• The Risks of Collins As Leader

    Having lost yet another leader in quick succession, the National party was clearly so desperate to find a successor that they turned to someone whose earlier bids to become leader they had already twice rejected.

    It may not be clear why Judith Collins should suddenly have become National’s saviour after her earlier rejections; and it is hard to understand why the factors that counted against her in the past should suddenly have become of little account and have been overlooked on this occasion.  Perhaps National supporters hope that the voters will have short memories.

    It is worth reminding ourselves, however, of just why she was thought to have disqualified herself from high office.   Her close links to Cameron Slater, he of the notorious Whale Oil blog, earned her a reputation as an enthusiastic practitioner of what came to be called “dirty politics” – Slater had, after all, praised her publicly as his “mentor” – and her approach to politics was well documented in Nicky Hager’s book entitled “Dirty Politics”.  Her philosophy was summed up in the advice she offered to Slater to the effect that if someone tried to hurt you, you should hit them back twice as hard, and that “if you can’t be loved, it’s best to be feared”.

    This attitude was confirmed in the pleasure she seems to take in the nickname “Crusher” – something she is still keen to highlight, (though only three boy racer’s cars were ever actually crushed).

    Of somewhat more substance is the episode when, as a member of John Key’s government, she was “stood down” by the then Prime Minister and stripped of the title “Honourable.”. He disciplined her for allowing a conflict of interest to develop when, on a ministerial visit to China at the taxpayer’s expense, she attended meetings concerned with her husband’s private business interests, and then sought to conceal that fact by giving a misleading account of the reason why she had undertaken a particular journey.

    Even National voters were inclined to regard this history, and these episodes and attitudes as enough to make her unelectable, and she was accordingly treated for a long time as electoral bad news and a hard sell to voters.  Perhaps National will hope she has mellowed and that the voters will see a more conciliatory politician; but, without her much-trumpeted “toughness”, what else does she have to offer?

    Whether or not “Crusher” Collins is the real Judith Collins, can we really be convinced that more aggression and nastiness – whether real or manufactured – is what we need in our politics or in any other area of our national life?  I would suggest that more kindness is what is needed – and that, as between kindness and “toughness”, kindness wins out every time.

    And if we feel that we have a need for leaders with courage and strength, haven’t we just had and seen the prime example of a leader who was ready and able to take the “tough” decisions and to provide the leadership to guide us successfully through a great national crisis? 

    Electing Judith Collins as leader has to be, for National, a triumph of hope over experience.

    Bryan Gould

    16 July 2020

  • Muller and the “Leak”.

    Simon Bridges must be the unluckiest person in New Zealand politics.

    When he was elected as leader of the National party, he also became Leader of the Opposition – a position, he was entitled to assume, that would require him to “oppose”.

    But the government he set out to oppose was not an ordinary government and was not an ordinary political opponent.  The advent of the Covid 19 pandemic changed the rules of the game.

    By virtue of her clarity and firmness of purpose in fighting the pandemic, and her brilliance as a communicator, the Prime Minister transformed herself from just another party politician, and became instead the “captain” of a “team of five million”.

    This transformation forced a change on the Opposition as well.  Conventional attacks on the government’s record – and that record was essentially about the pandemic – were no longer seen as acceptable and expected, but were regarded instead as unpatriotic and as a deliberate attempt to undermine a great collective national effort and campaign.

    Notwithstanding the adverse reactions – not least from his own supporters – whenever he tried to damage the government’s credibility, it took Simon Bridges too long to wake up to this changed scenario.  By the time he had learned the lesson, it was too late; and it was that failure that cost him the leadership.

    No one doubts that the changed situation would have been a difficult one for any leader of the Opposition.  To navigate a course that permitted Simon Bridge to maintain critical pressure on the government without offending that majority that wanted to see the government succeed in its campaign against the virus would have required political skills of the highest order – and, sadly for Simon Bridges, he was, perhaps not surprisingly, found wanting.

    With that unhappy example in mind, it might have been thought that his successor, Todd Muller, would have avoided falling into the same trap.  But, not a bit of it – the new leader enthusiastically lobbed hand grenades at the government from day one, and whenever he could, and his relevant ministers, such as Michael Woodhouse, followed suit.

    They were joined by the grande dame of the National party, Michelle Boag, and by ambitious back-benchers, such as Hamish Walker.  And, even worse, they weren’t too fussy about the charges they levelled or where they had come from.  Michael Woodhouse, for example, peddled a story about a homeless man joining the queue for free accommodation in managed isolation in a quarantine hotel –  a story he has never been able to stand up.

    And Woodhouse was one of the two National MPs who were leaked the private details of Covid 19 sufferers by Michelle Boag – a “leak” which Todd Muller and his colleagues then made much of and used to attack the government.  Michelle Boag and Hamish Walker have now, after the deception was discovered and they have confessed to their culpability, both fallen on their swords.

    But why did Todd Muller allow the story of “the leak” to run for so long without correcting it?  And why did he and Michael Woodhouse both sit on the information that Woodhouse had also received e-mails from Michelle Boag?  

    Why did Michael Woodhouse, having received the e-mails from Michelle Boag, issue a statement that it was “unconscionable and unacceptable” that the private details had been leaked, wth its implication that this was a government bungle, when he knew perfectly well how the leak had arisen?   Did Todd Muller, in an attempt to deflect attention from himself and his Health spokesperson, decide that Hamish Walker was junior enough to be thrown to the wolves as the fall guy who would carry the can?  

    Can Todd Muller and his senior lieutenants survive, in the voters’ eyes, having presided over such a disreputable and unprincipled manoeuvre?  As Marc Antony might have said, with Shakespearean irony, “For Todd Muller is an honourable man.  So are they all, all honourable men.”  Is Simon Bridges now permitting himself a quiet smile?   

    Bryan Gould

    11 July 2020

  • 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