Michael Moore was lucid, funny and kind - former MP Richard Prebble remembers his lifelong friend

8:33 am on 3 February 2020

By Richard Prebble*.

First Person - Former MP Richard Prebble recalls his lifelong friend: Michael Moore, Prime Minister, director general World Trade Organisation, ambassador, Labour MP, Dilworth old boy.

Mike Moore in front of flag, 1993

Mike Moore on election night, 1993. Photo: Supplied

Mike Moore had one of the shortest prime ministerships but historians will record that he has been one of the most influential.

Mike and I met as teenagers in the Labour Party and became lifelong friends. Our first campaign was to create the position of Youth Rep on the Labour Executive. Mike went on to be the Youth Rep.

Richard Prebble.

An undated image of Richard Prebble. Photo: SUPPLIED

Mike himself thought one of his greatest achievements was to get Labour in Opposition to support the CER (Closer Economic Relations), the free trade agreement with Australia.

Today we take it for granted that Australia is our biggest trading partner, but it has not always been that way. We used to do little trade with Australia.

New Zealand was protectionist behind high tariffs and import licensing, a sort of North Korea, assembling cars and TVs. Protectionism was a baked-in Labour policy.

When Australia offered a free trade agreement it was well known that former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was not keen. National's then-trade minister Hugh Templeton would never have got CER through Parliament without Mike's support.

Mike could see there was no future in protectionism. He campaigned to get the Labour Caucus, Conference and Unions to support CER. The Labour Party has continued to be internationalist on trade ever since. Of course it helped that CER has been one of the world's most successful free trade agreements. Championing international free trade was to become Mike's life's work.

Looking back one can see that freeing up trade with Australia was the prequel of the deregulation of the whole economy that was to follow.

Once in government Mike became our most energetic trade minister. He inspired businesses to get into exports. He would take an Airforce plane and fill it with business and union leaders and head overseas on vigourous trade visits. Many business leaders say Mike's personal intervention enabled them to begin exporting to markets that had been closed.

It is a model that has been copied by every trade minister since.

Mike, because of his health issues, was never a sportsman. But he could see the opportunities international sport opened up and took the sports ministry. He persuaded the government to make him minister for the America's Cup to ensure New Zealand took full advantage of it.

In cabinet, Mike was bubbling with ideas, many of them out of the box. Ideas we take for granted today. Here are a couple:

"Why do we not earn overseas dollars by accepting overseas students to our universities, polytechs and schools?" Today, education is a major earner of overseas funds.

"Why can travellers only buy duty free when they leave the country?" Today, sales of duty free to inward travellers are big business.

Mike Moore.

Mike Moore in 2017, during a photoshoot for RNZ's The 9th Floor series. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

When former Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer resigned just days before the 1990 election, an election every poll predicted Labour would lose, Mike did not hesitate to take the challenge. He campaigned vigourously though in vain.

Mike was a remarkable "retail" politician. He won the Eden seat off National in 1972 aged just 23. While he was swept out in the Muldoon landslide victory he personally performed credibly. Realising there was no seat available in Auckland he accepted the challenge to take on National's Bert Walker in Papanui in Christchurch. Bert was himself a legendary campaigner. Mike not only won the seat but then held the seat though multiple boundary and name changes.

After the huge defeat in 1990, three years later Mike almost won back power in 1993. It is one of the biggest swings ever.

Mike had that gift that great politicians have of appeal, to young and old, from conservatives to staunchly Labour. Unfortunately his appeal was not universal. Helen Clark famously complained he was incurably macho. Unfair, as Mike was personally liberal but in his own moral code he was conservative. This put him offside with the new Labour MPs whose agenda was social engineering.

Mike and his supporters believed he had earned the right to lead Labour into the 1996 election which they are convinced he would have won.

But Mike himself admitted he was by the 1990s out of step with the modern, university educated Parliamentary Labour Party.

Mike was, like the early Labour leaders, largely self-educated. He read widely. Part of his gift for lateral thinking came from the fact he had not been trained in the subject discipline of university.

Mike had left school as soon as he could. First to work in the freezing works and then he adopted, again self-taught, the trade of the 17th century radicals, printing. His lifelong love of books made him a prolific author advocating his ideas from the need for a Pacific Parliament to making the case that international trade has lifted most of the world out of poverty.

No New Zealander in history has held a more senior and prestigious role than that of being director general of the World Trade Organisation. An amazing feat.

Mike persuaded a National government to support his bid. Cynics say National never thought for a minute his bid could succeed, but they did fear that he could become leader of Labour again.

Mike largely self-funded his bid. He travelled around the world. Mike knew that a candidate from New Zealand would never been any country's first choice so he just asked "If your preferred candidate has not got the votes, can I have your second preference?"

Mike's trade credentials were impeccable. He became most countries' alternative candidate and to the astonishment of the establishment, won the job.

As director general he made it his task to get China - now the world's second largest economy - to join the WTO. Mike also fearlessly put the case for international trade. World trade needs such an advocate today.

Mike Moore

Mike Moore was WTO Director-General 1999-2002. Photo: Supplied

His third great office was to be New Zealand's ambassador to the United States of America. When he took up the position there was in Washington still some resentment over the ANZUS rift.

Mike worked tirelessly using all his retail political skills to rebuild the relationship. I visited Washington twice during his ambassadorship. Both times he insisted on me staying at the embassy. He put me to work by inviting leading conservative thinkers to the embassy for dinner. One night I found myself discussing Syria with John Bolton, of the Trump impeachment fame.

I could see that Mike was a much respected and liked ambassador. National had no hesitation in extending Mike's ambassadorship.

Mike was politician who believed in the power of personal relationships. He reached out across the spectrum. I was always amazed at who he had had around for a meal, from captains of industry to trade union leaders. I will personally miss our "silly old buggers" lunches that he, Roger Douglas, Michael Bassett and I used to have.

In everything, Mike was greatly helped by his charming wife Yvonne, who was his partner in every project.

Mike never forgot his childhood in Kawakawa and working in the freezing works in Moerewa. He knew poverty and deprivation. He always felt that he was championing his people, the people he grew up with.

He was accepted for the charity school Dilworth. Mike hated boarding school and ran away so often he wrote in his biography that he had been expelled. The school checked its records and let him know he had never been expelled. It was the start of a relationship between the school and its ex pupil that meant a lot to Mike.

Michael had lifelong health issues that would have defeated someone with less courage and fortitude. A brace on his leg - from I think polio - repeated bouts of cancer, to a debilitating stroke. We flatted together after one bout of cancer and he revealed to me the doctors had told him that no one in New Zealand had received as much radio therapy and lived as he had. Yet he never complained.

His stroke would have killed a lesser man and yet right up to his death Mike was lucid, funny and kind.

We may never see his like again.

* Richard Prebble is a former politician. He was a Labour MP before joining the ACT party after New Zealand switched to MMP in 1996. He was a lifelong friend of Mike Moore.

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