Peter Fraser, ex-PM of New Zealand
Attribution: S. Fraser (2021)
Extract From Ross-Shire Journal
In September 2019 an exhibition was held in the hall at Fearn Abbey to recall the life of Peter Fraser while Prime Minister in New Zealand during World War 2.
Peter Fraser came from a family directly affected by the Highland Clearances and developed a lifelong interest in politics from an early age.
On reaching New Zealand in 1911, in the hope of a better life, his active involvement for the betterment of workers’ lives led in time to his election into office. At the age of 34, he was the youngest Member of Parliament.
By August 1939, with the deterioration in the health of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Michael Savage, Fraser virtually assumed the PM’s responsibilities. When Savage died in April 1940, Fraser took charge at an intense time in world history.
Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, once said that under the leadership of Fraser “New Zealand never put a foot wrong”. Fraser was the only Dominion Premier to survive the post-war elections.
He was a highly-respected founding father of the United Nations.
The exhibition depicted Fraser’s wartime contribution to the support of his own NZ troops through Canada and the UK, at Monte Cassino in Italy, and in Egypt.
[Extract courtesy of the Editor of the Ross-shire Journal]
Labourer, trade unionist, prisoner, journalist, politician, Prime Minister, UN founder
Peter Fraser, born in Hill of Fearn, became the 24th Prime Minister of New Zealand and a key figure in the founding of the United Nations. At the time of writing, he was also the 4th longest serving head of government and had been in office for a longer period of time than any other New Zealand Labour prime minister.
The Early Years
Born in Hill of Fearn to his parents:
- Donald Fraser, his father, was a master shoemaker and was also a leading member of the local Liberal Association branch
- His mother was Isabella McLeod
- He left school at an early age as he needed to contribute to the family income
- He was apprenticed to a carpenter but he continued his education by reading –economics, Keir Hardie, John Burns, Robert Blatchford and other socialist writers
- Involved in farmworkers’ agitation for the Small-Holding and Allotments Act
- Secretary to local branch of Liberal Association at the age of 16
- Due to bad eyesight his apprenticeship ended and he left to go to London in search of work
- While in London he subscribed to socialist doctrines
Joined Independent Labour Party
Due to unemployed he decided to emigrate to New Zealand due to its reputation for social advancement
A Start in New Zealand
Landed in Auckland
- During his early years in New Zealand he was known as Pat Fraser
- Found employment as labourer and a stevedore on the wharves in Auckland
- Joined New Zealand Socialist Party
- Elected president of the Auckland General Labourers’ Union
- Was an incisive and forceful orator with an instinctive combativeness, ready wit and a sarcastic turn of phrase
- Shrewd and tireless organiser
- As part of his Union responsibilities he won substantial improvements in wages and conditions from the Portland Cement Company in July and August
- Acted as manager for M J Savage’s campaign for the Auckland Central electorate as candidate of the Socialist Party.
- Campaign was unsuccessful.
The union was in dispute with Auckland City Council.
- This union dispute was put into hands of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (the Red Fed) but in the meantime the council encouraged some workers to form a new union which had legal recognition.
- The old union lost members and in September Fraser was forced to resign.
- Fraser became an executive member of the New Zealand Federation of Labour
- His influence within the federation was growing and became its representative in Waihi during the Waihi miners’ strike of 1912.
- Following violent confrontation between police and strikebreakers the federation’s emergency committee (which included Fraser) sought a settlement as they recognised there was little support for a general strike.
- By this time he was jobless and without influence.
- Went to Wellington and started working on the wharves.
- In July Fraser attended the 2nd Unity Congress which led to the foundation of the United Federation of Labour and the Social Democratic Party (SDP)
- He became treasurer of the SDP
- In November, Fraser and some of the other leaders were arrested for breach of the peace following a poorly supported general strike in 1913.
- He was bound over to keep the peace.
The World War I Years
- Fraser was one of the labour leaders strongly opposed to the First World War, which he was an “imperialist” war and bitterly opposed conscription.
- During this time he worked hard to revitalise the SDP but its finances and organisation failed to improve
- He played a leading part in the July 1916 conference which formed the New Zealand Labour Party
- He was elected to the new party’s national executive and remained a member until his death
- On 1 August, despite the strong opposition of the Labour Party The Military Service Act became law
- Fraser, along with other prominent Labour leaders, was arrested for advocating the repeal of the Military Service law.
- He was charged with sedition and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment which he served in full.
- While in prison Fraser was supplied with books by Thomas Hunter from Victoria University College whom he’d met through the work of the recently formed Workers’ Educational Association (WEA).
When he left the gaol he found a role as a journalist, working for the official Labour Party newspaper.
- Saw Fraser’s return to political activity including the organisation of the Labour Party campaign for H E Holland in the Wellington North and Grey by-election.
- The latter was successful.
- During the 1918 great influenza epidemic, which he survived, he showed personal courage and organising ability and brought order into the relief work which established his reputation as a tireless constituency worker and won him widespread respect.
- In October, Fraser was elected for Wellington Central.
The Council Years
- In April, he was elected to the Wellington City Council
- Acted as editor of the Maoriland Worker
- He was elected secretary of the Labour Party
- He led a movement on the Wellington council to establish a municipal milk distribution department. This remained in operation until the 1990s.
- He served as vice-president of the Labour Party.
- In November, He married Janet Henderson Munro, from Glasgow. They had no children together although Janet had a son from a previous marriage.
- Throughout the 1920s he continued to write for Maoriland Worker and its successor, the New Zealand Worker.
- During this decade he developed formidable skills as a parliamentarian and became the party’s most devastating debater.
- He was also a master of tactics and procedure.
- He played a major role in party organisation as became the party trouble-shooter.
- He and Walter Nash were probably the chief influencers in the formulation of policy.
- He served as president for the Labour Party from 1920 to 1921.
- He was re-elected to the council in Wellington.
At the end of his term on the Wellington City Council was narrowly defeated for the post of Mayor of Wellington
- In March, Fraser toured the North Island with a message for farmers of assured markets and guaranteed prices
- He introduced an unemployed workers bill which embodied a scheme for contributory unemployment insurance.
- He played a considerable role in the Labour Party
- He promoted a couple of programmes:
- The voter credit reform, and
- A humanitarian welfare programme
- He was elected as deputy leader of the party
- Fraser was again elected to serve on the Wellington City Council, gaining more votes than any other candidate.
- He resigned from the council a year later to allow him to focus on his ministerial duties.
The Parliament Years
- The Labour took office and he was clearly the government’s second in command.
- He took the following portfolios:
- Minister of Health
- Minister of Education
- Minister of External Affairs
- Minister of Island Territories
- Minister of Marine, and
- Minister of Police.
- In his first year in government Janet Fraser acted as a research assistant and adviser.
- He worked long hours from 8 am to 1 am, 7 days a week.
- He had a passionate belief in the part education had to play in social reform.
- Under his leadership cuts made during the depression were restored and many important reforms were made.
- Most importantly, access to secondary education was improved.
- He was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal
- He was awarded the King George VI Coronation Medal.
- The Social Security Act was passed and established a largely free national health service which was free at the point of use.
- Due to entrenched and bitter opposition of the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association the new service had many problems.
- Janet, who had a long history of voluntary work in the fields of health and welfare, was a valuable adviser to her husband.
- He was a tough, realistic and effective negotiator and finally brought the doctors into the new scheme.
- Unknown to the general public, Prime Minister Savage was dying.
- In addition to his existing duties Fraser assumed the role of acting Prime Minister and directed the New Zealand war effort.
- He travelled to England to meet with Winston Churchill and Bernard Freyberg (who would be appointed commanding officer of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force) for talks on New Zealand’s participation in the war.
- During war years he forged close lines with Te Puea Herangi and other Maori leaders
- 27 March, an election saw him succeeding Savage as Prime Minister
- He became a member of the Privy Council as a Privy Counsellor
- Introduced censorship which was effectively controlled by the Prime Minister
Fraser’s ingenuity and persuasiveness drove forward the formation of a War Cabinet, War Council and War Administration.
- In February and June, in order to secure public safety and efficient prosecution of the war he introduced emergency regulations establishing a formidable system of control over public expression of opinion.
- This gave the government virtually unlimited powers over people and property.
- One of these powers was Conscription which was widely supported in the country
- Japan entered the war.
- Fraser made decision to leave the New Zealand Division in the Middle East rather than recalling them to be part of the Pacific theatre.
- Despite being in the midst of the war, Fraser fought and won a general election
- He was concerned that the larger countries, particularly Britain, viewed the New Zealand military as an extension of their own.
- He clarified crucial questions about deployment and control of New Zealand forces and the concept of dominion status in wartime by spelling out to the British authorities Bernard Freyberg’s responsibilities on reporting to the New Zealand government on any plans for actions involving New Zealand troops
- The Australian – New Zealand Agreement and Fraser sought to ensure that both Australian and New Zealand interests in the Pacific wouldn’t be overlooked.
- Fraser’s government proposed to adopt the Statute of Westminster 1931 to allow New Zealand to gain greater constitutional independence.
- This proposal was buried due to opposition by the National Party, who, ironically, then proposed it themselves through a private members’ bill.
- He helped settle the longstanding Taranaki and Ngai Tahu land claims.
The Post-War Years
- He was one of the architects of the United Nations and a contributor to the UN Charter Conference in San Francisco established the United Nations.
- At meetings of the United Nations General Assembly he was a leader of small nations opposing the granting of veto rights to the great powers.
- He also sought, unsuccessfully, to strengthen the peace-keeping functions of the UN, by binding all members to come to the aid of a victim of aggression.
- He chaired the committee that led to the establishment of the Trusteeship Council and set up the UN Economic and Social Council.
- He placed Western Samoa within the trusteeship system setting it on its road to independence.
- He also played an important part in elevating the status of the Economic and Social Council to that of a principal body of the UN.
- Around this time Fraser was often ill and spent some time in hospital, which in some sources has been attributed to exhaustion.
- He played large part in introduction and passing of the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act which allowed Maori involvement and control over welfare programmes and other assistance.
- This year also saw the death of his wife, Janet
- He played an active part in a settlement of the Waikato confiscation claim.
- His government narrowly survived a general election.
- He had long term interest in Maori concerns and he added Minister of Native Affairs to his responsibilities.
- He was appointed as a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour
- On Fraser’s initiative the Department of Native Affairs was renamed as the Department for Maori Affairs
- The Statute of Westminster 1931 was adopted.
- He forced a proposal for conscription through the Labour Party conference but had to promise a national referenced which his government backed a ‘Yes’ vote.
- His victory in this matter left his party split and in disarray.
- December, his government was heavily defeated, and he became leader of the opposition.
- He suffered a number of health problems including hospitalisation with influenza
- He died in Wellington from a heart attack following his hospitalisation with influenza, and is buried in Karori Cemetery, Wellington, New Zealand.
- His body lay in state in the New Zealand Parliament Buildings for three days.
- He had a state funeral service conducted by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church.
Throughout the research for this article I think the best summary I found of Peter Fraser was the following by Gavin McLean from the nzhistory.govt.nz article:
“Fraser had his quirks. Authoritarian, devious and secretive, he worked punishing hours, was disorganised, conducted too much business orally and was addicted to attending funerals.”
Tim Beaglehole. ‘Fraser, Peter’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, <https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4f22/fraser-peter> (accessed 7 May 2019)
‘Peter Fraser’, <URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Fraser>, Last Updated: 3 April 2019 (accessed 8 May 2019)
‘Peter Fraser‘, <URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/people/peter-fraser>, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 8-Nov-2017 (accessed 8 May 2019)
‘Future prime minister charged with sedition‘, <URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/future-prime-minister-peter-fraser-charged-with-sedition>, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 22-Dec-2017 (accessed 8 May 2019)
Peter Fraser. (n.d.). Retrieved April 09th, 2019, from <http://biography.yourdictionary.com/peter-fraser> (accessed 8 May 2019)