Peter Fraser

(1884—1950) prime minister of New Zealand

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(b. 28 Aug. 1884, d. 12 Dec. 1950).

Prime Minister of New Zealand 1940–9

Early career

Born in Fearn in the Scottish Highlands, he went to London in 1907, where he became influenced by the ideas of the Independent Labour Party. Unemployed in 1910, he emigrated to New Zealand, where he arrived in 1911. He joined the Socialist Party, and later that year became president of the Auckland General Labourers Union. He led a number of unsuccessful strikes and was active in the seamen's and coalminers' strike of 1912–13, getting arrested. As Secretary of the Social Democratic Party from 1913, he was closely involved in the establishment of the Joint Conference of 1916, where the Labour Party was created. Later that year, he was imprisoned for twelve months for his opposition to conscription.

In 1918, Fraser was elected to the House of Representatives, where he became a brilliant performer. The once‐militant party member gradually became more pragmatic, accepting, for example, by the late 1920s the undesirability of the nationalization of land, and the benefits of industrial arbitration. Becoming after 1935 Minister of Education, of Health, of Marine, and of Police, he was particularly well‐known for his educational reforms. Fraser performed the functions of Prime Minister for the ailing Savage from August 1939, whom he succeeded after his death.

In office

He led the country during World War II, despite a critical parliamentary opposition and a suspicious trade‐union movement. He cooperated closely with Curtin's Labour government in Australia, though the two men disagreed about use of their forces given the threat of a Japanese attack, with Fraser accepting US advice that it was best to retain the New Zealand forces in Europe and leave the home defence to the USA. He received international distinction for his role in the establishment of the UN. Even though he had been a supporter of much greater powers for the organization, he was instrumental in drafting its policies on former colonies which were to be prepared for independence as trust territories. He only narrowly won the 1946 general election against a revived National Party under Holland. Thereafter, his pragmatism made him increasingly out of touch with the party rank and file. Against strong opposition among his own supporters, he held a referendum which agreed to compulsory military training in peacetime. Worn out and divided, his party lost the 1949 general elections.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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