'T GIVE A FUCK, which is the absolute epitome of cool. This is the PM who called golden-boy John Campbell a "sanctimonious little creep". She never pandered to anyone, and she's more popular than ever.
1. Michael Joseph Savage, 1935-1940
'Savage' is the coolest fucking name that any politician has ever had in the entire history of the world. Add 'Michael' and 'Joseph'—the second name being a tribute to his dead brother—and it's rockstar-level majestic. Savage's deeds were worthy of his moniker. He was a brilliant speaker and sharp as a tack, but not a toff. Early years were spent mining, cutting flax, digging ditches, and other classic working-class man stuff. Savage was enormously strong, competed in boxing and weightlifting, but also embraced his sensitive side as a dancer. You bet he knew how to make those hips swing. When he died, 50,000 mourners filed past his casket. For decades, portraits of Savage hung in thousands of family homes around the country. It's difficult to imagine any other New Zealand leader inspiring such affection.
Please give it up for Savage! The undisputed coolest PM in New Zealand history—bar none.
Richard Meadows, a recovering former business journalist, blogs about money, travel and the pursuit of happiness at Deep Dish . You can follow his lifestyle experiments on Twitter , Instagram or Facebook .