Brian Edwards Media

Lessons in “Followship” from the Labour Party


In the past I’ve written several posts and articles about voluntary euthanasia. The ‘voluntary’ bit is crucial, since no-one who wants to go on living, however great their pain or however inconvenient their continuing existence to others, should be cajoled or browbeaten into changing their mind.

But it is hard to come to terms with the overweening arrogance of someone who believes they have the right to deny another human being, whose ongoing suffering has deprived them of all joy in living and who wishes to end that suffering, the right to do so.

The laws that govern these decisions and procedures will of necessity be complex and they must be watertight. But they are not beyond our ability to design and implement. Other countries have done so.

I don’t want to restart this debate. That is not the purpose of this post. This post is about the significance of comments on euthanasia cited in this morning’s Herald by the four contenders for the Labour Party leadership.

Iain Lees-Galloway has taken over responsibility for the ‘End of Life Choice Bill’  after its sponsor, Maryan Street, failed to get elected in September. Lees-Galloway is apparently gauging support before deciding whether to put the Bill back on the private members’ bill ballot. It was removed last year under pressure from the Labour leadership who, according to the Herald, “were concerned it could be an election-year distraction or that it could deter conservative voters”. The new Labour leader, whoever that is, could apparently have the deciding voice on the voluntary euthanasia question.

So what did the contenders for that position have to say?

Well, Nanaia Manuta was in favour of reintroducing the bill  because it would show “that Labour would stand up for those difficult conversations that need to be had”.

I thought that was a pretty principled position to take.

David Parker, who voted against legalising voluntary euthanasia in 2003, didn’t want to comment till he’d talked to Lees-Galloway.

Non-committal and therefore less satisfactory perhaps.

Grant Robertson and Andrew Little both support voluntary euthanasia, but neither considered it a priority at the moment. The fairly clear subtext of their replies was that it was a vote-loser and that a party that had polled 25% in September couldn’t afford to be seen supporting unpopular policies.

I’d call that unprincipled.    

But then the unprincipled route to power is the route the Labour Party is currently taking. It believes that it’s not enough for a policy to be a good policy and the right thing to do, if it isn’t also a vote-winning policy, a popular policy. Leadership aspirants are on the record as saying, “No point in introducing good policies that are going to lose you the election.”

*Legalising voluntary euthanasia under strict legal conditions is a good policy but not a vote-winner, so we’ll forget that in the meantime. (Though “the meantime” is a very long time indeed for those whose lives have become intolerable to them!)

*Gradually increasing the age at which we’re entitled to receive superannuation is a also very good and sensible policy but apparently also a vote-loser. So out with that “in the meantime”.

*And ditto a capital gains tax “in the meantime”.

These good policies, the candidates told us, had “scared the voters off”.

There are precedents galore for this sort of thinking of course, for the abandonment of principle, of forward-thinking, enlightened or socially responsible policies and platforms because they’re unlikely to win or more likely to lose your party votes. Leadership gives way to “followship”.

It’s a depressing view not only of our politicians but also of us, the voters. Are we really so selfish, so venal, so incapable of persuasion that the towel has to be thrown in before the contestants are even in the ring? Have we no admiration for those who stand up for their principles against the seeming odds?

I say “seeming” odds, because the odds can never be totally accurately predicted. But, with the exception of Nanaia Mahuta, these prospective Labour Leaders are betting on the electorate not being motivated by anything other than unprincipled self-interest. That’s pretty bloody offensive really and were I a member of the Labour Party, which I’m not, I wouldn’t vote for anyone who thought so little of me.

Judy and I worked for Helen Clark from June 1996 to November 2008. She made mistakes of course but she was willing to espouse unpopular policies when she thought it was the right thing to do. In the process she took a lot of flak, but the sky didn’t fall in. She still got 3 terms. She wasn’t always loved, but she was greatly admired and respected.

With the exception of Nanaia Mahuta I’m not finding much to admire or respect in this lot. Their core philosophy appears to have everything to do with giving the punters what (they think) they want, and tossing out anything that doesn’t satisfy that principle.

Which is a great pity. Because I happen to think that the Key honeymoon is all but over, that our Prime Minister has confirmed with his own words what many of us have thought for years, that he is a charming dissembler, not wholly upfront, not entirely honest.

So now might be just the time for all good men…

Oh forget it!

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  1. An excellent post.

    I think its an IQ thing Brian. I am increasingly disillusioned by people’s seeming inability,or unwillingness to be objective,because it may be perceived as ” unpopular”. The intelligent discussion is almost always discarded in favour of the “popular”.The problem is not limited to Labour,though personified BEST by their venality.

    • Indeed. I hadn’t intended to suggest that National was any better. It may simply be that as a sometime supporter of the Labour Party my disillusion is greater.

    • I’m with you on politicians’ tendency towards venality; I’m not when you suggest it’s exemplified best by Labour. I think instead that we are more inclined to expect it from National, and therefore excuse it; whereas Labour will always be expected to uphold social justice principles to a much greater degree. It’s their cross to bear.

      I’d be pleased to see Labour pick up this bill again – having those difficult conversations, and moving public opinion as a result of greater understanding of the issues, can lead us to previously unheard-of areas: abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, public health and education provisions; gay rights…

      If we shrink away from the tough stuff, nothing will change.

      • I really don’t disagree with any of this excellent comment.

        • I’m reminded of what I know of Norman Kirk and his disagreement with the more socially-progressive factions of the Labour Party at the time – including perhaps their Miramar candidate in 1972 (on law and order at any rate).

          At the time opposition to the Vietnam War, sporting contacts with South Africa, nuclear disarmament, abortion reform etc. were the pressing issues for many in the Party, but still extremely divisive in the electorate. Kirk felt Labour’s Conference bombed whatever chance it had of winning in 1966 (and maybe) 1969 by making Vietnam a primary issue.

          It wasn’t that Kirk wasn’t prepared to deal with the issues – if they had won, our troops would have been removed promptly and with minimum fuss anyway. When he achieved office Kirk sent a frigate to Mururoa and began distancing us from the US in foreign policy.

          Also, he stopped the 1973 Springbok tour and actually broke an election promise in doing so. Michael Bassett wrote that many in the party suspected Kirk of being a back-slider before that decision was made (and it may have played a big part in National’s subsequent 1975 victory). However, when Bassett and other Labour backbenchers got the chance to discuss the matter in person, they were left with little doubt that Kirk was the most determined and radical in the caucus went in came to racial equality.

          Plus Kirk understood that the gravitas of incumbency of office is a useful tool in effecting controversial change…as long as you do it right. Which means not succumbing to single issue pressure groups, but building a consensus where possible.

          However, Kirk’s instincts were always, probably rightly, that core Labour policies such as caring for the weak by concentrating on inflation, targeted assistance, regional economic development and jobs were not only more pressing, but would also achieve much more electoral resonance.

          • A slight difference in the present case is that the two main policies we’re discussing were already Labour Party policies and core Labour Party policies at that. It’s pretty embarrassing now to have prospective party leaders saying, “Whoops. Got that wrong. Let’s forget those core policies because we think nobody liked them and that’s why we lost the election. Let’s just pretend they never existed.”

            Judy adds that those were also the days of FPP when things were entirely different.Political allegiance, for one thing, was considerably more tribal.

            My own view is that this is not why they lost the election but because of the shambles of repetitive leadership changes, the chaos of the process which they’ve now just finished repeating and the eventual appointment of a leader whom many people neither liked nor trusted.

            Those matters seem to me to have considerable relevance to Labour’s defeat.

            • Fair enough.

              The resounding defeat by Phil Goff in 2011, before the “the shambles of repetitive leadership changes, the chaos of the process which they’ve now just finished repeating and the eventual appointment of a leader whom many people neither liked nor trusted” would suggest have not identified Labour’s core problem since 2008, although I’ll certainly acknowledge the catalogue you have listed did not help. However, all those events contributed to Labour’s core problem – a perceived lack of competence.

              Once Street’s bill was on the schedule they should probably have followed through, regardless for that very reason – they looked tricky and incompetent. I’m not sure Louisa Wall’s controversial Marriage Equality Bill in the same term especially harmed Labour, so why would euthanasia reform?

              I also defer to the expert judgement of Judy regarding the tribalism of the early 1970s, but I’d suggest it is overstating the case to say things “were entirely different” under FPP. Voters are still voters, both then and now.

  2. i share your sense of despair about Labour, Brian…they still seem to think that the NZ public are stupid and that if they run some sort of Labour Idol competition and everyone looks ” young and oh so chirpy” , we’ll all go ” how cool,i’ll vote for that!….it’s like trying to put lipstick on a pig and it’s going nowhere.
    today we have Jacinda Adern doing the old ” act shocked, whup up a frenzy” gotcha politics by tweeting how disgraceful John Key was when he was caught off the cuff in Beijing and made a slightly silly comment about the absconding lifer !
    More PC nonsense from a dying party!
    They just really don’t get it as they fade away….even though the right people are there in the wings who could do a creditable job of taking it a slightly jaded Johnny Key…think i saw some cloth caps being auctioned on Trade Me ?

  3. Your euthanasia obsession is worrying, Brian. Labour I could understand if they were considering it. The current leadership candidates don’t pass muster. Jump a generation. Labour, and go with Nash. Smart, clean with little baggage. What’s there to lose.

    • I’m interested to discover that I have a “euthanasia obsession” Rick. I thought I’d merely expresses a viewpoint. Compelling others to suffer in order to satisfy one’s own prejudices seems to me to be at least worthy of comment.

  4. I agree .I was astounded to hear this mornings capitol gains excuses .This shows little ethical value by the proposed leadership.A good leader would continue with the party’s policy and find a suitable way to sell it to the public.Its called spin and aren’t they meant to be good at it? .The loss of the election was possibly ,more down to the people who didn’t vote rather than an obvious failure of the party itself.Engaging those non voters should be a priority and the four policies you mentioned hopefully will resonate with some of them.I thought the greens waged an admirable election campaign ,but they too didn’t fare well.John Key is getting away with too much and rolling back the destruction they wage isn’t going to be easy.Perhaps Little ,Parker, and co should join Peter Dunn ,if its populist thinking rather than principled thinking they aspire to.

    • I agree with much of what you say. But not your comment about ‘spin’. Judy and I are occasionally referred to as ‘spin doctors’ which we strongly object to. The word implies dishonest manipulation of the facts, the very opposite of the principles under which we run our business.

  5. I think Labour could sneak in with a CGT, as long as it’s not on the family home and legalising voluntary euthanasia, but not raising the Super age. Too many oldies will vote against it.
    The electorate will tire of Key and four terms should be a bridge too far. But to capitalise on this situation Labour need a good leader and a sound team behind them. I can’t see it happening this term. And the Nats aren’t too caught up on ideology. They’ll play a pragmatic game, maintain discipline, look competent and keep the treasury benches until 2020.

    • Well, it seems to me that the 2017 election is now a Labour/Green coalition’s to lose. And if they continue to abandon the principles they declared in 2014, Labour will lose. A good policy is either a good policy or it isn’t. It does not cease to be a good policy when it meets with popular opposition.

      Meanwhile Key’s attempt to distinguish between when he is speaking as the tPM and when he isn’t ought to be fatal and he looks increasingly uncomfortable and unconvincing. The Greens meanwhile are the only party demonstrating a shred of political principle.

      • I’d agree with you that principled policies are the best. I’d have liked National to have left Peter Dunn’s Legal Highs act in force for longer to see if could make a real difference to our drug issues. However National dumped it at the first sign of trouble and they were rewarded for their pragmatism with another three years. Competent and politically down-to-earth works for them. I can see why Roberston and Little might want to give it ago as well. A pity though.

  6. Oh, for goodness sake, Brian. This topic is not Labour policy – its a private members bill. And there is nothing unprincipled about MPs not wanting to have it distracting from Labour’s core work over the next three years as it would be likely to do. There would be Labour trying to rebuild its vote with sensible policies, getting out to people and talking about them, and there would be the media highlighting a private euthanasia bill all the time and distracting from Labour’s real mission. If people want the euthanasia bill to go ahead why don’t they try using someone like Peter Dunne or the new ACT MP, or even one of the National’s MPs – maybe it would raise the profile of one of those MPs none of us have heard about.

    • I’m sorry Jenny but to me this is little more than sophistry. Your argument is: We ought to legislate for voluntary euthanasia in order not to criminalise people whose lives have become intolerable to them, or those who seek to help them to end their lives. But that won’t be popular with a lot of people and might lose us votes. So let’s either not do it or get someone else to do it. (Or was that bit ironic?) I say this is an unprincipled and defeatist position which is exemplified in a number of other areas where Labour is saying: This is really good policy, but we’ll never be able to persuade people of that, so let’s put it on the back burner. History suggests that back burner policies rarely get to the front burners. At least not without highly principled and courageous people to fight for them. This is ‘too hard basket’ politics and does Labour no credit.

  7. These days, most parties seem to be “centre-something”, using polls and focus groups to find out which policies will gain them votes. There is no attempt to persuade voters of the merits of their own policies. It’s power at all costs and the cost is eventually to the voter.
    One of the exceptions is the Green Party which has stuck to its principles despite the urgings of right-wing commentators. The “green-on-the-outside-and-red-on-the-inside” and “North Korea” campaigns against them show that their opponents are worried that some day the voice crying in the wilderness will have its day. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor.)

    • Yes, you should be worried too. If Green uneconomic policies ever have their day a lot of people will die in consequence. They are obviously dead serious about reducing over population.

      • 7.1.1

        “a lot of people will die in consequence” Another vague and ominous threat to add to the “green-on-the-outside-and-red-on-the-inside” and “North Korea” calumnies.
        Yep! They’ve definitely got you worried that you’ll no longer be able to look down upon and despise the poor because they won’t be poor any more. You’ll have to find another way to feel superior.
        But find it quickly because if short-sighted, greedy policies continue, climate change will reduce overpopulation and then some.

  8. “… It believes that it’s not enough for a policy to be a good policy and the right thing to do, if it isn’t also a vote-winning policy, a popular policy…”

    There is a name for that… it is on the tip of my tongue… Oh yes! Democracy.

    The whole point of democracy is the belief that if it is the right thing to do,you can convince the public of that. If it isn’t a vote winner in opposition, then don’t flog a dead horse and simply make the governments advantages of incumbency even more pronounced. Run with something that is popular, and resurrect the other stuff when you’ve got your feet under the desks on the ninth floor and a bit of political capital to spend under the umbrella of general right to govern.

    I agree with Andrew Little. I times as tough as these for Labour, the nice to haves have to take a back seat to the absolutely vital.

    • “Run with something that is popular, and resurrect the other stuff when you’ve got your feet under the desks on the ninth floor and a bit of political capital to spend under the umbrella of general right to govern.”

      I call that dishonesty not democracy. In 1984 I wrote David Lange’s first television election address. It was traditional Labour Party stuff about fairness and equity and the strong supporting the weak. I didn’t know then and neither, I believe, did Lange, that there was a different agenda, the Douglas agenda which would eventually tear the Labour Party apart. So I’m not in favour of public and private agendas, as you seem to be: “Let’s get our feet under the table and then do what we really intended all along”.

      I hope I’m not misrepresenting you, but I don’t like the smell of that idea.

      • you campaign on some things and others you you just let it be known what direction you generally favour. I strongly believe it is time for Labour to get back to it’s knitting and to start focussing on the issues that affect the people who actually vote for the party. And that means talking about child poverty, wages, jobs, housing and the economy. Allowing aging baby-boomers and other middle class liberals arguing over euthanasia to dominate your media presence is a distraction right now. Win an election on a mandate to do something substantive about child poverty so tomorrow is better taken care of, deliver on that, then you’ve got the luxury of worrying about how the oldies get to shuffle off this mortal coil.

  9. I agree with Andrew Little that legalising euthanasia is not priority.

    People have plenty of choices available to them. There are conventional and alternative treatment options. (How many people actually get a second opinion from a natural health practitioner? Most think surgery, radiation and chemo is all there is when it comes to cancer.) They can commit suicide if life’s too much. They can order some euthanasia pills from overseas as some people profiled in recent articles have already done. They can follow Sean Davison’s example. He only got a few months’ home detention. What’s that?!

    The current law works well: The law sets a black-and-white standard, prohibiting assisted suicide in principle, but the court is lenient in deserving cases.

    • I’ve got to say I find this comment almost frightening in its lack of empathy. “People have plenty of choices available to them… How many people actually get a second opinion from a natural health practitioner… They can commit suicide if life’s too much… The current law works well… The law sets a black and white standard, prohibiting assisted suicide in principle, but the court is lenient in deserving cases.”

      Would this be your advice to someone in the dying throes of a crippling terminal illness? “Hey, here are all these options. Take your pick.” Or, “Have you consulted a natural health practitioner?” Or, “You realise that you can commit suicide if life’s too much.” Or, “Find someone to help you die. And don’t worry, the court can be lenient in deserving cases.” Deserving cases!

      My god, I’d obviously got it so totally wrong. Voluntary euthanasia is clearly a breeze in New Zealand. Ask any terminal patient!

      This wasn’t meant to be the primary topic of my post. But I’ve learnt a lot from you, Renee. And none of it reassuring.

      • Just as, no doubt Brian, others learn a lot about your apparent naivete when you write, “The laws that govern these decisions and procedures will of necessity be complex and they must be watertight. But they are not beyond our ability to design and implement. Other countries have done so.”.

        Especially if they reflect on the protections the 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Bill was promised to deliver…and what has been the reality.

        But as you say, this discussion was not about the complex issue of euthanasia as such…


          The CSA Act was always double-speak to satisfy two irreconcilable views. It pretended to be one thing while actually being the opposite. You are probably correct that a political Euthanasia law would wind up being a similar form of hypocrisy.

      • Brian, you are making a lot of assumptions about me and about my views.

        I’ve been at the death bed of a friend and know first hand what it’s like to watch someone wither away. Very painful.

        I care about people’s suffering and yes, after sympathising with them, I do ask them whether they have received a second opinion about their diagnosis and prognosis. Too often people are not told about all the treatment options and care options available to them. Many suffer due to ignorance. I also encourage people to do their own research about the diagnosis they have received. This is not a lack of empathy, but a desire to empower people to take control of their health.

        The point of my previous post was this: It’s a common misconception that there are only two alternatives available: Legalise euthanasia or suffer in agony. Not so. There are other options available to people that don’t involve changing the law. It’s not necessary to change criminal law – making it legal for people to intentionally kill others – if other options exist that could end people’s suffering.

        • Thank you for clarifying your position, which is considerably more reasonable than your original comment seemed to suggest. I based my assumptions about you purely on that.

    • The current law provides for sufferers to starve slowly to death while drugged insensible. Having watched this happen to my wife I can tell you it is the saddest thing I have ever witnessed. There is no comfort in seeing your lifelong love reduced to a Somali famine victim.

      • This admirably encapsulates all that is awful about the current law and its consequences. I dread the thought of being either party in such a situation.

  10. Should parliament make laws like this or should it simply go to a referendum and take party politics out of it? Same goes for our drug laws.

  11. There is some hope Brian. On their “20 questions” session on yesterday’s Morning Report, all four leadership candidates said, without equivocation, that they favoured decriminalisation of abortion. That’s an issue that generations of politicians have been too gutless to confront and it’s given me a glimmer of hope that the long-overdue reforms might finally come about. So far only the Greens have fronted up on the issue, although young Labour have been agitating on it for a while. It’s a polarising issue but it needs dealing with.

  12. I am a supporter of voluntary euthanesia, but I can see why the potential Labour leaders would would prefer not to have that particular debate at present.

    The party needs to turn around a major decline in support and get the caucus and party working together. That has to be the priority with a vote of 25%, and I would be surprised if Helen Clark did not agree.

    She was a very pragmatic leader, and I don’t remember her being quite as brave as you do. The benefits cuts of the 1990s were a major factor in the increase of child poverty, but these were not reversed under the fifth Labour Government.

    Have a look at Andrew Little answers to the Standard’s questions. No waffle, and a more sympathetic attitude to beneficiaries than I have seen from a politician for some time. I find that very refreshing.

  13. Yes good post Edwards, this is you at your best. A person with ongoing suffering for self and family should have the right. Although some may not concur, merciful death is currently available. But the problem is you have to be mentally able to organise it.
    I have a written instruction to my daughter and others , you do not spend money on me if I am in pain or I am a hopeless drain on the system, not relieved, not recoverable.
    I also agree with your policy of fronting with name
    Paul Scott

  14. Yes, your article on self determination traveled all over the blog sphere Brian Edwards. Often the problem is the person has lost the capacity of self will, and nobody can do anything .
    I have a written instruction that if I am incompetent to live properly I should be relieved.
    I also tell my friends. It may seem macabre to prepare in this way; but once you have seen an old gurgling person, or the violence of an irretrievable cancer you will be left with no doubt.

  15. Grant Robertson, who also supported legalisation, said he had advised Mr Lees-Galloway to establish a cross-party group in support of euthanasia to “take the issue forward”.

    “From a party point of view we’ve got a lot of other priority issues to sort out,” Mr Robertson said.

    Quote from NZ Herald article 11 November 2014

    I think that Mr Robertson is making a sensible suggestion here, as you wouldn’t want the bill to be defeated at the first hurdle.

    Jane Bloore