Working With David by Michael Bassett – Hodder Moa
Images Kevin List from Working with David’s launch at the National Library Wellington
Well, what did we expect? Turning to Michael Bassett for an account of the Lange years is a little like basing your understanding of Julius Caesar’s assassination on a version written by Brutus Jnr. As a key Cabinet member of the fourth Labour government, Bassett was certainly close enough to see and to know, but in that deeply riven Cabinet there were no neutral bystanders, and Bassett less so than most.
Given Bassett’s proximity to Roger Douglas, it will hardly come as a shock to find that in this account, the Rogernomics revolution was carried out by a highly talented group of very, very intelligent people for the worthiest of motives, though their actions are still sadly misunderstood even to this day. In the pendulum swings of historical accounts, Bassett’s book is something of a rejoinder ( and a payback) to Lange’s equally self-serving 2005 autobiography David Lange : My Life.
Where does that leave the reader? Unfortunately, partisan accounts from the Cabinet trenches are about all we have right now as history of this fractious era. A more balanced perspective may emerge in time that is better able to treat the Lange’s administration’s second term disintegration as a process that had more than one parent – and that can handle the ultimate defeat in 1990 as being virtually inevitable, given the scale of social and economic suffering caused to so many by the Douglas reforms, to the apparent benefit of so few. This, however, isn’t that kind of book.
Instead, Bassett effortlessly detects one over-riding reason why the fourth Labour government had rendered itself unelectable by 1990 – and her name was Margaret Pope. Pope! In Bassett’s account, Pope is the hissable villain of the whole Rogernomics enterprise, abetted by her weak and vacillating PM, partner and (eventual) spouse. Why, if left alone to the attention of his Cabinet colleagues, Lange might have lasted as the salesman for reform for a lot longer, and may even have successfully sold the fateful December 17, 1987 tax package to the public, and ushered in a further bright new era of Douglas-driven social reform. One can but dream. Thanks to that conniving harpy, it all came to nothing.
Pope, Pope. Bassett starts in with his colleagues finding her ‘poker-faced, tight-lipped and decidedly unfriendly.’ By page 142 we find others weighing in with ‘unpleasant’ and unco-operative’ and ‘angry much of the time,’ though allegedly, no-one knew what about, exactly. And so on, and on.
Pope ‘ nagged’ Lange, Bassett claims. She came between him and his dearest friends. She supplanted the blokes in caucus in his affections. By late in the book, we have reached this crescendo : “Lange’s lack of policy grounding made him fair game for the doctrinaire woman who had entered his life in 1982…As Lange’s health teetered in a downward direction she became a more significant factor in the government’s chances of survival than any of the Cabinet realised until it was too late. By 1987, when Lange began conspiring against Roger Douglas, his commitment to Pope, who hated everything the Rogernomes stood for, was complete : no compromise could be entertained. Margaret Pope, “ Bassett thunders, “ became the biggest single factor in the collapse of David Lange’s government.”
If Pope is the book’s dastardly villainess, then her love-struck, unhealthy and scatter-brained partner comes in pretty close behind. “ He was never profound,” Bassett declares of Lange in one unintentionally funny passage. “ He had always preferred light fiction, and stories about human frailty, to substantial works of non-fiction.” Unlike perhaps, our humble and weightier scribe? For posterity, Bassett records that Lange was reading ‘dark novel fiction’ ( sic) at the very moment when Muldoon announced the snap election in 1984, in the form of an Ian Cochrane novel called The Slipstream. ( In an ironic parallel that is not mentioned in Bassett’s book, Cochrane also suffered life-long damage in 1987, when trying to protect someone vulnerable from a bunch of thugs.)
It is not as if Working With David is uninteresting. As one turns the 553 pages of Bassett’s narrative, one finds much diverting information in this clearly written tabulation of events, marking a crucial time in New Zealand’s history. I particularly liked reading Bassett’s version of the nuclear ships episode, and the much storied invitation to the USS Buchanan, that ended so badly – for the Americans, at least.
Clearly, it wasn’t all beer and skittles being the herald of the new order, forced to cope with the carpings of lesser beings : “ The challenge for Douglas’ office and indeed for Lange and the rest of us was to produce arguments that countered raucous, antediluvian criticism of the economic strategies we were adopting.” People just didn’t get it. Oh, the younger, more impressionable types from Treasury did – but the older hands wanted more information, more proof. So irritating to deal with, but luckily, there were other friends around who understood : “ An advisory panel was chaired by Dr Don Brash, formerly Broadlands Managing Director, and a friend of Douglas’ and mine. Brash had been a National candidate earlier in the decade but was known to be dedicated to the thrust of our economic reforms.”
Overall, the stance of superiority results in the book hardly ever quite becoming the ‘collaborative and authoritative’ account that it deems itself to be, and the mean-spirited tone constantly intrudes on the cavalcade of events, usefully so at times. Personally, I found the hectoring tone served as a helpful reminder that this was an engaged account from a participant, and not history conducted at a rational distance.
Douglas for instance, is constantly depicted as bold and imaginative, a visionary who – with the exception of a few enlightened Cabinet colleagues – had been set down among a band of carping pygmies, and a benighted public. Even Treasury couldn’t keep up – its slowness, Bassett partly due, Douglas felt ( p 316) “ to the fact that several of its most economcally literate minds had left the service.’
As for the new intake of Labour MPs in 1987, some were trouble : “ The caucus newcomers wanted to prejudge everything. I noted on 19 November 1987 that several were gunning for Prebble over the closure of 432 post offices.. and his prospensity to talk generally about privisatisaion of state assets also rankled with several…” Imagine the effrontery ! 432 closures and with more asset sales being mooted by Prebble on other fronts, and still they rushed to judgement.
And it wasn’t just the newbies who were causing trouble by late 1987.” A few experienced MPs also grizzled about the Business Roundtable appearing to have too much input to policy, although given the paucity of detail yet available from Douglas, their complaints were hard to justify.” No suggestion here that this penchant of Douglas to hoard information until he was ready to ram through changes, may have been laying the groundwork for trouble to come. No, any criticism of the Douglas blueprint for economic and social transformation is treated as ignorant, or as emanating from critics still clinging to their vested interests, or stubbornly intent on furthering their own inferior thinking.
“When it came to sustained thinking,” Bassett writes, “ about policy alternatives and strategic positioning of his government neither he, nor Pope, nor anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office, possessed the skills or disciplines to match the policy thrust developed by Lange’s ministers.” This is true, almost by definition, given the domination of the levers of power by Cabinet – and due to the related ability under FPP, of a tiny group within Cabinet to marshal the crucial information necessary to bulldoze first the caucus, then Parliament, and then the rest of the country. For one of the leading practitioners of this profoundly undemocratic methodology to now complain of the dearth of alternatives on offer, is a bit rich. To use a current analogy, this is like blaming others for not having the skills or disciplines to say, extract US troops from the mess in Iraq that one’s own ‘visionary’ policies have landed them in.
Even as the end approached in the 1990 election, as first Geoffrey Palmer and then Mike Moore tried to salvage something from the ruins, Bassett’s account remains intent on sparing Douglas blame for Labour’s election humiliation. To the last, Bassett urges the case for more ‘boldness,’ for more of the dogmatism that had served Labour so badly. The party’s landslide defeat is put down instead to ‘low commodity prices that delayed economic recovery, and catastrophically poor leadership in its second term’ – by you know who.
Along the road from Lange’s early triumphs to his eventual defeat, decline and death, there can hardly be a single demeaning or unlikeable trait in his distant cousin that Bassett has failed to note and to preserve. Some of it is very old stuff. As far back as 1983, journalists had been noting Lange’s brilliant superficiality, his short attention span and lack of attention to detail. All these flaws are trotted out again, and more. His office was untidy, he followed no rigorous political ideology, he dropped ash on the shirt covering his fat stomach. He became paranoid, and duplicitous He made things up.
Lange had few close friends. In Bassett’s depiction, Lange is both needy of company and contemptuous of much of the company on offer. Lange is further described by Bassett as being “the least securely anchored, both intellectually and emotionally of all his ministers.” ( What, even more so than Mike Moore, that paragon of intellectual focus and emotional stability ? )
The litany of alleged faults goes on and on. He was an alcoholic, Bassett claims, who drank to embarrassing excess ( several examples are provided, strictly for the historical record of course) and yet Lange couldn’t win – since, in another sense, he also allegedly never drank quite enough. “ He never learned to drink socially…He would go home early, clutching a cheap novel or a video…David Lange’s last two years as Prime Minister were a time of considerable personal confusion, which he tried to blot out with alcohol. Unable or unwilling to engage with his his ministers, he pushed into waters that he’d not charted before..” Fancy that – what kind of man would prefer being home with the woman he loved, when he could be staying up late drinking at Parliament, with such scintillating company as Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, and Michael Bassett?
We are not spared the distressing details of Lange’s final physical deterioration. Time and again, the focus returns to Pope, depicted as the last and most manipulative of the domineering women who contributed to Lange’s demise. After all : “ His real need was for the comfort that a supportive, strong–willed woman could provide.” Bassett cites a string of them, starting with Lange’s mother Phoebe, and then his first wife Naomi. Fran Wilde’s influence is alleged at one period, but the detested Pope is the chief target. She ‘ nagged’ him, ( p 551.) By mid 1990 such was her influence, Bassett surmises in another Oprah-worthy comment, that“ There were times now when David Lange no longer seemed to be his own man.” Or this : “ It was to have a devastating effect on the government when Margaret Pope, like Mrs Proudie, the bishop’s wife in Trollope’s Barchester novels, started to try and run the diocese.” [Didn’t she know that was men’s work? ]
The book’s obsession with Pope creates its own credibility problem –because the overall atmosphere of hostility to women in Bassett’s narrative unwittingly undermines his attempt to demonise Pope. For all I know, Pope may be a difficult character. Many powerful people around Parliament are not the sort of well rounded individuals you’d like to take home for dinner. It seems to come with the territory.
In Bassett’s case though, it is striking that so many of the women in his narrative are treated with venom, as schemers, or harridans – Ruth Dyson, Fran Wilde, and Sonja Davies all cop it. Margaret Wilson is memorably described as ‘slipping poison’ into the king’s ear. Only Annette King escapes the abuse and – as you might expect – Helen Clark receives entire volleys of snide comment.
For instance : Bassett trashes Clark ( on p 515) as putting personal ambition above all else : “She, preferring to structure a harmony of interests around herself as the queen bee, with women [imagine!] in commanding positions. Her advocacy of pay equity, and her rubbishing of further labour market reform when Douglas suggested it, were part and parcel of her wider personal advancement.” Get the distinction ? Douglas has selfless visions for the good of the country, while his critics were – and are – motivated purely by petty personal ambition. Clark is the kind of person who reads the Guardian Weekly, Bassett offers us as clinching criticism via David Butcher, and never the Economist.
By such methods, Bassett manages to confirm something Clark once complained about in 1986, to the journalist Virginia Myers, in a book called Head and Shoulders – that a pervasive anti-women climate prevailed in the upper echelons of the fourth Labour government. In turn, this feeds into a psychological condition even more central to Bassett’s thesis. How can it be that the wonders Roger Douglas has wrought have become so divisive, and so unpopular that his brand of slash and burn policies now attract only Act Party, margin-of-error levels of support in New Zealand ? It is this situation that, for Bassett at least, necessitates a villain, and the role that he has fashioned for Pope. Clearly, David Lange was not the only 1980s politician still needing the spotlight, the love and the affirmation.
This lack of appreciation – and public gratitude – for the Rogernomics revolution still appears to rankle with the diehards from the 1980s Lange Cabinet. It may explain their apparent determination to foist those policies on us, all over again. As Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men revealed, Bassett was involved in helping Don Brash to spring a similar agenda, if elected at the 2005 election. There’s a kind of psychological displacement involved. Someone else has to be held responsible, someone else must take the blame for the contempt in which the policies of privatisation and the workings of the unfettered free market are now widely held. Pope, Lange, Michael Cullen, Jim Anderton…never the half bakd extremism of the policies themselves.
It isn’t hard to see why Bassett would have felt nettled – both as a historian, and as a participant – by Lange’s version of events in his David Lange, My Life book. Yet for all his many gifts and faults, Lange had decided off his own bat to baulk at the snake oil that Douglas was peddling by late 1987. Blaming Pope for his change of heart may serve some deep-set need. Yet if Douglas and Bassett really want to know why their 1980s revolution ended in disaster, they might be better advised to start looking in the mirror. It’s never too late.