Dialogue in New Zealand Politics

Andrew Dean offers his thoughts on Simon Bridges, Muldoon, dialogue, and New Zealand politics and society.  Thanks, Andrew, for taking the time to write this.

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‘It is customary in an interview for the interviewer to ask questions, and for them to be answered singly.’ In his 1976 interview, Simon Walker laid out to Robert Muldoon the rules of conversation. Muldoon famously refused to have ‘some smart alec interviewer changing the rules halfway through’—the earpiece came out and away he went. What was at issue in this interview was not the veracity of the security services’ understanding of Soviet naval capacity, of course, but the very rules of conversation itself. ‘You’re not going to set the rules my friend,’ Muldoon counterpunched, ‘this is an important matter and we’re going to get to the truth of it.’ What he wanted to become—and what he became for so many years—was the master of the discourse, the speaker of some political metalanguage.

Except, of course, this mastery was unfinished and unfinishable: each constitution and reconstitution of the relations between speaker and listener, interviewer and interviewee, required control to be established anew. Muldoon’s impossible labour was to become the owner of what was ‘customary’, and this required constant vigilance and total power.

By 1984, however, the grand illusion was over. With the economy on the brink of collapse, his final conversations spoke of the bankruptcy of his project. In the televised leaders’ debate of that year, Lange belittled him: after a series of interruptions, the opposition leader turned to the Prime Minister and said, ‘If you were just to contain yourself and control yourself briefly, we might be able to get some issues debated.’ Lange was masterful, Muldoon was cowed. The debate finished, unforgettably, with Muldoon interrupting, ‘I love you Mr Lange.’ Lange wrote afterward that the lights dimmed that night to the ‘tears of the most solitary man I ever knew;’ Muldoon returned to Vogel House and ordered his gardener to dig up his favourite lilies.

There is no exteriority, I would suggest, between Muldoon’s project to master the terms of conversation and his attempt to master the operation of New Zealand’s political system: they are very much of a piece. He would not listen to anyone, from Simon Walker to his own Treasury—and the results were disastrous. Where Lange differed was in speaking from outside the paradigm. He promised to build a nation founded on the ethic of love and reciprocity—he didn’t, of course, but never mind that—leaving Muldoon’s meanness to be given its final rites in the gardens of Vogel House.

Let me begin, again. ‘I will ask you a question. I will ask you a question. You answer it. Let’s give that a go.’ We’ve heard this before, except this time it’s not Simon Walker but John Campbell laying out to a National politician how to converse with others. Simon Bridges, no Muldoon, ended the interview with a sardonic smile, telling Campbell ‘we should do this more often.’ Throughout the interview, the struggle was not for the validity of the case being made by the National government for deep water drilling off the coast of Kaikoura, but for ownership of the rules by which conversation itself may proceed. What Bridges sought, like Muldoon, was to become the master the discourse, to determine what is ‘customary’. He failed, miserably, and National staffers are probably still having nightmares that finish with ‘the fact of the matter is.’

Over sixteen painful minutes of yelling and interruptions, Bridges made something of a fool of himself. What he allowed was a view into the political strategy he shares with Muldoon, namely a will to mastery; what he lacked was any of Muldoon’s presence. Bridges lost all authority in his failure to author the terms of the interview—each slogan, like Muldoon’s ceaseless quotation of Lady Astor in the 1984 debate, was drawn into a field visibility as itself a canned, prepared line. John Campbell called these ‘facile and banal’, saying Bridges should stop ‘just talking at me’; Lange cut off Muldoon’s lines off as they came, averring, ‘you’d think it was Lady Astor running this campaign, not Barry Lay for the National Party, wouldn’t you, it’s extraordinary.’

But let us work this over a little more. What I’m suggesting is that it’s not trivial that the Minister for Energy and Resources does not know how to talk to other people. Rather, I would suggest that this inhospitality reflects the smooth operation of a particular political consciousness. By making no room for other voices or other narratives to re-enter the conversation, he in fact stages his politics. It is this inability to listen, to accommodate others, that allows one to launch punitive campaigns against those least able to defend themselves. Simon Bridges does the shouting, we discover, while the people of Kaikoura do the listening. Speech is broadcast, and politics is done to you: aroha is elsewhere, in speech as in life.

Remarkable things happen when you allow other people to speak and when you begin to listen. Sometimes you learn, sometimes you persuade, and sometimes you’re persuaded. But in these moments of genuine conversation we are all made anew: conversation, after all, is a model of society, one founded upon the possibility of transformation, together. Conversation is about reciprocity: community happens here, and a different mode of being is laid out before us in each voyage of reconstitution. Listening, I am saying, is a radical act. Maybe Simon Bridges should try it some time.

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The Bridges interview that Andrew discusses is here.  And you can find the 1984 leaders’ debate here.

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