Talking about a resolution

by Jane Clifton / 07 January, 2012
Jane Clifton has some ideas for our MPs in 2012.

When it comes to a political perspective on the New Year, it’s as important to see the old year out as it is to usher the new one in. More than most, an election year is one after which a number of bad habits need to have firm lines ruled under them. It’s not easy.

There are no 12-step programmes for problem gloaters like the Prime Minister, and poor old David Cunliffe can’t just stick a patch on his arm to ease the leadership cravings. It has to be cold turkey. But there’s no shortage of turkeys around politics these days – or of hams, for that matter. Here are a few resolutions we would like 2012’s political creatures to consider:

LOYALTY: Easy when your leader is in rock-star phase, but a real test of character when the polls are around your ankles. Labour flunked Loyalty 101 – though in some truly pioneering ways. The decision to make a virtue out of leaving the leader out of the campaign publicity was a daring novelty in the art of treachery. The L word gets even harder when a leadership spill has just bisected a caucus, but a little humility goes a long way.

Cunliffe might have to be taken through the concept a few thousand times, but it’s an endlessly handy commodity. It can help an MP accept that it’s at least a possibility that they haven’t been given a flasher job in the shadow cabinet because they haven’t persuaded their colleagues of their sublime talent. Or even because they’re pretty average. But – and here it gets usefully circular – loyalty can in time trump lack of talent in the political workplace, so to all those passed over in the Shearer ascendancy: suck it up, be patient and remember every dog has his day.

Never think the expression “There is nothing so ex as an ex-politician” does not apply to you: This is not just a truism for the obvious tragically unrisen soufflé, Don Brash. Helen Clark, not content with running a slice of the universe from New York, acted as adviser to Cunliffe during the recent leadership auction.

Whatever the context of the advice, it was bad political manners. Not only did she pick the wrong side, but her participation in the matter in any form gives an impression of fierce determination to protect her legacy from beyond the grave. Clark did leave a tremendous legacy, but a robust selection of succession options and a caucus stuffed with talent were not part of it. She should heed her own frequent injunction to the media: “It’s time to Move On.”

There are times when even the people who love you most are not really doing you any favours. When even that great romantic historian of the left Chris Trotter says it’s time to part ways with the unions, then the smart course is at least to audit the relationship. Exhibit A: a Labour party list that did not protect major talents like Kelvin Davis, Stuart Nash and Josie Pagani, but wrapped a number of considerably lesser talents with union pedigrees in cotton wool.

Constituency selections in Labour have become a farce, with union members – who need not even be Labour members – bussed in to defy the wishes of the local party. This is insulting both to party workers, and to the union folk whom it treats like cattle. Labour will always have a special relationship with the union movement, but the time is long overdue for the party to reacquaint itself with the concept of democracy – ie, one person, one vote.

This business of giving unions and other special party interests extra votes and stacking power brings Labour into disrepute, and must be a factor in its low membership and the paucity of campaign funds this election. Brash’s disastrous embrace of certain corporates, which kindly offered to take over National’s staffing and policy-making functions during the 2005 campaign, gave rise to a righteous book, The Hollow Men. Labour needs to consider how far down this same course it wants to go.

“You are not the Messiah, you’re just a naughty boy”: Brash found this out the hard way, and Winston Peters may yet. The majority of New Zealanders are not waiting for a charismatic individual with a magic wand.

ACCEPT THAT YOU CAN ONLY REUSE THE SAME TEA BAG SO MANY TIMES: National tried to play its traditional game of footsie with voters in Epsom and Ohariu, and nearly got a kick in the shins. The sweetheart pantomiming with Act, United Future and the Maori Party fooled no one this election, and the tactical voting shtick only worked at the 11th hour because of the sudden re-emergence of Winston. The tea party fiasco exposed all concerned – politicians, media and advisors – as disingenuous. MMP’s wrinkles are due to be run over with a very hot iron this term, anyway, so such peek-a-boo politics should become less of a temptation.

OPINION POLLS ARE A SCIENCE, NOT AN ELECTIVE SPORT: The phrases “opinion poll” and “self-selecting sample” do not belong in the same sentence. TV text polls and voluntary internet-based polls like the Horizon series don’t conform to statistical rules, and tell us nothing useful – except that some media outlets are happy to manufacture stories from data that is completely unreliable. “News” reports based on such polls are a waste of voters’ attention-spans. They also indicate a number of people out there in cyberspace may possibly have too much time on their hands.

YOUR RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS NOT MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYONE ELSE'S: All parties need to encourage their hotter-headed supporters to cool it with the following: defacing of rivals’ billboards, stacking of public meetings with hooting, jeering supporters and contributing vile bile to rival activists’ blog comment threads.

The Green-allied activists who overwrote National’s billboards were engorged with the righteousness of their position – but since when was it a virtue to have your say at the expense of another person’s? Similarly, the boorish carrying-on by various parties’ supporters at election meetings, and on TV’s Backbenchers, is not effective political advocacy. It’s just obnoxious.

MPs’ command of the social media is a fine thing – up to a point. Alas, too many have made themselves look uncharacteristically boorish and petty through ill-considered cyber-blurts. Labour’s usually good-natured Darien Fenton slagged the much-loved Sir Peter Leitch for being too friendly with the evil Tories and even suggested a boycott of his butcher shops. It’s a tragically short hop from Twitter to twit, but the lure of instant gratification is dangerously over-stimulating for most MPs.

Another victim was Trevor Mallard, goaded into a bike race by right-wing blogger Cameron Slater. Mallard won comfortably, but as Slater cheerfully characterises such encounters, the trouble with wrestling with pigs is that you get dirty, while the pigs absolutely love it. Repeat to self before posting: These golden words will be public and permanent. Do I really want history to record that I called someone a weasily little scrote?

Stop smiling and do something: National’s low-impact aerobics approach to meeting the challenges of the economic downturn has been usefully self-protective from its electoral viewpoint. But we need heavy-duty economic stimulation, which requires some vision from the Beehive. Marrying the words “exports” and “green” in a serious way would be the obvious way to start.

The most important relationship-building for the future of this country has to be between the Greens and the two major parties, but so far there’s been barely a cup of tea’s worth of dialogue among them.

AND FINALLY WE WOULD URGE THE ELECTED AND THEIR AIDES TO REMEMBER A PROBLEM SHARED IS A PROBLEM … WELL, PUBLISHED: It’s always better to come clean. There is nothing so shameful, shocking or monstrously inconvenient that you can’t tell it to the Listener. As the Darren Hughes and tea party fiascos showed, awkward information, like intestinal gas, is better out than in. The longer you leave it, the worse the gut pains become. The political New Year – whether it’s celebrated over whisky, à la Winston, a Helen Clark socialist chardonnay, the PM’s pinot or a stiff cup of tea – will doubtless drive us all to drink more of it.
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