Bill Ralston: pull of higher office

by Bill Ralston / 13 January, 2014
It takes place three-yearly: our nominations for entry to the Koru Club.
It’s hard to reconcile the thought, especially if you’re still sitting on a remote beach watching dolphins frolic in the surf, that once the glorious summer ends and the long cold winter of 2014 morphs into spring we will have a less than glorious general election. Frankly, I’d thought we’d just had one. But, no, amazingly that was actually a couple of years ago and these damned things come around like clockwork every three years.

I can’t understand what drives people to become politicians. I once asked that question of a major party bagman, the chap who collected the campaign loot, and he replied, “Because, Bill, most of them wouldn’t even get into the Koru Club if they weren’t an MP.” A somewhat harsh judgment, but I got his drift: that many MPs are elevated by the office far beyond the limits of their much more banal previous occupation. In short, he was talking about the privileges of power.

"I could help but it's not really my area of expertise. My genius is more the squandering kind."


Frankly, if that is their motivation for becoming an MP, then they are soon sorely disillusioned. Yes, there are, as Winston Peters once put it, “the baubles of office”, which are actually a couple of offices, a small staff, free travel, some lucrative allowances and invitations to dreary functions. But for the overwhelming majority of folk sitting in Parliament, life can be a drag.

One lowly National MP recently told me there was nothing worse than being a government backbencher. At least as an Opposition member you could publicly criticise things that were happening and reap the satisfying reward of media coverage. A government backbench MP is little more than lobby and select committee fodder, largely ignored and expected to be mute unless allocated the unedifying task of asking a minister a patsy question in the House. “Can the minister kindly confirm this is the greatest government since Imperial Rome?”

It is generally accepted that the only MPs who have any fun are those few in Cabinet. Indeed, fewer than that figure because in the anally-nasally vertically integrated system of government, there are probably only three or four in Cabinet who are powerful enough to go about their tasks relatively unimpeded, and they tell the rest what to do.

Political life is largely extremely boring, even at the top. Monday is Cabinet day, the next three days are spent in the House bickering, then it’s back to the electorate on Friday, with the weekend spent attending to party business or showing up at school fairs and other bunfights.

The work itself consists of tedious nit-picking. If you’re in Opposition, your time is spent finding the nits to pick; in government your work is to peck back. Hour after hour is spent arguing in committees. It should drive you mad, which, now I think about it, explains the behaviour we regularly witness in the House.

All of which makes me justifiably anxious about whom to vote for. We are told the upcoming election will be tight and there is a hair’s breadth difference in support between the centre-left and the centre-right.

If we discount the confirmed left and the hard right who will always vote that way, that leaves just a small proportion of us tarty centrists to choose the government. Which, to be honest, is a considerable burden.

If we end up in November with a Labour/Green/NZ First/Mana government that pushes up taxes so as to finance giant troupes of hip-hop dancers to campaign against the things they hate (which is everything), I will feel extremely guilty about having leant centre-leftwards. If we get a National/Maori Party/Peter Dunne/Conservative government that sells the entire public service to an international cabal funded by the US National Security Agency, I will be equally peeved to have voted to the centre-right.

I’d worry about it right now but I have some crayfish to put in the pot, some gurnard to fillet and some paua to shuck. November is a long way off.

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