Six impossible things before breakfast

Slaying the Jabberwocky

Slaying the Jabberwocky

“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There

It can be exhausting trying to keep up with all of the impossible claims we’re meant to believe as part of following the commentary on current political events.

In retrospect, the commentary and explanations for Shane Jones’ declared departure from politics at this point in time – including his own explanations – provide a very good example of just such an avalanche of claims, most of which shouldn’t be able to co-exist in a remotely sensible world.

But, like Lewis Caroll’s possible satire of the emerging mathematics of his day (Alice in Wonderland), perhaps it’s all just being done for our entertainment and as a satire about the state of commentary on New Zealand politics?

So, like Alice getting in her practice at believing impossible things, let’s start counting …

1. Shane Jones now wants to do something other than politics … but that might involve a return to politics.

When Shane Jones announced he was quitting, he made a number of comments about his reasons:

High-profile Labour list MP Shane Jones says he no longer wants the life of an MP, as he confirms he is to quit the party and Parliament soon.

Jones said he had been an MP for nine years “and I don’t want that life anymore“.

“To go on needs an enormous amount of energy and commitment… and I’ve reached a point that I really do want to do something else with my life.”

At 54 he could not commit to another term, which he said MPs should be able to do going into an election.

Pretty clear then? Certainly clear enough for just about everyone who reported the announcement – here, here, here, here and here. And a selection of further quotes (in those links) from Jones:

“I always said to Helen Clark that if I felt at a nine year period that I wasn’t able to kick a goal then I’d make a choice,” said Mr Jones.

“And I’ve made that choice that I want to go do something else with my life.”

“The leadership has a bit to do with it, but also I’m 55 this year and I just want to go and do something else.

On TVNZ’s Breakfast show this morning Mr Jones said he would not be returning to the political sector.

“I’ve made my decision and I’m moving on.”

There was never any pressure on him to leave, he said.

The political collar has chafed this dog’s neck and now I’ve slipped the collar.

He’s had enough of politics and wants to do something else?

Well, not quite.

Two days after announcing his resignation from Parliament, Jones provided another reason for his departure that was a lot more specific about just what he was quitting from:

“I said [to myself] are you up for another three to six years being a mid-level Cabinet minister in a Labour-Green government, possibly serving under a duo comprising of Russel and DC [Cunliffe]?” Jones said.

So, Jones was ‘quitting politics’ not so much because he was generally disillusioned with politics per se but, instead, because he didn’t relish the prospect of being a Cabinet Minister in a government that included the Green Party?

Well, no actually. It seems that, from Jones’ perspective:

He does not believe it [Labour] can win this year’s election if Cunliffe continues with the current strategy, cosying up to the Greens.

Aah, so Jones believes his chosen party has no chance of governing in the foreseeable future which means his dreaded scenario would not occur and so that is why he is quitting politics all together?

Well, not quite.

Interviewed three days later (on ANZAC Day), Jonathan Milne (deputy editor of the Herald on Sunday) concluded:

Jones’ political career is not over. Certainly, he is done with Labour.

And, if not Labour?

Now, Jones is enjoying a whisky at the RSA with Winston Peters.

Might he make another tilt at the Beehive? “Possibly,” he says. “Never rule anything in or out.

Never rule anything in or out“? Perhaps he should have taken his own advice prior to announcing his resignation?

To summarise: In three days, this supposedly straight-talking, ‘regular Kiwi bloke’ (where have I heard that one before?) moves from “I don’t want that life anymore“, “I’m moving on” and “I really do want to do something else with my life” to not being “up for another three to six years being a mid-level Cabinet minister in a Labour-Green government” that he doesn’t think will ever be formed and then, finally (?), to “[p]ossibly” returning to politics and expressing a coy “[n]ever rule anything in or out“.

Hard (impossible?) to believe all these things at once, but Jones – or his ‘oratory’ at least – appears up to the task.

But, can’t a ‘bloke’ change his mind – quite quickly? John Key frequently has and, apparently, he’s no less a ‘regular Kiwi bloke’ for doing that (that’s where I’ve heard it before).

But isn’t there at least one thing we are all certain of when it comes to Jones – he’s a real ‘working-man’s man'; isn’t he?

2. Shane Jones represents and resonates with ‘blue collar’, ‘working class blokes’ … unlike all those lawyers, academics and unionists in Labour’s caucus.

What are Shane Jones’ working class, blue collar credentials? This is the brief synopsis on his early life prior to politics available on the Labour Party website:

Shane Jones was born on 3 September 1959 in Awanui, Northland. His tribal links are to Te Aupouri, Ngai Takoto and he has Welsh and Dalmatian heritage.

Local elders raised money to send him to board at St Stephens College in Bombay. From there he went to Auckland and Victoria Universities to study politics.

Between 1988 and 1990 Shane set up the Maori Policy Unit at the new Ministry for the Environment and later did a year in the PM’s Department under Geoffrey Palmer. With four children in tow he then spent a year at Harvard completing a Masters in Public Administration degree on a Harkness Fellowship.

St Stephen’s Boarding school was a distinguished Anglican private boarding school, established by Bishop Selwyn in 1844 (it’s about to celebrate its 170 year reunion). It’s aim was to provide educational opportunities for Maori but has also educated Pasifika and Pakeha students.

The Old Boys’ Association has six chapters in New Zealand, two in Australia and possibly others. This, despite the school formally closing in 2000 after allegations of poor governance, bullying, poor achievement, violence and indebtedness.

A bid to re-open the school gathered momentum in 2013.

What is particularly interesting is the School’s ‘Roll of Honour‘. It lists All Blacks, Wallabies, Kiwis (rugby league) and politicians. The politicians include Shane Jones, Hone Harawira, Mahara Okeroa, Te Ururoa Flavell, Tuku Morgan, Sir Maui Pomare, Pita Paraone and Hone Heke Ngapua.

It’s not exactly a training ground for the freezing works, then. It was, in effect, a prep school for Maori leaders.

[In this 'Native Affairs' video about the chances of re-establishing St Stephens, it's also interesting that Shane Jones attributes the school's descent into indebtedness to the Rogernomics reforms, which meant that fewer whanau had the wherewithal to send their boys to the school. (More on this interesting suggestion, below)]

There’s not much of a clue in the Labour Party site ‘bio’ of Jones, of the roots of his “smoko-room politics“. In fact, Jones’ trajectory seems remarkably like the university-educated, career politico that critics of today’s Labour Party – including Jones – claim dominate its caucus.

In any event, the criticism that the Labour Party caucus comprises middle class lawyers, academics and union officials is itself an especially interesting one, given Jones’ political ‘style’.

According to Te Ara, it was the fourth Labour government – the one that Shane Jones worked for in the late 1980s – that:

was very different from previous ones. Most of its members of Parliament were lawyers or academics, rather than workers or trade unionists. It also had very different economic policies, privatised state assets, and reduced the role of the government in the economy. It was often at odds with traditional Labour-Party beliefs.

In slightly more detail:

Most of its MPs had worked as either lawyers or academics. Only five, including Mike Moore – a future prime minister – had backgrounds as manual workers. Labour had been transformed into a party of the middle class.

What is even more interesting is that, according to Shane Jones during the leadership contest last year, the problem with the current Labour Party is its departure from its traditional ‘brand':

“The Labour brand is a proud and true brand. Unfortunately, we have allowed that brand to become irrelevant in how a whole bunch of New Zealanders see their personal circumstances.”

Now, the use of the term ‘brand’ when applied to non-commercial reputations is itself, of course, a piece of language that owes its ubiquity partly to the reforms – and worldview -ushered in by that “very different” Labour government filled, as it was, with lawyers and academics. Presumably that is not part of Jones’ self-proclaimed oratorial style which:

“might not resonate in the common room, but rest assured it will be relevant in the smoko room

Jones’ use of the term ‘common room’ is presumably a sideswipe at, and reference to, the prevalence of academics in the Labour Party caucus. Yet, of course, the particular room within which reference to the notion of a political ‘brand’ will be most welcome is neither the ‘common room’ nor the ‘smoko room’ – it is the ‘board room’.

Which leads to Shane Jones’ main role prior to entering parliament – his corporate job as chair of the Waitangi Fisheries Commission:

He returned home [after completing his Harkness Fellowship at Harvard University] in 1992 just as the Maori Fisheries Settlement deal was being completed and was appointed to the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission. He took over as chair in 2000. His task was to get approximately 70 iwi to agree on how to divide up the fisheries assets. This was completed in 2004 when the distribution legislation was passed.

The year after this job was completed, 2005, he entered parliament on the Labour Party list.

Jones’ lack of working class credentials was highlighted in his ANZAC Day interview with Jonathan Milne through a direct contrast with Parekura Horomia’s ‘tell-all’ interview:

Samuels’ successor, Parekura Horomia, had felt the need to clear the decks with a tell-all interview about how he was arrested, aged 17, for brawling on the street.

So Jones invited me up north to meet his friends – and his enemies. Unlike Horomia, Jones had done his brawling in the boardrooms and council consent hearings.

It’s also telling that Jones’ only Parliamentary kudos to date has been his going in to bat for New Zealand producers (i.e., businesses) against ‘Aussie’ Countdown. He has also been supportive enough of mining in New Zealand (part of his antipathy for the Green Party) to earn a donation from New Zealand Oil and Gas board member Roger Finlay towards his leadership bid for the Labour Party.

In that last link John Key is quoted expressing surprise at the revelation that Sir Wira Gardiner – Education Minister Hekia Parata’s husband and National Party member – donated $1,000 to Shane Jones’ leadership bid:

The Prime Minister appears taken aback by the development.

“God only knows.

There’s a bit of a feeling that Shane’s more of a Nat than a Labour man but honestly I’m very surprised.”

But perhaps John Key and I are being unfair.

Given how many people in New Zealand today like to claim the term ‘working class’ as a self-descriptor, perhaps it is fairer to say Jones lacks blue collar credentials. Whatever work he has done for a living – perhaps barring summer jobs at ‘varsity’ – the colour of the collars he’s had to wear in his working life have not been blue.

But if Jones’ heart is in ‘traditional’ Labour values, what’s wrong with his own work life not being ‘blue collar’?

That leads to another ‘impossible thing’ to believe.

[As another aside, at the time that David Cunliffe was being accused of hiding the identity of his donors for his leadership bid, it was claimed that, by contrast, Shane Jones was up-front and had managed to declare the identity of all his donors. Yet, of course, he hadn't publicly named them at the time, nor had he been asked to do so. Further, the register was not due to be published until June:

Of his rivals for the job, Shane Jones said he had disclosed all donations of more than $500, and the donors, and Grant Robertson said he did not receive any individual donations of more than $500.

The register will be published within three months.

In retrospect, "within three months" has turned out to be beyond the announcement of Jones' exit from parliament. In fact, the voluntary 'leak' of who Jones' donors were appears to have prepared the ground for that announcement and, revealingly, indicates that Jones' initial inclination was to keep the donations (and donors) secret:

Mr Jones said both men approached him offering donations, which were to have remained confidential until it was realised that donations of more than $500 had to be revealed in the MPs' register of pecuniary interests, due out next month.

It is interesting that their names were not leaked  - or simply volunteered by Jones, as appears to have now occurred - around the time of the intense interest in donors to Labour's leadership contenders. Or would that have deflected attention from Cunliffe's woes? In politics, of course, timing - of announcements, leaks, volunteered information or whatever - is everything.]

3. Jones speaks for traditional Labour voters and workers … yet he has an interesting take on ‘old Labour’.

In the same ANZAC Day interview there was more revealing content about just what Jones understood by the Labour Party ‘brand':

With hindsight, Jones now admits, he didn’t fit into the modern Labour Party.

He doesn’t fit into the “modern Labour Party“. More of a ‘traditional’ Labour Party person, then? Does this mean he’s ideologically a pre-Douglas era Labour Party member and he hankers for those days before he, personally, became involved with the party?

Not quite:

“I’ve never said this on the record, but I was deeply influenced in a positive way by the figures of the Lange Government. I didn’t do my due diligence to discover how much the Labour Party had changed. And Opposition is a waste of my talent and skill.”

It’s a bit hard to work out just what Jones is saying here but he seems to be saying that he didn’t work out how much Labour had changed since the 1980s when it had those “figures” by whom he was “deeply influenced in a positive way“.

Or, possibly, Jones had been so enamoured of the kinds of reforms that the Douglas-led economic team were instituting that he failed to notice, at the time, the socially liberal members of the caucus whose presence indicated a change from before the 1980s.

Either way, the meaning becomes clearer as we read on:

Pumipi [his current partner] says he should have gone with National. Jones is more oblique: “I will never admit to having joined the wrong party. But I admit to the fact that I have sounded consistently like a guy who doesn’t belong to the modern Labour Party.”

It turns out that the ‘modern’ Labour Party, for Jones, is a very recent phenomenon. So recent that the Douglas-era party is the one Jones presumably sees as ‘old Labour’, and to which his economic values, at least, align.

This is remarkably hard (impossible?) to believe.

Is Shane Jones seriously trying to argue that he didn’t realise that the 2005 Labour Party he joined was any different from the 1984-1990 Labour Government? It hardly required months of ‘due diligence’ to detect at least some differences.

Left-wing critics of the Labour Party do sometimes accuse it of hanging on to the basic position of the Douglas economic ‘reforms’ but, nevertheless, many of its policy positions in the past decade and a half have hardly been ones that Roger Douglas would embrace.

Yet Jones thought it was the same ‘old’ party that he knew from his days in the 1980s working for Geoffrey Palmer and – interestingly, given his present view of the Green Party – the Ministry for the Environment.

If Jones thinks that the policies advocated in the good old days of the Douglas-Lange government of 1984-1987 were ‘pro-worker’ then that represents another remarkably naive understanding of contemporary New Zealand politics.

Last year he also attended a New Zealand Initiative conference called the Miro Summit – ‘Doing Business in a Political World‘. The New Zealand Initiative was formed from the merger of the famed Business Round Table and the think tank The New Zealand Institute.

It has an interesting ‘About Us‘ page, quoting Adam Smith’s views of business people only ever gathering for “a conspiracy against the public“. They disagree … of course.

Here’s a list of the 2013 speakers at the Miro Summit (I’ve highlighted some of the more interesting names):

  • Dean Bracewell, Managing Director, Freightways.

  • Dr Oliver Hartwich, Executive Director, The New Zealand Initiative.

  • Hon Dr Michael Bassett, Historian and former Minister of Local Government.

  • Dr Bryce Wilkinson, Senior Fellow, The New Zealand Initiative.

  • John Crawford, Deputy Secretary of the Commercial Transactions Group at The Treasury.

  • Ross Young, Public Policy Manager, Google New Zealand.

  • Chris Keall, Technology Editor, Head of Digital, National Business Review.

  • Hon Shane Jones, Labour Party MP.

  • Silvana Schenone, Partner at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts.

  • Alex Turnbull, Managing Director, Fonterra.

  • Eduardo Gradilone, Ambassador for Brazil.

  • David McConnell, Managing Director, McConnell Group.

  • Professor Anthony Endres, University of Auckland.

  • Hon Simon Bridges, Minister of Energy and Resources, Minister of Labour.

  • Jason Krupp, Research Fellow, The New Zealand Initiative.

  • Rose Patterson, Research Fellow, The New Zealand Initiative.

  • Professor Stuart McNaughton, Woolf Fisher Research Centre, University of Auckland.

  • Conor English, Chief Executive, Federated Farmers.

  • Paul Goldsmith, National Party List MP.

  • Tom Switzer, Editor, The Spectator Australia; Research Associate, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.

Left out of that list – oddly – but included on this page, is Matthew Hooton. Perhaps this is where Matthew and Shane began to confide in each other?

There’s also this little gem of a speaker session co-hosted by Conor English (Bill English’s brother and Federated Farmers Chief Executive) and Paul Goldsmith (failed National Party Epsom candidate – losing to John Banks):

9.30 am Is crony capitalism on the rise?
Conor English, Chief Executive, Federated Farmers
Paul Goldsmith, National Party List MP
New Zealand is regularly ranked as one of the least, if not the very least, corrupt countries in the world. Globally however, crony capitalism is a severe problem. In many countries, bribery, corruption, and nepotism are on the rise.How can New Zealand keep its business practices clean? What level of interaction with government is appropriate? How can New Zealand companies succeed in countries plagued by corruption? And does New Zealand hold lessons for other countries? This session will aim to give forthright reflections and practical ideas about dealing with crony capitalism.

In light of recent events, I’m not sure if Maurice Williamson took time out to attend that session last year, but perhaps Shane Jones – who seems to have a similar penchant for granting citizenship for people called Liu who end up in court cases – may well have.

All that aside, it seems that Jones did perceive his political positioning – with its nostalgia for the Lange-Douglas government “figures” – as being ‘pro-worker’. Matthew Hooton confirmed this to Radio New Zealand National:

Political commentator Matthew Hooton said he has been talking to Mr Jones off the record for a while and toldCheckpoint it’s clear that the MP has been unhappy with Labour.

“I think that Shane Jones has a particular view of what the Labour Party should be about, [presumably, that's the 'naive' view he had - after not taking sufficient 'due diligence' - that Labour was still in its 1980s guise] where it should be positioned in the political spectrum, and he doesn’t feel that current Labour Party is positioned in that way as a sort of party for the working person.”

How, then, did Jones intend to appeal to the ‘smoko room’ given the lack of appeal of the Douglas-era economic policies in those same rooms? Well, perhaps we should take him at his literal word (as already quoted, in part):

Mr Jones said his style “might not resonate in the common room, but rest assured it will be relevant in the smoko room“.

So it’s his ‘style’ that he thought would appeal “in the smoko room” – he was not actually making the claim that his political leanings would appeal to those in the country’s smoko rooms. Those ‘leanings’  about which he is, now, quite clear:

I’m not naturally left-leaning,” he admits. He does not believe it [Labour] can win this year’s election if Cunliffe continues with the current strategy, cosying up to the Greens.

Which brings us to the next ‘impossible thing before breakfast’.

4. The way for Labour to win the election is to distance itself from the Green Party.

Jones’ attacks on the Green Party – and Australians – are well-known:

Mr Jones was told off by his leader for comparing Green MP Gareth Hughes to a screeching bird.

Today he took a shot at Green co-leader Russel Norman, saying he will not be lectured on the environment by an Australian.

Seemingly to prove he cannot be silenced, he let rip at Dr Norman, extending the anti-Australian attack he has used against Countdown to the Australian-born MP.

“I’m not going to have an Australian running the New Zealand Green Party, lecturing me about environment and economics in the north,” says Mr Jones.

This antipathy to the Green Party is seen by many commentators as central to his appeal for potential labour-leaning voters. But which ones, exactly?

Well, as it turns out, it’s a strange – and hard to believe – mix. On the one hand, it’s apparently the workers who frequent ‘smoko rooms’ and who supposedly admire the clumsy crudity that informs Jones’ political rhetoric – e.g., Jones’ comment about John Key during the Labour Party leadership contest:

Jones launched his bid to be leader last week calling Key a “$50m gorilla”, referring to the former currency trader’s personal wealth.

“I’m going to tie a bungy cord around a sensitive spot and then I’m going to get those callipers and cut them and then the mercenary of capitalism can suffer what he deserves – a dead cat bounce.

On the other hand,

Jones was also said to appeal to the Right of his party, and some hoped he would help bring back the non-voting working-class conservatives of South Auckland. These are said to be weary of Labour’s rainbow and liberal green factions.

All good speculation and, presumably, true so far as “the Right of his party” goes. But there’s a couple of hard to believe aspects of the appeal to the “non-voting working-class conservatives of South Auckland“.

First, as discussed above, Jones’ economic approach seems clearly right-wing which hasn’t traditionally gone down well with working-class voters – conservative or otherwise – who tend to experience the downside of such policies.

Second, the ‘non-voting’ voters of South Auckland seem reasonably entrenched in their non-voting habits (perhaps harking back to pre-MMP days when the incentive for voting in ‘very red’ electorates was not high).

A look at the election results website shows that for Mangere, Manurewa and Manukau-East in the 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2011 elections there was a remarkably consistent level of voting – except in 2005 when 5,ooo -6,000 extra voters per electorate went to the polls.

Third, what is a conservative (code, presumably, for ‘religious’) working-class non-voter in South Auckland meant to think of Jones’ general demeanour, not to mention his personal life? Lewd personal habits and crudity don’t tend to be associated with the virtues for conservative, especially religious, voters.

The last candidate to ‘test’ the mood of such voters in South Auckland was Taito Philip Field with his New Zealand Pacific Party. As a Christian political party it aimed “to represent Pacific Island communities within New Zealand, and support Christian and ‘family values’ and social justice.

In 2008, it received 8,640 party votes, mostly in South Auckland (2,683 votes in Field’s ‘home’ electorate of Mangere). While Field was under investigation at the time for corrupt practices he did vote in line with conservative sentiments when it came to contentious, socially liberal bills. He voted against the Civil Unions Act, against the Prostitution Reform Act, against the Marriage Amendment Act.

Quite understandable, then, that Field could court the votes of some “working-class conservatives of South Auckland“.

By contrast, Shane Jones, in his time in parliament, has voted for the Marriage Amendment (Definition of Marriage) Act, against the Marriage Amendment (Gender Clarification) Bill (which failed) and against the Alcohol Reform – raising purchase age to 20 Bill (which failed).

Not a lot there to quicken the heart of a religiously conservative voter.

So, if Shane Jones’ appeal to both ‘blue collar’ and ‘working-class conservative’ voters is not that clear, what about his appeal to the centrist, white male ‘tradey/ small business’ voters (i.e., ‘ordinary/regular kiwi blokes’ ) who are thought currently to vote for National?

Here’s where the scenario gets very hard to believe. Assuming that Jones does, indeed, appeal to such voters then just how many of them would Labour need to entice from National in order for there to be a change of government that did not involve the Green Party?

If the fortnightly polling by Roy Morgan this year is anything to go by, the chances of that scenario eventuating range from the latest poll (22 April – a new poll should be due anytime now) showing Labour on 28.5%, National on 48.5% and New Zealand First on 5.5% to the ‘closest’ 2014 result of Labour on 32%, National on 43% and NZ First on 5.5% (the 6-19 January figures are closer between Labour and National but have New Zealand First below the 5% threshold).

In the best Roy Morgan poll to date this year, then, Jones’ preferred option would have to have Labour attracting at an absolute minimum something like 3% of National’s ‘centrist, white male ‘tradey/ small business’ voters’ and hope that ACT and United Future (and the Maori Party?) disappear and that NZ First ultimately decides to go with Labour.

In 2011 some 2,257,366 people voted. Three percent of that figure is 67,720 voters. The strategy of not “cosying up to the Greens“, that is, requires – on the best case scenario and with all other things being equal – Jones’ prescription for success to have a net gain of at least 67,770 voters (on 2011 turnout).

That ‘net’ gain requires that any voters who move from Labour to the Greens in response to the shift to the right that Jones recommends, will be matched by even more who shift from National to Labour and still produce the gain.

It also requires enough voters to see an out-and-out rejection of the Greens as more than sufficient to switch from National to Labour.

Well, I suppose it’s logically possible but, as a realistic scenario it seems as hard to believe as that there is a “place called Wonderland“.

Which must bring us to the fifth impossible thing to believe before breakfast.

5. Murray McCully has performed the impossible – a 100% innocent act of supreme Machiavellianism

Part of the Shane Jones resignation story is that he has been offered a position as a roving ‘Pacific Ambassador’ by Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully.

The consensus in the commentary on this is clear: It was an extraordinarily cunning move by the ‘Master of the Dark Arts’ in the National government; AND, it was an entirely non-political, perfectly understandable offer based entirely on the merits of the case and of Shane Jones.

Claire Trevett was clearly convinced of the political ‘smarts’ McCully had exhibited:

And the Nobel Prize for rat cunning in neutralising an enemy force goes to … Foreign Minister Murray McCully.

What better advertisement could McCully have put up to prove his suitability for New Zealand’s campaign for the Security Council than his display of defusing Labour’s weapon of mass destruction: Shane Jones.

Meanwhile, McCully managed to stay remarkably po-faced about his success at hobbling Labour’s most threatening voice.

McCully’s cunning is legendary and the true genius of this particular weasel becomes clear the more it is scrutinised. Jones has said the idea of such a position was his and he mentioned it to McCully two years ago. But it was McCully who decided there was suddenly an urgent need for a roving Pacific ambassador in time for a September conference of small island nations. That conference just happened to coincide with the general election. Although the Pacific has bubbled along without a Pacific Economic Ambassador since time immemorial, one was required and required now. It could not possibly wait for another six months.

So, too, was Matthew Hooton (behind the paywall but quoted by Bryce Edwards):

Speaking of McCully, Hooton says ‘The old dog still has it in him. Foreign minister Murray McCully’s luring of Labour’s best political performer Shane Jones to work for the government is one of the more stunning exhibitions of the dark arts we will ever see‘.

But, lest we should ourselves be ‘lured’ into thinking that this offer from McCully was politicising the public service and abusing Ministerial powers just for the sake of using the dark arts to lure away a political opponent from the political game, Hooton adds that McCully:

‘can’t be criticised for an appointment that is entirely legitimate. Mr Jones is one of New Zealand’s foremost experts in the seafood industry, given his long and controversial career at the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission, and is well connected through the Pacific. It is also in line with Mr McCully’s innovative approach to ambassadorial appointments, of not handing them out automatically to the foreign ministry’s old school but to search more widely for talent. Mr McCully now has the perfect Pacific economic ambassador

Jones’ appointment, it seems, could not have been more ‘perfect’ and was done ‘innovatively’ and allows New Zealand’s diplomatic efforts not to be hampered by “the foreign ministry’s old school“. That his past record was ‘controversial’ is presumably also a ‘plus’ in the Pacific appointment.

It’s also interesting that someone known not to be a team player should be thought to go down well in the Pacific: “The difficulty is knowing who he would work with. Ever since school, Jones has not been a team player.

Yes, all-in-all McCully’s offer was the foremost example of the dark arts and, yet, the most impeccably thought through appointment and appointment processes, it seems.

And Jane Clifton in The Listener couldn’t agree more – ‘Mr Untouchable: Making Shane Jones Our Man in the Pacific really does trump all’ (also behind the paywall).

‘Mr Untouchable’ is Minister McCully who, according Clifton, has made an appointment that, while clearly a master stroke of political savvy, is beyond reproach and which makes it, therefore, totally galling for Labour.

The idea that the two propositions – that this is a masterly exhibition of the dark arts and that it is an irreproachable Ministerial appointment – are thought to be in no conflict at all shows itself a mastery of the absurd that Lewis Carroll would have admired.

It’s ‘win-win’. Except that it cannot possibly be the case.

If – even for a fleeting moment – Murray McCully considered the political advantages to be had from shoulder tapping Shane Jones then that, inevitably, should have been cause for McCully to recuse himself from making such a decision. And yet it seems that no commentator seriously believes that he was completely – and naively – unaware of the political advantages.

‘Mr Untouchable’? In any sensible and grounded political commentary that phrase – if used at all – would only be brought in to service in its more pejorative sense derived from the term for the lowest category in the Indian caste system.

Yes, it seems that our commentators can give the Red Queen a very good run for her money when it comes to believing in the impossible. We can only conclude that – however they manage these cognitive tricks – they must have had plenty of practice.

Which, finally, brings us to the sixth, and most hopeful, impossible thing to believe.

Not just about the Shane Jones’ resignation but about political commentary itself.

6. ‘I can slay the Jabberwocky’

In today’s world political commentary arrives fast and furious into our inboxes and morning papers. Within a comparative eye-blink, political journalists produce what they propose as definitive comment and interpretation on the political ‘events’ of the day.

Most of the time it’s very hard, as a reader, to know what to make of any of it. Usually, I suspect, most of us default to the opinion we have heard expressed most often in the commentary.

There is little time to reflect on the opinions expressed, think seriously about their meaning or consistency, let alone compare them with what we may already know or have heard – sometimes quite recently but, often, quickly forgotten.

It’s a topsy-turvy, ‘through the looking glass’ kind of world all unto itself and most of us are just buffeted by it day by day.

Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) was a genius of nonsense and absurdity.

The poem ‘The Jabberwocky‘, for example, comprises nonsense words arranged grammatically (i.e., in correct syntax) so that they seem to make sense – but what particular sense they make is impenetrable because the words, on inspection, have no meaning.

When the Red Queen tells Alice she must practice believing in impossible things the last of the six impossible things is “I can slay the Jabberwocky”.

And, what is the ‘Jabberwocky’? It’s a poem, of course, but what is the beast?

Dodgson gave a clue when he replied to the girls at a Boston school who were asking permission to call their newspaper ‘The Jabberwock“:

When a class in the Girls’ Latin School in Boston asked Carroll’s permission to name their school magazine The Jabberwock, he replied: “The Anglo-Saxon word ‘wocer’ or ‘wocor’ signifies ‘offspring‘ or ‘fruit‘. Taking ‘jabber’ in its ordinary acceptation of ‘excited and voluble discussion‘…

So, roughly, it sounds like Jabberwocky could mean ‘the fruit of excited and voluble discussion’.

And that sounds about right – certainly when it comes to commentary over Shane Jones’ resignation. Perhaps even more generally when we think about much of today’s political commentary.

‘I can slay the Jabberwocky’? Well, it might be a bit of a forlorn hope – but, since we’re counting ‘impossible things’ …

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3 Responses to Six impossible things before breakfast

  1. bruce says:

    curiouser and curiouser!

  2. Jenny says:

    But it was McCully who decided there was suddenly an urgent need for a roving Pacific ambassador in time for a September conference of small island nations. That conference just happened to coincide with the general election. Although the Pacific has bubbled along without a Pacific Economic Ambassador since time immemorial, one was required and required now. It could not possibly wait for another six months.

    Claire Trevett

    So what is it, that makes the need for this new role so urgent?

    And why is Shane Jones the perfect person to fill it?

    Could it be the harsh criticism that New Zealand attracted at the Pacific Island Summit conference held in the Marshall Islands in September last year?

    Could it be that at the upcoming conference this September, the leading topics of discussion are climate change and sustainability?

    Could it be a desperate need to have a virulent ant-Green pro mining advocate explain away New Zealand’s multi $million bail out of Solid Energy only weeks after signing the Majuro Declaration in which we promised the Island nations to endeavor to lower our CO2 emissions?

    Pacific Islands Fighting for Survival as Sea Levels Rise

    Many of the islands look to New Zealand, their closest large land mass, to give financial and diplomatic leadership. “New Zealand can and should do more. They are the fifth highest per capita emitters in the world and Kiwi emissions continue to climb.”

    President Loeak of the Marshall Islands

    “The National Government need to take responsibility for their mismanagement of Solid Energy and cut their losses,” said Mr Hughes.

    “The banks that made risky loans to Solid Energy need to bear the cost of their mistakes.

    “Coal is not going to be the fuel of our future if we are to stabilise our climate.

    “New Zealanders and Solid Energy workers need a just transition into more sustainable jobs – jobs that don’t fry the planet.

    Gareth Hughes Press Release Oct. 1,2013

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