The Reluctant Prime Minister

Geoffrey Palmer didn't want to be prime minister. He knew the fourth Labour government was doomed.

Prime Minister David Lange had had a spectacular bust-up with his finance minister Roger Douglas.

Lange's "weaknesses" had destroyed the government, Sir Geoffrey says, and the leader's job "was a poisoned chalice".

"I didn't really want it but I felt it was necessary to have a stable hand at the helm while we tried to finish what we'd started."

In fact, his demise came more quickly than expected. The panicking Labour caucus replaced him with Mike Moore a mere six weeks before losing the 1990 election.

Sir Geoffrey's inability to bring the two warring leaders together "was my greatest failure in politics", he writes in his new book, Reform: A Memoir.

His attempts at peacemaking "are too numerous to recite and painful to me still".

Sir Geoffrey is remembered as a prim and proper politician, a constitutional purist with a loud voice and a pedantic manner. He once told journalists that New Zealand was a "pluvial" country (it means rainy).

The book reveals other sides to the man. Geoffrey Palmer does have a sense of humour.

He tells a story about his friend, former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, stripping to his "bright yellow underpants" on the Middlemore golf course to play a ball stuck in the swamp.

Sir Geoffrey's press secretary panicked about a possible media disaster. "Pictures of the prime ministerial underpants will flash around the world," she cried. Luckily the journalists had just left and missed the story.

Sir Geoffrey, the stern alcohol reformer who wanted to stamp out binge-drinking, reveals that he had a boozy great-grandfather, a publican who was often in trouble with the law and eventually lost his liquor licence.

And Sir Geoffrey is an occasional poet. His lyric mourning the death of David Lange mixes personal grief with concern at his government's failure of Cabinet collective responsibility.

Along the Iowa River three geese swim …

The geese stay together in formation swimming sedately.

They seem to value the collective as Cabinets should.

This is the day I learned that David Lange died.

Darkness falls and I can see the geese no more.


The Lange government fell apart, Sir Geoffrey says, because of "a failure of one of the most basic principles of Cabinet government".

Prime Minister David Lange was the main culprit. He canned the newly elected government's notorious economic package of December 1987, a dramatic lurch to the Right based on a flat income tax and sweeping privatisation.

Lange's unilateral decision was something "that you can't do", Sir Geoffrey says. "And that's why it all fell apart."

He points to the selfishness of both men. "Neither David nor Roger seemed in their epic struggle to consider the interests of anyone but themselves," he writes.

There were faults on both sides, "but David had serious weaknesses that in the end destroyed his government".

"He could not or would not have meaningful discussions with Roger Douglas over their differences."

Lange made a significant contribution to New Zealand, Sir Geoffrey writes, and working with him had given him great satisfaction. But "in the final period of our partnership it also produced endless frustration. . .

"He was not well organised personally and lacked administrative skills. His office was not well run and that was his fault.

"He did not have much stamina for meetings, and politics requires many long meetings. He often left meetings for long periods, aimlessly wandering about talking to people."

Lange's "multifarious health problems affected not only his ability for sustained work but also in later years his judgment. . .

"Neither did he seem to be able or willing in Cabinet to argue strongly for particular policy positions, so it was hard to see where he was coming from.

"He really did not exert much influence over the policies of his own government. He was not an effective policy operator."

Despite this rather damning list, Sir Geoffrey says he felt quite a lot of sympathy for Lange when he "walked away" from the prime minister's job in August 1989.

"He had personal difficulties that he had to resolve," Sir Geoffrey told The Dominion Post, "and he had health difficulties which were pretty awful."

When Sir Geoffrey became prime minister, Helen Clark was elected as his deputy. His assessment of her performance is cool.

Clark "is, as everyone knows, extremely able. She was not, however, an ideal deputy because she had only been a minister since the 1987 election.

"In January 1990 she was saddled with two new and difficult portfolios, health and labour. As a result, she did not have the time to devote to firefighting and management of the whole.

"Her style was to micromanage her portfolios. She had strong connections with the party and that was very helpful, but I found myself wishing sometimes that I had a deputy of the type I had been."


Sir Geoffrey played a crucial role in the nuclear stand-off between New Zealand and the United States.

He went to the United States to try to reach an agreement after the Labour government had banned the proposed port visit of the USS Buchanan, an act which infuriated the United States.

He failed to fix the rift, a failure which in hindsight he sees as inevitable. A solution "just wasn't going to happen".

However, he rejects the claim that Mr Lange deliberately misled the Americans as well as his own Cabinet.

He does not accept the claim by Gerald Hensley, the former head of the Prime Minister's department, that Mr Lange lied to his Cabinet colleagues over the Buchanan affair.

Lange, he says, was "a perfectly honourable chap".

"I don't believe Lange was a liar. Lange was certainly a person who spoke in riddles, and he was certainly a person who was capable of being misunderstood.

"I well recall him saying to me, ‘Geoffrey, I've been reading the transcripts of your press conferences. Don't be so accurate!' "

Lange's elliptical way of speaking, he concedes, "drove the Americans mad".

US Secretary of State George Shultz accused Mr Lange of misleading him during their discussion in Wellington at the time of the 1984 election. He believed Mr Lange had promised the anti-nuclear policy would be fixed within six months.

But Sir Geoffrey points out that the only other person present at the meeting, Foreign Affairs head Merwyn Norrish, had rejected Shultz's claim. Lange had not said he would change "the policy we were elected on".

Sir Geoffrey says he did not know that Mr Lange had sent his Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Ewan Jamieson, to negotiate with the Americans.

He and other senior officials thought New Zealand should admit the Buchanan because it was extremely unlikely to be carrying nuclear weapons.

The news about the possible visit of the ship leaked out while Lange was in Tokelau and out of contact. Uproar ensued, with many Labour members threatening a revolt if the Buchanan was admitted.

Sir Geoffrey says he "doesn't know why [Lange] didn't brief me about what he was doing . . .

"It would have been very helpful if he'd briefed me before he went off to Tokelau."

While Lange's action was "a mistake in hindsight", Sir Geoffrey says, he was not to know that the news about the Buchanan would leak in his absence.

Sir Geoffrey has now revealed for the first time the text of the case he put to George Shultz when he went to Washington. It is a remarkably blunt document.

At one point he warns that consequences could flow from taking New Zealand out of the Anzus alliance.

"Think about it," he writes. "New Zealand's perception of the American Government's stance is that it is acting like George III towards the American colonies - harsh and unreasonable."

Wasn't this diplomatically unwise, suggesting the Americans were emulating a king still routinely referred to in the United States as a "tyrant"?

No, says Sir Geoffrey.

He had lived in America and taught law there for a long time and he felt "able to speak to them in the way they speak", he told The Dominion Post. "They are very direct and I was very direct."

It was Shultz, he says, who spotted the basic problem. "Shultz said to me, ‘I know New Zealanders, I fought with them in the war.

"They're very direct people and if these ships have got nuclear weapons on them they will want to know about it. They are not the sort of people who can put up with some sort of deception of the same sort that some of the Asian countries might be able to get away with."

The Japanese solution, where the Japanese government turned a blind eye to ships likely to be carrying nukes while saying they "expected" the US to respect Japanese anti-nuclearism, was not available.

Fudging was not an option, Sir Geoffrey says.

When he finished his talks in Washington, Sir Geoffrey says, "I thought there was no way this could be fixed."


Sir Geoffrey says he was in a privileged position as a politician. He knew he could make a good living as a lawyer and academic once he left Parliament - and so it proved after he resigned in 1990.

He taught law in American universities and at Victoria University in Wellington, and then set up a public law firm with Mai Chen.

It grew rapidly. "In order to reduce the amount of work, I put up my charge-out rate on several occasions." Eventually it was up to $650 an hour.

"But there was some perversity in this. More work came in since people thought if I charged that much I must be good."

He and Mai Chen were surprised by the fact "that we made a great deal of money".

Chen gave him a seafrost-coloured S-type Jaguar for his birthday in 2000.

But the reformer wanted to go back to policy. In 2005 he became president of the Law Commission, where for five years he made a name for himself as a vigorous reformer.

Perhaps his major work was on alcohol, where the commission outlined a radical blueprint recommending a steep rise in taxes, drastic restrictions on alcohol advertising, big cuts in opening hours and liquor outlets, and an increase in the purchase age.

The Government ignored the most important bits. He blames the influence of the liquor lobby.

But then, says Sir Geoffrey, the job of the reformer is never finished. "It ain't over till it's over," as the American baseball player Yogi Berra said.

To which Geoffrey Palmer adds, "and even then it ain't over".

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