Ailing Lange still has strong voice on nukes

By Jonathan Milne

David Lange, the ailing architect of New Zealand's nuclear-free policy, is furious at attempts to allow nuclear-powered warships back into our ports.

The former prime minister is critically ill in Middlemore Hospital, but yesterday spoke to the Herald on Sunday.

"The nuclear-free philosophy has been in effect for 20 years; the legislation has been left substantially unaltered," he said.

"When I heard about the proposal to have a debate and a vote on it being rejected, I wanted to get out of bed and get a wheel-chair to Wellington."

Mr Lange's once-booming voice was weak, but with typical understatement he said only that he was feeling "below par".

In recognition of his poor health, publisher Penguin has brought forward the publication of his memoirs, originally scheduled for September 5, to next week.

In previous interviews with the Herald on Sunday Mr Lange has been anticipating the book's publication with excitement, and joked he had to stay alive for it.

But yesterday he was focused on his health and his family.

"There's a scale of all these things, and you get excited by some but not others."

Labour is looking forward to the book, which is expected to canvass Mr Lange's handling of the Rainbow Warrior bombing and the nuclear-free policy.

Prime Minister Helen Clark, who visited Mr Lange in hospital before his condition deteriorated, wants to put the nuclear ban on the election agenda - she has said that under a Don Brash-led government, the nuclear ships ban would be "gone by lunchtime".

Yesterday she said that she would always have great respect for Mr Lange's leadership on the nuclear issue.

"He believes that what the Labour Government did to make New Zealand nuclear-free, supported by a majority of New Zealanders, was the right thing to do - and is as important today as it was in the 1980s."

National says it would maintain the ban unless New Zealanders gave a mandate for its removal through a referendum or election.

Act MP Ken Shirley introduced a members' bill this month seeking to amend the nuclear-free legislation so nuclear-armed ships would still be banned, but nuclear-powered ships would be allowed back in. But the bill won support only from Act, and failed to pass its first reading.

Mr Brash said there was no need for Mr Lange to be concerned: "He won't need to get into his wheelchair and go anywhere, let alone Wellington," he said.

"The only people who think a debate about the legislation is going on are in the Labour Party."

Mr Lange's wife, Margaret Pope, is optimistic about his recovery, although his condition has deteriorated in the past week.

"He's still sick, he's still very tired, we haven't got a time yet when he can come home," she said. "He's had so many problems with his health - but he amazes me every time."

She said visitors had been restricted to immediate family in the past week, because he was so worn down.

His sister Annette had visited from Tasmania, as had his New Zealand siblings, but his two older children were staying in Britain.

Mr Lange had previously been joking with doctors and nurses, but was now "too tired and out of it" to find things funny any more.

Victoria University political scientist Professor Nigel Roberts said Mr Lange's sickbed comments would help Labour as the election neared.

"He was - and still is - a person who New Zealanders have a great deal of affection for. And by and large we don't feel affection for our prime ministers, so that is quite a powerful emotion.

"The very fact that his illness, sadly, has brought him back into the limelight cannot hurt Labour's chances. Given that the nuclear-free debate has already surfaced in this campaign, it makes it even more difficult for National to avoid the issue."

- Herald on Sunday

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