Former Green MP and ‘conscience of the year’ Keith Locke dies, aged 80

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Former Green Party MP and foreign affairs spokesperson Keith Locke
Former Green Party MP and foreign affairs spokesperson Keith Locke . . . While in Parliament, he was a notable critic of New Zealand's involvement in the war in Afghanistan and the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, and advocated for refugee rights including in the case of Ahmed Zaoui. Image: RNZ/Green Party

RNZ News

Former Green MP Keith Locke, a passionate activist and anti-war critic once described as “conscience of the year”, has died in hospital, aged 80.

Locke was in Parliament from 1999 to 2011, and was known as a human rights and nuclear-free advocate.

His family said he had died peacefully in the early hours this morning after a long illness.

“He will be greatly missed by his partner Michele, his family, friends and colleagues. He kept up his interest and support for the causes he was passionate about to the last.

“He was a man of integrity, courage and kindness who lived his values in every part of his life. He touched many lives in the course of his work in politics and activism.”

The son of activists Elsie and Jack Locke of Christchurch, Keith was politically aware from an early age, and was involved in the first anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid marches of the 1960s.

After a Masters degree at the University of Alberta in Canada, he returned to New Zealand and left academia to edit a fortnightly newspaper for the Socialist Action League, a union he had joined as a meatworker then railway workshop employee.

He joined NewLabour in 1989, which later became part of the Alliance party, and split off into the Greens when they broke apart from the Alliance in 1997, entering Parliament as their foreign affairs spokesperson in the subsequent election two years later.

Notable critic of NZ in Afghanistan
While in Parliament, he was a notable critic of New Zealand’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan and the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, and advocated for refugee rights including in the case of Ahmed Zaoui.

He also long advocated for New Zealand to become a republic, putting forward a member’s bill which would have led to a referendum on the matter.

Commentators dubbed him variously the ‘Backbencher of the Year’ in 2002 — an award he reprised from a different outlet in 2010 — as well as the ‘Politician of the Year’ in 2003, and ‘Conscience of the Year’ in 2004.

He was appointed a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to human rights advocacy in 2021, received NZ Amnesty International’s Human Rights Defender award in 2012, and the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand’s Harmony Award in 2013.

In a statement today, Green Party co-leaders Marama Davidson and Chlöe Swarbrick said Locke was a dear friend and leading figure in the party’s history, who never wavered in holding government and those in positions of authority to account.

“As a colleague and friend, Keith will be keenly missed by the Greens. He has been a shining light for the rights of people and planet. Keith Locke leaves a legacy that his family and all who knew him can be proud of. Moe mai ra e te rangatira,” they said.

“From 1999 to 2011, he served our party with distinction and worked extremely hard to advance causes central to our kaupapa,” they said.

Highlighting ‘human rights crises’
“Not only did Keith work to defend civil liberties at home, but he was vigilant in highlighting human rights crises in other countries, including the Philippines, East Timor, West Papua and in Latin America.

“We particularly acknowledge his strong and clear opposition to the Iraq War, and his commitment to an independent and principled foreign policy for Aotearoa.”

They said his mahi as a fearless defender of civil liberties was exemplified in his efforts to challenge government overreach into citizens’ privacy.

“Keith worked very hard to introduce reforms of our country’s security intelligence services. While there is much more to be done, the improvements in transparency that have occurred over the past two decades are in large part due to his advocacy and work. We will honour him by ensuring we carry on such work.”

Former minister Peter Dunne said on social media he was “very saddened” to learn of Locke’s death.

“Although we were on different ideological planets, we always got on and worked well together on a number of issues. Keith had my enduring respect for his integrity and honesty. Rest in peace, friend.”

‘Profoundly saddened’
Auckland councillor Christine Fletcher said she was also sad to hear of the death of her “Mt Eden neighbour”.

“We worked together on several political campaigns in the 1990s. Keith was a thoughtful, sincere and truly decent person. My condolences to Keith’s partner Michele, sister Maire Leadbeater and partner Graeme East.”

Peace Action Wellington said Locke was a tireless activist for peace and justice — and the organisation was “profoundly saddened” by his death.

“His voice and presence will be missed,” the organisation wrote on social media.

“He was fearless. He spoke with the passion of someone who knows all too well the vast and dangerous reach of the state into people’s lives as someone who was under state surveillance from the time he was a child.

“We acknowledge Keith’s amazing whānau who have a long whakapapa of peace and justice activism. He was a good soul who will be missed.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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