It would be a gross overstatement to say we’ve seen
politics at its worst over the past few weeks. Politics at its worst can involve assassinations, coups, repression, persecution, nepotism, violence and
corruption, all of which we’ve been spared. But we’ve certainly seen politics at its
most unlovely, at least in a liberal democracy: freighted with hubris, schadenfreude, vanity, infighting, score-settling, folly and
If the drama surrounding the two changes of
leadership in the National Party achieved nothing else, it at least served as a
reminder of how unpleasant politics can seem to those outside it – and how damaging it can be to those seduced by
its allure. We all know that politics is ultimately about the acquisition and
exercise of power, but rarely do we see it displayed so nakedly.
First, there was hapless Todd Muller – an apparently
decent man who allowed himself to be persuaded, or perhaps convinced himself,
that destiny had chosen him to lead National out of the wasteland. He fell at
the first hurdle, not so much because he failed the media’s confected
front-bench diversity test as for his shambolic attempt, with comically inept
assistance from Nikki Kaye, to justify himself to scalp-hunting political
You’d have thought that with all the media trainers available
to them, Muller and Kaye would have anticipated the trap set for them and
sorted out a response. That they didn’t marked them as ill-equipped to cope
with a basic challenge facing every political leader – namely, dealing with an
aggressive and querulous media that constantly probes for weaknesses.
It was basically downhill from there on. The media
were never going to favour Muller – male, white, privileged, middle-aged and bland,
if well-intentioned – with the honeymoon they gave (and are still giving)
Meanwhile, in the background, the deposed Paula
Bennett was doing her strange disco-dancing thing with a comedian (a word which
these days almost automatically calls for inverted commas) whom I would guess
most New Zealanders – in other words, all those outside the political and social
media bubble that some press gallery journalists apparently believe represents
the real world – had never heard of.
Video of Bennett and Tom Sainsbury dancing to I Will Survive was repeatedly replayed on
media platforms, no doubt to the puzzlement of many who watched it. We were
told this was Bennett, the street-fighter from West Auckland, exacting her
revenge on those who dumped her, but I suspect the point of the “hilarious”
video (as the New Zealand Herald
described it) was probably lost on anyone outside the incestuous and
self-absorbed world occupied by press gallery journalists and political obsessives.
In other words, it was a political in-joke. To coin a phrase, you had to be
As it turned out, the sequence of events that eventually
led to Muller standing down was triggered not by disaffected losers in the caucus
power struggle, but by a rogue first-term MP who, in a clumsy attempt to defend
himself after issuing an alarmist statement that sought to stoke fears about Asian
immigrants spreading coronavirus, blindsided his leader by leaking the personal
details of people who had tested positive for Covid-19.
Muller acted reasonably promptly in cutting Hamish
Walker loose but by then the crisis had assumed almost unstoppable momentum,
destabilising the party caucus and piling more pressure on a leader who was already clearly
struggling to cope.
Walker thus becomes the second consecutive Clutha-Southland
MP, after Todd Barclay, to march into political oblivion (and obloquy) after just
one term in office. The irony is that as holders of the safest of all National
electorates, Walker and Barclay, had they behaved themselves, could have looked
forward to a job for life.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one junior MP in
a deep-blue seat may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like
carelessness. Senior figures in National might do well to ask themselves what it
is about the party’s selection process that results in the election of cocky
young men (Barclay was elected at the age of 24, Walker at 32) with an apparent
Masters of the Universe complex. The
name of Aaron “Do you know who I am?” Gilmore, who quit Parliament in disgrace
in 2013 after bullying a Hanmer Springs waiter, also comes to mind.
But of course Walker’s was not the only head to roll
as a result of the Covid-19 breach of privacy. Michelle Boag’s fall
from grace, as the leaker who abused her position as acting CEO of Auckland
Rescue Helicopter Trust, was far more spectacular.
Boag has long been regarded as a political kingmaker,
wielding influence behind the scenes (well, mostly behind the scenes) via a
formidable network of political and business connections. Her strategy, as far
as I can tell (and I stress that I speak with no inside knowledge), has been to
make herself indispensable as an adviser to those in power and those who aspire
to it. Go back as far as the Winebox inquiry of the 1990s, where she acted for merchant
bankers Fay Richwhite, and you can see her fingerprints everywhere.
She has long struck me as one of those people who
get an adrenalin buzz out of proximity to power. I suspect this can become
something of an addiction, and Boag herself seemed to confirm as much with a remarkable
mea culpa in which she admitted an “unhealthy” relationship with politics that
had put her on a “self-destructive path”.
Power is the common factor here. We don’t need Lord
Acton’s famous axiom to know that the desire to exercise power, or even simply be
close to it, can erode values, warp judgment and compromise principles.
There have been other reminders lately of the
seediness of politics. Judith Collins used her just-published memoir to settle
an old score with John Key, but in doing so also revived memories of the opaque
machinations surrounding her damaging association with the blogger Cameron
Slater in 2014.
And just to prove that politics can be equally unattractive
on the Labour side, sacked minister and departing MP Clare Curran recently gave an exit interview
to Spinoff journalist Donna Chisholm in
which she oozed self-pity and, while purporting to nobly accept responsibility
for her own failings, simultaneously sought to put the blame on the toxicity and bullying
she claimed to have been subjected to.
All of this adds up to a deeply unflattering picture
of politics and the politicians who supposedly represent and serve us. It looks petty, vain, self-centred and alarmingly disconnected from the world most of us inhabit.
departure in particular raises a worrying question: if politics is this brutal
and damaging (Audrey Young of the Herald reported
today that Muller had experienced a breakdown), who in their right mind would
put their hand up for election? Do we really want a political environment so
toxic that only sociopaths and egomaniacs will be prepared to stand for office?
Unfortunately, the news media must accept some responsibility
for this state of affairs. Coverage of politics has become a blood sport in
which aggressive pack leaders such as Newshub’s Tova O’Brien constantly crank up the heat and the pressure on political players. To use a phrase
made famous by the British Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin, the media exercise power without responsibility. They may claim to be acting on our
behalf but their central purpose is to produce drama for the six o’clock
bulletin. The blood they leave on the floor is someone else’s problem.