Posts Tagged ‘Grant Robertson’

Identity is politics

datePosted on 22:04, August 29th, 2013 by Lew

(Or: How the activist left learned to stop worrying and love identity politics.)

Here and elsewhere I spend much time railing against the notion that “identity” is somehow distinct from “politics”, or that “identity politics” is anathema to the idealised “real politics” of class and ideology. I don’t accept that those with politicised identities — in our context most often women, Māori and LGBTI people — ought to fall in behind the straight white able-bodied men of The Cause on the understanding that The Cause will lend its support to their subordinate issues when the time is right. Moreover, I don’t accept that a person’s politics can meaningfully be divorced from their identity. Identity is politics. I am far from alone in these views.

Recently it has come to my attention that many of those who claim to oppose “identity politics” are pretty happy with it too, given the right circumstances. The contest between Grant Robertson, Shane Jones and David Cunliffe provides a good example.

Right out of the gate the contest was framed in terms of identity — Grant Robertson’s sexual identity. “Is New Zealand Ready For A Gay Prime Minister?”, the headlines asked, proceeding then to draw dubious links between unscientific vox-pops and the reckons of sundry pundits, all of whom were terribly keen to assure us that they, personally, were ready, even if the country isn’t yet. But while Robertson’s identity is what it is, his campaign is not an identity politics campaign in any meaningful way. In this it differs sharply from the campaigns of the other two contenders.

Shane Jones
Shane Jones is expressly running an identity politics campaign: he’s Māori, and his goal to win all five seven of the Māori electorates for Labour is one of many explicit appeals to his Māoritanga, and well he might appeal: it is an attribute sorely lacking among our political leaders, and a particularly stark omission in Labour, with its long claim to being the, um, native party of Māori.

But Jones’ Māoritanga isn’t the only identity pitch: he has made overt masculinity a part of his brand. When he came clean about charging pornographic movies to Parliamentary Services, his explanation was “I’m a red-blooded male”. He recently doubled down on this in relation to Labour’s proposed gender-equality measures, saying New Zealanders didn’t want “geldings” running the country, and that “it was blue-collar, tradie, blokey voters we were missing”. His value proposition for the Labour leadership is that he can expand the party’s electoral base into the archetypally-masculine realm of the “smoko room” where such voters are said to dwell. It seems likely that this strategy will alienate a good number of female voters into the bargain.

David Cunliffe
David Cunliffe’s identity pitch is doesn’t look like an identity pitch, because we’re not used to seeing identity pitches from straight white men. But identity politics isn’t the sole domain of women and minorities — the US Republican Party has been running a long identity politics campaign for most of a decade against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Cunliffe’s claim is his identity as a guy who greets his supporters in a dozen different languages and whose announcement of a candidacy is greeted with a waiata, wearing a lei like it ain’t no thing. He is a mutual-second-best candidate for a bunch of different identity groupings — he’s male, but he has strong caucus support from Labour women, including his previous running-mate Nanaia Mahuta and marriage equality champion Louisa Wall. He’s straight, but he’s not homophobic or chauvinistic about it. He’s Pākehā, but his multicultural bona fides are clear, and he has strong support from Māori and Pasifika caucus members. He studied at Harvard, but he’s the working-class son of an Anglican minister. He’s comparatively young — Generation X — but not so young as to be seen as a whipper-snapper by the Baby Boomers. Homo Sapiens Aotearoan is David Cunliffe’s identity; a modern native of the biggest Pacific city in the world.

Grant Robertson
Grant Robertson’s campaign is quite unlike the others, which are pitched at the electorate, or parts of it. Robertson’s campaign is focused on unifying the Labour Party, on the basis that a unified party will be a more effective machine for building electoral support. His isn’t a pitch based around his individual brilliance or personal character, but his ability to organise, strategise, and forge an effective team out of his diverse and complicated group of colleagues. Robertson’s identity is a part of this — his advocacy and work in passing the marriage equality bill earlier in the year indicates where his politics lie, and make clear he’s no shirker — but this is by no means the focus.

And yet last night’s story by Brooke Sabin basically wrote Grant Robertson’s candidacy off on the basis of a series of ad-hoc buttonholes with workers at a union rally who apparently didn’t like that he was gay. Sabin reported that only two of the 40 people spoken to would support Robertson, and in the studio introduction to the piece anchor Hilary Barry inflated this to:

Labour leader hopeful Grant Robertson was dealt a blow today. Many in the religious and socially-conservative faction of the party, out in force at a rally this afternoon, don’t like that he’s gay, and won’t vote for him.

There are a swag of problems here: most obviously that repeatedly and urgently raising the issue (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) sets the agenda. Further, the footage suggests that the only thing these vox pops were given to go on when assessing Grant Robertson’s fitness to be Prime Minister was that he was gay — so it was the only thing on the agenda. Worse yet; one respondent, when prompted to choose between Jones and Cunliffe, asked “Shane Jones … is he a gay too?” suggesting that not only was she not very well placed to make an informed assessment of the comparative merits of each candidate, but that asking her to do so anyway, taking her word as an indication of general union sentiment and then playing her naïve answer on national TV bordered on exploitation. (At least part of my assessment is shared by Neale Jones from the EPMU, who was there, and said on Twitter, “Sabin went around repeatedly badgering workers about whether they had a problem with Grant’s sexuality. Got story he wanted.”)

The Identity Agenda
Jones’ identity pitch is clear, and Cunliffe’s is less so, but not much less so. Robertson’s identity pitch is inferred from his sexuality and inflated. The only aspect of the archetypal “identity politics” candidate’s campaign which is focused on “identity politics” is the “ready for a gay PM” agenda, which is set by commentators and the media, outside Robertson’s control (but which he must tolerate, lest he be reframed as a “bitchy gay” rather than as the solidly masculine, rugby-playing sort we are possibly prepared to tolerate.)

So that’s ironic. But the deeper irony of this is that David Cunliffe is the darling of many of the people on the activist left who have railed most fiercely against “identity politics” all these years. (Check the list of endorsements here). There’s no policy to speak of in this contest — Cunliffe’s campaign is identity politics through and through, and yet the activist left loves him for it. I don’t think it’s unfair to observe that they love him, and they love it, because now it feels like their identity being prioritised in politics, as if it hasn’t ever been before. All that evil old “identity politics” they railed against before — the problem wasn’t that it was identity politics, but that it wasn’t their identity politics.

But I’m glad they love it. It works, after all. We have a strong sense of who David Cunliffe is, where he comes from and what motivates him, and that helps us understand, and more importantly to believe, his strategic vision and the policy platform he articulates. I think he genuinely does speak to a wider audience of potential Labour supporters than any recent leader, and that can only be a good thing for the party and the polity as a whole. If he wins, and I think he will, I hope it will go some distance to demonstrating that identity and ideology aren’t zero-sum; they’re complementary. Maybe once that realisation sinks in we’ll be really ready for a gay Prime Minister, or a Māori one.

Framing marriage equality to win

datePosted on 07:00, August 31st, 2012 by Lew

On Wednesday night Parliament voted 2:1 in favour of marriage equality, as defined by Louisa Wall’s Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, which would permit two people of the same sex to marry. I haven’t been involved in any of the organised aspects of this movement, but I have watched it closely and lent some ad-hoc support to it. Here are some observations on some of the symbolic and framing issues in the campaign for marriage equality, and some discussion of why, and how, it was successful.

Unity and commitment
This campaign had two features that many do not. First, its proponents worked to find common cause with their erstwhile political opponents. This iteration of the debate was sparked by Barack Obama’s “coming out” a few months ago (I wrote about this here.) It has been a bipartisan project; groups and people from across the spectrum worked together. As many National MPs voted for the bill as did Labour MPs (30 each), splitting the National caucus almost in half. The United Future, ACT, māori Party and Mana MPs also voted for the bill. That is a diverse ideological range.

Second, they committed to really making the case, even though they believed it to be self-evident. Too many many good causes fail because, believing them to be oviously right, their originators fail to organise and articulate their “rightness”. This was not so with marriage equality. They employed a broad range of complementary strategies to appeal to different demographics and constituencies. The campaign spoke to queer people, obviously, but it also spoke to straight people; to the families and friends of those who might benefit from it. It spoke to urban liberals and rural conservatives and Māori and Pasifika and other groups. It spoke to atheists, but it did not generally alienate people of faith. It spoke to peoples’ heads, and to their hearts.

These themes — unity and commitment — are central to marriage, and they were central to this campaign for marriage equality.

Naming rights
One of the great battlegrounds in the Culture Wars is over names, and marriage equality won this hands down. This framing was not the incumbent: early battles were waged for “marriage equality” to supplant “gay marriage”/”same-sex marriage” as the preferred term, and it was successful. One example of this was by Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, who appeared on the TV show Back Benches and suggested the change in terminology, insisting that “I didn’t just do gay parking or have gay dinner”.* This groundwork was laid long ago — there’s a substantial discourse about this piece of terminology, and all Robertson and others did was articulate it effectively. But that was important to do.

“Marriage equality” frames the cause as being about non-discrimination, a universal civil right nominally guaranteed in law and accepted (again, nominally) by a vast majority of people. It’s also an emotively-neutral term, which in this case worked to exclude stereotypically negative or controversial words — words like “gay” and “(same)-sex” — from the frame. These terms may not be generally offensive, but they do retain some valence as insults and evoke an “ick” factor in some people. Largely for this reason, opponents of marriage equality continue to use “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” almost exclusively. (In other contexts these terms, and stronger terms, were used within the campaign to shock or challenge, or were owned & celebrated — I certainly am not suggesting that such terminology be erased from the discourse.)

Note that there’s no discussion of “civil union” as a frame here. This was rejected outright by proponents of marriage equality as being a half-measure, a technocratic institution, and simply not an equal form of marriage.

Hearts and minds
“Marriage equality” is a strong intellectual and symbolic frame with some emotional undertones. Its intellectualism played a key role: it provided a rights-based analysis of the issues, and that rights-based analysis, in turn, provided a platform for a broader, less threatening set of frames.

The rights-based analysis on its own would probably not have won this battle. Intellectual arguments rarely win on their own, particularly when the issues are emotionally-bounded and tied into deep non-intellectual sentiments of culture, history, identity, family, faith and the role of the state, as marriage is. But an emotionally-oriented argument would probably have lacked the necessary rigour to succeed, as well, since the reasoning that marriage ought to be extended to all couples is not self-evident. The “marriage equality” frame appealed strongly to people who were willing and able to articulate the rights-based analysis, to coordinate and disseminate it, and to establish it in the public consciousness. They did so forcefully, with flair and humour, they scored the points and won the policy battle.

This activist community, who mobilised in the social and mainstream media, on the streets and outside the electorate offices, were not themselves the target audience — there aren’t enough of them and they are not widely-enough distributed to strongly influence politicians’ sense of electoral self-preservation. But these actions provided cover for the less-intellectual, but ultimately more emotionally resonant frames — especially “legalise love” — to thrive, and to reach the wider non-activist community and make them care.

“Legalise love” framed marriage equality as being about the recognition of already-existing reality, of acceptance, and diversity, and contemporary family values. Whereas “marriage equality” made a case for what was just, “legalise love” made a case for what was right. Like the best Australian Greens campaign ad the Australian Greens never made, it asked people to think of marriage as being “about love, not laws”; it evoked peoples’ experience of the gay people in their lives — their parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues — and asked people to identify with gay couples, not in terms of their practices in the bedroom or their sense of fashion, but in terms of the quality of their love. It asked people to consider how hard it would be for their own relationships to have been declared verboten by a state and society that just didn’t get it. These are deep, emotional arguments that strike people in ways that an intellectual policy debate, no matter how clever, cannot.

Another strength of “legalise love” was its breadth. Whereas the intellectual “marriage equality” arguments were focused and direct, arguments about love and the quality of relationships touched on more expansive religious and moral themes. Importantly, the cause was framed as being integral to conventional morality, not a subversion of it, and as modern “love thy neighbour”, “live and let live” Christianity in practice, the bloviations of a handful of self-appointed conservative demagogues notwithstanding. Marriage equality was not framed as a challenge to family values, but as a manifestation of family values; to paraphrase a number of politicians, including London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson: marriage is great, let’s have as many as possible. David Farrar made this case well, here.

Double-framing a cause like this — running complementary intellectual and emotional arguments in parallel — is quite hard to do without getting your narratives mixed up and turning incoherent, and too often the weakest aspects of either frame can be exploited by an opponent. But if you can pull it off, it really works. It worked for Obama in 2008 (“hope” and “change”), and it worked in this case. Where the cause came under attack from rational arguments (admittedly this was rare), rational arguments were able to be deployed in defence, and when it came under attack from moral and emotional arguments, those were available as well.

But while the intellectual arguments were effective at laying the groundwork, in my view it was these emotional and moral themes, rather than the logical, rational arguments that underpinned them, that did the heavy lifting of persuasion, of shifting peoples’ consciences, not just their brains. The diverse range of arguments and appeals permitted the campaign to reach a wide demographic range, to reach into faith communities and to appeal to people outside the activist clique. Most importantly, this reach made clear to the MPs whose job it was to vote on the matter that they could, but also that they should vote in favour.

Not done yet
I have used the past tense throughout this as my reference has really only been the campaign so far, but it cannot be emphasised enough that the battle is not won. An unknown but significant number of MPs have voted for marriage equality to go to select committee for further public discussion, but have made no guarantees to support the bill in future. As Jane Clifton argues, there is a coterie of socially-conservative MPs who saw which way the vote was going to go and decided to be on the right side of history as “both a tactful and a time-buying” strategy. There will be attempts to derail this cause, to minimise and distract from it, to dilute and to neuter it. The first of these may have already emerged: Whanganui MP Chester Borrows, perhaps seeking to reprise his role as the great diplomat who proposed the “sensible” compromise position on the Section 59 child discipline repeal, is said to have proposed a compromise position on marriage equality.**

New Zealand’s Parliament passed marriage equality legislation through its first reading, and the lower house of the Tasmanian legislature is set to pass its own. I have not followed that campaign closely, but from what I have seen, many of its framing and symbolic characteristics are similar to those observed here. It is a policy whose time has come, and this is a winning strategy to enact it. Marriage equality holds the high ground; now we must retain it.

L

* Not 100% sure about the phrasing of this, and since TVNZ removed old TVNZ7 episodes from their on demand site, the video is no longer available to check. I’va amended this to match Grant’s recollection. Another twitter user, Jessica Williams points out that it was originally American comedian Liz Feldman.
** I missed this announcement and have been unable to find any detail on Borrows’ proposed compromise but I understand it was announced on Wednesday — if you have details, I would appreciate hearing them.

Team Shearer

datePosted on 22:19, November 30th, 2011 by Lew

I have little useful to add to the voluminous discussion about who the Labour party will choose to succeed Phil Goff. I’m on the outside. This is Labour’s decision to make, and I don’t have a dog in the fight, except inasmuch as a good opposition and a strong Labour party is going to be crucial to Aotearoa. So I don’t know which way the caucus votes are headed, but like any other punter I have views, and I thought I’d sketch them out anyhow.

First of all it is positive that Goff and King have not stepped down immediately, forcing a bloodletting session 72 hours from the election. Two weeks is, I think, long enough to come to terms with the “new normal” and for a period of sober reflection (and not a little lobbying), but not long enough for reflection to turn to wallowing, or lobbying to degenerate into trench warfare. Leaving it to brew over summer, as some have suggested by arguing Goff should remain until next year, would be the worst of all possible options and I am most pleased they have not chosen this path.

As for the options: after some preliminary research the other day I declared for Team Shearer. I am still somewhat open to persuasion, and he lacked polish on Close Up this evening. But he seems to have unusual intellectual substance and personal gravitas. His relative newness to parliamentary politics is offset by extensive experience in other fields, particularly with the UN where tales of his exploits are fast becoming the stuff of urban legend. Most crucially, I understand he is the least institutionalised or factionalised of the potential leaders, the one with the greatest capacity to wrangle the “political wildebeest” that is the Labour Party, to use Patrick Gower’s excellent phrase. This last is, I believe, the most crucial ability. I said before the election that the next long-term Labour leader will be a Great Uniter, as Clark was (although possibly not in the same way Clark was; awe and fear aren’t the only ways to unite a party), and while there are not broad ideological schisms within the Labour party*, it is deeply dysfunctional in other ways and needs to be deeply reformed. This is a hard task, and it may be that no one leader can manage it, and it may take many years in any case, but it looks to me like Shearer’s external experience and outsider status make him the stronger candidate on this metric.

One other thing about Shearer: he seems to have strong support among non-Labourites, including Labour’s ideological opponents. In the Close Up spot he was reluctant to declare Labour a “left-wing party” which will make him unpopular (though I consider this just a statement of fact). I’ve seen some tinfoil-hattery around this — “if people like Farrar and Boag like him, it must be a trap” and so forth. This notion that “the right” has nothing better to do than wreck the Labour party, that every endorsement or kind word is an attempt to undermine, or the suspicion that the muckrakers must surely have some dirt on a favoured candidate borders on a pathology. Such reasoning leads to perverse outcomes, and adherents to this kind of fortress mentality make excuses for poor performance, and congratulate themselves for narrow wins and near losses, rather than challenge themselves to build a strong, disciplined unit capable of winning more robust contests in the future. An example of this in the recent election, where a small but crucial group of Labour supporters abandoned their party, campaigning and voting for New Zealand First in a last-ditch effort to produce an electoral result in their favour, without concern for the strategic effects this might have on the party’s brand and future fortunes. In spite of the lesson of 2008, they swapped sitting MPs Kelvin Davis, Carmel Sepuloni, Carol Beaumont, Rick Barker and Stuart Nash for Winston Peters and his merry band of lightweight cronies. Plenty of dirt there; it would have been a miserable term in government for Phil Goff if the numbers had broken slightly to the left, and (depending on the intransigence of Peters and the other minor parties) one from which the Labour Party may never have properly recovered.

Ironically, Labour has those defectors — about 3% of the electorate if the polls are to be believed — to thank for the opportunity now presented to it by the resounding defeat. If the result had held at around 30% (and NZ First been kept out by the threshold), temptation would have been to revert to the mindset post-2008 election that it had been close enough, that the left had been robbed by the electoral system and the evil media cabal, and that little change was really needed. With support at its worst since the Great Depression, no such delusions can persist, and there is, it would seem, a strong will for reform within the party.

I don’t think the other two likely Davids would make bad leaders either (concerns about Cunliffe that I expressed during the campaign notwithstanding). Cunliffe’s platform with Mahuta is strong, in particular because it will enable the party to reach out to Māori, which they desperately need to do to remain relevant. Parker reputedly has greater caucus support than Cunliffe, and he is also apparently standing with Robertson, who is also said to be standing for the leadership himself. All three Davids are talking about reform, and it will be harder for any of them to paper over the cracks or pretend that nothing is wrong, as Goff and King did. But whatever their will, it is not clear that Davids Cunliffe or Parker have the same conflict-resolution, negotiation and strategic development experience that Shearer does. And they are themselves a part of the problem, having been ministers (however excellent) under Clark, and supporting and sharing responsibility for the abysmal strategy and see-no-evil mentality evident within Labour since 2008.

But the party must do what is right for the party. It is important that the final decision remains with the caucus because as the past year has shown, no matter what the public and commentariat thinks no leader can be effective who is at odds with his team. Ideological congruence also matters; Shearer may be have the best skillset for the reform job, but he may legitimately be considered too centrist by the caucus.

I’ve always been clear that I want the NZ left to win, but I want them to have to work hard for it. I don’t want easy outs, excuses or complacency; I want Labour to be able to beat the toughest, because that’s what produces the smartest strategy and the strongest leaders, and the best contest of ideas. I am sure principled right-wingers hold similar views; they are just as sick as I am of a dysfunctional opposition obsessed with its own faction-wars and delusions of past glory, stuck in the intellectual ruts and lacking in strategic and institutional competence, even though it might make their electoral challenge easier. Good political parties don’t fear the contest of ideas; they embrace it. So my hope is that Labour does not concern itself overmuch with second-guessing the views of their ideological foes, or those on the periphery, but puts the candidates through a thorough triage process and then lets him get on with the job of putting their party back together. It’s not a trap, it’s a challenge.

L

* The lack of ideological diversity is a problem; a healthy political movement should always be in ferment. But it is not the most pressing problem facing the party at present.

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.

L

Let it burn

datePosted on 09:59, March 5th, 2010 by Lew

At the head of a large army [Po-ts’ai] was besieging Ch’ang-she, which was held by Huang-fu Sung. The garrison was very small, and a general feeling of nervousness pervaded the ranks; so Huang-fu Sung called his officers together and said: “In war, there are various indirect methods of attack, and numbers do not count for everything. Now the rebels have pitched their camp in the midst of thick grass which will easily burn when the wind blows. If we set fire to it at night, they will be thrown into panic, and we can make a sortie and attack them on all sides at once, thus emulating the achievement of T’ien Tan.” That same evening, a strong breeze sprang up; so Huang-fu Sung instructed his soldiers to bind reeds together into torches and mount guard on the city walls, after which he sent out a band of daring men, who stealthily made their way through the lines and started the fire with loud shouts and yells. Simultaneously, a glare of light shot up from the city walls, and Huang-fu Sung, sounding his drums, led a rapid charge, which threw the rebels into confusion and put them to headlong flight.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, XII.9(4)

I can’t agree less with Grant Robertson’s, response to David Garrett’s latest bit of madness. He says he “doesn’t want to give further oxygen” to Garrett’s “extreme and appalling” views, but that’s exactly what they need: oxygen. At present both Rodney Hide and John Key probably want to forget the fact that Garrett is the ACT party’s Law and Order spokesperson, and that consequently there are no such things as his “personal views” on these topics which are separable from those of the party — he is the ACT party’s mouthpiece on such matters, and the government’s ally. We, the people who elected him and permitted Hide to assign him that role, are entitled to take these views seriously, examine them in the context of other things he has said and done, and the opposition’s job is to prevent anyone from forgetting what this man stands for, and how far his definition of “reasonable” is from that of the wider public. From now until he’s ejected from parliament, Garrett should not be able to show his face to the public without a graphic reminder of the fact that he think homosexuality is morally equivalent to paedophilia; that he favours policy (now implemented) which means more prisoners will suffer rape as a consequence of their punishment; and that he thinks poor brown parents should be sterilised. He must be required to either defend his views robustly, or forced to issue yet another humiliating public apology; and both ACT and the government must be required to defend their association with him, or forced to dissociate, demote or publicly censure him.

The instinct for the opposition to deny a topic like this the spotlight only makes political sense when the opposition is vulnerable on the issue; when they fear it could result in a populist backlash against them. Even then, the principles at stake mean a very strong backlash would be required to justify restraint on simple pragmatic grounds. There is no prospect of such a backlash in this case: as Grant says, the statement is “extreme and appalling”. Does Grant think his own sense of what is extreme and appalling differs so much from that of the electorate that they will not agree with him? The worst possible course of action for ACT and the government is to allow this topic to remain at the top of the political agenda for as long as possible. Failing to even try to keep it there shows a lack of political nerve on the part of the opposition; a continuation of the failed strategy employed prior to the election, which Key won in no small part because the very people who should be fighting against him bolstered his public image as a mild, simple, non-threatening chap. Genuine threats must be neither mocked or minimised; the “extreme and appalling” should not be laughed off or left unchallenged. This is the sort of weak-kneed liberal wimpishness and lack of rectitude which leads many voters to mistrust parties on the left, and cleave to parties and leaders whose convictions are firm and forthrightly held. The good and the just does not speak for itself, much as we might wish it would. It requires champions to stand for it, and evil truimphs when those champions fail to stand and fight.

To do so is not the “dirty” personalisation of politics: the character and views of a man who sits on the Law and Order select committee, and in the future could conceivably hold a warrant for Justice, Corrections or Police are perfectly legitimate matters for political debate, which speak both to his ability to represent the interests of New Zealanders and to the quality of the processes and people which allowed him to attain such a position.

The Garrett Solution, as I’ve argued elsewhere, contradicts almost everything the small-government right claims to stand for. After a decade of howling about “Nanny State in the bedroom” and “social engineering” we now see that their erstwhile objections to both these things were not principled, as they claimed, but were in fact just objections on the merits. Social engineering is wrong, they say, unless it’s at the genetic level. It’s also not new: this sort of thing was enthusiastically embraced during the last government by the more unhinged members of the extreme right, and now it has gone mainstream.

The topic of eugenics is the strongest symbolic matter introduced to the political sphere by any participant this term; it is a topic on which the right can only lose, and introduced by someone who is already vulnerable. The grass is high around the government’s camp, the fire is set by one of their own: now, if they are to gain an advantage, the opposition must fan the flames and beat the drums.

L