August 23rd 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Saving the Internet from itself

EDITORIAL: Australia-US trade deal and the debt crisis

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Marriage law changes: the fight is worth it

AGRICULTURE: Water rights and trading petition launched

ECONOMY: The housing boom: history repeats

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Dictators and dark continents / Get Blair

HISTORY: How political myths are made

Senate calls for EU-style 'Pacific Community'

FAMILY: Governments put gay marriage on the agenda

COMMENT: Feminist arithmetic

NEW ZEALAND: The story behind the destruction of ANZUS

PHILIPPINES: Filipino coup attempt destabilises Arroyo

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The story behind the destruction of ANZUS

by Bernard Moran

News Weekly, August 23, 2003
Helen Clark's campaign to make NZ nuclear free is now revealed. But the world has changed much since the early 1980s, particularly with the threat from global terrorism. Who better than now Prime Minister Clark to bring about a proper reconciliation with the United States. Bernard Moran reports.

Criticism of New Zealand's anti-nuclear ship stance has come for the first time from a former Labour Government Cabinet Minister. Whilst the National Party seeks a consensus within its own ranks for a policy change, Dr Michael Bassett, Minister of Health in David Lange's reforming Labour Government, has openly called for Prime Minister Helen Clark to resolve the "needless irritation" with the United States.

In his Fulbright Speech, delivered in Wellington on August 5th, Dr Bassett delivered sensational revelations about what really happened in the mid-1980s to take New Zealand out of ANZUS.

A professional historian, in 2002, Dr Bassett was Fulbright Professor of New Zealand Studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He sits on the Waitangi Tribunal and contributes a fortnightly article on politics to the Dominion Post in Wellington.


Dr Bassett began his speech, "George Schultz and David Lange: the Collapse of New Zealand's Military Ties with the United States", by setting the scene under the National Government's Robert Muldoon:

"Many Labour politicians, myself included, objected to the way he played domestic politics with American ship visits. Denis McLean, Secretary of Defence in the 1980s and later Ambassador to Wellington, confirmed in an interview that Muldoon sought more American ship visits than the Americans felt comfortable making. Muldoon's practice appeared to be to request a visit whenever he was floundering in the polls, because he calculated he could win publicly from the protests. Few people knew of the American reluctance to play along with Muldoon."

"What interests me - and it is the reason for this lecture - is that many Americans and some New Zealanders, still seem bemused by the rupture between us. We are two Western countries that have fought alongside each other in virtually every major conflict since 1914. We have always enjoyed close ties. Americans with whom I have discussed the nuclear dispute in the 1980s, share a feeling that somewhere there is another factor - a missing piece of the jigsaw, if you like - to explain the break.

"I want to suggest that there is another factor. What hasn't been answered satisfactorily to date, is why David Lange, given the commitments he made to [Secretary of State] George Schultz in 1984, capitulated a few months later to those who wanted all "nuclear capable" ships excluded from New Zealand. The answer, I suggest, is inextricably linked to a political struggle within the Labour Party at the time."

Dr Bassett claims that this struggle led Lange to make a unilateral, rather than a collective Cabinet decision to rupture NZ's defence arrangements with the United States. In early 1985, Lange was Prime Minister, but "leading the Labour Party in name only. He perceived that by rejecting a visit by the USS Buchanan, he could at last win over his party. His Cabinet and Caucus were not fully in the picture, but went along with him because they, too, hoped to heal the rift inside the Labour Party.

"Frankly as Ministers, we had increasing difficulty understanding the volume of words flowing from Lange's mouth at Cabinet and Caucus meetings, as he performed verbal cartwheels before falling into the hands of his sternest internal critics at the end of January 1985. My notes from meetings I attended, fail to convey any consistent line in the Prime Minister's thinking as he thrashed around the dilemma posed by the American request for a ship visit."

However, Dr Bassett admits that Cabinet Ministers were so occupied with the plethora of other economic and social issues, that they were not fully engaged with the ship visit, at the precise moment when it mattered.

Internal struggle

"NZ's women's movement was nearing its peak. Several on the party's National Executive, particularly the present Prime Minister, Helen Clark, and the present Attorney General, Margaret Wilson, had agendas to implement. Access to abortion, pay equity, state-funded child care and other forms of assistance to women were their principal causes, and the Labour Party their chosen vehicle. Their first objective was to capture its membership.

"Set against this faction in the party was a generally older, more traditionally pro-family group, that also favoured existing defence alliances. Most of this group were already in Parliament and their prospective leader was David Lange. Lange had no parliamentary peer for oratory. At his best he was grand, sometimes inspiring. Even on an off day, he could entertain. The women's movement found him intolerable. On the issues they focused on, his mercurial, witty style conflicted with their seriousness.

"When Lange came within an ace of winning leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party in December, 1980, his opponents moved into top gear. Over the next two years they spared no effort to capture the hearts and minds of party activists and to poison them against Lange and his allies."

A bitter struggle to seize control of Labour's policy formation process was waged. "Meetings of the Policy Council became pitched battles between Labour Members of Parliament and party insurgents." Then Muldoon called a snap election.

"What has this got to do with the anti-nuclear policy? It meant that when Lange became Prime Minister, he had been unable yet to place his stamp on his party, or on its policy. Unlike previous Labour leaders, he hadn't risen to office through the party machine. He never fully understood its Byzantine rituals. He found himself unwelcome, sometimes insulted, at meetings of the party's National Executive. He had neither the personal toughness, nor the negotiating experience, to bring this opposition to heel. They dismissed his oratory as empty rhetoric."

After Lange was sworn in as Prime Minister in July, 1984, he and his allies ensured that the insurgents (Clark, Wilson and Jim Anderton) were not part of the ministry. "The insurgents leaked material to the press and caused endless ructions. I penned a diary note on 23rd November: 'They have decided to kill this Government, rather than have it run by people they dislike.'"

The Americans pay a visit

Two days after the election, George Schultz arrived in New Zealand from Canberra, to attend a meeting of the ANZUS Council. He was accompanied by Paul Wolfowitz (later architect of the Iraq regime change policy) and the Commander in Chief of US Pacific Forces Admiral William Crowe. Lange promised Schultz he would negotiate a way to allow some American naval vessels to enter New Zealand waters, but asked for a "comfortable time" before the request was made.

"When they eventually found out what was being proposed, Lange's Labour opponents set out to torpedo all visits by American naval vessels. As chair of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Helen Clark had been hoping to influence the evolution of Labour's ship policy. But Lange kept quiet about what was happening. Not even Frank O'Flynn, his Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence, who visited Admiral Crowe in Hawaii in October, was fully in the picture.

"In December 1984, Helen Clark visited New York on an invitation from Kora Weiss of the anti-nuclear movement and went on to Washington where she lunched with NZ Embassy officials and had appointments with peace movement activists.

"The Embassy gave nothing away about discussions between the two governments, but soon after her return to New Zealand, she received a call from an American journalist who had picked up information about an imminent request from the Americans for ship visit to New Zealand."

On 25th January 1985, Margaret Wilson (then Party President) met with three junior backbenchers, Helen Clark, Jim Anderton and Fran Wilde. The result: Wilson proposed and had accepted by the National Executive, that no ship capable of carrying nuclear weapons should be allowed to enter New Zealand waters. As Prime Minister Clark confirmed to Dr Bassett in March 2003, the intention was to lock the Government into its policy.

A network of peace activists were kept fully informed, as were media sympathisers. "A campaign designed to keep the USS Buchanan out of New Zealand was co-ordinated over the next few days from the back-bench offices of several government MPs."

Lange leaves Wellington

Ministers were returning to Wellington from their summer holidays. There had been a brief Cabinet meeting, but no discussion of the ship issue.

"Unbeknown to us, that day (January 17, 1985) a formal American request for a visit by the USS Buchanan was received at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. It was passed to the Prime Minister's Office. But just as it was about to hit his desk, Lange took off on a visit to one of the most remote spots in the South Pacific - the Tokelau Islands - where no New Zealand Prime Minister had been for 40 years.

"He was virtually incommunicado for several days, except for what he described as 'garbled reports from home' on a crackly ship radio. The 'tramp steamer' taking him from Samoa to Fakeolo took 37 hours. Over four days he met people, swam, and was entertained. He then took another 49 hours returning to Samoa. There he was collected by an RNZAF Boeing 727 and returned to Wellington.

"Was Lange evading the issue of the USS Buchanan? The officials I've interviewed certainly thought so, and I agree with their assessment. Helen Clark would observe to me later that Lange always took the line of least resistance.

"One thing is for sure: Lange had done none of the political spadework necessary to fulfil the commitments he had given earlier to Secretary Schultz. Indeed Ministers were never told precisely by Lange what he had promised Schultz, nor were we asked to support his commitments." (In footnote 28, Dr Bassett says that Gerald Hensley, former Head of the PM's Department, told him that American sources later confided that they had realised in December 1984, that Lange was undertaking none of the spadework necessary to sell the deal which his officials were working on.)

"When Lange established Cabinet committees at the end of July 1984, there was none to discuss the nuclear ships issue. Nor did the Prime Minister appear to have any colleagues with whom he consulted on the nuclear ships issue. I acted as Minister of Foreign Affairs while Lange was in New York (for a second meeting with Schultz) and received no briefing about the visit. In December, 1984, a visiting American diplomat discovered with alarm that Lange's Cabinet colleagues were not in the loop about what was being negotiated. Nor had Cabinet discussed the implications of any request for a ship visit.

"Lange said virtually nothing to his colleagues. Instead he went on holiday, then to the Tokelaus."

Whilst there, Margaret Wilson advised the Acting Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer of the National Executive's new policy. "On hearing this Palmer took fright and wrote a memo to Lange (which he read on the RNZAF flight home) that the American request be declined. Floods of letters and telegrams, many drummed up by his Caucus critics awaited Lange's return."

Back in Wellington and under huge pressure, Lange who had failed to prepare the ground politically was looking for a way out. Bassett recalls: "It slowly dawned on the rest of us that our lack of information over such a long period meant we had lost the initiative. Ministers turned instead to discussing how to minimise the political fallout.

"Though Lange's political career he hated confrontation. It sometimes made him physically ill. And he naturally craved acceptance and endorsement from the party he led. His opponents knew all these things. While, as Gerald Hensley observed to me, Lange was angry that the National Executive was 'running this pin into his bottom', he decided it was easier to live with the pain than with his commitment to Schultz.

"After Cabinet on 28 January, Lange received a deputation from some members of Labour's National Executive. He seems not to have disputed Margaret Wilson's unilateral re-definition of Labour policy, although he recognised it for what it was."

The Nuclear Free Zone Disarmament and Arms Control Bill passed into law on 4th June, 1987. Dr Bassett indicates the strength of feeling with this account:

"At a gathering in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the end of 1992, Schultz was approached by Dennis McLean who introduced himself as New Zealand's new Ambassador to Washington. Schultz glared at him and barked: 'Your Prime Minister lied to me!', then walked away.

"Why did Lange take so few steps to deliver on his assurance to Schultz? It is my belief that Lange's desire to be loved by the Labour Party got the better of him in the end. He was never much interested in party policy, and had neither the political instincts, the negotiating skills, or the capacity to use his leader's authority that others like Peter Fraser, Norman Kirk, Bob Hawke and Helen Clark, possessed in abundance.

"Lange took virtually no political counsel from his Cabinet colleagues, probably knowing that they would recommend confronting people, something of which he was incapable. Lange allowed himself to become isolated from his closest allies, who had promoted and protected him in the past.

"As a result, Helen Clark, Margaret Wilson and Jim Anderton cornered him. They eyeballed him till he blinked. It became easier for him to sacrifice the American connection than to fight.

"He would settle for what he was beginning to sense could be a popular diversion at home, something with theatrical potential. While his ministers were re-structuring the economy, he'd become a 'nuke-buster'. They could look after the bread, he'd handle the circuses."

After the famous Oxford Union debate with the Rev Jerry Falwell in March 1985, Lange returned a national hero. Bassett observes that now with the help of an (unnamed) official, Lange was slowly parted from his original Cabinet and Caucus supporters. Margaret Wilson suggested weekly meetings and he found himself beguiled and embraced by his former mortal enemies. They used him to break with Roger Douglas, the reforming Minister of Finance.

Lange now found himself dealing with new Caucus members, personally selected by Margaret Wilson. He was dependent on the party apparatus, instead of his former supporters.

In June, 1989, they rescued him when a majority of the Cabinet voted against him. "Lange was dead in the water. By this time Clark, one of his bitterest enemies earlier in the decade, had become his closest confidante. He broke down and wept in front of her about his predicament. His old opponents had him where they wanted him.

"Lange resigned as Prime Minister in August 1989. His exit was mourned neither by his original backer, nor by those who had used him more recently for their own ends. On her steady march to the top, Helen Clark became deputy leader to the new Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer."

Time for a reconciliation?

"The question I wish to ask is, who better to initiate reconciliation proceedings than a government headed by Helen Clark? Our Prime Minister, as we can see, was a key player in the initial break; she used it to climb the greasy pole of New Zealand politics. She showed, in the process, an early example of her superior political talents.

"With a display of genuine leadership, she could now resolve outstanding difficulties between New Zealand and the United States. This would be a real test of greatness. The security setting within which a country finds itself – has also changed for both Australia and New Zealand with events since 9/11, and more recently since the Bali bombing. All the ingredients are there for a policy re-assessment. The NZ Labour Party once campaigned with the slogan 'It's Time'. It needs resurrecting."

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