Remembering Peter Fraser (Review)

New Zealand Studies, 2, September 1998, p. 26-28. (First presented at New Zealand Book Council seminar on Peter Fraser: Master Politician, 29 July, 1998.)

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

There is an Easton family tradition that when Peter Fraser was a carpenter in Auckland, he stayed with my great-grandfather when he came to Wellington on Red Fed business. Perhaps it is an exaggeration: he might have stayed once, or called in on a visit. The connection seems to have continued, for the tradition claims says that as prime-minister Fraser attended my great-grandfather’s funeral. Fraser was a regular attender of funerals so that is possible too.

My father seems to have distanced himself from Fraser. I think it was probably the expulsion of John A. Lee from the Labour Party. Erik Olssen’s contribution to Peter Fraser: Master Politician is historically accurate – distinguishing itself from much of the other commentary. Perhaps historicity has long been irrelevant, for the expulsion has the mythical status of the moment when Labour chose a path of cooperation with capitalism, rather than of socialism (a myth hardly touched by that Lee seems to have been a monetary reformer rather than a socialist).

My attitude – indeed much of my generation – was even more formed by what was seen to be a second betrayal, the conscription referendum. But as David Grant shows, Fraser was never a classic conscientious objector despite being jailed during the First World War. And to round the intergenerational story off, I asked my son “who was Peter Fraser?” He replied “is this a trick question?” thought a bit, and asked cautiously “was he a prime-minister?” Thus in five generations of the Easton family Fraser cycled from being an almost unheard of non-entity with potential, to an almost forgotten entity of realised potential.

There are some inconsistencies in the Easton family accounts of Fraser. Even my generation knew there was an anomaly, for we described him as “our greatest Minister of Education.” We resolved it, by saying that it was really Clarence Beeby, although Bill Renwick’s essay shows he had independently come to his educational views before he met Beeb.

And my views were further disturbed when I attended a Book Council lecture in the early 1980s, in which Michael King read his first chapter of what will be the Bassett-King biography. (If the rest is only half as good as that chapter it is going to a great book.) Also attending was a number ex-diplomats, who were there to ensure that their hero was not misrepresented. Fraser a “hero”, a foreign affairs “hero”? Wasn’t he a cold warrior? There are a number of essays in the book which contribute to my understanding Fraser as a foreign policy moralist. I am especially glad the book republished the Alistair McIntosh paper, which deserves to more widely known, while the others all support his account. Fraser’s contribution to the formation of the Trusteeship council is one of those proud moments in New Zealand’s foreign policy history, along with Bill Sutch’s contribution to the foundation of UNICEF. Is there a book on “great moments in New Zealand’s foreign policy”?

In summary, Peter Fraser: Master Politician, is a valuable step towards a re-evaluation of Fraser as he moves from the status of a living politician to an historical one. He is not alone: we have recently had published important biographies of John Ballance and Edward Stafford, plus the conference essays on Keith Holyoake: Towards a Political Biography. Of the four, the Stout Centre has been proudly associated with three, plus the forthcoming study of Robert Muldoon. (In passing we desperately need a decent biography of Bill Massey and also a new one on Dick Seddon. And despite Judith Basset’s study, we need to re-evaluate Harry Atkinson.) Let me finish by listing three issues which need further consideration.

The first I deal with briefly is that covered by my essay: economic policy and economic performance. I could not really find any evidence for Fraser’s economics leadership. On the basis of what I have seen I am inclined to think he was led – he took advice. That cant be quite right, because he had a conservative economic stance by the time he became a minister, moreso than Lee for instance. Frustratingly the period of the 1940s is just beyond that of modern economic history scholarship, because the data base only gets reliable from the mid 1950s. Yet the economic performance of New Zealand under Fraser (and Savage) was one of the most outstanding, challenged only by the Seddon period. The available works are disappointingly inadequate: Jack Baker’s War Economy is the best. Keith Sinclair’s Walter Nash is frustratingly light on economic policy. My guess is that the best chance we have of recovering the economics of the period would be a good history of the Treasury which is likely to shed further light on the central role of Bernard Ashwin, and the interaction with his ministers.

The second issue is the tension between Fraser, the cold warrior, and my generation of nuclear disarmers. I can only offer my generation’s perspective here. It saw nuclear weapons as so fundamentally changing the nature of international politic, that traditional great power rivalry, such as that in post-war between Soviet and the US, was no longer relevant. However nuclear arms interacted so strongly with the cold war, that it has never been possible to separate the two debates – or not possible until the end of the Soviet Empire from 1989. The question that Fraser poses for me is: if he had been my generation, what would have been his foreign policy stance? The import is that he was no more, nor less, moral than we were, but he was applying his morality in a different situation. Or, was his foreign policy vision laced more with a real-politick? What would be his position today on, say, East Timor? As Such questions are hypothetical and ahistorical, and I am not looking for slick answers, like Fraser would have been a rogernome had he led the Labour government in the 1980s. What I am concerned with is the standoff between the two sides of our foreign policy debate. I see in those essays the possibility of using Fraser as a way into understanding the conflict between the two views, and even reconciling them.

My third issue is an uncomfortable one, but it must be faced. There is nothing in the book which changes my generation’s image of Fraser as a first class political thug, who used his power brutally where he thought it was in the best interests of the nation as judged by himself. It was an image symbolised by the Lee expulsion, by the conscription referendum, and by some of the industrial relations dispute, but there are related minor other incidents of his life handed down from other fathers to other sons. They could be explained by the circumstances. Here was Fraser leading a country at war, and he had to deal with various dissenters including Leeites and communists (although this latter element is still shadowy). War leadership involves desperate measures, and so a higher level of political thuggery. Thus is Fraser’s justified, more than say his successor Syd Holland. Moreover, beneath it all, there was a more liberal story. Conscientious objectors were treated more tolerantly in the Second World War than the First, apparently partly as a result of Fraser. “Guilt” snorted my generation. But are we not the generation which was reared on the Fraser-Beeby principles? Do we not support the cultural life he promoted? Did he not detest racism as we do? Was he not was almost a feminist as much as a man could be of his time, perhaps as a part of love and respect for that strong woman Janet Fraser? (Hillary Stace’s contribution is another jewel in this book.) And was not our commitment for a moral foreign policy founded on his earlier commitment? [1]

I know my family inheritance from the Eastons, even though I knew neither my grandfather nor great-grandfather. But I know also I have an intellectual inheritance from Peter Fraser. I remain unsure what it is, but this book gives me clues, and stimulates me to think about them. Which is all we should ask of a book.

[1] The presentation text included: “He may have even have lived in sin (as was the quaint terminology of his day) with Janet before her divorce came through.” However Hillary Stace assures me that subsequent research (based on addresses) almost certainly rules that possibility out.

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