Negotiations should not try to settle old scores

Peter Dunne

Wellington, September 28, 2017

In 1940, the notorious Labour politician John A Lee was expelled from the Labour Party after writing a sensational article, ‘Psycho-Pathology in Politics,’ a thinly veiled attack on the dying Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage.

The article’s essential argument, drawing on examples from the United States, Britain and New Zealand, was that ailing politicians can have a disproportionate and distortionary impact on the affairs of nations.

At the time it was published in late 1939, Savage was dying of cancer, but that had been concealed from the New Zealand public. Indeed, barely two months before Savage’s death, Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser was assuring the country that the Prime Minister “had never been better.”

Sycophants’ flattery

While Psycho-Pathology in Politics was a product of its time, one passage within it struck me as having particular relevance today as our various political leaders seek to put together the next coalition government.

Perhaps presciently, Lee referred obliquely to his target this way- “… sycophants pout flattery upon him … Like a child, he will only play if he gets his own way … He becomes vain of mind and short of temper, and believes that anyone who crosses his path has demoniac attributes.”

Negotiations are serious

Negotiating government formation arrangements is a serious business.

It is not an occasion for settling old scores, satisfying particular fantasies, or tails wagging dogs. The starting point has to be a broad agreement that the parties in the negotiation have a similar view about the direction of travel.

They may well disagree about priorities, or particular policies, but for the outcome to be sustainable, they have to at least agree they want to travel in the same direction.

Governing arrangements thrown together on the convenience of numbers, but an absence of commitment on direction, are doomed to fail.

All of which brings us back to ‘Psycho-Pathology in Politics.’

Establishing the various party negotiating teams on the basis of who is least likely to cause offence, rather than policy expertise, smacks of ‘sycophants (who) pour flattery.’

At the same time, taking umbrage at apparent negative descriptions has an air of “vain of mind” about it. Worst of all though is the risk the coalition talks focus far less on policy and the country’s future direction than a child-like obsession on getting one’s own way, and the baubles of office.

Demise of ACT

On a different note, one of the saddest aspects of the recent election was the general demise of the smaller parties. ACT is now a barely relevant toe-hold, and the Maori Party and UnitedFuture have gone altogether.

Whatever one’s view of these particular parties, they each represented a distinct point of view which will now be heard only faintly in Parliament, or not at all. That is neither a triumph for MMP, nor broader democracy, but it is the will of the people.

Welcome new MPs

Congratulations to all, especially the newcomers, who were elected to the 52nd Parliament. Your enthusiasm as you begin your roles is to be admired, although reality suggests it will be quickly dashed for many of you. Some of you will go on to be great leaders of our country, but many of you will be but short-term visitors.

Whatever your fate, I acknowledge your commitment to serve, and wish you well for the next three years. Whether in Government or Opposition, you have a vital and responsible role to play.

I hope you can achieve that and rise above what John A Lee described as the “Vanity of old men going downhill.”

Peter Dunne is Interior Minister in the current National-led, Caretaker Government.

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