The Bassett version, Harvey McQueen

Working With David
Michael Bassett
Hachette Livre, $59.99,
ISBN 9781869710941 

Working With David is a dogmatic and humourless book about a man who, even in adversity, revelled in laughter. Beginning with clear praise – “at the peak of his career in 1984-5, Lange had a magic about him that no other parliamentarian rivalled” – Michael Bassett goes on to make scathing comments about his later performance: “a jumping jack”, “a political cot-case”, and “only Lange’s removal could really have let Cabinet operate properly”. My hunch is that he never forgave the Prime Minister for taking the Health portfolio away from him in 1987.

Bassett’s account of Cabinet discussions is something rare in New Zealand politics, an insider’s view. To read it is to re-enter those six turbulent years when the Fourth Labour Government radically changed the shape and direction of New Zealand society. Bassett’s account of the 1951 waterfront lockout and his lives of Ward and Coates were good books, but he spoilt the account of Fraser’s life with cheap ideological jibes. This book is much worse – 550 pages obsessively pursuing the theme of a great leader led astray by a siren woman. As a personal memoir or diary, it’s acceptable, but it’s not an impartial history. It would be tragic if it is accepted as the only accurate account of those six years.

Margaret Pope is not the only woman at the receiving end of Bassett’s scorn. His misogyny is clearly evident. At a Cabinet  meeting, Margaret Shields “warbled about rumours and leaks not only being sourced to the Prime Minister’s Department”. After the 1987 election as the Cabinet discussed likely new appointments, “Lange was losing concentration. He had [Margaret] Wilson waiting to see him, possibly to pour more poison into the king’s ear.” On 29 June 1989, the day Lange narrowly won a non-confidence vote:

Douglas, Butcher, Goff, Prebble and I had a lunch of fish and chips for old times’ sake, this time without Moore or Lange. And we kept the door firmly shut. Hunt got together with Clark, and they set up a dinner date for the Friday evening. Her plans were coming along nicely.

 

Ruth Dyson “kept hectoring Labour MPs on Lange’s behalf”. “We laughed about the cabal egging Lange on. I likened it to the last days of the Tsar, with Pope as the Empress and Wilde as a female version of Rasputin.” Those who live by conspiracy find it everywhere.

His chronicle is not only a belittlement of Lange and Pope; it’s too simplistic. There were so many other factors. Above all, it does not do justice to the titanic clash between Lange and Roger Douglas – the stuff of Greek drama, hubris, the future direction of a nation, the nature of power, an ideological struggle.

It must be remembered that Lange supported the early economic reforms, as the inertia of the status quo was challenged in new and exciting ways. His implementation of the Picot proposals for educational administrative reform is further proof of his sense of a need for restructuring. Moreover, he trusted people in whom he had confidence. He delegated well; I can vouch for that. But he began to diverge from Douglas in April 1987, when the Finance Minister signalled his desire for a flat tax and the privatisation of social services. In a written response dated 22 April, Lange strongly stated his reservations: “Your radical strategy would negate our assets. We would no longer be united. Our determination would falter. Mine would. Our purpose would appal our own suppporters.”

After the sharemarket crash in mid-October that year, Douglas resurrected the flat tax idea on the grounds that the markets needed something heroic to restore faith in them. The spin-doctoring from Douglas’ office on the Beehive’s sixth floor saw the media dutifully carrying stories of the need for dramatic action. Despite Treasury reservations, Douglas persisted with the concept, persuading his Cabinet colleagues to go along with it. Lange reluctantly agreed, a major mistake, and it was announced with great fanfare. But the more Lange studied the proposals, the more uneasy he became.

He tried to persuade his colleagues to accept that the announcement was in principle only and to take the issue to Labour’s caucus. He made little headway. Knowing he was breaking Cabinet collectivity, at a press conference on 28 January 1988 he announced delays in its implementation. The gap of the previous April had become a chasm. Dennis Welch wrote in the New Zealand Listener, “the towering edifice of the Labour Government shifted on its foundations”.

Hijacking the debate over social policy, the passions, frustrations, anger and conflict generated by that shift dominated the remainder of the government’s term in office. Bassett was a major participant in all these events: I was a mere bit player, in that it was my good fortune to be an education aide to Lange in 1998-9. In the subsequent Cabinet reshuffle after the 1987 election, despite Pope’s advice to take health, Lange chose education. It was decided he would stump the country consulting teachers and parents about the education reforms. So for 15 months I was close to him as he toured New Zealand. I saw him on good days and on bad days. Three times officially and quite often off-the-cuff during that time I advised him to drop the portfolio to concentrate upon the power struggle with Douglas about the direction of the Government and country. He remained adamant he would continue. I had shaken hands on an education job. Instead I found myself in a war-zone.

I admit to being partisan myself – but Bassett’s mean-spirited portrayal of Lange does not capture the person I worked with. He was ebullient, courteous, humane, witty, quirky and highly intelligent. He was both formidable and vulnerable. He could be infuriating, but his capacity to suddenly focus constantly astonished me. He was more stoical than is commonly recognised. His dislike of confrontation was legendary but it also aroused protective instincts amongst his aides.

Not only were the Rogernomes arrogant, they were impatient. Bassett’s fundamentalist fervour allows no recognition that Rogernomics was maybe not working, indeed might be flawed. His continuing criticism of Lange’s insistence on more social service spending is evidence of its importance to the Prime Minister. I believe Lange’s lapsed Methodism was a key to his approach to politics. He spoke often of the influence of the English preacher Donald Soper upon him. He had a strong sense of helping the underdog and the needy. He told me how he felt Douglas’ policies were not helping these people, indeed they were disadvantaging them further. The 1987 election results concerned him, in that suburbs such as Remuera swung sharply to Labour, while its vote went down in its heartland electorates. He sensed something was wrong. Both his instincts and the polls showed the same story. Restructuring had damaged too many people – there was a need for a breather. This had nothing to do with pillow-talk. He was speaking from his own heart. Of that I am convinced.

Lange’s Government should be seen in context. Post-Muldoon, it was a struggle, among other things, about the future shape of the Labour party. There were fisticuffs at conferences and constituency contests. Bassett gives some clues, but does not explore the background to the two breakaway parties of the early 1990s – to the right, Roger Douglas and ACT, to the left, Jim Anderton and the Alliance. Clark’s and Cullen’s experience of a disunited ministry and caucus goes a long way to explain the leadership style of the Fifth Labour Government.

Had the flat tax gone ahead, it would have destroyed the Labour Party. David Lange can be criticised not for shelving it, but for how he did so. When I started work I was surprised, indeed amazed, at how isolated he was. He was an outsider; his path to power had not been through the ranks, the rough and tumble of meetings and conferences, remits and compromises, the camaraderie of a common cause. With all his brilliance, he never really understood politics. He took a lonely path. It was a brave one and it was a sacrificial one.

I recall Lange’s visit to a secondary school where he visited a class with learning difficulties. The students had been making up crosswords. They challenged him to do them, and he finished very quickly, telling them he did one every morning. He invited them to help him create a new one. They crowded round him. The teacher and I both moved forward, but he jovially waved us away. As I stood watching, two thoughts jostled in my mind. He should be in Wellington dealing with affairs of State; and savour this moment, you’re in the presence of a man who has an immense capacity to enjoy his humanity. David Lange deserves a better and more balanced account of his time in office than this.

 

Harvey McQueen is a Wellington writer and retired educator.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review
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