• The Dirty Leak

    So now we know, beyond all doubt.  The National party has no interest in joining the “team of five million” in our fight against the pandemic but its priority is to take every opportunity it can to damage the government.

     The cynicism is breathtaking.  It was prepared to leak the private details of Covid 19 sufferers so that it could lambast the government for doing what it had just done itself.

    Are we justified in blaming the National party itself or was this indefensible act just a piece of “private enterprise”?  Well, Hamish Walker is a National MP and no National insider is more inside than Michelle Boag – a former party President and still a significant eminence grise.

    And how much did the party’s Health spokesperson know of the shameless manoeuvre?  Michael Woodlouse (oops, a bit of a typo there!) was quickly off the mark to put the knife into the government.

    And this is Todd Muller’s National party.  Did Hamish Walker take his lead from his leader and pursue what he understood to be party strategy – that is, to attack the government at every opportunity, whether justified or not?

    Is that whirring sound we can hear that of chickens coming home to roost?

  • The Political Roller-coaster in Full Swing

    In 1987, as a British Labour MP, I was elected to the Shadow Cabinet by my colleagues and was asked by the party leader to direct Labour’s campaign in the general election of that year.  The election was to take place at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s dominance and we were expected to do very badly.  We duly lost the election but ran a much better campaign than expected; I fronted on television screens throughout and attracted a good deal of attention.

    For me personally, this ushered in a golden period.  I topped the Shadow Cabinet elections in the following year and was elected to the party’s National Executive Committee – I began to be talked about as a potential party leader.

    But by the time the then leader, Neil Kinnock, had resigned, following a further election defeat in 1991, my star had waned.  Opponents and rivals in the parliamentary party had done their best to undermine me, and I was defeated in the contest for the leadership later in 1991.  And the winner, a Scot named John Smith, had had the support of what was then a powerful phalanx of Scottish Labour MPs in the House of Commons, whereas my own geographical support base was extremely limited – there weren’t too many Kiwis in the parliamentary Labour party.

    I recount this personal experience of the political roller-coaster as a reflection on what we have seen in New Zealand politics over recent months when the roller-coaster has been well and truly in full operation.

    We had, first, the “rolling” of Simon Bridges, elected as National leader only a couple of year earlier, and then his partial resurrection as Shadow Foreign Minister under his new leader, Todd Muller, who – unusually – came from nowhere and, as an unknown, put himself forward for the top job. 

    Then we had the resignations and departures from politics of Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley.  The former, who had been Deputy Prime Minister, must at one point have envisaged still further heights.  And we are now faced with the publication of a new memoir by Judith Collins, a perennial contender in the public mind for the National leadership, (and perhaps again now), but never quite puling the trigger (though the book may be intended to serve that purpose).

    Nor has the Labour party been immune from such ups and downs.  Their travails over their leadership until recently are still fresh in the memory.  It is their good luck (or rather, perhaps, good management) that the one stable element in the political landscape is undoubtedly Jacinda Ardern – she is a fixture, and unassailable.  But others, as David Clark will no doubt testify, can “suffer the slings and arrows”, while yet others will feel, perhaps, that a new day is dawning.  Chris Hipkins, for example, seems to be forging a reputation as a “Mr Fixit” and as having “a safe pair of hands”.  

    The one thing we can be sure of, however, is that the political roller-coaster will continue to buck and roll – and that is not entirely or even substantially an unwelcome feature of democratic politics.

    Public opinion is inherently fickle and can move around with surprising speed, and is all too likely to be pushed one way or that by media commentary.  From one viewpoint, that creates an inbuilt instability which many would see as an unfortunate and unwelcome backdrop to what one might hope would be effective government.

    But, at another level, the volatility of public opinion might be seen as what keeps our politicians on their toes, and is an essential element in a functioning democracy; it is surely preferable to the manufactured and immoveable public support supposedly enjoyed by a Vladimir Putin or a Kim Jong Un.  And it provides an incentive to our politicians to be up front and straight with the voters and to “tell it like it is”.

    And it makes all the more remarkable the sustained popular support enjoyed over a long period by our own Prime Minister.  She must be doing something right!

    Bryan Gould

    8 July 2020   

  • Credit Where It’s Due

    The images and reports delivered to us by the world’s media leave us in no doubt that the rest of the world is still in the grip of a coronavirus pandemic that shows no signs of slackening, but is actually uncontrolled and picking up pace in many countries; and even countries, like Australia, which seem to have had some success in slowing its advance have seen a worrying spike in new cases and deaths.

    Against this backdrop, we find ourselves, here in New Zealand, in a curious position – or, rather, a curious state of mind.  We seem to take it for granted that we have – almost alone in the world – contained the virus and ended any community transmission, and that we have done so at the cost, by international standards, of a surprisingly small number of cases and deaths; we seem to say that our success is just par for the course, and to pay it little attention or attach much importance to it – or to give credit for it, to ourselves or to our government. 

    We seem unwilling to put a value on the thousands of lives we have saved by our prompt and effective action and the suffering we have, as a consequence, spared thousands of families.

    We take it for granted that we are now out of lockdown and that our lives have returned more or less to normal, that we enjoy a freedom of social interaction and economic activity that is the envy of virtually every other country and that we are now well-placed to take up the task of restoring the economy.  In undertaking that task, our success in controlling the virus stands us in good stead, reinforcing our reputation as a country that is competently run and where it is safe to do business.

    My sense is that individual people, in their conversations with each other, are happy to acknowledge these truths.  It is only in the public discourse, dominated as it is by politicians and commentators –  those, in other words, who have the luxury of criticising and are never put to the test themselves – that the hunt for negatives is pursued.

    With the world-wide pandemic still swirling around us (and there is little that our government can do to change that), it is of course inevitable that some of those returning to our shores from overseas will bring with them the risk of re-infection; that is simply an unavoidable fact of life.

    Once they are in the country, however, and if they test positive, they are added, – even if safely quarantined – to our (tiny) number of new cases.  The overseas media, keen to show their own countries in a better light, then proclaim that New Zealand “has a new spike of cases” – and, sadly, some of our own domestic ill-wishers, too, cannot resist casting a shadow over the fact that we have achieved a state of no community transmission.

    We have now entered a period, in other words, when sniping and taking pot shots from the sidelines is the name of the game.  Those who have done nothing – who have not had to demonstrate the sheer guts and determination that were required from our leaders as the crisis broke – now take it upon themselves to downplay our achievement and to claim that they would have done so much better.  Others go further, peddling unsubstantiated stories about quarantine arrangements in order to score political points.

    There are also those who, while recognising our domestic achievement, complain that more is not being done to offset the inevitable consequences, for the tourist industry in particular, of the worldwide dimensions of the pandemic – as though our government can defy reality and open up our borders without regard to what is happening beyond our shores.

    It is sad that political point-scoring takes priority over acknowledging our success in negotiating a huge national crisis.  We should, for once, be allowed to congratulate ourselves on a job well done, even while there is yet more to be done.

    We have shown how successful a united country can be in achieving the seemingly impossible.  Any fracturing of that unity for political purposes is both regrettable and unnecessarily harmful.

    Bryan Gould

    24 June 2020

  • Blue Birds

    I was born just before the outbreak of the Second World War.  I spent my early years with my mother and young sister in our little state house in Hawera, while my father was “away at the war” in the Air Force.

    I grew up with an awareness, as I listened to the news bulletins from the BBC and the speeches of Winston Churchill, that the world – our world – was locked in a life and death struggle.  And, even in New Zealand, there was Vera Lynn.

    “The white cliffs of Dover” may have been a long way away, but there could be no doubting, in the words of the song, that sense of soaring hope – that belief that a better day would dawn.  Nothing more directly reminds me of the despair and longing that we felt in those days, that conviction and hope that it would – one day – all turn out all right in the end.

    The news this week that Dame Vera Lynn had died at the age of 103 brought it all back to me. I can only think that the Queen felt similarly about the songs of Vera Lynn when, in a broadcast to the nation a few weeks ago, designed to cheer people up in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, she echoed another Vera Lynn song by saying that “We will meet again”. 

    Some of the British media have bemoaned what they describe as nostalgia and sentimentality, and an unhealthy preoccupation with the past, in the reaction to the news of Vera Lynn’s death.  But I welcome the reminder of that earlier crisis – one that was much more significant in innumerable ways than the current coronavirus pandemic; the struggle then was not against a virus, but against an armed and brutal enemy intent on destroying our civilisation and society, subjecting us to serfdom, and driven by a hateful ideology.

    That ideology embraced notions of racial supremacy, authoritarianism, violence and brutality.  It tried to use the force of arms across the whole world in order to establish itself.  It would have spelt the end of fellow-feeling, conciliation and, above all, kindness.  There would have been no going back, no looking forward to a release from servitude.  If that struggle had been lost, the world would have been a very different place; there would have been no freedom, no justice, no human rights, no democracy.

    Does any of that still matter today?  I think it does.  It is clearly desirable that younger generations should have some sense of what those who went before had to overcome, and should make a judgment as to whether what their forbears achieved is worth preserving and defending.  And if we are not alert to the dangers we averted, how can we be prepared to face them down again, if they should re-emerge?

    And how would we recognise them, if they were to rear their ugly heads again?  How would we understand that, even in our own societies, attitudes like these could again take hold?  How else are we to understand the reasons for the Black Lives Matter campaign springing up around the world?  How else to evaluate last year’s massacre at Christchurch mosques?

    If we are to be worthy of those who made such sacrifices last century to defeat fascism, we must be alert for any re-emergence, and also recognise the need for improvement.  We must learn to acknowledge that we are not perfect – not perfectly tolerant of others we think of as “different” and not perfectly ready to understand the slights and disadvantages that others in our midst are prone to suffer.

    And, sadly, although Vera Lynn promised that “Jimmy” “would sleep in his own little room again“, Jimmy today doesn’t always have “his own little room.”  

    We must constantly remind ourselves that, whatever our differences, we are all human and that, as Shakespeare asked, “do we not all bleed?”

    The blue birds (I’m not even sure what a “blue bird” is) did indeed fly again, as Vera Lynn promised, but not just for some of us – for all of us. 

    Bryan Gould

    23 June 2020 

  • Is National’s Leadership Up for Grabs?

    What a pity!  It hasn’t taken long for some commentators to start re-writing history. 

    According to those commentators, the government didn’t do what it has universally been commended for doing; they say that Jacinda did not call forth a great collective effort (the “team of five million”) to defeat the coronavirus – something we did more successfully than any other country.  No, what those perennial critics saw was, they say, a government that “treated us like children”, and that “threatened our democracy”.

    No effort will be spared in those quarters, it seems, to take the gloss off the government’s, and our, success.  That effort will no doubt continue till election day.

    But, for the student of politics, the interest is not always limited to the battle between political parties for the voters’ allegiance.  Some of the most interesting battles occur, not between, but within parties – and that may be where the most fascinating stories will unfold over the next few months.

    It would not be surprising if the National party, having gone through the messy business of changing its leader, were now beginning to wonder if it had done the right thing or had at least made the right choice.  The hoped-for boost in poll ratings has not yet materialised under their new leader, perhaps reflecting his somewhat unconvincing and unconfident start and tendency to put his foot in it.

    The keen observer will be alert for signs that some National MPs might be beginning to wonder about the possibility of a further leadership contest.   It would accordingly be worth keeping an eye on those who might be seen as possible contenders, to see whether they seem to be making unusual efforts to promote themselves by capturing and staying in the headlines. 

    What are we to make, for instance, of National MP and finance spokesman (and supporter of Simon Bridges in the leadership election), Paul Goldsmith, and his headline-grabbing advice to the Prime Minister to “stick to her knitting”.  He must have known that it would attract a great deal of comment, by virtue of its plainly sexist connotations, but it served its purpose.  He was able to posture as someone who had landed an unlikely blow, however ill-judged, on a popular Prime Minister.  He might well have hoped that his colleagues in the National parliamentary party would have taken note and would have drawn the contrast between him and his party’s apparently ineffectual new leader.

    What is even more interesting, however, to those who follow politics, was that he was immediately ticked off for the possibly sexist nature of his remark by one his own colleagues – but it is the identity of that colleague that is really interesting.  The National MP who took it on herself to rebuke Paul Goldsmith was none other than Nikki Kaye, the deputy to Todd Muller, and the organiser of Muller’s successful campaign for the leadership.

    The rebuke must be seen therefore as a “put-down” and a “warning off” from the new leadership, suggesting that I am not alone in sensing that not all is as it might seem in National ranks.  It may be that Paul Goldsmith is not the only former Bridges supporter who sniffs the chance of a re-run of sorts.  There may well be other well-performing National front-benchers and former Bridges supporters – Michael Woodhouse is another name that springs to mind – who might be seen more frequently on our television screens in coming days and weeks.

    If there is any substance to these suspicions, it would be bad news for National.  It would suggest that the wounds inflicted on party unity by the removal of Simon Bridges – a step taken only by the narrowest of margins – may not yet have healed.

    Labour knows only too well the damage that is done when a party in opposition is riven by division and faction.  In Labour’s case, it meant a lengthy spell out of government.  Could the same fate be in store for National if Todd Muller’s shaky grip on the leadership comes under challenge from former supporters of Simon Bridges? 

    Bryan Gould

    16 June 2020