|Speaking Out: Advertisement for the Knigi publishing house, from the portrait of Lili Brik, by Alexandre Rodtchenko, 1924
THERE’S A STORY I HEARD about Nikita Khrushchev and his famous speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956. This was the speech in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its long-suffering peoples. At the conclusion of the speech, and after the obligatory standing ovation, one of the delegates shouted out: “Why didn’t you say all that when Stalin was alive!” “Who said that?” Khrushchev shouted back. A deathly silence fell over the congress. Khrushchev waited a full minute before smiling grimly and saying: “That’s why.”
I recalled that story when I read the Editorial in today’s (18/8/22) NZ Herald. Alluding to the Labour Caucus’ decision to suspend Dr Gaurav Sharma, the leader-writer opined:
“The unanimity of the decision to suspend Sharma is significant too, as the Labour Caucus is a broad church of 65 MPs. None it seems, felt he merited another chance.”
It is difficult to conceive of a statement more revealing of the political ignorance in which so many of those who presume to pass judgement on our nation’s politics are steeped. What Labour MP in their right mind would have dared to vote against the Leader’s clear preference to eject Sharma from Caucus?
Had a Cabinet Minister done so, it would have been interpreted as a direct thrust against the Prime Minister. Backbenchers, having witnessed the emotional violence visited upon Sharma over the preceding days, would have raised a hand only if, like the Member for Hamilton West, they were desperate to escape the parliamentary snake-pit.
It might not be political ignorance, however, which prompts such fatuous commentary. It might be the news media’s shameful complicity in the Labour Party’s nasty habit of disciplining and punishing anyone who dares draw voters’ attention to the naked realities of power. It is nothing short of astonishing that the newspaper which published Sharma’s original op-ed critique was prepared, just a few days later, to assert that the very same dissident-crushing strategies he had complained of, and which had been on full display from the moment it appeared, were no more than could reasonably have been expected.
None of us should be surprised at this “suck-up, punch-down” New Zealand character trait, it has been with us for most of our history. But, even though we know how New Zealanders in authority are going to react to even the slightest challenge, it still comes as a bitter disappointment to discover just how few friends dissidents have in this country.
The sneer and the put-down are everywhere. The same day as the NZ Herald opted to suggest that Sharma more-or-less had it coming, RNZ’s afternoon host, Jesse Mulligan, spent 10 minutes talking to Dr Grant Morris of Victoria University of Wellington about the history of “rogue” MPs in New Zealand. Though both participants in this discussion agreed that the expression “rogue” wasn’t very accurate, that did not prevent them from using the pejorative term throughout the broadcast segment.
Both men agreed that the common thread running through the stories of MPs who had spoken out against the leadership and/or the policies of their party was less about principle than it was about ego. In justification of this thesis, Morris advanced the example of Herbert (Bert) Kyle, the National Party Member for Riccarton. In 1942, Kyle had a falling out with the National leader, Sid Holland, resigned from the party (before he was expelled) and left Parliament altogether in 1943.
Because it has so much in common with Sharma’s complaints about Labour in 2022, Kyle’s reason for leaving bears repeating: “The National Party organization has built up a watertight compartment that makes one become a ‘yes man’ with expulsion as an alternative.”
What Morris neglected to say in his remarks about this little-known rebel, is that his charges against Holland were, almost certainly, true. The National Party’s second leader brought New Zealand as close as it has yet come to having a fascist in charge of a major party. Holland had been a prominent member of the New Zealand Legion – a proto-fascist organisation that grew to an impressive size in the aftermath of the unemployment riots of 1932. It was Holland who drafted the viciously authoritarian “Emergency Regulations” which effectively extinguished democracy in New Zealand for the duration of the 1951 Waterfront Dispute.
Far from being a egoist, the mild-mannered veterinarian-turned-politician, Bert Kyle, was a man of principle who recognised a dangerous bully when he saw one, and was unwilling to become a “yes-man” to a politician whose personal political ideology bore a disturbing resemblance to that of the Nazi warlord New Zealanders were then fighting and dying to defeat.
Close study of these so-called “rogue” MPs reveals that in a clear majority of cases it is a clutch of very similar concerns about the leadership, policies and administration of their respective parties that lies at the heart of their rebellions. As Jim Anderton (whose example of “roguishness” Morris omitted entirely) liked to say: “I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me.”
Jacinda Ardern is fortunate that her own rebel MP is more aggrieved about his party’s handling of employment issues than he is about its policies. A left-wing politician worthy of the name, with a mind to rebel against the ideological positioning of Labour under its present leadership, could inflict enormous damage upon the Ardern Government.
Not that expressing concern at the behaviour Sharma calls “bullying” is in any way trivial. In a caucus where there is a disturbingly large number of MPs who subscribe to the political tactic of “NO Debate!”; and are eager to see “Hate Speech” legislation (which could see citizens sent to jail for three years for expressing unpopular opinions) passed at the earliest opportunity; and will brook no dissenting from Labour’s radical interpretation of te Tiriti o Waitangi; the ability to bully and intimidate doubters would seem to be a necessary part of the modern Labour politician’s skill-set.
Not that the organs of “official” opinion are at all interested in lending their support to those foolish enough, or brave enough, to speak out on such matters. Dissidents will be paid just enough attention to validate the claims of the Powers-That-Be that we live in a free society. What these “out-speakers” will never be given, however, are the resources needed to explain why we don’t.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 19 August 2022.