Friday, May 28, 2010

Deals done behind closed doors

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, May 25.)

IT’S HARD to recall a time when the business of government was more opaque.

Increasingly, deals of far-reaching significance are being done behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny, and then presented to the public as a fait accompli.

Parliament, where our elected representatives sit, laws are passed and issues are debated openly – as they should be, in a democracy – often seems reduced to an incidental role: a place to posture, let off steam and indulge in a bit of political theatre.

In a recent letter to this paper, Tony Orman of Blenheim commented on the low level of attendance in Parliament by MPs. But it’s hardly surprising if the House is half empty when the decisions that matter are being made away from the debating chamber.

Take the aborted deal to give the Urewera National Park to the Tuhoe, for instance.

The public heard about this only when it was revealed that prime minister John Key, presumably nervous over rumblings that the government was going too far in humouring Maori demands, had done a U-turn. Even then, it seems, the information reached the public only as a result of a leak to Maori TV.

Up till that moment, the Urewera handover was a done deal. Accommodation had been booked in Whakatane and commemorative pens made for the signing.

Most of the ruckus over the Tuhoe controversy centred on the political implications of Mr Key backtracking, and particularly the impact on National’s relationship with the Maori Party. But a far more pressing concern, I would have thought, was that the public had been kept in the dark on a matter of vital national interest.

Welcome to the realpolitik of MMP, where deals are done out of the public view largely to appease minority parties. The same happened with Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples’ sneaky trip to New York to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the full implications of which haven’t even begun to emerge.

At this rate Parliament, which is supposed to be the centrepiece of our Westminster democratic system, risks becoming irrelevant. It makes you wonder why we bother with elections.

* * *

SPEAKING of political theatre, I wonder if the poor mug who sits directly behind the prime minister gets paid a special allowance.

Under Labour this job fell to the hapless Darren Hughes. Under National it’s Chris Tremain.

Both are their parties’ chief whips but their primary function, it seems, is to laugh uproariously – or at least maintain a rictus grin – at their leader’s witty utterances. This is because the TV cameras are on them constantly and it would never do to suggest that they are less than rapturous in their admiration of the boss.

Mr Hughes is a personable and talented politician – a future Labour leader, perhaps? – and Mr Tremain is said to be on an upward trajectory within National. It seems a shame that the price such politicians must pay for advancement is to look fatuous whenever they are on display in the House.

* * *

IT WAS A bit rich of Rugby World Cup organiser Martin Snedden to rebuke greedy accommodation providers for wanting to suck the blood out of visiting rugby fans next year.

Snedden accused them of jeopardising New Zealand’s reputation – but surely they’re only taking their cue from the International Rugby Board, the tournament sponsors and everyone else associated with the RWC, all of whom seem bent on wringing every last dollar out of the event.

Even Parliament is complicit in this, passing ridiculous legislation to protect the precious interests of sponsors who are terrified that someone else might crowd their patch and steal a buck off them. A plague on all their houses, I say.

Rugby is no longer about the game itself so much as the interests of broadcasters (which is why we no longer see daytime test matches) and commercial interests whose only interest is in the sport as a marketing vehicle. These interests were once peripheral to the game; now they are central.

Rugby is no longer a sport but a brand. Even All Black coach Graham Henry talks of it as a product.

For a reminder that it wasn’t always thus, I recommend Hard on the Heels, a superb exhibition celebrating 60 years of All Black photography by the redoubtable Peter Bush.

Bush’s pictures capture a golden era when players toured on a shoestring, often had to wash their own gear and got straight back into club rugby the week after they got home from arduous overseas tours. At the recent opening of the exhibition at Masterton’s Aratoi gallery, a strong thread of nostalgia ran through the speeches by Sir Brian Lochore, Sir Colin Meads (those “Sirs” still don’t seem quite right) and Bush himself.

I got the distinct impression these rugby giants liked things better the way they used to be, even if all they ever got was a miserly daily allowance.

Hard on the Heels will tour provincial cities before opening in the four main centres to coincide with the Rugby World Cup (assuming no sponsor objects). It’s worth seeing.


Unknown said...

Treaty negotiations, by their nature, have never been done in public because they imvolve quite intricate tradeoffs between the parties. The deals done when Doug Graham was Minister of Treat Negotiations were done under FPP. Your contention that the Uruwera issue is an example of a situation where MMP has caused deals to be done behind closed doors is rubbish.

I would go further and note that under FPP he deals were between the factions inside of parties. At least under MMP we know what the tradeoffs are and you have illustrated this well with you analysis of Key's calcualted risk of annoying the Maori party. Under FPP the public would have no idea what was going onwithin a party.

Baz said...

Having Peter Bush around is a reassuring reminder of when playing the sport was paramount and not the present hoopla.