Monday, August 22, 2022

Cam Slater: It’s Amazing What Distance Does to One’s Perspective

Henry Cooke was one of this Labour Government’s handmaidens, dutifully regurgitating lines from the ‘Pulpit of Truth’ in order to keep his bosses’ paymasters happy. He, like many in the press gallery, had become a real life experiment akin to Pavlov’s dog experiments. But then he decided he needed an OE and so decamped to London, escaping the malign influence of the Ardern regime in the process. Isn’t it amazing what a bit of distance from Ardern’s regime does for one’s perspective. His article in the Guardian shows just how much the scales have fallen from his eyes.

This was our first glimpse of Ardern’s new Labour party, one where any suggestion of disunity could be immediately batted away by a one-liner delivered through a smile. In the years that followed, Labour enjoyed an incredible streak of unity, with anything that Ardern said publicly treated as gospel by her MPs, even when she was making huge policy climbdowns or refusing to use her power to further progressive causes.

Political journalists, myself included, had to make do on scraps such as a radio comment from a new MP that slightly differed from the party line, or tiny “leaks” from the Maori caucus that revealed little.

This year that strong facade of unity is cracking. Now there is a feast.

First out of the gates was Louisa Wall, a veteran MP who had been frozen out by Ardern and deselected from a safe seat in the 2020 election in a deft bit of political manoeuvring that never really made headlines. Wall had been on the opposite side of Ardern in factional disputes during the bad years, but by most insider accounts her greater sin was just not being much of a team player.

Wall let rip in her valedictory speech and a series of long interviews on her way out, accusing the party of acting in a “corrupt” and “reprehensible” way.

But these fireworks would pale in comparison to the saga that has unfolded in the last week at the hands of backbench MP Gaurav Sharma.

The signs of Ardern’s manipulation and bullying have been there for a long time. The way she treated Louisa Wall was appalling. Now we are hearing about ongoing bullying through Gaurav Sharma.

Sharma himself is not an existential threat to Ardern’s hegemony over Labour. Any allies he had in caucus would have shrunk away the moment they realised he might secretly tape their conversation, or release screenshots in which they said they didn’t feel like going to work. His disagreement with the party is not ideological but personal, and his wider list of allegations of wrongdoing largely includes normal political processes, such as media training that instructs new MPs to keep their mouths shut and internal party business out of the public domain. Some news stories are already referring to Sharma as an “embattled” MP – never a good sign for career longevity.

Yet Sharma and Wall before him will not be the only Labour MPs disgruntled with Ardern’s absolute rule over the party. Labour won so big in 2020 that even if it retains government at the 2023 election it will be losing at least a dozen MPs (including Sharma). Those MPs facing political oblivion will be looking for ways to make their mark and maybe secure a higher list placing, or at least a media gig after politics. Some of them might have actual ideological differences with Ardern and the ability to articulate them well. Others probably should have never been elected MPs at all, and wouldn’t have been had the party not wildly outperformed its expectations.

Labour will lose many more than a dozen MPs. But the vagaries of MMP means some will still escape the electoral axe, given a reprieve by dint of Labour’s list.

Then Henry gets into the real crux of the problem besetting politics in New Zealand: that is, the power of the parties.

Now, New Zealand politics could use a little more ill-discipline. In many countries a backbench MP criticising his or her own party happens regularly and is a sign of normal democracy. New Zealand’s parties expect far more rigorous discipline, with every MP expected to support their party on every single vote in parliament, save for the most contentious social issues.

This is a factor of very small parties and a proportional electoral system. If you are elected not in a geographic constituency but from a party “list”, as 40 per cent of our current MPs are, then it becomes harder to argue that you don’t owe that party your discipline. Proportional representation has also led to MPs who are sick of their own parties just resigning to start their own, instead of sticking around to sow discord from within.

But this kind of wholesale change to our political culture will not happen overnight, and it will hopefully come from MPs with vision, rather than axes to grind. For now, Ardern faces a crisis that shows no sign of going away soon.

Nothing will change in the system so long as we have people who say that no matter the faults of the blue team (or red team), you have to hold your nose and vote for that team in order to get rid of the other team.

That just means we lurch from one set of narcissistic control freaks to the other and back again when we tire of them. This just perpetuates the cycle of abuse we have been suffering as citizens, even though MMP was supposed to be the system that prevented the sorts of excesses we have seen; most recently from Ardern’s regime.

We actually do need a reset of our politics in order to break free from the conditioning that is so very much like that which Ivan Pavlov inflicted on his infamous dogs.

Just like Pavlov’s dogs, you’ve been conditioned into accepting mediocrity from the parties. Any dissent, or wishing for improvement from your chosen team is considered disloyal. You’ve been conditioned to hold your nose and vote for the bland simply in the interests of your party at the expense of good governance.

Henry Cooke, because of his OE, has escaped the blind obeisance of Ardern’s regime, and has glimpsed a better future. Perhaps you should too.

Cam Slater is a New Zealand-based blogger, best known for his role in Dirty Politics and publishing the Whale Oil Beef Hooked blog, which operated from 2005 until it closed in 2019. This article was first published HERE

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