Peter Fraser (1884-1950) was a prominent socialist and Labour party politician of New Zealand. He emerged as a great wartime leader of his country and played an important part in the reconstruction following World War II.
Born in the village of Fearn in the Highlands of Scotland on Aug. 28, 1884, Peter Fraser was the son of a bootmaker of active liberal views. Young Fraser's education was curtailed so that he could help sustain his family, but in 1907 he went to London, where he became attracted to socialism and the Independent Labour party.
After a period of unemployment Fraser decided to emigrate to New Zealand and landed in Auckland in January 1911. There he joined the New Zealand Socialist party and spoke at political meetings as a supporter of the militant labor unions, which had rebelled against the more moderate Trades and Labour Councils. A laborer himself, Fraser was elected president of the Auckland General Labourers Union and in 1912 rose to be secretary of the "Red Federation" of Labour. The failure of a series of strikes by municipal workers and miners with which he was connected left him jobless and without influence.
In 1913 Fraser moved to Wellington to work on the docks. When the radical unions reorganized and a new political group, the Social Democratic party, was formed, Fraser became secretary treasurer. During the great wharf and mining strike of 1913 he was arrested. When World War I broke out in 1914, he attacked New Zealand's participation in an "imperialist" war and bitterly opposed conscription. In December 1916 he and other labor leaders were again arrested and charged with sedition. He was sentenced to a year's imprisonment and served the full term. Meanwhile, as secretary of the Social Democratic party, he had taken a leading part in the establishment of the New Zealand Labour party, formed in July 1916.
In October 1918 Fraser was elected to Parliament as Labour member for Wellington Central, and the next year he was made secretary to the parliamentary Labour party under H. E. Holland as leader. For the next 30 years he was rarely far from the center of the New Zealand political stage.
A sarcastic and telling debater, Fraser won respect for his industry and conscientious attention to the needs of the common man. Though his earlier industrial experience continued to prove invaluable to him, time blunted his radicalism, and he grew moderate with age and office. Land nationalization, for instance, which he supported in 1919, seemed politically unrealistic and somewhat naive to him when his party's platform was revised in 1927; and he came round to supporting the principle of industrial arbitration, which he had once rejected.
In 1933 Michael Joseph Savage became leader of the parliamentary party, and Fraser was elected his deputy. Two years later, in late 1935, Labour took office, and Fraser undertook the responsible portfolios of health, education, marine, and police. This period of his career established his claim as an imaginative and effective administrator as well as a powerful political personality. Some of his innovations—in health, education, and Maori affairs—had lasting results.
In August 1939 Fraser became acting prime minister when Savage fell seriously ill; and when the latter died in March 1940, Fraser survived internal stresses within the Labour party to become prime minister. Fraser's executive difficulties were increased by political dissension and industrial unrest. The Opposition refused to take part in a national or coalition wartime government. In 1943, at the height of the war, he had to face a lively general election.
New Zealand's part in the war and its relations with Great Britain, Australia, and the United States offered Fraser a wide field in which to show his capacity and judgment. Though the victory of the Axis powers in Greece and Crete and the experience of fighting in the Middle East did not persuade him to remove his military strength to the Pacific theater of war, he otherwise collaborated very closely with the Australian Labour government.
Both New Zealand and Australia came to realize that the strategic and military role of the United States was as crucial in their area as it had been in Europe; and both accepted the challenge to participate in bringing about an improved postwar pattern in the Pacific. Their self-discovery and determination not to be overlooked was embodied in the Canberra Pact of 1944. Whereas he had once despised the League of Nations, Fraser had changed into a leading advocate of international organizations and cooperation. He attended the San Francisco Conference of 1945 and spoke vigorously, if unsuccessfully, in favor of collective security pacts within the United Nations framework; and he attacked the according of veto rights to the great powers. He had greater success in matters concerning international trusteeship and the setting up of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
At home Fraser survived the general postwar election of 1946, but his established welfare policies were criticized from both left and right. The Labour party, divided over many issues, was defeated badly in the 1949 election. Fraser, whose wife had died childless in 1946, was exhausted, and he died after a short illness on Dec. 12, 1950.
A man of deep conviction, stubborn industry, and un-spectacular but real breadth of talent, Fraser exemplified in his life and work many of the strengths and weaknesses of an active Labour politician in a modern democracy. His intelligence and office brought him into contact with many styles of socialist thought and action. The emphasis he placed on political and government activity and on the need for party discipline perhaps lessened his support among some more doctrinaire unionists, but he was accepted by his nation at a time of crisis in war and for years of peacetime reconstruction.
Further Reading on Peter Fraser
A biography of Fraser is James Thorn, Peter Fraser (1952). Fraser is discussed in these useful background works: F. L. Wood, The New Zealand People at War (1958), and Bruce M. Brown, The Rise of New Zealand Labour (1962).