We expect our politicians to show ambition. But in election year it isn't always a pretty sight. For them, much is at stake. They are now ten years younger on average than half a century ago. Many have young families; they become uneasy when faced with the chop. The image of today's rooster becoming tomorrow's feather duster flashes by every MP's household in the run-up to elections. Usually mild-mannered people can act out of character. Strange, inflated allegations are made.
There's nothing new in this. When Robert Muldoon was on the rampage after Norman Kirk's sudden death in 1974, he unleashed the dogs of war on the Rowling government. I remember a Wellington organisation called the Capital Club, the weekly journal Truth and a group of back bench National MPs hatching mini-sensations to label us disloyal and/or intent on socialising New Zealand. They were aimed at the raft of eager young Labour backbenchers. In and out of Parliament tempers rose quickly; Labour returned accusations of "dirty tricks". Similar storms in tea cups developed over a Maori loans scam before the 1987 election. What is happening right now is not out of the ordinary. Welcome to the opening of what Helen Clark calls the "Silly Season".
One must immediately concede that Jim Anderton voluntarily turned himself into a firing range. His twists and turns to avoid being the first casualty of the party-hopping legislation he so righteously promoted, invited target practice. By sitting next to the Prime Minister, however, he tarnishes the Government. It's as though one of the coalition's Siamese twins has expired, and the race is on to reach polling day before the other succumbs to mounting toxicity. Unwilling to risk surgery, Clark's ministers have erected a cordon sanitaire, seldom acknowledging their late relative. National can scarcely be blamed for taking advantage of Labour's amusing dilemma. MMP's detractors, of course, view it as proof positive that the system is a disaster and will always lower Parliament's credibility.
The row over Helen Clark's "paintings" is another matter. Sure it was foolish of her to autograph where an artist's signature is usually found. Questionable integrity perhaps? But scarcely a crime! Only the genuinely na‘ve - and it appears there were some - can have believed they were buying a major art work. The novelty of this issue is the stuff of cartoons; prolonged rampaging in Parliament had a hollow ring.
Pre-election posturing can go awry. Witness the huff and puff about the Fay-Richwhite donation to National. Michelle Boag approaches everything with an open mouth, sometimes cutting off cross-examination before she understands the question. She wanted to believe the news stories were planted by Labour, but was obliged to discover the full horror while under her self-erected spotlight. It was her own deeply divided party, which still can't work out whether it's on the centre or the right, which spilled the beans. Labour was just an appreciative onlooker.
This points to an election-year danger. A divided party can often do more harm to itself than to its opponents. In 1980-81 Labour, like today's National, was betwixt and between. Helen Clark and then Labour president Jim Anderton sought to purge those who wanted to modernise the economy and upset their old-fashioned applecart. Anderton barged about, Boag-style, threatening his critics with de-selection and rubbing salt in wounds. It caused terrible internal distractions. Muldoon and his National colleagues smirked, and proceeded with the Springbok tour. They won (just).
Sometimes politicians in search of election-year headlines lose all grip on reality. The claim that sensible folk were diddled of their money because Rodney Hide attended a Fijian investment seminar is fatuous. Hide's a skilled stirrer, and disliked by many. But at no stage does he appear to have endorsed any investment scam. There is a concept called caveat emptor - buyer beware - which lawyer John Tamihere should try promoting. Grant Gillon's desperate lunge at publicity over Hide's $100 garden voucher was the work of someone whose career is in Intensive Care. Unwittingly, he draws attention to the myriad of activities, including self-serving petitions, fund-raising, raffles and quizzes, for which MPs have always used parliamentary postage. Hide was bound to win, and did so. MPs should also remember that starting in 1923 with Sir James Parr's alleged enticement of West Auckland voters with strawberries and cream, the Courts have usually taken a relaxed attitude to election-year persuasion. Interestingly, relative newcomers are the ones engaging in today's parliamentary silliness. In my first term I did too, and paid a price at the polls.
In election year all parliamentarians should position themselves on clearly unassailable territory. Perceptions of their worthiness for re-election are forged on the basis of competence, and above all, stability. Over-blown rhetoric is a turn-off. One of the saddest things about politicians is that each generation has to learn these facts of life the hard way.
Michael Bassett was a Labour MP 1972-5 and 1978-1990