Page 1: Biography
Lange, David Russell
Lawyer, politician, prime minister
This biography, written by Barry Gustafson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
Early life and education
David Lange was born in Ōtāhuhu, Auckland, on 4 August 1942. A fourth-generation New Zealander, he was the son of Eric Roy Lange, a medical practitioner, and his wife, Phoebe Fysh Reid. The family lived in Ōtāhuhu. David’s father was of German descent and the family name was pronounced with two syllables, in an approximation of the original German (‘Long-ee’). David was to have great respect and affection for his father but an ambivalent relationship with his mother.
David was the oldest of four children. He was educated at Fairburn Road Primary School, Ōtara Intermediate School and Ōtāhuhu College. His parents were active Methodists and David regularly attended church services, Sunday school and Bible class. He also sang in the Friendly Road radio programme’s ‘Merrymakers’ choir on Friday nights and belonged to the Boys’ Brigade. As a schoolboy, Lange ‘found that verbal assurance was compensation for physical incompetence’1. He believed the survival skills he learned at secondary school lasted him all of his life.
After leaving Ōtāhuhu College, Lange enrolled at the University of Auckland and worked several vacations at the Westfield meat-freezing works. After a year as a full-time student, he went part-time and became a law clerk, first at the State Advances Corporation and then for the law firm Haigh, Charters and Carthy. He graduated LLB in 1965 and was admitted to the bar the following year.
From June 1967, David Lange travelled overseas for two years. He visited Australia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand and India before he arrived in England. In London he worked as an accounts clerk and attended Kingsway Methodist Hall. There he met Naomi Joy Crampton, who worked in the West London mission. They married on 3 August 1968 at Barnaby Gate Methodist Church in Newark, Nottinghamshire, and returned to New Zealand via Munich, Innsbruck, Rome, Delhi and Singapore shortly afterwards. After a stillborn baby in 1969, David and Naomi had three more children.
Lange took over a law practice at Kaikohe for a short time but moved back to Auckland at the end of 1969. He enrolled again at the University of Auckland where he was also employed for a year as a tutor. In 1970 he gained an LLM with first-class honours specialising in criminal law and medico-legal issues. His interest in the latter grew at least partly out of the trauma he experienced as a young boy when his father defended himself successfully in court against charges of indecent assault brought by a female patient.
In 1971 Lange took over Allan Nixon’s law practice in Victoria Street East, central Auckland, later moving to Kitchener Street nearer the Auckland Magistrate’s Court. He became a criminal defence counsel at that court, well-known for his very effective pleas in mitigation. A contemporary noted that Lange and Nixon had in common ‘outsized consciences and intellects, a devotion to seeking a just and good society, the inability to take themselves over seriously, and an intense concern with their clients, and very little idea of how to make money out of them.’2
Although Lange’s mother was conservative, his father supported the Labour Party and from childhood David shared his preference. He joined the party in 1963 but was not particularly active until 1974 when, at the invitation of his cousin Michael Bassett, he became a Labour candidate for the Auckland City Council. The following year he stood, again unsuccessfully, for Parliament as Labour candidate in the National Party stronghold of Hobson.
Entry into Parliament
In 1977, there was a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Māngere. This followed the resignation of its MP, Colin Moyle, after an adverse judicial report on statements he had made to Parliament. Moyle wanted to vindicate himself by seeking re-election but Lange insisted on contesting the selection and Moyle withdrew. Others, including two Labour MPs defeated in 1975, then sought the nomination. Lange’s speech at the selection meeting was, he believed in retrospect, ‘the best speech of my political career’.3 It evoked nostalgia for the values and community of a bygone era, promised a future built on social justice, and inspired listeners to band together in a righteous crusade. There was no surprise when he got the nomination. He subsequently won the by-election and held the seat with substantial majorities until his retirement in 1996.
Labour’s caucus was divided between supporters and critics of its then leader, Wallace (Bill) Rowling. From the first, Lange was a critic of Rowling and came ‘to resent the bloody-mindedness with which he clung to the leadership’4. With his off-the-cuff debating skill and superb wit, Lange was soon recognised as more than a match for the tiring prime minister, Robert Muldoon. He was also seen as a potential successor to Rowling after the latter lost his second election in 1978. In 1979 Lange replaced Bob Tizard as deputy leader of the opposition.
Lange was supported by other MPs who saw Rowling as an impediment to their ambitions and to the more innovative economic policies towards which some of them, notably Roger Douglas, were working. Michael Bassett, Richard Prebble and Mike Moore were other leading figures in the group that became known as ‘the fish and chips brigade’ when they were photographed sharing takeaways after their first attempt to overthrow Rowling in 1980 failed by a caucus vote of 19–18.
In 1982, Lange, who then weighed close to 178 kilograms, had surgery to staple his stomach and his weight subsequently dropped to about 127 kilograms. He further dramatically changed his appearance, with new glasses and hairstyle, and smart suits.
On 3 February 1983 Lange replaced Rowling as Labour’s leader, easily defeating Russell Marshall, the only other nominee for the position.
In June 1984, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon called a snap election. National’s vote was seriously split by the New Zealand Party, recently created and led by Bob Jones. Lange fought an excellent campaign and Labour won a landslide victory, securing a 17-seat majority in the 95-member House of Representatives. At 41 years of age he became New Zealand’s youngest prime minister of the 20th century.
The incoming government was faced with a serious balance-of-payments crisis. This was caused partly by Muldoon’s refusal to devalue prior to the election and partly by the certainty in the business sector that the incoming Labour government, especially with Roger Douglas as minister of finance, would do so. In the days after the election the New Zealand currency was devalued by 20% on the instruction of the incoming government. This was accompanied by a continuation of the Muldoon wage and price freeze.
In 1985 Labour embarked on a programme of economic reform and in March the currency was floated. Subsequently there was a partial shift from direct to indirect tax with the introduction of a goods and services tax (GST). Overseas investment in New Zealand was encouraged. State assets were turned over to newly created state-owned enterprises (SOEs) with independent boards and managers operating on market principles. Some of these were later privatised, many ending up owned overseas. Import and currency controls were discarded and New Zealand was locked into the global economy.
Subsidies to farmers, protection for manufacturers, and tax incentives to both were removed. The public service and local government were totally restructured. Many of the changes were made difficult to reverse, not only by the selling of state assets but also eventually by legislation. These policies resembled those associated with the governments of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. They could not have been introduced and implemented in New Zealand without Lange’s support.
At first, and until after the 1987 election, Lange appeared to be an enthusiastic, uncritical and very effective public salesman for what became commonly known as ‘Rogernomics’. The term denoted the economic policies followed by Minister of Finance Roger Douglas. The prime minister did believe that New Zealand’s sick economy needed to be radically reformed but was prepared to leave the details to his parliamentary colleagues. Lange later claimed that he had not realised exactly what Douglas intended to do or the adverse social consequences of his policies.
Lange became increasingly concerned that he was presiding over a government whose policies and actions, necessary though they might have been, were destroying many people’s security. He realised that many older people hated him as the symbol of an administration that had shattered their expectations. He also disliked the influence that some members of the Business Roundtable had on his minister of finance.
Lange was also criticised by some left-wing commentators. The columnist Bruce Jesson argued in 1986 that Roger Douglas would be remembered as the man of substance in the Labour cabinet. Lange would be seen as an initially ‘jovial and compassionate man’, who was ‘perfectly suited to the superficial politics of the television age’5 but was swept along by events beyond his control in the opposite direction to his intentions when he entered politics.
David Lange was minister of foreign affairs as well as prime minister from 1984 to 1987. During that time he came to personify New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy, although he was not one of its major initiators.
By 1984, there was considerable opposition to nuclear-armed or nuclear-propelled United States navy ships visiting New Zealand. Lange accepted that ships possibly carrying nuclear weapons should be banned but at first was less certain about nuclear-powered ships. He also wanted to find a way to exclude nuclear ships without irreparably damaging the ANZUS treaty with the United States and Australia. Others in his party, however, opposed nuclear-powered as well as possibly nuclear-armed vessels and were not at all worried if ANZUS ceased to exist.
When, in January 1985, the Americans refused to confirm or deny whether an old, conventionally propelled destroyer, USS Buchanan, was carrying nuclear weapons, the Labour government refused to let it enter New Zealand. The Americans regarded this as a breach of the ANZUS alliance, and some senior US officials, such as Secretary of State George Shultz, believed that Lange had misled them. The US suspended military ties with New Zealand, although, to Lange’s and New Zealand’s relief, trade was not affected.
US displeasure was exacerbated later that year when Lange defended New Zealand’s non-nuclear position in a widely publicised debate at the Oxford Union in England, speaking in support of the proposition ‘That nuclear weapons are morally indefensible’.
In 1987, the Labour government passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone Disarmament and Arms Control Act. By 1990 even the National Party had accepted the irreversibility of New Zealand’s nuclear-free position.
Another nation annoyed by New Zealand’s stance on nuclear weapons was France, which had been testing them at Moruroa (Mururoa) atoll in the South Pacific since 1963. New Zealand had resolutely opposed this for over 20 years.
On 10 July 1985 the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior arrived in Auckland before sailing to Moruroa to continue the protests. Frogmen from the French secret service mined the ship and sank it at its berth, causing the death of a crew member. Two of the French agents, Major Alain Mafart and Captain Dominique Prieur, were apprehended, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Unlike the Americans, the French government had no qualms about threatening to apply pressure against New Zealand exports. In June 1986 Lange was reluctantly forced to allow the transfer of Mafart and Prieur to the French island of Hao. By May 1988 they had been freed and returned to France. France belatedly apologised and paid a token compensation but there was little support for New Zealand from Britain or the United States, both still annoyed over the nuclear ships issue.
Labour's second term
In the August 1987 election Lange and Labour obtained an increased majority. Although majorities fell drastically in Labour strongholds, National majorities were slashed in their safest urban seats as many traditional National voters showed their approval of either Roger Douglas’s free-market economic policies or Labour’s anti-nuclear actions.
Following the election, Lange gave Russell Marshall, his former minister of education, the foreign affairs portfolio and took education for himself. He hoped to reform the sector, emphasising efficiency, excellence and equity, from pre-school to tertiary education. Three reports laid out the government’s plans: Before five (1988), Tomorrow’s schools (1988) and Learning for life (1989).
Tomorrow’s schools was based on a report from a committee chaired by businessman Brian Picot, who described the centralised, cumbersome and expensive education bureaucracy as ‘good people, bad system’. Lange agreed with him. The Picot report proposed school managerial control and greater parental input. There was widespread public consultation but the teacher unions were not enthusiastic. Lange was unable to get bulk funding of schools included in the proposed reforms, but some 3,000 boards of trustees were elected in 1989.
Shortly after the 1987 election, the world-wide stock-market crash of 19 October severely damaged the New Zealand economy. Douglas wanted to continue with his reform programme. In December he recommended further asset sales, the liberalisation of the labour market, further remodelling of the public sector, further reduction of tariffs, the introduction of a Guaranteed Minimum Family Income (GMFI), and radical tax reforms involving a flat income tax rate of 23% and an increase in the goods and services tax (GST) to 12.5%. Cabinet approved a package of the tax reforms and the GMFI. Lange, Douglas and other senior ministers then announced the package at a press conference on 17 December. However, Lange, after reflecting over Christmas and the New Year, announced in January 1988 that there would be no flat tax. Thereafter, there was virtually a civil war in cabinet between Lange and Douglas and their supporters.
The split worsened and, although Lange usually disliked and avoided confrontation, he announced a review of the asset sales process and dismissed the responsible minister, Richard Prebble, in November 1988. Prebble responded that the prime minister was dictatorial and irrational.
Douglas also departed from the cabinet at the end of 1988 after a row with Lange but continued to challenge his leader from the back benches.
Lange narrowly won a vote of confidence in caucus in June 1989 but in August caucus re-elected Douglas to cabinet. Lange, tired and isolated, found this intolerable and resigned as leader on 8 August.
After his resignation as party leader, Lange gave up the education portfolio and instead became attorney general (outside cabinet) in the new ministry of his former deputy and successor, Geoffrey Palmer. He held that position until the defeat of the Labour government the following year.
Lange did not enjoy his last six years in Parliament on the opposition back benches. Disillusioned, he retired from Parliament at the 1996 general election and chose not to renew his Labour Party membership thereafter.
In 1989 Lange announced his separation from Naomi after 21 years of marriage. He had been having an affair for some years with his speechwriter, Margaret Forsyth Pope. After his divorce, they married in a civil ceremony in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1992. They were to have one daughter.
Lange lived the last years of his life in Māngere Bridge, in his former electorate. After 1996, he had a parliamentary pension. He supplemented this by writing newspaper articles, making speeches in New Zealand and overseas, and performing shows with the comic speaker Gary McCormick around New Zealand.
Lange engaged in a lengthy, costly and eventually (in 2000) unsuccessful defamation case against a university lecturer who had suggested in a magazine column that Lange had been a lazy prime minister. He settled favourably a 1997 defamation action against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which had broadcast a programme suggesting that Lange had a corrupt involvement in the sale of public assets.
Lange declined an invitation to become ambassador to India after a new Labour government took office in 1999 but accepted appointment to the boards of Housing New Zealand and the Land Transport Authority. After rejecting the offer of a knighthood, Lange was made a Companion of Honour in 1990 and a member of the Order of New Zealand in 2003.
Lange suffered all his life from obesity, smoked until the early 1980s and was later in life to have an alcohol problem which he confronted by joining Alcoholics Anonymous in 2002. He experienced health problems such as diabetes (diagnosed as early as 1981). After having angioplasty in 1988, he had heart bypass operations in 1995 and again in 2001. In 2002 he was diagnosed with a rare and incurable blood plasma disorder, amyloidosis, and was told he had about four months to live. Seven months of chemotherapy prolonged that period.
Lange had home dialysis treatment for kidney failure. In mid-July 2005 he entered Middlemore Hospital, where on 2 August his lower right leg was amputated as a result of complications of diabetes. The immediate cause of his death on 13 August at the age of 63 was heart failure, the end stage of 20 years of heart disease. He was cremated at Purewa Crematorium in Auckland.
David Lange's achievement
David Lange wrote two memoirs: Nuclear free: the New Zealand way (1990) and My life (2005). Both are somewhat tendentious but the first is the best-written and most entertaining memoir by any New Zealand politician. The second, dictated during the last months of his life, when he was seriously ill, is more sober though still showing flashes of his keen intelligence and unique wit.
Lange’s greatest leadership skill, although he lacked many others, was his superb rhetoric. Throughout his life, Lange was very good at quick, wickedly witty one-line comments, often at the expense of an opponent. His language was colourful and his humour almost invariably infectious. As a speaker, Lange is perhaps best remembered for telling a young American student antagonist in the Oxford Union debate that he could smell the uranium on his breath. When the diminutive Robert Muldoon was knighted in 1984, Lange quipped that ‘After a long year we’ve got a very short knight’;6 National Party leader Jim Bolger, Lange said, had ‘gone around the country stirring up apathy’.7
The government Lange led from 1984 to 1989 transformed the New Zealand that had been largely created by the first Labour government led by Michael Joseph Savage some 50 years before. Considerable reform was undoubtedly necessary, although critics said it went too far and Roger Douglas believed it had not gone far enough. Like Savage, whom the public loved more than his lieutenants, Lange, largely because of his oratorical skills and humour, is remembered with greater affection than his colleagues who devised and implemented the significant but controversial policies.
Lange was the great salesman, using witty and telling one-liners, nostalgia, and inspirational and aspirational rhetoric. He sold the party's radical economic reforms, at least until he belatedly came to question their social effects, and he came to personify New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy, about which he initially had some reservations.
Lange was not a politician who delighted in policy detail, relished personal confrontation, or who was able to build and maintain factional strength in the cabinet, caucus or wider party organisation. For those things he depended on others.
In the end, unable to impose his will on the government he led, or even argue his cause effectively within it, he chose to resign as prime minister and conceded the field to former allies who had by then become his enemies.