Page 2: Entry into Parliament
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.
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’.1 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.
‘The fish and chips brigade’
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’2. 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.