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The Right Honourable
 Peter Fraser 

Peter Fraser, Prime Minister of New Zealand, circa 1942.

In office
27 March 1940 – 13 December 1949
Monarch George VI
Preceded by Michael Joseph Savage
Succeeded by Sidney Holland

In office
13 December 1949 – 12 December 1950
Preceded by Sidney Holland
Succeeded by Walter Nash

In office
Preceded by Robert Fletcher
Succeeded by Charles Henry Chapman (New Zealand)

In office
Preceded by None, seat created
Succeeded by Arnold Nordmeyer

Born 28 August 1884(1884-08-28)
Tain, Scotland
Died December 12, 1950 (aged 66)
Wellington, New Zealand
Political party Labour
Spouse(s) Janet Henderson Munro
Profession Stevedore

Peter Fraser (28 August 1884—12 December 1950) was a New Zealand political figure who served as the 24th Prime Minister from 27 March 1940 until 13 December 1949. He assumed the office nearly seven months after the outbreak of World War II and remained as head of government for almost ten years. Considered by historians as a major figure in the history of New Zealand Labour Party, he was in office longer than any other New Zealand Labour Prime Minister, except for Helen Clark.


In Scotland until 1910

A native of Scotland, Peter Fraser was born in Hill of Fearn, a small village near the town of Tain in the Highland area of Easter Ross. He received a basic education, but had to leave school due to his family's poor financial state. Though apprenticed to a carpenter, he eventually abandoned this trade due to extremely poor eyesight – later in life, faced with difficulty reading official documents, he would insist on spoken reports rather than written ones. Before the deterioration of his vision, however, he read extensively – with socialist activists such as Keir Hardie and Robert Blatchford among his favourites.

Becoming politically active in his early teens, he was 16 years old upon attaining the post of secretary of the local Liberal Association, and, eight years later, in 1908, joined the Independent Labour Party.

Move to New Zealand

In another two years, at the age of 26, after unsuccessfully seeking employment in London, Fraser decided to move to New Zealand, having apparently chosen the country in the belief that it possessed a strong progressive spirit.

Arriving in Auckland, he gained employment as a wharfie and, upon joining the New Zealand Socialist Party, became involved in union politics. When Michael Joseph Savage who, nearly twenty-five years later, in 1935–40, was his predecessor in office as the nation's first Labour Prime Minister, stood as the Socialist candidate for Auckland Central electorate, Fraser worked as his campaign manager and also became involved in the New Zealand Federation of Labour, which he represented at Waihi during the Waihi miners' strike of 1912. Shortly afterwards, he moved to the country's capital, Wellington.

In 1913, he participated in the founding of the Social Democratic Party and, during the year, within the scope of his union activities, found himself under arrest for breaches of the peace. While the arrest led to no serious repercussions, it did prompt a change of strategy – he moved away from direct action and began to promote a parliamentary route to power.

Upon Britain's entry into World War I, he strongly opposed New Zealand participation since, sharing the belief of many leftist thinkers, Fraser considered the conflict an "imperialist war", fought for reasons of national interest rather than of principle.

Co-founder of New Zealand Labour Party

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

Later in 1916, the government had Fraser and several other members of the new Labour Party arrested on charges of sedition. This resulted from their outspoken opposition to the war, and particularly their call to abolish conscription. Fraser received a sentence of one year in gaol. He always rejected the verdict, claiming he would only have committed subversion had he taken active steps to undermine conscription, rather than merely voicing his disapproval.

After his release 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 a 1918 by-election, Fraser himself gained election to Parliament, winning the electorate of Wellington Central. He soon distinguished himself through his work to counter the influenza epidemic of 1918–19.

One year after his election to parliament Fraser married Janet Henderson Munro, also a political activist. 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

Years Term Electorate Party
1918-1919 19th Wellington Central Labour
1919-1922 20th Wellington Central Labour
1922-1925 21st Wellington Central Labour
1925-1928 22nd Wellington Central Labour
1928-1931 23rd Wellington Central Labour
1931-1935 24th Wellington Central Labour
1935-1938 25th Wellington Central Labour
1938-1943 26th Wellington Central Labour
1943-1946 27th Wellington Central Labour
1946-1949 28th Brooklyn Labour
1949-1951 29th Brooklyn Labour

During his early years in parliament, Fraser developed a clearer sense of his political beliefs. Although initially enthusiastic about the Russian October Revolution of 1917 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 to direct action became firmer, and he had a moderating influence on 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 left of the spectrum. In 1933, however, Holland died, leaving the leadership vacant. Fraser contested it, but eventually lost to Michael Joseph Savage, Holland's deputy. Fraser became the new deputy leader.

While Savage represented perhaps less moderate views than Fraser, he lacked the extreme ideology of Holland. With Labour now possessing a "softer" image and the existing conservative coalition struggling with the effects of the Great Depression, Savage's party succeeded in winning the 1935 elections and forming a government.

Cabinet minister

In the new administration, Fraser became Minister of Health, Minister of Education, Minister of Marine, and Minister of Police. He showed himself extremely active as a minister, often working seventeen hours a day, seven days a week. He had a particular interest in education, which he considered vital for social reform. His appointment of C.E. Beeby to the Education Department provided him with a valuable ally for these reforms. Fraser also became the driving force behind the 1938 Social Security Act.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Fraser had already taken over most of the functions of national leadership. Michael Joseph Savage had been ill for some time and was near death, although the authorities concealed this from the public. Fraser had to assume most of the Prime Minister's duties in addition to his own ministerial ones.

However, internal disputes within the Labour Party made Fraser's position more difficult. John A. Lee, a notable socialist within the Party, vehemently disapproved of the party's perceived drift towards the political centre, and strongly criticised Savage and Fraser. Lee's attacks, however, became strong enough that even many of his supporters denounced them. Fraser and his allies successfully moved to expel Lee from the Party on 25 March 1940.

Prime minister

A statue of Fraser in the Government Buildings Historic Reserve in Wellington.

Savage died two days later, on 27 March, and Fraser successfully contested the leadership against Gervan McMillan and Clyde Carr. He had, however, to give the party's caucus the right to elect people to Cabinet without the Prime Minister's approval – a practice which has continued as a feature of the Labour Party today.

Despite the concession, Fraser remained in command, occasionally alienating colleagues due to a governing style described by some as "authoritarian". Some of his determination to exercise control may have come about due to the war, on which Fraser focused almost exclusively. Nevertheless, certain measures he implemented, such as censorship, wage controls, and conscription, proved unpopular with the party. In particular, conscription provoked strong opposition, especially since Fraser himself had opposed it during the First World War. Fraser replied that fighting in the Second World War, unlike in the First World War, had indeed a worthy cause, making conscription a necessary evil. Despite opposition from within the Labour Party, enough of the general public supported conscription to allow its acceptance.

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 prevented reaching an agreement, and Labour continued to govern alone. Fraser did, however, work closely with Gordon Coates, a former Prime Minister and now a National-Party rebel - Fraser praised Coates for his willingness to set aside his party loyalty, and appears to have believed that National leader Sidney Holland placed "party advantage before national unity".

In terms of the war effort itself, Fraser had a particular concern with ensuring that New Zealand retained control over its own forces. He believed that the more populous 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 the Greek campaign in 1941, Fraser determined to retain a say as to where to deploy New Zealand troops. Fraser insisted to British leaders that Bernard Freyberg, commander of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, should report to the New Zealand government just as extensively as to the British authorities. When Japan entered the war, Fraser had to choose between recalling New Zealand's forces to the Pacific (as Australia had done) or keeping them in the Middle East (as Winston Churchill requested). Fraser eventually opted for the latter course.

Fraser, standing right, at the 1944 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.

Fraser had a very rocky relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, particularly over the Canberra Pact in January 1944. Hull gave Fraser a sharp and rather demeaning dressing-down when Fraser visited Washington D.C. in mid-1944, which resulted in New Zealand's military becoming sidelined to some extent in the conduct of the Pacific War.

After the war ended in 1945, Fraser worked with his newly-created Department of External Affairs, headed by Alister McIntosh, and devoted much of his attention to the formation of the United Nations. He became particularly noteworthy for his strong opposition to vesting powers of veto in permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and often spoke unofficially for smaller states. Many historians consider Fraser's performance "on the world stage" show him at his best.[citation needed]

Fraser had a particularly close working relationship with McIntosh, who also acted as head of the Prime Minister's department during most of Fraser's premiership. McIntosh privately described his frustration with Fraser's workaholism, and with Fraser's insensitivity towards officials' needs for private lives; but the two men had a genuinely affectionate relationship.

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

Fraser's Government had proposed to adopt the Statute of Westminster 1931 in its Speech from the Throne in 1944 (two years after Australia adopted the Act), in order to gain greater constitutional independence. During the Address-In-Reply debate, the opposition passionately opposed the proposed adoption, claiming the Government was being disloyal to the United Kingdom. National MP for Tauranga, Frederick Doidge, argued "With us, loyalty is an instinct as deep as religion".[1]

The proposal was buried. Ironically, the National opposition prompted the adoption of the Statute in 1947 when its leader and future Prime Minister Sidney Holland introduced a private members' bill to abolish the New Zealand Legislative Council. Because New Zealand required the consent of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to amend the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, Fraser decided to adopt the Statute.[2][3]

Although he relinquished the role of Minister of Education early in his term as Prime Minister, he and Walter Nash continued to have an active role in developing educational policy with C. E. Beeby. In 1946, Fraser moved to the Wellington seat of Brooklyn, which he held until his death.

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

Leader of the Opposition

Fraser became Leader of the Opposition, but declining health prevented him from playing a significant role. He died in Wellington at the age of 66 and was buried in the city's Karori cemetery. His successor as leader of the Labour Party was Walter Nash.

External links





  • Bassett, Michael (2004). Tomorrow Comes the Song: A Biography of Peter Fraser. Penguin
  • McGibbon, I., ed. (1993). Undiplomatic Dialogue. Auckland


Preceded by: Michael Joseph Savage (1940-1949) Succeeded by: Sidney Holland
Sewell | Fox | Stafford | Domett | Whitaker | Weld | Waterhouse | Vogel | Pollen | Atkinson | Grey | Hall | Stout | Ballance | Seddon | Hall-Jones | Ward | Mackenzie | Massey | Bell | Coates | Forbes | Savage | Fraser | Holland | Holyoake | Nash | Marshall | Kirk | Rowling | Muldoon | Lange | Palmer | Moore | Bolger | Shipley | Clark | Key


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