It’s easy to tell the silly season is nearly upon us, because the news reports are starting to read like an obscure Latin declension: Hore, Horan, Hobbiton. As Parliament digs in for its last couple of weeks, the capital is full of people sprouting hair on the tops of their feet, rather than on the palms of their hands – which is where madness is customarily held to manifest. This is an apt backdrop for politics, with its new brace of dogboxed MPs, both in the cart for equally bizarre circumstances.
David Cunliffe has been demoted for plotting a coup he and his supporters still insist was a figment of everyone’s imagination – prompting Labour leader David Shearer to be characterised as a bigger brute than Andrew Hore. And Brendan Horan is on gardening leave with orders from his leader, Winston Peters, to establish that he did not, as his relatives have charged, fleece his dying mother.
As an anonymous wit noted on Twitter, surely if Horan had wanted to fleece old ladies, he’d have started a finance company like everyone else. But the allegations are serious enough for Peters, normally incandescent and defensive on the end of any media grilling, to have stayed ominously calm and steely. His message is tacit but clear: if Horan cannot establish a set of solid facts that pass the sniff test in terms of his character, he’ll be sacked. If there’s a question of illegality, his feet won’t even make contact with the fleur-de-lis carpet on his way out of Parliament.
Peters has known of the family feud behind the allegations for some time, but lacking the ability to establish the facts, he has had to wait – an unimaginably stressful stretch of suspense for any leader – to see if the situation would be resolved privately or spill out in public. It’s unlikely this rumble will do long-term damage to New Zealand First, even though it underlines the seemingly Lotto-like way it comes by its list MPs. Horan is not the only NZ First MP who has had little to no paid employment for much of his life, and whose contributions as an elected representative have yet to become evident – although he has given Parliament the odd burst of song.
Peters’s stocks with his 5%-ish bedrock vote have survived much worse: the $158,000 the Auditor-General assessed as overspent on electioneering; and his slating by the Privileges Committee for concealing the provenance of a donation from businessman Owen Glenn. These were both six-figure sums, and although there was no deliberate illegality, their existence in NZ First’s accounts associated Parliament’s most self-righteous accuser with unbecoming shiftiness. To Peters’s credit, he has resisted his natural counter-punch impulses, and is also clear that he will not let the untidiness drag on unresolved. It’s not often you see a politician learning from past mistakes, but this old dog has wisely audited his old tricks.
CUNLIFFE SIMMERS ON
The Cunliffe situation is more in the nature of a simmering pot on the back-burner. It’s hard to see how the ambitious former finance spokesman can come back from the drubbing he copped last week, in which even David Parker, a respected party figure who would normally never say boo to a goose, publicly called his behaviour damaging to the party’s and the country’s interests.
“Dishonest, untrustworthy, disloyal” – once a slew of colleagues have publicly said such things about you, it’s safe to conclude you’ve fouled up rather badly somewhere along the line. Even given a comeback, Cunliffe would always be subject to public suspicion. Comparisons with Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd are apt. Rudd’s abilities were never in question, but in the end, his colleagues simply couldn’t stomach him.
However, the passionate following Cunliffe has in the wider party does not simply evaporate. To the contrary, he now occupies that most valuable of political real estate, the martyr’s pit. His demotion has only fed the belief he has been gagged and bullied by jealous power-mad colleagues, and that come the mandatory February re-balloting of the leadership, he will triumph. He could indeed re-ingratiate himself with several more MPs than the handful who support him, enough to force a party-wide vote that he could easily win. Flattery and promises of promotion can work wonders. But his bigger problem is that his leadership would crack the caucus wide open, leaving Labour looking in woefully poor shape to form the next Government.
What would the public make of a situation where half or more of Labour’s shadow cabinet voluntarily assumed the backbench rather than work with the new leader? He would also have to meet his supporters’ expectation of a big swing back to hard-left policies, with the attendant risk of scaring off centre-left voters. If such policies made Labour even less popular and failed to fatten up the left’s overall prospects – and after all, when it comes to far-left economics, the Greens got there first – Cunliffe would have to consider moving right again, or risk being rolled himself.
At which point, the National Government would get its own version of the Hobbit trilogy: re-elected for a third time – and only too happy to see Cunliffe and Labour go the way of Smaug and the Lonely Mountain. It’s enough to make the hair on the tops of one’s feet turn grey.
MONEY FOR ELEPHANTS
Act leader John Banks has rightly been mocked over choppering in to the Dotcom mansion for a party and later claiming memory failure, despite the presence of lifesize statues of giraffe and rhinoceros on the estate. But when it comes to elephants, he never forgets. Given the run of bad publicity he has had, it would be remiss not to report that the member for Epsom has adopted an orphaned Kenyan elephant called Telesi. Say what you like about Banks, he is extremely sound on animal welfare, his latest venture being a sizeable ongoing donation to a Nairobi sanctuary for orphaned baby elephants.
Banks says farmers and poachers frequently kill adult elephants, but the fast-moving babies get away. Unless they’re rescued, they, too, die horribly. Telesi’s parents were macheted to death. He is now fed by a keeper who sleeps beside him, and whom he wakes up four times during the night for his feed. “The pink bristly snout comes up and sucks on the keeper’s ear, and if he doesn’t wake up quickly enough, it snorts all over him till he does.”
The elephants are progressively socialised and eventually released into wilderness herds. Banks also supports charities that rescue donkeys, bears and a host of other animals. “The way we treat animals defines our characters. As tenants of the world for a short time, it’s our responsibility to look after these creatures who can’t look after themselves. “So Amanda and I have three Russian orphans and now an African one,” he says, referring to his three adopted children. “Though when we sit down to dinner, I’m still the only elephant in the room.”