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Underclass Redux

datePosted on 02:05, February 5th, 2011 by Lew

Campbell Live tonight returned to McGehan Close (see the report, by Tony Field, here). This street in Mt Albert — on the boundary of Helen Clark’s and Phil Goff’s electorates — was visited by then-opposition leader John Key before Waitangi weekend 2007 for a particularly cynical stunt. This was Key’s first big symbolic play as leader of the opposition, and it was a hum-dinger. He had already singled out the residents of this street in that year’s State of the Nation address at a whitebread rugby club in faraway Christchurch, branding them archetypal members of the New Zealand ‘underclass’, and the visit saw him glad-handing and patronising a bunch of poor brown people who’d already been used as shot in the National party propaganda cannons.

The purpose of the speech, and visit, was to install one of the core planks of the National party narrative about the Clark government — that it was at best unconcerned with the plight of said underclass; and at worst, actively cultivated such a demographic, which would be permanently dependent on Labour’s welfare policies and would therefore be a permanent source of electoral support for the Labour party. (So the ‘bribing the bludgers to breed’ theme goes, rarely uttered by anyone with authority in public but a commonplace among the usual proxies; check almost any General Debate thread on Kiwiblog from around that time for instance.) This is absurd in more ways than it’s feasible to explain here, so I won’t bother. Let’s just leave it at ‘the underclass doesn’t really vote’.

Nevertheless, the visit was a roaring success. Key, bearing smiles and gifts and wearing a tiki t-shirt, charmed the residents of McGehan Close and evidently persuaded them both of his party’s goodwill toward them and of its social and economic plan to lift them from their grim circumstances. The event culminated in Key taking 12 year-old Aroha to the Waitangi Day celebrations — a move full of potent symbolism, even if it was seen to be somewhat exploitative. Drawn out over a full week of coverage (at the time a rare commodity for Key, who had replaced Don Brash as leader just before the Christmas break) this was a highly successful stunt and should have been an early warning of Key’s great talent for making cheesy set-piece events ‘work’ and feel human. The sentiment he evoked in the people of McGehan Close was certainly real.

It’s just a pity the ‘ambitious’, ‘aspirational’ policy programme Key promised them wasn’t.

Joan Nathan, Aroha’s mother, remains on the DPB (having been let go from her hastily-arranged job working for National MP Jackie Blue) and struggles more than ever to cope, now with a sixth child. Aroha, now 16, is living in the care of Child, Youth and Family, which Joan says is the best thing for her, since she is unable to provide a decent life for her daughter. Nathan and others, although they believed in and voted for Key, are now disenchanted and universally express the sentiment that the government’s policies favour the rich, not the poor, and that they haven’t been helped one iota by the change of government; in fact, things have gotten worse. Not much of this is different than it was this time last year, when the Sunday Star Times visited the Close.

So far, so obvious, you might say — and it is; indeed this sort of outcome was very widely predicted at the time. But this is important because it is as strong a counter-narrative as exists for the opposition in this election year. It reframes Key as a faker, a charlatan, an opportunist who’ll exploit whatever circumstances will advantage him, without loyalty or the willingness or ability to follow through on his word; as someone whose focus is on boardroom issues rather than on peoples’ wellbeing. Discussing and reading around the topic on twitter this evening I’ve seen considerable criticism of this Campbell Live story as a cheap human-interest stunt, as opportunistic and exploitative (or moreso) than the original event. I couldn’t agree less. It is a clear, unambiguous example of an investigative journalist simply revisiting a story where much was promised, and measuring it against what has actually happened. This is crucial to its narrative value: these events reframe Key by measuring his own defining stunt — his signature trick — against the objective reality of lived experience. Theory and rhetoric versus real people, living in the real world governed by the policy built from that theory and rhetoric. It is a reality check in its purest form.

There are disadvantages to this narrative line, also, and the virulent responses to the Campbell Live report this evening — I believe I saw presenter Rachel Smalley shudder a little whilst reading some of them out — hint at them. One is the obvious suggestion that Joan Nathan and the other residents of McGehan Close could have done better for themselves, but have chosen not to; the victim-blaming routinely visited upon the poor by the less-poor. A more serious and related line of critique is that there’s a recession on, and everyone’s hurting. Or that it’s only been three years, and change takes time.

But hang on a minute — wasn’t the point of the whole point of electing a Key-led National government to take advantage of the resulting step-change which would boost economic growth, job growth, provide better opportunities, an end to welfare dependency, safer communities and a general increase in general socio-economic mobility and wellbeing? Key made all these promises quite explicitly, not just in person to the residents of McGehan Close, but to the whole nation throughout the campaign and at almost every opportunity since. There are no jobs. There are no higher wages, and without these things you can’t exactly buy shares in SOEs. There is no greater social mobility. The ‘underclass’, as exploitatively defined by Key, still exists.

Having failed McGehan Close, John Key has failed all of us. Quite apart from the fact that we were all promised these things, or things like them, and by and large have yet to receive them, a central theme of the ‘underclass’ policy argument was that by lifting people out of poverty and bringing then into the ‘overclass’ (? — this shows just how meaningless ‘underclass’ is except as a propaganda term), the government would make society better for everyone. This is a noble goal, and one I agree with in its idealistic entirety. I think you would go a long way to find someone in a position of any political credibility who’d publicly disagree with it. The first order of business for any opposition should be to hold John Key to those promises, and demand of Key the wealthier, more mobile, and socially healthier society we were promised.

But the most vicious response will be the one which the initial stunt in 2007 was meant to evoke — the notion that the ‘underclass’ are breeding in order to get more welfare from the Labour party. The core of this line of reasoning, if I may call it that, will be attacks on Nathan herself as a mother, having had a sixth baby and having had Aroha, the subject of the initial stunt, removed from her care. The attacks will be highly personalised, racist and gendered, and they will be lashed closely to Labour party policy and doctrine. But, assuming a competent and spirited opposition, that’s ok — the National party aren’t in opposition, 18 months out from an election; they’re in government in election year. Having been elected on a moderate, sympathetic platform with strong support from women and Māori, and looking to consolidate that platform into a strong and honestly-won mandate means that the government no longer has such freedom to dog-whistle. Particularly given that an opposition counter-narrative would cast doubt on all those sympathetic characteristics, the resort to the divisive tactics of 2008, such as trying to wedge ‘hard-working kiwis’ against the ‘underclass’, and so on, would be extremely risky for the government.

In light of my last post, perhaps it is a little glib to assume a competent and spirited opposition, and in perfect truth I don’t really think Labour has this fight in them (although Grant Robertson saw the Campbell Live piece and seems to have had a similar response to mine, which is heartening). But it is an argument waiting to be had, and one which must be had sooner or later. The boundaries are drawn up; media interest is already piqued, and this is a bread-and-butter social and economic justice issue for Labour. There’s a wealth of symbolic material and slogans to employ — ‘reality check’ and ‘by failing McGehan Close Key has failed us all’ are two they can have for free, and if a Labour party can’t base a campaign around ‘underclass‘ then they’re not worthy of the name.

Time to engage.


32 Responses to “Underclass Redux”

  1. Pablo on February 5th, 2011 at 02:58

    Dang bro–you are indeed on a roll. Excellent!

  2. Sanctuary on February 5th, 2011 at 08:43

    Dang bro–you are indeed on a roll. Excellent!

    What he said.

  3. Scott on February 5th, 2011 at 08:54

    A competent opposition would make Key’s promises to the folk on that street a critical part of their election campaign. A competent opposition would ask questions of Key in the House about the promises he made to those people.

    Instead we’ll probably just get more “I’m a real bloke too” performances from Goff. He’s probably revving his motorbike up as I write this.

  4. Pascal's bookie on February 5th, 2011 at 09:40

    Yeah man.

    Equally important as the underclass line, (which has not been mentioned much since), that initial stunt defined the whole “aspirational” focus.

  5. Graeme Edgeler on February 5th, 2011 at 10:17

    McGehan Close was, and remains, in the Mount Roskill electorate. So Phil Goff’s fault, rather than Helen Clarks :-)

  6. Lew on February 5th, 2011 at 10:40

    Graeme, thanks — fixed. I blame MSM lies for my error.


  7. Policy Parrot on February 5th, 2011 at 11:20

    This is the kind of investigate journalism that has been so lacking over the last few years. Shock horror that people might hold their politicians to their promises, not buying the liberatarianist-promoted cynicism that political promises are made simply to be broken.

  8. Paul on February 5th, 2011 at 13:09

    You really are on a roll, Lew.

    There is no starker contrast yet between what John Key says and what he actually does; between what National promised and what they have actually achieved.

    Annette King, hopefully, will latch on to it as a foil to promote the new child-focused policies she launched at the Conference last year.

  9. George D on February 5th, 2011 at 14:53

    This is actually a hard one for Goff. The people in that street didn’t get to where they were overnight. Pockets of underclass remained under LG5, and some of them even intensified, as food and housing prices went up and benefit levels stayed at survival level. They were part of the general discomfort with LG5.

    You could equally say:

    There is no starker contrast yet between what [Goff] says and what he actually does; between what [Labour] promised and what they have actually achieved.

    Because National can rightly claim that these are problems that were in evidence before they came to office. Never mind that they’ve worsened them.

    I’m not sure how Labour can position themselves. I feel they can, but in this case, they need to be careful. That they last never came out and apologised properly after the election (apart from one for offending the offensive), because they felt they had little to apologise for*, makes their job very difficult.

    *The source of the common claims of arrogance.

  10. Lew on February 5th, 2011 at 15:20

    George, a great point and one I meant to add as a PS after writing it: Labour, if they take this on, will need to make sure they’re playing as well as talking a strong game. It is likely that ‘the state of McGehan Close’ will become an annual political/media fixture, a sort of barometer of the nation’s wellbeing. If Labour don’t want to swing by the same rope as National, they’ll need to enact policies which make a meaningful difference.


  11. Bruce Hamilton on February 5th, 2011 at 15:33

    Discussing and reading around the topic on twitter this evening I’ve seen considerable criticism of this Campbell Live story as a cheap human-interest stunt, as opportunistic and exploitative (or moreso) than the original event. I couldn’t agree less.

    I disagree. The issue was again personalised to a 16 year old girl. Her future has been compromised by others. The family wasn’t coping, but that doesn’t mean the mother and daughter weren’t trying.

    Aroha’s path has been, and will continue to be, blighted by the politicians ( possibly well-intentioned, but impotent ) and the media – who regurgitate “human interest” stories.

    So this child, like many others of her generation, is struggling to develop and succeed, and she should not be exploited by anyone. If I correctly recall the details, some of the government agency caregivers may also have seriously hindered her progress.

    We don’t have to follow bad examples. Can’t we discuss these issues without personalising them to some unfortunate souls?.

  12. Lew on February 5th, 2011 at 16:27

    Bruce, that’s a fair enough line of argument, but wrong in this case. Would it be worse to avoid the issue and leave the country with the hopeful impression of a slum on its way to recovery, the fiction which emerged from the initial stunt? To my mind it is more respectful to tell the McGehan Close story truthfully and with as much tact as its residents require. Some of them, at least, want this story told; the record corrected to reflect that lived experience glossed over by Key’s pretty rhetoric.

    Speaking truth to power in this way is what investigative journalism is for.


  13. peterquixote on February 5th, 2011 at 17:14

    When I came here [ Kiwipoliotico ] by accident, I imagined I was discovering part of the intelligensia of the left wing .
    Here below re read quotes from Lew, and compare with the facts:
    Lew says :
    ” [Joan} Nathan and others, although they believed in and voted for Key, are now disenchanted and universally express the sentiment that the government’s policies favour the rich, not the poor ..”

    The interviews identified two people, Joan Nathan herself and a Simi Fili who stated they were worse off than several years befor. The words OTHERS and UNIVERSAL which Lew uses have a global aspect, as in everybody.

    Good on ya Lew, keep up the narrative Lew, learn from Trotter, say anything Lew,
    and he does, Lew does, and not to take a meaningless tv3 interview too far, Lew then goes on to say:

    ” this is important because it is as strong a counter-narrative as exists for the opposition in this election year. It reframes Key as a faker, a charlatan, an opportunist who’ll exploit whatever circumstances will advantage him, without loyalty or the willingness or ability to follow through on his word; ”

    Good on ya Lew you sock the drivel to us.

    What has actually happened is that PM John Key has taken a continuous interest in this family, but does not intervene directly as say a Socialist doctrinaire leader might.

    But keep it up Lew the converted are reading you and actually believe, MickySavage will be here soon:
    Read this for a giant step
    Lew says
    ” Having failed McGehan Close, John Key has failed all of us. ”
    so there you have it
    John Key failed to change the fundamental genetics of one girl on Mcgehan close and is therefore a ruthless cynical self serving failure.
    Lew goes on and on, and if this is the best we can get from the intelligensia of the left sweet jesus
    as Sanctuary says
    ” Dang bro you are certainly on a roll”

  14. Lew on February 5th, 2011 at 17:41

    Peter, as usual, you don’t know what you’re blathering about.

    You criticise me for extrapolating out the views of the two people interviewed for the Campbell Live piece to the wider community. In fact, the experience of three people were included in that report (Aroha is herself a person).

    And what about the facts relayed by Steven and Susan Zhou, a design engineer and a dental nurse whose situation is outlined in the SST article linked above?

    Or social worker Vince Tuisamoa?

    Or factory worker Chandra Kumar?

    Or Mary, who didn’t want her surname used but has lived there since 1981?

    Go and see what they had to say, and get back to me. Bear in mind that that’s only 2010 — media revisited McGehan Close in each of the intervening years, so there’s plenty more where that comes from. If you’re sitting on a hidden cache of residents there who’ve seen a remarkable prosperity boom since 2007 I would love nothing more than to hear their stories.

    Unfortunately that’s the strong part of your argument. The rest is just empty bluster.

    Learning from Chris Trotter? Sorry, but you can’t blame him for any of this. Counterposing Key with a ‘doctrinaire socialist’ leader? Aroha’s ‘fundamental genetics’? Thank you for so swiftly proving my point about the obscene extent to which apologists would go. And then you misattribute Pablo’s words to Sanctuary, which in ordinary circumstances would offend them both.

    Yeah, you’ve really made your case. Don’t you have a windmill to tilt at, or something?


  15. peterquixote on February 5th, 2011 at 18:51

    Steve, as usual,
    I looked at the overall evidence,
    I do not mean to further alienate conversation between differing ideas,

  16. SPC on February 5th, 2011 at 20:19

    Labour can at least point to falling numbers on welfare, the lower state house rents, the increase to Super and WFF from their last period in office. And the rise in the minimum wage and the Gold Card (with coalition partners and supporters).

    This time there is the $5000 threshold (which clearly should be $10,000), but there has been, as yet, no focus on why children supported by parents on benefits remain in povery and what can or will be done about this. Nor why many tenants continue to live in homes without insulation (when power is so expensive for this group and an increasing portion of their limited income is required to pay for it and also for food).

    As for job creation, the Greens have had a plan for a while now, where is Labour, in the lack of any from National?

    The best way to challenge National on welfare reform, is to have a jobs policy programme. Work testing without jobs is the ultimate in regulation with an inhumanity aspect to it.

    Why is there no plan to build new homes in Auckland to meet the looming shortage – while the private sector does nothing. The economic stimulous tax returns cover the borrowing cost and the debt can be repaid when the houses are sold.

  17. peterquixote on February 5th, 2011 at 20:27

    SPC, the tax nil threshold should be $15,000.
    It will cost our country little, pull Goff into reality,
    refuse the Winston Peters lower $NZ,
    refuse overseas intervention,
    be brave speak now

  18. SPC on February 5th, 2011 at 20:58

    Most people would see a natural level at around the same as that advocated for a universal (minimum adult) income, rather than any higher.

  19. peterquixote on February 5th, 2011 at 21:08

    sweet jesus SPC,or Lew socialist
    give me a figure for the $NZ,
    will you have it imposed on you,
    does our Nation NZ mean nothing to you,

  20. Bruce Hamilton on February 5th, 2011 at 21:21

    Bruce, that’s a fair enough line of argument, but wrong in this case. Would it be worse to avoid the issue and leave the country with the hopeful impression of a slum on its way to recovery, the fiction which emerged from the initial stunt?

    The claim of tact was tacky. I didn’t think my composition was that bad, but it must have been. Nowhere did I suggest that the underlying issues should not be discussed.

    I’m not suggesting exploitation of the underclass, but careless misuse of a child’s identity for minimal gain.

    My point was that there was, and still is, no need to use techniques, such as the following, to highlight and discuss those political issues.
    1. Place a photo of the young lady in your article.
    2. Tactlessly include her current circumstances.
    3. Add further details about the family because others have, or are about to.

    I’m fairly certain that all details of the tragedy of this child’s life are not in the public domain, nor should they be.

    Perhaps you should ask yourself whether adding her identity and details to the mix improved or validated any of your arguments, and whether the cost to her identity was justified?. My assessment was, and still is, that it wasn’t.

  21. Lew on February 5th, 2011 at 21:48

    Bruce, I didn’t realise your criticism was directed at me; I thought it was directed at Campbell Live. So I’ll answer your specific complaints.

    The photo, possibly one of the best-known and iconic of the whole episode, was selected because it illustrates the very essence of the stunt. A vulnerable young Māori woman who is clearly uncomfortable with her role as a prop for a goofy-grinned white conservative wearing a tiki t-shirt to show his connection with the downtrodden. Key shepherds her along almost possessively, whilst a veritable entourage of media, minders and so on follow along.

    A better metaphor for the power dynamics of class, gender and ethnicity in this country it would be difficult to find.

    Aroha’s current circumstances, and those of her family, are central to the topic. None of this makes any sense without them. They were the whole focus of the initial stunt, and any judgement as to the success or otherwise of the government’s policy in this case must flow from the extent and nature of any change.

    None of the details regarding any of the people I’ve mentioned in this post have come from any source other than widely-published mainstream media reports conducted with the consent and participation of those involved. The detail of Aroha’s circumstances as outlined in this post were considerably less detailed than those in the original Campbell Live article.

    I’m happy with my use of these details. For your part, perhaps you could outline how one might make the sort of argument I’ve suggested — how one might tell the story which the people of McGehan Close want told — without reference to their lived experience. Strip the narrative of that lived experience and what remains is yet another dessicated theoretical discussion, populated not by human beings who live actual lives and experience real suffering, but by empty statistics.


  22. Bruce Hamilton on February 5th, 2011 at 22:27

    I’ll just agree to differ, and we’ll move on.

    Your current stance appears a little different to that expressed over at the Standard about a year ago.

    You’ve also added another of her surnames to your comment above, one wasn’t enough harm?..

    Yes, I’m aware that the broadcast article included even more intrusive information, but that has been belatedly excised by the MSM, possibly under legal advice. I still don’t award brownie points for not swimming to the bottom of cesspits.

  23. Lew on February 5th, 2011 at 22:41

    Bruce, I used Aroha’s surname in the post also, but you make a fair point that the reasoning to remove it holds. So I’ve removed it.

    I have changed my view somewhat from that on the thread you’ve linked to, on the basis of Joan Nathan’s obvious desire for the record to be set straight. Though I did say the following: “I don’t think she/they can be left out entirely, and I don’t think they should.”


  24. Sanctuary on February 6th, 2011 at 15:30

    There are disadvantages to this narrative line, also, and the virulent responses to the Campbell Live report this evening — I believe I saw presenter Rachel Smalley shudder a little whilst reading some of them out — hint at them.

    I found this virulent response curious. But then on reflection, when you tell someone that you saw their beloved husband leaving a cheap hotel with another women, it is quite often the reaction you get.

  25. Lew on February 6th, 2011 at 16:58

    Just to be clear — the virulent response was the emails themselves, not Smalley’s reaction when having to read them, which was entirely human and reasonable.


  26. mickysavage on February 6th, 2011 at 21:23


    I am with you 100% of the way to the last paragraph.

    I watched the film and also felt the same sort of indignant anger that you felt. The inhabitants of McGehan Close were no more than photo opportunities for Key’s election campaign.

    He also borrowed from Labour mythology. In 1973 in a spontaneous gesture Norm Kirk grabbed the hand of a young Maori and walked with him across the grounds of the marae. This gesture struck a real chord, Maori and Pakeha, young and old, powerless and powerful walking together.

    Key plagarised this but did it with the most sophisticated of PR advice.

    The difference is that Kirk did it spontaneously and from the heart, Key did it to gain power.

    Your criticism of Labour’s response is premature. I am certain that McGehan Close will be raised as a reminder of Key’s hypocricy. All in good time.

  27. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Green Party NZ, Colvin, faeteardrop, Fae Teardrop, Lew and others. Lew said: On KP: How @CampbellLiveNZ's return to #McGehan Close presents Labour with a powerful election-year narrative: http://arseh.at/3yc […]

  28. TBD on February 7th, 2011 at 15:06

    “Kupapa” is how Pita Sharples was greeted at Waitangi this year. No worse insult could have been used; and it was completely appropriate.

  29. Lew on February 7th, 2011 at 15:09

    TBD, I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t append your latest feelings about Sharples and Turia to whatever thread is current on KP.


  30. tom semmens on February 8th, 2011 at 14:53

    National clearly plan to run the same forula of right wing identity politic this election as last… After the focus groups to refine the attack line of course – From Kiwiblog:

    “…I don’t want to beat up on Mrs Nathan, as all her circumstances are not in the public domain…’

    Which of course doesn’t stop David Farrar from doing just that.

    “..I would just make the comment that it is reported she just had her sixth child on the DPB… …It is not unreasonable to stop having children if you are already struggling to make ends meet…”

    Neither Mr. Farrar or his supporters are so stupid, and none of them have the guts to say, what they think the solution to this might be. Suffice to say, one can easily guess the sort of authoritarian final solution the so-called lovers of individual liberty at kiwiblog might have in mind for Aroha’s mother and family.

    For me at least the horrific objectification of Mrs. Nathan as an animal (“breeder” is the least of it, the person posting the shocking “The govt has already paid for 5 of her litter” should be ashamed of himself) by the posters at kiwiblog has not lost it’s power to sicken and anger me – it pushes the threads that bind civil society.

  31. Lew on February 8th, 2011 at 15:50

    Me also, Tom. And I’m pretty sure that holds true for anyone whose humanity is not utterly denatured. That’s still most of us.

    In many ways, the Key government’s worst nightmare would be for statements such as those on banners hung from motorway overpasses with a great big blue N next to them.


  32. pollywog on February 11th, 2011 at 08:59

    Neither Mr. Farrar or his supporters are so stupid, and none of them have the guts to say, what they think the solution to this might be.

    My solution is to put it back on the iwi leaders and rangatira to look after their own.

    Key won’t because he’s basically handed over all Maori social welfare to the MP under Whanau Ora, so he won’t be saying boo about anything Maori for fear of alienating MP support base even more

    At the very least Key should set up a tertiary scholarship for Aroha if she graduates from high school, seeing as how he donates his salary to charity anyway.

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