The Crusher Returns: Judith Collins, a shrewd Auckland lawyer, is well aware of the widely-held belief that politics has become an almost entirely disreputable profession. She knows that those who enter it are greeted with a knowing cynicism – as if both the voter and the politician have entered into a secret agreement that nothing good will ever come from the latter’s intentions and achievements.
JUDITH COLLINS is to be congratulated. There are very few western nations in which a parliamentarian hauling as much baggage as Ms Collins would be given a second chance. When did ours become the country that awards the average politician more lives than the average cat?
Is no one surprised that Ms Collin’s rehabilitation is so unsurprising. Is no one asking: why wasn’t her treatment of Justice Binnie; her decision to allow Serco into the New Zealand prison system; her fraught dealings with the Orivida company; and her friendship with the highly controversial blogger, Cameron Slater, enough – more than enough! – to rule out a return to the Cabinet Table?
The answer lies with, and in, us – the New Zealand electorate. Our steady disengagement from the political process (in which we were once amongst the world’s most enthusiastic participants) has been accompanied, and justified, by the widely-held belief that politics has become an almost entirely disreputable profession. Those who enter it are greeted with a knowing cynicism – as if both the voter and the politician have entered into a secret agreement that nothing good will ever come from the latter’s intentions and achievements.
In practical terms, this means that it is the honest and principled politicians who attract the most scathing condemnation. Such people have clearly failed to understand their job description, which demands only a show of decency – and not even that if the politician’s indecent objectives can be achieved swiftly, decisively – and with ostentatious brutality.
As Freddy Gray wrote recently in the British magazine, The Spectator: “What strange people we Brits are. We spend years moaning that our politicians are cynical opportunists who don’t stand for anything. Then along comes an opposition leader who has principles — and appears to stick by them even when it makes him unpopular — and he is dismissed as a joke.”
Not that the Brits have “strange” all to themselves. When David Cunliffe, having heard the statistics on domestic violence and met with some of its victims at the Women’s Refuge charity’s annual conference, told his audience that it made him “feel sorry for being a man” – a not unreasonable admission in the circumstances – he was universally pilloried. The New Zealand electorate doesn’t appreciate that sort of raw and unmediated political honesty.
Ms Collins, a shrewd Auckland lawyer, would never make such a fundamental error. She knows what New Zealanders expect of their politicians – and she gives it to them good and strong.
Critics accuse her of arrogance, but a heapin-helpin of self-importance has been de rigueur for National Party politicians ever since the days of “Piggy” Muldoon.
Others accuse Ms Collins of being unable to differentiate private from public responsibilities. But those who believe that all politicians are venal and self-serving remain completely unfazed by such charges.
The same applies to the Serco contract. Sure, the company has a less than stellar international reputation. Yes, it is determined to make incarceration profitable. But – so what? That’s what Capitalism does, and it’s unreasonable to ask capitalist politicians to do otherwise.
But, surely, it is the duty of the Prime Minister to uphold the highest standards of behaviour in public office? Regardless of the low esteem in which many citizens hold their political representatives, shouldn’t the Prime Minister do everything within his power to elevate the public expectations of his government?
John Key knows better than to attempt such a risky project. Improving the average citizen’s opinion of politics and politicians must, of necessity, involve reversing that secret agreement between the leaders and the led. Instead of endorsing the public’s withering contempt for the political process, Mr Key would be forced to contradict it. Instead of validating the unspoken assumption that the system is rotten and immutable, he would have to redefine politics as the best way of improving the lives of ordinary people.
In conveying these messages to the electorate, the Prime Minister would, of course, also be asking them to assume responsibility for holding him and his ministers to account. He would be inviting them to apply a consistent moral code to the conduct of all politicians, and imposing the duty of taking action to reprimand and/or punish all those who break that code. In short, he’d be demanding they behave like virtuous citizens.
“Crusher” Collins would roll him before you could say “Democracy”.
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, 11 December 2015.