Michael Cullen has been under a lot of stress lately. What with Mike Williams turning the good doctor’s Budget into a PR disaster, and with the Acting Prime Minister saying borderline defamatory things about TV3, he seems a man whose cracks are appearing. Therefore, I should perhaps cut him some slack for his lamentable performance in the House yesterday, in which he indulged in a tag-team hatchet job of Keith with Winston Peters.
Rod and Keith were asking Dr Cullen, standing in for the absent Helen Clark, about her censorship by the Chinese Government, and more generally about her government’s pursuit of a free-trade deal with a regime that has a lamentable human rights record. Dr Cullen got up, and said that things in China “are better now than they were when my old friend Keith Locke was an enthusiastic supporter of the Chinese regime”.
The clear implication of what he was saying was that Keith supported the regime of Chairman Mao, one of the 20th century’s true villains. (Incidentally, this implication is quite untrue. Anyone who knows anything about New Zealand left-wing politics knows that the Socialist Action League, of which Keith was a member up until the mid-80s, was a Trotskyist group, and attacked all the Stalinist regimes, in Peking, Moscow and all of Eastern Europe, arguing for multi-party democracy.) Winston then jumped in, adding NZ First’s often-repeated but completely fallacious claim that Keith is a former supporter of Pol Pot.
The fact of the matter is that Keith, as did anti-war liberals throughout the West including the United States, welcomed the toppling of the corrupt US-backed dictatorships in Saigon and Phnom Penh in April 1975, which heralded the end of the Indo-China War. They hoped the new Vietnamese and Cambodian Governments would be better than the brutal regimes they replaced. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge was generally seen as an adjunct of the Vietnamese Communist forces. Subsequently, of course, they turned out to be quite different – in fact, genocidal. At the time, Pol Pot wasn’t even known to exist. His name and crimes didn’t emerge for some time.
But how did they emerge? Well, because the anti-war left of which Keith was a part (John Pilger, anyone?) uncovered Pol Pot’s insanity, brought it to the attention of the world, and tried to get Western governments to put diplomatic and other pressure on the genocidist.
However, when Pol Pot was overthrown by a Vietnam-backed regime in 1979, and the genocidist had to flee into the countryside, the Western establishment decided it would continue to recognise Pol Pot’s regime as the rightful government of Cambodia. Why? Well, because he was aligned to Peking, rather than Moscow, the West’s main enemy at the time. A sonofabitch, but our sonofabitch.
Did these Western governments continuing to recognise Pol Pot as the legitimate ruler of Cambodia include New Zealand’s? Why, yes. In fact, they included the Muldoon Government of which Winston Peters was a member between 1978 and 1981.
Indeed, if Winston wants to go digging into the Cold War past, let’s give it a go for him too. The Muldoon Government of which Winston was a part was a staunch ally of the US, and supporter of its foreign policy. Is Winston an apologist for the atrocities committed during the 1978-1981 period by the US or the US’ client states in, say, Iran, Nicaragua or Panama? Who knows? But it would make more sense to slander him by association with those crimes than to slander Keith by association with the crimes of Pol Pot because Winston has not, to the best of my knowledge, spoken out about Iran, Nicaragua and Panama in the way Keith has against Pol Pot.
Whatever. We can expect this kind of hatchet job from Winston Peters. That’s just what he does. What we shouldn’t expect is for Michael Cullen, who so often has to bear the brunt of the Opposition’s personal attacks on Labour MPs, to hold hands with Winston and jump into the gutter with him. It is ungracious and unfair and not a constructive way to build relations between our parties. As David Farrar has noted, this came the day after the Greens had saved Dr Cullen’s bacon by pledging support for the Government’s Prisoners’ and Victims’ Claims Bill. Well, I guess this is the thanks we get.
It was an astonishing display from Dr Cullen. Labour has been beset by scandal after scandal this year. Doone, Benson-Pope, Tamihere, etc. Have the Greens joined the Opposition pack dogs and descended to the politics of personal destruction with Winston, Don, Rodney, et al? Nope. We’ve held our tongue, and even in some cases spoken out in defence of Labour’s actions. It thus beggars belief that Dr Cullen would decide to collude with Winston Peters to smear the good name of one of our MPs.
Thankfully for all of us, the Greens are rather better at turning the other cheek than is the Acting Prime Minister.