Mike Moore, (28 January 1949 – 2 February 2020)

There are few more controversial figures in Labour’s past than Mike Moore who died aged 71 on Saturday night.  A Rogernome; then a divisive leader and then an embittered ex-leader who reached the heights of international diplomacy; Moore had more than his fair share of critics.

His ultimate problem was that the Labour Party he joined and vigorously campaigned for was already changing when as a young Pukekohe printer he became the party’s youngest MP after the 1972 election.

To the end, he resisted that change. He lost his Mt Eden seat in 1975 and then stormed back as the MP for Papanui in 1978. He had future leader stamped all over him; hyper-energetic with a huge shock of black hair he was one of the party’s best-known MPs as it struggled in Opposition with the Muldoon years.

Moore got testicular cancer and lost his hair. Maybe it was an omen. What he didn’t notice (or didn’t want to see) was the new generation of young university graduates and particularly women who were climbing up through the party. One, in particular, Helen Clark, would become his nemesis.

His determination to preserve the working-class Labour Party that he had been brought up with in the Northland freezing works town of Moerewa saw him become one of the key figures in the so-called “fish and chip” gang who unsuccessfully plotted against Leader Bill Rowling in 1980 and who were famously photographed after their defeat eating fish and chips

But in 1982 they succeeded, and David Lange became leader.  Moore became Minister of Trade and Tourism and Sports and then America’s Cup as well. It was a heady time. The old Department of Industries and Commerce was absorbed into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and trade diplomacy became central to the country’s foreign policy. Moore was everywhere; negotiating trade agreements or, leading trade missions or back at home promoting major events and tourism (while he corporatised  and then sold off the Tourist Hotel Corporation.)

The world was moving through the so-called Uruguay Rund, the most fundamental reform of the world’s trading system that had ever been seen. Moore won considerable respect, particularly from the United States Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter,  for his role which would later serve him well when he campaigned to become Director-General  of the WTO.

At home, his life seemed to be one chaotic whirl. He was forever proposing “ideas” such as his lamburger, but more particularly he was an ardent advocate of the free market principles that were driving Roger Douglas, David Caygill and Richard Prebble to reform the New Zealand economy radically.

Maybe because he was overseas a lot or perhaps because he was not so comfortable with the long drawn out policy development process, he was not a central player in the reforms. A cheerleader, yes; but a policy wonk, no.

And sometimes it seemed he was not really a true believer.  He didn’t join ACT, and he was the only Rogernome to stay on to play an active role in the party for the rest of his life.


What he did have was charisma and an ability to communicate, often colourfully, in language that anyone could understand.

“A chicken is simply a device to smuggle wheat across a border,” was one his sayings.

Sometimes though he could mystify.  “Singapore is the same size as Lake Taupo and has to import all its water,” he would say which was usually greeted with silence and furrowed brows. “Think about it,” he would then add.

Eight weeks out from the 1990 election with Labour ripped apart by internal civil war, and with the scholarly Geoffrey Palmer as its leader, the Rogernomes struck and replaced him with Moore. He had now reached his goal. He was Prime Minister.

But he was really a suicide pilot, elected to contain what would be Labour’s inevitable loss. The rot within the party was too far gone for any leader, even one with the energy and charisma of Moore, to contain. And so he went into Opposition. That he lasted three years up against a Caucus who mostly didn’t support him was a remarkable political achievement. That he came within a whisker of winning the 1993 election was even more extraordinary.

He knew what the stakes were. If he lost, he would be deposed, and the prize he had wanted all his political life, to be a long-term Prime Minister would elude him.

On election night the numbers were tight. At one point Moore thought he was ahead and made the so-called “long cold night” speech which was an attack on Prime Minister Jim Bolger and his Finance Minister, Ruth Richardson. Moore was made to look churlish when National ended the night ahead.

Despite this, last night Bolger paid tribute to Moore.

“He pushed his beliefs with considerable energy and passion,” he told POLITIK.

Moore’s leadership in Opposition had been both tumultuous and divisive and unsuprisingly the  party didn’t thank him for his 1993 campaign. Three and a half weeks after election day they unceremoniously dumped him for Helen Clark. He would stay another six years, but he was not happy.  He would hold court in his home just off  Papanui Road and lecture journalists on the cabal of feminists and left-wingers who had taken over the party and ended his career.

Labour’s former deputy leader, Michael Cullen, touched on this yesterday when he told NZME that Moore was “gifted and engaging” but could not let grudges go.

But in a way Moore’s analysis was right. Whereas another Northland working class politician, Winston Peters, had recognised that the urban middle class now captured the mainstream parties, Moore resisted the urge to leave Labour.

He was too steeped in its culture ever to do that.  He loved the whole Labour movement. He carried his printers’ union membership card in his wallet and would proudly display his concrete block barbeque at his Papanui home complete with a plaque noting that Ken Douglas had “opened it.”

His bookshelves which lined the corridors of his house groaned under the weight of books about centre-left politicians in the United States, Australia and New Zealand political history generally. He had read every one and could readily recall the most minute details from them.

In many ways, he was more like an Australian Labor politician. He certainly had many friends in the Australian Labor Party. He shared with them his blue-collar background, his lack of formal education, his distrust of ideology, his admiration for the United States and a fundamental belief that if business made profits that was fine as long as they were enabling better lives for the kind of people he had grown up with.

He took those views to the WTO. But his appointment as its director-general had not been straightforward. It was opposed by many third world countries and even Australia but energetically backed by the United States and Europe.

President Bil Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeline Albright brokered an agreement which saw Moore split the role with the Thai candidate, Supachai Panitchpakd. It was a time of growing Opposition to globalization and free trade which dramatically surfaced in Seattle in 1999. Moore steered the WTO through that and went on to oversee the admission of China to the body.

By any measure, his term there was marked by achievement. But once his time finished, he seemed lost.

It was not until 2010 when a National Government under Sir John Key appointed him Ambassador to the US; a job he was almost designed for with his love of American politics and his gregarious enthusiasm for human contact that he was back at work.

But in 2014 he had heart surgery and then, the following year, suffered a major stroke. Since then he has effectively been an invalid shuttling between his Auckland home and Matauri Bay, the home of his old friend, former Labour Minister, Dover Samuels.

His wife, Yvonne, said yesterday that though Mike was born in Whakatane but grew up in Kawakawa and Moerewa in the Far North and wanted to spend his final months in the place that gave him his drive, spirit and courage.

“Mike wanted to be in Northland one last time, so he spent much of summer in Matauri Bay and only came back to Auckland in recent weeks because of his health,” she said.

“Northland made him the battler and fighter for ordinary Kiwis he was throughout his life and career, and that was what drove him to become a member of the New Zealand Labour Party at 16-years-old. He was stubborn, optimistic, generous and kind.

He had an ability to connect with people from all walks of life.

“Having left school at 15 for a job in the freezing works, Mike always believed that his love of reading and hard work would overcome his lack of formal education.

“Mike was always a good reminder to the Labour Party of its working class roots and will probably be its last blue collar Prime Minister.”