Battling David

by Richard Long / 12 July, 2008
Michael Bassett shares his front-row view of Labour's vicious internal warfare.

Michael Bassett filled in his time at Cabinet and caucus meetings scrawling longhand accounts of the bitter internal battles of the fourth Labour Government. His colleagues occasionally protested, causing Prime Minister David Lange to ask him, at one stage, to desist. But the pen did not pause for long. Bassett, the historian, could foresee the need to record what was to become a wild roller-coaster ride.

Now, 18 years on, Working With David: Inside the Lange Cabinet recounts at long last intimate details of the internal ructions of a Labour Government that pursued an unlikely platform of right-wing economic reforms teamed with a left-wing anti-nuclear foreign policy.

The latter, which caused rifts of varying degrees with the Americans, the Australians and the British, basically diverted the party faithful, allowing Finance Minister Roger Douglas to get on with the sweeping economic reforms. Reforms, as Bassett recounts, that were initially backed by Lange and were planned and executed in great detail.

This is a book for political junkies - more than 500 pages of gossip, anecdotes and snapshots of the sometimes vicious internal warfare. The wonder is they managed to keep the show on the road for two terms, from 1984-1990, till they came to grief, spectacularly, over Douglas' proposed flat tax of 23 cents in the dollar.

Bassett, a close supporter of Lange in the early days, and a distant cousin, is unashamedly in the camp of Douglas and the reformers, regarding opponents as the enemy - with enemy No 1 being Lange's speechwriter-girlfriend, Margaret Pope.

Pope is demonised as a socialist Mata Hari who left her husband on election day 1984 and single-handedly suborned Lange into opposing Douglas and the economic reforms. By implication, she was responsible for bringing down the Government. Perhaps. She was certainly a no-holds-barred operator who took her politics seriously. A glance from her could freeze the soul, I recall.

When she did not get her way, she was apt to pack up and go, leaving a GONE sign on her Beehive desk and the advice "keys in drawer". Lange, smitten emotionally and intellectually, fretted till he got her back. Then she returned, more powerful than ever.

Pope was certainly a huge influence with Lange - on anti-nuclear policy as well as economic policy - but I'm yet to be convinced she was solely responsible for the about-turns as the Douglas camp claimed then and continues to argue now. The mercurial Lange, brilliant but flaky, was always capable of changing his own mind.

On ship visits, he initially tried to differentiate between nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ships. Lange dispatched officials to Pearl Harbour to do a deal over sending an aged rust bucket, the USS Buchanan, which was demonstrably not nuclear-armed and he could allow to visit on a "trust me" policy.

But where was the leader when it came to promoting to his caucus this visit he had secretly asked to be arranged? Frolicking in the warm waters of the Tokelau lagoon and avoiding the hot water at home.

He hated confrontation and in his absence was beaten into line by Margaret Wilson, Helen Clark, Jim Anderton and the Left. The visit was cancelled, sparking the rift with Washington where US officials, who had invested their own standing in the compromise, thought they had been deliberately deceived.

Bassett views all this as part of the disorganisation that became endemic with Lange after the first few exciting months in office. Governing became an ordeal of tedious detail, whereas Lange preferred the showman role, in which he excelled.

He subsequently seized a David versus Goliath victory, addressing the famous Oxford Union Debate ("... hold your breath just for a moment. I can smell the uranium on it as you lean forward"). And he rewrote history by promoting the idea he had been an anti-nuclear campaigner from the start.

Then came the Rainbow Warrior bombing, giving Lange a bigger platform to excel on the world stage, as the leader of a tiny nation subjected to state-sponsored terrorism from the French. It was tailor-made for him, and he became an international celebrity. The Fiji coup and second coup provided further opportunities.

Lange confided to Bassett that he would be remembered for his anti-nuclear stance. By implication, he discounted the economic reforms that brought us one of the world's most open economies after the disastrous Muldoon years had brought us to the verge of bankruptcy.

Bassett views Pope as a tsarina urging Lange, in the latter stages, to deal like Ivan the Terrible to Douglas and his lieutenant, Richard Prebble. From what I could detect at the time, Bassett was right on the ball there. In spite of the caucus desire for a reconciliation, it became a matter of Lange or Douglas. One had to go.

Lange got rid of Prebble first, then fired the hugely capable Bevan Burgess, Douglas' press -secretary and strategist. The embattled Douglas, hamstrung and frustrated, publicly challenged Lange and was fired. "We've got the bastard," a jubilant Pope and Lange staffer Stephen Mills rejoiced to visitors. David Caygill, forced to take over Douglas' finance role, lamented to Bassett: "It was as though the bloody captain had walked off the bridge."

The caucus was in despair, unable to accept that a reconciliation was not possible, but Lange was adamant.

In a caucus vote, hinged around a no-confidence motion in Lange, Caygill suggested he stand down. Lange was shattered. It was all hugely emotional. Michael Cullen, Bassett reveals, was in tears.

Lange survived the vote 28-24, put a confident public face on it, but was finished. When Douglas was re-elected to Cabinet two months later, Lange stood down.

Bassett's intimate snapshots are the most revealing aspect of this book. Those reporting Parliament at the time were getting the general drift, but as an insider he is able to add flesh to the bones. The trench warfare between Lange's ninthfloor office and Douglas' floor is exposed in detail.

It was quite a ride. We will never see the like again in our MMP parliamentary world. Political junkies have a lot to thank Bassett for, although he will be roundly condemned by the Left for siding with Douglas rather than the anti-nuclear hero.

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