Page 1: Biography
Davy, Albert Ernest
Hairdresser, businessman, political organiser
This biography, written by Diana Beaglehole, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Albert Ernest Davy was born at Wellington on 17 August 1886, the son of Charley Davy, a constable, and his wife, Selina Williams. The family moved to Thames, Dargaville, and various places in Hawke's Bay and Taranaki before settling in Gisborne in 1907. After leaving school Bert Davy tried different jobs: in 1908 he was described as a bootmaker and soon after as a draper. On 2 December 1908, in Gisborne, he married Florence Maude Sawyer, a milliner; they were to have two sons. The couple lived briefly in Inglewood, then returned to Gisborne, where Davy became a hairdresser.
A talented runner and keen motorcyclist, he served as dominion president of the New Zealand Auto Cycle Union and vice president of the New Zealand Athletic and Cycling Union, becoming known as a capable organiser of championship events. He also became involved with the Protestant Political Association and in 1919 helped run W. D. Lysnar's successful campaign against Sir James Carroll for the Gisborne seat.
In 1923 Davy was appointed an organiser for the New Zealand Political Reform League, working under the dominion secretary, E. A. James, whom he would always acknowledge as his mentor. Prior to the 1925 election, he studied electioneering methods in the United States and on his return organised a presidential-style campaign for the Reform Party. Employing the latest advertising techniques for the first time at a New Zealand election, he focused attention, not on the party or its candidates, but on the leader, Prime Minister Gordon Coates. New Zealanders were urged to take 'Coats off with Coates’, ‘the man who gets things done’, to vote for 'Coates and Confidence', 'Coates and Certainties'. Appeals were made to patriotism, women voters were targeted, and the business community was promised 'more business in Government, less Government in business'. Nothing was left to chance: 'Coates candidates' and their committees were issued with booklets, briefing them on how best to run their campaigns. The electorate responded by giving Reform its greatest victory and Davy gained a reputation as a superb political organiser.
Davy’s next assignment was less successful. In March 1926, Ellen Melville, a contender for the Reform nomination at the Eden by-election, claimed that Davy offered her money and a safe seat at the next election if she withdrew. After Davy's preferred candidate, Sir James Gunson, won the nomination, Melville appealed to Coates, saying Davy had locked some of her delegates out of the selection meeting. Coates was embarrassed, but felt Davy should have the benefit of the doubt. Melville stood as an independent Reform candidate, splitting the vote and helping the New Zealand Labour Party candidate win.
The incident caused ill feeling in Auckland Reform circles, especially towards Davy. Relations between Davy and Coates also became strained and in late 1926 Davy left the Reform Party. It is not clear if he was sacked, but he is said to have upset Coates over a scheme he was hatching to channel money from petrol sales into party funds. Davy maintained he had resigned because the party was being 'governed autocratically' and he objected to its 'socialistic legislation'.
Davy was not alone in resenting the growth of state activity: businessmen, in particular, wanted less government in business. In June 1927 Davy was contracted by J. W. S. McArthur, an Auckland timber merchant, to organise nationally against the government for a fee of £1,300. Armed with Reform Party membership lists and contacts from the 1925 campaign, he began soliciting support for a new party. In August he set up the United New Zealand Political Organisation (UNZPO). He was joined in November by the Nationalists under George Forbes and in April 1928 by W. A. Veitch and the revived Liberal Party. By September the three men had attracted the support of various groups disaffected from Reform. That month, at its first conference, the UNZPO became the United Party.
The conference also selected Sir Joseph Ward as the party's leader. Without consulting other members, Davy had earlier invited Ward – who was in Canada – to stand for the leadership. He went on to run United's campaign, cleverly using for propaganda purposes Ward's impromptu promise to borrow £70 millon. As in 1925, he concentrated on the leader, describing Ward as a ‘world-famed financier’ and ‘New Zealand's only Statesman’. Once again Davy's tactics produced extraordinary results and in December 1928 United became a minority government supported by the Labour and independent MPs.
After the election, Davy became chairman of the United Party. By October 1929, however, he was suggesting it would be better for the government to seek another mandate than to retain office 'dragged at the chariot wheels of Labour'. In January 1930 he attacked Ward in the press, accusing him of authoritarianism, fawning on the Labour Party and unfairly maligning the Reform Party. The only way to combat socialism, he declared, was to reduce the number of parties to two by amalgamating United with Reform. He was dismissed on 24 January and around the same time two MPs and four principal organisers who shared his dissatisfaction left the party.
In November 1930 Davy rejoined Reform as an organiser, stating it was 'the only true anti-Socialistic Party in the Dominion'. Although he organised the coalition campaign in 1931, he also assisted J. D. Ormond, an independent Reform candidate. In July 1932 he was involved with Ormond and others in an attempt to 'reform the Reform Party or form a New Party'. However, he did not join the New Zealand National Movement, set up by these men, or its successor, the New Zealand Legion.
By September 1934 Davy had been hired by William Goodfellow, a wealthy company director, to form a new anti-socialist party on a salary of £1,250 per annum for three years. He resigned from Reform, denouncing the government as 'Socialistic by inclination, action and fact', and in October announced the formation of the Democrat Party. Soon Davy was accused of exceeding his brief by finding too many candidates: Goodfellow had wanted a small group to hold the balance of power in Parliament. In July 1935 Goodfellow tried unsuccessfully to have Davy removed from the party's executive and later sued to recover part of his salary. The Democrat campaign was a pale version of Davy's earlier efforts. Candidates were again provided with useful handbooks, but there were no nationwide advertisements, no catchcries or slogans.
After the Democrats failed to win any seats in 1935, Davy worked for a while as a sharebroker. In 1937 he helped set up the Hawke's Bay Daily Mail, which he then managed. He returned to political organising in April 1940, joining the People's Movement, a group opposed to bureaucratic government, party politics and the subordination of the individual to the state. A section of the movement merged with the New Zealand National Party in February 1941 and the following year Davy launched the short-lived New Zealand Co-operative Party. At the 1943 election he advised the Independent Group, the candidates sponsored by the remnant of the People's Movement. He was subsequently in business as a merchant. Ironically, he owed his last appointment to a Labour government, which in October 1958 made him a member of the Trade Practices and Prices Commission; he was later acting chairman. Albert Davy died in Wellington on 13 June 1959, survived by his wife and younger son.
A hairdresser who became a 'big-wig in the political world', Davy was a 'spare-built individual, quick in speech and very active'. With his bowler hat and walking-stick, he was 'the best dressed and expensive man in politics'. Distrusted as a political soldier of fortune, he was nonetheless consistent: always opposed to socialism and interference with the rights of the individual. In the inter-war years he was the country's outstanding political organiser.