A mistaken US impression that left an indelible mark

Former Prime Minister David Lange did not tell the United States Secretary of State George Schultz he would bring about a change in the Labour party’s anti-nuclear policy, Merwyn Norrish, foreign affairs chief at the time said at the weekend.

This has been a bone of contention between New Zealand and the United States since the fateful meeting between the pair two days after the 1984 election which brought Lange to power. Some think the rift that then developed is a reason why New Zealand has lagged Australian in getting a free trade agreement with the United States.

Mr Norrish, who was Secretary of Foreign Affairs, speaking publicly for the first time about the contretemps, said Mr Schultz “convinced himself” that Mr Lange had intimated that in the following six months he bring about some change in Labour’s policy, which was to ban nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed warships.

But, Mr Norrish told a Stout Centre conference on the 1984-87 first term of the Lange government, he was the only other person at the meeting and “I did not interpret Mr Lange’s comments that way´┐Ż.

Mr Norrish said Mr Lange had said only that he would talk to the party. He did not commit himself to try to change the policy, either at the post-election meeting or at a subsequent meeting in New York.

“It seems to me that Mr Schultz heard what he wanted to hear and that subsequently coloured his attitude to Mr Lange.”

Worse, said Mr Norrish, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke appeared to accept Mr Schultz’s version and to factor that into his own (Mr Hawke’s) assessment of Mr Lange, to the latter’s obvious disadvantage.

Mr Norrish and several other speakers at the conference, including people who were high officials and ministers at the time, chronicled the search by officials of the two countries to find a warship which could have been accepted, eventually settling on a “clapped out destroyer”, the USS Buchanan, which was thought extremely unlikely to have ever carried nuclear weapons and could have therefore fitted within the boundaries of Labour’s policy.

But Mr Lange had been conducting the nuclear ships exchanges with the United States himself, without reference to the full cabinet. When the proposal was formally put by the United States Sir Geoffrey Palmer was acting Prime Minister while Lange was absent and out of contact on Tokelau. He was not fully briefed and failed to pick up what officials felt was a clear indication in their briefing paper to him that they were certain there would not be any nuclear weapons aboard.

The briefing paper “was not cogent but was proving the case beyond reasonable doubt”, Mr Norrish said. But those who wanted all ship visits stopped, which included the then president and now Attorney-General, Margaret Wilson, “outflanked” those who wanted to find a way to keep contact. The Buchanan proposal was summarily rejected by Palmer in late January 1985.

The plan worked up by officials of both countries was that, if the Buchanan had come, things would be let lie for a couple of years. That would have kept New Zealand inside the ANZUS council, the intelligence loop and the United States sphere of influence.

Instead, the nuclear issue has loomed very large in Washington, particularly in the Congress.

Mr Norrish was cutting about the way the decision on the Buchanan was made. “The kind of fundamentalism involved in turning it down was not a good basis for making a foreign policy decision. Some people felt New Zealand forfeited a priceless advantage.”

Nevertheless, apart that that incident, Mr Norrish said, generally the Lange government conducted foreign policy well. And, given the powerful and widespread opposition to ship visits in the Labour party, it would have taken strong leadership to carry through the Buchanan plan. Other speakers, including Ms Wilson, said they did not think it would have been possible to carry the party.

To a questioner, Norrish said he did not think New Zealand would fail to get a free trade agreement with the United States because of the ship visits policy. Nor had New Zealand been exposed to greater security danger because of it.