David Parker: He doesn't look very heroic. I doubt he owns a motorbike. But I believe, given the opportunity, he could make a real contest of the 2011 General Election
IS IT A BIRD? Is it a plane? No, it’s Super-Politician!
Perhaps it’s the lingering legacies of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy that keep us looking for political super-heroes. Larger than life figures who speak to our inner monarchist: to that fatal human predilection for handing off the big decisions to the strongest, the smoothest-talking and the most confident alpha male in the tribe.
It’s what persuaded the scholarly Don Brash to wear a racing-driver’s outfit and attempt to squeeze his angular frame into a go-cart many sizes too small. It’s what led Phil Goff to roll up to his party conference astride an implausibly potent motorbike. The political advisers of both men were determined to show the voters that their employers were “real” men. If people still rode horses, you can bet that any supplied to Don and Phil would’ve been large and white.
But the people we think we’d like to have in charge very seldom resemble the people we actually elect to govern us.
Only once have New Zealanders elected a politician who in any way resembled that “man on a white horse” for whom we’re all supposed to be yearning. His name was Gordon Coates and he was a decorated hero of the First World War. Tall, good-looking, compassionate, possessed of the common-touch, Coates was this country’s first New Zealand-born prime minister. For all these attributes, however, he held office for barely three years.
By contrast, our most beloved prime minister, the grandfatherly Michael Joseph Savage, looked anything but heroic. He was small of stature, physically frail and had a weak speaking voice. The very idea of Mickey Savage on a white horse is absurd.
And yet he was a hero. Diagnosed as suffering from colon cancer, Savage was urged to step away from the office of prime minister – or risk dying in it. He refused. The legislation establishing New Zealand’s welfare state was due to come into force only after the 1938 general election, and Savage was (rightly) convinced that without him Labour’s re-election could not be assured. He threw himself into a campaign that extended from one end of the country to the other. His audiences numbered in the tens-of-thousands, and on polling-day he was rewarded with the most unequivocal mandate ever delivered by the New Zealand electorate.
Eighteen months later he was dead.
True heroes are distinguished as much for their moral courage as their physical bravery. Indeed, on the battlefields of politics it is the exercise of moral authority that separates the truly strong leader from his or her merely tough and/or clever rivals.
It is precisely in this regard: in the exercise of sound ethical judgement and the unflinching demonstration of the Leader of the Opposition’s moral authority; that Phil Goff has so consistently fallen short throughout the Darren Hughes controversy.
The experience of Opposition is there for aspiring prime ministers to demonstrate to the electorate that they have the right stuff to do the job. That, faced with the choice between being loyal to a friend and faithful to the principles of sound political management, they possess the courage to choose ethics over friendship. For leadership is a lonely calling, and since only one head at a time may wear the crown, a leader’s head should be both good and wise.
Is there a head on Labour’s front bench better and wiser than Mr Goff’s? Is there someone who has felt the hot blast of scandal on his face and possessed the moral courage to take the Westminster tradition of ministerial responsibility seriously? Someone willing to stand alongside the ordinary New Zealanders who are Labour’s core constituency? Someone with the guts and the smarts to come up with policies that will give them a fighting chance?
Yes, there is.
He doesn’t look very heroic. I doubt he owns a motorbike. But I believe, given the opportunity, he could make a real contest of this election.
His name is David Parker.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 April 2011.