David Lange

Labour prime minister of New Zealand with a pugnacious anti-nuclear policy

Friday 19 July 2013 21:34

David Lange's five years as Labour prime minister in the 1980s transformed a once timid and protectionist New Zealand with a raft of free- market reforms; and his pugnacious anti-nuclear policy strained relations with allies including the United States.

His turbulent, rollercoaster rule began in 1984 with plans to give the Pacific nation of four million a radical economic overhaul to make it competitive. His decision the following year to ban all nuclear-powered ships from New Zealand waters, which is still in place, saw him square up to the US President Ronald Reagan and threatened relations with Australia.

Lange grew up in Otahuhu, the son of a doctor, and graduated from Auckland University with a law degree in 1966. 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 harbour. The self-described "clapped-out two-guinea legal-aid lawyer" entered parliament in 1977 and five years later became Leader of the Opposition.

In 1984, he became at 41 New Zealand's youngest prime minister of the century. His government inherited a country in dire economic straits after the long, dull rule of the reactionary National Party leader Sir Robert Muldoon. Lange gave his finance minister Roger Douglas, the architect of "Rogernomics", a free hand to transform the moribund economy, by floating the NZ dollar, freeing controls on interest rates and turning government businesses into corporations.

But he leapt to the world's attention in 1985 when his government banned all nuclear- powered ships and those carrying nuclear weapons from New Zealand ports. The ban put Lange at odds with Reagan and his Secretary of State George Shultz. When Lange refused to back down, Shultz suspended New Zealand from the tri- nation ANZUS defence agreement that had linked Australia, New Zealand and the United States since the end of the Second World War.

Nor did Lange shy away from clashing with France after French agents bombed the Rainbow Warrior, flagship of the environmental group Greenpeace, in Auckland harbour in 1985. The vessel was about to sail to the French South Pacific nuclear testing area of Mururoa. One crew member was killed. Lange described the bombing as "a sordid act of state-backed terrorism" and later negotiated a settlement with France as compensation for the bombing. He also criticised France's nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific, saying that if they were so safe, France should "do them in Strasbourg".

Lange did not indulge in the high life, and spurned the official PM's residence in favour of a small rented flat in the capital, Wellington, while his family stayed in Auckland. Known and loved for his Kiwi wit, in 1986 Lange said to the retiring US Ambassador H. Monroe Browne, who owned a racehorse called Lacka Reason, "You are the only ambassador in the world to race a horse named after your country's foreign policy." In a fiery debate with nuclear weapons supporters at Oxford University, Lange's quips to interjectors included: "Lean forward, I can smell the uranium on your breath."

But the colourful Lange left a mixed legacy. His mercurial leadership left his party in disarray. It took nine years for Labour to regain power after its defeat in 1990, a year after Lange resigned as prime minister, citing ill health. Years later he described his feelings at this period, "I sat there crying, just got to the point of sheer frustration, in tears of my own." He had fallen out with a powerful group of ministers when he called for a pause, in his words for a "cuppa", in the rapid rate of economic reform which had seen the abolition of farm and export subsidies and the loss of thousands of jobs.

His affair with the speechwriter Margaret Pope (whom he later married) caused the end of his first marriage. And after his wife Naomi tearfully told all to the newspapers, his reputation was damaged among many voters. Lange remained on parliament's back benches in opposition, however, until 1996.

He suffered ill health through much of his adult life. In 1983 he had a stomach-stapling operation in an effort to lose weight and was later treated for coronary heart disease with multiple bypass surgery. He admitted to alcoholism in 1999, joining Alcoholics Anonymous, and in 2002 underwent chemotherapy for a rare plasma disorder. Earlier this year, surgeons amputated his right leg below the knee after a complication of diabetes.

Lange 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 relaxed by driving in motor races, reading and doing crossword puzzles.

On receiving in 2003 his country's highest honour, membership of the Order of New Zealand, which is limited to 20 living people, the once- bombastic Lange said people would come to regard his term as "fleeting, transient . . . On the wallpaper of history, I'm a flyspeck."

Christopher Zinn

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