David Lange - The face of a tough New Zealand

David Lange died recently. He was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1984-1989, and will probably go down in history as one of that nation's great leaders.

As an Australian, I have often felt a sort of "big-brotherly" relationship with our Eastern neighbours. They speak English, they beat us in Rugby Union often, and they come to live here a lot. Three members of my church in Charlestown are New Zealanders, and even my wife was born there (although she moved to Australia before the age of one).

More recently, I have worked out that the New Zealand - Australia relationship is akin to the Canada-USA relationship. New Zealand knows everything that happens in Australia, while Aussies have got no idea what is going on in New Zealand. Everyone in New Zealand knows who John Howard is, while not many Australians know who Helen Clark is.

It is this sort of myopic, lazy, condescending attitude on behalf of my own countrymen that ensures that we remain not only ignorant, but also disrespectful towards New Zealand and all that it has achieved. In many ways, New Zealand has advanced way beyond anything that Australia has over the last 30 years.

David Lange is an example of this. Lange did two things that will live in New Zealand's memory for years. Firstly, he stood up to America by refusing to admit nuclear armed warships into New Zealand ports. Secondly, he was involved in a radical overhaul of the nation's economy that has brought greater wealth and prosperity to its citizens.

When David Lange announced to the world that New Zealand would no longer admit nuclear-armed warships into its ports, he obviously got himself and the nation into deep trouble. Imagine it, a small South Pacific nation with a population less than the City of Los Angeles telling the world's greatest superpower - in the midst of the cold war - that they could no longer dock their warships there. American politicans choked on their bagels and coffee at such impudence. But it was an important step in New Zealand's definition of itself. By standing up to the USA, New Zealand essentially asserted itself as a voice on the international stage. It was a courageous move and a gambit that paid off. By doing this, New Zealand also publically disagreed with Australia, and there was the interesting scene of two Antipodean Labour Prime Ministers (Hawke and Lange) with completely different views about American relations. This was more than just underarm bowling or raising average IQs, it was a serious schism in geopolitics. While Australian political leaders continued to simper at their American betters, New Zealand boldly asserted their identity.

But in New Zealand itself, Lange was, somewhat unwittingly, one of the key figures in that nation's economic reform. Rogernomics was introduced because the nation was starting to resemble a South American basket case. Lange didn't agree fully with what went on, but most Australians seemed blissfully unaware of the radical reforms going on to their East. While Hawke and Keating were creating reform of their own, it was nowhere near as radical or as far reaching as that in New Zealand.

Not being a New Zealander has meant that I have not had any personal experience or opinion of the man - I'm sure many New Zealanders would have their own ideas. Moreover, I am certainly not saying that Lange alone created the New Zealand of today - which is beset by all sorts of issues and problems that typify all Western industrialised nations. In this sense, Lange is a figurehead - a point of reference that can be easily identifed.

New Zealand's future is undoubtedly their own. Any talk in Australia about New Zealand joining the Commonwealth or a monetary union is ridiculous. In many ways, while Australia continues to sleep comfortably on America's doormat and happily eat the scraps thrown to it, New Zealand has been able to forge its own, unique, path to the future. Australia - especially its politics - is still mired in the past and is getting more and more conservative. While Howard and Costello preach neo-liberal economic reform, not one of Australia's three major parties has suggested any radical changes to Australia's governmental system. Since 1996, New Zealand has radically changed their system into something called "Mixed Member Proportional". Add this to a unicameral parliament and you have a structure for a better, more efficient, system of Government. Although it is not as good a system as anything I would propose, and although it would naturally have its own problems, it is a step in the right direction. In politics, at least, New Zealand has progressed into the 21st century while Australia seems mired somewhere around 1950 still.

Nevertheless there are still problems. New Zealand continues to lose people who migrate to Australia; GDP per capita is still quite low compared to Australia and other western nations; their own armed forces are pathetically weak; racism between whites and maoris continue; and their Test Cricket team remains only marginally competitive.

Despite these things, the future looks bright for New Zealand. Any nation that brought us Peter Jackson deserves praise.

From the One Salient Overlord Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.


Anonymous said...

well said, if you can find the transcript of his famous debate at oxford

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...


Catez said...

Hi there,
Just found this - very interesting. I wouldn't say this is true though:
"New Zealand knows everything that happens in Australia, while Aussies have got no idea what is going on in New Zealand. "
We don't know everything that goes on over your side of the Tasman. In fact we hear very little at all in our media - which is a bit bizarre.
What we really remember Lange for is the Nuclear Free policy - it's become an ingrained part of a Kiwi worldview. And of course his brilliant and witty oratory skills - the Oxford debate being a case in point. The time he said his opponents were trying to portray him as a "constitutional bikie" was another one that people loved.
Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and some others were the ones who changed NZ though - Lange was more old school Labour. In fact "Rogernomics" led the way for the right to gain power for a long time.
Re: MMP - it is a good voting system, although this time around (we have a general election in 1 week) it is much more of a two-party race than it has been for a long time. Nevetheless, MMP gives us a government which is more representative of the population's choices.
Very interesting post - thanks!
As you may have guessed I'm a Kiwi.
Ahem - we are currently undisputably the world's best rugby team.