Monday, 28 June 2010

For the Love of the People

More than a rhetorical flourish: Harry Holland, the left-wing journalist who led the NZ Labour Party from 1919 until his death in 1933, demonstrated what "for the love of the people" meant to the first generation of Labour leaders by giving away much of his meagre parliamentary salary to his poverty-stricken constituents.

"FOR THE LOVE of the People." Who says that sort of thing anymore? Surely not a politician!

Though some might object to including the words "Len Brown" and "politician" in the same sentence, it was indeed the Mayor of Manukau City, and front-runner in the race for the new Auckland "supercity" mayoralty, who declared his love for the voters.

Responding to criticism that he had misused his mayoral credit card, Brown asked a special meeting of the Manukau City Council:

"Do you think I got off that bloody bed and came back here because I was worried I could spend some more money on the credit card?

"You know why I came back here. You saw me when I walked back into this place, I was a bloody skeleton. I came back here for the love of the people and you know that’s damn right."

Brown’s near-death experience following a massive heart attack, his determined recuperation, and his triumphant return to office, are all key elements of his personal political narrative. And according to his friend, the popular broadcaster and talk-back host, Willie Jackson, the people of South Auckland reciprocate Brown’s love, and admire his gritty dedication to their service.

"Len Brown is an honest man," Jackson told TV3’s Campbell Live, "people know that."

A clear majority of Manukau’s city councillors agreed. After four hours of what the NZ Herald described as "testy" debate, and a powerfully emotional appeal from Brown, his apology for misusing the credit card was accepted and all the relevant documentation (or lack of it) passed on – at Brown’s insistence – to the office of the Auditor-General for final judgement.

"If I survive this savaging, and end up in another mayoral chair," Brown reassured the meeting, "I can assure you I have learned from this experience."

There is something endearingly goofy and sentimental about Brown that makes all his talk about getting into politics "for the love of the people" and of having "learned his lesson" entirely believable. Careless to a fault he may have been, but only his most venomous political opponents are willing to argue that his actions were inspired by simple venality.

Was there poor judgement? Yes. Was there an excess of na├»ve enthusiasm and insufficient attention to detail? Absolutely. But, now that he’s been called to such public account, few are willing to predict that Brown will make the same mistakes twice.

The same almost certainly applies to past, present and future ministers of the Crown. Like Brown, cabinet ministers from the Clark era – and even a few from the present government – have been forced to suffer the ignominy of having their errors of judgement exposed and held up to public scrutiny.

Some, like the former Building & Construction Minister, Shane Jones, have accepted the resulting public opprobrium with disarming frankness and humility. Others, like the former Conservation Minister, Chris Carter, have recklessly challenged the public’s judgement with, in Carter’s case, entirely predictable and disastrous consequences – as far as his political future is concerned.

But none of the politicians who’ve been subjected to the disinfecting sunlight of public exposure over the past fortnight have responded with words even remotely akin to Brown’s "for the love of the people". And very few, if any, voters would have believed them if they had.

It was not always so.

As Dr Bryce Edwards, of the University of Otago’s Political Studies Department, pointed out on his "Liberation" blogsite on 11 June, Labour’s first prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage, was extraordinarily sensitive to the expectations of the working-class voters who had carried his Labour Party to victory.

"Being a representative of workers to him meant that he shouldn’t just take on the material comforts of the ruling class once he was elected to represent those workers. The extravagance and luxuries of office were to him associated with the interests of right-wing politicians. Hence he refused to live in Premier House on Tinakori Road, near Parliament."

According to Edwards, Savage regarded such a "mansion" as "inappropriate for any politician, let alone one representing the proletariat". Instead, he purchased a modest bungalow in the Wellington suburb of Northland.

Premier House itself was converted into a large dental clinic as part of the Labour Government’s public health programme. (Helen Clark’s aunt later trained there.)

It required the election of a very different kind of Labour Government in the 1980s before the prime-ministerial residence was finally restored to its former opulence – at a cost to the taxpayer of $1.8 million.

And Savage was by no means the only Labour hero to abjure all the trappings and perquisites of office. His predecessor as party leader, Harry Holland, gave away a large portion of his meagre parliamentary salary to needy constituents. "For the love of the people" was more than a mere rhetorical flourish in the 1920s and 30s.

It is, perhaps, no accident that the first Labour Prime Minister to occupy Premier House was Sir Geoffrey Palmer – the politician largely responsible for modernising and professionalising what had formerly been the vocation of politics. When Palmer got through with it, the role of the people’s representative had become indistinguishable from that of any other highly-paid civil servant. Small wonder that talk-back hosts began referring to MPs as "our employees in Wellington".

Except, of course, they’re not our employees, they’re our representatives: a very important difference. Ideally, the bond between Members of Parliament and their constituents should go much deeper, and be infinitely stronger, than the relationship between a master and his servants.

Besides, if we, the people, are sufficiently competent to look upon parliamentarians as mere employees, it raises the question of why bother with them at all? Why not heed the urgings of the anarchists and libertarians and do away with the state and its minions altogether? Why not cut out the middlemen and rule ourselves?

We all know the answer to that.

In the end, only the rich and powerful possess the effrontery to treat politicians as their hirelings, and wherever that occurs the rights and needs of the poor and the weak must inevitably suffer.

We value democracy so highly because it is the only system that allows men and women to serve not merely for the love of money, but also – if we’re lucky – "for the love of the people".

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 24 June 2010.

13 comments:

mike said...

Chris,

You're right. Sincerity is out of fashion. But I think it's not only a reflection on the politician class, but on (many of) the people.

In one of his quasi-memoirs, John A. Lee said that in the early-20thC the ordinary person expressed open empathy than later. This was reflected, for example, in the musical culture of the day, all those Victorian & Edwardian songs we now think of as sickly sentimental which could be, in fact, expressions of genunine feeling.

Of course, it may have something to do with the fact that the vast majority of NZers, pre-1935, were what would now be defined as Poor. So of course they had more empathy for their fellows. It was the "natural" ideology of the people. This was where the likes of Savage and Holland came from.

Nick J said...

I am not sure that acting "for the love of the people" beats the current rage for "aspiration". The contrasting images from election night of Clark emerging from her Mt Eden villa into a plain car, and Keys convoy of high end limos pouring out of the security gate of his Parnell mansion/ compound said it all. It strikes me that people dont want to share humility anymore, they voted for a chance to "aspire", the corollary of which is the ability to "lord it" over others. Democracy comes a distant second to desire.

I am please you pointed out the role Palmer had in the reduction of society to individuals and consumers, and the elevation of politicians to corporatist style "professionals". He was central to that same pack of wreckers who transformed our relationship with our public services from that of citizens to that of consumers and clients. Its about time Palmer recieved the opprobrium he richly deserves for his role in securing the dominance of this warped and loathsome relationship between the institutions of state and the citizens.

Lew said...

Chris, we have to stop agreeing like this. What will become of our reputations, such as they respectively are?

L

Chris Trotter said...

To: Lew.

Ah, sweet Concord!

To: Mike.

I share your thoughts on the death of empathy.

You may be interested in the following passage from "No Left Turn":

"It is difficult for people living in the 21st Century to understand how deeply their forebears could be moved by the moral injunctions of the New Testament. In the first half of the 20th Century, the idealistic, romantic, maudlin – even mawkish – human sentiments resided much closer to the surface of daily life, and were much more responsive to emotional stimuli, than is the case today. One has only to listen to the film scores of the period to understand how susceptible the mass audiences of the past were to the promptings of extreme, and to our “post-modern” sensibilities, quite banal, emotional cues. We should strive to understand, however, that the literary and musical tastes of the “average” person in the 1920s and 30s were still, overwhelmingly, dominated by the manipulative sentimentality of 19th Century art. The challenging realism and discordant sounds of 20th Century modernism were appreciated by, and remained the preserve of, an intellectual, and mostly left-wing, minority. Moral simplicity was the characteristic quality of a population which, every Sunday, settled itself into the pews of a local church, where, as the Depression deepened, the uncomplicated ethical injunctions and shrewd parables of “The Carpenter of Nazareth” were increasingly given the aspect of an unchallengeable political manifesto."

Bearhunter said...

"In the first half of the 20th Century, the idealistic, romantic, maudlin – even mawkish – human sentiments resided much closer to the surface of daily life, and were much more responsive to emotional stimuli, than is the case today. One has only to listen to the film scores of the period to understand how susceptible the mass audiences of the past were to the promptings of extreme, and to our “post-modern” sensibilities, quite banal, emotional cues."

And yet in the early 20th Century we saw none of the mawkish outpouring of public sentiment that surrounded, as an extreme example, the death of Diana Windsor. Or, here in NZ, the death of Peter Blake. Nor were there laying of wreaths at crash sites, or the inexplicable collection of foliage at disaster sites...

Victor said...

This is a very interesting and valuable discussion. Mike's point about Victorian and Edwardian songs is particularly well-made

We are too prone to dismiss the apparently simplistic emotions and morality of previous generations as hypocritical, self-serving or self-deluding gush.

But not every heroic Tribune of the People became a wife-beater or child molester when he shut his front door at night. Nor was high-flown humanitarian rhetoric always a mask for baser motives.

Both the deliberate crudities of Modernism and the vaguaries of Post-Modernism have sapped our ability to empathise with our fellow creatures. We have become more cynical but not necessarily more sceptical, let alone wiser or freer of mind.

From his own idiosyncratic but undoubtably Left Wing perspective, Orwell had a lot to say on the subject of the twentieth century's assault on humane values and old-fashioned empathy. His essay on Charles Dickens is well worth revisiting, particularly the last paragraph.

http://www.orwell.ru/library/reviews/dickens/english/e_chd

Victor said...

On the subject of Labour's expenses 'scandal', I noted with some dismay (but no surprise) that Helen Clark's totally appropriate use of her ministerial credit card to buy a cheap pair of gumboots for the obviously good purpose of visiting a flood-stricken area, was condemned as 'mean' by her normal rag-bag of critics.

That's what happens when you behave with the personal parsimony once expected of Labour leaders.

Olwyn said...

"We are too prone to dismiss the apparently simplistic emotions and morality of previous generations as hypocritical, self-serving or self-deluding gush."

Yes Victor. It is all too easy to denigrate a genuine virtue by presenting it in its degraded form. And often writers who exposed hypocrisy did not intend to do away with virtue so much as to reveal our failure to live up to the virtues we espoused.

One odd effect of sidelining thoughts of goodness is a rather childish and narcissistic view of maturity: that to be mature is to accept that the world is a dog-eat-dog place. A truer conception of maturity you would think would be the realisation that the person who is not me is just as real as I am, despite the fact that I can't feel it when he stubs his toe.

Victor said...

Olwyn

"One odd effect of sidelining thoughts of goodness is a rather childish and narcissistic view of maturity: that to be mature is to accept that the world is a dog-eat-dog place."

I believe that those who wallow in dog-eat-dog 'realism' are actually a species of romantic.
They get high(in both senses of the word)on an image of themselves as practical, incisive doers.

mike said...

Chris,

Thanks for the No Right Turn quote - that's an interesting analysis. Reminds me of the influence of Scrim during the Depression and his messages of optimistic empathy.


Victor,
Cheers for the comment on the songs.

Recently read an essay by Robert Bellah about the American "religion" of the sovereign individual, first identified and critiqued by Tocqueville. I think many NZers have started by sway into this worldview. Consider the individualiam/isolationism celebrated by Emerson:

"Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear... the currents of Universal Being circulate through me... The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, - master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance."

Chris Trotter said...

That's "No LEFT Turn", Mike.

Olwyn said...

Victor @ Mike: Iris Murdoch also sees this sort of realism as tinged with romanticism: She says, "Stripped of the exiguous metaphysical background that Kant was prepared to allow him, this (Kant's) man is with us still, free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy."

In actual fact New Zealand is not very good at the hubris that accompanies this man - it always comes out tinged with panic and spite, and if anyone demurs on account of this, "the tall poppy syndrome" is called forth as an explanation.

Given the joy that our football team has given people, manifesting the better features of NZ in being humble, diligent and attentive (characteristics which sound dull written down, but which are lovely to see) we may actually be happier with politicians that are driven by the love of the people than their managerial counterparts.

mike said...

Olwyn: You're probably right about NZers not being good at "the hubris". We certainly don't have the magisterial American sense of the individual self. And look at at how angst-ridden and tragic the various NZ "Man Alone" literary mythologies have been.

Contra to this, we have traditions of empathy and organic society in our team sport, like you say, and bequeathed to us in different ways by the likes of Savage, Holland, Lee, Robin Hyde, Jim Henderson, Janet Frame...