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Hugh Watt PC JP (19 March 1912 – 4 February 1980) was a Labour member of Parliament and the Interim Prime Minister of New Zealand between 1 and 6 September 1974, following the death of Prime Minister Norman Kirk. He had been Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand since 8 December 1972. Watt later served as High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Hugh Watt

Hugh Watt.jpg
5th Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
8 December 1972 – 1 September 1974
Prime MinisterNorman Kirk
Preceded byRobert Muldoon
Succeeded byBob Tizard
24th Minister of Works
In office
12 December 1957 – 12 December 1960
Prime MinisterWalter Nash
Preceded byWilliam Goosman
Succeeded byWilliam Goosman
In office
8 December 1972 – 29 August 1974
Prime MinisterNorman Kirk
Preceded byPercy Allen
Succeeded byArthur Faulkner
In office
10 September 1974 – 13 March 1975
Prime MinisterBill Rowling
Preceded byArthur Faulkner
Succeeded byMick Connelly
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Onehunga
In office
19 December 1953 – 29 November 1975
Preceded byArthur Osborne
Succeeded byFrank Rogers
Personal details
Born(1912-03-19)19 March 1912
Claremont, Perth, Australia
Died4 February 1980(1980-02-04) (aged 67)
Auckland, New Zealand
Political partyLabour
Spouse(s)(1) Alice Merry Fowke (m. 1935; div 1965)
(2) Irene Frances Watt


Early lifeEdit

Watt was born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1912. His father was an engineer and his family emigrated to New Zealand when he was just two-years old settling in Auckland.[1] He attended Seddon Memorial Technical College, where he studied engineering, and established his own engineering business in 1947.[2]

He had married twice. First to Alice Merry Fowke from 1935 to 1965. He was divorced and then married Irene Frances Watt. He had two sons and two daughters. Watt was Australian-born, like Labour Party founders such as Harry Holland, Michael Joseph Savage, Bob Semple and Paddy Webb and later MPs such as Mabel Howard and Jerry Skinner.

Political careerEdit

Member of ParliamentEdit

New Zealand Parliament
Years Term Electorate Party
1953–1954 30th Onehunga Labour
1954–1957 31st Onehunga Labour
1957–1960 32nd Onehunga Labour
1960–1963 33rd Onehunga Labour
1963–1966 34th Onehunga Labour
1966–1969 35th Onehunga Labour
1969–1972 36th Onehunga Labour
1972–1975 37th Onehunga Labour

He stood unsuccessfully for Labour in Remuera in 1949 and in Parnell in 1951.[3] His initial failures were to help his subsequent development as a politician saying "I learned early in my political life that you've got to take the kicks with the congratulations".[1] He was then successful in winning the seat of Onehunga in a 1953 by-election after the death of Arthur Osborne, and held it to 1975.[4]

Second Labour GovernmentEdit

Watt was first appointed as a minister in the Second Labour Government led by Walter Nash; he was both Minister of Works from 1957 to 1960 and additionally was Minister of Electricity from 1958 until 1960.[5] As Minister of Works he quickly became known for both his vitality and genial style of inspecting infrastructure sites. During the government he oversaw one of the most constructive and positive periods of public development New Zealand had seen.[6] He was also the Chairman of the National Roads Board from 1957 to 1960.[2]

When Labour was in opposition several previous ministers had either died or retired and Watt soon found himself as one of the party's most experienced MPs. He stood for the position of Deputy Leader in 1962 following the death of Jerry Skinner but was defeated by Fred Hackett.[7] Following Hackett's own death in 1963 he stood again and was this time elected, narrowly ahead of Norman Kirk. At 11 years, 5 months and 5 days Watt is Labour's longest-serving deputy leader, first under Arnold Nordmeyer and then under Kirk. He was the Shadow Minister of Works and Electricity while Labour was in opposition.[1]

During this period Watt suffered several health scares. In 1962 he had an operation in Auckland Hospital for an undisclosed illness. Later, in 1967 he had his appendix removed and in 1969 he suffered a heart attack. Later that same year he was admitted to hospital yet again with both influenza and inflammation round the heart. He was also a diabetic.[2]

Third Labour GovernmentEdit

During the Third Labour Government, in the ministry led by Norman Kirk, he was Minister of Labour (1972–1974) and Minister of Works and Development (1972–1974).[8] As the only member of the government with prior cabinet experience Watt carried a significant amount of responsibility handling both the strenuous Labour portfolio and had high demands in foreign relations as Deputy Prime Minister. Mike Moore, a backbencher at the time, said Watt had "carried the 1972–75 Labour government."[6]

In the highly demanding role of Minister of Labour he offered an "open door policy" to all parties in industrial disputes. However he quickly found that this was causing excessive demands on his time by warring trade unions and employers and he found himself in a position of being "too accessible".[2] From 1973 he was given an Under-Secretary in the Labour portfolio, Eddie Isbey, which eased his workload. Regardless, his tenure as Minister of Labour was seen as successful in keeping disruptive industrial disputes to a minimum.[6]

As Deputy Prime Minister he made a "futile but necessary" trip to Paris in April 1973 to voice New Zealand's opposition to nuclear weapons testing in French Polynesia. He also visited London and met with Prime Minister Edward Heath in an attempt to win British support, even offering to let Heath skipper the protest vessel, but failed to persuade the British government to support New Zealand's stand.[2]

Watt continued to have a high workload and Kirk mooted taking the Works and Development portfolio from him to help, however Watt was reluctant to drop Works and Development as he enjoyed the role. He preferred to give up the Labour portfolio, but Kirk wanted him to remain in it as he was "making his mark" in it. In early 1974 he announced that he would stay on as Minister of Labour "in the national interest" but would be replaced as Minister of Works and Development.[2]

Following Kirk's sudden death on 31 August 1974, the government was left with a leadership vacancy. Watt, who was then serving as Deputy Prime Minister, acted as prime minister for six days before a new leader was elected. On 6 September, Bill Rowling replaced Kirk as Labour Party Leader and Prime Minister after the ensuing leadership election at which he decided to retire as deputy leader. The party's National Executive and the Federation of Labour had preferred Watt.[9] Many in the parliamentary party, however, felt at 61 he was too old and that Labour needed a younger leader.[10] Watt took the defeat graciously and fought back tears informing reporters he had been defeated, later admitting that losing the leadership vote was "the greatest, most tragic disappointment of my life, it knocked me tremendously".[1] Most of the votes Watt received were from Labour's senior MPs such as Henry May who thought Watt deserved the leadership and that many backbenchers, who did not appreciate the administrative burden he carried, unfairly voted against him.[6]

In the Rowling ministry, Watt regained his cherished the Works and Development portfolio until March 1975, and was subsequently appointed to the Executive Council as a Minister without portfolio.[11] In 1974 he was also appointed a Privy Councillor along side former Prime Minister Jack Marshall. Marshall said Watt's appointment (usually reserved only for Prime Ministers) was well deserved as "he had served the House for so long and so faithfully".[1] Watt then decided to retire at the next general election in 1975 in favour of Frank Rogers.[4]

Diplomatic careerEdit

Watt was appointed New Zealand's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom effective from 22 March 1975 for three years. Controversially, he stayed on as a member of Parliament and Cabinet minister.[12] In June 1975, Watt was asked if he was about to resign as an MP. He stated that:

Following the election of the Third National Government Watt was pressured to resign by new Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, it was widely speculated that his recall was purely for political reasons.[6] In the midst of the dispute he warmly welcomed Brian Talboys, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to London reinforcing his considerate, genial reputation. During his brief time at the High Commission he did a great deal to boost the morale of the staff and a senior official there told media that "His [Watt's] politics and mine do not coincide, but that has nothing to do with the job. He is one of the best high commissioners we have had here for many years".[2]

He served only fifteen months of his three year contract and as part of a well publicised deal he relinquished the role of High Commissioner in exchange for the role of Commissioner of the Accident Compensation Corporation in Wellington. He was replaced by Douglas Carter (a recently retired National MP) which served to strengthen the public perception that his removal was politically motivated. Upon his return to New Zealand over 300 people attended a function supporting Watt after his treatment by the new government.[2]

Later life and deathEdit

In late 1977, after witnessing the Moyle Affair and generally depreciating state of politics under Muldoon, Watt put himself forward as a nominee for Onehunga once again stating that he felt that a man of his experience could guide MPs in conduct. He later withdrew his nomination.[2]

Watt died on 4 February 1980 in Auckland's Greenlane Hospital after a long illness, aged 67 years. He was survived by his wife, ex-wife and four children.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Watt – disappointment was part of his politics". Auckland Star. 5 February 1980. p. 3.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Hugh Watt — Politician of the People". New Zealand Herald. 6 February 1980. p. 14.
  3. ^ Norton 1988, pp. 314, 331.
  4. ^ a b Wilson 1985, p. 244.
  5. ^ Wilson 1985, p. 88.
  6. ^ a b c d e "Mr Rowling pays tribute to 'gentleman Hugh Watt'". New Zealand Herald. 6 February 1980. p. 3.
  7. ^ "Labour Party Elects Deputy Leader". The Evening Post. 7 June 1962. p. 15.
  8. ^ Wilson 1985, p. 92.
  9. ^ Auckland Star 5 September 1974 p11
  10. ^ Henderson 1981, p. 104-5.
  11. ^ Wilson 1985, p. 93.
  12. ^ Hay, John (22 February 1975). "New Zealand: Island unties apron strings". The Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 24 September 2014.
  13. ^ The Evening Post 13 June 1975


  • Wilson, James Oakley (1985) [First ed. published 1913]. New Zealand Parliamentary Record, 1840–1984 (4th ed.). Wellington: V.R. Ward, Govt. Printer. OCLC 154283103.
  • Hugh Watt profile via World Statesmen
  • Norton, Clifford (1988). New Zealand Parliamentary Election Results 1946–1987: Occasional Publications No 1, Department of Political Science. Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington. ISBN 0-475-11200-8.
  • Henderson, John (1981). Rowling: The Man and the Myth. Auckland: Fraser Books. ISBN 0-908620-03-9.
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by
Arthur Osborne
Member of Parliament for Onehunga
Succeeded by
Frank Rogers
Political offices
Preceded by
Robert Muldoon
Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand
Succeeded by
Bob Tizard
Preceded by
William Goosman
Minister of Works


Succeeded by
William Goosman
Preceded by
Percy Allen
Succeeded by
Arthur Faulkner
Preceded by
Arthur Faulkner
Succeeded by
Mick Connelly
Preceded by
David Thomson
Minister of Labour
Succeeded by
Arthur Faulkner
Party political offices
Preceded by
Fred Hackett
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Bob Tizard
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Terry McCombs
High Commissioner of New Zealand to the United Kingdom
Succeeded by
Douglas Carter