“Horses For Courses”: It's an expression you often hear in the mouths of old politicos. What they mean is that some elections are better suited to demon politicians than angelic statesmen.
WITH JUST OVER A WEEK TO GO, the core issue of this election is at last coming into focus. It is difficult to recall a political contest so fraught with diversions and divisions as this one. Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, has told us very forcefully what politics shouldn’t be about, but it’s been nowhere near so helpful at informing the better angels of our nature. What Mr Hager has managed to do, however, with characteristic prescience, is place the issue of trust at the heart of the choices we must make in eight days’ time.
But trust, in politics, is not a simple thing. Like love, it is apt to be bestowed upon the most unlikely and undeserving of individuals, institutions and nations. That’s because trust is about a great deal more than simply keeping promises. Indeed, the people we trust most are often those who’ve proved that, sometimes, promises must be broken. Given a choice between an angel and a demon for prime minister, it is by no means axiomatic that a desperate electorate will always vote for the heavenly creature.
“Horses for courses” is the expression you often hear in the mouths of old politicos. By which they mean that there are some tasks better suited to demons than angels.
In the course of a lengthy political career, Winston Churchill earned the enmity of just about every section of British society. In 1904 he betrayed the aristocracy by abandoning the Conservative Party and joining the Liberals. In 1926 he helped defeat the Trade Union Congress’s General Strike. Throughout the pacifist Thirties he constantly urged his countrymen to prepare for war. And, as the arch-imperialist of his generation, he did all he could to deny the people of the Indian sub-continent their independence. In short, Churchill was a reckless egotist, an avowed racist and an inveterate warmonger: anyone searching for the angelic in his character faced a daunting challenge.
And yet, when the shadow of a much darker demon fell over Britain in 1940, it was to Churchill that the British people turned. Given the fateful course that lay before them, only a warhorse would do.
Five years later it was a different story. The “Spirit of ‘45” wanted nothing more to do with warhorses. Winning the peace could not be accomplished by harnessing the same demonic forces that had won the war. It was one of those rare occasions when, given a choice between the devil they knew, and the angels they didn’t, people voted for the angels.
Now, John Key is no Winston Churchill, and yet there’s no disputing that for most New Zealanders he’s been the right horse to carry them through the course of a global financial crisis. In a world teetering on the brink of economic disaster, who better than a millionaire currency trader? True, currency traders are not known for being angels. They are quick and ruthless and shamelessly opportunistic. But, for the last six years most New Zealanders haven’t cared. They’ve trusted National’s demon to take them where Labour’s angels feared to tread.
The questions New Zealanders must ask and answer before 7:00pm on 20 September is whether or not New Zealand is still on the same critical course as 2008 and 2011, and whether John Key is still the right horse to carry them through?
Labour has put up a challenger who, frankly, calls to mind Clarence, the wingless Angel in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. David Cunliffe is gentle, well-meaning and, like Clarence, just a little accident prone. He’s urging us to do the right thing by our communities: warning us against letting the country’s problems get too big to fix. But Cunliffe’s and Labour’s big problem is that New Zealanders aren’t yet sure if it’s the right time to start trusting accident prone angels. The economic recovery is, at best, precarious; at worst, over. If things, again, turn pear-shaped, is David Cunliffe really the right horse for the course?
Then again, just how far to the dark side has John Key already taken us? Nicky Hager has posed the question, but a disturbingly large number of New Zealanders seem too frightened to hear the answer.
And that’s always the trick with the demonic horses we mount in times of danger: knowing when, and how, to get off.
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, 12 September 2014.