Business leaders are paying tribute to former New Zealand Prime Minister and WTO head Mike Moore, who died earlier today aged 71.

"Mike Moore was a passionate defender of free trade who made an enormous contribution to the WTO [World Trade Organisation]," NZ International Business Forum head Stephen Jacobi told the Herald.

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BusinessNZ CEO Kirk Hope also paid tribute.

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"Like many other New Zealanders the business community is mourning the loss of Mike Moore," Hope said.

"He was a fierce advocate for free trade and deeply committed to ensuring New Zealanders and New Zealand companies could compete on a level playing field throughout the world."

And Taxpayers' Union chairman and former Bill Rowling press secretary Barrie Saunders said, "Mike Moore was a great self-educated New Zealander, who was able to re-think traditional Labour Party mantras.

"In the early 1980s he supported the proposed free trade agreement with Australia (CER) a critical step in the modernisation of the New Zealand economy, in the face of significant opposition within the Labour Party. His contribution to New Zealand will be enduring."

Moore first made an impact as Trade Minister in the Lange-Douglas government, Jacobi said.

"He changed the way we think about trade."

Moore - whom many will remember for his bid to promote lamb burgers - "emphasised the marketing aspects. Not just waving goodbye when products were sent overseas but changing our approach to think about what businesses and consumers really wanted."

Jacobi says it was a time when New Zealand's export sector was really struggling - "ironically, in part, due to Britain joining the European Union."

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Moore led numerous trade missions that made a real impact, Jacobi says.

China was drawn into the WTO under Moore's watch in 2001, and he was also regarded as the driving force behind reanimated global trade talks in the form of the Doha Round from 1999.

But Jacobi also laments, "He never got as far as he wanted to," because of a deal that saw Moore ascend to WTO director-general but only under a deal that saw him serve a half-term (from 1999 to 2002) before handing over to Thailand's Supachai Panitchpakdi under a shared-term agreement. The Doha talks foundered.

As then head of the NZ-US Council, Jacobi often crossed paths with Moore when the former PM was New Zealand's Ambassador to the US between 2010 and 2016.

That was a time of hope for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and free trade in general.

Is Moore's legacy now being lost?

"I can only imagine he would have been completely dismayed by recent events," Jacobi says.

"The current US administration has turned its back on international trade law.

"The WTO today is seriously weakened and that doesn't serve anyone's interests."