Burying the hatchet – ‘Yes, we can!’
It wasn’t imagination. The lanky shadow of Barack Obama seemed to stretch across the troubled world.
His moving and significant winning words calling for unity of purpose and policy echoed here too in the dying minutes of a Labour government and an historic prime minister’s surprise decision to move on. Particularly in the goodwill highlighted by John Key’s public tributes to Helen Clark’s career.
What we need now, also from the United States, is our own version of “The Joe Biden outcome”.
It was tucked away in the hectares of type and torrents of words and film which led up to the Obama victory.
Apparently, in vicepresident Joe’s hometown of Georgetown, Delaware, all the previously bitter rivals celebrate what they call “Return Day” after the counting is over.
They forget the recent past, the highs, the lows and ride down the main street together in a cavalcade, winners and losers, to show that the divisiveness of the campaign need not – hopefully will not – continue. They even bury a symbolic hatchet. Let’s follow suit. In a new age of new leaders, developing balances of power and policy, let’s put the bitterness baby and mindless niggling out with the electoral bathwater.
As president-to-be Obama did: “Senator McCain fought long and hard in this campaign. And he’s fought even harder and longer for the country that he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine. We are all better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader.”
John McCain, obviously disappointed but not bitterly so, paid his matching tribute to Barack Obama: “He has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country ... by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I greatly admire and commend him for achieving.”
In so strongly hailing an opponent’s greatness, John McCain revealed his own.
Norman Kirk set a striking Labour precedent in a different way and in different circumstances in the opening days of his government in 1972. First, he memorably gave his caucus and the civil service their precise riding orders: “Treasury can look after the books – we will look after the people.”
It had its own precedent in the Savage-Fraser-Nash pledge from the 1930s of service to the people “from the cradle to the grave”. And he went further. He counselled his MPs against the understandable temptation to kick Robert Muldoon – their scourge, the man Labour had campaigned against for so long as a political enemy.
Norman Kirk made it clear his MPs must deal with issues as serious as those we face today – that there were much more important things to do than hanging and burning effigies, blaming and obstructing.
Later, on September 3, 1974, when Parliament paid tribute to Kirk, the dead political warrior, Muldoon, the epitome of the political street-fighter, the destroyer of careers, an adversary apparently without mercy, repaid in kind.
From the Hansard report of his speech on that sad day: “There is no one in this house, on either side, who would not give credit for the Labour victory in 1972 to Norman Kirk ... he stumped the country ... carried the election victory on his back ... as one of his chief opponents I could only have admiration for the tremendous energy of the man in the cause which he held so dear.
“He will be remembered as a great New Zealander, an ordinary man with no airs and graces, who in the New Zealand tradition wanted none of the trappings of office but just the opportunity to serve his people ... a great parliamentarian.”
Of course, it’s sometimes much easier to praise the dead rather than the living.
But let’s remember the spirit which Norman Kirk evoked from even his sternest political critic and rival, and the response to victory and defeat in the United States only days ago, the exchange of tributes and good wishes on our election night.
These are the political signposts pointing to a genuine and constructive way back from the flashes of ugliness which have marred our recent political life.
It’s more than time to put aside the deliberately damaging mud-slinging, the grandstanding, innuendo and the snide half-truths which have been the past weapons in defence of power or in the seeking of it.
Let’s avoid falling back into those damaging tactics as new leaders put their stakes in the political ground.
In these times, we too must set new boundaries and demand the best from them.
Each in different ways and with strikingly different outcomes asked for our trust. Each of us, for our different reasons and in our different ways, gave them that trust and took them at their word.
It’s now up to them to show us that they can be trusted to abandon petty feuds and malicious reflexes, points-scoring and conspiracies.
There is real need for them to begin a new era of public service, to meet the needs of the needy and give hope to the hopeless, to “look after the people” rather than to prime their own ambitions.
Like others in the world community, we have seldom been in greater need of wisdom, tolerance and respect for the skills of those who do not share the same views.
Yes, we need what John Key defined in his winner’s speech as unity of purpose. So, let’s bury the past and now pool our talents to work jointly and urgently in the common good.
So that when we ask them individually, in their separate parties and as a Parliament: “Can you honour the trust we have placed in you?” they can draw on the words and spirit of that Obama catchphrase which swept a nation and has deservedly echoed around the world and the hearts and minds of so many millions: “Yes, we can!”
If that’s the genuine answer – as we hope it is – then everyone can be a winner.
“Yes, we can!”
To contact Pat Booth email: offpat@snl. co.nz. All replies are open for publication unless marked.