Tuesday 20 December 2016

Playing Sergeant Pepper.

“It was twenty years ago today,” according to the famous Beatles’ track, that “Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play”. Unfortunately, the files on my computer don’t go back quite that far. What I can show you, however, is how “the one and only” Helen Clark taught Labour’s band to play exactly fifteen years ago today. Read this excerpt from my “Politics” column, published in the weekly business newspaper, The Independent, on 19 December 2001, and you’ll be amazed at just how dramatically Labour has gone “in and out of style” between then and now.
“WITH FIFTY-ONE PERCENT SUPPORT in the latest CM Research poll, the Labour Party is cruising towards the Year’s end on an enormous wave of public support. What is the secret behind Labour’s winning political formula – a formula which has so far eluded all of its competitors? To hear Helen Clark, or Michael Cullen, or Steve Maharey tell it, the story of Labour’s success is a simple one: “Under-promise and over-deliver”.
According to this theory, New Zealanders no longer believe in big promises – so don’t make any. Nor do they expect “the gummint” to do very much of anything to help them out. So, keeping those small promises, and, even more astonishing, actually doing a little bit more than you promised, leaves the voters feeling pathetically grateful.
More cynical observers point to Labour’s utter infatuation with opinion polling and focus groups. Its apparatus for taking the public pulse is state-of-the-art, and provides the political leadership with more-or-less instant feedback. Knowing how the electorate is responding to Government policy allows Clark and her ministers to remain in lock-step with public opinion. As the French revolutionary, Danton, is supposed to have remarked, seeing a throng of Parisians passing below his host’s window: “Excuse me, I am their leader – I must follow them.”
But these explanations are simply not sufficient to explain Labour’s almost effortless domination of New Zealand politics. Somehow, Clark and her colleagues have plugged themselves – or perhaps that should read “found themselves plugged” – into the zeitgeist of the early 21st Century.
Nothing else can really explain Labour’s apparent imperviousness to 2001’s political disasters – and there have been a few: the Hobbs and Bunkle allowances scandal; the Peter Davis brouhaha; the scrapping of the Skyhawks; the fiscal implications of Michael Cullen’s Super Fund; the underwhelming impact of the Knowledge Wave Conference; the Colonel’s letter and the General’s shredder; Air New Zealand; the war in Afghanistan; Bathgate-gate. It’s a pretty long list, but in spite of them all Labour remains 21 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival. Clearly something else is going on here.
The French would call it ennui. Throughout 2001 a feeling of enervation has pervaded New Zealand society, a listlessness that renders outrage and anger altogether too exhausting. It’s almost as if the past fifteen years have left the population feeling numb, shagged-out, too tired to care. Political life is seen as being vaguely ridiculous – filled with people who very badly need to get out more. Political emotion – in particular – is almost universally seen as ersatz, fake, phoney, and too transparently manipulative to be taken seriously.
This is where Helen Clark comes to the fore. Her dry - bordering on bored - approach to the business of government perfectly matches the public mood. Politics is a bloody silly business, the Prime Minister seems to be saying, but since somebody has to do it, it might as well be somebody intelligent, experienced and unflappable - like me. To which nearly four out of ten New Zealanders consistently respond “Amen.”
Clark’s ministers take their cue from “The Boss” – presenting a public face of stolid competence almost totally devoid of colour. Like the rest of New Zealand, they seem resigned to just getting on with it, and as far as most of the electorate is concerned, that’s just fine.
The whole essence of this style of government was summed up by one of the Prime Ministers spin doctors at the recent Labour Party Conference: “Sure it’s dull”, he said, “but that’s okay. Dull is good.”
Fifty-one percent of the country seems to agree.”
I’m just not sure whether all of that is “guaranteed to raise a smile” … or a tear.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 19 December 2016.


Victor said...

It would be simply great if we could return to thinking of politics as boring.

Who, in their right mind, wants to live in "interesting times"?

Flagger said...

Helen Clark always came across as humourless and robotic.

History will write her up as the bureaucrat prime minister.

Dull but vaguely competent.

greywarbler said...

We obviously found politics so boring that we went instead for a theatrical presentation, a song and dance act from someone who would do anything for his peers, even get in a cage to amuse the punters, make amusing admissions about peeing in the shower, just like any ordinary joe would do. Remember Toronto's Rob Ford gross and foolish but getting sports celebrity status, and pleasing all those who think that getting drunk and behaving badly is highly amusing and worthy.

And RWs continual running down of intellectuals and those with solid facts that would embarrass the gummint added to the cold shoulder from the public. All the 'sensible' people were damned as out of touch with the modern, sparkling style of precocious performance of NZs Got Talent and so solid, experienced and committed was dismissed as old stuff, useless for us today, now, forward-moving people.

Anonymous said...

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Charles Pigden said...

And now Labour are paying the price for all that dullness. Helen Clark’s policy was to take Politics off the front page whilst surreptitiously rubbing off the rough edges of the New Right Revolution. Since those rough edges were very rough, rubbing them off made a perceptible difference changing people’s lives for the better. So to begin with dullness was indeed good, since the rubbing off could be done without provoking undue opposition and lots of people were happy with the results. But once those rough edges were rubbed off, there was nothing to do but to manage public affairs in a competent manner (since reversing the New Right Revolution was not for Clark an option) . Though Clark was undoubtedly a competent Prime Minister and her Number Two, Michael Cullen, was a very competent Finance Minister, some of her minsters were not so competent, and over time slip-ups, scandals and SNAFUs started to accumulate. A low-key, National Party fronted with barbecue bonhomie by Key, could pose as equally competent if not more so, and since their secret plans to surreptitiously restore the rough edges were not in evidence, Labour did not have the rhetoric to resist them when they proclaimed it was ‘Time for a Change’. Taking politics off the front page is all very well in the short term but even a *mildly*reformist government needs to have a positive vision - something a bit more inspiring than competent management - to sell to the public if it to beat a Party whose official *policy* is to manage public affairs in a competent manner, especially as low-level managerial incompetence was beginning to tarnish Labour’s brand.

David Stone said...

Hi Chris

After 6 1/2 years of Rogernomics followed by 7 of Ruthanasia we were all ready for a breather. Anything seemed a relief.
Cheers David J S

greywarbler said...

Helen Clark "dull but vaguely competent"!? Bliss. 100% better than we have today. What's to diss about earnestly aiming for competency?? Shallow comment that one from Fladger or some incompetent and unthinking.

The sparkle can come into the political scene as they complete each project successfully and celebrate achieving things for the mass of the people. And find small ways to advance everyone's hopes. We can turn cartwheels, raise a glass, laugh and sing then after that far-from-dull success.

greywarbler said...

Just a wry comment that seems vaguely dull! From Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/d/dietrich_bonhoeffer.html

pat said...

@greywarbler 12.02

perfect...and best of all, succinct.

vol said...

I agree the primary sentiment was relief in the Clarke years. The primary force. Hence, 84ism carried on. Helen gave money to Phil's mayoral campaign. Her publications against rogernomics at every election were just about gathering us in.

What do you make about the reaction to collectivism that seems so solid in the ten years above you Chris? I don't doubt their nz roots. They carry on to this day. They seem oblivious.I won't name the names, but they were instrumental.

Yet, from the beginning , I remember Brian Eastman, W.P.Reeves, Kim Hill and other folk . Won't name my own generation.

We have doubts, they have certainties. It won't matter much soon.Soft,soft,soft.

jh said...

I heard someone say that top executives make decisions on things whose effects aren't immediately apparent. In which case many things don't have an "owner", for example traffic and foreigners arriving to buy houses. What gets forgotten is the possibility of a counterfactual situation.
if only we had an impartial review of various governments performances at (say) 10 years on?

manfred said...

Some of the best political writing I've ever read. Subtly hilarious, straightforward, perceptive and entertaining. Please go on pissing off the ruling class and the Incoherent Left.