Lange’s incompetence

Gerald Hensley has an insightful article in The Listener on how the three decade stand off with the United States might never have occurred, if Lange had kept his word.

Basically Lange and the US had come to an agreement that while they would not officially confirm nor deny which ships were nuclear powered and armed, they were happy for NZ to invite a ship which obviously was neither. Both sides would be satisfied and our law would be respected, as would the US policy. A win-win.

The key to getting the right ship was the US Commander-in-Chief in Honolulu, Admiral William Crowe, and in mid-November, Lange sent Chief of Defence Staff Ewan Jamieson to talk to him. They were personal friends and Jamieson stayed at his house. The admiral offered him a choice of three conventionally powered ships; Jamieson chose an elderly destroyer, USS Buchanan, because it was not operationally equipped for nuclear weapons. The admiral was punctilious about giving no hint of its armament, but he was as aware as the New Zealanders of the significance of the visit and the need for the ship to be “clean”.

Lange seemed comfortable with this choice. In December, he told the US ambassador to submit a formal request for a visit by Buchanan for the Cabinet to consider early in the New Year and said he saw no difficulty. The Secretary of Foreign Affairs was optimistic enough to tell Bill Rowling, our new ambassador to Washington, that whatever else happened in his term, he would not have to worry about ship visits.

This proved to be a substantial under-estimate. Word of an impending visit, though not the name of the ship, leaked out of Washington after a visit there by Helen Clark, then chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, who reportedly telephoned her fellow activists to say, “Push the button.” Across the country, the machinery of protest was set in motion: the telephone trees, networks, haunting of newsrooms and demonstrations that distinguished the left when it was energised by a hot issue.

A brilliant public relations campaign caught the Government unprepared. There had been no Cabinet consideration of the Buchanan visit; no minister knew anything about it. It had all been held closely by Lange. When he had earlier been offered a draft Cabinet paper to brief his colleagues, he declined, saying he preferred to do it his way. His way turned out to be not to say anything at all, not even to his deputy.

I knew Lange was not very good at the day to day duties of the Prime Minister, as in leading the Government, but I didn’t realise quite how dysfunctional he was. He didn’t build any sort of internal coalition or agreement for the deal, and it got turned down by Palmer while Lange was away.

The US felt Lange lied to them, and that is why things turned toxic. We could have had our anti-nuclear policy and stayed in , if Lange had been competent.

He was a funny sincere man, who was a great orator. But he was not a good Prime Minister.

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