Lange - a citizen of the world

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Mangere Bridge, on the peninsula between the waste treatment plant and the mud flats, between the south-western motorway and the Manukau Harbour, do as David Lange did.

In that little corner of south Auckland, Maori, Pacific Islanders and Asians make up two-thirds of the population, few people have any education beyond secondary school and solo mums wheel pushchairs along the streets.

It is there that the one-time international statesman retired quietly with his family to learn to be an Aucklander.

"It's one of those awkward things in politics: you respect the custom," Lange told the Herald on Sunday a few months ago.

Lying at home, hooked up to the dialysis and feeling a bit like a "zombie", Lange was musing on the dilemma of diversity and eating somegrapes that an old Chinese mate of his had just brought in.

"I went to his mum's funeral, she was 95, and he handed me a red envelope and I looked inside and it was a $50 note. And everybody was getting them. It was a different culture."

In his five years as prime minister, Lange had learned to be a citizen of the world on a big scale, battling US president Ronald Reagan, UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, French president Francois Mitterand.

Under his leadership, New Zealand took charity from no one.

But he spent the last few years of his life learning to be a citizen of the world on a small scale. He became close to the Pacific communities of South Auckland, and just this year, confined to wheelchair, he was made an honorary member of Auckland's Indian community. He learned to be young again from his daughter Edith, 9 - but he also learned to be old as he battled the kidney failure that eventually killed him.

Lange believed that when one is Rome, one does as the Romans do. But in New Zealand, he built his own Rome - and woe betide any foreign empire, whether it be Britain, France or the United States, that tried to tell his Romans how to run their city.

Lange grew up in Otahuhu, the son of a doctor, and graduated from Auckland University with a law degee in 1966. He practised for a couple of years in the sunny northern climes of Kaikohe, before returning to university to tutor and complete a masters degree in criminal law, criminal behaviour and medico-legal issues.

In 1975 he defended peace activists in the courts, after they were arrested for protesting against the visits of nuclear powered and armed warships to Auckland's Waitemata Harbour.

At the same time he was secretly honing his verbal jousting skills as a talkback host on 1ZB, going by the nom de plume David Read.

Lange - who described himself as "a clapped-out two-guinea legal-aid lawyer" - entered Parliament in 1977 after a by-election in the Auckland seat of Mangere.

He became Leader of the Opposition in 1983, and at 41 the country's youngest prime minister of the century .

As prime minister he was responsible - more by good luck than good measure - for the creation of New Zealand's nuclear free policy. The US tested the waters by sending a semi-derelict old tub, the USS Buchanan, which clearly had no nuclear capacity. To the surprise of diplomats on both sides of the Pacific, Lange turned it away.

In March 1985, he took the floor in an Oxford Union live worldwide television debate against the Rev Jerry Falwell, arguing "nuclear weapons are morally indefensible".

If there was ever any doubt as to the extent to which his nuclear-free policy had put the country on the outer, it was when France bombed the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior.

Lange negotiated a settlement with France as compensation for the bombing, and in 1986 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Meanwhile, his finance minister Roger Douglas oversaw a painful economic restructuring that could have lost them the election, but for Lange's 1987 election promises that the painful surgery was over.

It was not to be: after Douglas announced his previously suppressed plans for a flat tax after the 1987 sharemarket crash, Lange ordered the reforms stop for "a cuppa". He emerged from hospitalisation for heart problems in July 1988, sacked Richard Prebble from Cabinet, then accepted Douglas resignation. Almost isolated in Cabinet, he had stopped Rogernomics by sheer force of personality.

" I sat there crying, just got to the point of sheer frustration, in tears of my own," he said a few years ago.

He resigned as prime minister and from Cabinet in August 1989, but held the office of Attorney-General outside Cabinet till Labour was defeated in the 1990 election.

When his affair with speechwriter Margaret Pope caused the end of his marriage, wife Naomi tearfully told all to the Dominion, destroying his reputation among many voters.

He was instrumental in negotiating the release of New Zealand hostages from Iraq in December 1990, flying into the Middle East in the days before the first Gulf War.

Lange remained on Parliament's back benches in opposition till the first MMP election of October 1996.

In 2002 he was diagnosed with amyloidosis, and began draining chemotherapy treatment.

He died in Middlemore Hospital last night, just before the kick-off of the rugby test against Australia. Brother Peter Lange, who was with him, said his death was sooner than expected, but peaceful and dignified.

- Herald on Sunday

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