Monday, 15 August 2005

The enigma of David Lange

All 100 NZ political bloggers have offered their own tributes to David Lange. For once I'm going to bow to pressure and do the traditional thing and offer some of my own memories.

For me, Lange was a huge disappointment.

I first met him at my school prize-giving at which David Lange MP was speaking as the old-boy-made-good, and I was required to shake his hand and get a gong. He'd just delivered a speech in which he informed all of us that 'computers were going to make us all redundant' so we'd 'better get used to being out of work,' so as I'd immediately concluded he was an idiot I wasn't too fussed at getting anything from him.

Neither was I too excited at hearing him deliver that same silly speech three times that year at different events around the local traps. Too me he seemed a buffoon, however good his oratary.

Now for once here I'm going to agree with Willie Jackson. Even if I thought little either of him (or of Rugby League), as a Mangere boy myself I have to confess it was a blast having Kiwi league reps living down one end of the road and the Prime Minister at the other.

It was fun too seeing Lange out and about in Mangere, eschewing the usual Prime Ministerial airs and graces, driving himself around, doing his own shopping and blustering away over my friend's fence (my friend, for his sins, lived just next door to the Lange family).

I didn't vote for Lange on the only chance I got -- as I recall I was one of twelve in Mangere that voted New Zealand Party in 1984 -- but I can't have been the only non-Lange voter to have been thrilled to see a Prime Minister announced on the stage of the local flea pit. Lange himself observed that last time he'd been on the stage of the Mangere Metro he'd been playing a block of cheese, which is where he ended up as Prime Minister really, and some of us reflected to ourselves that on a normal Saturday night at the Metro there would probably have been a Bruce Lee double feature playing, not the public crowning of the country's political leader.

A Bruce Lee double feature could easily be the metaphor for that Lange government. After the Polish shipyard of the Muldoon years, almost any other government would have been an improvement, and the Lange government certainly was. But what began as revelation ended only as sad disappointment. Enter the Dragon, then exit stage left, pursued by assorted demons.

Lange's wit and oratory saw him as salesman for the necessary reforms undertaken by his government, but it was never clear that Lange himself understood what he was selling. He himself delivered Tomorrow's Schools and any number of completed crosswords, but to me his call for a cup of tea came when he woke up and realised for the first time what was going on under his stewardship.

What had been going on was mostly to the good, but not to Dave once he realised what was afoot.

At that time I worked for two years pumping gas at a service station just outside Wellington's government centre at Tinakori Rd, and those were the two years in which the public service was devastated by the reforms of the Lange Government.  "Devastated' if course being the word used by the public "servants" who weer feeling the cold wind of reality up their arse.

I have to tell you personally that it was thrilling having all those bureaucrats drive in on the way home to Wadestown and share with me that they'd just been sacked. I tried each time to express disappointment for them... at least on the outside. But, I confess, it was difficult.

If Lange had really understood what his ministers were doing I would have been a fan, but his intelligence was never really directed at analysing and understanding issues. How easily for example was he -- and indeed the whole NZ left -- diverted by the nuclear ships sideshow.

The adulation and international attention for his egregious anti-ANZUS stand saw Lange blossom, but as his wit and one-liners increased his grip on the realities of NZ political life did the opposite.

In the end it seems to me he was still the fat boy who needed to crack jokes and play the fool in order to be liked, and that was where his energy and intelligence became largely directed. He was in the end a disappointment because he never seemed to grow beyond that. As he said himself in his valedictory speech,
I have developed that Greek model of the fool: the person who, in mocking self-deprecation, can challenge conventions and orders - get away with mocking his mates, actually, without being regarded as a complete traitor - and may sometimes be able to get to the truth of a matter.
"Sometimes" was too few times. His biography by all accounts reflects this as well: long on bitterness and acerbic observations on his colleagues; short on analysis and reflection and real understanding. 

That was in the end perhaps his tragedy, that he never grew beyond his childhood demons, and his need to be liked above all else. 

And so did the man eventually became servant to the boy.

[UPDATE: A different sort of eulogy from The Age today, questioning the Lange foreign policy legacy. Hat tip to Che Tibby, who choked in his corn flakes as he read it, so you know it must be good.]


  1. Wow, he gets around this PC guy!

    As usual, an analysis focusing on all of the bad and none of the good, or great.

    Hey! At least his leg will be back on its leash. It's been out of control up there in heaven this last week kicking Muldoon's ass- waiting for further instructions. ;)

  2. Rick:

    Oh, get the stick out of your arse. Nice to finally see a bit of commentary that isn't busy errecting outside the Oxford a plaster saint with uranium-free breath.

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  4. I did wait a day before saying anything to be sure I wanted to say it. But I don't think what I've said here is either unkind or unfair. He made himself a public figure, and he will of necessity be judged by the public.

    I can't imagine he ever had ambitions to be the plaster saint he's now being presented as.

    And I'm not sure what you mean by "as usual." I'm sometimes told I praise my heroes a little too much. Lange is not one of my heroes, but as I know he is for many others I've tried to at least be fair.

  5. He even got a small mention on The rush for canonisation by Misha.

    I had dinner with him a few years ago with a small group of business people, and when asked if he had his time over, would he still stop for the cup of tea, he said no, that was a mistake.

  6. Not unkind or unfair.

    I just don't agree with the things you choose to focus on. "Live Eight Loosers" hurt my feelings, you see? As with that item there are also many things about Lange to value yet, "as usual", you grab the whole lot and paint it black.

  7. PC, for me, is a relative newcomer to NZ, you've made the most insightful comments on the man I've seen or heard so far. Thanks.


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