Jack Watts – Political career

Jack Thomas Watts was a member of the New Zealand National Party and was the Member of Parliament for Riccarton 1943-46, then St Albans 1946-57, and then Fendalton 1957-60. He was Minister of Health and Minister of Social Security 1949-54, Minister of Finance and Minister in Charge of the Census and Statistics Department 1954-57 and in 1957 became Minister in Charge of the Inland Revenue Department.

Jack Watts with the budget, 1957. © Alexander Turnbill LIbrary.

In 1943 Jack become MP for Riccarton. The Labour Party had remained in government with a majority of 44 against the National Party’s 34. Jack made his Maiden Speech to parliament later that year during the opening of parliament. A newspaper headline called it ‘a striking maiden speech’.

We are told that we are fighting for freedom. The freedon that young people want is freedom of opportunity. New Zealand’s young people are in the grip of the mental tyranny of old age… The generation I represent has never known security… As soon as we reach manhood there came the depression, then we entered the of war and rumours of war. That is our background. Unless greater opportunity is given to young people, they will become cynical and resentful… Young people do not want everlasting State paternalism. They want a chance to express their own individuality. They want to prove for their own character’s sake that they can make a success of their own enterprise. New Zealand has exported men of the best and most brilliant brains. These young men are needed in New Zealand after the war as future leaders, but are any plans being made to encourage them?… I see little hope for New Zealand in men who preach and try to put in to practice the outmoded doctrine of class war. The men who are fighting this war will in days to come have to pay for it. They are not naturally cynical or apathetic and will respond to real leadership…

In early 1946 the electoral boundaries were changed. Jack stood for the St Albans seat during the election of the same year and won with a small majority. The National Party won the election in November, 1949 and Sid Holland became the new Prime Ministry. Jack was given the portfolio of Minister of Health and Social Security. In December 1950 he also took over the portfolio of Minister of Industry and Commerce. In 1951 New Zealand was held in the grip of a waterside workers strike. The Opposition Party put forward a no-confidence motion and the Prime Minister was forced to announce a general election. Jack stood once more for St Albans and won with a majority of 1415. The National Party won the election, increasing their majority.

In March 1952 Jack attended the Colombo Plan Conference in Karachi, Pakistan. Gwen accompanied him. The trip also included a few days in Australia, where they spent time in Melbourne, Canberra and Syndey. They also visited Singapore and lay a foundation stone for the All-India Medical Institute, New Delhi (the New Zealand government had contributed £1,000,000 in its construction).

On November 13 1954 another election was held. Jack won his seat but decreased his majority by 1000. The government also lost 14 seats. Jack was asked to take over as Minister of Finance from Sid Holland.

In 1956 Jack attended a meeting of Finance Ministers in Washington and spent a month in London doing trade talks.

In 1957 Jack was asked to stand for Fendalton, taking over from Sid Holland who had become unwell. He won the seat with a majority of 2167 but the Labour Party won the election.

Jack retired from politics in 1960. He died in 1970.

In his obituary the Prime Minister of the time, Keith Holyoak, said the death of Jack Watts was a tremendous loss to New Zealand and a sad blow to him personally.

As a lawyer, as a businessman, in his 14 years as a Parliamentarian, and as a Cabinet Minister holding the portfolios of health, industries and commerce and finance, Jack Watts combined the brilliance of a fine legal mind with a warm humanity… When he left politics to return to the business world he carried with him the respect of both his political friends and opponents.

Political newspaper cartoon, 1951. Colvin © Alexander Turnbill LIbrary.
Jack and Gwen Watts on an official visit to India.