Friday 1 June 2012

Political Dementia - Or, Is Labour In Need Of Aged Care?

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.


Unknown said...

It is the 800,000 voters who didn't vote that Labour must woo. Labour had an unelectable leader in Phil Goff and a front bench who didn't want Labour to win. They just wanted to wait and see Goff defeated. Actually Phil performed quite well and with the right support mmay have sneaked home! But David Cunliffe expected he would be the new leader. Sorry wrong David!

Anonymous said...

Shearer’s so busy strumming The Who’s songs outside the baby boomers’ window, in a dismal attempt to woo them over to Labour, that no agenda whatsoever has emerged. It’s such a cynical and pathetic grasp for mere power when entire generations are maturing without hope, or even financial independence. All we get are the usual flies hovering about a rotting body politic: research and development, technology, etc. Thoughts of social equity or radical considerations as to how we live and the sort of society we would wish to foster barely even feature as empty rhetorical flourishes. Baby boomers will take both Labour and National—cynical authoritarian parties, subservient to the finance sector –to the grave with them.

Tim G. said...

Hi Chris T,

Forgive me for being obtuse, but are they ready to inherit anything? I'm not suggesting RN is, but I just wonder what proportion of the Greens voter base you think might be right-leaning liberals whose "little poppets" have been sending away envelopes to World Vision and Greenpeace for many years but whose political values more closely align with the Act Party?

susiebrown said...

Tim G. may dream up an image of the 'average' Green Party member as being an Act type at heart. Makes a change from being seen as stoned tree-huggers. Neither image fits the truth of the diversity of the GP membership. Judge the party by the courage of the members to adopt policies that will make a real difference. The baby boomers at the AGM looked like folk who are determined to live long enough to see real change in their lifetimes.
The cryptic words are especially hard to read today, and my eyesight isn't what it was last century!

guerilla sureon said...

I don't necessarily think that Green party members are necessarily aligned with act's political thinking, but they are very middle-class on the whole. Not only that but they are antiscience. If they'd only give up on possum peppering they might stand some show of getting my vote.