Journeying around David Lange: Ken Ross reflects on John Henderson's service as the prime minister's chief of staff in the 1980s.

Author:Ross, Ken
 
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the fate of facts in a world of ideas; the fate of ideas in a world of men; the fate of men in a world of facts. (Thomas L. Hughes, 1976) (1)

Late on the night of 30 April 1987 John Henderson, David Lange's chief of staff, was, with the prime minister, enduring a lengthy buffeting in an air force King Air flying through stormy weather from Dunedin, where Lange had earlier that night addressed the NZIIA's branch, to Ohakea, an air force base in the central North Island, for the prime minister to meet Australian foreign minister Bill Hayden at dawn.

Bob Hawke, the Australian prime minister, had set up the meeting so Hayden could brief Lange on a topic too secret to entrust to Canberra officials to convey. Henderson had with him two highly classified assessments that he and Lange considered were pertinent to Hayden's secretive midnight dash from Canberra. They were right--a Libyan overture to Walter Lini's government in Vanuatu was what Hayden came to report. Hayden had the decency in the Australian Parliament later that day to acknowledge that he was by then better informed than he had been when he landed at Ohakea.

Lange had had more knowledge about the Libyans than Hayden. There were to be repercussions in Canberra that subsequently amused Lange, who later wrote that Hayden's visit was the 'most bizarre' he had with a foreign visitor while he was foreign minister. (2)

Another Tom Hughes quip rears up as I seek to uncover the whys for what happened back then--'behaviour can be so inexplicable that any rational analysis would be more sophisticated than the facts warrant'. (3)

Hughes's two insights have particular resonance for our journeying around David Lange, when he was at full throttle with his mouth wide open. Gerald Hensley, then head of the Prime Minister's Department and Henderson's about-to-be bureaucratic 'boss', captured the essence of why when he explained, wonderfully, in his 2006 memoir:

Labour had been in power for only three of the preceding twenty-four years and much of its institutional memory of policy formation and the use and limitations of the public service had gone. Time was needed to settle the internal map of the Government, the network of personal links, antipathies and informal pathways that--whatever the formal arrangements--determines how each administration works. (4) Hensley wrote also that his 'own position on the new internal map was imprecise, not to say ambiguous', that is, 'my own position had come to look...

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