Bread & circuses

by Jane Clifton / 31 December, 2005
This has been a gasp-a-week year in politics.

Unlike the English and the Eastern Europeans, we're not a nation of queuers, but we've spent most of this past year waiting for politicians. We had to wait months for them to announce the election date, then we had to wait weeks to find out who was going to be in the government - and arguably, given Winston's devout agnosticism on the question, we're still waiting on that one. We had to wait months for National to announce its tax cuts policy. We're still waiting for an explanation from Michael Cullen about what his stingy budget was supposed to achieve. We had to wait months for the government to admit they'd ballsed up the school exams system last year, and have just commenced an indefinite wait for them to concede they've made a mess of this year's exams as well.

But the killer thing about 2005's incessant hiatuses was that the suspense was always wonderfully outstripped by the result, when it eventually came. This has been a gasp-a-week year in politics. The election approached the heights of 1984's snap election, for sheer entertainment, excitement and landmarkery.

And it wasn't all personalities and Rodney's scandals. The policy quotient - even the philosophy quotient - was high. After years of swapsies in policy and rhetoric, National and Labour finally differentiated themselves ideologically.

Bread and circuses has never been a more apt adage. New Zealanders surged to their computers and calculators in their thousands to work out how much better off they would be under each party - the totals impressive in all cases - while being daily entertained by the petty, and sometimes gross, antics of MPs getting off-message. From Dover Samuels's pissing in a hotel corridor, to the Prime Minister's Borgia-esque move against the police commissioner, there was always something astonishing afoot.

The helicopter view's most startling landmark is the restoration of National as a serious contender. We began the year avid for Don Brash's Orewa speech, to see if he could get a bicycle pump into the Orewa I soufflé. He couldn't, or so we thought. Everyone, even National's dimmer bulbs, thought Labour would probably waltz into a third term. It was popular, it seemed competent - there just wasn't an appetite for change. But National's stocks built steadily, to the point where - despite itself - it was in good enough shape to capitalise on Labour's many serious errors and misfortunes.

Contrarily, the other striking feature of the landscape is how well Labour did in the election, considering what a shocking year it has had. It got into serious trouble in education - Te Wananga o Aotea-roa and other bums-on-seats funding excesses; and NCEA; and in policing - Dial 111 and scream; and resentment of speed-fine quotas. You could hardly imagine two more household-and-gut-afflicting areas: children striving for career options, and citizens in mortal danger, both dreadfully let down.

Helen Clark looked devious and evasive after being sprung having background-briefed a newspaper about the malfeasance of former police commissioner Peter Doone, in a way that made it look very like she was trying to get rid of him by the back door. She caused great offence, too, with a speech exhorting mothers to get back to work.

John Tamihere gave his "off the record", but nonetheless tape-recorded interview with a magazine, in which he slagged a number of colleagues - "smarmy" becoming one of the great revived words of the year - and made his government sound like a loopy lesbian cabal. He was also outed for neglecting and finally abandoning the Tamihere family cats.

Then outraged members of the public pinged Clark's motor convoy going 140km through the Canterbury countryside, and in the resultant furore, she took no responsibility and let the police and drivers take the full brunt - prosecution and potential loss of career.

The David Benson-Pope tennis-ball affair, the Philip Field tiling immigrants affair, the Dame Ann Hercus resignation from TVNZ - all up, Labour had a demanding year on the Can This Career Be Saved? front.

By mid-year, Labour was looking toxic - but still not even faintly terminal. Its bedrock was the sound economy, the humming growth, the fattening surplus. The coup de grâce was administered - to everyone's surprise, not least his own - by Finance Minister Michael Cullen, with an ostentatiously ungenerous budget. After years of his trumpeting his fiscal potency - the surpluses, the debt suppression, the heroic prudence - taxpayers had talked themselves into a meaningful pat on the back in election year. The Budget was expected to solicit their votes in the traditional way. But not only was there no tax cut, but also the overhyped adjustment of tax brackets, which had portended some relief, turned out to be the classic Jam Tomorrow. As Winston Peters memorably calculated, one would be half-a-packet of chuddy better off in several years' time.

This was National's platform for takeoff. It was promising tax cuts, and though it engaged in a dance of seven veils before giving us the details, knowledge of the promise was enough to start putting Labour under serious opinion poll pressure.

But just as punters were tempted to consign Labour to underdoggery, it pulled not one but two golden rabbits out of the hat. It promised forgiveness of student loan debt, which seemed an almost insanely generous policy. And it unveiled a programme of serious largesse for working families, on a scale which, it knew, National would be hard-pressed to match with tax cuts.

There wasn't a closed mouth in Wellington the day those programmes came out. They were so daring, so blatant and, after the Budget fizzer, so cynical - and so compellingly electable.

They certainly took the edge off National's subsequently released tax programme. But what ensued was a terrific political debate: Labour's redistributive Working for Families package v National's blanket tax cuts. Targeting v level playing field. Giving people back their own money according to need v simply letting people keep more of their money regardless of circumstances. Seldom has there been such a clear choice in an election, involving both a voter's hip pocket, and his/her worldview.

While Labour spent the year looking increasingly ugly, National was looking ever-sillier.

Its pratfalls, though necessarily the less spectacular for occurring in Opposition rather than government, were still piquant. Having relegated one of its two senior women, Georgina te Heuheu, after her dissenting view of Treaty policy, Brash now demoted the remaining one, Katherine Rich, when she could not stomach his (unworkable) proposal to withhold benefit money from errant parents. The fallout from this widened latent caucus rifts, and grumbling about Brash's kitchen Cabinet and its political management skills frequently broke out in headlines.

A visitor from overseas might have assumed, at one stage, that Tauranga candidate Bob Clarkson's left testicle was a key election plank for National. A sleeper scandal was Brian Connell's TV boast that he once threw a cat into a fireplace. And Labour produced a larderfull of excruciation from Lockwood Smith's talks with US senators.

But Brash did his fair share of banana skidding. He has never really recovered from the "Gone by lunchtime" scandal, and footage of him gawkily trying to lift his leg into a stock car during a policy launch gimmick on the hustings will dog him forever. Perhaps most damagingly, his quip that he hadn't stood up well to Clark in an election debate because he didn't believe in raising his voice to women helped cement Labour's position as repository for the women's vote.

Still, women did well from this election, with both parties committed to much-increased childcare subsidies - Labour spooked into ratcheting its commitment up twice during the campaign.

But no pratfall or audacious bribe could trump the election result - a surgical filleting of the vote that punished every single party with Amnesty-notifiable cruelty. The bottom line was, no government could be formed without NZ First's vote - a situation equally unpalatable to Labour and National, and a nightmare for Winston, who had pledged to join neither government.

Fallout from the subsequent quasi-coalition between Labour and NZ First, and from Winston's elevation to Foreign Minister, continues undimmed.

The year's extraordinary events, however, have left two minor parties unscathed, and poised to take ever more influential and popular positions. The Maori Party, which fulfilled its promise to decimate Labour's Maori vote, has won respect even from outside the scope of its vote pool, for the rational and good-natured stewardship of Pita Sharples, the quiet toughness of Tariana Turia and the diligence of Te Ururoa Flavell and Hone Harawira.

The Greens, jilted by Labour, were already looking the only honorable party left - the Maori Party somewhat tarnished for having (purely ornamental) talks with National. But then, to nationwide shock and grief, their co-leader Rod Donald died from a rare viral heart condition, and New Zealanders found themselves, in mourning Donald, reminded of the Greens' integrity and stickability.

In the cheaper seats, United Future lost most of its caucus, and his leader all of his sense of humour. Act's Rodney Hide surprised most pundits by winning Epsom, but lost the rest of his caucus bar one. Jim Anderton managed only to save himself.

As a result of which, many voters are now hanging out for a review of MMP, and of the use of opinion polls during election campaigns.

Celebrated and mourned was David Lange, victim of a long and painful illness. His death reminded us that while there are plenty of charismatic and effective politicians, there are only one or two in a generation who are also loved and missed. For our generation, one suspects, he was it.

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