Story: Statham, Charles Ernest

Page 1 - Biography

Statham, Charles Ernest

1875–1946

Lawyer, politician, parliamentary Speaker

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

Charles Ernest Statham was born in Dunedin on 10 May 1875, the son of Ann Sutton Hemsley and her husband, Charles Hadfield Statham, a merchant's clerk, who was to be ordained an Anglican priest at the age of 70. Charles was educated privately and at Otago Boys' High School. He entered his father's office to train as an accountant but decided instead to take up the law. He was admitted as a solicitor in 1901 and as a barrister in 1906. In 1904 he started practice on his own, later establishing the firm of Statham, Brent, and Anderson. He was married in Dunedin on 7 December 1905 to Lilias Harata Hine te Aho Burnett; they were to have one daughter.

Statham served on the Dunedin City Council from 1911 to 1915. At the general election of 1911 he stood as the Reform candidate for Dunedin Central and defeated the sitting Liberal member, J. F. Arnold. He held the seat until 1935. In 1914 he retained it – just – against J. W. Munro, the Social Democratic Party candidate. Munro had won by eight votes, but a recount changed this to a win for Statham by 12 after 116 votes at Caversham had been disallowed because a returning officer had marked voting papers incorrectly. Statham's personal integrity and marked independence from party showed themselves in his reaction to this situation. Although he knew that the prime minister, William Massey, was in danger of defeat on a no-confidence motion, he insisted on resigning the seat. He regained it at the ensuing by-election by a margin of 107, despite a strenuous Labour campaign and Sir Joseph Ward, the Liberal leader, speaking on behalf of Munro.

From this point on Statham increasingly detached himself both from the government and from party politics. Undoubtedly the fact that he represented a city and working-class electorate with a strong Labour vote and on which his hold was always somewhat precarious had something to do with his departures from strict loyalty to the Reform Party. During the war he chaired a parliamentary committee which in October 1917 presented a report that was critical of the government's failure to control the cost of living. It did, however, concede that bringing prices down to pre-war levels would now mean ruin to many small farmers.

For the rest of his political career Statham was essentially an independent. He believed that private members should have more say in the making of party policy, and advocated the elective executive, an idea current since the 1890s, when parliamentarians had been disturbed by the growth of executive dominance under Richard Seddon. In 1920 he moved that cabinet should be elected by members of the dominant party.

In 1918–19 Statham and other Reform MPs unhappy with the leadership of Massey tried to establish a Progressive Reform Party; it failed, and all its principals with the exception of Statham had accepted posts in cabinet by 1921. In 1919 Statham was re-elected as an independent. His last attempt to find a congenial party affiliation came in 1921 when he took a leading role in the formation of the short-lived National Progressive and Moderate Labour Party, opposed to the rural bias of Reform. He contested the 1922 election as an independent. The Reform government was returned with a very small majority and did not want to diminish it still further by having to appoint one of its members as Speaker. Statham was nominated against James McCombs (Labour) and elected by 61 to 17. This was a logical outcome of his growing detachment from party allegiance.

Statham was the first New Zealand-born Speaker and has been generally regarded as one of the finest Speakers of the New Zealand Parliament. This was a period of three-party politics when the business of ensuring fairness and balance in the management of the business of the House was more complicated and required greater skills of diplomacy than was to be the case after 1935. He studied parliamentary procedure very closely and acquired an outstanding knowledge of parliamentary law. Many of his rulings still form part of Parliament's standing orders. Statham was made a Knight Bachelor in 1926.

Statham argued – unavailingly – that the Speaker should be returned unopposed at elections. He was re-elected in 1925 and 1928, on the latter occasion with a reduced majority. By the 1931 general election his majority had fallen to 262. He decided to retire at the next general election, held in 1935, after which he went back into legal practice in Wellington. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1936 but spoke rarely and took no active part in politics.

Statham had been active in football and rowing, and was involved with the League of Nations Union of New Zealand, the New Zealand Football Association and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He died in Wellington on 5 March 1946, survived by his wife and daughter.