13 August 2005: David Lange ONZ CH PV was New Zealand’s youngest prime minister of the 20th century. Renowned for his sharp wit and oratory, he led the fourth Labour government from 1984 until 1989.
This was a turbulent era, characterised by New Zealand’s strong anti-nuclear position, the implementation of ‘Rogernomics’, and other radical changes.
Lange was born and brought up in Otahuhu, the son of a medical doctor. He became a lawyer by profession, and represented poor and struggling people in civil rights causes in the rapidly changing Auckland of the 1970s.
After serving as legal advisor to the Polynesian Panthers, Lange was first elected to the New Zealand Parliament in the Mangere by-election of 1977. He became a prominent debater within parliament, and soon gained a reputation for cutting wit (sometimes directed against himself) and eloquence.
Lange became the Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition in 1983, succeeding Bill Rowling.
When Prime Minister Robert Muldoon called an election for July 1984 Lange led his party to a landslide victory, becoming, at the age of 41, New Zealand’s youngest prime minister of the 20th century.
Lange took various measures to deal with the economic problems he had inherited from the previous government. Some of the measures he took were controversial; the free-market ethos of the Fourth Labour Government did not always conform to traditional expectations of a social-democratic party.
He also fulfilled a campaign promise to deny New Zealand’s port facilities to nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered vessels, making New Zealand a nuclear-free zone.
Lange and his party were re-elected in August 1987; he resigned two years later and was succeeded by his deputy, Geoffrey Palmer. He retired from parliament in 1996, but he suffered from poor health for many years and died in 2005 from renal failure and blood disease at the age of 63.
Prime Minister Helen Clark described New Zealand’s nuclear-free legislation as his legacy.