Interview: David Lange

By Audrey Young

Herald political editor Audrey Young spoke with former Prime Minister David Lange on the 20th anniversary of the election of the Fourth Labour Government.

Q: Can you tell me about making peace with [former Finance Minister] Roger Douglas recently?

We had an excellent meeting. There are certain things you remember about a nice car you once owned. But the thing you really remember about it is when you crashed it into a concrete wall. You forget the times the times you enjoyed breezing around the countryside and carrying on.

I've known Roger for very many years. My father was the doctor at Reid Rubber at the first industrial clinic in South Auckland when he did two mornings a week looking at workers there and Roger's father was the union secretary.

I used to be taken there during school holidays as a primary school kid and I used to watch in awe of this man who occupied the same old army hut. The was one-armed and he rolled his own cigarettes and he lit them himself by putting his box of matches in his left arm-pit and striking it with his right. I used to be amazed at this fellow. He was Roger and Malcolm's dad. And, of course, Malcolm was my law clerk in an Auckland law firm in the 60s. My time in Government with Roger was the most focused-upon but the relationship extended beyond those days ...

When Roger came in and sat down ... it flowed affably and it was just wonderful. We chatted away and talked about the family and brought ourselves up to date.


Q: Do you think if the election of 1984 had not been a snap election, there would have been time for the opposing forces within the party to have successfully blocked the reforms or to have severely limited them.

You have to talk about why things happened the way they did. You can't actually explain my political life except by a series of situations rather than by some carefully constructed, rigidly progressed ascendancy. You could not imagine two more unlike rides to the top as I had and Helen Clark had: hers the principled, extremely hard-working, fearless really persistence in the face of all sorts of adversities and personal assaults. Whereas mine was some sort of divine roulette. Even entering into Parliament was not one of your created, structured planned-for episodes. I mean one minute I was a clapped-out two guinea legal-aid lawyer and the next minute I was in Parliament. The byelection of 77 saw to that ... I got there in terms of the Labour Party for all the wrong reasons, for all the reasons which weren't part of its tradition. I'd never been a tract writer; I'd never been a philosopher; I'd never taken part in extraordinary industrial dispute activism; I'd not been in any of that background but I was able to mix it in what had become, conceived to be, the new front line of politics - the ability on television to convey confidence and assurance without saying anything. And that is very important ...

[I was] plunged into this extraordinary awareness of a crisis in foreign exchange and reserves and having to takes steps that were the absolute antithesis of anything that I would ever have expected the week before. If the people of New Zealand thought it was a bit odd, for me it was absolutely staggering ...

I had thought of getting the agencies like the IMF, the World Bank to come in and do a de facto receivership. In fact I said so more or less publicly - let us get some external analysis of where we are rather than one which is tainted by my self- interest and by Muldoon's clear self-interest. But it was rendered unnecessary. He put on such a extraordinarily good performance of carrying on and saying I was introducing scorched earth policy. By the time Muldoon had finish a couple of television appearances, the general public was completely satisfied we were in a mess ...


Q: Gerald Hensley [former head of the Prime Minister's department] says you were at your best when you were confronted with a crisis and were having to make quick decisions.

Oh yes. It was amazing. We were at our best when confronted by crisis right at the very beginning and Cyclone Bola. As Prime Minister I went to Wairoa and ordered the Army to build a bridge across the Wairoa River without a building permit or a resource management consent. And that's power. I told them to get stuck in and drill for water when the wells went out in Gisborne. We flew up in a helicopter to the back of Te Kaha, down to Te Araroa and handed out aid and did things and ordered the dredging in the Gisborne.

It was very funny. Treasury were getting scared about this madman who was doing things from an aircraft and decided they had to have Treasury approval for everything. I said they couldn't wait for him to get to Wellington and aback, it was just ridiculous. There were people under water. You couldn't wait for that nonsense. So they said they'd post an officer up in Gisborne and I said right. I had a good guy there called McKenzie who was my man up there co-ordinating everything. He was a great guy and I told to get this Treasury officer and put him in a motel that was prone to flooding. He was at this motel and he couldn't get out; the water was up the driveway and he signed everything that was put in front of him. We got quicker answers out of him than we'd ever got.


Q: Do you regard the Rainbow Warrior affair as one of your successes or failures of political management [French agents pleaded guilty to bombing the Greenpeace vessel in Auckland].

In terms of the outcome to the people of New Zealand, it was probably regarded as a failure. But it demonstrates one of the problems of being in Government : it could have been a resounding success and we could have lost access to Europe for butter. So I think we had the choice.

The failure on my part was pretty simple. I had been brought up in the law and had this sort of instinct that international law operates and was there to protect principles and not to be the plaything of power and might - which I now know, of course, to be an absolute nonsense. International law should be spelled l-o-r-e. You can do anything you like including invading Iraq if you want to. I believed it was right to do what we did and what a lot of agony that was. I remember when we found out when they first proposed to put them, it 2 o'clock in the morning in the General Assembly Library we discovered that the place that they were planning to send them, off the coast of Africa, was a Club Med resort. That saved me from a great deal of humiliation. Working through the good offices of the Dutch Premier, we did that settlement [to keep them on Hao atoll] and then, unbelievably, having concluded treaties, international agreements with other countries, they repatriated the woman because she was pregnant - of course people had been pregnant on the equator for thousands of years - and the man, because he had flatulence. That's a fact. That's why he is called Marfart. He got there just in time to be released of his wind difficulty on the eve of the presidential election ...

It's extraordinary that we as, at times, a frail Government in a small country, ended up with an anti-nuclear policy which simply got stronger over the years, not because of our advocacy but because of two of three quite spectacular incidents.

The one minor starter was the French persistence in testing in the Pacific. The second was the United States reprisals back in 1985 which were deeply resented by New Zealanders. It was still any one's game. But the Rainbow Warrior certainly engraved it in platinum. It's just amazing.


Q: Do you think it is time to repair the damage with the United States perhaps in the way the Creech report suggested by following the Danish example [anti-nuclear weapons by law but anti-nuclear propulsion by policy]?

No because the Creech report clearly misconceives the challenge ...

The problem is that Roger [Douglas] and I gave the Americans everything they wanted, absolutely everything in term of money, trade, they can sell anything like here, they can invest anything here, they can have airlines here til it comes out our ears. They can own land. Why would the Americans give us anything? This whole anti-nuclear thing and the ships argument is built up all the time as some sort of great political issue between the parties and what's going to happen and how we can make the thing go away ...

Look, we could get a nuclear weapon and put it on hire trailer and take it around A and P shows all around New Zealand, and it wouldn't give us a free trade agreement. It is absolutely irrelevant.

What inducement is there for the United States to allow us to go and do possible harm to their beef and farming communities ...


Q: Trade is one thing but what about the defence relationship. Do you think New Zealand has suffered by not being part of Anzus?

Anzus is still there. It's just that they regard us as not being in it. I had the distinction once of going to the Pentagon and going through the Anzus corridor and seeing a wonderful tableau of derring-do in the jungles of Malaysia. It has absolutely nothing to do with Anzus. In other words every interaction between the United States and New Zealand, trade and everything else since the Second World War, has been attributed to Anzus.

And we have a relationship with the United States which is extraordinarily strong. It is unmolested by rancour. They have found it not a problem to send amateurs to be diplomats here in charge of posts - it has been an easy relationship ...

But there is a difference between our relationships with Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Helen Clark is not some kind of pilot fish bobbing along next to George Bush as John Howard is. It is just a different mindset. We have a different view of our relationships with big powers. The Australasian aspiration is to be - as Bob Hawke used to say - this great nation. And they have that mindset. They are happy to be described by George Bush as the sheriff of Asia whereas it would be a profound embarrassment to most sensible people in the immediate area.


Q: Perhaps changing peoples' attitudes to big powers defined your leadership?

I hope it is different and I hope it remains different. It is assisted. Britain has very carefully estranged itself from the prospect of leadership with any New Zealand interests. I always remember John Major coming to a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting here and he said 'let's be quite clear. If Britain has to choose between New Zealand and Europe, we will choose Europe.' Good on him. And he would. No doubt about that.

The other thing I like about the way I might be remembered is to change the orientation of New Zealanders towards their world, which arose largely from a personal predilection for India and as well as that, a great sense of its latent might really..


Q: What is your fascination with India?

I think it is always the starkness and the contrast when I first went there. I was staying at the Red Shield Shelter in Calcutta, 40 rupees a week when I was taken by some friends for dinner at Firpos restaurant. I remember my main course cost 125 rupees and I knew that my room attendant was being paid 30 rupees a month at the Red Shield Shelter. My main course was four months money in the hand to the attendant. I left the luxury of this night club and I walked out with friends down the stairs and went from the light to the dark and I fell over a body lying on the pavement. And I was revolted. I was a fat European and I groaned and my companion said: 'yes, it is terrible. They should not let them sleep there.' And it all came to me that there a huge cultural divide and that there was about it something awful and something exciting. That was 1967. I saw all sorts of things happen. A friend of mine, a Methodist minister's wife and three kids were killed in a riot the morning after they gave me supper, after church. That was just a very very huge growing up for me. And I left and went to England and it took me a while to get over it. But I've gone back and I have just been absorbed by the extraordinary drive to live that I saw in the hardest days of India.


Q: Have you still got a son there.

No he's with his Indian wife in Melbourne importing Hindi movies and making films from India, commercials ...

The Fourth Labour Government passed some very significant laws on the Treaty of Waitangi, allowing claims back to 1840 and putting references to 'treaty principles' in legislation. Did you realise how significant they were?

There were difficulties and they were not foreseen at the time. They rapidly did become foreseen. It was one of those wondering dawnings came across me quite some time ago. It was over the question of claims being made under it and the Court of Appeal started to become very very assertive and very very liberal and Mr Justice Cooke was becoming very concerned to see that there was a supremacy afforded the treaty, one stage went so far as to say they would not heed a statute if it conflicted with what the courts view of the treaty principles was ... I remember telling the cabinet once 'if don't keep the Privy Council, we're not going to keep the South Island because there was always a risk they would give th South Island away. It sounds ridiculous now but it really did seem as though things were getting a bit out of hand.


Q: What did you think of Lord Cooke's conclusion in the Lands case [Court of Appeal, 1989] that the treaty is a partnership?

Nonsense. There is a very strong argument for saying there is a partnership but the last person that should say it is the lawyer or a judge because it is not a legal partnership at all. That's the dilemma of talking about a partnership when it comes from the western courts because it certainly should be in the sense of being 'we're in it together' but the idea that it creates binding relationships so that you go down endless paths of balance ... is a very, very difficult way to run yourself ...


Q: The courts would argue that Parliament abrogated its responsibility to define principles of the treaty. It has only done what Parliament hasn't done.

Then they should say that and Parliament should have to be challenged to do it. I am absolutely against the idea that we have an unelected body of men and women who can coercively control our lives and change the nature of our relationships without reference to a process. That is what they do and it's wrong.


Q: Are you optimistic about the Supreme Court?

No, because it only makes them more up themselves.


Q: Did you have anything to do with stopping the attempting backroom coup against Helen Clark in May 1996 [Clark was tipped off to a deputation from Cullen, King, Goff, Wetere and Sutton asking her to step down and met them with her own reinforcements]

Yes I had a lot to do with it. I'm a good mate of Mike Moore's now so I can. Helen was at risk and she had certain senior Labour members working against her. The words 'plotting' are unfortunate because it would have been a plot when it started but they were certainly up front very rapidly. It wasn't something that festered on and on. She had gone through a bad patch. She had been a deputy leader since 1989 and she had seen Geoffrey and Michael off and then she had become the leader. She had a very, very difficult lieutenantship. When she became the leader, her life was full of difficulty about her style and her appearance and she went through the period of image-changing. There was a certain period where it seemed all uncertain. And they decided to take it out on the leader. I have never completely understood who they proposed to put in her place.


Q: Surely it had to be Cullen or Moore?

The answer to that was it had be one Michael. I might be wrong but I never saw any sign of Mike Moore charging madly around. When Mike Moore's on a roll, he's on a roll. And Michael Cullen never deluded himself he was a populist leader. He had admirable qualities. He was the minister that showed extraordinary principle during those dark days in cabinet and I have a great deal of affection for Michael Cullen and I'm now pleased with him because he's done some good things. But I could never work it out and it seemed to be completely odd, even now.


Q: So what did you do to stop it?

I went to Helen and I started talking around people and I said we've got to do something about it. They got alerted and that was it. They were in a sense party people. They were not trying to kill the party. They could have gone ahead with it and destroyed it. It was also one of the most interesting times because it taught me something about Helen, that I had a suspicion about before. But one of the great things about that coup attempt was that she then promoted Michael [Cullen]. I didn't know that and I came out of a select committee and a reporter came up to me and said Michael Cullen's just been made deputy and I said 'if that had been Jenny Shipley she would have kicked him in the crutch ... '


Q: Is this the sort of Labour Government you would have been proud to lead?

Oh I couldn't have led it. Let's be quite straight forward about it. I would enormously proud to lead it but I couldn't do it. You've got to come back to time, place and circumstance. I was in a format of politics that suited me down to a tee. It depended on us always having 50 plus one, and if you got 50 plus one, the license to do what you will with it without the risk of being usurped and ruined and without having to become alternately contrite or arrogant or dismissive and being, on one side very strongly opposed to the Greens one and then embracing their warmth the next. I couldn't clutch [United Future leader] Peter Dunne to my bosom one day and knife him in another. These are the sorts of problems you have under MMP. I just could not fit that environment.


Q: How do feel about the fact that your legal action against a media outlet [North and South] has liberalised the defamation laws for the media?

Liberalised is a rather broad interpretation. It is really quite an effective judgment and it does what it says you should do: you can be liberal as long as you are not irresponsible - that's all I ever asked for. Tipping took that view in New Zealand. The Privy Council upheld the Tipping view and then unfortunately sent it back to the Court of Appeal. Still I'm the only bloke who has made media law in two Supreme jurisdictions: the High Court of Australia and the Privy Council. Lange and the ABC. I won.


Q: Are you a better father the second time around?

The answer to that is quite simple: I am except it is just exasperating being so limited by my disability. It's lovely to have an eight-year-old who's cute and thoughtful, asks demanding questions. It's also hard. When I used to go to school to pick her up they'd say 'Edith! Edith! Your grandfather's here! You grandfather's here!


Q: Does your first family all get on well?

Oh yes. We get on well. Edith sends emails to Emily. Byron writes her letter and cards. One day Edith will be old enough to get on a plane to go to England and stay with them. I've got two kids in England. Emily is a guide at the science museum in Kensington . Byron is working in drug rehabilitation in Birmingham having worked for four years in the St Vincent de Paul Society in London.


Q: You've never been precious about talking about your kids, like some politicians keep them off-limits.

Some politicians kids are very, very sensibly off limits ...


Q: When your and Margaret Pope's relationship was made public, your former wife, Naomi, amid all the upset, told a newspaper that you and Margaret had a "meeting of the minds."

People don't realise quite how remarkable Naomi was and has been. She runs a women's refuge in Mangere quite anonymously and we have a lot to do with each other. In fact, Edith calls her Aunty Nay.


Q: You spent part of the last few years on tour with Gary McCormick as a paid entertainer. Why did you do that?

There are two aspects to Gary that you never see. Some do who read his poetry. There is the knock-about funny man and there is a very very serious analytical side to Gary. He is very thoughtful and he does things with some care. So I started out with him because I was at a loss and it was good fun.

I've seen the good side of New Zealand in small halls, in remote places, in farming communities and places that you drive past at 100 km/h and yet there is a lively hinterland community in these places and its great. We can get a couple of hundred craziest places, the back of Collingwood, down in Murchison. I've performed in the sheep yards of Waipukurau, all over the place, and he's so funny. He is actually genuinely extremely funny. I like him. One of the nice things about it is it takes me back to earlier years of my life. I used to be a talk-back show host under an assumed name 30-odd years ago. I was one of the first in Auckland at Radio 1ZB. I was David Read. Another guy used to alternate with me. He came out of the closet about 30 years later. He was Bruce Christopher on the radio. He turned out all right. He was Bruce Slane [former Privacy Commissioner].

It's like some sort of live talkback show, as well. It's not just speaking; it's interacting; it's never being scripted and you get what the community is talking about.


Q: May I ask what your prognosis is?

I'm a beneficiary of the extraordinary medical skills available in New Zealand, amazingly so. It's two years now since the diagnosis [amyloidosis, a rare plasma disorder] was made. Chemotherapy, which went on for seven or eight months, has been worth all the rigours of it. It's an incurable disease and you don't get remission but 'suppression' is the word that you use and there has been a very significant suppression of the adverse material. But there has been some collateral damage. There has been some kidney damage - quite considerable kidney damage - and the prognosis is that I could well go on to dialysis. And the heart? Well it's the same old heart that has been there since I was born and it has been operated on twice and it's got out of rhythm a couple of times lately and that's now under control. I'm not expecting too much immediate adversity there. But I've lived longer from this condition than anyone expected me to and certainly longer than the average. I've now gone 10 weeks without a blood transfusion. They are using the wonderful drug on me that used in the Tour de France - EPO - this hormone ... Endurance cyclists take it because high haemoglobin gives the capacity for oxygen too. It's banned. I'm allowed to take it. Before you came, Margaret gave me my injection.


Q: You are pilloried by the left for too much reform and pilloried by the right for not enough. Do you feel as though you have an undefined place in history or an uncomfortable place?

No. It's not an uncomfortable place. This is the difficulty about talking about it without sounding big-headed but you cannot speak of New Zealand now without my involvement in what it has become. My judgment of that is that it is a change for the better and my instinct tells me that if it hadn't been for our administration there would have been calamity after calamity.

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