11 Aug 2021

The issues that matter? Churchill controversy paints politicians as petty

5:44 pm on 11 August 2021

Interior decorating has proven contentious at Parliament, with National Party leader Judith Collins calling the relocation of a portrait of Winston Churchill "deeply offensive".

The topic has prompted cries of hypocrisy and immaturity from all sides. The Green Party, which called for the refurbishment, says there are bigger things to focus on, but Churchill's namesake Winston Peters - no longer stalking the hallways of the House - says moving the portrait is petty.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The Greens had asked for the painting, which had been located outside their Parliamentary offices, to be moved elsewhere to accommodate a new artwork by Dunedin artist Marilynn Webb.

Collins said the move was outrageous.

"We found out today, this morning without notice, that that the Greens had demanded the removal of Winston Churchill's portrait from the level two public area of the building here and apparently they're gonna replace it with something else.

"Asked... if we could have him in our area, our public area, I just think it's outrageous. I mean, it's so disrespectful."

She believed the Greens had moved the painting because they believed Churchill was racist.

"Many great people do have foibles and those people were people of their time, it doesn't take away from the achievements of Gandhi or of Michael Josef Savage, but what is really important here is that this is a person who was one of the very few politicians who had the courage to stand up against Nazism when so many other people in politics in the UK and even in the commonwealth were happy to give into it."

Removing the painting was "something that's deeply offensive," she said.

It was a narrative Act Party leader David Seymour was happy to lean into as well.

"I've always said the Greens are detached from reality but do they really think that Winston Churchill was not one of the greatest anti-facist leaders in history? Well, maybe they believe in fascism now, who knows."

Greens demand debate from Collins

Green co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson were adamant that the move was simply to incorporate a painting more appropriate to their kaupapa.

"We wanted a painting outside the Green Party offices that was more representative of the values that we stand for, so an artist that is indigenous to New Zealand is more appropriate than a picture of a British Prime Minister," Shaw said.

"[Churchill] was known to have racist instincts ... that's not why we asked for it to be moved. Of course I care that he was a racist ... why are you so concerned about where a picture gets hung? Who cares what Judith thinks, honestly?"

Davidson said it was not her favourite painting, and - given Collins gave a speech at National's annual conference over the weekend signalling a shift for the party away from race matters - questioned whether the topic was worthwhile.

"It's definitely not my favourite painting and we're loving that we're gonna put a tangata whenua piece of art up there which is exactly the fit for the Green Party that we want.

"I thought Judith Collins wanted to focus on the issues that New Zealanders really care about. We're trying to demand a debate around climate change. We're trying to prevent family violence, sexual violence. She wants to talk about why we moved a piece of art? That's pretty hilarious."

Shaw brought that criticism of hypocrisy the debate chamber this afternoon, using the opposition party's own attack line against them.

"Not only do I move the debate, I demand the debate. Mrs Collins has said that National can easily win the next election but only if the National Party focuses on the things that matter to New Zealanders.

"So she is going to stay focused on the issues that matter to New Zealanders - to those Kiwis who deserve more, apparently - such as the location of a portrait ... I am astonished I have to say at how long she was actually able to maintain her focus between Friday afternoon and today's portrait-gate."

He said the topic of climate change, highlighted this week by the IPCC report on climate change, mattered a great deal more to New Zealanders than the location of a painting.

"It is of critical importance that this house pays attention to the content of that scientific assessment."

'We are actually focused on the issues that matter'

Shaw's performance in the House this afternoon was followed by a scathing attack on National by Grant Robertson, complete with printouts of famous paintings ostensibly "commissioned" by National to focus "laser-like" on the things that matter.

"On this side of the house we are actually focused on the issues that matter to New Zealand, Mr Speaker, and tomorrow morning we will respond to the report of Professor Sir David Skegg."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also rubbished Collins' concerns.

"We've a responsibility to look after New Zealanders in a massive crisis that we're facing. Frankly, who hangs on the wall at the time we do it, I don't care."

Questions about it gave Te Pāti Māori leader Rawiri Waititi a hearty laugh, who said the portrait of Churchill should be taken down altogether.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who was named after the British wartime prime minister, also thought there were better issues to focus on - but turned his criticism on the Greens.

"For all the things that are going wrong at the moment including the rollout with Covid-19 and the vaccine, I cannot believe that a group of people could be so petty, so unparliamentary or so lacking in historic understanding.

"Winston Churchill's importance - to, dare I say it, democracy and freedom - and the fact that few believed that the west could win the second world war. He never gave up and that's one of the reasons why we won.

"I think it's pathetic in the extreme ... with everything we need to fix up in this country including poverty and mental health, housing and so many things that have gone wrong, they should be focused on such a trite, irrelevant issue."

Peters also dismissed any concerns over Churchill's racism, again turning his criticism on the Greens.

"No one's perfect and what I'm hearing from the Greens is inverse racism in extreme. I think they should just grow up."