Story: Algie, Ronald Macmillan

Page 1 - Biography

Algie, Ronald Macmillan

1888–1978

Professor of law, politician, parliamentary Speaker

This biography was written by Hugh Templeton and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Ronald Macmillan Algie was born in Wyndham, Southland, on 22 October 1888, the son of John Alexander Algie, a postmaster, and his wife, Agnes Macmillan. Algie was educated at Arrowtown, Thames High School and Balclutha District High School. After a period as a pupil-teacher, he entered a law office. He completed an LLB in 1913 and an LLM in 1915 at Auckland University College. His intellectual capacity and powers of exposition led to an assistant lectureship in law in 1913, followed by his installation in 1920, at the age of 31, as Auckland's first professor of law. He married Helen Adair McMaster at Auckland on 14 December 1917; they had no children.

Algie made a reputation as a brilliant teaching lawyer of conservative inclination and was remembered for his charm and humour as well as the scholarly interest and erudition of his lectures. He emphasised the value of a general as well as a legal education, and the importance of professional standards and responsibilities. He was a member of the college's professorial board and of the Senate of the University of New Zealand. In debates in the 1930s on academic freedom, he supported the conservative cause. With his wife, he spent much leisure time in mountaineering, and was sufficiently proud of their feats in climbing Mt Ruapehu and Mt Cook to feature this fact in his entry in Who's who in New Zealand.

In 1937, with the backing of Auckland business interests, Algie resigned his chair to become director of the Auckland Provincial (later New Zealand) Freedom Association, a right-wing organisation strongly opposed to the Labour government. By 1938 it had effectively become a publicity organisation for the New Zealand National Party. He successfully contested the blue-ribbon Remuera seat for National in 1943.

Algie made a name as a brilliantly lucid and outstandingly skilful debater of easy erudition and sharp wit. His speeches were appreciated as much by opponents like Bob Semple, the most destructive debater on the Labour benches, as by his own party, who regularly put him up after key Labour Party speakers. He dealt simply and to the point with a mass of issues, and could deliver put-downs with a courtesy that disarmed antagonism. If he felt he had hurt an opponent, he was quick to the apology. Algie was undoubtedly the most effective parliamentary debater of his time.

Algie's impact in opposition ensured that he was given a senior post in the first National government after its election in 1949. He was appointed minister of education in 1949 and in 1951 minister in charge of broadcasting and minister in charge of scientific and industrial research. His most immediate task, however, was to act with T. O. Bishop, a member of the Legislative Council, as a joint chairman of the select committee charged with finding a viable alternative to the Council; the government carried out its pledge to abolish this body in 1950. When Bishop fell ill, Algie became responsible, while carrying a full ministerial load, for the 1952 reports of the Constitutional Reform Committee. This notable discussion document was largely a product of Algie's learning, drafting skills and political wisdom.

Algie proved to be an efficient, conscientious and effective minister of education. Initially, as a result of his attacks in opposition on Labour's 'socialist' education policies, his appointment created professional apprehensions and a wariness between him and his dynamic director, Dr C. E. Beeby. Algie, however, made regular visits to kindergartens and schools and satisfied himself that, despite changes in teaching, the 'three Rs' were well covered. He soon established an effective working relationship with Beeby and was generous in his praise of the department and its officers.

The educational system Algie inherited faced increasing demands. On Algie's recommendation the government endorsed the plans of the Labour administration for massive building programmes and vastly increased teaching quotas to meet the exploding demand for primary school places. Another critical decision was to continue with plans to provide for multi-purpose secondary schools, ending the earlier division into academic and technical high schools.

Tertiary education was also reformed under Algie. There were plans for larger universities and more teachers' colleges. The University of New Zealand took the first steps towards the autonomy of its constituent colleges while negotiating reciprocal superannuation schemes to facilitate the recruitment of university teachers from other countries. Another major initiative, in recognition of a future need for engineering and science technicians, was the reconsideration of the types and levels of tertiary courses. In 1957 Algie authorised planning for the Auckland Technical Institute and the Central Technical College (later the Central Institute of Technology).

Algie was less successful in securing resources for science, which he may have seen as a lesser responsibility than education. His interest was nevertheless strong, stimulated by working with Ernest Marsden, the original secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, when they served together on the Academic Board of the University of New Zealand. The DSIR was under severe financial stress, and restrictions in the vote led to debilitating cut-backs in staff. In the early 1950s Algie strongly backed reform within the DSIR. This involved high standards of recruitment, merit payment of staff and delegation of responsibility to leaders of research teams, coupled with full accountability for the use of resources. This approach was unique to the public service and served as a model for subsequent state-service reform.

By the time Algie's term ended in 1957 the DSIR was building a reputation for excellence in scientific research based on financially sound administration. The first geothermal power station was established at Wairakei, nuclear science facilities were developed, scientific support for oil and gas exploration was maintained, and the Taranaki iron sands were investigated as a basis for a steel industry. Algie keenly supported an expansion of New Zealand's Antarctic research programmes, culminating in the building of Scott Base as the centre for year-round activities.

As minister in charge of broadcasting Algie repudiated the policy of ministerial control of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, which saw radio as essentially a presenter of government policy. But the political constraints on broadcasting, coupled with financial pressures, made him hesitate to press ahead with a long-felt need for an independent system of broadcasting news. For the same reason, he also slowed up the establishment of television. He did, however, maintain firm support for another allegedly costly broadcasting icon, the National Orchestra.

Algie was an effective senior minister but, perhaps because of his age, his record in cabinet failed to match the level of his performances in the house. A younger Algie may have been a notable reforming minister comparable to junior colleagues, such as J. R. Hanan, with whom he had an intellectual affinity, and T. P. Shand. Neither of the governments with which he was associated acted on his proposal for a revived second chamber of Parliament, so Algie was denied the ultimate accolade of constitutional reformer.

In opposition between 1958 and 1960, Algie retained his front-bench ranking and proved a devastating critic of the 'faults, follies, and mismanagement of a most unpopular Government'. On the election of the second National government in 1960 Algie may have hoped for the portfolio of external affairs. But he was now 72 and, under pressure, he reluctantly accepted the speakership. (His reluctance was perhaps due to his poor eyesight, which required him to learn Standing Orders by heart.) Nevertheless, Algie, with his finely tuned, wide-ranging constitutional interests and legal experience, fairly maintained he had 'a delightful job'. He held firm views about the courtesies required of parliamentary debate. He also faced an urgent need for changes to cope with the rapid growth of parliamentary business and longer sessions, and chaired the 1961–62 committee established to reform procedures. His knowledge of the constitution of other legislatures assisted in improving parliamentary practice and systems. This was especially true for financial affairs, to be dealt with in a new Public Expenditure Committee.

At his retirement in 1966 Algie was lauded as 'an outstanding Speaker', admired as 'the skilled fencer, the man with the sharp rapier…with the touch of the consummate artist'. He had been knighted in 1964, and received an honorary LLD from his old university in 1967.

Helen Algie had died in 1944, and on 28 May 1947, at Christchurch, Algie married Mary Joan Gray Stewart; they had a son and a daughter. Mary Algie died in 1972, and he himself died at Auckland on 23 July 1978, survived by his two children. In a distinguished professional and public career, Algie, who liked to describe himself as 'a Tory in the old tradition', had given exemplary service based on intellect, learning, wit and authority.