ANDREW DEAN, the twenty-something author of Roger, Ruth and Me, offered a particularly acute response to the TVNZ reporter who asked him if he intended to go into politics. Dean, who subtitled his book about growing up under the influence of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, “Debts and Legacies”, thought about the question for a few moments and then replied: “I don’t think politics would have me.”
How right he was – and is. There are some people whose approach to the great issues of the day is so heterodox, so untethered to the usual ideological suspects, that in the unlikely event of them ever finding their way into “mainstream” politics, they would very quickly be chewed up and spat out. Sometimes the best you can hope to be is an honest witness.
In a week when memories of the events in Dean’s book (like Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets”) have been at the top of many aging journalists’ minds, it was astonishing how little of substance the Leader of the Opposition had to say in response to Bill English’s effort.
Much of the blame for Labour’s woeful performance belongs to Andrew Little himself, but it is also true to say that he was not well served by his advisers. The people in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office should not have been taken by surprise by English’s token gestures towards child poverty. The parliamentary complex is a veritable vortex of rumour and gossip, and the capital city outside rustles with secrets like a hedgehog in the autumn leaves. Opposition staffers should never be surprised by anything a government does – not if their spies are doing their job!
It’s difficult to imagine Helen Clark and her Chief-of-Staff, Heather Simpson, being surprised by the contents of a National Party Budget. Both women boasted extensive networks of friends, allies and informants, and seldom found themselves without a number to call. And, if the worst happened, they could always rely upon Prime Minister Clark’s Press Secretary, the highly-experienced Press Gallery journalist, Mike Munro, to fill in the gaps.
About three weeks ago, another highly-experienced journalist, Richard Harman, was delivering a speech to the NZ Fabian Society on the importance of effective political communication to electoral success. Like Mike Munro, Richard Harman was one of the Parliamentary Press Gallery’s “bigfeet”, a now dwindling breed of journalists who knew everyone and could find out anything. Indeed, the Labour Prime Minister, David Lange, included Harman among the “Three Dicks” (Richard Griffin of Radio New Zealand, Richard Long of The Dominion and Richard Harman of TVNZ) without whose cooperation no political message could be guaranteed to make it through to the voters. It would be interesting to know how many staff from the Leader of the Opposition’s Office were in the Fabians’ audience.
Harman, you can be sure, would never have left Andrew Little so utterly unprepared for what the Finance Minister was about to throw at him. Interestingly, Harman, now back in the Gallery for his “Politiks” blog, was one of the very few journalists to flag the possibility of English doing something interesting with social assistance in the Budget. All of which raises the rather obvious question: “Why didn’t Little invite Harman to be Labour’s Communications Director?”
Possibly because he knew Harman wouldn’t accept the position. The former TVNZ Political Editor is very much “old school” when it comes to crossing the line from journalism to spin-doctoring; arguing that by agreeing to spin for a political party, a journalist instantly devalues everything he or she has written on the subject.
Which is, in its way, reassuring (even if Harman would easily have equalled Monroe in terms of effectiveness!) It also takes us right back to the beginning of this discussion; to Andrew Dean’s shrewd observation that “politics wouldn’t have me”.
Richard Harman’s refusal to “have” the politicians is a vote of confidence in honest witnesses everywhere.