IF YOU’RE THINKING that, lately, something strange has happened to the National Party, then, clearly, you don’t know the Nats! Just read the following passage from Bill Sutch’s incomparable history, The Quest For Security In New Zealand 1840 to 1966:
“The naïve, the almost childish brutality, with which the chiefs of the National Party fell upon power [in 1949] may seem quite surprising,” wrote Dr J. C. Beaglehole in 1961, “until one remembers how famished for power they were, and with what an innocency of experience they faced the world about them … One does not mean that Mr Holland and his subordinates (lieutenants? – most of them looked like subordinates) went down personally to Government Buildings and kicked the bodies of public servants. Some of them were obviously not as bad as their leader … Yet the insensitiveness to administrative delicacies, the conviction that all you had to do to make the pound go ‘further’ was to take your hand off it, that the main thing needed in education was to insult the Education Department, was quite appalling.”
They were equally famished in 2008 when, after nine insufferable years of Labour-led Government under Helen Clark, they once again “fell upon power” like hungry wolves. At a function I attended in the weeks after the 2008 election I found myself seated at the same table as one of National’s newly-elected MPs. When it comes to politicians, I am not easily astonished, but when I heard the stock response this person gave to polite questions about the new National-led government I was utterly flabbergasted.
“I really don’t give a fuck!”
Now, I suppose we should give this novice MP some credit for their honesty. Because there is very little room for doubt that they were speaking truthfully. They really didn’t give a fuck about policy, or the concerns of well-informed members of the public, or the criticisms of journalists, or the accusations of their political opponents. It was written all over this appalling person’s face: “We have the power now and you don’t. We can do whatever we like and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”
And that’s it. That’s all you really need to know about the people who stand for the National Party and are duly returned by electorates where not giving a fuck about people unlike themselves is so ingrained that a novice MP could voice their prejudices without the slightest sign of embarrassment. (A year or two later, having learned the wisdom of guarding their tongue in the presence of strangers, this same MP had the good grace to at least look deeply uncomfortable when they were introduced to me a second time.)
People who are unaware of the “childish brutality” of the typical National Party politician have expressed dismay at the behaviour of the party’s latest leader, Judith Collins. They wince at the delight she so obviously takes in the language of intimidation, domination, humiliation and – let’s face it – violence. Political leaders are supposed to reject such crudity in favour of a more measured and responsible tone.
Collins would laugh at such naivety. Was National’s first Prime Minister – the Sid Holland anathematised by Dr Beaglehole – measured and responsible? Was the pugnacious Rob Muldoon?
What passes for ideological debate in the National Party consists mainly of arguments about the extent to which the “childish brutality” of its members and voters should be hidden from the wider New Zealand electorate. The “liberal” wing of the party insists that crudity and brutality rapidly wears out its electoral welcome. Rather than turn to the Hollands, Muldoons and Jenny Shipleys, National is always better advised to turn to the Keith Holyoakes, Jim Bolgers and John Keys. “But why?” demand the party’s conservatives. “The people we represent don’t give a fuck if we are crude or brutal. In fact, they rather expect it!”
Collins’s approach to politics strongly suggests that she has more sympathy with the conservatives’ view than the liberals’. Which is not to say that when asked to vote on conscience issues such as capital punishment and abortion, National leaders like Muldoon and Collins aren’t willing to line up with their more measured and responsible colleagues.
These votes do not, however, prevent them from talking, as Collins does, about “crushing” their Labour opponents. Nor did Muldoon’s vote in favour of abolishing capital punishment prevent him from telling the huge audiences who turned out to hear him put the boot into the 1972-75 Labour Government that he had “seen the shivers running all over [Labour PM’s] Bill Rowlings’ body, looking for a spine to crawl up!”
Crude, but effective.
The same, sadly, applies to “Merv’s” intervention in National’s 2020 Auckland Central candidate selection. Newshub has alleged that this pseudonymous caller of late-night talkback shows is in fact a regional representative of the National Party with a bee in his bonnet about Nuwi Samarakone, the Sri Lankan-born party activist apparently favoured by the party hierarchy. “Merv’s” contribution followed the circulation, by a person, or persons, unknown, of a photograph of Ms Samarakone (a former ballet dancer) posing for the camera in leotards. Astonishingly, that was all it took to make sure that, at least as far as its three leading contenders are concerned, the Auckland Central contest will be an all-white affair. Childish brutality indeed!
In the 1960s, my late uncle, ministered to the deeply conservative Presbyterian parish of Tuapeka Mouth in rural South Otago. It is difficult to imagine a more stringent test of Christian forbearance. The locals must have found his liberal theological views as testing of their patience as the Tuapeka Mouth congregation’s unabashed Calvinist prejudices tested his charity. The experience did, however, equip him to offer me, years later, this pithy summation of the Good Lord’s handiwork: “Humanity”, he vouchsafed, “is neither wholly corrupt, nor wholly irredeemable.”
That Labour’s massive lead over the Opposition is composed, in large part, of voters who have crossed over from the right-hand to the left-hand side of the electoral street, would appear to bear out my uncle’s charitable assessment.
Accepting, of course, that you consider the Nats to be human!
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 12 August 2020.