COMETH THE HOUR, cometh the man. There will be many in the National Party offering up a silent prayer of thanks that there is at least one rational human-being left in the National Party caucus. His name? Dr Shane Reti.
First on RNZ’s Morning Report and then, again, on the floor of the House of Representatives, Reti delivered performances that were calm, measured and generous. For the first time in a long time, New Zealanders were provided with evidence that a spokesperson for the National Party knew what he was talking about. More importantly, one sensed a strong moral core. That combination of high intelligence, broad experience and the all-important ability to put oneself in the shoes of others, is what’s been so conspicuous by its absence in the recent run of National leaders.
Yes, there were flashes of it in Bill English. Remember his 2011 statement that the building of new prisons represented “a moral and fiscal failure”. It reminded us that there was a thoughtful and ethically rigorous side to English that, sadly, he kept hidden from both his colleagues and the wider public. For those with the wit to read it, English’s reticence was a sign. Better to remain silent and be thought a moral pigmy, than to say something thought-provoking and shame the rest of your caucus!
Clearly, Reti has decided that, to have any kind of future, the National Party must abandon the notion that it is under no obligation to prove its fitness to govern. Even if, in the minds of the leaders of both major parties, all the major issues of economics and social policy have been settled, the need to demonstrate wisdom, empathy and steadfastness will always be critical to political success.
Exactly when such qualities ceased to be regarded as important is unclear. Perhaps it was when Dean Parker’s famous line from his stage adaptation of Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men: “The most important thing in politics is sincerity: when you can fake that, you can fake anything”; began to sound more like political science than satire.
Forty-five years ago, the second-wave feminist and poet, Adrienne Rich, wrote bitterly about the male-dominated world of politics:
“We assume that men are without honour. We read their statements trying to crack the code. The scandal of their politics. Not that men in high places lie, only that they do so with such indifference, so endlessly, still expecting to be believed. We are accustomed to the contempt inherent in the political life.”
It is part of the triumph– and tragedy – of the second feminist wave, that we now know that there are women, too, without honour. That they can lie as well as any man.
Clearly, Reti has looked to the women in charge of Labour and National for inspiration, and drawn what he needed from the most obvious source. Which political leader does this quote from Reti’s parliamentary speech of Tuesday, 18 August, remind you of:
“Sometimes, in situations like this, with huge complexity and many balls in the air, one of them gets dropped. When that happens, this Opposition will help pick up that ball and put it back in its correct place. There will be a time to understand how the ball was dropped, but first we will help put it back, and then we’ll figure out how not to drop it again.”
Judith Collins or Jacinda Ardern?
In the atmosphere of fear and tension which the Covid-19 Pandemic continues to generate, New Zealanders are looking for precisely the sort of principled interventions which Reti is offering. They want to feel that their Government is being held to account – but not denigrated or undermined. In this regard, Collins has repeatedly proved herself incapable of striking the right note. Reti’s ability to ask the hard questions, while radiating warmth and generosity, is simply beyond her.
There are still a few National MPs with the wit to grasp the long-term political significance of Collins’s and Reti’s sharply contrasting performances. Other caucus members will be recalling with considerable chagrin exactly why they were once so determined to prevent the Member for Papakura from ever coming within a bull’s roar of the National Party leadership. In this respect they will have been helped enormously by Collins’s decision to refer to Reti as “Doctor Shane”. Such patronising language might be expected from Donald Trump, but not from the leader of a major New Zealand political party!
It is to be hoped that, in addition to wisdom, empathy and steadfastness, Reti has also been blessed with plenty of courage. Intentionally, or unintentionally, he has not only shown up his leader, but also a fair swag of his colleagues. In Julius Caesar’s famous words – supposedly uttered as his legions crossed the forbidden Rubicon river – “The die is cast.” It is victory, now, or defeat. No other options are available.
Has Reti got the grit? That is what we are about to discover. He certainly has the ambition. But, he’s got something else, too. It is difficult to name, but you know it when you see it. It’s evident in Reti’s decision to return regularly to his Whangarei medical practice: his way of keeping himself grounded in the realities of his constituents’ lives. It has also equipped him to see the current crisis in the right way: not as a chance to “crush” National’s opponents; but as an opportunity to demonstrate the social solidarity out of which genuine patriotism is fashioned.
There are, of course, minuses as well as plusses. One National insider warns that he has yet to reach the prime-ministerial standard of being able to make important decisions on the basis of highly imperfect information. That’s an important criticism – but not an insurmountable one. Anyone who can master the imperfections of general practice, can master the imperfections of politics. Indeed, one could argue that an MP who has grasped the need to draw the strength he needs from the people he represents has already mastered them.
The important thing now is that Dr Reti keeps all of his balls in the air. For what else is politics, if not a juggling act?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 20 August 2020.