Rage in the halls of Parliament does justice to Winston Churchill’s quip that politics is more dangerous than war. James Elliott on a week of outrage, tweetrage and sitting ovations. 

As luck would have it last night I was sent one of those intended-to-be inspirational memes that said “The principle of true art is not to portray but to evoke”. It turns out that not only can art be evocative, so can its removal. As was the case this week with the removal of a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill from a Parliamentary corridor, at the behest of the Greens. To be accurate, the Churchill portrait wasn’t removed but rather just moved from a Greens-adjacent Parliamentary corridor to a National-adjacent Parliamentary corridor.

But for some, that move was in and of itself enough to evoke outrage. And by some I mean Simeon Brown, National’s daily outrage spokesperson. For him, moving the portrait evoked “the Greens’ hatred of Sir Winston Churchill”. Judith Collins also weighed in on the issue, which was surprising as most people think the only art she’s interested in is Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’. Her take was that the Greens didn’t “like” Sir Winston Churchill. “Do they want Stalin up there?” she asked, which was either a rhetorical question or a genuine offer, it was hard to tell. Unfortunately she made these comments pointing to the empty space where the Churchill portrait used to hang, a gesture which was for some highly evocative of a National Party policy announcement.

But why all the fuss in the first place? After all Sir Winston Churchill was a famous New Zealand … um … well he was not a New Zealander or a New Zealand anything really, unless you include the factoid that Winston Peters is named after him. Churchill never even visited New Zealand but according to a Google search he did draw a map of New Zealand in his 1893 Sandhurst entrance exam.

“Do they want Stalin up there?” Judith Collins asked, which was either a rhetorical question or a genuine offer, it was hard to tell.

Churchill was a British statesman and that’s kind of the point. Dr Elizabeth Kerekere, Green MP and chair of the cross-party Parliamentary Art Committee explained that moving Churchill’s portrait was to accommodate a new piece of art by a tangata whenua artist: “We are really excited about displaying artwork by Marilynn Webb.” Yes, that’s right, there’s a cross-party Parliamentary Art Committee.

If Churchill’s portrait could speak about its own relocation it would probably say: “Never in the field of political conflict was so much crowed by so many to so few, who actually cared.”

Although there is one point to care about. This is more from Simeon Brown’s tweetrage:

“The Green Party’s hatred of Sir Winston Churchill is born out of a hatred of the western values and freedoms that he fought for: Democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association.”

On the face of it it’s an absurd 34-word word salad. Obviously the Greens don’t have a “hatred” for these things, but this tweet isn’t about politics, it’s about culture. If you’re Simeon Brown, and I sincerely hope you’re not, the moving of a portrait from one Parliamentary corridor turned out to be the perfect springboard to fire a salvo in the culture war, a salvo at them, you know, the others, the ones that aren’t like us, the ones who hate the things we cherish. It’s the Breitbart philosophy in action – politics is downstream from culture – from someone who’s got over-excited about studying political studies 101.

If Churchill’s portrait could speak about its own relocation it would probably say: “Never in the field of political conflict was so much crowed by so many to so few, who actually cared.”

By the time we got to Wednesday morning the Churchill portrait was hanging in National’s Parliamentary enclave and Judith Collins was heading off to her breakfast TV interview with John Campbell with Churchill’s encouragement – “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”. And by this Churchillian standard, that interview was a stunning success.

Judith Collins has adopted a few Trumpisms. Her “I never like to criticise public servants because it’s very hard for them to fight back” precursor to an attack on Ashley Bloomfield being her version of Trump’s “I hate to say it, but …” – but actually channelling Donald Trump during a live interview was taking things to a whole new level.

In the John Campbell interview, just after what Churchill would describe as the “don’t interrupt me while I’m interrupting you” exchange, Judith Collins gave her own appraisal of her conference speech, claiming that there were “20 ovations from people who were never asked to do that”, that “700 delegates [were] all clapping without me expecting them necessarily doing it” and that it was “an enormously good speech”. There’s a wide range of orange echoes to that self-assessment, the standout being Trump’s self-assessment of his speech in Poland in 2017 – “I could say it, but I don’t want to say it, but some people said it was the best speech ever made by a president in Europe”.

Newsroom’s Tim Murphy was there for the Collins ovational speech and posted the following fact-check. “There were about a dozen rounds of claps, little sitting ‘ovation’ and just one standing ovation – the obligatory one at the end.” Ouch.

Politics is a tough business to be in. As Churchill noted, “Politics is more dangerous than war, for in war you are only killed once”.

Have a peaceful weekend.

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