How we might NOT have gone nuclear-free after all

Our nuclear-free stance has become a central part of New Zealand's modern identity, but Sir Geoffrey Palmer has revealed it may never had happened but for one thing

New Zealand's nuclear-free policy is one of the most nation-defining and profound policy decisions this country has made in the past generation; it striped to the bone our traditional alliances for nearly two decades, took us down a path to a more independent foreign policy and reinforced our sense of self as a mouse that can roar. Yet is so easily may not have happened.

This past week RNZ released a new podcast that I produced, The 9th Floor. Guyon Espiner did 3-4 hours interviews with our former Prime Ministers – Palmer, Moore, Bolger, Shipley and Clark – and we've cut them down to around one hour production for you to watch on video or listen to on radio, online or as a podcast.

Right now I'm rather chuffed that this series of rather traditional long-form journalism is sitting at #1 on the iTunes charts for New Zealand and has received wonderful reviews.

News stories have been reported about the call by Palmer (and Moore and in large part Bolger) for compulsory voting. But for me, buried in the interview, is a much more important yarn.

We wanted to achieve a number of things in this series, but one was to have the Prime Ministers reflect on their time in power from a distance and to see what tit bits of history that time may winkle out.

Going nuclear-free had long been urged by the Labour Party's rank and file and by the time the David Lange-led government was in charge in 1984, the popular momentum behind the issue was huge. Labour – Lange especially – was trying to talk a tightrope between staying in ANZUS and keeping onside with America, while also following public opinion.

It's well-known that the issue came to a head when the US planned to send the old clunker, the USS Buchannan to New Zealand. America would, as was its policy, neither confirm nor deny if it was nuclear-powered or -armed, but the choice of vessel was a nod and a wink that it almost certainly wasn't. And it's also well-known that Lange was on a slow boat to Tokelau, and out of contact in those days, when the news leaked that the USS Buchanan was America's chosen vessel for a visit. Crucially, he hadn't briefed his deputy, Geoffrey Palmer, about his backroom negotiations with the US.

Palmer was acting Prime Minister and got the call on Saturday morning that the story had broken. Unable to reach Lange, he'd have to make the call. He could have waited for a cabinet meeting or perhaps stalled until he could contact Lange. But Palmer thought that was untenable. He made the key decision to publically state that the USS Buchanan would not be welcomed by the New Zealand government.

"Some in New Zealand fear the govenrment will buckle," he said that fateful weekend. "I assure them that it will not."

To us he said: "You can't equivocate on a policy like that. You either stand for it or you don't. And we did."

But it wasn't quite that simple, because Lange was sending mixed messages to the US and negotiations continued behind the scenes. Here's the thing... What Palmer told us in this interview is that if Lange had briefed him... well, read the quotes yourself, staring with Palmer talking about those leaks:

"Political pandemonium broke out in a big way here. I could not talk to David. I did not know that Jameson had agreed a ship. He was our Air Marshal and a Chief of Staff and a very good military officer and entirely straight. The advice was ambiguous. And it did seem to me that the Buchanan could have been carrying nuclear tipped ASROC [anti-submarine] missiles, in which case it would be very difficult to convince the NZ public that it was nuclear-free. So when this came up in this way I thought that it was necessary to make it clear that we were going to support our policy...

"David got into negotiations with the Americans about whether they could send an FFG-7, which was a lesser vessl. But the difficulty was the Americans having had the understanding that they'd reached an agreement, which I knew nothing about.

 Guyon asked Palmer if his decision to make that unequivocal 'we won't buckle' statement would have been any different if he had known.

"I think if I had been briefed by David Lange on what had precisely happened, I may well have taken a different view of it. Because he was the minister doing this. I was only acting. And it didn't seem to me that I wanted to completely run this issue at all. I wasn't inclined to do that. I was only forced to do it by circumstance."

I find that last reply fascinating. I take that to mean that if Palmer had known of the back-channel talks going on, he may not have turned away the Buchanan. And then who knows how negotiations may have played out.

Maybe it would have made no difference and Labour would have eventually banned the ships, regardless. But maybe not. Given more time, maybe different advice and US pressure would have swayed Lange and his cabinet. 

It's these details of history that ar so vital to recall. Broadly, to remind ourselves that what seems inevitable looking back was never thus. There is often an element of whim, uncertainty and even accident. More specifically, our nuclear-free policy came about amidst a set of particular circumstances that could well have turned out very differently indeed.

As Palmer said, he doesn't know if the leaks in the US and Australia were timed to coincide with when Lange was out of the country, but they were almost certianly designed to put pressure on New Zealand to let ships in.

"And I must say, they were very ill-timed if that was what their purpose was, because it had the opposite effect," Palmer told us.

But equally, if Lange had taken Palmer into his confidence, events may have played out in a way that took us down a different, less independent path.

Such is the way history unfolds. As Harold Macmillan said of what would determine his government's course, "events, dear boy, events".