Rare self-restraint at Ratana

by Fiona Rae / 04 February, 2012
Annual appointments at Ratana and Waitangi induce odd behaviour in politicians, writes Jane Clifton.

Politicians really do have all the luck. For most of us, back-to-work time is a restoration of confinement – to the office, the factory, the shop or the work van. For MPs, it’s more of a liberation. They get to head to the beautiful wilds of the countryside near Whanganui, where they are amply fed, watered and deferred to, and where they are even asked not to work too hard (please, not too much politics).

It’s a peculiarity of the New Zealand calendar that the political year always starts with senior politicians making a pilgrimage north to pay tribute to the birth of the long-dead leader of a Maori Christian sect. It’s a wonder Brian Tamaki hasn’t been to the Ombudsman about the unfairness of this, as on the bald facts – without benefit of adjudication on the relative merits from Upstairs – the Destiny Church’s self-styled bishop is entitled to similar palaver on his birthday, which, handily enough, is next Wednesday. (And unlike the Ratana Church, Destiny can be relied on to provide Eftpos facilities for tributes, rather than just a cup of tea and some kai.)

Once the trek to Ratana was, at least, based on electoral opportunism: the Church was seen as a touchstone for the Maori vote. Alas, that waka has sailed, and MPs are saddled with this vestigial – albeit not unpleasant – chore. Not to turn up would be a snub. But these days, everyone is forced to acknowledge that the Maori vote isn’t a nice, tidy package. It has jumped wakas all over the show, starting with New Zealand First, progressing to the Maori Party, and having a recent flirtation with the Mana Party. It’s no longer safe to assume, either, that Maori won’t vote National.

So on the face of it, this annual appointment is an anachronism. Aside from the mobility of the Maori vote, there’s the iffy idea of MPs favouring one religion over all others. But the Ratana appointment, combined with the ensuing procession to Waitangi for generally less mannerly bicultural engagement, has come to perform a different and quite useful function in our politics. Obviously the two pit stops remind MPs about both the delicacy and the robustness of biculturalism, and for that reason alone the traditions endure.

But these set-piece engagements are also a rare example of politicians not being the centre of attention. They can’t go up north and spout off about their latest political hobby horses, or slag one another off, or defend their policies, or make promises. It would be the height of bad manners. So for at least these two days every year, they are forced to undergo a lengthy period of self-restraint, and of listening much more than talking. In short, they are required to be – or at least pretend to be – statesmanlike. When you consider what most of them are like for the rest of the year, this is the equivalent of putting a sloth through an Outward Bound course.

As good for them as this is, it wears off quickly enough when the House resumes, as it does next week. But the weird thing this year is that for Labour’s leader, the Waitangi/Ratana effect seems to be permanent. David Shearer began with the tact and self-restraint long before his voyage north of the capital, and has persisted with it since. In real life, this would be accounted a great virtue. But in politics, it’s rather odd. A politician who won’t shoot his mouth off? Eh?

Shearer’s lack of impact – at least by the traditional means of, say, an Orewa speech, or a stonker of a new tax policy – is troubling some in Labour, and absolutely confounding the commentariat. A clamour for him to take a stand on the Auckland ports dispute has failed to budge him from enigmatic silence on the issue. And he has let Winston hog the limelight over the Government’s now embarrassing-seeming decision to give internet tycoon Kim Dotcom residency, despite his rather-too-interesting past.

But Shearer has come to the job at a pig of a time. The election was unusually close to Christmas, and with a perfunctory two-day opening session of Parliament, he got to make just one stuff-strutting speech before everyone headed off for the recess. And although he could have spent his summer hols hurling down press releases like Thor having a weather tantrum, no one would have thanked him. Few voters would welcome a political harangue over the holiday season. It would have looked overbearing and desperate – rather like, ahem, the previous leader’s down-among-the-folks motorcycle tour of last summer.

Also, by now it has become clear that Shearer is not a thundering, hurling sort of operator. And that could be his strength. Though opinion was sharply divided about the quality of his showcase Address in Reply speech to Parliament in December, it did provide a big stylistic contrast with Prime Minister John Key. Key did his usual smart-alec fun-poke at Labour, while Shearer – flouting the tradition for this particular debate to be a slanging match – talked earnestly about economic growth and poverty.

The speech may have been short on compelling vision and rhetoric, but at least it did not have the telltale flourish of the PR mill. Shearer seems to be approaching the job on his own terms, and is still in consulting/listening mode, resisting all urgings for him to make a splash until he’s good and ready. He has even declined to do the seasonal “State of the Nation” speech, saying he might make a major speech in a month or so. He has weighed in on the Crafar farms issue, and Labour has chimed in about the price of milk. But these are no-brainers, rather than agenda-setters. Shearer’s strategy – if strategy it is – seems to be to keep his powder dry and stick to his own timetable rather than submitting to everyone else’s.

Whether this is foolish or brilliant depends, obviously, on the content of Shearer’s vision when he is finally ready to share it. But for now, his unusual reticence underlines how febrile our political metabolism has become. We’re accustomed to hearing from our leading MPs early and often. We want a comment, and we want it now – otherwise we might suspect someone has nothing to say. MPs generally clamour to be quoted, otherwise they fear Relevance Deprivation Syndrome will set in. You can ask the PM himself about anything from the state of the euro to the how annoying it is when tennis players grunt as they hit the ball: you will never come away with a “no comment”.

Shearer’s refusal to get sucked into this cycle as a matter of course may in time be recognised as a rare virtue. To take the example of the ports dispute, he is probably wise to stay out. Both parties have murky agendas impervious to the will of any politician, and the issue is an absolute theme park of PR heffalump pits for the unwary. The dispute is a major headache for the Government, which short of a 1951-style action, is impotent. It’s not up to the Labour Party to suggest helpful solutions, or make a grave situation worse by seeking to inflame it.

At the very least, it’s refreshing to have a big political player who isn’t dementedly texting, blogging and quote-mongering. All the same, politics is not a safe place to create a vacuum. The longer voters have to wait for Shearer’s Dr Who-style regeneration of the Labour Party, the more whizz-bang they will expect the special effects to be – an unrealistic expectation, given that there’s no Budget surplus to play with.

In the meantime, Shearer is cutting a similar figure to that of Chance, Peter Sellers’s character in the movie Being There: a zen-calm blank canvas onto which everyone projects his or her best guesses.

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