IT IS NEVER ADVISABLE, when writing political commentary, to get angry. Powerful emotions distort our judgements and make the already difficult job of political analysis even harder. Sometimes, however, giving vent to our anger is the right thing to do. Sometimes, maintaining a calm and dispassionate analytical posture serves only to give despicable behaviour a free pass. Some people are only deserving of the most forthright and unequivocal condemnation.
Jenny Shipley is one of those people.
The first thing you notice about Shipley, as her “Ninth Floor” interview with RNZ’s Guyon Espiner gets going, is how often she uses the word “leader” and “leadership”. It’s what you might call a verbal “tell”. And what it reveals is that Shipley’s ideas about leadership have very little to do with democracy.
Just how little Shipley understands about the nature of a democratic mandate is exposed when she talks about Jim Bolger’s government being re-elected in 1993 by “a majority of New Zealanders”.
The brute facts of the 1993 election are that the National Party was supported by barely a third of the electorate. Its support plummeted from 47.82 percent in 1990 to just 35.5 percent three years later. In the same election, Labour received 34.6 percent, the Alliance 18.2 percent and NZ First 8.4 percent. That Shipley still construes this result as evidence of majority support tells us a great deal about her politics.
Most of all it speaks to her need to be justified by history. In her answers to Espiner’s questions about the savage cuts to social welfare, which she oversaw, Shipley is very clear that these measures were both necessary and right. “I did the right thing”, she declares, when challenged to respond to the criticism that she and her close friend and ally, Ruth Richardson, imposed the costs of the 1990 economic crisis on New Zealand’s most vulnerable citizens.
That New Zealand’s ballooning deficit could have been addressed just as effectively – and much more equitably – by lifting the rate of tax on middle- and upper-income earners, was a proposition that Shipley would not (could not?) countenance. Doing the “right thing” in the eyes of this deeply conservative rural politician meant chastising the poor for the unforgiveable sin of expecting their fellow citizens to support them in times of adversity.
Few National prime ministers have embodied quite so completely the perverse ethical calculus of their party. To describe Shipley’s style as wholly punitive would be a mistake. Better to characterise her motivation as the “improvement” of the nation. And this desire to rescue New Zealanders from their sins (Shipley’s father was an Anglican parson) was not directed exclusively at the poor and the working-class. As she quite unashamedly admits to Espiner: “I was trying to take the welfare state off the middle class.”
If the poor required the “incentive” of a 25 percent cut in their benefits to haul themselves up by their bootstraps; and unionised workers needed to be disabused of the notion that they had any legitimate claim on the profits of private enterprise; then it was equally true that the middle-class had to be prevented from growing soft on state-provided services.
In Shipley’s view, no other social class has more at stake in the grand political narrative of self-reliance and individual grit than the middle-class. If the over-riding imperative of life under capitalism is never to take anything for granted, then the role of the middle-class is to show how this should play-out across society. Shipley may have set her face against redistributing wealth, but she was a passionate believer in redistributing virtue. Upwards in the case of the ruling class. Downwards in the case of the working-class and beneficiaries. Victorian values? You bet!
And it was this old-fashioned set of values that drove Shipley to depose Bolger. He was soft, yes, but, even worse, he was weak. He had responded to the public revolt against Ruth Richardson’s doubling-down on Rogernomics by following the advice of his colleagues and sacking her. (Shipley’s comment to Espiner: “I remember the names”, is easily the most chilling moment in the hour-long interview!) Bolger then compounded his moral delinquency by caving-in to Winston Peters demand that he make good on his promise to build “the decent society”.
Once again, it was all about leadership. How did she feel as she toppled Bolger? She felt fine – she was leading. Or, in her own words: “It’s what leaders do – take power.” Except that simply “taking power” doesn’t quite get us to the heart of Shipley’s understanding of leadership.
Being a leader, if you’re Jenny Shipley, is all about the ability to inflict pain without flinching. Leadership is something that you do to people: something that you impose on them – for their own good. No doubt she would frame her behaviour as having to be cruel to be kind, but in terms of the practical consequences of her policies on ordinary people’s lives, kindness has nothing to do with it.
In the years since Helen Clark unceremoniously threw her out of the Ninth Floor, Shipley has had much to say about the importance of fostering leaders and leadership throughout New Zealand society. And it is this relentless determination to recruit more and more people to the cause of inflicting pain without flinching that makes me so angry.
Shipley and her government were the standard-bearers of a middle-class counter-revolution against the greatest achievement of the twentieth century: the recognition that, unbuttressed by economic and social rights, political rights are simply not equal to the task of building and maintaining a “decent society” of any sort.