Trevor Albert de Cleene, 1932 - 2001

Barrister and former MP Trevor de Cleene died in Tauranga on 22 April 2001 aged 68.

Born in Palmerston North on 24 March 1933 to William and Mary de Cleene, he was educated at Palmerston North Boys’ High School. His family was not well off and his childhood was marked by regular moves from one rental house to another before state housing was secured.

Mr de Cleene left school in 1951 to attend Canterbury University, where he studied law for two years before moving to Victoria University of Wellington and graduated LLB in 1955. At Victoria he won the Law Moot Prize in 1954 and was Senior Scholar in Law in 1955. His university study had been funded by working vacations in the freezing works.

Trevor de Cleene was admitted to the bar in 1956. He practised in Palmerston North at Innes and Oakley. In 1959 he moved into sole practice, telling the Tribune later that “I crossed the street and put up my own plate”. In 1966 he formed a partnership with Bob Calkin which lasted until 1970, when heart problems caused de Cleene to dissolve the partnership and practice on his own until the end of 1972. From 1973 to 1976 he was a partner in Loughnan, de Cleene and Co.

He married Gwenda Doris Taylor in 1962 and they had three children: Catherine (1964), David (1966) and William (1970). The marriage did not last and Trevor and Gwenda later divorced. He married Raewyn Watt in 1982.

Personal matters caused him to move briefly to Tauranga, where he practised in 1976. However, he returned to Palmerston North in 1977 and remained at Loughnan, de Cleene & Co until 1981.

Trevor de Cleene’s legal practice focused on criminal law, commercial and workers compensation. He developed a reputation as a very successful advocate in drink driving offences and built up a solid practice representing unions and workers in the years before accident compensation legislation. He also became the legal adviser to Joe Walding (a Minister in the 1972 Labour Government) who was a director of the Smith and Walding catering firm which developed a successful export business.

His great love of sports and the outdoors was reflected in his willingness to act as honorary solicitor for many Palmerston North sports groups. He played hockey for Canterbury University, Victoria University and Manawatu, and was an enthusiastic hunter, shooter and fisherman. Keen also on horse racing, he once had a good win in a drink driving case and decided to purchase a racehorse, which he called Breathalyser. Breathalyser went on to win many important races.

He served on the Palmerston North City Council from 1962 to 1974. At the age of 29 in 1962, he was the youngest councillor to be elected. Re-elected in 1965, he was sensationally required to resign in 1966 after he was found guilty of trespassing on Crown Land while taking the American pop star PJ Proby deer stalking. The Municipal Corporations Act 1908 required any local body member convicted of an offence punishable by imprisonment (de Cleene was fined 5 pounds) to automatically vacate their office.

He was re-elected to the council in 1968 and 1971 and decided to stand for both the Mayoralty and Council in 1974, but lost to the sitting Mayor, Brian Elwood.

After standing unsuccessfully for election to Parliament in 1978 for the Manawatu seat, Trevor de Cleene was elected Labour MP for the Palmerston North electorate in 1981 (beating National Party candidate and old council rival Brian Elwood). He was the first Palmerston North MP to be born in the city.

As an MP he served as Under-Secretary of Finance from 1984 to 1987 and Minister of Revenue and Customs from 1987 to 1988. He resigned his portfolios in 1988 when Roger Douglas was sacked as Finance Minister and later became a founding member of ACT (Association of Consumers and Taxpayers) – although he joined the National Party in 1996, saying it was promoting the policies he had helped implement for Labour.

Awarded the OBE in 1991, he returned to practise law as a barrister in Tauranga in the 1990s. His later career as a lawyer was marked by an attempt to achieve the rank of Queen’s Counsel and just before his death he had started legal proceedings against the Chief Justice following rejection of his fifth application.

In a tribute, Prime Minister Helen Clark said Mr de Cleene would be remembered for his commitment to his beliefs along with his wit and irreverence.

“Trevor was a marvellous parliamentary orator and held his own with the likes of David Lange and Sir Robert Muldoon,” she said.

“As a person Trevor lived life to the full. He grew up in a state house, went to university, worked as a lawyer, became an MP and a minister. He enjoyed many outside interests ranging from hunting and horse racing, to music and literature.”

By Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society.