Saturday, March 25, 2006

John Roughan: Humanity the loser in Shakespearean tragedy

Watching a promising new Cabinet minister skewered on the spit of public life this week was to witness a Shakespearean tragedy come true. Fate was cruel, honour on all sides elusive, the penalty excessive, humanity the loser.

I don't know David Parker but he didn't look like a villain to me, not even when he couldn't give a straight answer to John Campbell on TV3. Parker looked and sounded like an earnest young lawyer-businessman who entered politics with the best of intentions.

I would guess he does everything with good intentions, including answering a routine question on a Companies Office return in a way that was not strictly true.

His partner in a small collapsed company had not been consulted about dispensing with an audit, a decision that had to be made by shareholders unanimously. Parker said he wrongly "ticked a box". Campbell pointed out that it was not quite as passive as that. A date had been entered.

Well, okay, he stood there blinking in the headlights. If he is as clever as they say, he seemed modest about it, and dazed no doubt at his rapid rise and fall.

It wasn't very long ago that he was a novice candidate standing for Labour in a safe National seat. To his surprise, probably, he won it. Last year the seat went back to National but he was safe on Labour's list, its rising star.

I don't know Ian Wishart either, but he doesn't strike me as a hero. Perhaps he should. Journalism holds no practitioner in higher regard than the dispassionate investigator.

And not many are truly dispassionate. The journalist investigator has no authority to compel co-operation. He relies mainly on the word of someone with an axe to grind. Too often he is disinclined to examine the motives of the hand that feeds him.

It is always safer to go after someone who seems guilty to begin with. Watergate, the crime that started the cult of investigative journalism, was the classic in that respect. Richard Nixon and some of his leading acolytes looked and sounded like crooks even before reporters got on their tail.

Wishart at least cannot be accused of picking a likely target. His hatchet job on David Parker would have required a suspension of human sympathy that must be as difficult as it is unpleasant. I hope the job carries plenty of professional satisfaction because it cannot give anyone much joy.

I do know Rodney Hide, who also was said to be digging around in Parker's business and no doubt preparing to give him a grilling of Benson-Pope proportions when Parliament resumed on Tuesday.

Hide is neither hero nor villain either. He is a politician prepared to do whatever it takes to keep himself and his small party in the game. He plays hard but he is not vicious. When he had Benson-Pope twitching on the ropes he gave him an escape route.

Hide would have tormented Parker for a day or two and Parker was prepared to face it. But Helen Clark was not.

Some time on Tuesday morning, as Parker was girding himself for battle, he was visited by her goons. He went down to the House stripped of all portfolios, denied the dignity of defending himself.

Helen has never been a hero in my book for this antiseptic approach to politics. It is the politics of political science, in which electoral safety is the sole measure of policy, leadership is pandering to public perceptions and no loyalty is owed to troopers who put a foot wrong.

It is a style of politics not merely inhuman to the ministers she casts aside for the slightest indiscretion but which deprives us all of a measure of justice, it seems to me.

Justice in politics is best decided not in courts but in the tension between people in power and people in Parliament and the press who hold them to account. That, at heart, will be the reason police are reluctant to prosecute political offences, especially by the Government.

People in power face far more effective punishment at the ballot box. But political justice requires both sides to defend their corner if we are to observe some reasonable standards of conduct and fair consequences.

Justice was done to my mind on Monday when Parker resigned from the lawyerly post of Attorney General. His less-than-scrupulous care with Companies Office requirements was, as Stephen Franks wrote in the Herald the next morning, the sort of thing "thousands of ordinary business people" have probably done.

But lawyers know they cannot do that, said Franks. "The profession is privileged to be the gatekeeper. Our certificates are taken as near conclusive proof of facts under scores of acts and regulations. The price is scrupulous care with the veracity of our certificates."

The Prime Minister could have left Parker in his other posts, energy and transport, where he had already produced the fruit of political innocence by releasing the Ministry of Transport's road charging proposals for dealing with traffic congestion.

But on Tuesday the Prime Minister succumbed to critics. She ought to realise that political commentary is congenitally incapable of a proportionate response. Any dishonesty is intolerable in print. In trying to keep a sense of perspective here I am in danger of excusing what he did.

Justice is not always found in verbal exchange; it can lose a case in logic but win it in the human heart. My guess is most people understood Parker's offence and sensed he had paid an excessive price, as his colleagues did when he took his seat on Tuesday to a standing ovation. Later in the week even Helen Clark raged at the injustice of it all. Wishart, she said, was "a creep".

"If you want to meet the Wishart test of public life you'd better be one of the Vestal Virgins."

Well said, but why didn't she say it on Tuesday? Wishart was doing his job, she should have done hers. She is raging at an injustice she was in a position to stand against, and didn't.

Like the leading characters in Shakespearean tragedies, she lacked the courage when it mattered.

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