Geoffrey Palmer, the hardworking, loyal deputy who became PM when David Lange resigned dramatically in August 1989, knew that Labour was doomed. ‘What I got from Lange was a hospital pass.’
Although often described as too academic (‘an elegant wading bird unsuited to the mud of politics’), Palmer rose fast – MP in 1979, deputy leader in 1983, deputy PM in 1984 and PM in 1989.
Labour’s second term was terrible. Cabinet, caucus and party were divided, a worldwide share market crash intensified the pain of 'Rogernomics' (Roger Douglas’s neo-liberal economics) and Labour’s polling plummeted. Palmer fell after MPs made a panicky leadership change just weeks from the election but nothing could prevent an electoral wipe-out.
While Palmer held the country’s top political job for 13 months, his major achievements were his earlier management of Cabinet and more particularly of Lange. The author of the influential book Unbridled Power?, he set up the royal commission that recommended switching to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system, passed the New Zealand Constitution Act 1986 and laid the groundwork for the Resource Management Act.
Knighted in 1991, Palmer returned to academia and established Chen Palmer & Partners. He has published and broadcast on matters of constitutional law and in 2005 became President of the New Zealand Law Commission.
By Gavin McLean