Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


David Lange: An Assessment by a Colleague

15/08/2005

In 1998 a panel of historians and political scientists rated New Zealand's prime ministers for their effectiveness as leaders and managers. Coming in at 11th, David Lange was well down the list. Seddon, Fraser, Kirk. Holyoake and Muldoon were assessed as better leaders. A question mark will always linger over the enigmatic Lange. Gifted beyond the others in several respects, with a voice the equal of Seddon's and Kirk's, and as quick-witted as Fraser, he could never manage his party. He seemed less committed to politics than any of the others, and was easily distracted when full concentration was required.

Peter Fraser, our greatest Prime Minister, brought New Zealand through a world war. Lange's first term 1984-87 transformed a sclerotic economy which seemed to have been in terminal decline for a couple of decades. While the drive for those reforms came from Roger Douglas, Lange deserves huge credit for selling them. His amazing capacity for similes, metaphors, and irony made his oratory riveting. It especially captivated the Oxford Union and the anti-nuclear movement. His Monday press conferences were the best show in Wellington. Ministers confronted with economic disaster everywhere they turned, loved his infectious good humour at Cabinet. It kept spirits up as we penetrated the all-enveloping gloom caused by an underperforming, indebted economy with no spare money for our portfolios. At his best when he was outwitting journalists and jousting with adversaries, few could avert their gaze from our youngest and most engaging Prime Minister for many years.

Born to a multi-talented medical practitioner father and a well-meaning if unpredictable nurse, Lange grew up in comfort in a large house in working class Otahuhu. School contemporaries speak of a lazy streak coupled with a silver tongue that won him speaking prizes. His was a Labour family, but never deeply committed. Some friends and colleagues have complained over the years that he had little interest in policy, something he virtually concedes in My Life. Lange possessed only a hazy, well-meaning empathy with his fellow citizens. Where Savage, Fraser, Nash, Kirk and Clark slaved in their party's cause before entering Parliament, Lange's political apprenticeship was minimal. His booming oratory, compelling personality, reputation for pleas in mitigation on behalf of "hard cases", and a good measure of luck, propelled him into Parliament in March 1977 at a time when Labour's fortunes were rock bottom. He was the only star in a grey sky. Others had ideas aplenty and organizational experience: he possessed the quick wit that kept him (and them) in the public eye. It was never a question of if, but when he would lead once he became deputy in November 1979. Colleagues such as Mike Moore, Roger Douglas, Bill Jeffries, Richard Prebble and I worked to assure his ascendancy when Bill Rowling retired from the leadership in February 1983. From then on the top job always seemed within his grasp, although internal forces within the party's hierarchy kept fighting him, describing him as "a windbag", lacking ideological substance.

Robert Muldoon's last years in office were macabre. Lange's theatrical genius enabled him to best the old gladiator in the 1984 campaign, then negotiate the devaluation crisis and summit conference with consummate skill. His positive rating with voters by the end of 1984 was sky high. His staunch support for de-regulation, floating the dollar, banking reforms and an end to crippling subsidies so damaging to manufacturing and farming, will always guarantee him a place in history. Lange kept the ship afloat while Douglas's hand was on the tiller. Lange always said they were together on the deck, and it was impossible to put a cigarette paper between them.

Unknown to all but a handful, were factors that would ultimately destroy Lange and his government. A creature of instinct, he was a poor administrator. His office was usually chaotic, saved frequently by the loyal Geoffrey Palmer and several officials whose careful attention to detail saved Lange's bacon. He disliked confrontation and avoided the many challenges posed by an antagonistic party executive. More distracting, he was in love with his speechwriter who made it clear she was opposed to much government policy.

Such was the Lange Government's momentum that its mandate was renewed on 15 August 1987 despite an amateurish campaign run from Lange's office. Following victory, he completely restructured his cabinet, removing Douglas's two key financial lieutenants, Prebble and David Caygill. The PM himself took Education but was in no position to give it the attention it required. Douglas's efforts to get him to concentrate on the economy and further structural reforms after the stock market crash in October 1987 met with resistance. Cabinet eventually agreed on 17 December to a further series of reforms that Lange backed, then scuttled publicly without consulting cabinet. By early 1988 he was avoiding the chaos he'd created. Always a good driver, he took to motor racing. Once a virtual teetotaller, stories leaked out about heavy drinking. He nearly burnt his flat down when he fell asleep with food on the stove. His heart was no longer with reform. He was now desperately in love and physically ill. In late June 1988 he went to hospital with heart problems - a family tendency accentuated in his case by weight and his resumption of smoking.

Labour fell behind in the polls, and confidence in Lange slipped. No prime minister who falls out with his minister of finance or ignores his cabinet lasts long. By the end of 1988 internal squabbles, not policy initiatives, were front-page news. And yet his ministers had kept up their reforms. The SOEs were now functioning efficiently. The State Sector Act, the Reserve Bank Act and several early privatizations, revenue from which retired crippling government debt, all occurred in Lange's second term. But his heart was in none of it. He and his cabinet fell apart. He fired Prebble and Douglas at the end of 1988, and in June 1989 survived a caucus motion of no-confidence in him by a whisker. The meteor, however, fell to earth five weeks later. Aged 47, he suddenly resigned.

Had Lange stuck to what he did best - chairing the board, questioning, supporting and communicating the purposes of the reforms so desperately needed - he would be guaranteed a front-row seat in our political history. In the end, his flip-flops detracted from earlier triumphs, and during the rest of his life his explanations for his conduct invariably raised more questions than they answered. His autobiography's denunciation of everyone in sight does him little justice.

How did Lange manage to front so successfully a government he subsequently disowned? Why did he come to loathe his closest supporters? How did a virtual teetotaller end up in Alcoholics Anonymous? How did a staunch Methodist suddenly lose his faith? Greatness followed by personal collapse add a poignant quality to an otherwise fascinating career. It was unlike that of any other prime minister in our history.