Former Napier MP campaigned for Vietnam veterans

BATTLER: Long-serving Labour MP Geoff Braybrooke believed Agent Orange caused the illness which claimed his life.
BATTLER: Long-serving Labour MP Geoff Braybrooke believed Agent Orange caused the illness which claimed his life.

Geoffrey Bernard Braybrooke, politician: b Gillingham, England, April 4, 1935; m (1) Janice Cater (dec) 2d; m (2) Beth Marlow; d Palmerston North, March 8, 2013, aged 77.

Geoff Braybrooke was a Labour MP who held the Napier seat for 21 years during some of the most turbulent times in the party's history.

As a social conservative who had a strong affinity for people struggling to make ends meet, he was a good fit for the provincial electorate, which he held from 1981 till his retirement from Parliament in 2002. He was a popular and likeable MP, and was closely involved in the community, especially his beloved Napier City Rovers football club.

However, his strong views on moral issues, such as the legalisation of sex between men and his opposition to abortion, often put the Catholic MP at odds with most of his Labour colleagues.

He was best known for his vocal campaign against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, a private member's bill which had strong support within Labour. Mr Braybrooke branded it an attempt to give "homosexuals a cloak of respectability", and predicted it would lead to gays demanding the right to marry - a move Parliament is now on the cusp of approving.

But the bill's opponents were ultimately on the wrong side of history at a time when New Zealand was undergoing sweeping social change, and it passed by 49 votes to 44. Mr Braybrooke said last year that his views on the issue had since mellowed.

Mr Braybrooke was an MP in the Lange-Palmer-Moore governments from 1984 to 1990 and the first Clark government from 1999 to 2002, but never held a ministerial post. Labour MP Phil Goff said that was not due to his personal views, nor his staunch support for Mike Moore when Helen Clark rolled him as leader in 1993, but rather his lack of interest in higher office.

"I think he went into politics seeing himself more as a solid representative for his local community than somebody who had strong ministerial ambitions," Mr Goff said. "His forte was seen to be representing both his electorate and, in caucus, how a particular section of society was thinking about issues rather than the nitty-gritty of policy analysis."

However, he did accept an offer to take the post of deputy speaker in his last term.

Mr Braybrooke's long association with the Labour movement began when he was a pupil at the private Chatham House school in Britain, where he was awarded a scholarship in the 1940s. He joined the British Labour Party at the age of 14, and drew the ire of the school's principal when it was discovered he had been handing out pamphlets on the street in school uniform.

Mr Braybrooke served as a medic in the British army for three years before becoming a police officer in London. He later recalled that his decision to immigrate to New Zealand was largely motivated by a desire to escape London's persistent drizzle. All he knew about New Zealand at the time was that it did not rain as much as in Britain.

He joined the New Zealand army's medical corps in 1957 and served in Malaya and Vietnam. The latter conflict marked him deeply and spurred his decision to pursue a career in politics.

The disillusionment with the war and concern for soldiers affected by the defoliant Agent Orange also saw him become a leading advocate for Vietnam veterans. Indeed, he believed the chronic lung disease which claimed his life was caused by Agent Orange, though he also suffered diabetes and angina.

After leaving the army, Mr Braybrooke worked as the sales manager for pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. He made the first of his four attempts to enter Parliament when he stood unsuccessfully for Labour in Franklin in 1972. Campaigns in Pakuranga in 1975 and Papakura in 1978 were also unsuccessful before he eventually won selection for the Labour stronghold of Napier.

Mr Braybrooke was a "100 per cent" supporter of Labour's nuclear-free policy, and though he favoured New Zealand retaining strong ties with the Western alliance, he bristled at United States attempts to bully the Lange government into dropping it.

"The more the Americans fight us, the more determined and united MPs have become," he told the Evening Post in February 1985, three weeks after the nuclear- capable USS Buchanan had been denied entry. "Who's country bloody well is this anyway?"

Mr Braybrooke hit headlines the next year in less noble circumstance when he bizarrely claimed in Parliament that he had killed someone with a crossbow while serving in Vietnam. After the claim was challenged by National MPs, he said he had meant to say he had seen US special forces use the weapons.

In July 1998, Mr Braybrooke considered leaving Parliament after his wife of 40 years, Janice, died suddenly while he was leading a delegation of former New Zealand medics and doctors to Vietnam to reopen a hospital destroyed during the war.

However, he stayed on and in November 1999, he married Beth Marlow, a former parliamentary researcher.

The Dominion Post