Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Clark pays tribute to Warren Freer

Photo / NZ Herald
Photo / NZ Herald

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark yesterday has paid tribute to Warren Freer for his pioneering work in contact with China.

Mr Freer died on Thursday last week, aged 92.

He was a former journalist and was first elected to Parliament in 1947. He remained there for 34 years until his retirement in 1981, when Helen Clark succeeded him.

Helen Clark said last night that Mr Freer had a place not only in Labour Party history but in New Zealand history.

"When you look back at the 50s and Warren's determination to open a window on China for New Zealand, this was pioneering and quite brave work and led to him being smeared quite a lot all his life as being pro-communist."

"He could see the potential of China a long time before anybody else did."

The announcement by Norman Kirk in 1972 that Labour on being elected would recognise China, and was followed by Gough Whitlam's Government in Australia, and was quite ahead of its time, she said.

"I think Warren's patient work over the years led to that step being taken."

The United States did not formally recognise China until the start of 1979.

Helen Clark said Mr Freer's grandmother ran a boarding hostel for miners in Waihi and was run out of town with her daughter, Mr Freer's mother, after the Waihi miner's strike of 1912. She believed Mr Freer also lost a couple of reporting jobs before he became an MP because of his political affiliations.

He was aged only 26 when he entered Parliament but he had experienced a lot of politics before then, she said.

In 1955 Mr Freer made the first visit to China by a New Zealand politician after the Communist Party had gained power 1949.

It was all the more controversial at the time because it was made against the wishes of his leader, Labour Opposition leader Walter Nash, but was given a blessing by the incumbent National Prime Minister, Sid Holland.

Bob Tizard, a former Deputy Prime and friend of Mr Freer's, remembers an even more controversial trip Mr Freer took after the Nordmeyer Black Budget of 1958.

The Labour Government had a majority only of one were dependent on every MP. Mr Freer had got into financial difficulty and while he was in China there was a prospect that he could be declared bankrupt - and lose his seat, putting the Government's survival into peril.

A group of friends of Mr Freer and friends of the Labour Party got together clear the debts. He recalls driving to Wellington overnight to meet Sir Walter, then Prime Minister, at 5.30 am - shortly after the Prime Minister was due to leave the parliamentary cleaners' Christmas Party - to explain the rescue package.

Sir Walter as Prime Minister also got member's of the cabinet to fund Mr Freer's stay in China - "Walter Nash put it to cabinet that as individuals they would lose their jobs if Warren were disqualified as an MP and funds were raised from individual cabinet ministers at the time to pay for the stay that had to keep up in China," Mr Tizard said.

Mr Tizard said Mr Freer's first trip to China against Sir Walter's wishes cost him a place in cabinet. Sir Walter had made it very clear to the caucus before the election that he did not want Mr Freer elected - the Labour caucus elects it's cabinet. Mr Freer contested the 20th place in the cabinet against Bill Anderton (Sir Roger Douglas' grandfather) and it went to Mr Anderton.

Mr Freer and neighbouring Roskill MP Frank Langstone left the Labour caucus in protest at a move by Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser to introduce peace-time conscription.

Mr Langstone never rejoined but Mr Freer did.

Mr Freer was elected to Mr Kirk's cabinet

as Minister of Trade and Industry and Energy. During a period of high inflation, he was responsible for passing a law to set a maximum retail price.

"He was always considered a radical thinker," Helen Clark said."Warren could always be relied on to have a progressive position on things. That was his background."

It was sad that in 34 years of Parliament he got only one three-year stint at being a minister.

In those 34 years Labour was in power for only eight years.

"That's very very frustrating. In 27 there, I was in a party in Government for 15 years and opposition for 12 which is a good law of averages, but he didn't have that sort of run at all."

Mr Freer was married to his first wife, Sylvia, for 62 years and they had two sons.

He is survived by his sons and his second wife, Joyce.

- NZ Herald

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