The Jeremiahs who've been beating their gums to a pulp worrying about the ship of state hitting rocks while Captain Jacinda takes six weeks away from the rudder for maternity leave, need to learn to relax — and take a history pill.

During two of New Zealand's most progressive periods of government, prime ministers sailed off into the sunset, not just for a few weeks, but for months at a time. And guess what, life went on as before. Indeed you could argue their absences from Wellington resulted in distinctly positive outcomes.

In 1897, Liberal leader "King Dick" Seddon went off to Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebrations. He was away for five months, and seems to have had a fine old time, both socially and workwise. Perhaps most significantly, while he was away, he had time to research and finalise plans for his path-finding old age pension scheme, which he vigorously pushed through parliament on his return.

Then in the war years of the early 1940s, Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser was back and forth on perilous flights via North Africa and the Middle East to Britain and the United States for months at a time. Not only did the Government not fall to pieces — we won the war.


All, long before the era of Skype and social media and mobile phones enabling instant contact with your caretaker ministers back home, something which the present PM will have at her finger tips.

Seddon's grand tour began mid-April with a three week cruise from Auckland to San Francisco, accompanied by his wife and two unmarried adult daughters and the Anglican Archbishop of Wellington and his wife. Historian Tom Brooking says they were the life and soul of the nightly onboard social events. Which got Seddon into trouble when some snitch told the media when they berthed in San Francisco that he'd caused offence by singing The Wearing o' the Green at one of these soirees, a ditty greatly disliked by the Queen.

The Seddons then headed by train to the east coast, via Salt Lake City where he caught up with two old mates from his St Helens home town, who had become Mormon bishops. On the east coast he had meetings with the US President and Canadian Prime Minister then sailed for England where three royal carriages transported him from the rail station to the opulent Hotel Cecil.

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

He finally returned early September, after stopping off to see the Pope in Rome, to a hero's welcome in Wellington, helped, quips Brooking, "by the granting of a half-day holiday". A more reluctant traveller was Labour prime minister Michael Savage who was away for four months in 1937 to attend King George VI's coronation. Pining to get back to his "real job" he wrote home that "the amount of artificial humbug …is astounding" and confessed to looking "a proper Charlie" when forced into knee breeches for a Palace ceremony.

Peter Fraser, who succeeded Savage following his death in March 1940, seems a less reluctant traveller. During one lengthy trip to England, his "keeper", the legendary head of Prime Minister's Department, Carl Berendsen privately complained that Fraser "liked the life of a visiting potentate".

He was away for more than four months in 1941, leading the National Party to complain about his absence. It wasn't without incident. En route to Cairo to visit NZ troops, his plane came under attack from Iraqi rebels. Later, his car rolled several times after a crash in the Egyptian desert, but he luckily escaped with bruising. He then had to fly via Khartoum and Lagos — a 12 day trip — to London.

After weeks of meetings, along with side trips to old boyhood haunts, he flew back, via Ottawa and San Francisco. In 1944, he was away again for more than three months. The same a year later, this time for the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations, in which Fraser played a leading part on behalf of smaller nations. Again he was away for three months, and the Government ticked over back home. Indeed it went on to win the next election.

All of which is by way of suggesting that democracies like ours don't suddenly flounder when leaders are away, either to meet the queen, to save the world, or to have a baby.