Controversial former Cabinet minister dies

Herbert John (Bert) Walker, a former National Party Cabinet minister who attracted controversy during the Muldoon era by labelling solo mother beneficiaries as "bludgers living off the state", has died, aged 88.

Mr Walker died in Holmwood Hospital at Rangiora on Friday, not far from where he was born on June 2, 1919.

He was elected to Parliament in 1960, when he took the Christchurch seat of St Albans, and held it until 1969.

Mr Walker then took over the Papanui seat, in Keith Holyoake's fourth straight term in government, and held tourism and broadcasting portfolios in Cabinet until National lost the election in 1972.

He served briefly under John Marshall, who was replaced as Opposition leader in 1974 by Robert Muldoon.

The Norman Kirk Labour Government of the day introduced a statutory benefit for solo parents in 1973, leading to criticism by Mr Walker that many lone mothers on the DPB were in fact "bludgers".

Mr Muldoon, later knighted, made Mr Walker Social Welfare Minister in his first Government in 1975, and the minister threatened in a speech in Christchurch to take legal action against beneficiaries in de facto relationships.

He felt that the DPB encouraged women to leave husbands for "relatively minor causes".

Mr Walker was also strongly conservative in the abortion debate, and championed the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act in 1977 which restricted access to abortion.

He came under personal attack, with pro-abortion slogans painted on his driveway and house.

In 1978, Mr Walker lost his Papanui seat to future Labour leader Mike Moore - one of seven seats National lost to Labour.

In later years he was classified - along with Norm Jones and Ben Couch - by left-wing commentator Chris Trotter as one of the National Party's "backwoodsmen with their mouths only loosely connect to their brains".

But a conservative MP, Ron Mark of NZ First, said: "Bert Walker is a man whom I classify as someone with old National Party values."

The former minister was made a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1983.

Mr Walker served as a non-commissioned officer with the RNZAF No 9 Squadron in the Pacific, from 1942 to 1945, then gained accountancy qualifications before working in the Post Office Savings Bank and the TAB.

He was an assistant to the registrar at Lincoln College when he entered politics in 1960.

He married Phyllis Tregurtha in 1942. After her death in 1980, he married Susannah McLean in 1981 and is survived by her and their three sons, plus four stepchildren.

His funeral will be held in Rangiora tomorrow.

- NZPA

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