Did the 53rd parliament reach a new low?
And a brief comment on campaign launches
The former justice minister’s car crash. The ACT Party leader’s unfunny ‘joke’ about a failed terrorist plot. These are two completely different incidents, but they’re not isolated incidents.
New Zealand’s 53rd parliament has risen, but formally dissolves on 8 September. In 2020, when newly assembled, it was celebrated as the world’s most diverse, and we gave ourselves a collective pat on the back. Three years later, does it rank as New Zealand’s worst behaved parliament?
From Gaurav Sharma’s public outbursts and eviction from the Labour Party, through to Tim van de Molen’s formal censure for threatening behaviour, we’ve seen it all. (Well almost, as I’ve not noticed anyone hinting again about sex in the debating chamber.)
Breach of a judicial name-suppression order, failure to declare pecuniary interests, name-calling, bullying… the list goes on and the Privileges Committee has never been busier. Across all political parties, there’s been misconduct of one kind or another.
Did the 53rd parliament set the lowest ethical standards ever? Has New Zealand seen worse, or are we just less tolerant now? Readers can do the poll below and/or contribute historical examples for comparison.
According to a survey done in late 2022, parliament’s reputation has dropped back from a high in 2020, and is relatively weak compared with other public service agencies. Trust, which includes listening to the public’s point of view, is a particular area of weakness. People learn about parliament mainly through the media; most have learned hardly anything, or nothing at all, about it at school. For many, there’s a strong association between parliament and conflict rather than collaboration.
The nadir of the 53rd parliament came during the protest on the lawns in early 2022. No sitting member deigned to give the protestors a hearing, and the Speaker had the sprinklers turned on them instead. (And, yes of course, many protestors behaved badly too.) After Winston Peters paid them a visit, he was trespassed from parliament’s grounds temporarily, and yet he may well be back as a member of the 54th.
Accusations have sometimes been wickeder than the misdemeanours. Opposition MPs took a forensic approach to humiliating Labour’s Jan Tinetti, but can you recall (without using google) what she actually did wrong? And, even if you do recall, can you specify any harm done to the public? Are we better off for all that finger-pointing?
The media like these stories because they’re low-budget and the cast performs for free – although the audience quickly gets confused about the plot. Never mind – someone else will soon get caught in the act.
‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ John 8:7
The personal conduct and misconduct of political leaders is a matter of deep concern globally. There are worse examples elsewhere in the world [the reader can fill the gap with some infamous names], but New Zealanders needn’t be complacent.
If we shrug our shoulders and just say ‘politics is a dirty game anyway’, then we risk making things worse by normalising it and fostering impunity. If, on the other hand, we’re too eager to condemn others, then we risk falling into a whirlpool of outrage, counter-accusation and polarisation. The finding of fault in others becomes a political end in itself, which can all end in a bloody mess.
Are MPs simply under too much pressure, leading to stress and poor decisions?
Can we hope for improvement in the next parliament? Yes, there’s hope, and indeed there’s been some exemplary behaviour. Can you cite examples?
As we go through the election campaign, let’s hope that robust political debate doesn’t descend into invective and name-calling. People deserve to hear about policies that affect their lives, and to hear a contest of ideas and values about the future of the nation.
By the way, a solid 91% said ‘no’ to last week’s question: ‘Do the political opinion polls help you decide who to vote for?’
The Big Parties Launch Their Campaigns
Labour’s campaign launch on Saturday was spiced up by some hecklers who provided the kind of attention-grabber that no PR consultant could have arranged. They did Chris Hipkins and his supporters a favour, I thought, in part because they showed what Labour does not stand for.
Once the noise had abated, Hipkins outlined Labour’s achievements (and there’ve been a few), and he warned people not to waste it all on the opposition and on policies that (Labour alleges) will favour only the rich. The big announcements were free dental care for those under 30 and a 50% boost in numbers of dentistry students. The former means that those who can afford dental care, as well as those who can’t, will benefit; the latter is probably the only worthwhile thing that Labour’s proposed for tertiary education in the last six years.
Before Hipkins’s speech, former PM Helen Clark came on stage to lend her support. Having pipped National at the post in 2005, she has form – and she said, ‘It can be done.’ Back then, though, Labour was polling in the high 30s to low 40s (not high 20s to low 30s). By saying it can be done this time, she seemed to imply that it’s unlikely, but it’s not over yet.
A critical factor for Labour is rallying voters in South Auckland, if 2005 is the model. And low turnout could be Labour’s nemesis. Will the promise of a free trip to the dentist bring out the younger voters, let alone their parents? Or will fear of National and ACT be enough?
National’s launch on Sunday was a briefer affair, all bathed in blue light, reminiscent of police. Luxon rehearsed eight pledges, but didn’t announce new policy. He did ask Kiwis to imagine how much better off they’d be with a National-led government.
They announced their tax and redistribution policies last Wednesday, on which two leading TV political journalists had this to say:
‘This was National's big bang policy announcement and it’s a good political move.’ Jessica Mutch McKay, 1 News.
‘National's tax plan announcement is a masterclass in political marketing.’ Jenna Lynch, Newshub.
These comments were billed as ‘analysis’, although Jessica Mutch McKay did at least make comparisons with Labour’s policy.
But Lynch went on to say: ‘While $20 is not enough to buy a vote in this economy - all the focus groups tell them so - when you can offer $250 - boomfa - that's massive money. Genius.’
But in the National Party’s own words, it’s: ‘Up to $250 more per fortnight for an average-income family with kids.’ A full-time minimum-wage earner would get only $20 more per fortnight. The increases need, moreover, to be balanced against some clawbacks, especially in public transport.
It was hard to tell if those TV journalists meant it ironically (saying the announcements were clever spin and cynical vote-buying), or if they were boosting National’s tax policy.
Fortunately, other journalists have revealed National’s giving with one hand and taking with the other – as summarised by RNZ’s Mediawatch (Hayden Donnell).
It’s only four weeks till advance polling booths open, so people will be pummeled with political persuasion between now and then, and into the following fortnight. This election debate looks likely to be more about values and policies than about personalities – which I’d rate as a good thing. We’ll just need to look closely at the promises.