Letter from Elsewhere: Frankenstein’s Creature
“It was on a
dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment
of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony,
I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might
infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at
my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain
pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was
nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the
half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the
creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion
agitated its limbs.”
What happened to Frankenstein’s unnamed creature? He escaped his maker, blundered around trying to be accepted by real human beings, lashed out and killed in fury at being rejected, and disappeared into the frozen Arctic wastes, never to be seen again.
Don Brash was not a politician, any more than Frankenstein’s creature was a human being. Many of the fascinating exchanges published yesterday from Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men show how hard his clutch of bumbling Frankensteins tried to turn him into one – and how cross they were when, despite their best efforts, he stuffed up yet again.
But neither was Brash a bumbling innocent, far too gentlemanly for the rough and tumble of political life. And it wasn’t his refreshing naivety that won this untried novice, who had repeatedly failed to win an electorate seat, the leadership of the National Party.
What Hager’s book makes clear is that Brash won power because his bedrock commitment to far right ideology, combined with his prestige, appealed so strongly to a small group of powerful, wealthy people dedicated to continuing the agenda begun by Roger Douglas, and linked to the far right in the US. There happened to be a convenient power vacuum in the National Party, and they believed he could neatly fill it – with their help. But the fact that he was so inexperienced was also important: he would be prepared to do whatever they told him to do in order to win power.
There was just one problem. To carry out their common agenda, he, and National, first had to get elected. And this wasn’t 1984. The electorate had already been forced to swallow the bitter medicine of far right policies, and they refused to believe a stronger dose would be good for them.
Ironically, when Hager writes in his preface that “Short-term political necessities get in the way of the long-term good of the country”, he could be speaking for Don Brash and his supporters. As their exchanges reveal, that was exactly their view.
Reluctantly, they knew that Brash could not campaign on what he wanted to do, no matter how firmly convinced he and his backers were that it was the right long-term course, because it would be political suicide. As strategist Peter Keenan so neatly put it: "please everybody we are talking about the electorate's perceptions here not the reality (unfortunately they vote on the former)".
So the campaign had to be about manipulating voters’ (and therefore journalists’) perceptions of Brash, and of where he would lead the National Party and the country.
The Frankensteins had to remould their creature in the image they thought voters wanted to see. Keenan again: "The secret of success is sincerity and conviction. Once you can fake that you have got it made." And Brash had to fake it, because he was barred from expressing the one set of ideas that he was genuinely sincere and convinced about.
He even ended up having to betray the logic of his neoliberal individualism by changing his vote on the Civil Union Bill, in order not to alienate wealthy, covert supporters on the extreme religious right. And in a classic case of hubris, his sanctimonious, dog-whistle beat-ups of Helen Clark and the Labour Party over a whole range of moral issues turned out to bear no relation to what he himself was doing. As a man and a politician, he really was faking it.
So what’s the lesson here? I’ve been fascinated to watch the latest examples of what is apparently called "framing…setting a notion not about the issues people think about but giving them a WAY to think about the issues". (Australian strategist Mark Textor, quoted by Hager).
Several commentators, including Hager himself, have claimed that his book exposes what goes on inside all modern political parties. “The underlying theme of the book”, writes Hager, “is the conduct of politicians and others in politics - how their strategies, expediencies and the games they play to advance themselves can harm the whole political system.” The Sunday Star Times editorial says that the book “reveals for the first time what parties actually do behind the scenes…It provides a genuine insight into how politics really works…It should encourage a more widespread scepticism or suspicion about politicians, parties, and political language.”
The problem is that this would lead precisely to the situation Hager decries, “where many people ‘don't like politics’ and leave it to the politicians - and if anything is clear from this story it is that politics should not be left to the politicians.”
No, it shouldn’t. But in a democracy, there is no way it can or should be removed from them, either. In the long run, increasing public scepticism about politicians and the political process is precisely what the far right wants. The fewer people who vote, let alone take an active interest in politics or stand for office themselves, because they feel powerless to affect how they are governed, the easier it will be for tiny elites to take control of democracies in their own interests.
Conveniently, over the last two decades the far right has itself done more than any other group to foster public antipathy to politicians. Inconveniently, this antipathy then gets in the way of electing far right cheerleaders. The answer is to present them as something new and different. This tactic worked well for Brash, but only up to a point. Hager’s book records concerns about him “starting to look like a conventional politician” – and an inept one at that. Frankenstein’s creature was falling apart at the seams.
So while a healthy scepticism is in order, it doesn’t mean we should give up on politics and politicians. It certainly pays to do our homework and find out what they really stand for and are likely to do in power. The Clark-led Labour government has at least done its best to repair the credibility damage of the 80s and 90s by keeping its promises, feeble though some of those promises may appear. At the same time, it has understood that near the centre is where the majority of New Zealanders stand, but also that we are now more diverse than ever before.
It will be interesting to see whether a Key-led National Party can grasp these two crucial facts, and what or even whether it is able to learn from the sorry saga of the Brash years. Politics may be a dirty business, but this was not just business as usual. I hope for all our sakes that National quickly comes to understand not just what went wrong, but what was wrong, and why.
Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her
occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can
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