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Trotter on quotas for Parliament

  • July 9th, 2013

Chris Trotter has eloquently risked a challenge to the Bowen beltway consensus that identity politics 'targets' are good. As Nikki Pender at work puts it, he  "argues that the reason why there are fewer women than men in politics, is that fewer women than men are natural born sociopaths. Discuss".

I think Chris is reflecting his experiences in a particularly poisonous culture. He describes elements I recognise, but overall I think it says more about the unavoidable ruthlessness of an ideology that says ends justify means. In my time on the left I saw the comrades practicing to eliminate their compassion. Moral bottom lines, including duties of loyalty to friends were a bourgeois weakness to be suppressed.

I can say from experience there is no equivalent sanction of that amorality about personal loyalty on the other side. Ruthless ambition and selfishness exist, but they are not so admired even when they work.

Of course they sometimes prevail.  I think that ACT's demise is largely attributable to not elevating good character higher in list selection. Zealots on the right share much with the zealots on the left. Conviction parties always teeter on the edge of being dominated by their zealots. Just as Labour is now contemptuous of the values and culture of its working class supporters, so ACT zealots could let an ability to recite a libertarian creed suppress misgivings about character. In my view character and intelligence and honesty are far more important than professed policy. You can fake policy committment. And as Chris says psychopaths are superb emotional manipulators. They can work the convictions of the convinced. So ACT (and National) can be vulnerable to the siren call Trotter mentions, though not as susceptible:

"Almost against our will, we are seduced by these ruthless individuals. Some ancient species memory kicks-in to subdue our moral qualms – reminding us that these are the qualities that work. It reassures us that the family, tribe or nation that places itself under the protection of such men stands the best chance of survival. Extraordinary moral strength is required to avoid falling under their spell."

I did not lie as a Parliamentarian, or ever feel a compulsion to do so. That does not mean I always felt it necessary to relieve others of their misconceptions. If they did not ask the right questions caveat emptor prevailed. But that is the normal code in non-family relationships. Honest people respond without lying to direct questions, but do not owe duties to 'spill their guts'.

I respected (and still respect) the character of most of my party colleagues. Decisions were unavoidable on which friends disagreed. Loyalties are tested by necessities to trade concessions. But at the bottom there was a duty of mutual loyalty that said there were things one simply would not do, to win. A substantial part of the reinforcement for that came from staff and party supporters. There were so many highly principled, highly motivated staff and donors and others giving their support that I thought it unthinkable to be coldly personally ambitious. The party was not mine to exploit.

Still, it may be pointed out that I lost the leadership vote, and a year later was ejected from Parliament.  I do not regard that as the inevitable march of history, eliminating a squeamishness that was unfit to rule, in Darwinian terms. It was a persuasion failure by me, and the bad luck and accidents of the conjunctions of people and events – like most history.

I believe the long term influence of the Greens has been because more often they've chosen the alternative. For all the mockery (deserved) of them as a religious cult, they continue to share some behavioural bottom lines that fit their convictions.

So they show the power of a well led collective, the way it extracts more from individuals than they could acheive alone. They have resisted the temptations to feed their public with 'presidential' politics (the cult of personality) by sharing leadership, and allowing spokespeople to emerge with their own identities.

I urged a similar model on ACT, and lost.   But I never felt that the culture Chris Trotter describes was dominant among ACT (or National) people..


  • AngryTory
  • July 9th, 2013
  • 8:24 pm

The only really effective government of NZ in the last 30 years – arguably ever since the introduction of the universal franchise – happened most of all under Ruth, and then somewhat (must less than generally thought) under Roger.

Ruth’s budget, and Roger’s most important work explicitly broke large numbers of manifesto commitments. In NZ – especially under MMP – real reforms of government can only be made by lying to the electorate.


“In my view character and intelligence and honesty are far more important than professed policy.”

Agreed. Sadly this view appears to be held by only a small minority of our politicians. The question remains, how do we improve the overall quality of MP’s?

Limit their maximum term in parliament? Make the role unpaid and voluntary except for expenses? Make list MP’s accountable to the electorate in some way?

  • Roger Strong
  • July 10th, 2013
  • 12:59 pm

Your mention of ‘identity politics’ makes me think about the article in the current ‘Listener’-where Rawiri Taonui-a man who is so obsessed with race that that he knows every detail of his GGGG grandparents and says of the 23 Maori MPs not elected in Maori seats that they ‘might otherwise be fine but they appear to have little familarity with Maori Culture(obviously as defined by himself) and communities.’In toherwords they are only Maori if I think that they are Maori.
His self realisation only seems to extend so far and his childhood obsession to claim the Scottish highlands for Maori is about the only ethnic fault he can admit to.


Many thanks for that thoughtful response to my column, Stephen.

And, I tend to agree with your conclusion re: the politics of Left and Right.

I once concluded an editorial in the NZ Political Review with the following observation:

“There is a paradox here. Conservative political culture, whose raison d’etre is the preservation of social inequality and economic exploitation (not to mention the institutional violence these things create and upon which ruling class power rests) tends to produce individuals of considerable personal charm and genuine liberality. While radical culture, which sets its face against the violence and injustice of entrenched privilege, all too often produces individuals who are aggressive, intolerant and utterly indifferent to the suffering which their relentless quest for justice causes.

“In short, the Right treats humanity like cattle and individual human-beings like princes, while the Left loves humanity with a passion but treats individuals like shit.”

Somewhere there must be an algorithm that delivers the best of both worlds.

I’m still looking.


[…] Chris Trotter comments on Stephen Franks’ blog: […]

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