"Here's looking at you, kid." That Casablanca is Winston Peters favourite movie should surprise no one. His own ducking and weaving between National and Labour has always had more than a little in common with the jagged course Casablanca’s hero, Rick Blaine, steers between the forces of Vichy France and Nazi Germany.
THE MOST DISTASTEFUL ASPECT of contemporary political journalism is its utter disdain for politics and politicians. That political leaders deliberately lie to the voters is never disputed. That political parties rely exclusively upon focus groups to tell them what they stand for is deemed unremarkable and represented as sound politics. That politicians in general are, in roughly equal measure, both venal and stupid is regarded as axiomatic.
The journalist who attempted to argue that most political leaders actually strive to be honest; that political parties frequently cleave to principle even though it costs them votes; and that the majority of politicians are good people doing their best to make the world a better place; would be laughed out of the Press Gallery.
This prevailing disposition towards professional cynicism is dangerously corrosive, not only of good journalism but also of the entire political process. If politics is presented as a dirty business, with which no respectable person would seek the slightest association, then we should not be surprised when it starts attracting the very sort of people our journalists describe, doing exactly the sort of things they decry.
The great advantage of likening politics to a dodgy tramp steamer, under whose flags of political convenience whole cargoes of deceit, treachery and naked self-interest are regularly permitted to evade electoral duties, is that it excuses journalists from examining and explaining to their readers the ideas and ideals that really do motivate our politicians.
The New Zealand politician who has suffered the most at the hands of journalists who (to employ Oscar Wilde’s wonderful quip) “know the price of everything and the value of nothing” is Winston Peters.
For the best part of a quarter-of-a-century political journalists have sneered at, belittled and defamed this remarkable politician, whose career, when viewed from a less hostile perspective, is distinguished by innate political skill, indisputable personal courage and considerable programmatic success. Not every Maori boy born into rural poverty ends up on the speed dial of the American Secretary of State. Not every National Party politician is capable of successfully defying his party. Not every New Zealander possesses the ability and charisma to build a political movement strong enough to make its leader New Zealand’s first (and so far only) “Treasurer”.
Twenty years ago, I asked Mr Peters to assist the readers of NZ Political Review to understand more clearly what he (among other political leaders) meant when he defined his politics as ‘centrist’. He concluded his response with the following sentence:
“When one walks down the centre of the road, one foot falls slightly to the right, the other to the left, but the head and the heart remain in the centre.”
Mr Peters is by no means the first politician to turn the human body into a metaphor for the state – the fables of Aesop did something similar two thousand years ago. Its organic character does, however, contrast sharply with the crudely mechanistic political language of neoliberalism. His conception of politics is as something intrinsically human – with all the messy contradictions to which human flesh is prey. For Mr Peters, societies and economies are not the sort of instruments you wind up and set in motion – they are the sort of instruments you play.
It came as no surprise when I discovered in 2005 that Mr Peters’ favourite movie is Casablanca. That he sees the New Zealand Parliament as something akin to that contested wartime city cannot be doubted. Nor that he sees himself ducking and weaving between National and Labour in much the same way as Casablanca’s hero, Rick, steers his jagged course between the forces of Vichy France and Nazi Germany.
Casablanca’s theme, that in a dangerous and deeply flawed universe our hearts will almost always prove a better guide than our heads, and that sometimes (as both Rick and Mr Peters learned the hard way) playing by the rules is exactly the wrong thing to do. Especially if your enemies are writing them.
But who will Winston put on board the plane?
If New Zealand’s political journalists could only learn to see past their kneejerk tabloid moralising they would recognise in Mr Peters a politician of extraordinary complexity and powerful conviction. They would also understand that in resolving which political leader to put on board the plane to electoral victory, his heart will play no lesser role than his head.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 February 2014.