Obituary: David Russell Lange

By Arnold Pickmere

* David Russell Lange, Prime Minister, lawyer, Companion of Honour, member of the Order of New Zealand. Died aged 63.

As Prime Minister, David Lange headed the Labour Government which radically altered the structure of New Zealand. It caused changes that swept away long-established notions of job security. And it carved up or quit large sections of the costly state sector, extinguishing or altering thousands of jobs.

As the head of that Government - and even in Opposition - Lange was a formidable presence in parliamentary debates, a man of quick wit with a gift for words. New Zealanders watched his 1985 televised debate at the Oxford Union in England with admiration.

His brief, after all, was to argue "that nuclear weapons are morally indefensible", a popular notion in this country.

"I can smell the uranium in your breath," he told one persistent pro-nuclear interjector. It was not his most spontaneous line but was one of his most memorable, and was said to a worldwide audience.

Lange became New Zealand's youngest Prime Minister last century when the fourth Labour Government was elected in the 1984 snap election. He was a few weeks shy of his 42nd birthday, tipping out the National Muldoon Government with a majority of 17 seats.

It was a pivotal moment, for the Labour Party and for the lawyer born and raised in Otahuhu.

Before the election he had undergone a physical transformation. Those who used to know him around the Auckland law courts had trouble reconciling this new Prime Minister with the very large lawyer they used to meet, with his long, lank hair hanging across his forehead, a shabby suit and small dark-rimmed glasses. And an inclination for defending impoverished clients for very economical fees.

Approaching the election, he wore prime-ministerially dark suits which, aided by his stomach reduction operation, helped him look taller and somewhat slimmer.

Designer glasses, wavy hair and a slightly unshaven appearance (to lend more shadows to his rounded face) produced an image which helped to complement his formidable verbal skills.

The Labour Party win had also been aided by Sir Robert Jones' New Zealand Party campaign against the Muldoon Government. But in the end Labour had won by more than the New Zealand Party margin.

And as television homed in on the victory, Lange confided that it felt "great" and that after years in Opposition it brought "a sense of power".

But what an unsuspecting electorate did not realise was that this was to be no "normal" Labour Government, with its socialist inclinations towards state intervention and support.

And almost immediately the new Prime Minister found that power was to be shared and it was his finance spokesman who largely had hold of the reins - and the control of the stagecoach.

It subsequently appeared that Lange may not have fully realised that Roger Douglas was to drive his Rogernomics ahead on an unadvertised schedule at breakneck speed.

The Prime Minister often seemed to be riding shotgun, expected to whoop and laud the progress being made.

It has to be said that for a long time Lange rode in the front seat enthusiastically and exceptionally well, although he later observed of Douglas, "He's like rust, he never sleeps".

Lange certainly understood the sense of refreshing momentum that a currency crisis and mounting deregulation gave his new Government as it charged out of the protected economy of the Muldoon years.

There was also, of course, the major foreign policy crisis caused by the 1985 bombing of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior in Auckland by French agents.

The bombing was undoubtedly Lange's greatest foreign policy challenge, involving an ally and an important cog in the European Union whose attitude was important to New Zealand in matters of trade.

French agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur were sentenced in Auckland to 10 years' jail for sabotage and manslaughter over the sinking, to be served on the Pacific atoll of Hao until 1990 under a United Nations-negotiated agreement.

But Mafart was flown to Paris in 1987 with a "stomach complaint" without New Zealand's permission.

The outrageous Rainbow Warrior bombing eventually brought a French apology.

When asked if the apology was made known in France, Lange replied ruefully: "I suspect that it probably was available from the fourth customs office on the left somewhere in the Alps."

In the end the whole episode was probably a failure for New Zealand.

And meantime Douglas was ploughing along in the background unchecked in pursuing his reforms. For three years the Labour Government galloped along in the direction Margaret Thatcher was driving Britain and President Ronald Reagan the United States.

The sharemarket boomed and the Government seemed to deregulate something almost every week.

It was a break from Muldoonism at every turn. If that troubled the unions, it also unsettled the farming and business Establishments, which had enjoyed more state welfare than they were inclined to admit.

Labour Party rank and file seemed partly mollified by Lange's adherence to a nuclear-free policy that was breaking up the country's alliance with the Americans. Especially the passing of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone Disarmament and Arms Control Act of 1987.

But by the 1987 election things were changing. Political commentators noticed during the election campaign that the Prime Minister seemed somewhat out of sorts, even subdued by his standards.

With no New Zealand Party to get in the way, more votes came to Labour, which won by an even bigger majority than in 1984.

On victory night Douglas, whose actions over three years had spoken louder than anybody's words during the campaign, hung back in the shadows while television transmitted Lange's victory speech.

Afterwards Douglas squeezed through the crowd, held Lange's arm aloft in a victory salute and owned it was the proudest moment of his life, adding, "We have one man to thank, David Lange." 

Nobody believed that, least of all Lange. Soon after, Douglas, the man whose economic policy was credited with moving thousands of votes to Labour in conservative electorates such as Remuera, North Shore, Karori and Fendalton, slipped quietly back to Manurewa, where his own majority was well down.

And Lange was headed for tumultuous times.

Did the Prime Minister feel too dominated by Roger Douglas' policies? Did the pace of the reforms which caused so much pain before gain unnerve him? Or was it just his old Labour conscience pricking him?

On that 1987 election night Douglas admitted to only one period of trepidation during the three years of driving an economic programme conventionally reckoned to be political suicide.

That was in March 1987 when the new state-owned enterprises were laying off coal miners and others.

Otherwise the Douglas view was that New Zealanders had a strong sense of realism.

Whatever Lange's reasons, within six months he had broken with Douglas. Almost immediately after the election he was moving to strengthen his position with more friendly faces in the Cabinet, indicating a desire to switch from swingeing economic reforms to social policy reforms.

He dropped his foreign affairs portfolio and took on education.

Commentators thought he clearly recognised that the success or otherwise of such a change in emphasis would have a critical bearing on the future direction of the Labour Party - and Labour's hold on the Treasury benches.

But the change in Lange was always likely to be viewed askance by the more ardent adherents to Rogernomics, who had just seen an even bigger election win.

Part of the puzzle is how Lange, in particular, ever came to support the sweeping changes that even a National government would have viewed as a distinct political risk.

He came from the strongly Labour suburb of Otahuhu in the days when, he recalled, you could call it just Otahu.

His father was a doctor and the Lange family lived in the double-storey house which still stands by the monument on the corner of Great South and Mangere Rds.

The eldest of a family of five children, he went to Fairburn Primary, Otara Intermediate and Otahuhu College.

Even then his weight was causing him problems. But as he matured, his speech became as agile as his gait was ponderous.

He paid his way through university by working at the Westfield freezing works, where his ordinary worker's wage was an "almost feudal" five shillings and 10 pence 59c) a day.

His fellow workers, he said, worked a 12-hour day surrounded by stench and ice because "they needed the money to get some fulfilment out of their life beyond".

Not far into his first season, he was prepared to forgo the expense of tertiary education but was "saved by the camaraderie of my work mates".

In the end Lange graduated a bachelor of laws from Auckland University in 1965. He married Naomi Crampton in 1968 after meeting her in England in 1967. They both had close ties to the Methodist Church. He graduated a master of laws with first-class honours from Auckland in 1970, then practised law for some years.

He was elected MP for Mangere in 1977, the same year when, as chairman of the Auckland Council for Civil Liberties, he opposed jail sentences for marijuana use.

In his maiden speech in Parliament the family man with three young children complained of families in his electorate forced to live in garages.

He suggested that New Zealand had worse rights for children than animals received under the Animals Protection Act.

And he said the state of the Auckland rail service in and out of the Mangere electorate was "appalling".

By 1988, as Douglas pushed for the next stage of his Rogernomics reforms, the rift becoming apparent during and after the 1987 election had become an inter-party conflict.

Richard Prebble was dismissed from the Cabinet in November 1988 in a disagreement over the way sales of state-owned assets were being handled.

His Cabinet demise was sealed by a personal attack on Lange, whom Prebble accused of abusing his power, of being "dictatorial" and "not rational".

By late that year Lange was challenging the Douglas and Treasury agenda.

Finally, after shenanigans including a lost leadership challenge, Lange sacked Douglas over the principle, Lange said, of "what sort of society do you want?"

The Prime Minister was also uneasy about such notions as using high unemployment to bring down inflation.

Lange's deputy, Geoffrey Palmer, described Douglas' departure from the Cabinet as a relief.

"It's like lancing a boil; the problems associated with it have gone away and I think that will be a beneficial thing,"he said.

But in August 1989 the Government caucus voted to restore Douglas to the Cabinet on terms intolerable to Lange.

The row within the Labour Party took its toll. Events in 1989, when Lange's popularity was slipping, included his resigning as Prime Minister on August 8 (after a term of just over five years) and his separation from his wife, Naomi.

There was his romantic involvement with his speech-writer Margaret Pope, whom his wife blamed for their break-up. His Labour Party enemies blamed her for turning him against Douglas, a view which in hindsight has appeared distinctly simplistic.

As he left the prime ministership to become Attorney-General, he noted that in the previous few months there had been "from time to time" an extremely difficult, personally denigrating, destabilisation campaign against him.

In 1991 in a BBC religious affairs programme interview he described his time as leader as an "exhausting pilgrimage" conducted increasingly in isolation where senior ministers spent "eight months openly campaigning against me".

"The effect on me was catastrophic and the effect on the country was that it was paralysed."

As he put it, he resigned rather than have a state funeral.

Of his religious beliefs, the former lay preacher confessed to "a very heavy reduction in his personal faith", adding that he considered the church as an institution to be in many ways a joke.

In many ways Lange's political significance was at an end. History has still to judge his contribution.

Perhaps the essential thing he did for a country overdue for reform was to win an election which gave Douglas his chance.

That politician of foxy expression and grating voice would never have got that on his own, least of all if he had outlined his actual intentions before the 1984 election.

Lange's later years were dogged by health problems, including a quadruple bypass and more recently diabetes and amyloidosis, a rare plasma disorder that causes excess protein from blood marrow to build up.

Many political journalists from his time in power found him to be a very pleasant man, perhaps inclined to be too matey with them when keeping a professional distance might have been better advised.

Of his battles with what he termed the forces of the New Right, he revealed recently to the Herald that when he thought he was going to die he went around making up.

"I saw a lot of people. I didn't see Roger Douglas but I had Mike Moore in. I wrote to people like Richard [Prebble].

Lange's memoir, My Life, was released a week ago and has been a fast seller.

Lange's particular burden, he said when he left Parliament in 1996, was "people whose lives were wrecked by us. They had been taught for years, conditioned to believe that they had a right to an endless treadmill of prosperity and assurance and we did them".

"People over 60 hate me and they hate me because I was the symbol of that which caused that assurance of support ... to be shattered."

He is survived by Margaret Pope, whom he married in 1992, and four children from his two marriages, Roy, Byron, Emily and Edith.

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