Obituary: Henry Lang

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The Independent Online
When Henry Lang was appointed Secretary to the New Zealand Treasury in 1968 he became the youngest ever head of its civil service. He was part of that remarkable Viennese diaspora that was to contribute so much to the countries in which they settled.

Lang was born in Vienna in 1919, just five months after the end of the First World War. Life was comfortable as his father Robert was a prosperous manufacturer living in the affluent, wine-growing suburb of Grinzing. The marriage later broke up and his mother married the architect Ernst Plishke.

Lang was educated at a Real Gymnasium which emphasised studies in the humanities and engineering. By the end of the Thirties, he had matriculated and had served a year in the army when Hitler invaded Austria. Escape was difficult after the Anschluss but Plishke used personal influence in Berlin to get the family out in 1938. Lang, his mother Anna and his stepfather escaped to New Zealand, arriving in 1939. Plishke also ensured that Lang's father was able to leave.

The New Zealand way of life must have seemed strange after the formality of Vienna. Lang told the New Zealand author Ann Beaglehole, in her fascinating study of refugees A Small Price To Pay (1988), that he was accustomed to a degree of formality and rigid class distinctions. He was surprised by guests who called in wearing their gardening clothes. "In Europe one had a gardener to do the gardening and one didn't go visiting without a tie."

Despite not speaking much English, he quickly adjusted to the country and worked to pay for his university studies. Within three years of arriving he married Octavia Turton and two years later, in 1944, he graduated from Victoria University, Wellington with Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Commerce degrees. He planned various enterprises including a sauerkraut business which ended up with the barrel the sauerkraut was soaked in rotting in the shed.

Lang continued military service and served two years in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Demobbed in 1946, he joined the New Zealand government and held various economic appointments before going to the Treasury in 1952. His rise there was rapid and three years later he was appointed Economic Adviser to the New Zealand High Commissioner in London. It was then the key diplomatic post as the majority of New Zealand's trade was still with Britain. Now with a young family, he enjoyed life for three years in Dulwich, south London.

In 1968 he became Secretary to the Treasury and head of the New Zealand civil service. It was akin to being both a Permanent and Cabinet Secretary.

Lang presided over economic matters at a turbulent time for New Zealand. The economy suffered two severe blows. Britain joined the EEC and New Zealand had to search out new markets for its dairy products and meat. Secondly, the oil crisis hit a country with, at that time, no indigenous gas or oil production.

The Labour Finance Minister and then Prime Minister Bill Rowling and Lang worked well together and they became lifelong friends. But then Robert Muldoon swept back to power in 1975. The relationship between Muldoon and Lang was stormy, and Lang stunned the country by taking early retirement in 1977. Always the loyal civil servant, he refused to say publicly why he had retired. Muldoon paid him generous tribute stating that he was the best Secretary to the Treasury he had ever known.

Lang started a new career with relish. He spent five years as Visiting Professor of Economics at Victoria University. He enjoyed teaching students because he genuinely liked young people and related to them in a quite remarkable way. He took up directorships including two of the country's largest companies, New Zealand Forest Products and Challenge Corporation.

Lang saw the futility of the protectionist policies pursued by the Muldoon government of 1975-84. He acted as an adviser to the Labour government, under David Lange, which threw open the New Zealand economy. However, he did not like "Rogernomics" - the country's extreme monetarism - because it lacked humanity.

He played an active part in the development of the arts in New Zealand. This was crowned by joining the board, chaired by Bill Rowling, of the ambitious, new national museum under construction in Wellington.

Lang's stepfather Plishke was a renowned architect, influenced by the Bauhaus style. He was the potter Lucie Rie's mentor, had designed her Viennese home and the Lang family were her close friends. Henry Lang always visited her on his frequent trips to London.

He was last in London in September for the wedding of his photographer daughter Frances, a contributor to the Independent on Sunday. Frances married Mark Brand in Westminster Abbey only to perish in the Peru air crash on their honeymoon.

Henry Lang epitomised the spirit of a country built by immigration. He went from refugee to head of the civil service and contributed to the country's development not only in economics but also in nurturing the arts.

Lindsay Offer

Henry George Lang, economist, civil servant and businessman: born Vienna 3 March 1919; Economic Adviser to New Zealand High Commissioner, London 1955-58; Secretary of Treasury and Head of NZ Civil Service 1968-77; CB 1977; Visiting Professor of Economics, Victoria University of Wellington 1977-82; ONZ 1989; married 1942 Olivia Turton (one son, three daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Wellington, New Zealand 16 April 1997.

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