Friday, September 3, 2010

Regional council leads recycling efforts

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, August 31.)

NOMINATIONS have closed for the local government elections and the published lists of candidates show that not much has changed. Amid the many capable and conscientious people seeking public office, there is also the inevitable over-representation of cranks, publicity seekers and delusional no-hopers.

Quite a few will get elected. You can get away with being dysfunctional on a city council or district health board because these institutions are not subjected to the same level of public and media scrutiny as, say, parliament and central government.

Indeed it can be helpful to be slightly mad or disruptive because you’re more likely to attract publicity, which means your name stands out on the ballot paper.

The other striking thing about the lists of candidates is the number of recycled politicians, mostly from the Left, who are having a second go at a publicly funded (and quite lucrative) career.

Local government not only offers rich opportunities for the Left to further its utopian vision of a perfect society, but has the added advantage of operating off the public’s radar screen most of the time, which means they can get on with the job largely unnoticed.

Running my eye down the list of candidates for the Greater Wellington Regional Council, for example, I see four former Labour MPs (Fran Wilde, Chris Laidlaw, John Terris and Paul Swain), a former Labour mayor of Porirua (John Burke) and several others, including Terry McDavitt and Peter Glensor, with strong Labour/Left associations.

Interestingly enough, they all describe themselves as “independent” or list no affiliation.

In Porirua, meanwhile, former Labour cabinet minister Russell Marshall is running for the mayoralty, as is another former Labour minister, Mark Burton, in Taupo.

On one hand it can be argued this is a good thing. Such people are experienced in public life and can make an effective contribution in local government. On the other hand, you have to wonder whether some have become so addicted to the status and privilege of office that they are incapable of detaching themselves from the publicly funded intravenous drip.

* * *

ON JIM Mora’s radio show recently, former broadcaster and Labour Party man Brian Edwards deplored the hateful, vindictive nature of much comment in the blogosphere and on talkback radio. It was, he said, a sad aspect of New Zealand society that people took extreme views and could be highly personal in their attacks, even to the point of saying the people they were attacking were worthless and might as well be dead.

“Hear hear”, I thought. Trouble was, only about half an hour before, on the same programme, Edwards had been unburdening himself of some pretty vindictive thoughts about ACT.

Nothing could please him more, he said, than the disintegration of Rodney Hide’s party. It was an awful party and they were all bullies. Indeed, they were “the most ghastly people in politics”, and the sooner we saw the back of them, the better. “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” Edwards harrumphed.

Reproducing his words in print doesn’t adequately convey the venom with which he said them. Witty and charming at his best, Edwards on this occasion revealed a less appealing side of his character.

It wasn’t clear what road-to-Damascus conversion Dr Edwards experienced between his outburst against ACT and his tut-tutting about intolerance a short time later, but it didn’t go unnoticed by the show’s host. In the light of Edwards’ condemnation of hateful comment, Mora asked playfully, did he care to reconsider his remarks about Mr Hide and ACT? No, he didn’t. “There are some people you just can’t see any good in,” Edwards declared.

So Edwards dislikes vindictive personal comment in general but exempts himself when he’s attacking people whose political views he disapproves of. In doing so he strips away the thin veneer of faux liberalism and reveals a nasty streak of intolerance lurking beneath.

Clearly, anyone who thinks that democracy calls for tolerance of opposing views and respect for the right of others to think differently is either mistaken or hopelessly naïve.

* * *

JOURNALISTS have fallen in love with the silly neologism “lockdown”. We are frequently told that a street or school has gone into lockdown because someone has been seen with a gun. Prisons go into lockdown after a disturbance, and New Delhi supposedly went into lockdown recently in a security rehearsal for the Commonwealth Games.

It sounds dramatic, which is why journalists have embraced it, but what does it actually mean? An entire city can’t be shut down, and even in an armed offender alert, police can’t confine everyone in their homes. Only in the prison context is the word accurate in the sense that people are literally locked away – but even then you have to wonder why the traditional term “locked up” has mysteriously reversed into “locked down”.

We are frequently told that English is a living, dynamic language – and so it is. But surely it helps to know what a term actually means before we adopt it so eagerly.

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