Noises Off: The pretty play of democracy is being slowly but unmistakably overwhelmed by an altogether darker script whose authors - hitherto operating behind the scenes - are increasingly moving their undemocratic action front-of-stage.
THE PRETTY PLAY OF DEMOCRACY goes on as usual. The familiar characters make their entrances and exits, delivering their lines with more or less conviction, and the plot, with one or two obligatory surprises, unfolds in the time-honoured way. Occasionally, the writers experience a moment of sheer collective inspiration and the audience thrills to the antics of a wholly original character – this season’s undoubted hit being the inspired and ebullient Kim Dotcom.
Lately, though, the audience has been distracted by loud noises off-stage. This is most unusual – and not a little alarming. Because, say what you like about the script, the production itself has always been first rate. The actors, costumes, props, backdrops, lighting and sound-effects have (so far) never failed to enthral. Which is hardly surprising. With the plot being so familiar, all the other components of a credible theatrical performance are required to maintain the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.
But the volume and frequency of all these off-stage interruptions is making the suspension of disbelief increasingly difficult. The strong impression of persons moving about; snatches of disconcerting dialogue; strange silhouettes, and the unmistakeable sound of scenery being dragged into position has many in the audience convinced that, behind the scenes, another play is in progress – one they cannot see.
This rival play, unfolding simultaneously (albeit invisibly) behind the traditional performance is not in the least bit pretty. Indeed, its themes and characters offer a stark contrast to those we see on-stage.
The official production celebrates democracy and its characters recall the great politicians of the past. Crucially, the climax of the official play never varies: the sovereign people declare their preferences and the democratic process is the winner on the night.
The unofficial play has no place for such political candy-floss and self-delusion. When its leading characters talk about democracy they do so with a curled lip and a raised eyebrow – as if only the intellectually bereft and ideologically deluded could possibly take such an absurd notion seriously. The themes of the unofficial play are all about power and greed and individual self-assertion. The only role played by the people is that of a gigantic ATM. They are presented as an unfailing and inexhaustible spigot of public wealth for private gain: sovereign only in their ill-directed generosity and incorrigible gullibility.
In the unofficial play, a sinister combination of politician-bureaucrats and businessmen-farmers have already met and divvied-up the nation between them. All are in agreement that their respective futures depend on controlling the use of and access to New Zealand’s water. Slowly and methodically, they are re-writing the nation’s laws to exclude all but their hand-picked allies from the decision-making processes relating to this crucial resource. Slowly, but very deliberately, they are shielding their decision-makers from public and media scrutiny. Where resistance has been encountered they have not hesitated to act – indeed, they have already replaced an entire, democratically-elected regulatory body with appointed commissioners.
Where resistance has been encountered they have not hesitated to act: The National Government introduces Canterbury Regional Council's unelected commissioners.
In the official play, nothing is more crucial to the survival of individual liberty and the health of democracy than the sanctity of private property and the rule of law. In the unofficial play, however, the leading characters laugh uproariously at these twinned principles. If someone’s private property stands in the way of one of the many privately-owned, profit-driven irrigation schemes they have planned for the New Zealand countryside, then they simply invoke the provisions of the Public Works Act and relieve the owners of their titles.
To loud objections that the Public Works Act was never meant to be the handmaiden of private investors, the anti-heroes of the unofficial drama do their best to assume the appearance of sage and disinterested legislators. “Yes,” they say, “it is tragic that a handful of homes and farms must be drowned, but it is also necessary to the long-term economic welfare of the country as a whole. We must act in the national interest.”
It is precisely this sort of dialogue, breaking through the reassuring lines of the official political play that is making more and more members of the audience uneasy – even restive. Through questioning eyes they have begun to notice how threadbare the official production is looking. What has become of the play’s familiar props? Have those costumes faded? Why do the actors seem to be just going through the motions? What’s happened to the lighting – and the sound? Why can we hear more and more of the other play – and why is the dialogue so frightening?
The pretty political play of democracy may be a familiar one, but it has never been made weaker by reiteration. Yes, it’s imperfect, even naïve, but unless it is performed – and believed – then the dark shadow-players who have always acted behind the scenes will grow in power and confidence.
The noises off-stage will become the play itself.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 April 2014.