Bearing Honest Witness



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!

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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.


  1. Well…that’s mighty interesting but I cant help thinking its not just Andrew Little….it happened to David Cunliffe as well.

    Someone got to them. Someone with a lot of clout in that party.

    And we all know who that is.

    The ABC’s.

    Those long term career politicians in Labour who had their genesis in the days of Roger Douglas…the grandfather manipulator for neo liberalism .

    In both cases we saw the same effect. Great promise of a return to a more socialist stance – particularly with David Cunliffe.

    And then , after a few months…it all went quiet and subdued.

    It all became strangely muted and the talk of reforming from the worst of neo liberalism went dead.

    And I think the reason why Clarke had a good network was partly because Cullen basically agrees with the neo liberals of Labours caucus.caucus. That’s why the Clarke years really didn’t change many aspects at all. Just kept on the same old , same old.

    Its easy to have your networks when you are fundamentally not being opposed every step of the way.

    And as said before…until those neo libs are ejected from Labour…you will see the same effect on every leader they have. They will still be National lite , they will still appear to have no answers and to be wringing their hands, still ineffectual (even though some may not be )…

    And why?

    Because those neo liberals in Labour are in fundamental agreement with those in National barring a few peripheral differences that really don’t amount to much at all.

    Quite sad , really .

    • Yep – hits it on the head Katipo 100%.

      There’ve been a series of clues from within and outside the Labour Party that neo-liberalites are still alive and well and undermining the hell out of any thing that even looks red-socialist or even any shade of pink. Cunliffe, and now Little have been thrown under the chugga, chugga big blue bus.

      Labour knobbling Hone Harawira was a ‘certainty’ that Labour wanted nothing to do with the sweaty, smelly underclass that used to vote for it as a socialist party.

      Shane Jones’s leadership being funded by Wira Gardiner was a bit of a clue that natsie-liberals in National, were trying to buy influence with the neo-liberals remaining in Labour. It was a cushy little sinecure that Shane Jones got, even though he didn’t become the large blue sheep in red-blue Labour clothing.

      Let’s not even mention the Shane Taurima debacle eh bro’?

      And Labour refusing to come out against the TPPA is the final straw that “shows their true colours shining through”.

      “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.”

      The sooner Labour gets rid of the neo-liberal shite and tells them to join ACT, or National, the better. And the more likely they will come to winning an election. Otherwise they are just a different shade of blue, or just a whiter shade of pale.

    • Couldn’t agree more Katipo with those observations, especially about how both leaders started with a hiss and roar and then went quiet.

      As much as they are trying to avoid it, Labour needs a full on blood letting or they need to go fully neo liberal and give it over and done with. The longer this zombie version of Labour sticks around the longer it will take for proper left wing representation to return in this country.

      And where’s Matt McCarten in all this too?

    • Bingo Wild Katipo. You have hit the nail well and truly on the head with your comment here. Absolutely agree.

      As far as I’m concerned with it’s current neo liberal lineup pulling its strings, Labour has become nothing but a shameful ornament in Parliament and a damn useless one at that – bums warming seats, with no clear political direction, or policies, other than following the neo lib line.

      It’s this mob of faux Labourites which are holding the party back. The sooner they go the better. However, by then I fear it could be too late for Labour to regain its former position as the political force of the workers and under privileged.

      In its present form, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Labour’s intended purpose is to glorify Natsy, in particular FJK! That’s the message coming across to me, watching Labour MP’s performance in Parliament!

      NZ Greens combined with NZ First are doing it for me at the present time. They are the real Opposition, offering up some real barbs to fire at the government, in particular FJK, something diluted Labour seems totally incapable of doing, because I suspect it doesn’t want to.

    • The political “competition” between Labour and National is a bit like the story about the hare and the hedghog, I fear:

      Who is faster to get to a goal determined by neoliberalism, with a few “tweaks” here or there?

      It seems the Nats and their lobbyists, including some in the MSM, are playing games with Labour, and sadly winning, as too many in Labour allow this to happen.

      Indeed, Labour’s problems do to a fair degree lie within, and they still struggle with the old problems, daring not to upset either of their fractions or “wings”.

      • Agreeing with all the comments. Labour has a split personality and needs to get rid of the blind neoliberal policy.

        Even for conservatives the TPP is going too far, mass spying etc

        NZ First understand this, Greens understand this, but Labour, they are sabotaged from the inside with a devious help from Nat Intel who knows it will lose Labour the election.

        If you believe in neoliberalism you will vote ACT or Nats, not Labour, it should be pretty obvious that engaging in National Lite policy is a vote KILLER for Labour.

    • Then vote for a non neo-liberal party then. I bleieve there was one at the last election (or was it two). The Imp’s or something wasn’t it?

  2. Chris, you point to the failure of Little, which is fair enough, but he is not the root cause of the problem.

    Little is simply unsuitable for the role

    He has a CV you could write on a postage stamp:- got a law degree, got a job with a union, was pushed into parliament as a list MP and then was forced in as leader by a union block vote.

    In short, he’s a nobody.

    The root cause of all this is Labour’s constitution – that union block vote for the leader which trumps all others. Until that is sorted out you will continue to see a lack of talent at the top.

    I must remind you that less than 15% of employed people in NZ today are union members, and the vast majority of those are teachers and other government workers. So todays unions do not represent ‘workers’.

    Remove the union domination and maybe the party can begin to modernise.

    • What union domination?

      And what’s your version of ‘modernise’?

      If you mean the sort of churn-renewal that National uses – it’s not going well for them, is it? A juicy list of failures and seat warmers.

      The brand ‘Labour’ has indeed lost its credibility and attraction as a platform for lifting the well-being of most. It would be a kindness if they followed the Alliance into history.


      We still need a passionate, lively, honest party offering ideas, change, and challenges. People who can survive and deliver despite the cloying environment that is parliament and the stupid system we allow to continue. People with the skill to engage and fire the imaginations of the many who are ill-served by the present political crop.

      Not the Greens – before anyone offers them. Once. Not now.

      And not too many of those who love status quo, unearned rewards, and the sound of their own voices saying very little at all.

      Evolution – and an adventure worth serving. Let’s have it very soon.

      • “If you mean the sort of churn-renewal that National uses – it’s not going well for them, is it? ”

        At 50+% in the polls, yep, it sure is.

      • “What union domination?”

        I believe he was referring to the union domination of the leadership selection process. IMHO Labour will never be the force it once was unless they return to the system of the Caucus electing the Parliamentary leader.

  3. Wild Katipo & WINNIE have it right,

    Labour sounded good when they talked “A kinder gentler Government” and that was what got Helen elected!

    Also that approach was what got David Cunliffe almost to the top.

    Until the Neo lib’s undermined Cunliffe with lack of several policy details that made him look amateurish at debate time with Key.

    He was setup by someone, so who was it?

  4. Just throwing it out there, has any party approached John Campbell? He would be fantastic either as a politician or as a communications adviser.

    Let’s face it, journalism is pretty much dead in this country. Propaganda is rife, so any journo might as well be honest about it and change it from the inside by helping the flailing opposition parties get into power and bring back investigative journalism that seeks more than to entertain and brain wash.

  5. The super comment is Andrews only error to date is it not. Silly, but not fatal I would have thought.

  6. Labour cannot sleepwalk to victory. You have to stand for something.

    I thought Labour had a good first half of 2015 and National were rocked by controversy after controversy. From our PM being on foreign comedy shows for ponytail pulling to the ‘too little too late’ response to the housing crisis.

    But latest poll results show there has been no impact.

    Progressive campaigners like myself (housing affordability) must also feel Labour’s pain, because it reflects the fact that our efforts to “speak truth to power” has not resonated with the general public.

    This National government has overseen as big a price increase in housing as Clark/Cullen’s Labour government did and Nationals response to the housing crisis has been more cynical than Labour because they know the consequences -GFC etc of allowing property prices to become inflated.

    The difficulty the progressives (from the left or right) among us have is we are losing the forums where we can explain our ideas to the public. Further the public is not in a progressive mood. They do not want challenging debate. They want light entertainment, shallow feelgood bumpf. The conservative ‘status quo is ok’ guys are making damn sure this is what we will get by closing down debate as fast as they can.

    One of the most depressing statistics I recently read was the following.

    “Ratings from television website show that 484,850 watched the 7pm show, plus another 48,120 an hour later on +1.

    That made Campbell Live the most watched show on TV3 not only for that night, but for the year so far…….

    Rival Seven Sharp on TV ONE received 411,580 viewers.”

    It was great that 1/2 million kiwis gathered to watch John Campbell ‘speaking truth to power’ for the last time.

    But there were almost as many kiwis who didn’t give a rats arse and resolutely watched the light weight crap on Seven Sharp.

    To me this is the dividing line in NZ society.

    What Labour needs is not a new leader but a ‘movement’, they need a core of thousands of committed members. People who are excited and committed to changing some aspect of society. Helen Clark had these people -feminists, but there time is done. Labour needs to find a new core of progressives with a new clear message (-Generation Rent?). Surely there is possibility of finding a core group and connection among the 1/2 million kiwis who mourned the loss of John Campbell?

    Also Labour needs to look at how they and other progressive movements achieved success in different media ages, because this transitioning period we are in is proving difficult to get a connection. How did the first Labour government get elected before TV and the internet? I have previously shown one of their first posters (NZ Labour Party Leaflet No.9) was about excessive housing costs and the rentier political economy. Like our rugby teams can Labour find strength and unity by going back to their core identity? What about the Anti-Corn Law campaign -that was pre radio even. How did they manage to change the Anglo economy from a system where the landed gentry got the rump of the economic rewards to an economy where economic opportunity was more widespread? They actually started new media –“The Economist” dates back to those campaigners.

    Well that is my thoughts on the first of June 2015. You can take the easy way out, which the current conservative government wants. You can look at our political contest in a lightweight simplistic way that entrenches the current ‘status quo’. Or you can take a deeper look.

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