FRASER, Right Hon. Peter, P.C., C.H.
Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party and Prime Minister of New Zealand.
A new biography of Fraser, Peter appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Peter Fraser was born in Scotland in the highland village of Fearn on 28 August 1884, the son of Donald Fraser, a bootmaker, and Isabel Fraser (née McLeod) of Fearn. He attended the Fearn School but his education was interrupted at an early age by the need to augment the family income. Donald Fraser was a leading member of the Fearn Liberal Association and his shop was a centre of political discussion; Peter Fraser, therefore, soon encountered political controversy. As a youth he joined the Volunteer Corps and was a member of the Seaforth Highlanders, a fact which might have surprised his friends in New Zealand a decade or so later. In 1907 Fraser went to London and in the City he became acquainted with and converted to socialist doctrines and to their political embodiment at that time, the Independent Labour Party. In 1910, however, he was out of work and decided to immigrate to New Zealand. He landed in Auckland on 2 January 1911.
Soon after his arrival he joined the New Zealand Socialist Party and became a regular open-air (soap box) speaker. He was, of course, a militant and was fully in sympathy with the policy and outlook of the “Red Federation” of Labour, an aggressive industrial body which had been formed by unions impatient with the moderate policies of the Trades and Labour Councils. Fraser worked as a labourer and his political activity brought him into prominence in the Auckland General Labourers Union; late in 1911 he became its president and early in the following year he was elected secretary of the Auckland district of the Federation. In 1912 the General Labourers engaged in a strike but when the employing authority, the Auckland City Council, formed a new union and recognised it as the legal body for the purposes of the Arbitration Act, the men were plainly beaten. The defeat cost Fraser his position as president. At this time, however, he was in Waihi as the Federation's representative in the Waihi mine strike. Again the strike had drifted on, but the advent of a new Reform Government in July 1912 sharply changed the situation. Contingents of special constables, a considerable degree of coercion, and the registration of a new “arbitration union” severely defeated the miners. Without a job, with a diminished industrial position, and with much cause for reflection, Fraser came to Wellington in 1913 and started work on the wharves.
Fraser attended the two conferences in 1913 from which the shaken militants hoped to achieve unity in the Labour movement. Although he did not play a particularly prominent role at either meeting, he was elected secretary-treasurer of the newly formed political organisation, the Social Democratic Party. Perhaps his restraint was tactical, for at the preliminary conference in January he had shown little inclination to compromise: “I am in favour of burying the hatchet with any bona fide workers,” he burst out, “but I also favour burying the hatchet in the heads of some of those scabs”.
Scarcely was the new party launched than it was virtually engulfed in the great 1913 wharf and mine strikes. During the strike Fraser was arrested and bound over to keep the peace. In 1914 he was a strong opponent of World War – deemed by the militants an “imperialist war” – and, later, of manhood conscription. In December 1916, in common with other prominent Labour leaders, he was arrested for advocating the repeal of conscription, and was charged with sedition. He was convicted and sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment, serving the full term. Fraser's defence and that of his colleagues was, essentially, that in advocating the repeal of existing legislation they were acting within recognised constitutional rights. In fact, however, as Sir Francis Bell noted privately, the Magistrates made no distinction between advocacy of the repeal of the Military Service Act and advocacy of resistance to it. Prior to his imprisonment Fraser had taken a prominent role in the events leading to the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party. As secretary of the Social Democratic Party he was closely concerned with the series of decisions by its executive, which took the initiative in arranging the Joint Conference of July 1916 at which the Labour Party was established.
In 1918 Fraser resumed political activity and assisted H. E. Holland's campaigns for the Labour Party in the Wellington North and Grey by-elections; and in October he was himself elected to Parliament as Labour candidate in a by-election for Wellington Central. At the first session the following year, when officers of the Parliamentary Labour Party were elected, H. E. Holland became leader, James McCombs, deputy leader, and Fraser, secretary. In 1919 Fraser married Janet Henderson, daughter of William Munro, a Glasgow storeman, and formerly wife of Frederick George Kemp.
In the years 1919 to 1935 Fraser played a very considerable role in the Labour Party both in and outside Parliament. As a member he was hard working and conscientious in attention to the needs of his constituents; indeed, earlier, his work during the 1918 influenza epidemic had won him a high degree of personal regard in Wellington. As a speaker he was sometimes over inclined to be didactic but, as he gained experience and matured politically, he developed into the Parliamentary Party's most devastating debater. At his best when roused he possessed a flair for sarcasm and the cutting phrase. He was particularly scathing on the flirtations between the Reform and Liberal Parties and on one occasion moved that, since they were no longer divided by a single political principle, “the proposed union between them be now consumated”. To a member's taunt – common enough then and later – that Labour's leaders were all immigrants, Fraser promptly retorted: “I would rather be born a man in Scotland than a jackass in New Zealand”.
Although Fraser had become convinced of the pre-eminent virtues of political as opposed to industrial action, at the time of his election and for several years afterwards he retained a generally militant temper. It was he who drafted Labour's Manifesto on the Peace Treaty in 1919, in which the terms of the Versailles settlement were denounced as making for war, not peace; the League of Nations which it established was condemned as “representative of Governments not of peoples”. Yet Fraser was no pacifist and during consideration of Labour's defence policy he insisted that the party should distinguish between socialism and pacificism. It was the designs of international capitalism to which he was opposed. In later years, in common with his colleagues, he began to base his arguments about defence more on grounds of utility than of principle; in 1927 he thought compulsory military training “out of date, inefficient and not worth the money spent on it”.
Similarly, in 1919 he had been an advocate of the nationalisation of land. In that year he told the Labour Conference that if freehold rural land was bought at its current capital value “it would cost about ½d. a square yard, or less than the retail price of brown paper”. Within a few years, however, he had concluded that land nationalisation was an unrealistic policy in New Zealand and he was a leading member of the committee which in 1927 effectively jettisoned from Labour's policy any such lingering inclinations. Again, in his younger days he was a fierce opponent of the arbitration system; but in the later twenties he came to recognise that on a falling market it was a vital bulwark for all except the very strongest unions. In the councils of the party Fraser occupied a high place; in practice he was more influential than M. J. Savage, the party's deputy leader after 1923. The records of annual conferences show that, whenever an internal wrangle developed, it was very often Fraser who either resolved the dispute or swept it aside. With the national secretary, Walter Nash, he was in these years perhaps the principal architect of policy.
In 1933, upon the accession of Savage to the leadership, Fraser was elected deputy leader of the Parliamentary Party; he declined nomination to oppose Savage. When Labour took office in December 1935 Fraser was plainly the Government's second in command, although the portfolios he assumed – Education, Health, Marine, and Police – were hardly commensurate with this ranking. But there can be no doubting the quality of his work as a Minister. Combining personally enlightened views with administrative vigour and determination, he instigated a thorough revision of the New Zealand education system. His other portfolios, more especially Health, also showed tangible benefits from his attentions. Much later, in 1946, he assumed the portfolio of Maori Affairs. In that time, and in fact during his term as Prime Minister as a whole, he made a most significant impact on Maori policy and Maori opinion.
With the serious illness of Savage, Fraser became Acting Prime Minister in August 1939 and from that date he exercised effective charge of the Government. His election to succeed Savage on the latter's death in March 1940 was, however, by no means unchallenged, for the expulsion of J. A. Lee had been merely the most blatant manifestation of a sharp division within the party. Fraser was elected leader by a majority vote of Caucus. It was an illustration of the new situation that, whereas Savage had personally selected members of his Cabinet – in spite of opposition in 1938 – from 1940 new members of Cabinet were elected by Caucus.
The outbreak of war in September 1939 imposed on Fraser a tremendously heavy burden. His domestic political problems were in themselves sufficient to absorb what normally might have been considered full-time attention. The situation within the party (including the fact that for some months he was only the acting leader of the Government) and the restiveness of a section of the trade unions, marked by embarrassing industrial disputes, called for the constant exercise of political discretion and ingenuity. The Parliamentary Opposition, invigorated by a change of leadership, presented an additional and increasing challenge and eventually frustrated Fraser's continued attempts to achieve a national Government for the duration of the war on terms he knew the Labour Party could accept. Instead, he was obliged to contend with a continuation of political controversy at virtually a peacetime level and in the midst of war, in 1943, to fight and win a general election.
The course of the war raised crucial questions. It had been decided that New Zealand's military contribution should be made in the Middle East, but it was substantially upon the Prime Minister that the decision fell whether or not the New Zealand Government should accede to the request of the United Kingdom in 1941 that the New Zealand Division be sent to Greece. New Zealand agreed but there had been some misunderstanding in the exchange of information, and had Fraser realised that General Freyberg had not been consulted about the proposed operation, his decision may have been different. As a result of this painful experience, Fraser made it clear to the United Kingdom authorities that the first responsibility of Freyberg, commanding officer of the Division, lay with the New Zealand Government, to whom he was to report on the plans for actions involving the use of New Zealand troops.
With the frightening success of the Japanese onslaught in 1942, Fraser wrestled with the question whether the Division should be returned from the Middle East and committed to the Pacific war. He hesitated for some months and, notwithstanding the trenchant views to the contrary of the Australian Government, finally accepted the recommendation of the Allied military advisers that the Division could make its most effective contribution in the theatre in which it was already established. For Fraser, of course, more than military factors were involved; in 1942 civilian morale had also to be considered. His anxiety on this score was to some extent relieved by assurances that American forces would be made available for New Zealand's defence, as indeed they were. In virtually all other respects, however, Fraser and his Government formed a close working association with the Labour Government of Australia and the two sought as best they could to secure a place in the shaping of the Pacific war and in the decisions made by the Great Powers concerning the pattern of the post-war world. Fraser and Nash on the one side and Curtin and Evatt on the other sought to counter what they believed to be the undue emphasis given by the Allied leadership to defeating Germany first. In the Canberra Pact of 1944 they also gave notice that they did not intend to permit Australian and New Zealand interests in the Pacific to be overlooked.
Fraser had long been an advocate of the rule of law and morality in international affairs. From being an early opponent he came to be an ardent champion of the League of Nations. He was therefore disposed to look favourably on proposals to establish or to re-establish some similar form of international organisation and it is clear that he himself envisaged not a mere association of States, but an organisation which would have a supranational character, together with the physical means to enforce its decisions. The shape of the organisation proposed by the Great Powers at Dunbarton Oakes was therefore a disappointment to him. Indeed, in some respects he thought it fell short even of what had been achieved in the League. He went to the San Francisco Conference in 1945 determined to do battle on two issues of substance. First, he sought to curtail the veto rights of the Great Powers, which had been inserted at Soviet insistence in the draft Charter of the United Nations Organisation and which were defended at the conference most vigorously by the United States. Secondly, he hoped to insert into the Charter definite guarantees binding all members to come to the aid of a victim of aggression. That was collective security as Fraser understood it. In neither case was he successful although his trenchant speaking helped to secure some minor improvements.
On another issue, however, Fraser achieved more. He had earlier come to the conclusion that some form of international trusteeship might be necessary after the war to supervise if not to administer former colonial territories, and he was sharply critical of the marked lack of enthusiasm with which the United Kingdom Government greeted these ideas. At San Francisco he was elected chairman of the committee dealing with trusteeship matters and made a considerable personal contribution to the drafting of the chapter of the Charter which established the Trusteeship Council. He was also influential in the elevation of the Economic and Social Council's status to that of a principal body of the Organisation. The conference revealed to a somewhat surprised New Zealand that Fraser was a man of sizable international stature.
Fraser's experience in post-war domestic politics was less happy. In the 1946 general election his Government, suffering from the wear and tear of 11 years of office, only narrowly survived against a combination of adroit and vigorous parliamentary opposition and war weariness among a public tired of shortages, restrictions, restraints, and controls. Despite this shock, the Government by and large remained content to administer the welfare structure that it had established. In the process it met continued attacks from both the left and right. The right was well represented by the Parliamentary Opposition, the National Party. Opposition on the left took the form of a new outburst of militancy among some of the stronger trade unions, notably the watersiders. A harassed Fraser relied increasingly on the support of the right-wing majority of the trade unions, represented by the Federation of Labour and effectively led by F. P. Walsh. A similar battle, though in a comparatively minor key, was played out within the Labour Party and again Fraser relied heavily on the party “machine”. The result was that the gap between the leadership and the rank and file widened and political enthusiasm steadily dwindled.
The situation was crystallised in the 1949 referendum for peacetime compulsory military training. Convinced that the deteriorating international situation warranted the introduction of such a measure, Fraser forced it through the Labour Party Conference only by the promise of a national referendum; and he then threw the full resources of Government into a campaign to secure a favourable vote. It was a courageous and, for the Labour Party, an unpalatable decision. But the victory did not bring him any political fruits. To political opponents it was a sign of the Government's weakness that Fraser had to take the course he did; to many supporters a source of anger that he did so.
In the general election of 1949 Fraser's Government was heavily defeated. Worn out by years of office he enjoyed but a brief respite. On 2 October 1950 he suffered a slight stroke and, despite a short recovery, he died on 12 December. He was buried in Wellington. His wife had died in 1946; they had no children.
Fraser was, perhaps, the most complex man in the New Zealand Labour movement. He began his political career as a militant among militants; he concluded it in the conscription campaign of 1949 by seeking the support of his political opponents to encompass the defeat of those who included Labour's most staunch supporters. In this respect his career is, in itself, a chapter of social history. Although he was not, at least until later life, a religious man, he had much of the Scottish Calvinist in his moral make-up – a certain dourness of nature, personal ascetism, great industry, and firm strength of conviction. He possessed a sharp and capacious intellect and his thinking extended over a tremendous range of interests; despite his extremely poor eyesight he read deeply and voraciously throughout his life. He combined a pride in intellectual dispute with a thorough-going distrust of intellectuals. He was a shrewd judge of a situation but, influenced too greatly at times by personal likes and dislikes, was not always the best judge of men. Steeped in the standing orders of the House, he was a skilled parliamentarian able, when he “took notice” of a developing situation, by breadth of knowledge and sheer force of personality, to command it.
His political thinking in the early days was strongly influenced by Marx and by the theories of the “Wobblies”, the syndicalist American union organisation known as the Industrial Workers of the World. He accepted the concept of the class struggle, describing himself in 1913 as a “revolutionary socialist” and an “industrial unionist”. But from 1916 or thereabouts he swung gradually from a left-wing to a right-wing socialist viewpoint. By 1918 he stood for “the peaceful and legal transformation of society from private to public ownership”. Admittedly, in 1920–22, when the Labour Party was under attack from trade union quarters for alleged conservatisim and “backsliding”, he made some radical-sounding statements; but no one was firmer than Fraser in drawing the ideological lines in the party's constitution in 1925 which were designed to exclude Communists and extremists from membership. Convinced that political action through the institution of Parliament was the only practical course for the Labour movement, he unflinching accepted, as Holland did not, the inevitable compromises which the attainment of parliamentary success entailed. In domestic politics he was prepared to take the expedient course; he was seldom if ever inclined to do so in international affairs. It was in the wider scene that Fraser most effectively founded his views on moral principle and most staunchly fought for them. It was to his standing as an objective and fearless advocate of democratic war aims that New Zealand owed much of her international reputation.
When convinced of the correctness of a course of action, Fraser was intolerant of opposition and sometimes unduly ruthless in its suppression. He could and did inspire loyalty but he had also a long and sometimes unforgiving memory. Under his leadership the Government exacted from New Zealand a more than proportionate contribution to the Second World War, and contributed perhaps more than its share to the negotiations for the peace. But at the same time his Government lost its social drive and the morale of the Labour Party steadily declined. Perhaps this was an inevitable tide of events, but certainly Fraser's qualities and personality did nothing to arrest it. In some ways he ignored the nature of the Labour Party and sought to secure from it too great a degree of discipline. The result was to inhibit new growth.
Above all he lacked public appeal: he could not arouse enthusiasm. Rather, in his later political campaigning, he tended to engender a somewhat gloomy atmosphere. A searing debater in his younger days, he retained great powers of oratory when roused but too often on other occasions, as in radio broadcasts, he was dreary and ineffective. These personal traits concealed his best qualities from public view and may partly account for the fact that during most of his career as Prime Minister he was strangely underestimated in New Zealand. But if he was never a popular figure in office, he did at length succeed in winning the widespread respect of the community and his name must be ranked with the greatest of New Zealand Prime Ministers.
by Bruce Macdonald Brown, M.A., New York Office, Department of External Affairs.
- Peter Fraser, Thorn, James (1952)
- The New Zealand People at War, Wood, F. L. W. (1958)
- The Rise of New Zealand Labour, Brown, Bruce (1962).