Political Decline: How sad it will be if New Zealand’s oldest political party is forced to end its days looking out at a world it is no longer able to change; weeping tears of silent rage as younger politicians, with the courage to look beyond tomorrow, get ready to inherit today.
FOR A FEW WEEKS, towards the end of 1973, aged just seventeen, I worked as an orderly at Siverstream Hospital. Speaking frankly, a few weeks was all I could stand. Officially, this public hospital catered for “long-term care” patients. Unofficially, it was an old people’s home.
Many of Silverstream’s residents suffered from dementia. Some were violent, while others drifted in and out of reality in the most disconcerting fashion. The most difficult to deal with, however, were those who remembered enough to know that they didn’t want to be there. Recalling how we would apprehend these brave old souls as they tried to “escape” still gives me pangs of guilt. The bathing, the feeding, the replacing of colostomy bags: it was all hard and emotionally draining work; but the sight of those tears, falling silently from eyes that saw a world their aged owners could never re-join; that was heart-breaking.
There was, however, nothing heart-breaking about the pay. Anyone working through Christmas could earn a week’s wages in less than 72 hours. Overtime, double-time, triple-time: back then the workman and workwoman were worthy of their hire. Mind you, back then union membership was compulsory. Back then we had a Labour Government worthy of the name. Back then, the prediction that my job would one day be described as “modern day slavery” would not have been believed.
Two years later, not so very far from Silverstream Hospital, just a couple of miles up the Hutt Valley at Brentwood School, I cast my first vote. I still remember how my hand hovered above the name of the Values candidate. I had read the party’s splendid manifesto, Beyond Tomorrow, and my head told me that the policies enunciated by Values were the only policies to take the future seriously. My heart, however, recalled “Big Norm”, and I voted Labour.
Taking The Future Seriously: The Values Party's best-selling 1975 election manifesto, Beyond Tomorrow.
Silverstream Hospital, built by the New Zealand government for the repair and recuperation of American sailors during World War II (and visited in 1943 by no less a personage that Eleanor Roosevelt) has long since been decommissioned. In its place stands the very handsome Silverstream Retreat – venue for the 2012 AGM of the Green Party.
The Greens are, of course, the direct political descendants of those prescient men and women who, almost exactly 40 years ago, founded the Values Party. Naturally, there will be celebration – and much reminiscing – over Queen’s Birthday Weekend as Values veterans, like its founder, Tony Brunt, and Jeanette Fitzsimons, the woman who helped birth its political offspring, rub shoulders with the Green Party’s record crop of fourteen MPs. Also present will be Claire Browning, there to launch Beyond Today, her book on the movement Values began.
Writing in Tuesday’s Otago Daily Times, political pundit, Colin James, argued that: “[T]he Greens don't have to win the centre. They can look more oppositionist than Labour because they can occupy (to coin a word) a spot nearer the periphery. This frustrates Labour, which must win votes from National to win the Treasury benches and must sound reasonable while competing with Greens for airspace.”
When Labour’s legacy was still potent enough to win hearts and minds, Mr James’ analysis may have been correct. In 2012, however, I’m not so sure. When the 150,000 mostly female, mostly professional, voters that National wooed away from Labour in 2008 and 2011, and whom they now seem so determined to drive away, decide to go in search of an alternative, are they really going to choose Labour? Does David Shearer really have the emotional heft of a Norman Kirk? I don’t think so.
More and more Labour is beginning to resemble those dementia patients at Silverstream Hospital. Some of Labour’s caucus, like Trevor Mallard, are prone to violent episodes; others, like Shane Jones, test the boundaries of political probity in the most disconcerting fashion. The most pitiful to contemplate, however, are the likes of David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson. They know there are alternatives out there, they can see them, but their colleagues will insist on hauling them back to their beds.
How sad it will be if New Zealand’s oldest political party is forced to end its days looking out at a world it is no longer able to change; weeping tears of silent rage as younger politicians, with the courage to look beyond tomorrow, get ready to inherit today.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 June 2012.