Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A dying party

I am inclined to agree with Paul Little that we are, in his words, witnessing the long, slow and inevitable death of the Labour Party. There is nothing inherently tragic about this. Parties are formed, rise up, win power, lose it, fade away all the time. Exactly 100 years ago it might have seemed to New Zealand voters that the Liberal and Reform parties were the only games in town, so dominant were they; yet within 25 years both were history. The same fate would have befallen Labour sooner or later, whatever it did; but it seems to be happening sooner for one overwhelming reason: the party has never truly recovered from what it did to itself in the 1980s - a time of political betrayal, I'd suggest, pretty much unequalled among Western democracies. Something broke in Labour then, and although it kept going out of sheer historical momentum, even winning power again under the wily Helen Clark, it feels more and more, with every passing month, as though it's running on empty now. No matter how it flossies itself up and piles on the pancake make-up, it can't conceal that, essentially, it no longer has a clear core of political philosophy. In the immediacy of the daily grind of politics that might not seem to matter much but in the long run it begins to tell with voters. A party has to stand for something distinctive and different; and Labour these days is at best National-lite. Even so, it could have gone on for quite a while yet as 'one of the two main parties,' so long as a credible alternative didn't arise. That, as Little says, has now happened with the emergence of the Greens as a real political force. Whatever you think of the Greens, it can't be denied that they have a clear core of political philosophy - and one much more in tune with the times than Labour's blurry jumble. Everything points to the Greens gradually supplanting Labour as National's major rival, either by subsuming it, merging with it or simply overtaking it poll by poll in voters' affections. It could even happen relatively suddenly, if there were another global or national crisis, or Labour did something seriously stupid. The Greens won't last forever either; probably in time their name will come to seem as much of an anachronism as Labour's is now. But for the moment, and for the first half of this century anyway, they have a following wind; and Labour has run out of puff.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Fire in Rome

I don't know who Justin Pemberton is, or what work he has done before, but his docudrama The Golden Hour, screened on TV1 last night, is blisteringly good. The film—which Pemberton both wrote and directed—tells the story of how, thanks to Arthur Lydiard's training, Peter Snell and Murray Halberg won gold for New Zealand within an hour of each other on the athletics track at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Interviews with Snell, Halberg and others are interwoven with historical footage and dramatized scenes with actors playing the athletes. This kind of thing needs to be done very well to work; many directors overcook the dramatizations at the expense of the documentary footage. Pemberton doesn't; he uses the dramatized scenes only to enhance and enrich the real stuff; the actors in them never even speak, which is wise, given that the (older) Snell and Halberg speak so eloquently about their experience. Halberg is in fact mesmerizing, though the most thrilling line (for me anyway, for some reason) is Snell's on what happened as the 800-metres field came round the final bend and he was boxed in behind the front-runners, seemingly unable to get through. It was then, he says, that 'I had the distinct feeling the others were slowing down.' Brilliant. And Halberg, as soon as he'd won and fallen, exhausted, on his back beside the track: 'The fire was gone'—the fire that had burned in him for four years after he came last in the 1500 metres at the 1956 Olympics and resolved to come back and win gold. Above all, Pemberton shows wonderful control of his material, never lapsing into patronizing hindsight or anachronism, not pushing nostalgic emotion down our throats, letting people and events speak for themselves. Brilliant. Did I say that before? If you missed it, I urge you to catch it on replay.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

We the people

Call me picky, but when John Key says 'We would utterly dispute that Maori own water,' I get an uneasy feeling. Not just because of the opinion expressed (that's another story) but because of the plural pronoun. Sure, we all talk about Maori and Pakeha, and the water-rights case before the Waitangi Tribunal is being brought by the Maori Council, but when the prime minister speaks he speaks for the government of the nation; he speaks for us all. Who exactly does he mean when he says 'we'? As prime minister he ought to mean all of us—Maori, Pakeha, whoever's a New Zealander. Yet the way he uses it suggests he's speaking for Pakeha as opposed to Maori. It is possible I am being insanely pedantic here. But something about that 'we' troubles me. Karl du Fresne says the big question raised by the claim is 'Are we one people, or are we not?' and although I'm not sure he means it in the sense I mean it, if we truly are one people, represented by one elected government, then the nation's leader must speak as if it is so. He must find a better way of expressing these things. Tricky call. Over to you, John.