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Toe the line or hit the road – the new political norm

Written By: - Date published: 4:46 pm, January 22nd, 2011 - 29 comments
Categories: Politics - Tags: ,

In what must surely be a sign of the coming apocalypse I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Fran O’Sullivan for the second time in the last year.

Writing about the response to Hone Harawira’s criticism of his own party, Fran points out there’s been a tradition of taking leadership to account in New Zealand politics. Of course, Fran being Fran, her example is Upton and Richardson taking on Muldoon, although there are numerous examples of public conflict between the left Labour party MPs and the right-wing leadership of the fourth Labour government.

And the media don’t help. As Fran puts it:

there has also been a sea change, which I put down to the journalistic tendency to quickly put any backbench MP on to the “must be dumped from caucus’ slipway” when they call their own party to account.

Instead of greasing the ramp, why don’t journalists simply challenge the leadership to respond to the valid points Harawira has made?

An easy answer would be that this change has happened because the media don’t do analysis anymore. And to a certain extent that’s true – reading the PR tealeaves has largely superseded in-depth consideration of more materially important political questions.

But there has also been a change towards corporatism in politics, much as there has been in other aspects of life, that inclines pundits towards an analysis in which the hierarchical and professionalist nature of political parties is emphasised over the democratic, robust and vaguely anarchic style of politics prior to the 1990s. This has been particularly evident in the parliamentary arms of parties and particularly the two major parties.

The party list system probably has a bit to do with it as it can leave list MPs without a safe base to criticise their leadership from as does the governance-as-management style of the Clark Government and the National government preceding her. However list MPs can build up other constituencies (and bloody well should) and party cultures evolve.

I think the fundamental issue here is the significant change we had with the neo-liberal revolution and the way in which is has cemented the language and the hierarchical culture of business into a whole lot of non-business areas – including politics.

Just as you don’t take senior management to task in public if you want to keep your job you’re not expected by post-revolution pundits to keep your place in the party if you speak out against senior leadership.

I guess it’s ironic that O’Sullivan is complaining about this shift in political culture when she’s one of the greatest cheerleaders of the ideology that drives it.


29 comments on “Toe the line or hit the road – the new political norm”

  1. Draco T Bastard 1

    …which is has cemented the language and the hierarchical culture of business into a whole lot of non-business areas – including politics.

    Although I agree with what you’ve said I’m going to have to point out that business doesn’t have to be hierarchical as cooperatives around the world prove. On the other hand, Capitalism does so what we’re really actually seeing is the hierarchical and dictatorial mode of capitalism being applied to politics. This will, inevitably, lead us to the dictatorial governance of pre-capitalist times such as absolute monarchy and feudalism.

  2. Olwyn 2

    Since the neoliberal revolution, “stable government” and making your country “an attractive place in which to do business” have trumped all other imperatives. It follows that any rebellion in the ranks poses a threat to these aims. In fact prioritising such aims to a high degree makes a political leader a virtual CEO.

  3. Jenny 3

    Yes I agree Irish.

    So much so, has this become the “political norm”, that when a politician honestly speaks his mind with out fear or favour and dares to put forward his views on the future direction of his party, the event is so remarkable that we are moved to try to and guess at all sorts of “murky motives”.


  4. her example is Upton and Richardson taking on Muldoon


    And just WTF were Marilyn Waring and Mike Minogue doing, then? Forming a cheer squad?!

    Upton and Richardson certainly criticised Muldoon, but it was Waring and Minogue who actually acted, and thus “took him on”.

    • IrishBill 4.1

      I know, I was going to go into that at greater length but the post was already getting a bit long. I think Fran’s picked Upton and Richardson because they fit her political view of what the core values of the National party at the time should have been. Sadly for Fran you’d have to hark back to long before the creation of the National party to claim the right had the kind of “free enterprise” roots she’d like them to have.

  5. the sprout 5

    it seems to me that leaders’ over-reaction to criticism from their caucuses is primarily a result of weak, chickenshit leadership.
    why is it becoming more common? an abundance of weak, chickenshit leadership in our political parties.

    • +1

      One thing I’ll say for Winston, I could tell him he was wrong – even tell him he was behaving like an idiot (usually when he was being petulant about something written by a journalist) – and not affect my standing.

      Not only is the present trend a sign of weakness, it’s also a sign of not really believing in anything, so that when whatever you’re unsteadily clinging to is shaken up, you over-react in panic.

      • the sprout 5.1.1

        it’s also a sign of not really believing in anything

        I think that’s true too

      • Paul 5.1.2

        I agree with you there, Rex. Without convictions politics becomes merely about obtaining power, and so a backbench MP challenging the Party leadership amounts to a power challenge in the eyes of leadership rather than a moral challenge. But, the Maori Party is probably less affected by this than most of the other parties and Hone’s challenges to them are moral and ideological rather than tactical.

        Chris Carter’s attacks on Goff were, otoh, tactical and power-oriented – e.g. “Phil is a nice guy but I don’t think he can win” – and the media bayed for his blood. I wonder what the difference had of been if Carter had said that he fundamentally disagreed with the direction of the Party under Goff? The funny thing is that, Carter probably didn’t disagree with anything in terms of policy direction – the Party is generally moving leftwards.

    • BLiP 5.2

      I agree political leadership in New Zealand is weak, but I see the increasing over-reaction to criticism as being more related to IB’s point concerning the corporatisation of politics and society at large.

      Parties, these days, tend to view themselves as a “brand” rather than an “ideal”. The criticism may be valid or at least worthy of discussion but there is an insistence that dissent be handled behind closed doors so as to protect the brand rather than live the party’s ideals. Just as an employee can be sacked for dissing his company, so too, it seems, can MPs be sacked for (apparently) smearing the brand. The corporatisation infection has also spread into media content, as opposed to the advertising. Political commentators, acting on instructions from the Board Room, no longer provide analysis but, rather, keep up a running commentary as if democracy is little more than a game of footie. The end result is that a generally disinterested public is fed a diet of shock-horror tabloid tripe “MP dare’s question leader” and, in some respects, the leader is pretty much captured by the narrative and must be seen to respond firmly. It becomes a pantomime. Its far easier and takes less intellect to report the apparent facts of a situation rather than look at the causes or even consider the argument being raised.

      The shame of it all is that in the very arena where the battle of ideas should be most welcome becomes reduced to little more than a sandpit with various identities for various reasons stirring the kids on in what squabble has developed. Rather than keep the MPs honest, the media now portrays government as unreliable, further promoting the idea that corporatisation might be the answer to our woes.

      If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big one. “Oh, only if government were run like a business”, seems to be the catch-cry. Trouble is, government is not a business and the false logic is ignored. But, to realise that, you would have to actually *think* about it. The truth is: “oh, only if business were run like government”.

  6. Much as I disagree with a lot of Hone’s ideologies – I must admit I admire his courage and strength of conviction.

    It takes real guts to speak out and stand up for what you believe in. Most politicians are more concerned with feathering their own nests, and securing their own positions, than actually taking a stand or trying to make any real differences. Whilst party loyalty is admirable in some respects, I suspect it has sometimes come at the cost of principles and integrity.

    Which was basically the thrust of Hone’s argument – that much of the Maori party were too busy cosying up to National, and had forgotten the Maori voters who they supposedly represented. They’d abandoned their ideologies and principles. Is Hone really so terrible for calling his party to account?

    • LynW 6.1

      My thoughts exactly Blondie and others. I completely concur

      In todays Herald on Sunday Kerre Woodham’s take on Hone is very disappointing!

      ‘But if he’s honest with himself, he’ll realise the only place for protesters at Parliament is outside the gates, not on the inside.’

      Speak for yourself Kerre. I for one expect the politicians I vote for to retain their individual integrity and want them to speak out when they believe injustice is being done, whether I agree with them or not!

      • the sprout 6.1.1

        ‘But if he’s honest with himself, he’ll realise the only place for protesters at Parliament is outside the gates, not on the inside.’

        wow that’s an impressive depth of ignorance Kerre’s parading there.

        • M

          I’m sure Kerre’s a nice person but may she should stick to running around and telling people that she’s lush and fertile.

  7. Bill 7

    Just as the Roman Catholic Chuch has ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ elements, the parliamentary political system has similarly closely aligned oppositional factions too.

    And so a whole lot of room for heresy.

    But I’ll say this for the Roman Catholic Church; they have some priests who live and act according to the moral imperitives of Christianity and so their actions, never mind their words, often and radically contradict the ‘official’ Church line. But unlike the occasional politician who might merely speak truth to power or speak their mind, those priests are not always banished from the church.

    Now. Wasn’t the so-called enlightenment meant to usher in an age of rationality, and with that, freedom from, among other things, pointless and entrenched centers of power? Hmm, guess not. It seems that in NZs case the ‘high priests’ and ‘priestesses’ have simply moved out of the rectangular buildings across the country and into to the round building in Wellington.

  8. Pete 8

    I generally agree with BLiP’s very good post – but there’s something on the outside of the “corporatisation” of politics – blogs. They often not only go along with the branding – they amplify anything or anyone deviating from the brand, often vociferously. They brand each other with labels and pigeon holes, especially if someone is deemed to have ventured into enemy territory.

    Have bloggers simply been sucked in by the hard sell of political brands?

    Are you lovin’ it?

  9. Tanz 9

    Are you getting at the fact that the MSM never speak out against Key’s watery leadership? Is that your point? If so, it’s a valid one.

    • Pete 9.1

      Do you mean the Key brand isn’t criticised enough for the Opposition brand?

      The MSM get criticised from all sides when they don’t hit the right notables. Lefties wail unbalanced coverage, righties cry bias against them.

      There are two major criticisms of the MSM:
      – they don’t help sell the brand fairly (biased for/against x or y)
      – they regurgitate the brand too much (give too much coverage to press releases – PR)

      Try and figure that out.

      • orange whip? 9.1.1

        Pete you seem to be confusing a couple of things there.

        Parties are sold as brands, yes. Loyal party supporters whine about their brand coverage, of course.

        But this is far from claiming ideological bias. Indeed, the branding of parties is partly to remove them from pesky ideology. The very idea is to present something that resonates with emotions that citizens are already experiencing without having to get into all those icky, tricky policy arguments that no-one has time for any more.

        The ideological bias is on another level altogether. Corporations breed a corporate culture which looks out for corporate interests. Simple as that.

        The “National” brand will get generally favourable coverage on issues where they take a pro-corporate stance, and supporters of the “Labour” brand see this as biased against their brand.

        It isn’t. It’s biased ideologically. When the “Labour” brand make the correct pro-corporate noises they too receive favourable coverage and the “National” brand loyalists cry foul.

        The “Green” brand is almost always opposed to corporate interests, hence their almost universally negative coverage in the corporate media.

        It’s not rocket surgery. But it’s not a bias for or against party “brands” either.

  10. bomber 10

    National need Hone out of the Maori Party, they can’t rely on Rodney winning Epsom, and even if they do, ACT gained 3.6% based on the Sensible Sentencing Trusts raw meat law and order crap – post David Garrett’s jaw dropping hypocrisy, ACT and SST have suffered immense damage to that brand credibility, so EVEN IF Rodney get’s in, it won’t be with 5 MP’s, so National are reliant on the Maori Party and their mana enhancing relationship, that can only occur if Hone is out of the party – that’s why Mai Chen has been hired.

    The Maori Party have Stockholm Syndrome (why they will dump Hone) – http://tumeke.blogspot.com/2011/01/maori-party-have-stockholm-syndrome-why.html

    • M 10.1


      This link is excellent – heaven help Hone.

      If only the Maori Party would wake up and realise that they’ve been Key’s catamite so he can avoid charges of bashing Maori through increased GST, tax cuts for high earners, bene bashing etc.

      I’ll bet Key likes to say that he’s not racist as he has Maori friends like Tariana and Pita – no different really to the average yokel saying he doesn’t hate Maori but would never have one in his house for a cup of tea let alone anything else.

      • BLiP 10.1.1

        no different really to the average yokel saying he doesn’t hate Maori but would never have one in his house for a cup of tea let alone anything else.

        . . . and tells cannibal jokes but can’t understand all the fuss when others object..

  11. Waldo 11

    The culture of not critising might have something to do with priveledge rules in the House. In the UK it is a breach of Priveledge for a Party to tell its MPs how to vote. All partys get around this with the Whips letters, but the 1,2 and 3 line whip system still leaves them with some discretion. In practice the three line whip (which means vote how we want you to or face loss of the whip) will only be used in Supply and Demand and other critical votes and the media tend to frown on party leaders who use it innappropriatly (as when Ian Duncan Smith imposed a three line whip when opposing gay adoption). As a result, there is a healthy culture of backbench independence and critisim of the party leadership.

    The Coalition in Australia still sees its members cross the floor and openly critisise the party line on occassion (Turnbull and 2 Senators on the ETS) but I understand that the Australian Labor Party expells those who cross the floor from caucus. Do the New Zealand Parties have hard and fast rules on consequences for crossing the floor?

    In a Parliament with only 120 MPs where a government majority can usually be counted on one hand, its probably ineviable that our system is going to evolve to be less tolerant of dissent than a Parliament of 650. We double down on this problem when we have an MMP system where many MPs depand on the good will of the party leadership, not just for promotion (as in UK and Australia), but also for survival.

  12. Fran O'Sullivan 12

    Rex and |Irish – column was cut to fit and with it “They weren’t the only ones: Mike Minogue and Marilyn Waring rowed their own boats.”
    Cheers Fran

    • millsy 12.1

      To this day I am amazed how a lesbian feminist could win a rural blue ribbon National Party seat in the mid 1970’s…and for National, no less.

      • Lindsey 12.1.1

        Might have had something to do with her considerable intellect and qualifications, her local support and her absolute silence on matters to do with her sexuality.

      • BLiP 12.1.2

        rural blue ribbon National Party seat in the mid 1970′s…and for National, no less.

        Yeah, that’s right, those “rural, blue ribbon seats” are for there for Labour’s taking, eh?

  13. randal 13

    speaking out against the leadership dioes what leaders hate most.
    undrmine their personal sense of self and allow the other party to use the words against them ad infinitum.
    where this fits in the scheme of a professed commitment to democracy is unclear but the net effect is keep parties small and homogeneous and thus prevent outsiders from expressing a view and stifling all debate except that which is sanctioned by the caucus or other policy chambers.
    in other words everybody must toe the line or face extreme retribution while anything of note must be decided by insiders and rigidly adhered to whether it is ridiculous or socially corrupting or whatever.

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