Bob Jones: Politicians should learn when to call it quits

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John Banks, once a Cabinet minister, then Auckland's mayor, he never knew when to call it a day and seek something different.
John Banks, once a Cabinet minister, then Auckland's mayor, he never knew when to call it a day and seek something different.

The day after the second 1974 British election I spent with Enoch Powell in his Belgravia apartment. That morning's Times editorial proposed the Tories sack Edward Heath and substitute Powell, something he was unaware of until I mentioned it. Delighted, he promptly sent his housekeeper out for a copy. But Powell was hopelessly unsuited to politics. He was an unworldly genius; a classicist and Greek professor at the age of 25, and the master of 12 languages.

British Labour MP Austin Mitchell, a pioneer in New Zealand television current affairs, was brought back in 2001 by TVNZ to do a revisit assessment. Over dinner he regaled me with stories of how Parliament always sat awestruck when Powell rose, enthralled by his intellect. He'd have hated modern Britain which has become everything he detested.

While Powell is most famous for his so-called and much misrepresented rivers of blood speech, in fact a quotation from Virgil's Aeneid, his lasting contribution was his astute observation that most political careers end in failure.

By God he was right and we see it all the time. Some sensibly fade into obscurity; others battle on in lesser roles in a minority party or as a small town mayor. But too many explode in a disastrous leap off the high board of public prominence to ignominy by simply staying on too long, or because of a single idiocy. Incidentally, I exclude Len Brown from that category. For exercising a perk of office, an improbable reward had he remained a small time solicitor, much public abuse was sent his way while privately, I repeatedly heard Aucklanders say they never thought he had it in him and how he's gone up in their estimation.

It will soon be forgotten but what will not is the nasty coterie from the city's political right behind it all. Their glorified pie-cart proprietor candidate can forget future mayoral attempts.

Some politicians adroitly move on to different things, such as Mike Moore, now our Washington ambassador following his stint as the head of the World Trade Organisation, the highest public position ever held by a New Zealander. So too Helen Clark, now heading a major United Nations agency.

Unlike Powell, most politicians are ordinary folk who ride into Parliament on minor credentials then a few years later find themselves Cabinet ministers, constantly in the newspapers, on television and in demand for endless functions. It's heady stuff and hard to cope with an abrupt return to obscurity.

John Banks is a classic example. Once a Cabinet minister, then Auckland's mayor, he never knew when to call it a day and seek something different. Thus his career will end in ignominy over ridiculous falsehoods. His story of not looking at what he signed is utterly plausible. On the occasions I go to the office, there's often dozens of papers with yellow signature stickers waiting. I rip through signing the lot with no idea what they are but as they emanate from solicitors, accountants and management I rely on their appropriateness. But John's plausible denial of not reading the form became implausible once he unnecessarily added he couldn't recall a helicopter ride to meet the country's most conspicuous man in a giant mansion and receive $50,000.

In my region, two past mayors, bored with oblivion, stood for council positions in the last election, only to receive humiliating donkey votes, an embarrassing slap in the face when they recall past glories.

A classic example of Powell's adage is Tony Blair. Held in huge esteem, he destroyed it all with a blatantly dishonest dossier justifying lap-dogging the Bush buffoon into Iraq.

The standard riches awaiting ex-leaders' published memoirs reflected his ignominy. To test the water he kicked off his nationwide bookshops tour in seemingly safe Dublin, only to be greeted by hundreds of jeering citizens. The tour was abandoned and today he's a pariah in his homeland and will remain so forever, so too George Bush.

Americans hold past presidents in high regard, addressing them as President and according them royalty-like status. But Bush's Iraq deceit has irrevocably tarred him and like Blair he keeps out of sight, taking up painting and hiding out at his ranch.

I could list numerous examples of once prominent people flailing to restore past triumphs and forgetting the boxing adage that they never come back, thus being humiliated in the process.

And it doesn't just apply to politics. Many once great sportsmen simply cannot accept the game is up and carry on into humiliation with foolish decisions endeavouring to regain the limelight.

Women cope much better. Recognising the difficulties, the Australian Institute of Sport has a course for retiring sporting greats to assist with the psychological pressures of sudden obscurity. We could do with something similar for politicians to save themselves from themselves.

- NZ Herald

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