David Lange

David Lange
The Right Honourable
David Russell Lange
The Rt. Hon. David Lange in 1984
32nd Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
26 July 1984 – 8 August 1989
(5 years)
Monarch Elizabeth II
Governor General David Beattie
Paul Reeves
Deputy Geoffrey Palmer
Preceded by Robert Muldoon
Succeeded by Geoffrey Palmer
23rd Leader of the Opposition
In office
3 February 1982 – 26 July 1984
Preceded by Bill Rowling
Succeeded by Robert Muldoon
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Mangere
In office
Preceded by Colin Moyle
Succeeded by Taito Phillip Field
Personal details
Born 4 August 1942(1942-08-04)
Otahuhu, New Zealand
Died 13 August 2005(2005-08-13) (aged 63)
Auckland, New Zealand
Political party Labour
Spouse(s) Naomi Joy Crampton
Margaret Pope
Children 4
(three with Crampton)
(one with Pope)
Profession Lawyer
Religion Methodist

David Russell Lange, ONZ, CH (who pronounced his name /ˈlɒŋi/ long-ee) (4 August 1942 – 13 August 2005), served as the 32nd Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1984 to 1989. He headed New Zealand's fourth Labour Government, one of the most reforming administrations in his country's history, but one which did not always conform to traditional expectations of a social-democrat party. He had a reputation for cutting wit (sometimes directed against himself) and eloquence. His government implemented far-reaching free-market reforms. Helen Clark has described New Zealand's nuclear-free legislation as his legacy.[1]


Early life

Lange was born in Otahuhu, a south Auckland suburb[2] as the son of a doctor of German stock. His relatives had suffered from prejudice during the First World War due to their German ancestry, and Lange himself would face a political rival in 1984 who tried to discredit him because of his German heritage. He received his formal education at Fairburn Primary School, Otara Intermediate School and Otahuhu College, then at the University of Auckland, where he graduated in law in 1965. He paid his way through university by working in a meat-freezing works. In 1968 he married Naomi Crampton. He gained a Master of Laws in 1970, then practised law in Northland and Auckland for some years, often giving legal representation to the most dispossessed members of Auckland society.

Lange suffered all his life from obesity and the health problems it caused. By 1982 he weighed 165 kilograms, and had surgery to staple his stomach in order to lose weight. He attributed his talent for caustic wit and repartee to the need to defend himself against bullying in his youth.

Political career

Parliament of New Zealand
Years Term Electorate Party
1977–1978 Labour
1978–1981 39th Mangere Labour
1981–1984 40th Mangere Labour
1984–1987 41st Mangere Labour
1987–1990 42nd Mangere Labour
1990–1993 43rd Mangere Labour
1993–1996 44th Mangere Labour

Lange entered the New Zealand Parliament as the Labour MP for Mangere, a working-class Auckland electorate with a large Māori population, in 1977 in the Mangere by-election. On becoming an MP, Lange quickly made an impression in the House as a debater, a wit, and the scourge of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. He succeeded Bill Rowling as leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party and as Leader of the Opposition on 3 February 1982.

Prime Minister David Lange posts a letter, at the opening of the new Foxton Post Office, 1980s

Prime minister

When Muldoon called a snap election in 1984, Lange led Labour to a landslide victory, becoming at the age of 41 New Zealand's youngest prime minister of the 20th century.

Upon coming to office, Lange's government uncovered a skyrocketing public debt, ostensibly the result of Muldoon's policy of government regulation of the economy, including a wage- and price-freeze and regulation of the exchange rate. Such economic conditions prompted Lange to remark: "We ended up being run very similarly to a Polish shipyard".[3] Lange and Minister of Finance Roger Douglas engaged in a rapid programme of deregulation and public-asset sales, which brought criticism from many people in Labour's traditional support-base. The Labour Party also lost support from many elderly people by introducing a superannuation surcharge after having promised not to reduce superannuation.

Commentators coined the term Rogernomics for these policies, drawing connections with Reaganomics and with Thatcherism. After the Lange administration's first term (1984–1987), significant divisions started to form in the Labour parliamentary caucus, with Lange becoming uncomfortable with the extent of the reforms, while Douglas and Richard Prebble wanted to push on.

The stock-market crash of 19 October 1987 damaged confidence in the New Zealand economy. In 1988 consensus on economic policy amongst the Labour leadership finally broke down, with Douglas resigning after Lange over-ruled his proposed radical flat income-tax. After losing many members, the Labour Party finally fractured, with Jim Anderton MP forming a breakaway New Labour Party, which later merged into the Alliance Party.

During his tenure as Prime Minister, Lange engaged in competitive motor-sport, appearing in the New Zealand One Make Ford Laser Sport series.

During his term of office as Prime Minister Lange also held the positions of Minister of Foreign Affairs (1984 to 1987) and Minister of Education (1987 to 1989). After Geoffrey Palmer became party leader and Prime Minister in 1989, Lange became (from 1989 to 1990) Attorney-General, Minister in Charge of the Serious Fraud Office and a Minister of State. In failing health, he retired from Parliament in 1996. His Labour Party colleague Taito Phillip Field succeeded him as the Member for the Mangere electorate.

The Queen made Lange a Companion of Honour in 1990 and created him an Ordinary Member of the Order of New Zealand on 2 June 2003.

Lange was a supporter of changing New Zealand's flag, and wrote in 1994: "[a] stranger who saw the Australian flag and the New Zealand flag outside adjacent buildings would assume that some British hotel chain was advertising deluxe and standard rooms".[4] Lange also expressed support for a New Zealand republic, stating: "Do such things matter? They certainly do. We suffer in this country from a lack of emotional focus... New Zealand will become a republic just as Britain will be blurred into Europe".[4]

International affairs

Lange made his name on the international stage with a long-running campaign against nuclear weapons. His government refused to allow nuclear-armed ships into New Zealand waters, a policy that New Zealand continues to this day. The policy, developing in 1985, had the effect of prohibiting United States Navy ships from visiting New Zealand. This displeased the United States and Australia: they regarded the policy as a breach of treaty obligations under ANZUS and as an abrogation of responsibility in the context of the Cold War against the Soviet bloc. After consultations with Australia and after negotiations with New Zealand broke down, the United States announced that it would suspend its treaty obligations to New Zealand until the re-admission of United States Navy ships to New Zealand ports, characterising New Zealand as "a friend, but not an ally".

Erroneous claims sometimes suggest that David Lange withdrew New Zealand from ANZUS. His government's policy may have prompted the US's decision to suspend its ANZUS Treaty obligations to New Zealand, but that decision rested with the U.S. government, not with the New Zealand government.

An Oxford Union debate shown live on New Zealand television in March 1985 showcased Lange, a skilled orator, arguing for the proposition that "nuclear weapons are morally indefensible", in opposition to U.S. televangelist Jerry Falwell. (TVNZ has made available an audio of Lange's speech.) Lange regarded his appearance at the Oxford Union as the highest point of his career in politics.[5] His speech included his memorable statement "I can smell the uranium on it [your breath]...!".[6]

Relations with France became strained when French agents of the DGSE bombed and sank the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior on 10 July 1985 while it lay moored in Auckland Harbour, killing photographer Fernando Pereira. In June 1986 Lange obtained a political deal with France over the Rainbow Warrior affair, presided over by United Nations Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. France agreed to pay compensation of NZ$13 million (US$6.5 million) to New Zealand and also to apologise. In return, Lange agreed that French authorities could detain the convicted French agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur at the French military base on Hao Atoll for three years. However, the two spies both walked free by May 1988, after less than two years had elapsed.

Life after politics

In 1996 Lange sued the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation) over an alleged defamation that it broadcast about him. The ABC used the defence that there exists in the Australian Constitution an implied right to freedom of speech on political matters, and the High Court of Australia concurred.

In a key New Zealand defamation case (Lange v Atkinson [2000] 3 NZLR 385), Lange sued political scientist Joe Atkinson for representing him in the magazine North & South as a lazy prime minister. In a 1998 judgment, and on appeal in 2000, the courts affirmed a new qualified privilege for the media to discuss politicians when expressing the criticisms as the "honest opinion" of the author.

Lange was a New Zealand Rugby League board member and served as the organisation's Vice-President.[7]

Lange received the Right Livelihood Award 2003 for his strong fight against nuclear weapons.

In January 2006 Archives New Zealand released to The Sunday Star-Times newspaper a box of David Lange's previously classified documents. They revealed New Zealand's ongoing involvement in Western alliance espionage, and a threat by the United States to spy on New Zealand if it did not back down from its ban on nuclear ships.

Personal life

In 1989 Lange separated from his wife of 21 years and admitted to a long-running affair with his speech-writer, Margaret Pope, whom he later married. The matter became extremely public, with both Naomi Lange and Lange's own mother publicly attacking his behaviour. He later became reconciled with both. He had three children, Roy, Emily, Byron (now in their 30s) with his first wife (Naomi) and one daughter, Edith, with his second wife (Margaret Pope).

In the 1990s Lange's health declined, with diabetes and kidney disorders, mostly resulting from obesity. In 2002, doctors diagnosed Lange as having amyloidosis, a rare and incurable blood plasma disorder. He underwent extensive medical treatment for this condition. Although initially told he had only four months to live, Lange defied his doctors' expectations, and remained "optimistic" about his health. He entered hospital in Auckland in mid-July 2005 to undergo nightly peritoneal dialysis in his battle with end-stage kidney-failure. On 2 August, he had his lower right leg amputated without a general anaesthetic, as a result of diabetes complications.[8]

His declining health resulted in the bringing-forward of the publication of his memoir My Life to 8 August 2005. TV3 broadcast an earlier pre-recorded interview (with John Campbell) on the same day.

In his last interview, given to the Herald on Sunday from his hospital bed, he made a potent intervention in New Zealand's 2005 election campaign by saying he "wanted to get out of bed and get a wheel-chair to Wellington" to stop any relaxation of his ban on nuclear ships.[9]

Lange died of complications associated with his renal failure and blood disease in Middlemore Hospital in Auckland on 13 August 2005. The David Lange Memorial Trust has erected a memorial to him in Otahuhu.[10]


  • Lange's third cousin Michael Bassett became a fellow Cabinet-minister. Lange's father, a doctor, delivered Bassett and Lange insisted his father had dropped Bassett at the time of the birth.[11] Bassett published a book in 2008 about the Lange government, entitled, Working With David.[12]
  • Lange's brother Peter is a widely respected New Zealand potter and ceramicist.[13] He has won numerous arts awards and has exhibited widely in New Zealand and overseas.[14]


In an interview[15] with The New Zealand Herald (published on 3 July 2004) the Herald asked Lange:

Do you think if the election of 1984 had not been a snap election, there would have been time for the opposing forces within the party to have successfully blocked the reforms or to have severely limited them?

Lange replied:

"You have to talk about why things happened the way they did. You can't actually explain my political life except by a series of situations rather than by some carefully constructed, rigidly progressed ascendancy. You could not imagine two more unlike rides to the top as I had and Helen Clark had: hers the principled, extremely hard-working, fearless really persistence in the face of all sorts of adversities and personal assaults. Whereas mine was some sort of divine roulette. Even entering into Parliament was not one of your created, structured planned-for episodes. I mean one minute I was a clapped-out two guinea legal-aid lawyer and the next minute I was in Parliament. The by-election of 77 saw to that ... I got there in terms of the Labour Party for all the wrong reasons, for all the reasons which weren't part of its tradition. I'd never been a tract writer; I'd never been a philosopher; I'd never taken part in extraordinary industrial dispute activism; I'd not been in any of that background but I was able to mix it in what had become, conceived to be, the new front line of politics – the ability on television to convey confidence and assurance without saying anything. And that is very important ... [I was] plunged into this extraordinary awareness of a crisis in foreign exchange and reserves and having to take steps that were the absolute antithesis of anything that I would ever have expected the week before. If the people of New Zealand thought it was a bit odd, for me it was absolutely staggering ... I had thought of getting the agencies like the IMF, the World Bank to come in and do a de facto receivership. In fact I said so more or less publicly – let us get some external analysis of where we are rather than one which is tainted by my self-interest and by Muldoon's clear self-interest. But it was rendered unnecessary. He put on such an extraordinarily good performance of carrying on and saying I was introducing scorched earth policy. By the time Muldoon had finish[ed] a couple of television appearances, the general public was completely satisfied we were in a mess ..."


  1. ^ "Former PM David Lange dies". Newstalk ZB. 2005-08-14. http://www.newstalkzb.co.nz/newsdetail1.asp?storyID=78153. 
  2. ^ Lange, David (2005). My Life. Auckland, NZ: Viking. pp. 21–22. ISBN 067004556X. 
  3. ^ "David Lange, in his own words". The New Zealand Herald. 2005-08-15. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/david-lange-1942-2005/news/article.cfm?c_id=1500960&objectid=10340844. Retrieved 2010-07-29. 
  4. ^ a b David Lange (1994-07-18). Cuttings – God Save Us All. Jonathan Hudson & Associates. ISBN 0473029537. 
  5. ^ Lange, David (2005). My Life. Viking. p.208 ISBN 067004556X
  6. ^ Lange, David. "Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible". Public Address: Great New Zealand argument. Public Address. http://publicaddress.net/default,1578.sm#post. Retrieved 2008-09-07. "And I'm going to give it to you if you hold your breath just for a moment … I can smell the uranium on it as you lean forward!" 
  7. ^ NZRL chief back in the gun Sunday Star-Times, 6 September 1998
  8. ^ Middleton, Julie (2005-08-04). "I'd rather lose a leg than my life, says Lange". The New Zealand Herald. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/david-lange-1942-2005/news/article.cfm?c_id=1500960&objectid=10339078. Retrieved 2010-07-29. 
  9. ^ Milne, Jonathan (2005-07-31). "Ailing Lange still has strong voice on nukes". The New Zealand Herald. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/david-lange-1942-2005/news/article.cfm?c_id=1500960&objectid=10338414. Retrieved 2010-07-29. 
  10. ^ "David Lange Memorial". David Lange Memorial Trust. http://www.davidlange.org.nz. 
  11. ^ Lange, David (2005). My Life. Auckland, NZ: Viking. p. 98. ISBN 067004556X. 
  12. ^ Bassett, Michael (2008). Working With David: Inside the Lange Cabinet. Hodder Moa. ISBN 1869710940. 
  13. ^ Savage, Jared (2006-07-23). "Memorial for Lange". The New Zealand Herald. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/david-lange-1942-2005/news/article.cfm?c_id=1500960&objectid=10392559. Retrieved 2010-07-29. 
  14. ^ "Pottery NZ – Peter Lange". http://www.potterynz.co.nz/potters/peter-lange. Retrieved 2010-07-29. 
  15. ^ Young, Audrey (2004-07-03). "Interview: David Lange". The New Zealand Herald. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/rainbow-warrior-bombing/news/article.cfm?c_id=1500930&objectid=3575913. Retrieved 2010-07-29. 

Further reading

  • Gliding on the Lino: The wit and wisdom of David Lange compiled by David Barber (1987, Benton Ross, Auckland NZ) ISBN 0908636296

External links

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