SYDNEY — THE New Zealand ship of state has a new captain. And Geoffrey Palmer has taken over the helm with the calming command: ``Steady as she goes.'' Monday's surprise resignation of Prime Minister David Lange thrust his deputy - a hard-working, behind-the-scenes manager - into the top spot.
United States officials greeted the changeover with the hope that Mr. Palmer might reverse Mr. Lange's 1985 ban on nuclear ships entering New Zealand ports. But in a press conference minutes after becoming prime minister, Palmer quickly quashed any suggestion of changing the anti-nuclear stance: ``Obviously we want to talk to the Americans ... but our policy has not changed and will not change.''
The ban resulted in New Zealand's being effectively dumped from the Australia-New Zealand-US defense alliance. The US sees the ban as a dangerous precedent which threatens its global policy of nuclear deterrence. Washington still refuses to meet with high-level Wellington officials.
With a federal election no more than 14 months away, Palmer's position favors sound domestic politics. A June survey showed 84 percent of New Zealanders approve of the ban, up 7 percent from when it was enacted.
``If the Labour Party has consensus on anything, it's on the nuclear-ship ban. That's been a winning formula for the two previous elections. Even the opposition National Party is moving closer to the Labour position,'' notes Steve Hoadley, associate professor of political science at Auckland University.
Palmer plans to announce his Cabinet on Thursday. He says his new Cabinet will keep the same finance minister, David Caygill, and there will be no change in economic policy. Many observers credit a bitter two-year feud between former Finance Minister Roger Douglas and Lange over economic reforms as the reason for Lange's departure.
When the Lange-Douglas team came to power five years ago, New Zealand was regarded as one of the most highly protected, heavily indebted, socialistic economies in the world. Douglas orchestrated sweeping reforms by deregulating markets, slashing taxes, and selling off government assets. But unemployment hit record levels (and continues to climb), and Lange's popularity slumped.
When Douglas sought to introduce a flat tax and user-pay policies in health and education, Lange objected. The ``relentless juggernaut of the New Right,'' as Lange put it in his resignation speech, wasn't going to roll into the area of social policy.
Last December, Lange removed Douglas from the finance post. More resignations and sackings followed. Lange survived two leadership challenges from Douglas supporters within his party - the latest in late June. But last Thursday, over Lange's wishes, Douglas was voted back into Cabinet. The prospect of being forced to work with Douglas, coupled with health concerns led Lange to drop out, Wellington insiders say.
Lange says he feels comfortable stepping down now, having effectively locked certain social and economic policies in place with last month's new budget, and having seen a new poll showing a significant rise in support for Labour. Palmer, a constitutional lawyer and former professor (including four years at the Universities of Virginia and Iowa), admits his style won't be as ``brilliant'' and witty as that of Lange's. But some analysts say New Zealand could use someone with less flair.
``Lange was a big-picture, lateral thinker. Palmer is a nuts-and-bolts administrator. Palmer will be better at healing the rifts, at coordinating policies, and getting ministers to talk to one another again,'' says Rod Alley, a former Palmer colleague and senior lecturer in political science at Victoria University in Wellington.
Douglas made a bid for deputy prime minister, but didn't garner enough support in the Labour caucus. He's likely to secure a commerce portfolio or another economic-related position in Palmer's administration.
The No. 2 spot went to Helen Clark, the first woman in New Zealand to attain the position. Ms. Clark is a strong anti-nuclear proponent and feminist.
Looking to next year's federal elections, some analysts say the Palmer-Clark combination may be too technocratic and not exciting enough for an unprecedented third Labour Party victory. But Mr. Alley notes: ``People worried about economic security, mortgage rates, and employment may prefer Palmer's and Clark's stability to Lange's thrill a minute.''