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That their sniping, gloating and pillorying is wearing thin is demonstrated by the Labour Party’s frankly revolutionary decision to fight an election with "kindness".
Politics has always been hard and fragility has always been targeted and weakness exploited. Under-performing members of Parliament — especially when they are ministers — are mana from heaven for those who would oppose them; they are weak links to be poked and prodded until the link is broken and their party is forced to shift them from harm’s way.
Decades ago, most of the big hits and big scalps were claimed in the debating chamber, where clever orators armed with facts and uncomfortable questions slowly-but-surely dissected their opponents until their position and policies became untenable. This was all part of the great game, its measured and structured brutality designed to hold MPs to account and to force them to perform to the best of their ability.
Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, released ahead of the 2014 election, was the first of the modern expositions of some of the grubbiest elements of party politics. The tale of hit jobs and public shaming was greeted as a partisan hatchet job, and had little measurable impact on the election. As one of the main protagonists, Cameron Slater, said: "New Zealanders did not seem to care."
Public reaction was muted, too, when an external independent review last year exposed instances of alleged bullying and harassment of parliamentary staffers. The review found unacceptable behaviour was often tolerated or normalised, and there was a perception MPs faced few sanctions for harmful behaviour
Parliament was described as brutal and toxic. Party leaders were told to take more responsibility for their MPs and a code of conduct was recommended. Save promises to promote a healthier workplace, politics seemed to continue as it did beforehand.
Politicians have turned whistleblowers, too, detailing how the line between robust debate and critical examination has become blurred or ignored altogether in the rough-and-tumble of daily points-scoring, competing egos and even barely concealed personal animus. A succession of women MPs have described the casual sexism some MPs use to undermine them in their job and in the House. They have been called hysterical, told to settle down and to stick to their knitting. The Prime Minister has been called a "stupid little girl".
This column has written of this gendered, condescending and disparaging treatment before, but it tends to slip into the distance when compared to the overt nastiness of some of the adults occupying some of the most important public positions in the country.
Outgoing Dunedin South MP Clare Curran last week described the toxicity and bullying she says marked her years in Parliament. Among the humiliations was a photo from the National Party's Mainland Region conference in 2012, in which fellow Dunedin-based MP Michael Woodhouse posed with a blue toilet seat with her face emblazoned on it. The seat was reportedly used as a trophy for a debating competition. Ms Curran told The Spinoff it was sick and humiliating.
The photo was about eight years old, just old enough for Mr Woodhouse to tell media it was not the burning issue of the day. This is true, but a political culture that seems to set cheap shots above decency, is.
There is no question the public good would be poorly served if robust debate and incisive examination were watered down in favour of understanding and "kindness". Voters want their politicians, their policies and their actions exposed to hard questions and relentless scrutiny; valid criticism changes policies.
Politics is not, and never has been, nice. But that "kindness" can become an election strategy tells us how much needs to change.