Posts Tagged ‘Gerry Brownlee’
I disagree with Pablo’s post about media treatment of the Aaron Gilmore saga — but I only disagree a little. In my view the Gilmore case is “stuff that really matters”, but I do agree with Pablo that most of the coverage of it isn’t getting to the “stuff that really matters” elements of the case nearly well enough, and that it is displacing coverage of more crucial issues from the agenda. All the stories Pablo mentions are worthy of much more, and more in-depth reporting than they have received. Two other points Pablo makes are particularly valuable — that “blood in the water is not akin to developing real critiques of the way power is exercised”, and that “the problem of Gilmore’s unwillingness to resign stems not from MMP but from political party charters regarding their lists in an MMP environment.”
The Gilmore story is important, as are those others — but the coverage is so individuated to him that it makes the issues seem trivial, because ultimately, if you reduce the story to that of a drunken backbencher, it is. At the heart of the Gilmore saga is the abuse of power, and the problem is that the coverage is about Aaron Gilmore’s attempted abuse of his own power, not about a culture within the National Party and the government where the abuse of power is not merely acceptable, but routine and expected.
The deep questions — how such a megalomaniac got into an electable position on a party list; who, having been apprised of these born-to-rule tendencies after previous incidents of this sort, approved his position; and the implications of this for the health of our democracy — these are important questions. They haven’t really been asked, or answered, though Matthew Hooton, of all people, had a go at it early on.
The John Key National-led government has a lot of form for bad and self-serving appointments, and for the abuse of power. This has presented opportunities for the opposition to frame them as serial cronyists, which they haven’t been able to take. (I wrote a couple of things about this in the first term — it’s not new). And it’s still going: to hear locals tell it, how Gerry Brownlee and CERA are treating Eastern Christchurch isn’t all that different in its principles to how Aaron Gilmore treats waiters and public servants. (The difference is that they have real power.) Recent appointments on the basis of loyalty or malleability at the expense of quality or expertise include Catherine Isaac to implement charter schools, Ian Fletcher as head of the GCSB and Dame Susan Devoy as race relations commissioner.
This is a government which has been particularly unconcerned with even the appearance of due process, and this should be acknowledged in every story on this topic. There’s no credible argument they hadn’t done due diligence on Aaron Gilmore — he was already in Parliament once. Why do they appoint people like this, and why do they get away with it?
The hard truth is that political parties will overlook an awful lot if there’s a financial or electoral advantage to doing so, just as corporations will. Militaries will overlook almost literally anything, up to and including the mass murder of civilians. This is true of the “nice” guys as well as the nasty ones — the Obama administration’s continuing support of Guantanamo Bay and its increasing use of UAVs are two clear examples of this. Apple products are manufactured by the notoriously exploitative Foxconn (Apple is far from alone in this, but we’re supposed to think Apple is somehow better than others). For a recent local example, see the Labour Party’s dogged defence of Taito Phillip Field, whose abuse of vulnerable workers cut directly against everything a Labour party ought to stand for. There are many more.
The fundamental reason this sort of behaviour is endemic is that we — as voters, or in the corporate case, as consumers — reward it with our votes, or our wallets, or both. Parties and companies that eschew these methods tend to lose to those who accept them as an ethical cost of doing business because while we are happy to get outraged, when the chips are really down, we don’t actually care that much about this sort of thing. It doesn’t really change our behaviour.
The danger is that people start caring, and more importantly, start remembering, and changing their behaviour. If the Aaron Gilmore affair haunts the National party — and the other parties — such that they see a strong downside risk to appointing cronies, selecting megalomaniacs for their lists, and generally swaggering around as if they own the place, we’ll all be better off. If parties are forced to accept responsibility for their bad decisions, and as a consequence to select better people and implement better systems of accountability and conduct, cultures of power-abuse will abate. Incidentally, this is why I don’t favour a rule that allows parties to eject rogue MPs from Parliament* — the Nats bought Aaron Gilmore, they own him. We should judge the entire party by his actions.
But for this sort of change to occur, we need media coverage to develop those real critiques of the exercise of power, rather than critiques of an obnoxious individual who is ultimately just a product of larger cultural systems. That would make this sort of wall-to-wall coverage worthwhile.
* Though I still believe any credible political leader should be resourceful enough to find ways to persuade rogue MPs to resign.
Labour seems to believe that it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission. With the missing figures in the Press Debate, they’ve sought forgiveness for failing to perform on the night, with predictable effect, and yesterday on the wireless with Paul Henry, Labour’s finance spokesperson David Cunliffe remarked about Police minister Judith Collins that if she were the last woman on earth “the species would probably become extinct”. That’s a couple of pretty big steps beyond the usual (and also unjustified) fat jokes about Gerry Brownlee and others, and it’s the sort of behaviour we’d expect in Berlusconi’s Italy, from some of the viler denizens of the lunatic fringe, or perhaps from Paul Henry himself — but it is not conduct becoming a former minister and possible Prime Minister-in-waiting.
I anticipate we’ll see a cringing apology today or tomorrow once the media cycle gets hold of it, but it’s too late — the damage is already done. Some lefties will inevitably claim that having a bit of “mongrel” is crucial to win back “Waitakere Man” (more on this later), or will point to examples of comparable outrage on the other side, but again, it doesn’t matter: Labour is dead in the water if it holds itself to the standards of the rabid right, and this reeks of desperation more than it does of strategy. As Pablo wrote recently, negative campaigning isn’t always a losing strategy, but it has to be done right — and this isn’t. [Edit to add: this sort of behaviour also negates a tactical advantage of being able to criticise Key for his media engagements, such as with Tony Veitch.]
As Labour partisans take great delight in reminding me, I have no knowledge of the inside of Labour’s organisation, and all my Kremlinology about its dysfunction is based on near-obsessive observation of what public evidence is on display. With that caveat, let me advance a thesis: Goff is actually coping pretty well with the campaign so far, but Cunliffe is not. After all, Goff’s only major failure has been an inability to produce costings for the fiscal policy — Cunliffe’s portfolio. Goff, as leader, bears ultimate responsibility for not demanding a better performance from his finance spokesperson, but since Goff has enough on his plate as it is, producing those numbers was surely a responsibility delegated to Cunliffe and his people, and they did not do so. Whether we interpret Cunliffe’s outburst about Collins as (charitably) cracking under pressure or (less charitably) the mask of civility slipping, it looks like he’s feeling the heat more than Goff who is performing better than most people expected (and knows it).
Just a final word about Waitakere Man. Yesterday Stuff.co.nz ran a wee video package they called the bloke test in which journalists asked Key and Goff the same set of questions in order to measure their purported blokiness. This has been widely derided (mostly by the same people who think Labour is running good strategy) as an exercise in vapid idiocy, but that’s not so. Just as much as we have a right to demand political and institutional competence from our leaders, we have a right to judge them on their instinctive, bedrock responses; and this was a case where two leaders were asked a series of unpredictable personal questions and expected to answer them off-the-cuff.
While its utility in measuring “blokiness” is highly dubious, this exchange contained a lot of other information about how the leaders respond to pressure, to humour, their attitudes towards social transgression and their place in society and a sense of who they “really” are. In a representative democracy where voters can be expected to have neither the time nor the expertise to become proficient in every policy field that impacts them, they rely on other indicators to determine who is more likely to make appropriate decisions in their stead. I’ll leave the interpretation of who “won” the Waitakere Man test as political rorschach, but suffice it to say that anyone who thinks this sort of thing is irrelevant trivia needs remedial classes in voter behaviour.
I’m often disappointed by the Greens’ persistent — even pigheaded — reliance on the ‘principled stand’ in politics. While valuable among a suite of tactics, it’s overused as a one-size-fits-all response which pigeonholes them as idealistic zealots who don’t compromise and can’t be worked with. But although I think its consistent use is a poor strategy in the general case, it gives the Greens a valuable trump card: the ability to say “these are our principles; if you don’t like them, go ahead on your own”. While it all too often results in other parties abandoning the Greens as irrelevant and going ahead on their own, it does build a powerful narrative about the Greens which speaks to characer and reliability and permanence. Principled politics, as Geoff says in other words, has an objectivity about it which is often lost in modern pragmatic discourse where what often passes for ‘true’ is whatever you can argue. When all the other parties in parliament — even the other parties who (however unjustly) appeal to the ‘principled’ brand, such as ACT — are falling over themselves to betray their principles, it’s all the more important that you stick to your own. Put another way: when your political strategy is to be principled, refusing to act on principle is not a pragmatic decision.
Most obviously, taking a uniquely principled stance at the time when the pressure is greatest to cave in hugely strengthens that narrative mentioned above, ensuring the long-term strength of the brand. It’s easy to be principled when nothing is on the line — the measure of a party’s commitment to principle is how it performs when the stakes are highest. That measure has now been taken.
Secondly, principled politics is what the Greens know. It’s their realm of competence. An idealistic stance would have given them the ability to critique whatever misdeeds the government undertakes in the name of this act with a clear and objectively indisputable line (“we voted against it”), whilst the best they can muster at present is the equivocal, inconsistent line which Norman is running in the Frogblog thread (“we objected to it and we don’t like it but we voted for it anyway because we thought it was the right thing to do”). BJChip demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding how public-sphere political communication works with (her or his, I’m not sure) defence: “if they give us such idiotic cr@p [as "you voted for it"] we can give it back chapter and verse”. I replied with the following:
As much as they might believe themselves to be big-game players, the Greens have never even made a serious attempt to master the complexities of pragmatic politics, preferring to leave the cut-and-thrust to others. In the realm they have now entered they aren’t so much frogs as tadpoles. Judging by Norman and Hague’s statements and the spirited defence of BJChip (and others who use the pronoun “we” on behalf of the party), it seems they will attempt to defend the decision to support CERRA as they would any principled stance, with a clear restatement of the whys and wherefores behind the decision, omitting any discussion of the political consequences. This is impossible, because it is clear to even the most casual observer that the decision was a pragmatic one based on the politics.
Third and most importantly, at the electoral sharp end a uniquely principled stand positions the party as a ‘safe harbour’ for voters from other parties who are disillusioned by those parties’ too-enthusiastic embrace of pragmatism. This is where I think the Greens got their political calculus most badly wrong. The Greens’ own membership and support base was not going to be unduly turned off by the fact the party refused to support a bill granting dictatorial powers to Gerry “sexy coal” Brownlee; they may have taken some sort of hit, but the risk was not as dire as it is being spun. But a principled stance against this manifest assault on the constitutional framework of the country would have permitted the Greens to position themselves as the last line of defence against Shock Doctrine authoritarianism; a rallying point for liberal values. “Even if you disagree with our policy orientation,” they might say, “at least you know where we stand, and can rely on us to stand against the worst excesses of government impunity.” Coupled with the ideological moderation signalled by the departure of Sue Bradford and Jeanette Fitzsimons, I believe the Greens stood to gain considerable support from disappointed Labour voters, particularly those who wanted the party to act as a functional opposition to the government — and they might have even picked up a little bit from the other parties, as well.
So the decision manifestly fails on grounds of principle, and because the Greens are a self-declared party of principle with neither a strong history nor any particular skills in the exercise of realpolitik, it is doomed to be a failure in practice as well. One silver lining, though: since the Greens stand to gain nothing from it, their support for CERRA doesn’t really indicate that they’ve sold their principles out for power as “Tory toadies”; more that they simply lost their nerve. This stands in contrast to Labour, whose support for the act was obviously based on pragmatic grounds of political calculus, and principles of good governance be damned. This is especially the case for Christchurch-based MPs like Brendon Burns, who is leading the red team’s defence in a particularly distasteful fashion. They are complicit in the power grab. The Greens and their principles are just casualties of it.
In my previous post on the Canterbury Earthquake Response & Recovery Act (CERRA) I lamented the conspicuous absence of outrage in response to the bill’s provisions from partisans on the right. I have since been heartened by the responses from some of the more principled commentators on the right; well done them.
But there is one most conspicuous exception. I have on many occasions in the past defended Kiwiblog’s David Farrar from allegations that he’s a bog-standard Tory authoritarian. Yes, he’s a loyal partisan; yes, he does have his authoritarian tendencies, but his typical policy alignment is clearly classical-liberal. He is is consistently more liberal than almost all of his fellow-travellers and has regularly exhibited a forthright commitment to democratic principles of the rule of law, of good constitutional practice and the importance of checks and balances. Even yesterday’s response conveyed lukewarm concern about the scope and extent of the act. But I take back all that defence of David’s character; and so, apparently, does David take back his commitment to those liberal principles.
Because this morning’s post on the CERRA is nothing short of cringing, snivelling partisan apologia for dictatorship dressed up as a simplistic classical history lesson. Dictatorship, it appears, is a-ok with David just as long as the dictator wears the right coloured tie. Where now are the lofty appeals to the principles of good governance, the shrieking about attacks on the nation’s constitutional integrity, the billboards bearing the endorsements of dictators? There are plenty around, including a very explicit homage to the Free Speech Coalition campaign which David fronted, but nothing from this erstwhile and self-proclaimed champion of democracy himself.
The fact that DPF is being schooled on both the principled and pragmatic problems with this bill by some of the more wide-eyed and reactionary members of his commentariat suggests that he has taken leave of his political instincts as well as his principles; for instance, the notorious ‘burt’, who urges him to consider what might happen if (due to the collapse of ACT) National fails to win the 2011 election and a Labour minister takes over from Brownlee; a possibility he and the government had either not anticipated or don’t believe was worth considering. Nothing would be sweeter irony, but either way: David’s credibilty on these matters is up in a cloud of Tory-blue smoke; a legacy destroyed by unprincipled partisan loyalty. Such is the price of political dependence.
Another update: More angels required to dance on DPF’s pinhead.
This morning I posited a conspiracy theory that the government would use the temporary deregulation measures undertaken in response to the Canterbury earthquake to progress another tranche of wide-ranging reforms to the resource management regime and building and construction industries after the 2011 election.
Absurdly, if the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill is passed without very extensive amendments of the sort proposed by the Greens and voted down by both major parties (it’s going through all three stages right now), then all that and much, much more could happen this week, no election required, and without any review by the courts. The executive powers granted to the relevant Minister (that’s Gerry Brownlee) in this bill are so sweeping as to permit him to do almost literally anything as long as it has something to do with quake recovery — amend or suspend almost any piece of legislation, overturn any electoral decision — really, Dean Knight, Graeme Edgeler and Andrew Geddis (themselves no wide-eyed conspiracy nuts) are just three of the constitutional law experts who are boggling at the possibilities; Idiot/Savant is also much more than usually incandescent, and Gordon Campbell pulls few punches, either. Geddis says the law gives him “a case of the screaming collywobbles”. How’s that for a technical term. Their argument — contra government speakers such as Nick Smith — is that, because there is no real oversight to test whether actions taken are “reasonably necessary or expedient for the purpose of the Act”, the bill’s scope is not strictly limited in black-letter law to those matters, nor indeed to the region impacted by the quake, and the minister and his commission basically enjoy immunity. These are sweeping powers such as those which might be accorded an executive head of state in a command-government situation such as a major war.
Not would happen, mind. I don’t think anyone genuinely thinks Gerry Brownlee will decriminalise murder, approve mining across all schedule 4 land, enact wartime conscription or overrule the results of the forthcoming Supercity election. I don’t. But the point is (assuming Dean Knight knows what he’s talking about) that Brownlee can. Or will be able to tomorrow, until April 2012, which astute readers will note is a good half-year after the next general election must be held. There are no real checks or balances, much of the actions taken under this legislation are able to be taken in secret, and actions taken will not — at least on paper — be subject to judicial review. This means that we are relying on Gerry Brownlee to not be evil. But democracy doesn’t work on the honour system. It can’t. It doesn’t work on the basis that you give a government power in the hope that they use it legitimately; you give it power on the basis that you have the authority and ability to wrest it back from them if they misuse it, and on the assumption they will misuse it. The honour system is fine for bouquets being sold at the cemetery gates. It’s no basis upon which to run a country.
As I’ve often argued here and elsewhere, what sets liberal democracy, with all its failings, apart from authoritarian systems is the ability for the electorate to transfer power by the exercise of these sorts of checks and balances. Under orthodox authoritarian socialism for examplem — more or less the only form of socialism ever fully implemented on a nationwide scale, in the USSR and China, for instance — the transitional dictatorship is empowered with the sole authority and means to put down any such counter-revolution as might endanger the transition to genuine communism; and because of this, the dictatorship enjoys impunity. It has no reason to work in the interests of the people it purports to serve, inevitably becoming inefficient, corrupt and brutal. (Thus, the problem with socialism is authoritariansm which accompanies it, not so much the economic aspects, but that isn’t my point here).
The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill, of all the ridiculous things, brings into being the potential for just such a regime in New Zealand, and we can only hope it is not used to that effect. It is a colossal, hypervigilant overreach. And if any ill comes from this, Labour — and even the Greens and the māori party — will bear as much responsibility as National; they are all supporting it out of “unity”.
Where now are those who railed against the Electoral Finance Act, who speculated darkly that Helen Clark might not relinquish power after the election, or might suspend the operation of the free press; who shrieked about the Section 59 repeal; against ‘Nanny State’ and the illusory Stalinism of lightbulbs and shower heads, drink-drive limits and alcohol purchase ages and compulsory student union membership? Here the papers are being signed to dismantle robust constitutional democracy right under our very noses, and there’s barely a whimper.
(Updated to add Lyndon Hood’s fantastic image of Brownlee VIII, link to Campbell’s article, and tidy the post up a bit.)
Like many others, I was amazed at the turnout for the anti-mining protest in Auckland on Saturday. That 50,000 people would turn out for such an event is remarkable in itself — the NZRU’s financial problems would be solved if they could attract so many people to half a dozen rugby matches each year, and we’re currently rebuilding Eden Park so they can seat that many a dozen or so times next year, and then maybe once or twice a year thereafter.
But the more remarkable thing about this march was its apparently organic nature. From my read — based only on the media coverage, mind — this was not a visually and ideologically cohesive, “branded” demonstration such as “enough is enough” and the more recent child discipline march, which were more or less Boobs On Bikes without the boobs or the bikes, advocating the wholesale adoption of a political product. It was not a heavily stage-managed piece of public theatre as the Foreshore and Seabed hīkoi was, and it was not a set-piece undertaken with a specific tactical purpose such as the most memorable marches of the Springbok Tour were. There were t-shirts and banners and so on, but these were not issued like uniforms with marching orders and approved wording for slogans, imagery and talking points. These were not rented crowds, seas of mime-like bodies serving as a vehicle for someone else’s words and sentiments. This was a genuine all-comers march, and if its almost unprecedented turnout did not bring genuine authority, then its authenticity surely must.
The response from the usual authoritarians has been a heady blend of confusion, disbelief and denial — the same sorts of delusions I normally accuse Labour partisans of falling prey to, when the observable data fails to conform to ideological modelling. This is bad for them, and good for those who oppose the government’s mining plans: if the government persists in believing the models instead of the data, it will go the way of the last government which did so.
But I don’t think this government will do that. I think it will see the writing on the wall, and reframe the mineral debate. Key and Brownlee have surely now seen their error: addressing mining in Schedule 4 as a national economic development issue rather than as a set of regional development issues. Going for it all in one bite was greedy, and as Danyl says, reflects the sort of complacency which creeps in when your opposition isn’t up to the task of opposing. But as strong and authentic as the Auckland march was, it has a weakness, and that’s that it’s composed of Aucklanders. Mining schedule 4 as a national strategy has failed, and likely at the cost of the opportunity to mine in the Coromandel and on Great Barrier Island, but it has thrown into sharp relief those areas where local views are less opposed — such as Paparoa, and possibly Mt Aspiring. As I commented on The Standard earlier, West Coasters are overwhelmingly in support of extended mining, a solid turnout in Nelson notwithstanding. Portraying Nelsonites as latte-sipping greeny liberal lifestylers begrudging their honest hard-working brethren on the other side of the hill a chance at the riches of the land will turn this into a classic town/country divide of the sort National and its mining allies are very skilled at exploiting. So watch for a few hundred — or maybe a thousand — Coasters marching in Westport to support the mining proposal being equated to this weekend’s demonstration in Auckland, and watch for well-meaning Aucklanders, Wellingtonians, Nelsonites and those from elsewhere being told in fairly certain terms to butt out of their regional business.
The government will be taking a risk if it proceeds with this plan, even in a regional form, because it has already permitted the debate to be established as a national issue about national parks in which everyone from the Cape to the Bluff has a stake — but it has amassed plenty of political capital, and now is the time in the electoral cycle to use it. Particularly with the Australian federal government unveiling a new resource tax, New Zealand just got more attractive for mining interests, and the imperative to dig, baby, dig will be stronger than ever.
In the USA, the Spotted Owl evokes the spectre of trivial busybody environmentalism. This species has been extremely well propagandised by the forestry lobby and other anti-environmentalists as a symbol for “putting other species ahead of humanity”. But it is not so in New Zealand (although there is Powelliphanta augusta). For a hint of what the public response to Gerry Brownlee’s plan to mine Schedule 4 of the conservation estate could be like, look no further than the firestorm which has erupted over the YouTube video showing Norwegians shooting protected native birds, among other things.
This has been a pretty persistent story. It’s been at or close to the top of the Stuff “most read” list for going on three days now; at the time of writing, it’s #1. It’s third on the NZ Herald website’s NZ section. It was in almost every dead-trees paper with a national news focus in the country on Friday. It’s featured prominently on One and 3 News (and consequently RadioLIVE), Radio NZ National, Newstalk ZB, and is at present the third-placed story on English-language Norwegian news website News and Views from Norway and has made Norwegian-language mainstream news there too, as well as action from Norway’s own environmental agencies. It’s drawn outraged official comment from DoC and the Conservation Minister; but notably not (as far as I can see) from the Minister of Tourism. There are 400-plus infuriated comments on the original YouTube clip, and 300-plus on the Fish’n'Hunt Forum, the oldest and most popular NZ internet site for discussion of hunting and fishing topics. Stuff.co.nz has a poll up, and the results are quite clear, for what they’re worth:
This outpouring of righteous fury has not come about because of the death of a few birds. None of the species shot by these hunters are so close to extinction that the loss of an isolated handful of individuals will critically harm the population. The reason for the response is that this sort of thing offends us deeply and personally. It is antithetical to who we are as New Zealanders, and it is as if a little part of each of us dies with those birds.
I wrote a few days ago that the task for the opposition, for conservationists and those who love the land and its wildlife was to relegate mining Schedule 4 to the “political too-hard basket”. More specifically, that task for those people — and for the 74% of (notoriously reactionary) Stuff respondents for whom these events are a grave injury — is to see the proposal to mine Schedule 4 as the same thing on a much greater scale, which it ultimately is, and to respond in kind.
Update 30 March: A vivid event like the one discussed above often primes the media and public to pay closer attention to similar events which previously might not have been newsworthy. Dog attacks are a case in point. So it is with this case: the release and eventual death of a weka, hardly endangered but well-loved, from Hagley Park, is now news.
The extravagant mea culpa does strain belief just a little. The only way it could have been weirder is if Key and Brownlee had joined in the self-flagellation. Or if there’d been a musical accompaniment.
If you prefer, auf Deutsch:
In the last couple of weeks the government’s pistons have started pumping. After a year’s worth of blue-boiler-suited (non-unionised) engineers making sure the sleek machine is primed and fuelled and oiled and ready for action, the engine has roared into life and is beginning to blow out a cloud of smoke in preparation for a screaming burnout. As it proceeds, the party has dealt its Labour opposition a decent hand of cards; you could say they’ve built a house of them, which the mighty engine is in danger of knocking down. After campaigning on a platform of returning integrity and effectiveness to the Beehive, the public are beginning to get an inkling that the emperor may lack a couple of vital articles of clothing.
Returning to cards: the strongest card is the decision to mine the conservation estate, announced last year. Classic crony capitalism is shaping up to be the trump suit. The other cards: Hide‘s junket timed to coincide with a wedding; Harawira‘s trivial but more spectacularly mismanaged junket; Key‘s and McCully‘s mining shares; revelations that Brownlee lied about being lobbied by mining interests which would stand to benefit from his actions as a minister; attacks against Radio NZ which benefit Joyce‘s former business partners; attacks against ACC which benefit the insurance industry to which the party has well-known ties; and ministers Heatley, Brownlee and Groser who were pinged pinching from the public purse for their own private pleasure.
Mining the conservation estate is the keystone of all this, the central peg on which the whole thing hangs — because the allegations cannot be denied outright, only explained. Particularly in the cases of Key and McCully’s shares, the value of the conflict of interest is irrelevant. It probably should be relevant, but it isn’t really: either there is a conflict of interest, or there isn’t. While there would be (much) more hay to be made from a large shareholding, that isn’t necessary to plant the seed of doubt in the rich loam of the electorate’s and the media establishment’s collective consciousness.
Likewise the other issues: trivial, but they ring true and all riff on the same themes. Hide’s transgression was much more significant in actual material terms than was Harawira’s, but Harawira was punished much more harshly because he failed to recognise the symbolic matter in play: both required abject, cringing apologies. Key’s “sloppy” uranium shares, which he was “too busy running the country” to recall owning is reminiscent of John McCain‘s failure to remember how many houses he owned, for which he was rightly crucified by a country staring down the barrel of an economic crisis which would cost many people their only home. The smiling visages of the three ministers on the front page of the Dominion Post: the Minister of Economic Development who can’t be trusted with a credit card; the Fisheries Minister who likes to splash out on feeds of kaimoana for his mates and party hangers-on; the Minister for Climate Change Negotiations wining and dining the former National minister who was an integral part of the Copenhagen negotiation, and now heads the environmental branch of the OECD apparatus. And so on. These are symbolic issues, not matters of real actual wrongdoing. But the government can’t just dismiss them outright, it needs to argue the merits, and by the time you have to argue the merits on this kind of thing, you’ve probably already lost the symbolic battle. This sort of behaviour passes the public’s sniff-test about how they think about the National Muldoon gave us. And it fits the narrative of the modern Key/Brash-era Nats as wheeler-dealers, well-heeled fat-cats with a finger in every pie, feathering the nest for their secretive plutocrat mates. It brings to mind an iceberg, with the tiny, trivial transgressions peeking above a glassy surface which hides the monstrous mass below.
The job of the opposition is to tie all this into a coherent story which people can understand and feel in their guts: a myth that trips off the tongue at the pub or in the line at the football, in the front seat of a taxi, sitting on the bus, standing around the water-cooler or in the smoko room — in as many variations as there are poets of the NZ electorate.
This post cannot end without a mention of the good work the folks at The Standard — particularly Eddie — have done toward assembling the blocks for this narrative pyramid. I am often critical of them, and their tendency toward partisan hackery frustrates me, but they do a lot of good work, and it shouldn’t go unrecognised. They’ve covered all the main aspects listed here, but they can only go part of the way: now is for the opposition parties and their allies to lurch into action. All the cards have not yet been dealt; the ace of spades may yet be seen. Although the raw material is all there, it won’t be easy writing this story — just ask Lockwood Smith, who only by dogged repetition and worrying away at the Taito Phillip Field bone managed to raise the electorate and media’s awareness of that actual and manifest case of political corruption. But this is the opposition’s job, and if they can untangle the metaphors and lay them out for people in simple, appealing, resonant terms, they will gain some traction. Then perhaps, they too will begin to belch smoke and fire, and roar down the road to victory.