Wednesday, 30 August 2017


Since my announcement last week that I was not seeking re-election to Parliament, after 33 years as an MP, a couple of things have taken me by surprise.

 

First, has been the totally unexpected reaction to my announcement. The volume and warmth of the hundreds of messages that I have received from all over the country from so many different people has stunned me. I had not expected that. I felt I was just doing my job, but I have been humbled by, and am extraordinarily grateful to, so many for the very kind sentiments they have expressed. My heartfelt thanks to all of you for your messages.

 

The second thing that has surprised me is how quickly I have disengaged from the active political process. While I will retain my Ministerial warrant and responsibilities until the formation of the next government, and will carry out my duties fully in that time, I have already made the switch from active participant to interested observer, when it comes to day-to-day politics.

 

And, as that has happened, some scales have fallen from my eyes, and I have begun to see politics more from the perspective of the average citizen perhaps, than the active career politician. Already I have come to see many of my soon-to-be former colleagues through a different prism. I smile quietly but cynically at their strutting earnest ways and the egregious ever-so-keen-to-please and not offend tones of the political wannabes, now realising that until recently I too was playing the same games. I watch the news media, taking themselves ever so seriously as they rush breathlessly from one photo-op to the next, pontificating about this bit of trivia or that, as though it really counts for anything, all the while allowing themselves to be manipulated by the absolute worst of politicians focused on nothing more than their own promotion.

 

All this furious activity, chasing political leaders up and down the country, from one day to the next may be great for Air New Zealand, but does nothing for the carbon footprint or the credibility of the political process as a whole. It has all the trappings of a circus rather than a serious democratic event by which we elect our government for the next three years.

 

If this is how a soon-to-be-former politician views things, just over a week after deciding to leave, one can only begin to imagine how long-suffering voters must feel about all this, all the time.

 

I have always treated politics as a serious business, where the great issues of the day were debated properly and thoroughly; where local politicians earned the trust and respect of their communities because of their presence within and immediate connection to those communities; and, where getting to know political leaders was based around personal interactions, not slick media profiles or glossy magazine interviews. In short, in my world, trust was earned through hard work and practical achievement, not manufactured by a public relations profile and other inanities.

 

As this weird election campaign is showing, none of that seems to matter anymore, which is why it is probably time for me to go. A world where the country’s future is potentially determined by vacuous smiles or predeterminedly angry snarls is not for me. Policy debate is seen as boring or a nuisance which detracts from the drama of a succession of mini-scandals which pre-occupy the media. Even when the discussion is about policy debates between the party leaders, it quickly turns into which media personality should moderate the debates, not the substance of the policy issues themselves.

 

One of the reasons why people, young people in particular, switch off politics and voting is because they do not see it has any relevance to them. Given the facile approach being taken to this election, their indifference is hardly surprising. More of the same, through superficial promises, shallow politicians and an indulgent media will not change any of this. Voters will engage only when they see there is a point to it. At the moment, they simply do not.

 

The challenge of the next three weeks until the election is to make politics relevant to the interests of voters again. Politicians and the media are in the same boat here. Victory will deservedly go to whoever can talk to New Zealanders about their real concerns and hopes, not lecture them about what they think those concerns and hopes should be. Through my new unclouded lens, I will be watching developments with considerable interest and a new dispassionate curiosity.              

 

 

 

 

  

   

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 9 August 2017


It may seem strange to suggest it now, but the dust will soon settle on the political turmoil of the last ten days, and a form of normalcy will return, the imminent advent of the formal election campaign notwithstanding. And when that dust has settled, some basic realities will be clear.

 

The Labour Party has replaced a grim and dour leader New Zealanders would never have made their Prime Minister with someone more telegenic and permanently smiling who is likely to staunch the bleeding of Labour’s wounds. Whether she can, or will or be acceptable as a potential  Prime Minister remains to be seen, although the early signs are that style more than substance will be her hallmarks.

 

And, after a contorted public display of political hari kiri, the Green Party’s co-leader finally resigned. This seems due not so much to her truly bizarre admissions of welfare and electoral abuse a quarter of a century ago, as to the defiant and smug arrogance of her subsequent public comments, and the extraordinarily heavy-handed reactions of her colleagues to two Green MPs who dared criticise her. They were summarily dispatched with a brutality reminiscent of the best of totalitarian regimes, while at the same time the Party tried to stick to its long held mantra of being the one Party of principle. The picture that emerged instead – and which subsequent opinion polls confirm – is of a Party that condones welfare and electoral law abuse, particularly by one of its own, and is utterly intolerant of dissent or criticism. The collective moral failure of the Party’s MPs and leadership has been palpable and punished accordingly.

 

With these momentous events now behind the electorate, if not for the Parties themselves, voters’ focus will quickly return to more basis issues. They will be considering whether the reconfigured Labour and Green Parties, with their Memorandum of Understanding apparently still intact, are better placed to form a viable and coherent government than they were a couple of weeks ago. The chaos of the last few days, their apparent euphoria notwithstanding, makes that a much a more arguable proposition. Few would agree these recent events have demonstrated they are now more able to provide good and stable government than before.

 

And how does the current National-led Government, with support from ACT, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture, look by comparison? Has its position as a reliable and stable combination that has served New Zealand well over the last nine years been enhanced or weakened by recent events? On balance, the conclusion would have to be that the contrast between strong, reliable and focused government and unimaginable chaos has never been starker.

 

New Zealand First will be smarting that it has been largely sidelined by the recent shenanigans, despite its solid support in provincial New Zealand. However, its problem is more fundamental. Its current crop of MPs is the most singularly uninspiring and inept to have been in parliament for a while – and believe me, having seen many such groupings over the years, I do not say this lightly. The problem is that it therefore cannot risk exposing them to too much public scrutiny, lest they be found out. And that means having to maintain the focus on the Party leader and his idiosyncratically destructive style of politics.

 

All of which will make for a fascinating few weeks ahead. Expect National and its allies to continue to try sailing in the smooth waters of competence, reliability and experience. There will be a number of business as usual policy announcements to maintain both the image and the sense of a coherent strategy for the way ahead, with allowance for the diversity of views it support partners offer. For Labour and the Greens, excitement and vibrancy will be the dominant themes, but the challenge will be showing a sense of cohesion and consistency, unlike anything they have shown to date, and getting their leaders to answer the hard questions posed of them, rather than just make glib policy pronouncements. For New Zealand First, it will be politics as usual, picking the familiar social and political scabs in an effort to fuel distrust in the system and reinforce its self-sought image as the “you tell ‘em” Party.

 

As politics as usual returns, some voters may be forgiven for yearning for more of the drama of the last two weeks.      

 

 

  

   

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017


 Jacinda Ardern has my warmest congratulations, my best wishes, and my immense commiserations as she takes on the role of Leader of the Opposition, which she herself has described as “the worst job in politics.” She is right – it probably is just ahead of being Leader of the Labour Party today. Unfortunately for Jacinda, this week she inherited both.

 

She has done so at a time when Labour is probably at its lowest ebb since 1931, and unlike then, when the tide would rise, this time the ebb may be beyond recovery. Over the last 100 years or so there has been a natural life cycle for major parties of around 60 to 80 years. Labour today is just over 100 years old – our oldest and longest surviving party. Curiously, minor parties, possibly because of their definition, do not seem caught as rigidly. Their life cycles are far more erratic, perhaps because they are often more likely to be based around a dominant individual, and their destiny consequently linked to that person’s career, even if the philosophies they represent often emerge elsewhere subsequently. But, for major parties, the pattern seems far more pre-destined. Only a dullard, or a “my party, right or wrong” fanatic would deny that reality.

 

In the early 1900s, the Liberals post Seddon, and then in the 1920s conservative Reform post Massey went through this process, culminating in the rise of the Labour Party from 1916 and the advent of the National Party in 1936. Now, since the 1990s, the rise of left-wing alternatives to Labour – first, the Alliance, and now the Greens – are snapping at Labour’s heels. The inevitable outcome, maybe sooner rather than later, is that Labour and the Greens will stop cannibalising each other’s votes and refashion themselves into a modern social democratic party on the left of politics. It may well be that in bringing this together Jacinda Ardern will make her greatest contribution.

           

Labour’s traditional working class base has been shrinking since the advent of containerisation in the 1970s, and the social conservatism of many of those remaining voters today probably sits more comfortably with the populism of New Zealand First anyway. Certainly, the book of the moment, JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which offers a credible explanation of the rise of Trumpism in the United States and the rejection there by working class voters in the Rust Belt of traditional left-wing politics in last year’s Presidential election, supports that thesis. The chasm now emerging between the diminishing traditional working class that Labour has relied on, and the middle class progressives who over the past 50 years have moved from Holyoake’s property owning democracy, through Labour’s social liberalism on issues like racism and nuclear weapons, to now reside comfortably with the Greens, has left Labour increasingly bereft. Now the Greens are the coming force of the left of politics, and it is not inconceivable to imagine a Jacinda Ardern/James Shaw team emerging to lead a new single party in the future. At that point, Labour’s current trauma will end, and the new grouping will at last be able to present itself as the modern viable, left-wing alternative.

 

While National might be safe in the meantime, by virtue of being the very dominant major party in government, it cannot be complacent. Its day will come too, and it will face the same realignment issues that its old nemesis Labour does today. But, in National’s case, it is a little more difficult to see immediately how the realignment might occur. The erratic populism of New Zealand First means that, should it survive, it will probably not be part of this process, although its remnants will most likely remain the Social Credit equivalent that has been a near constant feature of our politics over the last 60 years. By themselves, ACT, UnitedFuture and the Maori Party are probably currently too small, but taken together their particular niches – libertarian laissez-faire; liberalism and aspirational Maori nationalism – could all be valuable additions to the post-National mix whenever it occurs.

 

And then, as these new parties form, so too will their respective challengers, setting off the process all over again. As Andrew Little found out this week, in New Zealand politics nothing is forever.