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Peter Fraser

Peter Fraser (1884 - 1950) served as Prime Minister of New Zealand from 27 March 1940 until 13 December 1949. He was leader of the country throughout most of the Second World War. He is seen as a major figure in the history of the New Zealand Labour Party, and is its longest-serving Prime Minister to date.

Early life

Peter Fraser was born on 28 August 1884, in Scotland. He received basic education, but was forced to leave school due to his family's poor financial state. He was apprenticed to a carpenter, but eventually abandoned this due to extremely poor eyesight - later in his life, Fraser would have difficulty reading official documents, and insist on spoken reports rather than written ones. Before the deterioration of his vision, however, Fraser read extensively - writers such as Keir Hardie and Robert Blatchford (both socialists) were among his favourites.

Fraser quickly became active in politics, joining the Independent Labour Party in 1908.

Union work

After unsuccessfully seeking employment in London, Fraser decided to move to New Zealand. His choice of New Zealand was apparently motivated by a belief that the country possessed a strong progressive spirit.

Arriving in Auckland, Fraser was employed as a stevedore. He became involved in union politics, and also joined the New Zealand Socialist Party. When Michael Joseph Savage (later to become the Labour Party's first Prime Minister) stood as the Socialist candidate for Auckland Central electorate, Fraser was his campaign manager. Fraser also became involved in the New Zealand Federation of Labour, and represented it at Waihi during the Waihi miners' strike. Shortly after this, Fraser moved to Wellington, the capital city.

In 1913, Fraser was involved in the founding of the Social Democratic Party. Later that year, he was arrested for breaches of the peace - this related to his union activities. While the arrest led to no serious repercussions for him, it did prompt a change of strategy - Fraser moved away from direct action, and began to promote a parliamentary route to power.

When the First World War broke out, Fraser was strongly opposed to New Zealand participation. Like many people on the left, Fraser considered it to be an "imperialist war", fought for reasons of national interest rather than principle.

Labour Party

In 1916, Fraser was involved in the foundation of the New Zealand Labour Party, which absorbed much of the moribund Social Democratic Party's membership. Harry Holland was selected as the Labour Party's leader. Michael Joseph Savage, Fraser's old ally from the New Zealand Socialist Party, was also present.

Later in 1916, Fraser (along with several other members of the new Labour Party) were arrested on charges of sedition. This was a result of their outspoken opposition to the war, and particularly their call to abolish conscription. Fraser was jailed for one year. Fraser always rejected the verdict, claiming that he would only have been guilty of subversion had he taken active steps to undermine conscription, rather than merely voicing disapproval.

After being released from prison, Fraser worked as a journalist for the official Labour Party newspaper. He also resumed his activities within the Labour Party, initially in the role of campaign manager for Harry Holland. In 1918, Fraser was himself elected to Parliament, winning the electorate of Wellington Central. He soon distinguished himself through his work to counter an influenza epidemic.

One year after his election to parliament, Fraser married Janet Henderson Munro, who was also active in political circles. The couple would remain together until Janet Munro's death in 1945, five years before Fraser's own passing. They had no children.

Early parliamentary career

During his early years in parliament, Fraser developed a clearer sense of his political beliefs. Although he was initially enthusiastic about the Russian Revolution and its Bolshevik leaders, he rejected them soon afterwards, and eventually became one of the strongest advocates of excluding communists from the Labour Party. His commitment to parliamentary politics rather than direct action became firmer, and he was responsible for the moderation of many Labour Party policies.

Fraser's views clashed considerably with those of Harry Holland, still serving as leader, but the party gradually shifted its policies away from the more extreme end of the spectrum. In 1933, however, Holland died, leaving the leadership vacant. Fraser was one of those who contested it, but eventually lost to Michael Joseph Savage, Holland's deputy. Fraser became the new deputy leader.

While Savage was perhaps less moderate than Fraser, he was far less extreme than Holland. With Labour now possessing a "softer" image, the party was able to win the 1935 elections and form a government.

In government

In the new administration, Fraser became Minister of Health, Minister of Education, Minister of Marine, and Minister of Police. Fraser was extremely active as a minister, often working seventeen hours a day, seven days a week. His particular passion was education, which he considered to be vital for social reform. He was also the driving force behind the new Social Security Act.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Fraser was already performing most functions of leadership. Michael Joseph Savage, who had been ill for some time, was near death, although this fact had been concealed from the public. Fraser was required to assume most of the Prime Minister's responsibilities in addition to his ministerial ones.

Fraser's position was further made difficult, however, by internal disputes within the party. John A. Lee, a notable socialist within the party, was angry at the party's perceived drift towards the political centre, and strongly criticised Savage and Fraser. Lee's attacks, however, were strong enough that even many of his supporters denounced them. Fraser and his allies successfully moved to expel Lee.

Prime Minister

After Savage's death in 1940, Fraser successfully contested the leadership against Gervan McMillan and Clyde Carr. He was, however, required to give the party's caucus the right to elect people to Cabinet without the Prime Minister's approval - this is still a feature of the Labour Party today.

Despite this concession, however, Fraser remained in command, sometimes alienating his colleagues with his "authoritarian" style. Some of his determination to exercise control may have been due to the war, which Fraser focused almost exclusively on. Nevertheless, certain measures he implemented (such as censorship, wage controls, and conscription) proved unpopular with the party. In particular, conscription was strongly opposed, especially since Fraser had been hostile to it during the First World War. Fraser replied that the Second World War, unlike the First World War, was indeed fought for a worthy cause, making conscription a necessary evil. Despite opposition from within the Labour Party, support for conscription was high enough among the general public for its introduction to be accepted, however.

During the war, Fraser attempted to build support for an understanding between Labour and its main rival, the National Party. However, opposition within both parties was too high for an agreement to be reached, and Labour continued to govern alone. Fraser did, however, work closely with Gordon Coates, a former Prime Minister and now National Party rebel - Fraser praised Coates for being willing to set aside his party loyalty, and appears to have believed that National leader Sidney Holland was placing "party advantage before national unity."

In terms of the war effort itself, Fraser was particularly concerned with ensuring that New Zealand retained control over its own forces. Fraser believed that the larger countries, particularly Britain, viewed New Zealand's military as a mere extension of their own, rather than as the armed forces of a sovereign nation. After particularly serious New Zealand losses in Greece, Fraser was determined to retain a say as to where New Zealand troops were deployed. Fraser insisted to British leaders that Bernard Freyberg, commander of the 2nd NZ Expeditionary Force, should report to the New Zealand government just as extensively as to the British authorities. When Japan entered the war, Fraser was forced to choose between recalling New Zealand's forces to the Pacific (as Australia had done) or keep it in the Middle East (as Winston Churchill requested]]). Fraser eventually opted for the latter course.

After the war had ended, Fraser devoted much of his attention to the formation of the United Nations. He was particularly noteworthy for his strong opposition to veto powers for Security Council permanent members, and often acted as an unofficial spokesperson for small nations. Many historians consider Fraser's performance "on the world stage" as the time when he was at his best.

Fraser also took up the role of Minister of Native Affairs (which he renamed to Minister of Maori Affairs in 1947. Fraser had been interested in Maori concerns for some time, and implemented a number of measures designed to reduce inequality.

Fraser's other domestic policies, however, came under criticism. Particularly damaging to him were his slow speed in removing war-time rationing, and his support for compulsory military training during peacetime. With dwindling support from traditional Labour voters, and a population weary of war-time measure, Fraser's popularity declined. In the 1949 elections, his government was defeated by the National Party.

Later life

Fraser became Leader of the Opposition, but declining health prevented him from playing a significant role. Fraser died in Wellington on 12 December 1950. He is buried in Wellington.

He was succeeded as leader of the Labour Party by Walter Nash.

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