The year got off to a worryingly surreal start in Canterbury politics.
Before the year even began, news was released that highly controversial two-term, ex-mayor of Christchurch Bob Parker would from now on officially have to be referred to as ‘Sir Bob’ (or, will it be ‘Sir Robert’?).
Then, on day one of 2014, Canterbury’s mayors (outside of Christchurch) were reported as being unconvinced about the virtues of democracy:
A full return to democracy at Environment Canterbury (ECan) may be delayed if the region’s mayors get their way.
As omens go, these ones seem to suggest that we may be in for a very strange year in politics.
I’m beginning to wonder, though, if most New Zealanders will notice the strangeness, or, if they do, whether or not they’ll even care?
And that may be the strangest aspect of it all.
According to Waimakariri Mayor David Ayers, the lack of democracy in the running of Environment Canterbury is allowing “rural communities” (farmers?) to “feel very engaged and that they are having their say over water planning“.
Quite naturally, he therefore “would hate to see the democratic model back if that slows that progress” and so would prefer a “slow return” to democracy.
Similarly, Kaikoura Mayor Winston Gray thought the current model (with Commissioners) was working “very well” and his “only concern” is “that all of the good work gets undone by going into having fully elected representatives straight away“.
It seems one can never be too sparing or too cautious when it comes to operating your society democratically. All sorts of ‘good work’ can get undone by unleashing such a chaotic process without sufficient guidance and active constraint upon it.
Perhaps mayors Ayers and Gray would also support Gill Simpson’s novel (though not unique) idea that local body election voting forms should have the option of ‘government installed commissioners’, as a check on their own perceived inefficiencies or incompetencies?
Or, perhaps that, too, is rather too much democracy and they would prefer a future Labour-Green government, for instance, to install commissioners in their districts directly, without the involvement of any messy voting – as has happened with ECan?
Sure, some of the constituents in their districts – even a majority – may not wish for that to happen but, for these mayors, that is clearly less important than that ‘good decisions’ get made on behalf of some small fraction of the constituents of those areas.
And who better to decide what counts as a ‘good decision’ for Waimakariri and Kaikoura districts than a future Labour-Green government?
Sarcasm aside, these mayors should know better than to argue against democracy on some ad hoc basis that serves their particular interests. Even worse, that elected representatives are sceptical of democratic governance suggests that democratic ideals, in New Zealand, have extraordinarily shallow and sparse roots.
Speaking of the sparse and shallow roots of democracy brings me to the other surreal announcement – that Bob Parker has been made a Knight in the New Year’s Honours List.
First, a little bit of context.
The particular award system used by New Zealand is based on a five-level New Zealand Order of Merit, introduced after a review in 1996-97. Knighthoods and damehoods ceased to be awarded in 2000, following a decision of the Helen Clark Government. In 2009, they were reintroduced by the John Key Government. Knighthoods and damehoods can be awarded only for the top two levels of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
The Honours are administered by the Honours Unit of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The appointment of Honours are determined by the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee which has terms of reference to “consider appointments to statutory and other government agencies, chief executive appointments, nominations for New Zealand Royal Honours, and associated policy.”
It is chaired by John Key as Prime Minister. The current members are:
Membership (Chair in bold):
Rt Hon John Key
Hon Bill English
Hon Gerry Brownlee
Hon Judith Collins
Hon Tony Ryall
Hon Hekia Parata
Hon Christopher Finlayson
Hon Paula Bennett
Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman
Hon Murray McCully
Hon Anne Tolley
Hon Jo Goodhew
Hon Tariana Turia
As is clear, this membership is entirely composed of Cabinet members of the current government and support partners. The decisions inevitably reflect that political composition and its associated preferences, as is always the case.
The term ‘knight’ itself came from the Old English ‘cniht’, meaning ‘boy’. In effect, they were the young men who provided nobles and lords with fighting troops, beginning in the 11th century.
This pool of independently equipped fighting men began to evolve into the landed and hereditary ‘knightly’ class over time. Land became necessary to provision the would-be knight and, in turn, that land could be passed from father to son. (Our modern version of knights are the SAS who, it seems, also have to supply their own gear - which appears to be following in the footsteps of a British tradition.)
As the feudal and medieval periods ended, knights came to be displaced by armies comprised of mercenaries (bought soldiers) and standing armies – in the French tradition, the deficiencies of cavalry was a point powerfully hammered home at the battle of Agincourt with the decimation of French Knights:
The development of gunpowder and increasingly more powerful archery meant that the use of massive cavalry charges to break enemy lines and carry swift victory could not be relied upon, and the dominance of cavalry came to an end. If any battle summed up this change, it was the battle of Agincourt in 1415. The charging French knights, compressed by the terrain and the English arrows into a fragmented and ever constricted line of attack, reached the English line without any room to maneuver, and it only took a few fallen horses to prevent all other knights from moving in any direction. Thus, in half-an-hour the battle was decided, and thousands of French knights lay prisoners. The fear of a second attack prompted the English to kill them on the spot, and the French nobility was horribly decimated in a single day. The French learned their lesson; Charles VII, who finally expelled the English, formed the first standing, professional army in Europe.
It’s only speculation, but I imagine knighthoods would not be quite so sought after today if they meant actually becoming a knight and facing such a prospect.
But sought after they are.
And that’s understandable – if not always commendable. Being acutely social animals, humans crave social status. Power, wealth and fame are rarely sufficient on their own for the aspirational amongst us. A gaping hole can remain, only able to be filled by public acclaim and acknowledgment, desires which have very deep roots in our nature.
I won’t get into the debate over the Honours system itself, such as it’s pre-democratic origins and its utility in the British imperial project. Irrespective of those overtones, many argue that a system of national honours is important for acknowledging outstanding contributions.
‘Outstanding contributions’, though, are obviously in the eye of the beholder.
The award of a knighthood to Bob Parker has many interesting – even puzzling – aspects and implications.
The knighthood was awarded for “services to local body affairs and the community“, which is an interesting wording. Other local body politicians who received awards in the 2014 New Years Honours List – and there were a lot of them – gained it simply for “services to local government“.
The last ex-Christchurch Mayor to receive a knighthood (or damehood) was Sir Hamish Hay, Christchurch’s longest serving mayor (five terms, after five terms as a councillor). His philanthropist father, James Hay, was also knighted and his identical twin, David Hay, also received a knighthood for his work in cardiology and establishing the National Heart Foundation.
Interestingly, Vicki Buck, the highly popular three term mayor who succeeded Hamish Hay apparently refused damehoods (if I recall correctly). Garry Moore, another three term mayor, did not receive a knighthood and, so far as I’m aware, was never offered one. He was, however, made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit,
Bob Parker’s road to a knighthood was far less predictable than that of Sir Hamish Hay. In fact, six months ago when Bob Parker announced that he would not be seeking re-election he acknowledged that he did so partly as a result of the unprecedented loss of accreditation for the council to approve building consents. As I’ve detailed in previous posts (and here, and here), the loss of accreditation was hardly the first dysfunctional symptom of his Mayoralty.
The list of widespread criticisms and failings has to be unparalleled in such a relatively short stint in the Mayoralty – The Dave Henderson ‘bailout’ (that alienated almost everyone across the political spectrum), the accusations of a lack of transparency over decision making, the review of ‘communication’, the appointment of a Government ‘counsellor’ to oversee the operation of the Council, the incredibly toxic divisions in the Council, the Tony Marryatt pay rise (and Parker’s support for it, and for Marryatt), being called a ‘clown’ by Gerry Brownlee, the constant criticisms from The Press of the Mayor’s judgment.
The Press reported a poll in the same week that Parker announced he was quitting, showing that he trailed Lianne Dalziel by 40%. In a related part of the same poll (in an article cited by Curiablog July, 2013 – I couldn’t locate the original article), it was found that
The Press Research First poll has found widespread disillusionment with councillors and the mayor over their leadership since 2010. The main complaint was dysfunction and lack of unity.
The poll asked Christchurch residents to rate the performance of council leadership on a scale from zero to 10, with zero being very poor. About 60 per cent of people gave council leadership a score lower than five.
His tenure had become untenable and he, probably wisely, salvaged what was left of his reputation by pulling out of the mayoral race.
What he salvaged was apparently sufficient to persuade the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee that he was deserving of a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. And this is where the choice of the unusual phrasing of the award – “services to local body affairs [not 'local government'] and the community” – starts to become clearer.
The blunt truth is that Parker’s mayoralty was not a shining example of local ‘government’, by any stretch of the imagination. As I’ve detailed in other posts, there were even calls by a group in Christchurch to have the Council replaced by Commissioners (in the Press poll mentioned above, some 28% were in favour of that option).
Hugh Pavletich – a once was developer and long-time critic of the Christchurch City Council – may have been at the more extreme, ‘franker’ end of those criticisms when he said in and NBR opinion piece titled ‘Christchurch: The political shambles‘, that:
It is not particularly well understood that Bob Parker’s abilities begin and end in front of a television camera.
Understandably, Mr Parker saw his role in the public offices he held as simply a public relations exercise.
Even when it was blindingly obvious to others that things were seriously wrong or out of control, he was oblivious to the significance of these issues. Much of it was beyond his comprehension.
Even supporters of Bob Parker such as right wing conservative, John Stringer in trying to defend Parker’s mayoralty still had to acknowledge the unprecedented divisions, crises and difficulties that were part and parcel of those six years.
It seems that the basis for the award of Bob Parker’s knighthood therefore amounts to his role in fronting the media during the aftermath of the two earthquakes.
In the minds of the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee members, it also must have sufficiently outweighed the significant failings of Parker’s mayoralty and oversight of the Council and his Chief Executive to have propelled him into the top tier of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
There is no doubt that many people felt reassured by those media appearances – it is by far the most often cited praise for Bob Parker while Mayor and is reiterated by people quoted in the articles linked to above – both in relation to the aftermath of his announcement that he would not contest the mayoralty and in reaction to the announcement of his knighthood.
And there is also no doubt that it took a good deal of energy to continually front the cameras. Certainly his time on television – prior to his political career – would have prepared him for those challenges but it still amounted to a real effort.
It is also probably true that his media appearances after the earthquakes count heavily in the minds of people beyond Christchurch who may be unfamiliar with the sorry series of sagas that hounded Parker’s mayoralty almost on a weekly basis.
But sufficient for a knighthood?
We live today in a world with an unprecedented emphasis on images and words. And it may well be true that we look to our political leaders not for good governance or policies to make our world better but for the projection of an image, a message and a tone that makes us feel better about our lives.
The rather sad implication is that we want our new ‘knights’ (and ‘dames’) to be those who help us wage battle against our own anxieties about who we are; those who help us slay the dragons of uncertainty about the directions our lives now take; those who soothe our concerns.
And maybe that’s why, now, all we really want is the relaxed ‘ordinary kiwiness’ of a John Key and the wide-smiling, velvety-voice of a Bob Parker.
What our leaders actually do may now finally matter less than how they make us feel?
In that case, perhaps the surreal is all we have left.
‘Arise, Sir Robert …’