Michael Bassett was born in Auckland 1938, and educated at Owairaka School, Dilworth School and Mt Albert Grammar. He completed his BA (1958) and MA degrees in history at the University of Auckland before winning a James B. Duke Fellowship to Duke University in 1961. There he completed a PhD in American history before returning to lecture at the University of Auckland in 1964. He was Senior Lecturer in History when elected to the Auckland City Council in 1971 and to New Zealand's parliament in 1972. He was a backbench MP in the Labour governments of Prime Ministers Norman Kirk and Bill Rowling (1972-5), and then a senior opposition figure before becoming Minister of Health and Local Government (1984-7) in the Labour administration of Prime Minister David Lange. Between 1987 and 1990 he was Minister of Internal Affairs, Local Government, Civil Defence and Arts and Culture. He was Chairman of the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board and of the 1990 Commission that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Since retiring from active politics in 1990 Dr Bassett has worked with the New Zealand Expo team in Seville (1991-2), been J.B. Smallman Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario (1992-3, 1994 and 1996), and taught courses at Auckland University Medical School (1997-2000). In 2002 he was Fulbright Professor of New Zealand Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He is the author of fifteen books on New Zealand History:
Confrontation '51: the 1951 Waterfront Dispute (1972);
The Third Labour Government (1976);
Three Party Politics in New Zealand 1911-1931 (1982);
Sir Joseph Ward (1993);
Coates of Kaipara (1995);
The Mother of All Departments: A History of the Department of Internal Affairs (1997);
The State in New Zealand 1840-1984: Socialism Without Doctrines? (1998);
Tomorrow Comes the Song: A life of Peter Fraser (with Michael King, 2001);
Roderick Deane: His Life & Times (with Judith Bassett, 2006);
The Myers (with Paul Goldsmith, 2007)
Working with David (2008)
Puketutu and its People (with Paul Goldsmith) 2008
City of Sails: The History of Auckland City Council, 1989-2010 (2013)
The Next Vintage: The Babich Family and 100 years of New Zealand Wine, (2015)
New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key, (2017)
He has contributed entries to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and to the Dictionary of National Biography (London), and has written several textbooks that have been used in New Zealand and British schools over the years. In December 1999 Political Science (Wellington) carried an article of his entitled "The Essentials of Successful Leadership in Twentieth-Century New Zealand Politics".
Dr Bassett spent ten years (1994-2004) as a tribunal member of the Waitangi Tribunal that deals with Maori claims. For more than six years he wrote regular columns on political subjects for the Fairfax papers, the Dominion Post (Wellington), the Press (Christchurch) and the Waikato Times (Hamilton). These columns won him the accolade of Best Political Columnist in New Zealand in the Qantas Media Awards in 2004. He served on the Board of the Museum of New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa from 2009 to 2013.
He is married to Judith Bassett who taught history at the University of Auckland and who has had an active career in Auckland's local government, having chaired the Auckland Area Health Board (1988-89), and the ASB Charitable Trusts (1988-2002). She was an elected member of the Auckland Regional Council between 2001 and 2010 and chaired Auckland Regional Holdings 2004-2010. She is in her third term as an elected member of the Auckland District Health Board and sits on the Auckland Library Heritage Committee. They have two grown-up children (Emma a lawyer) and Sam (an accountant), and three grandchildren, Isobel, Harry and Edward.