One of the key cabinet ministers of the Muldoon years, John Falloon, died overnight. He was 63.

Mr Falloon, who was also MP for Pahiatua, had been ill for several weeks after undergoing surgery in Wellington Hospital for a brain tumour.

He returned to the family home at Bideford, near Masterton, late last month having succeeded in playing a voting role in the National Party's revival in the general election.

He will be best remembered in his role as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, but also served as Minister of Statistics, Minister in charge of the Inland Revenue Department, Minister in charge of Friendly Societies, Minister of Racing and Associate Minister of Finance.

Despite the lofty Cabinet positions Mr Falloon never forgot that his first allegiance was to the people of his Pahiatua electorate, and like Sir Keith Holyoake before him, he gained a reputation of being able to greet many of his voters by name.

At Bideford, where he lived, he was known as a neighbour who would stop at nothing to help anyone in the district and one of his last acts before falling ill was to help plant a kowhai tree in memory of Linda Warrington -- a rural postie and neighbour -- who drowned in last year's horrendous floods.

After 19 years in Parliament Mr Falloon again displayed a sense of history by retiring, and giving his valedictory speech on the last day of New Zealand's 132-year first-past-the-post election system.

John Howard Falloon was born in Masterton in February, 1942 and was educated at Bideford School, Lindisfarne College and Massey University from where he graduated with a diploma in sheep farm management.

He worked as a shepherd at Porangahau and later went into partnership with his father, farming at Bideford and developing Bowlands turning it from a property beset by manuka scrub and native grasses into a highly productive farm.

An accomplished speaker and debater Mr Falloon joined the Young Farmers Club and the Young Nationals.

He was chairman of both the Wairarapa Young Nationals and the Wellington division in 1966 and 1967. He was the party's Wairarapa publicity officer and served on Haddon Donald's campaign committee in both 1966 and 1969.

Outside of party politics he was a former member of the national executive of the meat and wool section of Federated Farmers, was chairman of Wairarapa Federated Farmers, chairman of the Bideford Church Centenary Committee and held executive positions with Masterton Round Table.

Although the great sporting love of his love was polo -- he was on the management committee of the New Zealand Polo Association -- he also played senior cricket, golf, badminton and tennis.

His overseas experiences included driving from India to London in 1965, working in Scotland and England and trips to many other countries.

He was elected to Parliament in a by-election in 1977 -- as was David Lange -- and quickly made his mark as an up-and-comer destined for Cabinet ranking.

Mr Falloon often championed the lot of women saying that the country's economy should be geared in such a way that young mothers should not be forced to go out to work.

He once courted controversy by saying in Parliament that rural women were usually more intelligent and thought more about the wider community than their husbands.

His description of country women was of them being the "unsung heroes of the back blocks".

When his wife fell seriously ill Mr Falloon sought time away from Parliament to be at her hospital bedside and to help nurse her back to health.

As Minister of Agriculture in the Bolger-led government, Mr Falloon was a fierce exponent of open markets and was an outspoken critic of United States and European farm subsidies and tariff protection measures.

Once at an international conference in Apia and speaking to delegates from 27 countries, Mr Falloon threw away his speech notes and launched into a blistering attack on farm subsidies urging fellow politicians to listen to food producers.

"Give the farmers a chance, let them be internationally competitive," he said.

Mr Falloon retired from politics in 1996 saying that re-drawn electoral boundaries which had written out his Pahiatua electorate was a major reason.

He did not seek a spot on the party list and returned home to concentrate on golf and on several projects, one of which was raising money for the Wellington Cathedral.

In 1999 he broke his neck while playing polo.

His mount shied at a fence behind the goal while at full as Mr Falloon was attempting to play a backhand stroke.

The fall was expected to end his polo playing days, but by the next summer he was back, having put his neck through its paces over winter by skiing "and falling over a few times".

Mr Falloon was suddenly taken ill earlier this month.

He complained of a headache and was later diagnosed as having a brain tumour for which he underwent surgery at Wellington Hospital.

Former prime minister Jim Bolger today told NZPA he had been shocked when he first learned that Mr Falloon had a brain tumour and had visited him in hospital after his operation.

There, they had chatted about the election, Mr Bolger said.

He had spoken to the family yesterday and had been told Mr Falloon did no have much longer to live.

Mr Bolger said Mr Falloon, who was a minister in his cabinet, had cared for and had a great interest in people. He had an empathy for Maori.

"John was a great friend and colleague and what I'd describe as a caring conservative.

"He loved the land, he liked to conserve the land."

Mr Falloon also had "conservative values" in that he believed in prudent use of government finances which he felt should be well managed without massive debts being run up, Mr Bolger said.

As a cabinet minister, he had passionately pursued trade liberalisation and an end to farm subsidies.

As a Cabinet minister, Mr Falloon "strongly" defended his interests, Mr Bolger said.

"He brought to the Cabinet table a wealth of knowledge that wasn't just in the Cabinet papers.

"He knew the industries intimately."

National leader Don Brash told NZPA he saw Mr Falloon only a month ago, while on the campaign trail in the Wairarapa.

Mr Falloon went to one of his public meetings and "asked a question from the floor".

He appeared in good health and Dr Brash said he was "stunned" to learn only a few days later that Mr Falloon needed a brain operation.

"It came on very, very suddenly and was a great shock to everybody."

Dr Brash said Mr Falloon entered and left Parliament the same years as David Lange.

While there were many differences between the two MPs, both argued for removing protectionism and subsidies.

"I think John Falloon made a tremendous contribution to New Zealand."

- NZPA