It was fitting that Mia The Depot’s Dog had the final word at last night’s pre-election debate.
Mia had patiently and silently padded around the feet of the nine election candidates for two hours while attempting to sniff out the slightest hint of another dogma.
As the meeting was about to end she finally let rip with a resounding squeal – but not, as The Speculator naively hoped, in response to the detection of dogma or dumb-ass theories propounded by the seething mass of political ambition gathered nearby – but because the Chairman had stood on her tail.
Let’s face it, politicians can be tedious creatures, with their bright-eyed zeal blissfully unhampered by the complexities of everyday life.
But, with a couple of occasional exceptions, this bunch generally managed to avoid those teeth-grindingly irritating tendencies, although The Speculator did note with some incredulity that one of The Depot’s current exhibitions included a display of broken eggshells scattered across the floor. This was surely a portent of things to come.
The evening’s egg shell walkers were the following; Maggie Barry (N), Hone Harawira (MM), Chris Simmons (ACT), Ben Clark (L), Damian Light (UF), Pieter Watson (GREEN), Craig Jensen (CONS), Andrew Williams (NZF) and Michael “Mad Dog McMaddock Mad As A Hatter” Murphy (LIBERTNZ).
The Speculator was not particularly interested in what the candidates said they would do, or what their stated policy was on this or that. No one over 40 should really expect a close relationship between what national (small ‘n’) politicians say and what they do. This is not because they are necessarily dishonest, but because the world they attempt to manage has become far too complex. Consequently their ability to deliver the results they promised is either limited by the over-engineered machinery of government, or if implemented, has a raft of unintended ramifications. Occasionally it might work as intended.
So the first bouts of banter between the candidates about which party sold what assets when, or who put up GST and why was a bit facile. The reasons and justifications for considering the sale of national assets in 1984 for example, are quite different from those touted now.
And that, honest reader and aficionado of the art of ad-clicking, is Lesson from the Session (No.1).
1: Ignore those responses from the Pollies that start with sentences like “Well in 1931 THAT party did xyz…” The question to ask is; “What is the justification for doing it NOW?” And if the answer comes back steeped in dogma, like “Keynesian economics worked in the 30s” or “Because the free market says it’s true” you have my permission to throw your shoe at the candidate in question.
Interestingly, every one of these types of answers received howls of derision from the crowd, suggesting those old discourses were perhaps dead in the minds of those present. The Kiwi BS Detector is alive and well.
First blood went to ACT rep Chris Simmons, who, when asked why ACT supported raising the retirement age, answered simply – the radical change in our country’s demographics necessitates it. This is an undeniable, unavoidable fact. It’s fairly clear that our social welfare system is about to be made obsolete as a result of a fundamental shift in the age profile of NZ society. The audience didn’t like it, but they couldn’t refute it.
Simmons said something else interesting; “ACT doesn’t want to be the biggest party. It wants to be the party of ideas” and gave a couple of examples of ideas they had come up with that were adopted by National as policy. That is a role one can see them playing, but only in certain areas where their prejudices don’t lurk too menacingly.
For example, we did not get to hear ACT’s views on any issues relating to the environment, where I fear their fervent kotowing to the long defunct free market would have caused a riot. One can always determine the level of political experience of a right-wing party by the extent to which they promote the free market, but criticise big business. These are the guys who have yet to realise that nowadays, the two are generally the same thing.
This is what is so currently unimpressive about National; its shameless toadying to the Americans and big business interests, and its thick-headed natural pro-business attitude on almost anything. Any evidence-based manifesto would take into consideration the causes behind the current financial crisis and what 99% of scientists are saying about climate change. But no, the Nats like to stay close to their big friends. This is why the Greens are resurgent; they stand for a symbolic acknowledgement that something has to change, although nothing is yet in place to instigate that change. The “We are the 99%” protests are just the beginning.
Questions came and went on health, education, youth unemployment and human rights, all of which the candidates did their best to address. Maggie Barry was almost faultless; despite provoking a number of howls of derision from the audience, she was unflappable and on message, and very well-briefed.
Astonishingly, she also drew the No.1 speaker position three times in a row, at the impressive odds of 1 in 729. That’s liking picking the winning horse in the three legs of a treble, so imagine the payout she missed.
Conversely, the Labour and the United Future candidates, clearly still finding their feet in their roles, largely answered from pre-prepared notes. This is Not A Good Thing to do at public meetings. Fortunately for them, they had a sympathetic audience.
However, the stand-out candidate was Hone Harawira. Love him or hate him, he is eloquent, intelligent and instinctively likeable in person. I made a mental note to take a closer interest in his pronouncements, as he is clearly more than just the “stirrer” he is portrayed as.
The Green dude Pieter Watson was of a similar ilk; smart, funny, likeable and well-briefed. How far have the Greens come?! This was a man who knew his (organic) onions, what side his bread was soyered on (I know) and the time of day. However, while the Greens lead the radical thinking in environmental issues, their approach to social issues is tediously predictable; Watson’s response to a question about youth was “educate kids on the dangers of alcohol and drugs.”. etc etc. Like that’s worked for the last 20 years.
Andrew Williams did a surprisingly good job of singing from the NZ First song sheet in a way that appealed to the audience, reminding them of some of the voter-friendly policies Winston Peters had been involved in, and steering clear of some of Peters’ more inflammatory ideas. Lipstick on a pig? New Zealand’s political spectrum is uniquely non-dogmatic and in some specific areas Peters has, over the years, made a positive difference.
Which brings us to Lesson of the Session (No.2).
2: Whatever these guys had to say, they are mostly quite a long way down the food chain. This has a couple of implications.
a) Maggie Barry may be the friendly face of National in Devonport, but she sits somewhere out near Uranus in terms of her influence at the centre of National’s solar system. And in there sit the planet sized egos of the likes of Gerry Brownlee, Murray McCully et al – guys you wouldn’t trust to safe keep anything that they thought they could sell for a vote or a dollar and get away with.
Ergo, the postulations of Ms Barry, Ben Clark etc will bear little relation to anything that is going to happen at or near the centre of power.
b) It follows then that “debates” of this nature are actually little more than beauty contests. Such was their lowly position in the pecking order, coupled with their inexperience, I doubt that any of the candidates (with the exception of Harawira, Simmons and Watson) could have taken on Barry on any matters of current National policy and landed a single blow.
Additionally, you know that when the portly asses of those planet-sized egos are sitting in Cabinet inside that dark ring at the top of the beehive, there are an almost infinite number of factors that will determine their decisions, and those factors will have nothing to do with what a small and distant ball of gas told you the other night at a meeting. Indeed many of the factors will probably be issues they hadn’t even considered until the portfolio landed in their lap.
Which leads us to the final Lesson of the Session (No.3)
3: Vote to retain MMP. And yes, I know that some of what you are about to read contradicts Lesson of the Session No.2. But as the attentive reader might agree, the contradiction exists only as a matter of degree.
Imagine that meeting, but this time in a First Past The Post world. There would have been maybe 5 candidates, 3 of whom would have been completely irrelevant, and two who would have been largely irrelevant. The first three would have been from parties that would have scored no seats in parliament. The next two would have been MPs from Labour or National who would have sat up the back of the caucus and done what their Whip told them, whatever they had promised the honest burghers of Devonport.
That my friends, is a sham. With MMP, at least some of those present were within some sphere of influence; a party president (ACT) and a party leader (Mana Motuhake). These two parties will control an important proportion of the vote. These guys’ ears are worth bending, and then bending again if they stray from the promises they made, because a) they are an influential part of the decision-making process in their party, and b) they might end up being an influential part of the decision-making process of the government. Only MMP provides that unusual fast-track to power.
If for no other reason, that is reason enough to support MMP. It’s less worse than FPTP.
Nevertheless, as the meeting broke up, and Mia The Depot Dog was comforted in the arms of her trampler, I was struck by the difference between this collection of largely well-meaning bods in suits and their well-intentioned platitudes, and the presentation I had seen the night before from Paul Watson, Head of Sea Shepherd at the premiere of the film Eco-Pirate.
Now there was a man for whom talk was tedious and action was the only measure of intent or integrity. A man for whom the world existed only in black and white, because the issues he was dealing with were very practical issues. Find the whalers. Stop them whaling. Stop at nothing.
Politicians, dealing in the complex world in which they have only very limited control or influence, do not have the luxury of such a monochrome world.
Consequently, while they might like to paint themselves as men and women of action flying the flag of The Truth (or this year’s fashionable dogma), the reality is that they are simply unable to ram a particular issue in the gunwales, in the vein of Sea Shepherd.
As a final thought; one is always aware of the foolishness of believing the world has just arrived on the edge of a precipice, but given the extraordinary events unfolding in Italy and Greece, and the release of a report from the IEA suggesting we have five years to prevent runaway climate change, it may be that the time of our dallying politicians has gone, and the decisions we are going to be left with are to be refreshingly – but catastrophically – simple.
I wonder if Sea Shepherd would consider stumping up a candidate. Because as history has shown us, the alternatives in those kinds of scenarios don’t bear thinking about.
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