Monday, October 6, 2008

Cromwell had the story on the baubles of office

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, September 30)

IT WILL BE interesting to see whether Bob “the Builder” Clarkson bows out of public life altogether now that he’s left Parliament.

It’s possible he will, because clearly he found politics not to his liking. In that case he will be a rare exception, since the record shows overwhelmingly that once people have tasted the status and power that goes with public office, they find it hard to get it out of their system. Very few seem content to settle back into anonymous civilian life.

The gold standard here is Tim Shadbolt, who made no attempt to disguise his eagerness to become a mayor again after the exasperated voters of Waitemata City, as it was then, dumped him in 1989 as punishment for his chaotic reign.

Shadbolt made it clear he was prepared to take his carpetbag to any municipality that was prepared to elect him – even, as it turned out, to the ends of the earth (where, to be fair, he appears to have done an excellent job in building Invercargill’s profile and self-esteem).

It’s generally forgotten now that Shadbolt also once stood for Parliament as a New Zealand First candidate, which was a telling indication of his willingness to subject himself to almost any humiliation in pursuit of public office.

Then there are those unfortunate ex-MPs who, apparently unable to re-adjust to life after Parliament, seem condemned to drift in an aimless orbit. I’m thinking of people like the disillusioned Georgina Beyer, who complained last month of being poorly treated by her former Labour colleagues because they hadn’t offered her a taxpayer-funded job.

You can understand Beyer’s resentment. After all, it’s a grand old political tradition that unless they have spectacularly fouled their nests, MPs will be parachuted into comfortable sinecures once they’ve reached their use-by date in Parliament. Former Labour backbencher Dianne Yates, for example, has been appointed to four government boards that will pay her a combined annual stipend of $80,000 a year. Small wonder that Beyer feels left out.

Election to public office seems to create a sense of entitlement, as if having served one function, people expect other doors to open automatically. On a previous occasion Beyer even talked of having a crack at the Wellington mayoralty, but perhaps wisely thought better of it.

All of which brings us to another recently retired MP, Mark Blumsky. He too shows worrying signs of having been enslaved by addiction to public office.

The amiable Blumsky went from being a big fish in a relatively small pond, as mayor of Wellington, to being a small fish in a much bigger pond as a backbench National MP whom nobody took much notice of. It was an adjustment that he obviously found difficult – so difficult that he has baled out after just one term and is now making noises about returning to local government, if his wife lets him.

He should listen to Mrs Blumsky. Addiction to public office is only marginally less tragic than methamphetamine dependency.

Oh, and then there’s Clem Simich. He bowed out too last week after 16 years as a National MP, including a stint as Minister of Police, but Wellington isn’t exactly buzzing with excited speculation about his next career move. Though by all accounts well liked and respected by his colleagues, Simich had such a low profile in Parliament that most people are unaware he was ever there.

* * *

OF COURSE there’s an elite group of former politicians who lead a charmed existence. Look at Jim Bolger, for whom life after politics has been very full. The man once known as the Great Helmsman gives the impression of finding it hard to resist an appointment, even when it’s to the board of a state-owned bank set up by his former political enemies and opposed by the party he led for 12 years. Mr Bolger could no more have quietly retired to the family farm at Te Kuiti than I could sing the lead role in Lucia de Lammamoor at La Scala.

Then there’s Fran Wilde, former mayor of Wellington and now chair of the Wellington Regional Council, who could wallpaper a small room with a CV listing her appointments since she was a Labour MP.

Recent evidence suggests public jobs are probably a safer refuge for ex-politicians than company boardrooms, where they are exposed to the cruel vicissitudes of the marketplace. Just ask former Cabinet ministers Sir Douglas Graham and Bill Jeffries, who must rue their decisions to accept directorships with the stricken Lombard Group.

* * *

ITS WAYWARD leader aside, the Peters Party is not entirely without merit. Deputy leader Peter Brown seems a fundamentally decent sort of cove, but the NZ First MP I would most like to see return to Parliament is the feisty Ron Mark, who combines a sharp natural intelligence with a refusal to bow to politically correct orthodoxy.

Alas, the mathematics of MMP mean we can’t get Mark or Brown without getting Peters too. And I’m no longer able to think of Peters without recalling the famous words of Oliver Cromwell, addressing the “rump” Parliament in 1653: “You have been sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Incidentally, it’s worth reading Cromwell’s withering speech in its entirety, because bits of it are oddly applicable to our own parliament. He even included a reference to a shining bauble.

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