David Lange, former New Zealand prime minister, dies at 63

Sunday, August 14, 2005

New Zealanders woke up Sunday to learn of the death of one of their most notable leaders. David Lange was Prime Minister for just five years in the mid-1980s, but his administration left an indelible mark on the nation economically and socially, and also reoriented its foreign policy.

Lange, 63, died of renal failure at 10 p.m. on August 13, a day after his family decided to discontinue artificial life support. He had fought a long battle with multiple ailments. In 2002, he was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare and incurable blood disorder. Lange defied his doctors' initial predictions that he had only four months to live, and following a round of chemotherapy, appeared to rally for a time, but in mid-2005 his condition took a sudden turn for the worse. He entered hospital in Auckland in mid July, 2005, to undergo nightly peritoneal dialysis and battled end-stage kidney failure. On August 2, he had his lower-right leg amputated without a general anaesthetic, as a result of diabetes complications.

His declining health resulted in the publication of his memoir My Life being brought forward to August 8. He lived to see this happen and gave his last interview on TV3 to John Campbell the same day.

Lange was first elected to the New Zealand Parliament in a byelection in 1977. As a lawyer, he had built up a personal rapport with his Mangere constituency by representing poor clients free of charge. In less than three years, he was elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and, after an initial failed bid for the leadership in 1980, was chosen to replace Bill Rowling as the party leader in 1983. He went on to lead the party to a landslide victory in the general election held on 14 July, 1984, ousting the longtime Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon.

Despite his nominal socialism, he initiated sweeping reforms to deregulate the economy and boost private enterprise, and his was regarded as a government of the left only in name. In foreign policy, however, Lange remained somewhat further to the left: he banned nuclear-armed and powered warships from entering New Zealand's ports, straining a once-close relationship with the United States. In 1985 he took part in a widely-televised Oxford Union debate [1], arguing for the proposition that "nuclear weapons are morally indefensible", in opposition to U.S. televangelist Jerry Falwell.

Lange won the 1987 election by an even greater margin than in 1984, but internal divisions within the Labour Party were weakening his position. Many rank and file members of the party felt that the government's economic reforms were a betrayal of Labour's socialist ideology. Attempting to appease the left, Lange fired his right-wing Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, late in 1988. When the party caucus, which under Labour Party rules chooses the cabinet, insisted on his reinstatement to the cabinet in mid-1989, Lange resigned on 8 August, 1989.

Lange was widely regarded as a larger-than-life figure, who was never far from controversy. Once regarded as a fervent Methodist, Lange weathered a storm in 1990 after his decision to leave his first wife, Naomi, and move in with Margaret Pope, whom he later married. In 1996, Lange and Pope had a daughter, Edith; Lange, whose health was already in decline, said that his fondest hope was to see Edith grow up. Responding to questions about whether he was afraid of being "an old dad," he replied, "No ... but I'm afraid of being a dead dad." He said in another interview the same year, on announcing his final retirement from politics, that he hoped to spend more time with his family, to concentrate on lecturing and writing, "and to grow old." This last wish did not materialize.

Lange was remembered for his intelligence, his wit, and his loud booming voice. Supporters and opponents alike spoke warmly of Lange. Whether they agreed with his policies or not, they described him as a deeply compassionate man who would be sadly missed.