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Former prime ministers David Lange, pictured in 1987, and Robert Muldoon, 1982. Photos/Listener

What it was like to have Robert Muldoon and David Lange as bosses

Former prime ministers Rob Muldoon and David Lange were polar opposites except for one characteristic, writes Gerald Hensley, who knew both men well.

A scientific model that can predict the behaviour of prime ministers seems to have eluded the efforts of political scientists, but after a lifetime of occasional thought about this, I suspect nothing unites the experience of prime ministers except luck and unpredictability.

I learnt this with my very first experience. A few weeks after joining the then Department of External Affairs, I went to Prime Minister Walter Nash to seek approval to establish an agricultural college in Samoa. So why did my superiors decide to use a junior officer to get the PM’s signature on the paper? I presume it’s because they thought if someone carried it into his office, there was a good chance he would bring it out again, rather than have it sit unsigned in Nash’s famous “compost heap” of files.

Read more by Gerald Hensley: Did New Zealand waste 32 years in a stand-off against nuclear America?

The Prime Minister stared at the plans and asked why a bike shed was needed. Visited by inspiration, I said it was because the students rode bikes, and he seemed satisfied. Then, just about to sign the submission, he paused. “But are they starving in Samoa, Mr Hensley?” he asked, suggesting that aid money should go only where people need food.

He went into a kind of reverie, saying, “What I would like is to have enough aircraft to drop a bag of flour on every village in Java.” While I was pondering which was worse – the threat to the inhabitants of Java or the prospect that my very first assignment was going to be a failure – he signed the paper and handed it to me with one of his sweet smiles.

Muldoon in 1979. Photo/Listener

Predictably unpredictable

The two prime ministers I knew best, Robert Muldoon and David Lange, were totally unalike, opposites in every respect except for this unpredictability.

Muldoon had no interest in the “vision thing”; he was a manager with the limited aim of keeping things “tidy”, to use a favourite word of his. He was unwilling to change anything unless he had to, and for him, the breath of life was the detail of administration, the day-to-day wielding of power. “Mr Hensley, I have been in government and I have been in opposition, and believe me, government is better.”

The work required to master the daily demands of governing took all his time. I never saw him with a book. Even at weekends, you would find him sitting on a couch surrounded by papers, and this relentless focus on work enabled him to dominate his ministers and Government completely.

In contrast, David Lange was not much interested in power. For him, the breath of life was the appreciation and indeed admiration of others. He did not so much preside over his Government, let alone manage it, as comment on it as it went by. His comments were clever and witty, but being amusing is not much fun on your own, so he liked to have an audience to hear his jokes. No prime minister enjoyed a press conference more than he.

Lange in 1987. Photo/Listener

The two PMs had an entirely different approach to the officials who worked with them. Muldoon was indifferent to what they thought; how effective they were was his only test. He thought and even said that both the Prime Ministerial Advisory Group, which I headed, and myself probably voted Labour, but the possibility did not bother him in the least.

He wanted results from his staff, not emotional support. He understood and observed the professional divide between elected and non-elected officials. My predecessor as Advisory Group head, Bernard Galvin, said when handing over to me, “He will usually call you Mr Hensley. If he is cross, it may be Mr e-r-r. But if he ever calls you Gerald, watch out.” This proved good advice. I remember him calling me Gerald only twice, with the slightly shifty look prime ministers get when they know they are pushing the limits.

Lange, on the other hand, wanted support and mateship from his officials as well as advice. When he swept into the Beehive after the 1984 election, everyone called him David, even the window cleaners. We had a little skirmish over this. He pressed me every day to call him David, but the Advisory Group and I stuck resolutely to addressing him as Prime Minister.

The point we were making was that as public servants, we were in a professional relationship, not a personal one. After a three-week tussle, our view prevailed, but I think Lange was a little hurt at what he saw as a stuffy and unfriendly stance.

Muldoon in 1988. Photo/Listener

Meeting with spies

The differences between the two were shown in a field not much covered by political analysts – the meeting each had with a KGB defector. Muldoon met Stanislav Levchenko, who had defected from the KGB residency in Tokyo. He’d thoughtfully brought with him a list of his agents of influence, which caused a stir in the Japanese press as some of their members were on the list. On the way to the meeting, when Muldoon asked me why Levchenko had defected, I said he had undergone a religious conversion. The Prime Minister was appalled that a sensible approach to the business of government could be overturned by such a disorderly urge.

Lange met a more famous defector, Oleg Gordievsky, who had been a double agent working for the British for more than 10 years and had been plucked from Moscow in a brilliant MI6 operation when he was about to be executed. Briefing Lange in the car, I mentioned that Gordievsky’s code name as a British agent had been Ovation. When we came into the room and Gordievsky stood up to shake hands, Lange said, “Ah, a standing Ovation,” then looked around to gauge everyone’s reaction.

Along with the fundamental differences, there were the similarities enforced by their position. Both, like every other I have known, were careful readers of the newspapers. Lange would occasionally do the Dominion crossword while being briefed in the morning, jotting down the answers while he listened as if copying from a crib. Muldoon also liked to start the day with the Dominion and once rebuked me when I had not had time to do so. Looking at me over his glasses, he said, “You should, Mr Hensley. It doesn’t take long.”

Both were regular unacknowledged sources for the media, bearing out the old saying that the ship of state is an unusual vessel in that it leaks from the top. Both could be trapped by their own activity.

In the days when Budget leaks were serious, one appeared in a weekly news-sheet, which Muldoon asked me to look into. Reporting back to him on my lack of progress, I suddenly realised that I was talking to the leaker. It was the only time I have consciously teased a prime minister, telling him that the search was narrowing to the upper floors of the Beehive, while he urged me not to waste my time.

Because Lange entertained himself by talking, he was trapped more often, a point he ruefully acknowledged. At the height of the nuclear-ships dispute, he leaked – I think inadvertently – the type of American warship he was seeking to replace the rejected USS Buchanan, which had been denied entry to New Zealand, by talking too expansively to journalists in the press gallery.

After the Russian liner Mikhail Lermontov sank in the Marlborough Sounds in 1986, he couldn’t resist the jaunty crack that New Zealand was the only Western country ever to sink a Soviet ship. I came into his room to find him with his head in his hands. With a groan, he revealed through his fingers that the ship turned out indeed to have been under the control of a New Zealand pilot.

Both liked to relax at the Pacific Forum. Muldoon enjoyed it, uncharacteristically, as “the chance to have a quiet chat”. He could even indulge in a little self-parody, appearing on one occasion like the Parsee man in the Just So stories, sitting under a palm tree in a huge Mexican sombrero and flowered shorts.

He would never have approved of Lange’s levity at the Rarotonga forum, where the New Zealand delegation made wagers on the time it would take President Hammer DeRoburt of Nauru to fall asleep after lunch. Our international lawyer’s bet went short at nine minutes when a gentle snore came at precisely that time; the animation in the New Zealand delegation was so great that the President woke up.

Lange in 1996. Photo/Listener

Drinking habits

Both prime ministers liked their food and drink. Muldoon began the practice of entertaining overseas guests over dinner. He treated his dinners as another problem of government – something to be properly organised and kept tidy. A few were memorably grim – Muldoon had no small talk at all – but if he was at ease and liked the company, he could be a surprisingly good host.

Lange hated dinner parties. He disliked the formality and the constraint of being seated with only two partners to talk to. He loved to roll around at receptions, looming up to deliver a witty comment and then rolling off to do the same somewhere else. Food played an important part in his life but not as a social occasion.

Drink rather reversed these positions. Lange did not drink for most of his time in office, and his sad addiction began only towards the end when the strain on him was telling. Muldoon was famously a drinker in the Beehive but not, at least from my viewpoint, the chronically unsober man of later legend. He normally did not drink much during the working day. The exception was his periodic lunches with a friend, when it was wise to leave the Prime Minister alone after 3.30pm, when the sky darkened and the thunderclouds rolled in.

One day, on a visit to Canberra, he lunched equally well at the National Press Club and then left to call on Treasurer Paul Keating. I noticed with some foreboding that the time was almost 3.30pm. The foreboding was well founded. Things started comfortably enough, but then on business policy the two were suddenly going at it like the Irish street fighters they were.

Whenever the Australian Treasury Secretary or I attempted to calm the uproar, both would turn on us and say, “You keep out of this.” It was a bar-room dispute rather than a discussion, but both seemed to be invigorated by it.

It is probably appropriate to let Lange have the last word. At Muldoon’s funeral in 1992, a strange occasion in the Auckland Town Hall, I found myself walking in with Lange. He whispered, “Is he really dead? I have brought some garlic with me just in case.”

Gerald Hensley is a former diplomat and public servant; he was head of the Prime Minister’s Department under the Muldoon and Lange Governments and Secretary of Defence under the Bolger and Shipley Governments. He is the longest-serving contributor to the Listener, having written his first piece exactly 60 years ago, in 1959.

This article was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.