Pope gives lowdown on Lange

By Tony Verdon

The bitter dispute between Prime Minister David Lange and his finance minister, Roger Douglas, and the disintegration of the fourth Labour Government, is one of the most intriguing chapters of modern New Zealand political history.

Douglas was the radical economic reformer who seized the moment of economic chaos left by Sir Robert Muldoon after his 1984 snap election defeat to open up what was a remarkably closed and overly regulated economy to the world.

Lange and Douglas both enjoyed huge popular support during their first term in office, only to have a dramatic falling out during the second term, with the row ultimately leading in 1990 to one of Labour's most catastrophic election defeats.

This is an account of those years by the woman often credited by Douglas supporters as one of the reasons for the falling-out, Margaret Pope.

She worked as a speechwriter for Lange when he became Prime Minister in 1984, and subsequently became first his mistress and later his wife.

Some accounts of the period have credited her with strengthening Lange's opposition to further economic reform, and helping to poison the Lange-Douglas working relationship.

Pope argues that this view vastly overstates her role, and her influence on Lange's political views.

It also, she says, seriously demeans Lange's undoubted intelligence and political skill.

Serious rifts between prime ministers and their finance ministers are relatively common (witness Bob Hawkes and Paul Keating , John Howard and Peter Costello in Australia and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Britain) but the Douglas/Lange dispute was particularly bitter, and politically damaging.

Lange was easily the sharpest and wittiest politician of the post-Muldoon era, and Pope reminds us just how clever he could be in parliamentary debate. She quotes Lange responding to an attack from Prime Minister Muldoon in the House: "I wouldn't call the Prime Minister gutless," he called across the floor, "That's all that is left of him."

Douglas was always a poor performer in the House, and on his feet. He preferred working behind the scenes with his Treasury officials, stitching up policy reforms that included the introduction of GST, the abolition of agricultural subsidies, removal of tariffs and the floating of the dollar.

But after three years of economic turmoil, Lange began to have doubts about how far Douglas was moving to the right and bringing his neo-liberal economic thinking to bear on social policies.

Lange became convinced that Douglas (and his acolyte, Richard Prebble) had to be reined in or else the party they all represented would be destroyed.

In the end, the philosophical differences could not be healed, and it took a new generation of politicians to return Labour to the Treasury benches. Douglas left Labour and formed the Act Party, and has only just retired after his second stint in Parliament.

Lange spent six years as an opposition backbencher before retiring from politics in 1996.

Margaret Pope's account of the "idiosyncratic and unsettling" 1980s is a great read, although she often tries to sum up or start chapters with awkward phrases and sentences.

She was always a very private figure in the Beehive, although she reveals she became so incensed by Douglas and his cronies that she, too, began leaking Lange's version of events to journalists as the dispute escalated.

At The Turning Point - My Political Life with David Lange

by Margaret Pope, AM Publishing, $39.99

- The Aucklander

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