Story: Lang, Henry George

Page 1 - Lang, Henry George

Lang, Henry George

1919–1997

Public servant, economist, university professor, company director

This biography was written by J. R. Martin and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Heinrich Lang was born in Vienna, Austria, on 3 March 1919, one of two sons of Robert Lang, a hardware manufacturer, and his wife, Anna Schwitzer. His parents subsequently divorced and in 1935 his mother married Ernst Anton Plischke, an architect. Heinrich was educated at the Akademisches Gymnasium in Vienna, matriculating in 1937. He also completed one year of military service. His mother was Jewish, and after the German occupation of Austria in 1938 the family emigrated to New Zealand, arriving in May 1939. They settled in Wellington, where Ernst Plischke became prominent in introducing modernism into local architecture. Heinrich soon took the name Henry George Lang.

His first job in New Zealand was as a labourer in a Petone fruit-packing factory, where he soon became a foreman. After beginning part-time study for a commerce degree at Victoria University College, he moved on to Warner Brothers Pictures, holding positions as bookkeeper, accountant and acting secretary. On 12 December 1942, in Wellington, he married Octavia Gwendolin (Tup) Turton; they would have four daughters and a son.

Lang completed a BCom in accounting in 1944, having enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force earlier in the year. During his military service he worked as a field mechanic. He also continued his university studies and graduated BA, majoring in philosophy, in 1947. He was naturalised in November 1945.

On his discharge from the air force in 1946, Lang was appointed to the investigating staff of the Economic Stabilisation Commission. The varied tasks he undertook there provided him with a knowledge of many aspects of the New Zealand economy and of the machinery and procedures of government. His work brought him into contact not only with important policy makers, but also with a group of younger officials with whom he was to work closely over the next 30 years. The experience helped to shape the attitude of pragmatic Keynesianism that was to mark his contribution to New Zealand public policy.

In 1949 and 1950 Lang was sponsored by the Public Service Commission to study full time at Victoria University College for the diploma in public administration. On completing the course he was appointed to the Marketing Department as an investigating officer. In 1951 he transferred to the Treasury and in 1954 was promoted to senior research officer. The following year he was seconded to the Department of External Affairs before taking up the position of economic counsellor in the New Zealand High Commission, London, where he served until early 1958. Soon after his return to New Zealand he became chief research officer in the Treasury. He was appointed assistant secretary in 1963, deputy secretary in 1966, and secretary in 1968, a position he would hold for eight years.

The two decades during which Lang played such a prominent role in economic policy making revealed the fragility of New Zealand’s post-war prosperity. The emphasis was on development and diversification against a background of balance of payments vulnerability. Agricultural production increased sharply, manufacturing enterprises developed behind high levels of frontier protection, investment in infrastructure was heavy, and for most of the period there was virtually no unemployment. Governments were reluctant to initiate policy change without the support of the strong interest groups – notably, the New Zealand Federation of Labour, the New Zealand Manufacturers’ Federation and the Federated Farmers of New Zealand.

As head of the Treasury Lang served three ministers of finance: Robert Muldoon (twice), Wallace (Bill) Rowling, and Robert Tizard. Muldoon exercised a singular dominance over the portfolio from 1967 to 1972, and when he became prime minister as well as minister of finance after the 1975 election, this dominance was reinforced. At the official level Lang’s position and influence was similarly prominent during this period. The relationship between Muldoon and Lang was reserved, sometimes tense, but marked by respect for the conventions that apply between ministers and officials.

Lang’s pivotal place in the official structure was well established when Rowling became minister of finance in the Kirk administration at the end of 1972. On Norman Kirk’s death in August 1974 Rowling became prime minister with Lang remaining a principal adviser. Their official partnership was strengthened by a warm personal rapport. Together they faced the extraordinary reversal in New Zealand’s terms of trade that followed the oil crisis of 1973–75. The Labour government attempted to manage the necessary downward adjustment of New Zealand’s living standards and expectations by fiscal and monetary policy, supported by extensive overseas borrowing.

For two decades prime ministers and ministers of finance relied heavily on Henry Lang. Several strongly held principles consistently underpinned his role as a key adviser to governments. There was a strong commitment to service of the administration in office, whatever its persuasion, and to the sanctity of apolitical professional advice. He believed that the fruits of economic growth and development should be widely distributed throughout the community, with a high priority assigned to the availability of jobs. Reasoned debate, based on accurate information, was to be preferred to more authoritarian styles of decision making, and in New Zealand’s circumstances and tradition, pragmatic resort to the intervention of the state in the public interest ought not to be ruled out by ideological considerations.

By virtue of the office, the secretary to the Treasury has significant authority. To this Lang added personal attributes of intellectual incisiveness, sound judgement and formidable negotiating skills. He attracted strong loyalty from staff and had an extensive knowledge of activities across the whole range of government. Over the years he established a reputation as the person to whom ministers and senior officials turned for assistance with diverse problems of public policy.

In August 1976, following the first budget of the Muldoon administration, Lang announced his intention to retire at the end of January 1977. However, it was to be an active retirement. Until 1982 he held the post of visiting professor of economics at Victoria University of Wellington, where he was also convenor of the master of public policy programme. He developed a special interest in health economics and chaired government reviews of cardiac surgery and the health workforce. He was in demand as a business consultant and company director, serving on numerous boards, including New Zealand Forest Products, Challenge Finance and National Australia Bank (NZ), and chairing the Government Life Insurance Corporation (later Tower Corporation). He was also a member of the New Zealand Press Council and on the board of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

At least as influential as these public activities was Lang’s continuing availability to counsel public servants, academics, and, from time to time, politicians. In 1979 he was a consultant for an important publication for the New Zealand Planning Council on social policy in the 1980s. He advised the fourth Labour government on the setting up of the Economic Summit Conference 1984, and in 1989 was associated with a review of the prime minister’s advisory staff. Of special importance to Lang was his part in the establishment and consolidation of the Institute of Policy Studies at Victoria University.

Lang was a man of wide interests. From the time of his arrival in New Zealand he was a tramper; he continued to ski throughout his life and was a Victoria University blue. With his wife he gained great enjoyment from reading, gardening and the visual and performing arts, and was directly associated with important developments in theatre and public sculpture in Wellington. Above all he was a man with an extraordinary gift for friendship that extended across generations and occupations.

In 1977 Lang was made a CB and in 1989 he became an inaugural member of the Order of New Zealand. Victoria University awarded him an honorary LLD in 1984. He died in Wellington on 17 April 1997, survived by his wife and four children. His last year was tragically marked by the death of a daughter and her husband in an air accident in Peru.