Making sense of absurd theatre

The world, said Benjamin Disraeli, 'is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes'. Just as well, because the poor players currently strutting and fretting their hour upon New Zealand's political stage clearly learned their craft in the Theatre of the Absurd. Incoherent and disconnected posturing may now be de rigueur, but even the most sophisticated audience grows weary of a play without a plot.

If the players and the play are mere distractions, however, and Mr Disraeli's unseen personages, operating behind the scenes, do truly govern the world, then this theatrical, National-led Government's failure to develop either plot or character is of no real consequence.

In fact, to discover that there is nothing remotely resembling logic underpinning the Government's public statements comes as a huge relief. Some of us were developing the most acute headaches trying to reconcile Education Minister Hekia Parata's unwavering commitment to placing teachers of the highest possible quality, possessing all relevant qualifications, in every one of the nation's public classrooms, with her Associate Education Minister John Banks' advocacy of privately run 'Partnership Schools' staffed by unregistered teachers lacking even the rudiments of professional training.

Now that we know the Government's education policy is supposed to be absurd, incoherent and posturing, the pain grows less.

Behind the scenes, of course, the personages who really call the shots are gearing up for the incremental privatisation of New Zealand's education system. Their logic is impeccable. First: make it easy for middle-class people, with money, to identify the public schools that are failing, so they can send their children somewhere else. Second: set up 'Partnership Schools' next to these failing schools and fill them up with the best and brightest children from the surrounding neighbourhoods. Third: expand the network of 'Independent' schools to take advantage of middle-class parents' headlong flight from what they now regard as a fatally compromised public system.

Not only do the personages get to clip the ticket all the way down the line, from the humblest early- childhood education centre to the flashest secondary school, but they also achieve their much larger purpose. The egalitarian and meritocratic public education system, built up over more than a century by the parties of the Left, can now be replaced with the sort of privately run, socially exclusive and unashamedly elitist system New Zealand's deeply unequal society so obviously craves.

National Standards, league tables, partnership schools, public-private partnerships. It seemed to be nothing more than the politicians' sound and fury. Now it all makes perfect sense.

The Afghanistan war's sound and fury burst on to the stage last weekend in the most tragic fashion. And, once again, there was no sense to be made of the on-stage dialogue. The absurdity of the politicians was only matched by the opacity of the army's top brass.

In each of the nearly 10 years New Zealand troops have been stationed in Afghanistan we have been told that their only purpose was to help the Afghan people to help themselves. In Bamiyan province that involved Kiwis helping the local tribesmen to build schools and medical clinics. Our Provincial Reconstruction Team was lucky in its mission, we were told, because Bamiyan was one of the safest places in that unhappy country. Why then are our soldiers dying? If, by our presence, we were supposed to make the country safer, why has it become more dangerous?

Now our troops have become targets for Taleban forces supposedly reeling before the American 'surge'. Now our 'reconstruction team' is expected to confront an enemy capable of fighting highly-trained Kiwi infantry to a standstill. What purpose is served by remaining?

The prime minister and his defence minister speak confidently about 'restoring stability' to a country that grows more unstable by the day. But, like that other tragic military theatre of the absurd, the Western Front, no politician's answer makes the slightest sense. Back then, the Diggers sang: 'We're here because we're here, because we're here, because we're here.' The explanation for New Zealand's presence in Afghanistan seems to boil down to: 'We're there because we're there, because we're there, because we're there.'

'Oh, and to keep our American and Australian friends happy,' add Mr Disraeli's "very different personages", in a loud stage whisper, from behind the scenes.

Taranaki Daily News