Gerald Hensley

Gerald Hensley, who died aged 88 on Saturday, was the key official who presided over the tumultuous events that followed the election of the Lange Labour Government in 1984.

He was also instrumental in helping a key Fijian official escape the country during one of the 1987 coups.

A diplomat and career public servant, since 1980, he had been head of the Prime Minister’s Department and thus served both Sir Robert Muldoon and David Lange.

When he retired in 1999 to grow grapes in the Wairarapa, he was Secretary of Defence, and since then, in a series of elegantly written books, has detailed his concerns about New Zealand foreign policy after the break with ANZUS in 1985.

He was one of the small cohort of highly educated young men (mainly) whom Sir Alistair McIntosh recruited to staff New Zealand’s fledgling foreign ministry in the 1950s and 60s.

He had an MA in history from the University of Canterbury, but it wasn’t an education that pointed to an obvious employment path.

“When I joined [the Department of] External Affairs, there was damn all else to do,” he told POLITIK in 2015 in an unpublished lengthy interview.

“New Zealand business was a matter of having import licenses, and unless you left the country, which a lot of people did, the government was, pretty much, the only place to go unless you were a doctor or a lawyer.

“But if like me, you had an MA, you were basically unemployable anywhere else.”

And so he was in Samoa in the leadup to  independence and then went on to the UN, Washington and the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.


In 1976, he became High Commissioner to Singapore, where he formed an admiration for and a  close and lasting friendship with the founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

The pair were both anglophiles, and that helped them bond.

But in 1980, his career saw him leave Singapore for a job which would require every ounce of diplomacy that he had developed in his career in the foreign service.

He was appointed head of the Prime Minister’s Department when the Prime Minister was Sir Robert Muldoon, who was about to enter the megalomaniac phase of his Prime Ministership.

Muldoon always called him “Mr” Hensley and the pair were as incompatible as it was possible to be in Wellington.

Muldoon was the blunt, power-obsessed politician who despised intellectuals, and Hensley was the sophisticated historian who doubted that his boss ever read a book.

One of the challenges of working for Muldoon was the Prime Minister’s drinking.

“With Muldoon, if he had a good lunch, I used to say to people in the department, after 3.30 no going to see the Prime Minister,” he said in a 2015 interview.

“Don’t put any papers on anything.

“Everything was sunny up till  3.30, but then the clouds would gather. And so, the rule was we avoided him.”

But Hensley’s loyalty was never in question. He took a very traditional approach to the role of being a permanent senior public servant.

“One of the important jobs of a departmental head is not to keep saying yes.minister, but occasionally to say, no minister, you can’t do that and give your reasons,” he said in the 2015 interview.

“It’s important for a senior civil servant to win the trust of the minister.

“When ministers first come into power, naturally, they look at you and think there you were at the side of the evil villains who have been justly thrown out.

“And so there’s always for six months, a difficult period.

“But, with luck, usually after six months, things settle down, and you get accepted as a person.

“I used to say, to my own people, you’ve got to remember that it’s our job to work, to do everything legally possible, to work for the re-election of the present minister.

“And when the government changes, we do everything legally possible to work for the re-election of the next minister.”

Nevertheless, he was thrown into the middle of the crisis over Muldoon’s refusal to devalue in the leadup to the 1984 election and then the constitutional crisis which followed the election as Muldoon refused to action the advice of the new but unsworn Prime Minister, David Lange.

At one point, on the Sunday after the election, with the country facing such a massive run on the dollar that Treasury Secretary Bernie Galvin and Reserve Bank Governor were recommending a 20 per cent devaluation, Muldoon simply refused Hensley’s request that he meet with them.

But if the outgoing Prime Minister was testing Hensley to his constitutional limits, the incoming one was challenging one of his most fundamental long-held beliefs: that New Zealand’s interests were best served by being “inside the tent” with the United States and Australia in ANZUS.

In that, Hensley was a product of his times when the big names in foreign affairs like Sir Alistair McIntosh and Frank Corner made New Zealand’s membership of ANZUS the foundation of most of their foreign policy thinking.

The country was also still getting over the Second World War when, as Hensley explained in his book, “Beyond the Battlefield”, the wartime Prime Minister Peter Fraser had been treated as an equal by Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt.

“People in the 40s, 50s and 60s were very busy indeed, and it was a great creative period in foreign affairs,” he said.

“Institutions were founded like the Pacific Forum, colonies were liberated and so on.”

David Lange and some of his staff who had come across from Opposition regarded Hensley with suspicion. They feared that he sympathised with ex Foreign Affairs diplomats like Corner and the group that Lange called “the geriatric generals” and would undermine the anti nuclear policy.

Deputy Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer more or less said as much in his memoirs.

In his own book on the breakdown of ANZUS, “Friendly Fire”, Hensley was dismissive of the independent foreign policy that it spawned.

“The cry was a hope rather than a coherent policy, and what the independent foreign policy meant was never fully spelt out,” he said.

“It lived on as a political slogan for over two decades, looking every year more and more like a new name for the old foreign policy.

“But in the l980s, as demanded by Labour Party conferences, it was a code word for anti-Americanism.

He said the result “was a bit flat.”

“An independent foreign policy freed of its ANZUS ties turned out to mean concentrating on the island countries of the South Pacific, and spokespeople from the Prime Minister down stressed that henceforth New Zealand would be minding its backyard and developing its Pacific identity.”

Ironically, Hensley was to play a prominent role in the Pacific during the first of the 1987 coups in Fiji.

During the first, in scenes that belong in a spy novel, he had been despatched to Nadi to try and help negotiate an end to the hijacking of an Air New Zealand aircraft at Nadi by a Fiji Indian.

But that was resolved before he got there when one of the aircrew knocked the hijacker out with a bottle of duty-free whisky.

So Hensley hired a car and drove to Suva to try and get some sense of what was going on.

When he reached Suva, he unknowingly drove straight into a riot, which saw the windows in his car smashed.

He managed to reverse out and made it to the New Zealand High Commsisioner’s house, where he found the deposed Prime Minister Dr Timoti Bavadra and his wife.

Naval ratings off the HMNZS Wellington (which just happened to be in Fiji) were laying waste to the house’s sumptuous gardens as they prepared a helicopter landing pad to allow Bavadra’s eventual evacuation.

Meanwhile, Bavadra’s secretary, William Sutherland and his wife and children had taken refuge in the New Zealand High Commission office in downtown Suva.

Hensley was asked to get him out of the country, which he did by having the naval guards at the doors stage a fight to distract the watching Fiji Army troops. He then set out to drive to Nadi, but not before he had to thread his way through Suva’s narrow, twisting downtown streets to throw off a pursuing Fiji army truck.

When he was confronted by police he claimed to be a simple tourist, anxious to get his family out of the trouble in Suva.

But despite this upfront view of a turbulent Pacific, Hensley remained convinced that the ANZUS breakup had been a mistake and that the country’s foreign policy focus should extend beyond the region.

He felt the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had ended up as a minor player in world affairs.

“We may have lost the page a little bit,” he told POLITIK.

“There isn’t a great deal we can do

“We can urge people to disarm and support worthy things and go after international offices, as we seem to do quite a lot now.”

In a lecture at Canterbury University in 2021, he said what had faded away was much interest in foreign policy itself.

“In the last two decades, New Zealand has become preoccupied with domestic concerns and has withdrawn from much interest in the world,” he said.

“Unlike most countries, ours is an island state separated by a thousand miles of sea from even its closest neighbours and so without the difficulties and the stimulus provided by neighbours.

“In a time of settled peace and no serious threats, therefore, we have slowly drifted away from an interest in the common security.

“Embassies and residences have been sold.

“The foreign service has lost much of its experience and has lost standing even at home.”

He left Lange’s office in 1987 and headed security before a stint at Harvard University and then in a bizarre situation, the Palmer Government in 1990  refused to accept a State Services Commission recommendation that he be appointed Secretary of Defence.

In a memorable piece of television, Hensley was shown filling in his days playing Mozart on his piano in his Wadestown House while the standoff continued.

It was widely believed that Helen Clark was behind the refusal, but it was remedied when National won the 1990 election, and he was appointed to the position and stayed there until 1999 when he retired.

He moved to Martinborough to a striking Miles Warren-designed home in the middle of a small vineyard, where he wrote three books and recently developed a blog, Kahu Despatches.