David Lange was born in Otahuhu, a small industrial borough in the south of Auckland, on 4 August 1942. His father was a local doctor, his mother a midwife. David was the oldest of the family’s four children. He was always a confident and smiling child and as a pre-schooler was often seen striding the streets of Otahuhu with a shopping list in his hand and a friendly greeting for his father’s patients.
David’s fondness for his home town lasted all his life.
He went to local schools – Fairburn Road Primary School, Otara Intermediate School (now Papatoetoe Intermediate) and Otahuhu College – and worked in the Westfield freezing works in Otahuhu to support himself at the University of Auckland.
He studied law at university, an obvious choice for someone who discovered a remarkable ability as a speaker and debater early in his life. More than that, the practice of criminal law allowed David to express the sympathy for the underdog that was always a large part of his nature.
David was a law clerk at the Auckland firm of Haigh, Charters and Carthy and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court in 1967. Not long afterwards, he set off to see the world, travelling for the first time to India, a country he came to love, before settling for some months in London. Here he met his wife Naomi. He married in 1968 and returned to New Zealand. David and Naomi had three children – Roy, Byron and Emily.
He practised law in Kaikohe before returning to Auckland to do postgraduate work. He graduated LLM (Hons) in 1970. The next year, he took over a sole practice in Auckland, and in 1973 formed a partnership with his colleague David Brown.
He became a well-known figure at courts in and around Auckland. He was a huge figure in a billowing gown and he had a booming voice to match. As he was first to acknowledge, his was not a fashionable practice. He appeared for many who were hapless and helpless. He also acted for many whose resources did not match their need for legal assistance. His generosity and tolerance were famous. He stood out for his ability to absorb a complex brief and get to the point of it quickly.
The sense of fairness that drew him to the criminal law also encouraged his interest in politics. In 1974, David stood, unsuccessfully, as a Labour candidate for the Auckland City Council, and in the general election of 1975 he was Labour candidate for the safe National seat of Hobson.
David became a member of parliament in 1977 in extraordinary circumstances. The member for the Mangere electorate resigned after an attack on his reputation by the Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon. A by-election followed. A large field contested the Labour Party nomination. David, an outsider, won the nomination after making a speech that electrified the audience.
David’s success in the by-election made him into a public figure. His maiden speech in parliament was so compelling that he almost immediately became a contender for the leadership of the Labour Party. He did nothing to encourage speculation about the leadership, but public interest in him continued, and in 1979, little more than two years after he entered parliament, the Labour caucus chose him as its deputy leader. He was soon a candidate for the party leadership, losing a challenge in 1980.
He was not in good health when Labour narrowly lost the general election in 1981, and took decisive action to defeat the weight that always caused him difficulty. His stomach was stapled, and after the operation, he returned to parliament in 1982 a far more vigorous figure. He continued to gather support in the caucus and in 1983 easily won the Labour Party leadership.
Labour won the general election in 1984 and David Lange became prime minister at the age of 41. His wit, his good humour and his powers of rhetoric helped sweep him into office.
He led what was by any test a radical government. He promoted his finance minister, Roger Douglas, with the intention of restructuring the country’s economic management and revitalising its public sector. Many substantial structural reforms were carried out in the Labour government’s first term of office.
David became a champion of New Zealand’s nuclear free policy. David gave it voice on the world stage by speaking against the deployment of nuclear weapons at the Oxford Union at a time when the nuclear free policy was contentious, and made it into a matter of national identity.
The government was re-elected in 1984, but David’s second term of office did not end happily. He did not see economic reform as an end in itself, and preferred to take a pragmatic approach to economic management that was at odds with the majority of his ministerial colleagues. The government divided, and David resigned his office of prime minister in 1989.
David left parliament in 1996.
He separated from Naomi in 1989 and married his former speechwriter Margaret Pope in 1992. David and Margaret had one child – Edith.
Ill health marred David’s latter years. He twice had heart bypass surgery and suffered from renal failure. For all that, he remained cheerful and compassionate. He earned his living as a writer and speaker and was always ready to give pointed, witty and idiosyncratic commentary on the perils and preoccupations of public life. He lived for many years in Mangere Bridge and died at Middlemore hospital, not far from his birthplace in Otahuhu, on 13 August 2005.