Jim Anderton walked out of the first rest home he was placed in about two months ago, says a former close colleague, Matt Robson.

Robson, who served in Parliament from 1996 to 2005 with Anderton's Alliance Party and then the Progressive Coalition, remained a close friend to the end and is making a film about Anderton's life.

He said Anderton suffered from longstanding heart problems and could barely communicate when Robson visited him at Nazareth House in Christchurch a week ago.

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"He was so ill he could not really communicate," he said.

"He knew I was there the last time I came but it was too much effort to do much talking. I just sat there for a couple of hours talking to him about various things.

"He was in and out of consciousness."

But he said Anderton was determined to remain independent, actually walking out of the first rest home he was placed in about two months ago.

"Jim said, 'No, I'm going home.' He walked home from the rest home," Robson said.

"That's Jim."

Last March, he discharged himself from hospital even though his wife Carole was away, telling hospital staff that Robson and Anderton's former secretary Sally Griffin were coming down from Auckland and could look after him.

"He was very ill then," Robson said. "They said 'your wife's not home'. He said 'no, I can look after myself, I'm going home'. He was frail and ill, but that was Jim."

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Robson said Anderton's political philosophy was shaped by his early life as a Catholic youth worker.

"He trained as a teacher, then he decided that he could provide better for his family by starting a business.

"He started a grocery store, a franchise, and from there he moved to the engineering business that he started with his brother in Penrose."

The business, Anderton Holdings, manufactured supermarket trolleys.

"That was important for him, understanding how you employ people, have a responsibility for them, how to organise a business that runs well," Robson said.

At the same time, he became deeply involved in the Labour Party and was elected party president in 1979.

"I met him when he did have that business and when he was president, and at the time when I worked with him that enormous energy that he had was there," Robson said.

Jim Anderton, pictured in September last year, with Helen Clark, Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy and Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel. Photo / Star.kiwi
Jim Anderton, pictured in September last year, with Helen Clark, Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy and Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel. Photo / Star.kiwi

He said Anderton was driven by a passion for social justice.

"They will remember him as someone who recognised a gigantic wrong in the question of wealth distribution in New Zealand, and took action," he said.

"The question of income inequality, and the lack of intention to remedy that, that was central to his politics and he went after that goal - and in many ways achieved, or at least remedied action by the Government."

Even after he left Parliament he continued to help people in distress, passing many people on to Robson, a lawyer.

"He was concerned, as he always has been, about mental health issues," Robson said. His daughter committed suicide in 1994.

"He had his own family tragedy, of course [his daughter Phillipa committed suicide]. He was also aware of what was happening to many people," Robson said.

"In front of his house in Christchurch there was a hostel for people who have nowhere to go or who had come out of institutions. Jim and Carole [his wife] were one of the only people in the area who didn't object to this being there. It was right in front of their house."

Robson and Griffin have filmed about seven hours of interviews with Anderton about his life and hope to complete a documentary by April.