2009 image: werewolf » Doing the Transtasman tango
Reportedly, the decision by Justice Minister Simon Power to quit politics at the next election has stunned his party, and “flabbergasted” the Prime Minister. The event it most closely resembles is the decision by his friend and former colleague Katherine Rich to quit politics at the last election. Rich would have been in Cabinet. Power could well have become Prime Minister when John Key finally tires of the job. What is wrong with these people?
The answer? Not much. In fact, Power’s departure is further proof that Parliament is such a toxic environment that any sane person would (or should) be constantly weighing the possible rewards, against the day to day costs. Quite rightly, a lot of media coverage of Parliament focuses on the perks of office. Cabinet Ministers and backbenchers get paid a lot, directly and indirectly. For the laziest and stupidest MPs, Parliament is a goldmine. It sure beats working on a farm, or in a classroom.
That’s the irony. The downsides of being in and around Parliament weigh most heavily on its more able and hardworking members. The long hours of being penned up with people who detest each other, the poisonous atmosphere of conflict, the dog eat dog competition… and that’s merely in your own caucus, let alone across the floor of the House. For most of the able MPs, the compromise achievements possible from being in Parliament are relatively minor, when weighed against the time and energy such victories commonly entail. Former Green MP Sue Bradford for instance, finally got an acceptable version of her plans for reducing violence against children through the House, plus the scrapping of youth rates. Genuine gains, but worth ten years of her life? Eventually, she decided to get out, and get some fresh air for a while.
At least Power and Rich have had options. They could return to private life with some expectation of carving out reasonably challenging, reasonably well-rewarded careers. Unfortunately, their departures have removed from the National caucus two individuals with exceptional ability in their areas of expertise. (Rich’s successor in education, remember, has been Anne Tolley.) They were also among the very few individuals in Parliament who seemed like reasonably well rounded human beings, with a life beyond politics. (A fact confirmed by their resignations.) National will really struggle to replace them. More and more, it will be the party of Murray McCully, Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee, of Judith Collins, Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley. Yikes.
Lets not get too misty-eyed though. I’m not meaning to suggest that what Power has done in his justice and commerce portfolios should be endorsed. Far from it. This column has been consistently critical of Power’s extension of state power in the criminal justice arena, entirely at the expense of the rights of the accused. His search and surveillance legislation is an appalling piece of Big Brother – let alone Nanny State – legislation. And one will be left wishing in vain that the Commerce Commission had been given fresh powers to go after price fixing and cartel behaviour by corporates. Quite the contrary, alas. On Power’s watch, the Commerce Commission has lost the head of steam it had built up under Paula Rebstock.
More than anything, Power’s departure underlines just how transient political careers now tend to be, for the best and the brightest. Surely John Key could have been surprised for only a millisecond about Power’s resignation. After all, Key himself has said he will retire from politics if he loses the next election. For him too, Parliament is merely one stage in his career – a rich man’s hobby on which he will expend a certain amount of time and energy, but no more. Obviously, there are drawbacks about taking such an approach to political life. Politics may be the art of the possible but one likes to think that political life also entails some commitment to enduring values, beyond a rational cost/benefit analysis of personal gain. Yet for better or worse, there is a growing tendency to treat politics like a general’s tour of duty in Iraq – get in, get stuff done, and then get out again with as much of your life intact as you can, before the inevitable costs begin to outweigh the rewards.
Certainly, the perks system hasn’t caught up with this trend towards transience, and the cut and run nature of political careerism. By and large, the perks system is still based on compensating MPs for the allegedly life long sacrifices they make in entering public life. Around Parliament, that may be true only for its deadweight.