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Remembering a mercurial man with a vision

Mike Moore's fellow Labour parliamentarian Peter Dunne thinks the former Prime Minister was probably the most influential New Zealander on the world stage since Peter Fraser in the 1940s, but his career was repeatedly blighted by the tragedy of circumstance.

Mike Moore was a mercurial, compassionate and ultimately tragic (in the classical sense) figure, who above all was a great New Zealander.

Mike was mercurial. Few politicians in New Zealand, if not anywhere, in recent times could have been such a constant source of ideas and plans. Some were ridiculous, others bordered on the incomprehensible, but many came to fruition and survive as mainstream today. 

It was Mike who in the early 1980s raised the idea of diversifying the way we marketed our staple lamb into different away from the old fore-quarter roast and started talking about lamburgers for New Zealand and elsewhere. He persevered, despite the jokes and initial mocking of the time, and today, lamburgers are a distinctly New Zealand product on the international market, and New Zealand lamb is presented in a variety of different ways.

He was the Tourism Minister who suggested we look beyond the few hundred thousand international visitors we attracted annually at the time, to the potential of a million or more tourists coming to our country each year.

Today, that figure sits at around four million visitors a year, and thanks to Mike Moore’s vision all those years ago, tourism is now a major income source for New Zealand.

Mike’s vision for New Zealand as a vibrant international player and trader – the Switzerland of the South Pacific he once said – did not stop there. He championed New Zealand’s playing a greater role in the Pacific – something we now accept as obvious – and went so far as to write a booklet promoting the idea of a Pacific Parliament.   

He realised early that the trade liberalisation, privatisation, and domestic deregulation the Labour Government embarked upon after 1984 not only transformed New Zealand's economy from one of the most heavily protected and regulated into one of the most market-oriented and open in the world, but also created the opportunity for New Zealand to play a new role in  international trade, as countries moved away from the overly regulated approach of the old post-war General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and into a more dynamic international trading environment.

Mike played a leading role in the so-called Uruguay Round of trade talks from 1986 onwards, which led to the development of new international trading rules and the World Trade Organisation, which he was to eventually head, in 1995.

... ultimately, Mike was somewhat like a figure of classical tragedy. The job of Prime Minister, which he so desperately wanted, was his for only fifty-nine days, before he was thrown out of office.

Mike was also a warm-hearted, compassionate man. His blue-collar background (he was probably the last genuinely working-class Prime Minister New Zealand will have) never left him, and his ease amongst people at all levels showed through strongly.

Never pretentious, always affable, and happy to pass the time of day, Mike’s generosity and support for constituents and others who were struggling (his “battlers”) were legendary and the subject of many stories. His encouragement to colleagues, supporters and the general public seemed genuine and unabashed, in keeping with his down to earth style.

He was the eternal optimist, who could never quite understand why others were not similarly optimistic. However grim things seemed, he always saw something positive to latch onto, and to encourage.

But ultimately, Mike was somewhat like a figure of classical tragedy. The job of Prime Minister, which he so desperately wanted, was his for only fifty-nine days, before he was thrown out of office.

At the first Labour Caucus meeting after that election, the number of Labour MPs was so small they all fitted around the top table. Mike was angry – where was everyone else he demanded to know. When told this was everyone now, he briefly slumped forward, before quickly bouncing back and in typical fashion expounding how this small group would be more than a match for the National Party, pounding the table and gesticulating feverishly as he did so. 

Later, Mike was dumped unceremoniously by the Labour Caucus after the 1993 election, despite having brought Labour within one seat of an improbable victory. Deeply hurt by this rejection, Mike went into a long period of almost self-imposed exile within the Labour Party, and  although there was much speculation that, with the advent of MMP after 1996, he might be tempted to form his own party, stayed loyal to the Labour cause.

... the question will always remain as to how much more they might have been had circumstances allowed him longer time in the various key roles he had.

However, the lure of the international trade stage beckoned still, and he became Director-General of the World Trade Organisation in 1999. Just as his time as Prime Minister was short-lived, his term as Director-General was for only three years instead of the normal six, because of a delicate international compromise before his appointment.

Later, during the time of the Key Government, he was to become New Zealand Ambassador to the United States, where he played a key role in New Zealand’s successful campaign for a seat on the Security Council in 2015-16, only for his time in Washington to be truncated by illness.

Mike Moore was probably the most influential New Zealander on the world stage since Peter Fraser in the 1940s. His gregariousness was in stark contrast to Fraser’s dourness. And his accent, attitudes and style were undoubtedly those of New Zealand in the later 20th century – free, proud and independent.  

He was a great New Zealander, whose passing in many ways marks the end of an era.

However, great and many as his considerable achievements were, the question will always remain as to how much more they might have been had circumstances allowed him longer time in the various key roles he had.

May he rest in peace.

Peter Dunne was a colleague of Mike Moore as a Labour MP from 1984 until 1994, when Dunne left the Labour caucus to form the future New Zealand Party (later named the United Future Party). Dunne remained in Parliament until he retired in 2017. Mike Moore retired as a Labour MP in 1999 after six years as a backbencher.

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