Winston Peters still bringing the house down

ANTHONY HUBBARD
Last updated 11:29 04/03/2012
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WINSTON PETERS: Always looks on the bright side.

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Winston is back doing what he does best, getting chucked out of the House. His 32nd expulsion was splendidly done. Why did it work so well? It was partly his smoker's growl, the darkest sound in parliament. It was partly his murderous nonchalance. And it was partly the sheer gloating glee of the thing.

Peters leans on his parliamentary bench, looking down as though musing, and remarks that he is owed an apology from that "illiterate woodwork teacher" Gerry Brownlee. He lifts his head up just at the punchline, and drops into his seat. The TV clip suggests his tongue is making a bulge in his cheek as he dives.

Parliament laughs, and for a few minutes the world is a happier place. Speaker Lockwood Smith tightens his face and says Peters "can't use points of order to abuse another member. He will now leave the House". Peters stalks out, trying not to whistle.

Welcome back, WP.

Yes, Winston's expulsion was as predictable as chills in autumn - the only question was when exactly it would happen. Pundit David Farrar bet it would be before Easter, and won $180. And yes, it was contrived. Peters has been goading the Speaker since the term began, increasing the tension bit by bit.

But we need the laughter. Humour is a rare thing in our politics, and it's getting rarer. Peters himself had lost all his joy by 2008, when the voters rejected him. Last week's bout suggests he's found some of it again.

Voters will forgive a politician nearly anything if he or she makes them laugh. This means some politicians get away with murder.

John Key doesn't really make us laugh. His cannibal joke - "The good news is that I was having dinner with Ngati Porou, as opposed to their neighbouring iwi which is Tuhoe, in which case I'd have been dinner" - tanked. His sudden bout of mincing on the catwalk while modelling Rugby World Cup fashion gear was strange and entertaining, but somehow pointless. He once jumped into a swimming pool in a business suit to surprise a mate of his son's, which would have been funny.

Helen Clark was never funny, and nor was Phil Goff, although Clark was a rumbustious gossip in private. David Shearer doesn't seem witty either. And yet humour is deadly in politics, and can end a rival's career.

I was astounded when interviewing former PM Bill Rowling in the 1990s to find that he was still bitter about the lethal ridicule he had suffered at the hands of tycoon Bob Jones 20 years earlier. It wasn't National's Robert Muldoon who had defeated him, he said, although Muldoon had beaten him in the 1975 election. No, it was Bob Jones and his jibes about "Wallace Rowling, the white mouse".

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Muldoon himself had a brutal wit, although his best lines were stolen. He is celebrated for his quip about the Kiwi brain-drain to Australia "raising the average IQ in both countries", but this was an ancient sally that he adapted for local use. He goaded Bill Rowling for the "chill rushing through his body looking for a spine to run down". But this too was borrowed.

David Lange was a genuinely witty politician, and his wit helped bring down Muldoon. Lange turned him into a laughing-stock, suddenly expelling the dark cloud that the little fellow had spread over New Zealand politics. "After a very long year we've got a very short knight," he said after Muldoon awarded himself a knighthood in 1984.

Bob Jones, who had by now turned against his old pal Muldoon, turned his deadly wit against him as well.

Some of Lange's lines became poignant and even sad with time. Asked when he first came to parliament in 1977 what he could offer the institution, he said, "Well, I'm a teetotaller."

Later, the Methodist turned into a problem drinker. He recalled the time when during a visit to India he went to an AA meeting. "Hello, my name is David and I'm an alcoholic," he told the others in the ritual fashion. "Hello, Mr Lange," said one of his fellow alcoholics, who recognised the statesman.

Even Lange was not above stealing a line. His famous riposte to a nuclear opponent at the Oxford Union debate - "hold your breath just for a moment . . . I can smell the uranium on it as you lean towards me" - was not as spontaneous as it seemed. His chief mandarin, Gerald Hensley, says he had shown him an Australian cartoon which used the line.

Humour can be lethally disarming in politics. Your opponent has to grin and bear the insult or risk looking humourless and a bad sport. The only way to meet it is to have an equally witty reply, but most politicians don't.

Ronald Reagan used humour as a weapon while carrying out his right-wing revolution in the United States. He played "Dutch", the likeable guy, not too bright, but friendly.

Democrats mocked his stupidity, but he wasn't as stupid as he looked. He could turn aside criticism with his dopey charm. Taxed about some presidential screw-up or other, he grinned and said, "Gee, I guess we goofed."

President George W Bush was constantly mocked for his strangled English - "it's hard to put food on your family", etc etc - but he too turned it back on the critics. He played the ordinary guy, and used Al Gore's know-all intelligence against him.

Republicans liked Bush as someone they could enjoy a barbecue with, not like that smarty-pants Gore.

It was only when Bush's policies got beyond a joke that the voters turned against him.

Key has something of this. He too plays the ordinary guy, and his occasional gormlessness fits the part. We think he's one of us - although this is changing as his policies grow harder and darker in his second term.

The Hard Right in New Zealand, on the other hand, has been noticeably humourless.

Roger Douglas had a croaky voice and a tetchy manner, and came across as a mix of mad scientist and smug prat. Luckily he had Lange to keep the world amused while he re-engineered the New Zealand economy - until Lange lost his nerve and called a tea-break.

Ruth Richardson, who wanted to complete the Rogernomics revolution, tried to crack jokes. In preaching the need for a revolution in the welfare state, she would refer to "able-bodied sickness beneficiaries" burglarising houses. But this wasn't really funny, just sort of nasty.

Perhaps it's just as well that political crusaders usually lack a sense of humour.

Think how much damage they would do if they could also make us laugh.

SUNDAY STAR TIMES

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