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Mike Moore: 1949-2020

The enthusiastic utterances of the former Prime Minister and head of the World Trade Organisation gave us what has become New Zealand’s enduring international sales pitch.

Every time New Zealand signs a free-trade deal, the ledger of history chalks up another few billion in new export receipts to a self-taught former labourer from small-town Northland.

To say that former Prime Minister Mike Moore, who died on February 2, didn’t get on with his successor, Helen Clark, would be gross understatement, but when she signed the world-leading free-trade deal between New Zealand and China in 2008, she did so standing squarely on his shoulders.

Moore did more than any politician before him to hone this country’s post-European Economic Community survival strategy as a successful export-funded nation.

His besetting sorrow was that his achievements were underappreciated during his heyday in politics, and often only grudgingly acknowledged by party contemporaries in later times. In this he may have sinned at least as much as he was sinned against. Though he had a genius for friendship, he also had a talent for nurturing grudges.

Despite his charisma and warmth, Michael Kenneth Moore was always something of an outsider in the Labour Party. Having left school at 14 for labouring and then printing work, he was an oddity among his cohort of activists, typified by Clark: youthful, university-educated and cultured.

Unreformedly blue-collar in his outlook, Moore came to politics through early-70s union and local-body activism and quickly achieved a much-envied media profile through his marriage to children’s TV presenter Yvonne Dereany, and later through a bout of testicular cancer – such illness rarely canvassed publicly in those times.

His survival came at a cruel price, the comparatively crude treatment regime of the day having a long-term debilitating effect on his bones and general health and, some speculate, his outlook on life.

The ebullient Trade Minister’s political career took a fatal hit when his caucus, spooked by the Government’s dire polling, made him prime minister just before the 1990 election – tacitly adding the qualifier, “crash pilot”. Despite his populist campaigning saving an estimated 10-12 Labour seats, including possibly Clark’s, he was an erratic leader whom the party never intended to keep on.

Moore never forgave the peremptory manner of his dispatch by Clark. He irked her further by staying on in Parliament as a nagging reminder of the Rogernomics era she was striving to repudiate – though without, as Moore often pointed out, reversing any of its key policy reforms.

It was bittersweet for Clark, poised for Government in 1999, that Moore ascended from vengeful backbench stagnation to the coveted role of head of the World Trade Organisation. He remained, it would seem, world famous, but not in New Zealand.

After three years’ furthering the multilateral trade liberalisation on which our prosperity depends, he expected to be of further use here upon his return in 2003. The phone did not ring. He nurtured monarch butterflies and read and wrote ceaselessly about world trade, until 2010, when the National Government made him ambassador to Washington. Deteriorating health forced his retirement in 2015.

Moore was probably the first politician to advocate a truly optimistic free-trade future for New Zealand. Sir Robert Muldoon pioneered Closer Economic Relations with Australia – but that was the exception to the National PM’s tariffed and sales-taxed fortress economy. Mocked for his lamburger mania, Moore forged the template for the modern free-trade agenda, in particular its ability to raise poor nations out of poverty.

If this wasn’t clear at the time, it was down to his engaging but often mystifying stream-of-consciousness odes to free trade, which usually needed translation. But his basic message turns out to be the one that most enduringly sums up New Zealand’s place in the world: a small, distant but well-resourced country with the means and the brains to punch well above its weight as a high-value exporter and exemplar of fair play.

This article was first published in the February 15, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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