Brian Edwards Media

I Invent a New Law of Politics, called “Catch 23″

I’m delighted that Judy has posted the famous/infamous interview between Simon Walker and Rob Mulddon on the presence of Russian warships in the Indian Ocean. Simon is an old friend. We worked together both as television colleagues and, later, as advisors to David Lange and the Labour Party after Muldoon drunkenly  announced the snap election in 1984. I wrote Lange’s opening television address. Simon was a left-winger then, or so we thought, but his actual allegiance was with the laissez- faire Douglas faction. He would go on to work for a large PR company in Britain, a right-wing think-tank and Her Majesty the Queen inter alia.

Simon, possibly the smoothest and most urbane person I have ever known, was an excellent interviewer. But it was the Muldoon confrontation that really made his name. A remarkable achievement, made all the more remarkable because pretty well every propositon he puts to Mr Muldoon is wrong in fact or implication. And it is a bit rich to supply an interviewee with a list of questions you want answered and then not allow him to answer them. But it’s still great television.

A couple of years later, I wrote this piece for the Dominion Sunday Times. Almost 25 years later, the names may be different, but everything else remains true.


Catch 23

I have invented a new law that will save the nation – from everything. I call it Catch 23.

Clause One of Catch 23 states: Only those of sound mind may hold office as Members of Parliament.

Clause Two states: Any person seeking election to Parliament shall, ipso facto, be deemed to be of unsound mind.  

I invented Catch 23 after reading in the paper that my young old friend, Simon Walker, is seeking the Labour Party nomination for Pencarrow, the very electorate in which I live. The boy is clearly mad.

I was mad myself once, back in ’72 when Labour won and I lost. In retrospect I’m sorry I didn’t do better for the good people of Miramar, but I’m delighted I didn’t get in.

 It’s a dog’s life. Well, it’s worse than that. People love their dogs.

Very few people love their politicians. They see them as power-hungry, dishonest and wedded to inflexible team ideologies. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or not. The profession of politics attracts general public odium, like being a used-car sales-man or a debt collector. Who needs it?

Who needs to be a backbencher for six years, the parliamentary scum de la scum? Where’s the payoff in that? You’re up at 6.30 and back in bed around one in the morning. And the phone in your dreary Wellington flat rings non-stop, just as it’s ringing non-stop at your home in Nutsville. And your in-tray is full of letters from people who think they own you, which they do. And you spend hundreds of hours sitting on boring committees and hundreds more on boring Air New Zealand flights from Wellington to Nutsville and back.

And on weekends you run your surgery and get to listen to wrinklies complaining about the surtax on superannuation. And you’re eating an awful lot of junk food in the office you share with the MP for Loonyville whom you can’t stand. And your blood pressure’s at the top end of normal and you’re drinking a lot. And your children are compiling an identikit picture of you. And your marriage is distinctly shaky. And the highlight of your week was being allowed to ask Jonathan Hunt an Aunt Sally question about progress on the new telephone exchange at Crazyville.

Exaggerated? I don’t think so. As a backbencher you’re nothing more than an apprentice. Like every other apprentice you get all the rotten jobs to do, with none of the kudos, none of the rewards. Trouble with this apprenticeship is, you may never get your ticket. You could be an apprentice for life. You could even be downgraded without warning, from Government apprentice to Opposition apprentice. Or sacked.

Worst of all, you’ve stopped being your own person. You can’t say what you think anymore.

You can’t say what you think to your constituents –  you rely on their goodwill to put you back on that treadmill again every three years. So however demanding, however disagreeable, however downright dumb they are, you have to put up with it. You’re a public servant in the most literal meaning of the words.·Who needs it?

And you can’t say what you think about your party’s policies either. This is a team game. If you’ve got doubts or reservations or moral qualms, keep them to yourself. The political ground is littered with the bodies of mavericks who spoke their mind: Quigley, Minogue, Waring, Anderton. The public may have loved them, but to their masters they were infinitely disposable.

OK, it’s a tough life, but there’s always the prospect of power.

You could make it into Cabinet one day. You could give free rein to your ideals. You could even shape the destiny of the nation. Not if it was going to lose the party votes, you couldn’t!

Of all the politicians I’ve known, Martyn Finlay is perhaps the one I’ve most admired. Finlay is that rare creature, a man of heart and intellect. As Minister of Justice he understood the urgent need for new directions in our penal system. But neither his idealism nor his ministerial power were match enough for the ballot-box pragmatism of the Third Labour Government. That’s life in  politics.  

Still, who knows, Simon, you might even make it to PM. Surely that is where power resides? Maybe. But my sideline impression is that power resides within the political machine itself, not within even the biggest cog. And the machine has its own irresistible momentum, its own incontrovertible logic. Can David Lange really get what he wants? Yes, if what he wants is what the machine wants as well.

Still not convinced? Then spare a thought for Norman Kirk, Prime Minister of New Zealand, sitting alone in his office at midnight, taking potshots at pigeons and phoning journalists –  for  someone to talk to.

For the rest, it’s heart-attack country. Who needs it?

Frankly, Simon, if I were in your Guccis, I’d stick with PR. But if I can’t convince you, there’s always Catch 23.

The problem with that is, no New Zealand Parliament is going to pass a law that says anyone who wants to be an MP is mad. They’d have to be sane to do it.

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  1. Very well said – but as a possible explanation for the madness: humans being the highly dysfunctional species that we are, consistently get the wrong end of the stick because we are so embedded in disempowerment that the majority of us are running around, headless, looking for our 15 mins share of fame, glory, power, riches. Politicians are exactly like this and the culture will only be transformed once people who take on the role understand they are operating in loco parentis for the nation – and when they can absorb some healthy parental models in their formative years, to operate from. A chicken or egg situation – we need great parents to make great politicians: those who will work for the people – but our current western culture is a factory farm for the breeding of angst & power at any cost. A chook day today it seems

  2. I would be really interested to know your “current” names.

    • I would be really interested to know your “current” names.

      I assume you mean ‘mavericks’. I’ll give that some thought and get back to you.

  3. I was in television a little after Simon Walker in the late 70s but encountered him a few times in the 80s – about the time of his PR experiences here. I remember him, one day, wearing a very dapper conservative dark suit, white shirt and colourful tie. Under the shirt, only just visible through the fabric on his back, was a white tee-shirt with large Labour Party logo. I thought it said something about Simon but never been quite sure what.

    • I was in television a little after Simon Walker in the late 70s but encountered him a few times in the 80s

      Great story, Fraser. I think Simon was very much a product of his background, that his heart was with the conservative elite. Never really a man of the people, the New Zealand he wanted to see was Roger Douglas’ New Zealand, a left-wing society but only in name.

  4. As someone not entirely unadjacent to–and ultimately responsible for–the “famous” Walker/Muldoon interview I agree with your analysis of it. It was seriously flawed.
    Those who still see it as typical of the behaviour of the (admitedly) hideous old Grunter miss the point. Muldoon was right. The interviewer was not. It’s an important bit of the archive–but it needs careful analysis before it gets totemised as an exemplar of current affairs interviewing technique.

  5. There was an op-ed from Mr Walker in the NZ Herald before the election in 2008 which was critical of Labour under Helen Clark and more or less supported National and Key….

    Just thought I would throw that out there seeing as you mentioned his journey to the right in your “pre-face”.

  6. Brian, great article that reads just as well now as it did 25 years ago. I remember my late uncle, Michael Minogue once commenting on the subject of being Parliamentary fodder that the most sole destroying part of the job was having to leave his brains at the Chamber door and do exactly what the Whips told him do to. Not one to keep quiet at toe the Party line was incredibly hard for him and occasionally,he just could help pointing out why he thought things were, even though it brought such odium from his National Party colleagues. I am sure that many of these colleagues secretly agreed with Michael’s comments but for various reasons e.g. the possibility of advancement, they rarely said a word. I miss him.

  7. “The political ground is littered with the bodies of mavericks who spoke their mind: Quigley, Minogue, Waring, Anderton.” Jim Anderton has seen that summation off. Anderton hasn’t littered much since then.

    “Martyn Finlay is perhaps the one I’ve most admired. Finlay is that rare creature, a man of heart and intellect.” Twenty five years later you could say that Anderton is definitely also a man of heart and perhaps intellect – whether or not you like his politics.

  8. One does not need to be mad to be a politician,
    but it does help.