16 May 2014
There is a political dictum not to get involved with animals or children because they invariably upstage you.
Richard III may have found that at Bosworth, when he lost his kingdom, but for a horse. William Huskisson, the British Cabinet Minister, might have wished for a horse when he stepped inadvertently in front of Stephenson’s Rocket in 1830 at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester line and became history’s first rail fatality. And Winston Peters is probably feeling the same after his links to the racehorse Bellazeel were questioned this week.
There is a more serious point to this. Events in the New Zealand Parliament have shown a most appalling decline in accepted standards of conduct in recent weeks, with accusations and counter-accusations being flung around with willing abandon. And we have seen social media like Twitter being employed to make accusations that are simply extreme, and unacceptable in any other medium. Some MPs have revelled apparently in their slime-wrestling ability, rather than hide in shame at their cretinous behaviour.
It is argued that the immediacy of a general election explains the egregious behaviour we are now witness to, but that is no credible excuse. Oafish, boorish behaviour, misuse or ignoring altogether of established procedures, is never acceptable or justifiable, whatever the circumstances. Yet that is what we are being reduced to.
I am not excusing lapses of judgement by Ministers, or failure to make proper disclosures, but I am saying that the mere suggestion of such does not justify due process being tossed aside in favour of the lynch mob. The political parties themselves have a responsibility here – if not to themselves, but to the nation – to insist on the highest standards of conduct and behaviour of their MPs, at all times, and to stop falling into the trap we have seen too frequently in recent weeks, that perceived failings by one side justify all-out attack by the other, without any regard for accepted standards.
The advent of social media and the immediacy of communication it has led to raise particular issues which Parliament has not yet adapted to dealing with. Spur of the moment inflammatory Tweets ought to be considered in the same way as traditional public or media comments when it comes to considering whether they breach established rules of Parliamentary Privilege.
As an aside, I was reminded of the same issue during the presentation of this year’s Budget, when I was able to read most of it on Twitter, admittedly just after the 2:00 pm embargo was lifted, but long before the Minister of Finance got to those bits in his speech. Where does that sit alongside traditional concepts of Budget secrecy?
So maybe the answer is just to forget about horses and children, where I began, and simply run the whole process on social media and let reputations come and go at a whim to fulfil Alexander Pope’s famous line in “The Rape of Lock” – “At every word a reputation dies.” A 302 year old preview of Election 2014 perhaps?