Story: Hanan, Josiah Ralph

Page 1 - Biography

Hanan, Josiah Ralph

1909–1969

Lawyer, politician

This biography was written by G. P. Barton and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Josiah Ralph Hanan was born in Invercargill on 13 June 1909, the youngest of five sons of draper James Albert Hanan and his wife, Johanna Mary McGill. His uncle, Josiah Alfred Hanan, was a Liberal MP from 1899 to 1925, and minister of justice and education. Ralph attended Southland Boys’ High School and Waitaki Boys’ High School, Oamaru, then studied law at the University of Otago. Returning to Invercargill, he commenced a law practice and in 1935 was elected to the city council. Three years later he was elected mayor. In 1939 he joined with his friend Ian Arthur to establish the law firm of Hanan Arthur and Company. On 3 March that year, at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Invercargill, he married Ruby Eirene Anderson.

Hanan enlisted for military service in January 1940, relinquishing the mayoralty the following year. He fought with the 20th (Canterbury–Otago) Battalion in the Middle East and Italy, attaining the rank of captain, and was wounded in action three times. On the last occasion he would have died from exposure on the battlefield had he not been picked up by a driver and, as he recalled, ‘thrown into the truck’. On his return to civilian life Hanan and Arthur resumed their law practice, and the firm quickly flourished.

Hanan was elected to Parliament as the National Party member for Invercargill in 1946, and soon demonstrated an interest and enthusiasm for law reform. After three years in opposition and five as a government backbencher, he was promoted to cabinet rank in 1954, holding the portfolios of health and immigration until National’s defeat in 1957. When the party returned to office three years later he was appointed attorney general, minister of justice and minister of Maori affairs; in 1963 he added island territories. His administration of these portfolios, which he was to hold until his death, was always infused with imagination and humanity. As a law reformer and liberal thinker he showed remarkable political perspicacity. He adhered firmly to basic liberal principles, and was flexible and accommodating in meeting the legitimate claims of others.

It was as minister of justice that he achieved his most significant results. He had the advantage of having an outstanding civil servant, John Robson, as his secretary for justice. Hanan took the initiative that led to the Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman) Act 1962, which provided for the establishment of an ombudsman (the first in the English-speaking world), based on Scandinavian precedents. He was also responsible for the establishment in 1965 of the Law Revision Commission, which led to the eventual creation of the Law Commission as a permanent body in 1985. Its programme was, as Hanan himself said, ‘to contribute, so far as the law can contribute, toward a better life by removing injustice and frictions and satisfying the needs of people’.

The main pieces of legislation associated with Hanan were the Criminal Justice Amendment Act 1962, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1963, the Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1963, the Sale of Liquor Act 1962 and the Status of Children Act 1969. He was also responsible for the passage through Parliament of the Crimes Act 1961. Speaking in Parliament, the prime minister, Keith Holyoake, later dubbed Hanan ‘Moses the Lawgiver’.

During the passage of the Crimes Bill, Hanan showed remarkable independence of outlook. He was a tireless crusader for the abolition of capital punishment, which had been suspended under the Labour government (1957–60). However, in 1961 the National government introduced legislation which provided for capital punishment in three specific situations. As minister of justice Hanan was required to introduce the bill. He accepted the responsibility, but did not hesitate to say that he disapproved of it. He even encouraged groups outside Parliament to campaign against the legislation and successfully persuaded individual government members to vote for an amendment abolishing the death penalty.

In his administration of the Maori affairs portfolio, Hanan generally showed understanding of Maori interests and aspirations. However, he acknowledged that some of his legislation, like the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967, which gave the department powers to restructure Maori land titles, did not receive universal acceptance by Maori. He was also prominent in the establishment of the Maori Education Foundation in 1961. As minister of island territories he launched the Cook Islands on the road to self-government.

While most of Hanan’s career was dedicated to national politics, he never lost his interest in Invercargill and Southland. He saw the potential of Lake Manapouri for the generation of hydroelectric power; normally sure in his assessment of public support, on this occasion Hanan misjudged the environmental issues at stake. After a sustained campaign, the proposals for raising the level of Lake Manapouri were eventually defeated.

Coming from a strong family tradition of liberal thought and involvement in politics, Ralph Hanan had an ability to remain detached and to shun any suggestion of adhering to a party line. Many of the reforms for which he was responsible were peculiarly his own, but he was able to persuade his colleagues to incorporate them as government policy. He helped to mould public opinion and, with rare exceptions, was responsive to it. A consummate tactician, he was wily and cunning, but never devious. He revelled in debate with friends, with fellow cabinet ministers, and in the House. He had a wry sense of fun, and delighted in the exchange of pithy notes with his friends. His colleagues described him as complex, elusive and lovable. Short in stature and puckish in appearance, he also had a great love of dogs.

Ralph Hanan died on 24 July 1969 at Cairns, Queensland, after attending the annual meeting of Australian state attorneys general in Brisbane. Survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, he was buried in Invercargill.