The leader who took on the US

Former New Zealand prime minister David Lange, who died on Saturday aged 63, oversaw a tumultuous time in the country’s history when it split with the United States over nuclear weapons and battled France over the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior.

The former lawyer, a colossus of New Zealand politics with a brilliant wit and sharp intellect, as well as a heavy frame and booming voice, used all his oratory skills to lash the Americans and the French, capturing world headlines in the years after winning office in 1984.

For New Zealanders, his five years in office are remembered even more for the economic transformation from a heavily regulated economy, which had been run in Lange’s memorable phrase “like a Polish shipyard”.

For many supporters of the centre-left Labour Party they were bitter years. Under Lange’s finance minister Roger Douglas, a wave of privatisations and deregulation—similar to those carried out in Britain under Margaret Thatcher—swept away the old order.

The changes also swept away thousands of jobs in the public sector, pushed many farmers to the brink of bankruptcy and heralded a new breed of brash entrepreneurs, many of whom disappeared just as quickly in the sharemarket crash of 1987.

Few opponents of the reforms laid much of the blame on Lange, who split with Douglas and his blitzkrieg tactics in the government’s second term and called for a pause for “a cup of tea”. The government imploded and in August 1989 Lange resigned as prime minister, although he stayed in Parliament for another seven years.

In his autobiography, Lange wrote of his Cabinet: “Dear God! What a terrible lot of people they were! It is hard to believe I used to think so much of them.”

Lange was renowned for his warmth, concern for the less fortunate and witty barbs.
He once likened meeting Thatcher to being addressed at a Nuremberg rally and accused then New Zealand opposition leader Jim Bolger of “going around the country stirring up apathy”.

He was brought up in a working-class Auckland suburb and worked as a lawyer until entering Parliament in 1977, quickly making an impact and becoming deputy leader two years later.

By 1983, he was opposition leader and swept into power the following year.

The day after the election and amid a foreign exchange crisis, US Secretary of State Goege Shultz came to Wellington, reminding the avowedly anti-nuclear incoming government of its obligations to admit nuclear-powered and armed naval ships under Anzus, a tripartite defence treaty linking the US, New Zealand and Australia.

In early 1985, the nuclear issue came to a head when New Zealand refused permission for a US naval ship visit because it was not sure if it had nuclear armaments. The US, in line with its neither-confirm-nor-deny policy, refused to say whether such arms were aboard the USS Buchanan.

Washington announced military cooperation would end between the two countries, intelligence would not be shared and diplomatic links would be downgraded.

The Cold War nuclear arms race had more consequences for New Zealand later in 1985 when Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior, on its way to protest against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, was sunk by two bombs in Auckland harbour, killing a crew member.

Two French agents were caught and it quickly became clear France had carried out what Lange described as a “sordid act of state-sponsored terrorism”.

French trade pressure ensured the two agents—another 11 left New Zealand without being caught—never served their 10-year sentences for manslaughter.

Lange was a strong believer that the state had to help the worst off and that society should offer equal opportunities. After the government was re-elected in 1987, he started to realise that Douglas’s economic prescriptions were widening the gaps between the haves and have-nots.

Open warfare broke out between the Lange and Douglas offices in 1988. Douglas resigned but a year later was voted back into the Cabinet by his colleagues in a move that was the last straw for Lange.

His response was to announce dramatically he was standing down as party leader and as prime minister.

Lange gradually disappeared from public life in retirement. He had long suffered health problems and in 1995 underwent a quadruple heart bypass operation.

In 2002, he was diagnosed with the incurable plasma disorder amyloidosis and told he had only four months to live, a prognosis that proved too pessimistic.

In an Australian television interview last year, he said knowing his time was limited had changed his outlook.

“It’s a funny thing when you think you’re dead. You’re not terrified of it any more. There’s a sort of an epiphany to religious things, it’s not sort of church based but you end up with a serenity which you didn’t have before and I just simply enjoy it.

“It really does sound stupid, but I’ve got to tell you it’s made my life.”

In a brief statement early on Sunday, Lange’s family said he died late on Saturday night from complications of renal failure.—AFP

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