Don't give me culture - change it

The leaders of the main two parties both seem determined to miss a moment when voters would love to see them grapple with the unhealthy culture pervading our political life. It's time to move beyond the same old excuses

One of my first memories of government  –  mingled in my childhood mind as around the time of carless days and the omnipotence of Robert Muldoon – is The Knobz class ‘Culture’. Y’know, the song that goes, “Don’t give me culture, I’m not hearing it Rob. I could run around like a Beehive Boy, but I’d like to see you do my job”.

The idea of parliament’s culture has been front and centre over the past two weeks, even though I’ve been out of the country for most of it and as I write, am on another flight bound for “Overseasia”. The Jami-Lee Ross saga has been a fascinating if depressing low point in New Zealand’s political life. Not the lowest by any means, but one of the most bizarre; one of those week’s when good people look at politics, shake their heads and call down a plague on all their houses. Depressing, to say the least.

At the heart of it is a culture that is overdue an overhaul. And I’m not sure the leaders get it.

Sure, much of the bitterness and calculation is personal. Ross’s treatment of several women, his determination to bring down wrath on Simon Bridges and the National Party, his betrayal of his family, the awful text from the MP he had the affair with and more. But, as they say, the personal is political. And alongside it we have seen senior figures in National looking completely at sea – Bridges has often looked flummoxed and Paula Bennett’s judgement has been cast in a poor light, as has President Peter Goodfellow’s.

National has slipped three percent in this week’s One News-Colmar Brunton poll and is clearly underwhelming voters even more than Labour, which has had its own problems with the handling of Meka Whaitiri’s (literal) handling of her press secretary and the mess made by Clare Curran in her broadcasting and digital portfolios.

But there’s something that ties together the woes both major parties have suffered this year. This tricky thing called ‘culture’. Something in Wellington is broken.

It has two prongs, to my mind. One is the behaviour of MPs and the workplace culture they’ve created. The other is the level of transparency being offered.

The National Party worked hard to dismiss what was rotten in the party when Nicky Hager published first The Hollow Men and then Dirty Politics. Don Brash and then John Key deflected the deceit and machinations exposed as ‘just politics’ and Hager as a left-wing conspiracy theorist. They made it all sound confusing. Understandably, they went on the defensive and tried to accentuate the positive.

But hacking into a competitor’s website, the gaming of the law in the form of the Official Information Act and the attempted character assassinations of opponents were all signs of a dysfunctional organisation and workplace. Ross’s revelations make it clear that dysfunction has never been properly confronted or repented. The strategies of Cameron Slater, Simon Lusk and others in and around the party have not been put beyond the pale. Threats, bullying and power plays continue.

We don’t have the same level of view into the other parties and I don’t want to assume false equivalencies. But the machinations in Labour as it went through leader after leader were hardly admirable and the stories and rumours from others suggest no-one is entirely immune.

But it’s politics, right? With power comes power plays. It’s not tiddlywinks and politics is a game of winners and losers – no middle ground. Politicians and their staff work long hours in an intense environment and passions flare. That’s just the way it is.

That’s the sort of thing I imagine they said in the US movie industry until last year. And what they said in the New Zealand law fraternity and rugby community until recently. ‘We work hard and play hard’… ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour’… ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’.

I’ve heard it all before. But maybe it’s time for us to demand better of the people paid to represent us and our interests. Indeed, I think voters are heartily sick of the power games, brutal ambition and blind partisanship. From Brexit and Trump, to Ardern and these current Us mid-terms, that fed-upedness unites them all.

Allegations about harassment and bullying have prompted serious self-investigation amongst lawyers and a four month, 89-page review by Dame Margaret Bazley. Where’s the sort of response from parliament?

A lot of employers are realising that workplace expectations are changing. Indeed, the government is requiring some of those changes. But the rhetoric coming out of our political leaders does not seem to reflect a willingness to tidy up their own house. They don’t seem to see the potential of this political moment. Or they don’t want to.

I’m not one who expects the workplace to be a saccharine, timid environment free of intense disagreements and pressure. Sometimes robust conversations and tough decisions are needed. And politics is a battlefield, no doubt; voters have repeatedly rewarded “strong leaders”. So it’s easy to see why an MP wanting to lead and make a difference would be tempted to try the ‘dark side’ strategies that the Ross saga has revealed. But let’s call out abusive phone calls, threats to people’s careers, vague statements about people’s behaviour without evidence, and harassment (sexual or otherwise) as what they are – pathetic.

Bridge’s “inquiry” into his party looked at first like an opportunity for a genuine no-holds barred look at how National made room for the sort of behaviour revealed in the past fortnight. And indeed, the past decade. As a child of the manse, Bridges should understand the need for repentance. Yet he then went on Morning Report this week and said it wasn’t really an inquiry and there was nothing wrong with his party’s culture.

That’s some heroic denial right there.

On the question of transparency, Ardern seems to be suffering from the same blindness, wilful or otherwise. The Prime Minister’s didn’t seem at all interested in even entertaining the idea of a look at our donation laws in her weekly Morning Report. It was a complacent interview. Donation laws a fine, she shrugged, ignoring the not infrequent problems created by political fundraising and the fact her main opponent had just been caught talking on the phone about how he might meet the demands of a major donor.

Again, a political leader seems to be missing the possibilities of this moment. Labour’s record on its promise of spectacular openness has been woeful so far. And Bridge’s terrible first stand on the Ross affair and too many of his subsequent interviews have shown a man still determined to put spin before accountability and to tell the public – his public – as little as possible.

We deserve better. This is not a moment for ‘business as usual’. This is a chance to clean house. Scrubbing out the dirty corners of our political life and preserving its decency in troubled times for democracy globally should be a much higher priority for our leaders right now. And if, as they insist, they’re not hearing that from voters, then I don’t think they’re really listening.