Enjoy the political hiatus – while you can

by Bill Ralston / 11 October, 2017

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Winston Peters makes his way through the media throng for yet another meeting with the National Party, to be followed by one with Labour. Photo / Getty Images

The strange calm as our leaders work out who’s in charge is shattered in familiar fashion.

The best thing about MMP, and to be frank there are not a lot of things that are good about it, is that every three years, we get the chance to live for a few weeks without the intrusion of politics in our lives.

The hiatus during the painstaking counting of special votes and while party leaders perform their triennial mating dance is blissful after the raucous bickering of an election campaign.

Obviously there is still a government in place, although a caretaker – and gloriously quiescent – one. The press releases have slowed to a trickle, the political arguments have stopped and the sighting of a party leader on telly is mercifully rare.

All this will eventually end, of course. Winston Peters, at the moment seen as the key ally for whichever major party wants to form the next government, tells us he will make a decision by October 12. Naturally, being Winston, if he cannot make up his mind by then, he will deny he ever mentioned that date. But we know that the political peace won’t hold.

October 12 is also the centenary of the country’s worst day in the Battle of Passchendaele. It was slaughter: we lost 843 men, the most killed in a single day of combat.

As we think of what those troops went through 100 years ago in their failed attack on Bellevue Spur, it’s worth reflecting on how fortunate we are today: New Zealand is at peace, our sons are not being sent to the abattoir of the trenches, we are prosperous by world standards and a safe haven in which to live. It is easy to forget that when the rhetoric is flying like shrapnel in an election campaign.

There is plenty left for a new government to do to make this an even better country. But it begins with a head start thanks to the efforts of successive administrations.

In writing this column, I stopped at this point and left it overnight to mature, intending to add a happy ending the next day. It was not to be.

Some time in the early hours of the morning, I was woken by my cellphone pinging with insistent news alerts about the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Such random acts of gun violence are mercifully rare here. Not so in the US where, in 2015, more than 13,000 people were killed by firearms and almost 27,000 wounded. 

The US is trapped not only by a quirk of its constitution that guarantees the right to bear arms, but also by the absence of a public conscience about the effects of firearms. After an event such as this one, any other country in the world would act. When Australia suffered a horrible mass shooting in Tasmania in 1996, it toughened its gun laws and collected many thousands of firearms from a willing public.

Contrast that with two pieces of legislation that are before the US Congress: one is to enable silencers to be used lawfully and the other to allow armour-piercing ammunition to be sold. As John Clarke was inclined to sing, “We don’t know how lucky we are.”

This article was first published in the October 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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