Loyal service

Public service is all too frequently derided and devalued in this age of easy individualism.

At least this is the impression one might arrive at given the pall cast over it by this country's congenital allergy to politicians - an allergy itched raw by certain branches of the media.

The retirement from Parliament of two of Dunedin's long-serving parliamentarians offers an opportunity to reconsider this mean-spirited and ill-considered tendency.

In their own ways, Dunedin National Party list MP Katherine Rich and Dunedin South Labour MP David Benson-Pope deserve recognition for their years of service.

It was perhaps typical that Mrs Rich should receive an email shortly before departing Parliament purveying a sentiment pervasive among the talk-back demagogues and their many like-minded kin.

New Zealanders seem to have a special instinct for pillorying politicians and take particular pride in knocking those elected to office - raising them up and then pulling them down, as if they and their types were endlessly expendable.

Good riddance, the man in question wrote.

You've said nothing, done nothing and stood for nothing.

He later retracted his words, but the knee-jerk comment was not only wrong, it also illustrated how close to the surface of our cultural psyche is that unfortunate combination of tall poppyism and anti-establishment larrikinism.

Delivering her farewell speech on Wednesday, Mrs Rich said she was leaving in order to have more time with her family.

On the announcement of her intentions some months back, many observers were puzzled.

Mrs Rich has spent nine tough years in opposition.

Why bow out now when the baubles of office are in greater prospect than they have been for a decade? There is however a marked difference between the workload of even the most conscientious opposition spokesperson and running a portfolio or two in government.

Mrs Rich's seniority and talent were such that it was widely assumed that, should the National Party come to power next month, she would have been a senior minister and member of the Cabinet, and a commuting one at that.

She has demonstrably not been shy of hard work during her time in Wellington, but she has evidently weighed up the conflicts of absentee motherhood and the effects of high office on family life, and made a choice - all the braver for its foregone opportunities, and one deserving of respect.

If there were other reasons for her departure - a disconnect between her own views and those of the majority of the National caucus? - then Mrs Rich loyally kept her counsel.

In her valedictory speech, she pointed to the importance of the individual conscience in our parliamentarians.

If there is a legacy and an example that she leaves behind - in addition to being a well-informed and robust opposition spokesperson - then it was her independence of mind in the face of considerable pressure: her stand in favour of the anti-smacking Bill is one such example of her steadfast individuality.

Mrs Rich paid tribute to members of the media with whom she seemed to enjoy a constructive relationship, an equilibrium much harder to achieve in Government.

Mr Benson-Pope certainly discovered that and made no attempt to hide his distaste in his speech on Thursday: "I consider it a tragedy that too many journalists have become players not reporters . . . Once-watch-dogs have appointed themselves attack dogs and some are about as endearing and useful as the nastiest pit bull".

Similarly, Marion Hobbs revealed the chilling effect on her desire or ability to communicate through the media, such was the propensity for misconstrued and damaging reporting she felt she experienced as Minister of Broadcasting.

The extent to which Mr Benson-Pope was the author of his own misfortunes - over the tennis ball and Madeleine Setchell affairs - is debatable.

To be fair, he was never found guilty of any misconduct other than providing contradictory and conflicting recollections of events, some decades old.

Against that, he leaves Parliament with a record as a highly effective, if sometimes abrasive, minister in Helen Clark's governments, particularly in shepherding through the House social legislation.

He leaves probably more scarred than most but there was restraint and dignity in his sign-off.

Loyalty is a two-way street, he might have felt entitled to say to his own party.

But he kept mum on this.

He gave no indication of whether there is anything in the speculation that he could still yet put his hat in the ring for Dunedin South as an independent candidate.

It is time he did so.

Failing that, and if for some inexplicable reason he is not yet tired of public life, there are some who believe he will have a tilt at Dunedin's mayoralty in the next local body elections.

Many of those same people also wonder if he could find himself opposed by another member of Parliament's 2008 Dunedin alumni - Katherine Rich.


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