Posts Tagged ‘Bill English’
The New Zealand Herald’s archetypal “average” Kiwi family, the Ray family of Sandringham East, has declared the 2012 Budget “sensible and unspectacular”, probably the strongest endorsement Bill English could have hoped for. But let’s look at what this article signifies.
First and most obviously, the article makes something of the fact that the average income in Sandringham East is nearly identical to the average income across Auckland as a whole — not quite $27,000 per annum* — but the Ray family income is about four times that, $105,000. If both adults were in paid work, their income level would be about twice the average. But the article says that Amanda Ray is a full-time stay-at-home mum, from which we can reasonably assume that Alistair Ray’s income is four times the median on its own. Income level: not “average”.
The figures given for income, and for the decile rating of the local school, date from “the last census”, which was held in 2006. Census data from 2011, had it been held, would probably not yet have been released anyway, so that’s not really a factor — but the data is six years out of date in any case. The principal of the local school says the area is “gentrifying” and the middle-of-the-road decile 5 status is likely to be revised upwards. Suburb: not “average”. [Edit to add: the school decile rating doesn't necessarily support this conclusion; see Graeme Edgeler's comment explaining deciles, below.]
Alistair Ray is an urban designer, and Amanda has a doctorate in cancer research. I’m not sure of the qualifications required to become an urban designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that it requires postgraduate study to honours — probably master’s — level. Education: not “average”.
Education is just one aspect of social capital more generally. The Rays immigrated relatively recently from the UK. Their language is our language; their qualifications and experience are accepted here without question; many of our social norms and customs, and our legal and political systems are very similar to those of the UK, having been largely derived from the institutions of the Old Country. This is hardly uncommon — roughly a third of immigrants to NZ come from the UK — but neither is it typical. Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific (combined) make up a higher proportion, and these groups do not enjoy the same degree of familiarity that British immigrants do. Social capital: not “average”.
None of this is any sort of criticism of the Ray family. I have no doubt that they are honest, hardworking, skilled and decent folk who are committed to this country, who make a valuable contribution to it, and are as entitled as anyone else to express opinions on its government. They are welcome here. The Herald chose to frame them as an “average” family, though, and by these metrics they are not an “average” family. I think it is fair to characterise the Rays as an “aspirational” family.
And that, I think, answers the implicit question of whose view the Herald’s coverage seeks to express, and whose interests yesterday’s budget serves. The elision of “average” and “aspirational” is, I think, the single most powerful shift in this country’s political discourse in the past five years — since John Key took the National party leadership. This piece of terminology (and its close cousin, “ambitious”) dominated the 2008 election campaign, and while it has tailed off more recently, the policy settings the government has chosen demonstrate that it is still a core theme of their ideological project. This government does not speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders, and in this article the Herald does not really speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders. Blurring ideas of “aspiration” almost interchangeably with ideas of “average” defines an “us” in which nearly everyone includes themselves, persuading “average” people that the government speaks for, and to them, even though the policy programme yields them no direct advantage whatsoever. At the same time, it permits the government and others to define anyone who fails to “aspire” hard enough, for whatever reason — a lack of education or financial or social capital, chronic illness or disability, or a history of abuse, mental illness or repression, poor choices or simply bad fortune — as an unperson. So defined, the state can with relative impunity dismantle the system of benefits, state assistance and remedial advantage that, in the final analysis, enables more of the population to become genuinely “aspirational”.
That bell probably can’t be un-rung. I think we are stuck with this elision, and this delusion that everyone can be above-average — it’s normal, and expected, and if you aren’t, you’re a failure. That’s a concerning prospect.
* I should at least give credit to Simon Collins for using the median, rather than the mean with regard to income — many, including the government, are not so scrupulous.
This morning David Shearer won the Labour leadership, as many expected and as I had hoped he would. More substantive analysis will follow, but I want to remark on two things. First, via Mike Smith at The Standard:
As a non-member I was not in attendance at that meeting, and I was not aware of this detail, but it should be clear to anyone who has read me over the last few years that this gives me great hope. One of my chief complaints about the Labour leadership and its activist community has been its boneheaded obsession with hard facts and rational policy detail. To the extent that Shearer can moderate that he has potential to breathe new life into the movement.
The second is Shearer’s first public action as leader: declaring that the ministerial forum on poverty announced as part of the māori party’s confidence and supply agreement should include leaders of other political parties. Video from interest.co.nz:
This is a good move for three reasons: first because it gives Labour an opportunity to be at the centre of a major policy initiative, rather than on the outside; second because it gives Shearer an opportunity to use his much-hyped skills in this field; and third because it should add some heft to a committee which otherwise would likely have been dominated by Bill English channelling advice from Treasury. It doesn’t take a terrible cynic to see that the committee was intended as a sop to Tariana — another symbolic bauble with nothing behind it. Shearer’s presence, and possibly that of other leaders, would make it a much more meaningful concern, which is probably why it won’t happen. But nevertheless, it sends a crucial signal: poverty is bigger than partisan politics. National would be foolish to ignore it.
The job’s not even started yet; there’s much to do and much ground to gain, the bones of which have been sketched out in two epochal posts by Jordan Carter, here and here. Other important questions, like whether David Cunliffe’s abilities will be adequately used, remain — but I am very encouraged by what I have seen.
This morning at The Standard, vto* questioned how anyone can figure that the TVNZ7 ad featuring Bill English could be political advertising, since it doesn’t contain any baldly partisan political statements.
Although I tend to think vto is either being purposefully obdurate or is just simply oblivious, it’s a fair question. Since in my experience he is usually genuinely puzzled rather than just shilling for the blues,** I undertook to do an analysis of the clip for his edification (or ridicule). As I said in the comments thread, you don’t create this sort of thing by accident:
A few basics of political discourse, first. While in the case of video, a text is made up of sounds and images, this is different from the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ vto talks about. There is also a temporal dimension to video: editing, mise-en-scene and lighting changes, camera and focal movement, etc. which I’ll lump in with ‘image’ for these purposes. Likewise, most of the sound is spoken words, but there is also music, which is non-trivial in terms of meaning. The point is that nothing is in there by accident. When you have a limited budget and the requirement to work within a 45 second ad slot, nothing is optional or discretionary.
Given that there are images and sounds, and that they’re all there for a reason, it should be clear that there’s more to analyse than just the words and pictures, and so an apparent absence of political meaning in the words and pictures doesn’t mean the text lacks political meaning; it just means that it’s not overt (or not overt to everyone). The meaning lurks in how the various parts of the text hang together as much as in the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ themselves. This, also, is purposeful: people are natively suspicious of political messages, and it helps to be able to communicate them via means which people aren’t accustomed to analysing closely. People are very well accustomed to interpreting political speech (‘words’), but much less accustomed to parsing video texts and the subtexts which emerge when multiple texts are intercut with each other in a dense and coordinated fashion. This is what makes video such a strong medium for political communication; why Eisenstein and Riefenstahl and Capra were given such prominent positions in their respective regimes, and why practically every US presidential election since 1960 has been predicted by which candidate’s TV coverage was the stronger.
The clip in question presents a dual narrative which appeals simultaneously to peoples’ cautious, empirical, rational side and to their hopeful, nationalistic, emotional side in order to produce a sense of hope. It is composed of two separate video texts intercut: one featuring footage of Bill English, Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister; and the second of Bill English, kiwi bloke. The topic is the same, and the visual edit minimises the visual difference between the two narratives, while the voice remains constant throughout. This continuity of voice leads us to interpret the statements of Serious Bill and Chipper Bill as if they are uttered by the same person (which they are) and in the same role and context (which they certainly are not). The context is provided by the image, not the sound, and demonstrates that one person can (and should) hold both opinions simultaneously although the relationship between the two narratives is arguable. Of course, people can hold both views simultaneously (though whether they should is another matter).
The first, Serious Bill, establishes the Minister of Finance at a respectful social distance in a dark suit (with cut-ins to tie and face); the Sky Tower and the bright lights of NZ’s commercial capital in the background, a composition chosen to provide authority and credibility. This is a fairly soft form of the tycoon shot, a wealthy man overlooking his glistening domain. He speaks calmly and in technical terms, playing NZ’s economic problems with a straight bat. He uses the first person plural (“we”) throughout in order to include the audience in his statements. He looks the camera (audience) square in the face, talking directly to us.
The second, Chipper Bill, is established in a full-frame headshot, cut from a full-frame headshot of Serious Bill. This is what I mean by ‘minimising the visual distance’ between the Two Bills. He starts with “Y’know”, a commonplace employed more often to tell people what they (should) know than to genuinely appeal to shared common knowledge. This also marks a distinction between the complex, technical language used by Serious Bill and the colloquial, understandable terms and sentiments which follow. It is a relief to hear someone speaking ‘plain english’ after all that techno-jargon, right? Especially when he’s saying something we want to hear: good news about how “we can beat those Aussies”, after the bad news which Serious Bill was talking about, how our we’ve been “underperforming” when compared to them.
Chipper Bill — smiling and personable, an approachable everyman in a patriotically black polo shirt, continues to be intercut speaking in exhortative platitudes about how we just need to “back ourselves” (cut briefly to Chipper Bill gazing into the middle distance) and “apply some old-fashioned Kiwi can-do”, and so on, in response to Serious Bill’s authoritative but somewhat dry and gloomy facts. This use of “old-fashioned” is a hint of a dig at the previous government, the one responsible for “underperforming”; this dig is made a bit more explicit with the enthusiastic “we’re nearly through the tough times and things are looking up” — just leave it to good old National and everything will be well, not like that other lot, who were opposed to everything traditional, right?
The two narratives describe the reality of how things are (described by Serious Bill) and a dream of how things could be (described by Chipper Bill), as the music gradually rises in the background. The clincher, and the factor which makes this more a political advertisement than anything else, is that Bill English is the connection between the two narratives: if you accept the narrative line, he is the key to turning the dream into reality. This is essentially an overarching ‘hope’ narrative, a most powerful sort in troubled times, as Barack Obama realised, and as expressed by Drew Westen in the first chapter of his book The Political Brain, which opens with an analysis of two contrasting video advertisements for Democrat presidential candidates: one successful, for the Clinton campaign, and one unsuccessful, for the Kerry campaign. What was Clinton’s narrative? Hope.***
This “Two Bills” ad creates a similar hope narrative around the putative Kiwi Dream of “beating the Aussies” with “good old Kiwi can-do”. How could anyone not like that?
Just so you’re not starved of policy analysis, there are unstated, non-trivial National party assumptions about what’s important all through the ad too. The prime one among these is a focus on financial metrics (GDP growth, productivity growth) to the exclusion of other considerations. A Labour ad along these lines might have emphasised a balance between economic and environmental and other outcomes such as quality of life — the fact that this ad mentions no other metrics than wealth is not value-neutral or void of political meaning: it demonstrates the writer’s policy priorities and direction. As well as that, the “beating the Aussies” narrative is a core plank of the government’s current policy of “closing the gap” — it’s not policy-neutral either, but is a function of the government’s own preferences and their political strategy of measuring themselves against previous governments on metrics which favour them. And hang on a minute: are we really “through the tough times”, and are things really “looking up”? Depends who you ask; this is a matter of opinion and legitimate professional dispute among Those Who Know About Such Things, it’s not a slam-dunk even if the Finance Minister says so: after all, it’s his job to say so. And will “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” on its own really be sufficient to bridge the significant productivity and GDP growth gaps between NZ and Australia? What the hell is “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” anyhow, and if it were that easy, why haven’t we done it all before? The entire narrative is constructed of politically-charged assumptions, but it is formed in such a way as to discourage the audience from thinking too hard about it.
There’s one other thing, too: Plain English is Bill’s newsletter to his constituents, and it looks like the similarities don’t end there. It was a catch-cry of his 2002 election campaign. Perhaps if he’d had this production team working on that campaign he’d have won, or at least done well enough to prevent Don Brash from taking over.
So that’s a reasonably thorough teasing out of the political content of this seemingly-innocuous 45-second commercial. As I said in the comment thread at The Standard, the only thing more absurd than this ad getting made and screened with a straight face is Eric Kearley employing the Lebowski Defence when challenged on the fact that the ad quacks very much like a propaganda duck. Regardless of whether it was bought and paid for, as the more conspiratorial commentators think, or whether the use of the form was simply a (very successful) ploy to garner attention, it’s idiotic to pretend that this isn’t political advertising in function. While I tend to find industrial explanations for apparent media bias more compelling than political explanations, people like Kearley obstinately denying the bleeding obvious doesn’t make it especially easy to keep doing so.
* Stands for ‘Vote Them Out’, as I recall.
DPF published two posts yesterday about prominent lefties comparing righties to fascists: Minto comparing Bush to Hitler and Amin, and Carter comparing Key to Mussolini. I agree with him that both comparisons are entirely unjustified, and do a great disservice to political discourse in this country.
But without taking away from that, let’s not forget that David, his commentariat, his blogging cohort and indeed some of his ideological allies have spent most of the past decade making political hay by comparing Helen Clark to various dictators. David was central to the Free Speech Coalition whose billboards protesting the Electoral Finance Act evoked Mao Zedong and Frank Bainimarama; he wrote a weekly column entitled ‘Dispatch from Helengrad’, perpetuating the Clark=Stalin syllogism; his blog permits and tacitly endorses the almost daily comparison of left-wing political figures to tyrants; his closest blogging acquaintance Cameron Slater has constructed his political profile almost entirely of such cloth. The National and ACT parties themselves have a very large portfolio of such comparisons — from the Young Nats publishing the famous image above, to Heather Roy talking about the Clark government’s ‘feminazi’ welfare agenda to Bill English’s frequent comparisons of the Clark government to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, both in the House and in the media. And how could I forget John Banks — former National party cabinet minister and now Citizens & Ratepayers Mayor of Auckland — whose public comparisons of Clark to Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and references to her as the ‘Chairman of the Central Committee’ among others only ceased when he decided to run for Mayor and they were no longer politically tenable. To say nothing of the foaming of various branches of the libertarian and objectivist movements, who are admittedly further from National than Labour are, but nevertheless have been occasional allies of convenience. Although typically less egregious than Carter’s and Minto’s comparisons, these are all the same in principle. The difference is one of magnitude, not of type. And the very worst examples of the type are exclusively from the right.
I should imagine that many of those who engaged in these sorts of attacks on Clark and her government but who are wide-eyed with mock outrage now that the shoe is on the other foot believe (to themselves if not in public) that the former comparisons were rooted in reality, while these latter are not and so are not justified. This demonstrates a phenomenal absence of political or historical perspective: Clark, like Bush, was removed peacefully from office by the ordinary process of democratic action, and the comparison of their programmes with those of the named dictators simply does not bear comparison, and it is disrespectful to history to draw it. David is right to point out that Labour are wrong for stooping to the level of National and ACT and their less-savoury constituents, but that does not erase the initial wrongness which spawned it, and in which he played a role.
[Edited to add Banksie and the libertarians to the list of offenders, and add the image at top.]
Within a half-hour, the two leading trumpet-blowers of the blogosphere have favoured us with their interpretations of the latest developments in the Bill English accomodation saga, and their headlines are marvellous. Both are factual; neither contain any misleading or false information, and yet they convey such different things.
First (chronologically), in the red corner: The Standard:
And in the blue corner, Kiwiblog:
With headlines like this, why would you even need to read the article — or the actual statement?
NatRad’s PCR Jane Patterson on Nine to Noon this morning characterised the government’s counter-recession plan as “drip-feeding”, opposed to Obama and Rudd’s “big bang” approach (audio). But drip-feeding would imply a long-term commitment, and Key doesn’t believe the recession will be a medium or long-term problem.
Rather than either of those metaphors, I would characterise the front-loading of already-planned expenditure and development into the coming six to eighteen months as a short sharp shock; however, given the relatively small amount of expenditure and development in the plan, it’s not even very sharp. Of course, there’s the argument that the government doesn’t have any more money to spend, but Key has bet on a short recession, and that implies short-term debt. I would think that if one was betting on a short recession, one would do everything in one’s power to ensure it was a short recession.
If it turns out to not be a short recession, Key (and English) will have to return to the drawing board, and that will very likely mean another short (perhaps sharper this time) shock, rather than introducing a strategic counter-recession plan mid-term and mid-recession. DPF raises (in some jest) the idea that Key might emulate his hero Muldoon on another matter, but to me it looks like this track could lead to economic micro-management of a very Muldoon-like nature. And the broadband plan is very Think Big.