Born in 1948, Fran Wilde was a Cabinet minister in the Labour government of the 1980s, and is perhaps best known for her private members bill for homosexual law reform. She left Parliament to become the first female Mayor of Wellington.
A graduate of Victoria University and Wellington Polytechnic, Wilde spent her early years working as a journalist. With her first husband, Geoffrey Gilbert Wilde, she adopted three children; juggling motherhood with politics in later years was made possible by the help of ‘a lot of good women' who would leave casseroles on her doorstep. Later she would marry Christopher Kelly, a former veterinary surgeon who became Chief Executive of Landcorp.
An intense interest in social issues prompted Wilde to enter national politics. The fifth-generation Wellingtonian became MP for Wellington Central in 1981, the same year Helen Clark, Michael Cullen and Ruth Richardson entered Parliament. Wilde's maiden speech, denigrating ‘multi-national corporates with whom the National government is ever willing to cuddle down', propelled her into the headlines as a passionate social campaigner.
Wilde was Parliamentary Whip from 1984 to 1987, and became Minister of Tourism, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Disarmament during Labour's second term. In 1985 she introduced the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, sparking 16 months of heated debate. Opponents of the Bill, which decriminalised homosexuality, predicted dire consequences for the family, boys' schools and the spread of AIDS. Wilde became the target of hate mail and death threats, as well as tirades from critics in the Opposition such as Norman Jones and Graeme Lee.
The Bill was passed in 1986. When the Speaker announced the result, a member of the public pointed at Wilde amid the cheers and pronounced God's curse on her. But in the days that followed she was swamped with flowers and messages of thanks.
During her time in Parliament Wilde also campaigned for the recognition of rape within marriage, a nuclear-free New Zealand, and the Adoption Reform Act which made it possible for adopted people and their birth parents to contact each other.
In 1992 Wilde resigned from Parliament to stand for Mayor of Wellington. Over the next three years the ‘fiery, autocratic and colourful' new Mayor established the enduring Absolutely Positively Wellington slogan, was instrumental in plans for Westpac Stadium, and saw the city-to-sea bridge through to completion. To the dismay of some, she also got initial planning underway for the controversial inner-city bypass.
Unexpectedly, Wilde stood down from the Mayoralty after one term, citing the need for more personal time. Since then she has held corporate governance roles in private and government organisations, including stints as Chair of Housing New Zealand and Chief Executive of Trade New Zealand. Reflecting a change of emphasis over the years, the former left-wing campaigner has promoted global trade and the controlled use of genetic engineering, toured the world promoting New Zealand exports, and defended the controversial ‘Rogernomics’ period of market-driven reform.
Fran Wilde was awarded a QSO in 1995 and named Wellingtonian of the Year. She was Chair of Wellington Regional Council from October 2007 until June 2015, and was made a Dame of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2017.
By Emma Brewerton
- Fran Wilde (Wikipedia)
- Jane Tolerton, Convent Girls, Penguin Books, 1994