Cablegate: The Death of David Lange

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/14/2015

Classified By: Charge David R. Burnett,
for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. (C) Summary: Former NZ Prime Minister David Lange died on
August 13, following a long illness. In the run-up to
elections, Prime Minister Clark may be hoping to capitalize
on Labour's identity as the heir apparent to Lange and the
anti-nuclear policy his Government implemented. Most
observers believe any bounce in the polls would be
short-lived, however, and we agree. For all New Zealanders'
sentimental attachment to Lange, his humor, and his legacy,
most regard him as a flawed individual. In any case, the
election is still five weeks away and voters are far more
likely to vote on matters of current concern regardless.
End Summary.

2. (U) Former Prime Minister David Lange, who presided over
the creation of New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy and break
from ANZUS, died late in the evening on August 13 after a
long battle with the rare and incurable blood disorder
amyloidosis and related illnesses. His death was not
unexpected: he had been steadily weakening since being
admitted to an Auckland hospital one month ago with diabetes

3. (SBU) New Zealanders generally regard Lange as one of the
country's greatest Prime Ministers, noting with special
fondness how, with wit and self-assurance, he created a sense
of New Zealand as a distinct entity apart from Britain, the
United States, and Australia. There is no better symbol of
this new identity than the anti-nuclear legislation that was
passed under Lange's government. Indeed, it is because the
legislation is so deeply associated with New Zealand's
emerging identity and post-Vietnam, anti-American stance that
so many Kiwis regard altering the ban as akin to spitting on
the nation's flag. (Although, unlike the nuclear ban, whether
NZ should change its flag is at least a matter of national

4. (SBU) There is little doubt today that Lange decided to
implement a ban on nuclear arms as a way to initiate New
Zealand's break from ANZUS. By creating friction with the
United States which virtually forced the U.S. to expel New
Zealand from the alliance, Lange succeeded also in forging an
anti-American sentiment here that remains powerful 20 years
on. But as former PM Jim Bolger noted in a recent speech,
Lange ironically had misgivings about introducing the ban on
nuclear propulsion that remains such a sticking point in
US-NZ relations today: he believed it was tantamount to
telling another country how to handle its domestic policies.
He nevertheless agreed to the propulsion ban in the end, in
part because it was clear that the public was more worried
about the environmental impact of radiation than it was about
nuclear arms, and in part because of strong pressure from the
more leftist members of his Cabinet (including then-Housing
Minister and now PM Clark).
5. (SBU) Unlike former members of his Cabinet such as Health
Minister Michael Bassett and Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey
Palmer, Lange never -- in public or private -- grew to regret
the split with the United States. In fact, he was recently
quoted as saying that if press reports that the National
Party and others were considering changing the nuclear policy
were true, he would leave his hospital bed and travel to
Wellington in his wheel chair to protest.

6. (SBU) To many former colleagues and observers, Lange was
also a deeply flawed individual on both a professional and
personal level. Although widely credited for cheering the
country through bleak austerity measures that were necessary
to prevent total economic collapse, Lange was unable to
control the factions in his Government, and if anything fed
them. When for example he decided that the austerity
measures initiated by then-Finance Minister Roger Douglas had
gone too far, Lange took the almost unheard of step of
overriding his Cabinet to end the flat tax that Douglas had
implemented. This eventually led to the sacking of Douglas
and the other architect of austerity, Richard Prebble in
1988, and to Lange's own resignation in 1989. Many in his
Government also never forgave him for denying he was having
an affair with his speech writer (whom he eventually married)
and even more for allowing himself to be influenced by her
views. In a recent TV interview, even Lange confessed that
he had come to see himself as invincible and unaccountable to

7. (SBU) In later life, Lange became more and more isolated.
In his autobiography, "My Life," originally slated for
September publication but released in early August because of
his illness, Lange slams virtually every member of his
Government, noting "What a terrible lot they were." Most
were cavalier in response, including PM Clark, who Lange
accused of having kept out of any inter-Governmental fight as
long as her own Housing portfolio was well funded.

8. (U) There will be no official funeral, reportedly at the
request of Lange and his family. The Prime Minister has
said, however, that she will look into the possibility of an
official memorial service. Lange's widow, Margaret Pope,
says that for now she is only focused on the private funeral
that Lange requested.

9. (U) Sunday and Monday press reports gave wide coverage to
Lange's death, including summaries of his life in and out of
office and numerous editorial comments. The newspapers also
printed quotes from Government officials as well as Don Brash
and other opposition leaders, virtually all of which noted
Lange's leadership and sense of humor. Prime Minister Howard
was also quoted, however, as saying "I respected him, though
I obviously disagreed very strongly with his decision to take
New Zealand out of the Anzus treaty." A statement from the
American Embassy also got wide coverage, appearing above PM
Clark's and Dr. Brash's statements in the Sunday Star Times.
The statement said, "David Lange led New Zealand through a
difficult period of profound changes at home and abroad. He
did so with courage, optimism, and humor, the same traits he
demonstrated in the face of his illness. He will be missed
not only by the people of New Zealand but by his friends in
the United States. Our condolences to his family and to the
people of New Zealand."

10. (C) Comment: In her remarks on Lange's death, Prime
Minister Clark stressed his role in making New Zealand
nuclear free, thereby subtly reminding voters yet again of
Labour's accusations that the ban would be "gone by
lunchtime" in a National-led government. But Clark will not
be able to claim fully the mantle of Lange's heir apparent,
especially since he criticized her in his recent
autobiography. Nor would claims of being his heir apparent
necessarily carry a lot of weight with New Zealanders.
Although they regard with pride Lange's perceived ability to
put New Zealand on the global stage, their affection for him
resides largely in his wit and image as a man of the people.
(One news piece detailed how Lange won the hearts of a local
Auckland cafe owner and his customers.) With the exception
of the nuclear legislation, few remember fondly the austerity
measures or other Lange Government policies, even if they
have endured. And no one would equate the mannerisms of the
somber Clark with those of the quick-humored Lange. As the
British would say, the two are like chalk and cheese.


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