As the curtain closes on the strange and wonderful life of David Lange, opinion writers are beginning to eulogise him in the popular press. The obituaries will flow when he finally shuffles off his mortal coil—as one of the most extraordinary characters of post World War II public life in New Zealand. Inevitably, many commentators will lionize him. Unlike Muldoon—who didn’t seem to mind making unkind comments about the recently departed—Lange has done his homework. Lange may not have mended all the broken fences that invariably occur in a political lifetime, but he has at least met with all his former adversaries, and given them pause for thought about the inimitable impression he made on New Zealand culture and society.
It is the nature of politics that all Prime Ministers are most powerful in their first term of office: Michael Joseph Savage held his place on the mantelpieces of blue-collar New Zealand, despite serving just five years as PM, while his much more effective and productive successor, Peter Fraser, toiled away for nine years, and is greatly forgotten as the true architect of the welfare state. The premiers with the most longevity spent their first terms reforming, and their future terms consolidating. And in this respect, Lange was no different.
David Lange swept to power in a generational seachange in 1984. Bringing with him such relatively bright-eyed, youthful ministers as Geoff Palmer, Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Mike Moore, and David Caygill, his first cabinet was some fifteen years younger, on average, than Muldoon’s last. Fresh ideas brought fresh thinking to the great issues of state. In his first term as Prime Minister, Lange led the construction of some genuinely ground-breaking pieces of legislation. In 1984, New Zealand was out of pace with the Western world. Bob Hawke in Australia, Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and Ronald Reagan in the United States had already set their shoulders to the restructure of the modern state. Under Muldoon, New Zealand may not have gone backwards in absolute terms, but equally, had never started moving forwards.
And then along came Lange. Lange was a quintessential performer. As a criminal barrister, he relished jury trials in South Auckland. He had the intellectual authority to speak to a brief, and the personal charisma to sway the hearts of his audience. But Lange was also a pragmatist of the highest order. And he brought all of these features to his parliamentary career.
Despite his theatrical mould, like Muldoon, he was exceptionally uncomfortable in a confrontational environment. Muldoon held the bully tag, particularly at the end, yet colleagues will state that despite never hiding his prejudices, in a one-on-one situation, Muldoon could not manage personal acrimony. Lange also avoided conflict, except where it was public and entertaining.
By 1984, the need for change was so fundamental, this great avoider of conflict could distract the left wing of his party with foreign policy while the right redrew the macroeconomic map. And the speed of economic reform was such that the Party’s left was constantly trying to play catch-up: before they had even understood the consequence of economic reform, it had already taken place.
Hence such reforms as the Reserve Bank Act, the State Sector Act, the Public Finance Act, and the State Owned Enterprises Act. Respectively, the legislation changed the way monetary policy is governed, the role of the Public Service, the funding of the Public Service, and the commercialization of key parts of the Public Service. They were essential reforms that constituted the bulk of what the Fourth Labour Government did for New Zealand, and have remained intact, largely in their original form, ever since.
The reform agenda, of course, didn’t go far enough. The two natural consequences of the core state reforms were flattening of the tax system on the one hand, and liberalization of the labour market on the other. Neither activities were going to ever occur under a Labour Government: Lange recognized this too late. His eventual “cup of tea”, which thwarted his chance of becoming a great Prime Minister, had disastrous effects on the New Zealand economy. What Lange misunderstood then was that once you start the ball rolling, it takes enormous efforts to stop it again.
Yet despite Lange’s alienation of both sides of the argument—on the one hand for not stopping the juggernaut, and on the other for not allowing it to run its full and natural course—there is still enormous affection for the man. Compare Lange’s memory with Muldoon’s, and the public sentiment is very different: Lange departed willingly, and confessed he had made a mistake (albeit, admitting to the wrong mistake). Muldoon had to be literally declasped from power under the threat of political and bureaucratic coup, and spent another eight years in Parliament telling everybody that they were wrong to ever remove him. And in later years, Lange has admitted all of his human frailties. We forgive him his humility.
Lange shared much more of himself to the public than he needed to regain public affection. His battles with depression, alcoholism, and ill-health were all laid bare. He redeemed himself with the Left after hammering his own record as Prime Minister. In doing so, he was both truthful to himself, and finally found the one place on the political spectrum that had eluded him while in power.
More than anything, the sense one has of David Lange is a man who needed to be loved. A man who was more persuaded by the power of argument than he was with the logic of that argument. Until 1984, Lange was opposed to following the Left’s demand for a nuclear free New Zealand. To suggest that he cottoned onto the nuclear in order to distract the Left from Roger Douglas’ economic agenda is to misread Lange: Lange did not have that capacity for cunning. It had much more to do with Lange’s passion and excitement with the theatre of debate.
Hence the Oxford Union forum in 1985, in which Lange, at the very climax of his domestic and international popularity, enthralled both the student union, and Jerry Falwell, with the overwhelming power of his rhetoric. The question, the moral defensibility of nuclear weapons, was suitable as an academic debate. It was appropriate at that great zenith of oratory, at the Oxford Union. During his speech, Lange thundered:
“We in New Zealand, you know, used to be able to relax a bit, to be able to think that we would sit comfortably while the rest of the world seared, singed, withered. We were enraptured! And the fact is that we used to have the reputation of being some kind of an antipodean Noah's Ark, which would from within its quite isolated, preserve, spawn a whole new world of realistic human kind. Now, the fact is that we know that that is not achievable. We know that if the nuclear winter comes, we freeze, we join the rest of you. And that means that there is now a total denouement as far as any argument in favour of moral purpose goes. It is a strange, dubious and totally unaccepted moral purpose which holds the whole of the world to ransom.”
The elegance and strength of Lange’s words would have left Churchill himself speechless. He typified all that is great about true oratory: he spoke with a fire and ferocity, and entertained, and moved. Figure this:
“And one of the immoralities of nuclear weaponry, surely, is that it creates such a level of depersonalisation that the infinite capacity of destruction is unleashed by a few. Much more is there a moral posture in the conventional event where the humanity of a situation has to be constantly assessed, and where there is always a possibility of restraint, because individual people say, dammit, I'm not going to go ahead and do that, because it is absolutely immoral, contrary to the whole ethos of humankind, to do that. You don't get the checks and balances along the nuclear trail.”
Again, who other than W.S. could have carried that off?
David Lange did exactly that. And he did so as only a recent convert to the anti-nuclear debate. He rose to the occasion not because he vainly wanted to hold the world lantern for the deliberations, but because he had the loudest and most eloquent voice. In reality, he was probably as astonished as the rest of us that the leader of little old New Zealand was leading the charge from the front.
As much pride as we felt in David Lange, the debate itself was a non-issue. The enormous cut-back in nuclear weaponry occurred not because New Zealand had a loud moral voice, but because one of the runners in the race dropped dead. Lange resigned in August, 1989, some three months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Lange was an accidental hero of almost-history. His great asset—his need to explore and vocalise life’s absurdities—made him New Zealand’s saviour as he tore apart the most preposterous aspects of Muldoonism. It was exactly that trait that Richard Prebble suggested made him such an outstanding Cabinet chairman: whenever issues got heated, he would defuse the situation by interjecting with a ridiculous story. As a consequence, Prebble attests, cabinet issues were resolved freely when Lange was in charge. Lange was the darling of the media, with most of the Press Gallery claiming that his weekly press conferences were the “best show in town”. No matter what had been on the Cabinet agenda, Lange would regale them with one-liners and stories. That was Lange’s element.
But it was also Lange’s downfall. Australia’s Bob Hawke—who served twice as long as his New Zealand counterpart—was infuriated by Lange’s need to veer off serious issues. Hawke found him frivolous. At the height of the ANZUS conflict, Lange was taking the piss at US Ambassador H. Monroe Browne’s penchant for racehorses. An apposite target for a social cartoonist, but not exactly the stuff of international diplomacy if a Prime Minister wants to be taken seriously. Great comedy, poor politics.
How does Lange feel about the contribution he made to New Zealand life? Time will tell, and his memoirs, to be published in the next fortnight, may reveal all. Hopefully, it will paint the true Lange: the both frivolous and extremely talented man, with probably the most eloquent ability to express himself in both oratory, and the written form, ever seen in New Zealand. And his compassion: he had within him the power to forgive even those who continued to loathe him.
Lange let bygones be bygones. After experiencing the rough ride of premiership, he forgave Muldoon his madness. Lange, after all, went on his own terms. And he did so because of his inordinate love of people: he thrived on human interaction, and had perhaps the most remarkable memory for other people, and fascination for them, of any person I’ve ever met.
I sat next to Lange several years ago, at a government inquiry at which he was a witness. Next to him was an official, and Lange asked him about a minor piece of gossip. The official feigned ignorance, and I piped up the answer. Lange turned to me and made some minor gag about the general worthiness of my profession, and then preceded to hold up the entire proceedings for ten minutes as he related how he had recently been swimming in the pool at the New Zealand High Commissioner’s residence in Fiji, and only after he had been paddling three or four laps did he realize that he was not alone in the pool.
Returning to the edge of the pool, he fumbled for his glasses, and discovered a bevy of young women in the swimming pool with him. He started talking. It turned out they were nuns, from a nearby convent, who often used the HC’s swimming pool for recreation. Lange retorted that only a former New Zealand Prime Minister would get caught in the swimming pool with a convent of not-particularly-modest nuns.
In that respect, Lange was quite wrong. Only David Lange would have been caught like that; and only David Lange would have recounted the absurdity of the story in front of an official government enquiry. By the time the serious business began, he had distracted, amused, and delighted his audience.
And that spark that he brought to us far beats any discontent that any of us had for any of the mistakes he made as Prime Minister.