Thursday, March 12, 2009

David Lange

Our society has replaced class with status. Celebrity has replaced aristocracy. The poet’s question ‘was he happy, was he free’ is not the question now. Everyone and everything seems to need ranking - All Blacks, universities, restaurants and soap powders. People want to be Number One. A while back there was a fuss about whether Hillary or Tensing got to the top of Mount Everest first. Neither of them would have got up there without the other. Indeed, it was the support of the larger expedition that got both to the summit, which is not to take away their own achievement.

I’ve always taken heart from Emerson’s lovely sentence, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I am a mess of contradictions as most of us are. For a period Mum introduced me as “Harvey worked with David Lange you know.” Part of me jibbed at being so defined. The other part accepted what she meant. The time with him was the high point of my career. In his autobiography I warrant two sentences. If mine were written he’d warrant a chapter. (Which in the nature of experience is a distortion, eighteen months isn’t long in a span of 74 years). In my wildest dreams I never imagined I’d spend that time in close proximity to the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

One morning in late 1987 the phone went. The voice at the other end asked would I like to come to the Beehive to be interviewed about working for Mr Lange. I was flabbergasted. And thrilled. I went to the Beehive where they had a strip search of prejudices and attitudes. Shortly afterwards I met him and Phil Goff. Both men seemed rather pre-occupied. I didn’t know Roger Douglas’s flat tax proposal had Cabinet ministers rather preoccupied at that stage. A hand-shake and the job was mine, education speech writer for joint Ministers of Education. I had signed up for a turbulent journey.

As his poll ratings slumped his senior advisers decided he should stump the country selling the education reforms. So it was my good fortune to travel the country with him - Invercargill and Inglewood and Westport et al. I recall with affection as visit to Hokitika where on an educational tour of the West Coast he took time to look at the new road bridge being built across the river. A large black Labrador singled him out as the obvious leader of the human pack. Despite the efforts of security and Coasters the dog kept trying to return to him. Thrilled youngsters explored the Air Force helicopter in which we’d arrived, the pilot and his side-kick benignly watching them. The thought strolled across my mind – only in Kiwiland would the Head of State’s chopper become a temporary playground for local kids.

Twice I urged him to give up the portfolio or at least the travel to concentrate upon the struggle with his Minister of Finance. I told others the same opinion. He remained adamant he would continue. Selfishly I was pleased – it meant more time with him., and listen to his conversation and speeches

As a person he was quixotic, quirky, humane, complex with an extraordinary mental adroitness. His courtesy was old-fashioned. Equally, at times he could be exasperating. Aides were supposed to prevent him eating too much. But how can you stop a Prime Minister determined to have his way? “Thank you Harvey, you’ve done your duty and given me advice. Now, can I order and eat my hamburger in peace.” My instructions also said I must walk on the street side of him. He wouldn't allow that, pointing out that if a car or bullet hit me it would still kill him too whereas if he were hit the odds were I'd survive.

At policy-making his acumen I found amazing, likewise, at the same time sometimes he surprised me with an unworldly naivety. His wit often left us in stitches. One day an importunate journalist pleaded with him. “A word Mr Lange, just a word.” He got his word. “Wombat”. So many times his one-liner summed up a situation superbly. Interviewing me about my latest book This Piece of Earth in Christchurch in late 2004 the reporter sprung a surprise question - what plant would David Lange most resemble. I said it would have to be something gigantic, a kauri or a redwood - no, not colourful enough, it would have to be a pohutakawa, a magnificent man-of-war one in flamboyant full-bloom beside the sea. The article began with this description. I sent a copy by email to him. Quick as a flash came back his response. "The possums have got to this pohutakawa."

I visited him a few months before his death. He looked frail and ill but was cheerful, full of jokes and anecdotes, giving details of his health problems that I’d rather not have heard and facing death with a fortitude and stoicism I envied. He said Roger Douglas had called to see him and they'd buried a few hatchets. "I trusted Roger too much," he said. I countered, "the way you trusted people reflected the person you are." He beamed. There was often a little boy in him wanting to be let out.

His education administration reform Tomorrow's Schools was based on a premise of trust. David kept talking about a covenant. I was asked to try to stop him using that word. He explained that he meant it in a legal sense. The community should be able to ensure that the school had the necessary resources and teachers to deliver the required education. The State had that responsibility. It was a clear vision - underpinned no doubt by his Methodist upbringing. He saw it as a three-way partnership, school, community and government. He wanted to ensure that the changeover disrupted young people’s schooling as little as possible. To this end he appointed four well-known educators and charged them with making sure the process did not disadvantage students. It seemed to me then and now that this is a good consultative model. It worked well. Regrettably, however, one important recommendation was not implemented. That was for an overarching Council with the heads of the Ministry of Education, the National Qualifications Authority and the Education Review Office plus three other prominent New Zealanders appointed by the Government. This Council would be charged with co-ordination of policies from the various agencies and looking at long-term effects of educational decisions. That idea never got out of the hangar. Treasury claimed it added another bureaucratric layer and was unnecessary. The Education Ministry didn’t want conflicting advice being offered to Government. The result has been an on-going lack of co-ordination between the agencies, indeed more than that, outright competition in some instances.

The last speech I wrote for him was to open an Auckland childcare centre, which concluded with unveiling a plaque. That speech had caused quite a few problems. It was delivered after Roger Douglas mounted his leadership challenge. I kept getting phone calls asking should they place the unveiling on hold in case of the challenge was successful. He is the Prime Minister I’d kept replying, expressing a confidence I did not feel in my bones. He survived the challenge. But half an hour before the speech was due to be delivered the Boss rang using the car’s cellular phone. Have you given the speech to the media he laughed down the line. Yes, I replied. He chuckled, the headline could be that he’d unveiled a plague on that building. Several people had read the draft – no one had picked up the typo. No one in the media did either.


  1. Harvey, I have been asked to present a brief discussion on the decentralisation of educational administration to a group of Thai PHD students. Do you have any pointers on "the good oil"? on this topic?

  2. Sorry Andrew
    I've just been going over old blogs and found your comment.