About not getting bogged down in politics

I don’t ‘do’ politics – I have totally no interest in it, not even if somebody wanted to revive the McGillicuddy Serious Party and promise free beer and French taunter insults every Friday night.

Parliament buildings in central Wellington.

Still, every so often something pops up that draws interest, as the other week when I discovered that the deputy leader of one of our political parties had been issued a warning for doing her own plumbing. It turned out she and her partner had installed a new toilet in their house themselves, accidentally contravening a local Auckland bylaw.

Of course this can only happen in Auckland – it’s perfectly legal to do DIY bog repair everywhere else.  If I wanted to replace ‘the John’ in my house, I could do it without fear of legal censure (there are laws here, I think, against triggering an effluent volcano, which is likely given my plumbing skills, but that’s by the by).

What intrigued me was the fact that a politician was able and willing to fix their own household dunny.

We’ve come a long way from the 1980s, when politicians held themselves so superior that even normal etiquette towards strangers was beneath them. It was spelled out to me around 1991 when I jumped on a plane and found myself sitting next to a former Minister of Finance. He promptly unfolded a newspaper, opened it wide to completely roger any view I had out the window, and blocked himself off, also rogering my personal space along the way – and that was how he sat for the whole flight, utterly contemptuous of everybody around him. In hindsight I imagine that I might have read occasional random letters in headlines showing through the pages of his newspaper – “c” perhaps, maybe a “u”, and then an “n” and “t”.

So the idea that politicians might do their own home renovations these days is heartening. Maybe we’re heading back to the days of ‘Kiwi Keith’ – Sir Keith Holyoake, the 1960s Prime Minister who regularly painted his own holiday home in Taupo and had his home phone number in the book. Yup – back in 1965, if you wanted to ring up the Prime Minister of an evening to talk about something that you wanted the government to do, you could. Why did he do that? Because he believed he was a servant of the people and had to be on hand.

Norman Kirk in Levin, 1972. Horowhenua Historical Society inc, Levin, New Zealand – http://horowhenua.kete.net.nz/site/images/show/1427-mr-norman-kirk-speaks-to-crowd-levin-1972

Norman Kirk – elected in 1972 – was another PM who had his home number in the phone book. ‘Big Norm’ was incredibly popular – even the subject of an admiring song in 1974 that got to No. 4 in the hit parade and won the band, Ebony, a music award that August. Kirk, who was seriously ill in hospital, congratulated them – the last telegram he ever sent, for he died the next day. He was New Zealand’s third serving Prime Minister to die in office. The nation mourned. And I still wonder how different New Zealand might be now, had he lived.

Of course, New Zealand was traditionally a place where politicians brushed shoulders with the hoipolloi, and nobody blinked an eye. There was the time in the 1950s when my father regularly walked to work down Wellington’s Sydney Street from his house in nearby Tinakori Road.  Every so often he’d fall in with a near neighbour, also walking down the street to work. They didn’t know each other but, as strangers do, often chatted about matters of idle interest. And when they got to the bottom of the street my father would turn right to head to his work, and the Prime Minister, Sid Holland, would go into Parliament buildings. New Zealand was like that, back then.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

16 thoughts on “About not getting bogged down in politics

  1. I’m stunned there’s a law that keeps you from doing your own plumbing. I really think that’s a bit much.

    I really have to wonder how many people ignore that. If you can buy plumbing stuff, it would seem, you can do your own plumbing. Maybe secretly, in the dark of night, but none the less.. . .


  2. “He was New Zealand’s third serving Prime Minister to die in office. The nation mourned. And I still wonder how different New Zealand might be now, had he lived.”

    Please excuse my ignorance on NZ politics, but can you elaborate on that? I.e, why do you feel things may have developed differently had he lived?

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    1. It’s a fairly complex story but the gist is that by the late 1960s New Zealand was stuck in ‘fortress New Zealand’, a raft of protectionist policies that had worked in the 1930s and were geared towards New Zealand being Britain’s larder: there was little industry other than what was designed to feed Britain with animal carcases that were frozen but otherwise little processed, and send them cheese and dairy products. The mind-set that went with it was ‘colonial cringe’ – we perceived ourselves as a backwater, behind the times, and anything we did that was worth anything was viewed almost with embarrassment. Kirk knew and understood all this and was actively working to change it – he’d been calling for change since the 1960s. When he died, he was replaced by his deputy, Bill Rowling, until the next election – who wasn’t the weak little mouse usually portrayed, but didn’t have Kirk’s presence and personality.

      The opposition party was run by Rob Muldoon, who was a political bully and thug of the highest order. Our equivalent of Nixon, basically. Muldoon won the 1975 election. Kirk could stand up to him, and I expect Kirk’s party would have won it had Kirk lived. Muldoon, by contrast to Kirk, tried to preserve the old New Zealand, largely through regulation, even as the winds of change were blustering around him. It kept his electoral base happy, but meant that NZ was increasingly distant from world trend. Muldoon kept regulating, colouring the whole with his bully-brand of personality politics. The result was that by the early 1980s NZ was in trouble. Muldoon had only a one-seat majority and in 1984 had an argument with one MP, got drunk, and called an election. The 21-second clip of him slurring through his announcement is on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLDve40cxlk – WordPress won’t show the preview in a comment, but click through – it’s hilarious.

      The main outcome of Muldoon’s policies was a sharp over-reaction back the other way, much of it driven by explicit personal intent to specifically undo Muldoon and everything associated with him. It was shaped by NZ’s ‘Thatcherites’ and ‘Reaganomics’ advocates who got into power; but where Thatcher and Regan tempered their reforms with realistic and practical frameworks, our lot applied pure new-right ideology – faster, harder and to greater extremes than anywhere else, justifying what appeared to be a crusade to break everything on the basis that ‘there is no alternative’. Actually there was – and Australia was doing it – but the local lot didn’t offer it. Their policies – which the electorate dubbed ‘Rogernomics’, ‘Ruthenasia’ and ‘Jennicide’ after the three main architects – didn’t work in practise, any more than Muldoon’s bully-boy extreme the other way had. But Muldoon had so twisted the political parties that every party now advocated the same thing, and it took nearly 15 years for the electorate to get rid of governments that were doing some fairly obvious damage, not just morally but in a practical sense. We’re still paying for that today in many ways. It wasn’t until the early 21st century that reason again prevailed and things settled down.

      The thing was that NZ absolutely needed to modernise by the 1970s, but what it got – thanks to Muldoon refusing to do it, and his successors overdoing it and pushing us down a very shallow philosophical line – was a generation-long delay. These days I think we’ve got through it – Sir Peter Jackson’s shown that we can have world-class movie making facilities, and we’re even designing and building our own rockets for the micro-sat market, as just a couple of things. But I do have to wonder what would have happened if Kirk had lived and been able to implement his pragmatic brand of modernisation in the 1970s.


        1. The damage done has taken a generation to recover from though. Among other things, the ‘Rogernomes’ (dubbed after their ideological leader, Roger Douglas – the guy who shoved a newspaper in my face on the plane), handed over state assets that had taken a century or more to build, to foreign owners, as monopolies at bargain-basement prices. This included the entire telecommunications system and the whole railway network. These assets had never been designed as anything other than state-run monopolies.

          When the national power system went the same way in the ‘Jennicide’ era, I was writing a book on New Zealand’s engineering heritage and met the guys who’d designed the system. They were just about weeping. Their system was having an artificial ‘market’ imposed across it – but it had never been intended for that. As a nationally-co-ordinated state power system it was balanced: most of the power came from hydro, but if hydro ran short, then the other power stations could be cranked up as needed. It was efficient and kept costs down. The artificial ‘market model’ strapped across it put all of these into competition with each other. It would have been fine if the national system had been designed for competitive running from the beginning – but it hadn’t, and it still isn’t. The result has been net higher retail pricing for power and an absurd circus in which an artificial ‘wholesale’ price of power demonstrates incredible volatility (spiking at times to $4000 per kw/h) – where water has been spilled from hydro systems, just to push up the price, because it’s related to the amount of water in the lakes, and so on. Just crazy.

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          1. I was a major fan of Ayn Rand back in my 20s, but over the last two decades I’ve started to think she lived in a mirror-image ‘Bizarro’ universe. All the things she ascribed to “looters” are now being done — as you describe above — by ideologues in the name of “free markets”.and “privatization” here in the States. In the name of “efficiency” no less.

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            1. I have to agree. Rand’s world wasn’t our one! Bizarro is right! And yet what happened here in NZ broadly between 1986 and 1999 was basically a Randian wet dream in which Atlas didn’t so much shrug as defecate over everything. The irony of it is this. A few years back, when I was researching my book on NZ’s Pacific war, I located the Japanese occupation plans for New Zealand in our archives (Prime Minister’s files). They’d been prepared by Japan’s foreign ministry at the urging of von Ribbentrop in 1940, I suspect as a gesture of solidarity with Germany – there is no evidence that the Japanese military had serious plans (or the capacity) to invade us: cutting both us and Australia off from US aid – as they eventually tried with that 1942 thrust through the Solomons east to Rarotonga – was sufficient.

              But our fate, if occupied, was clear enough – and consistent with what Japan applied in the places it DID occupy. The thrust was simple: they would sell off our national infrastructure at dirt-cheap prices to their own zaibatsu, for exploitation to the benefit of Japanese shareholders: force our goods to be sold at ruinous rates – again, to Japan’s profit – and simultaneously dump surplus goods, particularly motor vehicles, into our domestic market, also at huge profit. Forty-odd years later, when the ‘Rogernomes’ got up a full head of steam up, that’s pretty much exactly what they did, anyway – something their fathers had fought and died to stop was now happening at the hands of an elected government, even down to the huge influx of surplus Japanese cars, which flooded in as soon as import controls were lifted. Incredible!


              1. If I were writing a supernatural/fantasy/parallel universe story, this would be a really great starting place. Just goes to show there’s something to the notion of truth being stranger than fiction!

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              2. It’s worth checking out ‘Bioshock’ – superficially a bog-standard first person ‘shooter’ style game, but actually a not-very-subtle riff on Randianism and the concepts of free-will.

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  3. *sigh* It would be really nice to have a politician like Kiwi Keith. Not only do our politicians not know how to fix a toilet, they likely have a servant standing by to flush the toilet after the politician uses it. Our current president knows little about the lives of common men and, as it turns out, apparently knows little about how our government works. Seems he’s the only person in our country who didn’t realize our health system is “complicated.” It’s dark days on this side of the pond.

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    1. It’s worrisome for the world – and the problems aren’t just limited to the US, when you look at the general issues boiling up across most of the developed countries. Ouch. Mars is looking like an attractive place about now…

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