Posts Tagged ‘iwi/kiwi’

Master-race baiting

datePosted on 22:57, July 9th, 2011 by Lew

[Updated 10 July 2011 to account for Don Brash’s statements in response to John Ansell, and Ansell’s resignation from ACT.]

Many have remarked on the appropriateness of the website of the ACT Party Parliamentary leader’s press-secretary, SOLOpassion, and many have made jokes about the sound of one hand clapping, or fapping, as it were. It is therefore entirely appropriate that ACT should become the butt of these same jokes, since they appear to have swallowed (implication most definitely intended) Lindsay Perigo’s paranoiac auto-stimulatory tendencies whole. His hand-work is evident in the party’s ever more deranged press releases, speeches, and most recently in this morning’s advertisement in the New Zealand Herald, titled “Fed up with pandering to Maori radicals?” and strategically timed for the end of Te Wiki O Te Reo Māori. The advertisement is worth reading; the image below is stolen from The Dim-Post. Read the comment thread over there; it’s magnificent.

There’s an awful lot wrong with this, but aside from the warlike verbiage, none of it is much different from ACT’s or Brash’s prior form, and since I’ve been over most of the arguments before I will spare you the full repetition. You can trawl through the Take Māori section of this blog if you want the detail. But just a couple of obvious things: the reasoning privileges Article III of the Treaty; that is, the article which gives the Crown a colonial payday, while neglecting Articles I and II, upon which the consideration of Article III rests. In terms of a contract, which is a way of thinking about the Treaty that ACToids might be expected to understand, Brash’s reasoning emphasises the payment for services rendered, while materially ignoring the requirement to actually render those services. (More on this theme here). Secondly, it’s more of the same selective history we’ve come to expect: our history as Pākehā matters and has value; theirs, as Māori, doesn’t — except for the bits Pākehā can turn to their advantage, like the decontextualised appeal to Ngāta.

But there is a broader point that this development illuminates. Race relations in Aotearoa has changed enormously in the past seven years. In the winter of 2004, the country was in the throes of Orewa madness. The māori party had just been formed, promising to deliver “an independent voice for Māori” in parliament. Eight years ago tomorrow Tariana Turia won her by-election, seeking to deliver on that promise. Don Brash was the leader of a resurgent National party who held a strong lead in the polls, and whose race-relations platform dominated the policy agenda. Now, Turia leads a hollowed-out party whose mandate and credibility are under severe threat from one of their own. Don Brash, having been ejected from the National leadership disgrace, now leads a party with less than one-twentieth of the electoral support he once commanded; a party he was only able to colonise after it was fatally weakened by a series of appalling political scandals, and then only by the narrowest of margins.

Under Brash National’s popularity stemmed from the fear of a brown nation that emerged from the foreshore and seabed debate and the māori party’s formation. As far as the general electorate of Aotearoa is concerned, those fears were not realised. As far as Māori are concerned, the māori party’s results have been disappointing to say the least. As far as the established political power blocs are concerned, the māori party has proven a very dependable agent their political agendas; even while disagreeing with many of their positions, both National and Labour recognise that the māori party are invested in constructive collaboration with the Pākehā mainstream, not in its destruction. I’ve long argued that the initial purpose of the māori party wasn’t to effect sweeping policy change, but to create cultural and political space for kaupapa Māori politics, and to establish the credibility of same. For all their policy failures, they have succeeded at this task in spades; perhaps they could have afforded to succeed at this task a little less. But largely as a consequence of the sky not falling after the passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act and the emergence of the māori party as a credible political force, neither National nor Labour have any truck with ACT’s vitriol. Don Brash, his “one law for all” rhetoric, and his scaremongering are firmly on the outer.

Even further out on that slender but flexible branch is the architect of Brash’s Iwi/Kiwi campaign, probably the best campaign of its type in our recent political history and certainly one of the most memorable: John Ansell. Ansell’s rhetoric had become distasteful enough by the time of the last election that even the ACT party — then under the leadership of Rodney Hide — refused to use much of his best work. Thereafter he was picked up by the Coastal Coalition. A less credible gang of fringe loonies it’s hard to imagine; one of its principals, Muriel Newman (who, shamefully, was invited by Radio New Zealand to speak as an authoritative expert on the WAI262 Treaty claim) believes that pre-Tasman Aotearoa was settled not only by Polynesians but by “people of Celtic and Chinese ancestry as well as Greek, French, Portuguese, Spanish and others“. Ansell’s own views on race are similarly bizarre; Māori, he reckons, are “not a race, but a religion“.

Ansell is now reduced to ranting in Kiwiblog comments, and is as critical of ACT as he is of everyone else. Even there, though, his views hardly find great favour, with more people objecting that his campaign is distracting from the “real issues” than supporting him. His contribution to the thread about the Brash advertisement — it’s not clear whether he was involved in the ad’s production or not — is a magisterial display of racist, misogynist essentialism, and I think it really gets to the heart of the paranoiac auto-stimulatory tendencies to which I referred earlier. I quote his initial comment in full:

The problem with New Zealand is it’s full of white cowards who are too frightened of being called names to stand up for the truth.

(And that’s just the ACT Party.)

And the truth (if we are honest enough to admit it) is: for the last quarter-century, our country has been brownwashed by a bunch of scammers (aided and abetted by legions of white ‘useful idiots’) into feeling guilty for the supposed sins of our British great-great-grandparents.

A sober reading of the facts reveals that some of these sins were actual (though far less sinful than the crimes perpetrated by Maori on Maori). Many others were highly exaggerated and delivered with lashings of emotional blackmail, for the purposes of extorting compensation.

But of course we are New Zealanders and we are not allowed to tell our truth (as Alasdair Thompson recently found out to his cost).

We are not allowed to speak out about state suffocation, Maorification, feminazism, National socialism, teacher unionism or any of the other evils that are dragging our country into the third world.

Those who do have the guts to tell the truth are called nasty names like racists in the hope that, like snails, one light contact with politically-correct criticism will be enough to make them shrink back into their shells.

And of course it works a treat.

There are plenty of parties for pessimists, backward-looking Maori and white bedwetters. But there’s only one for optimists, achievement-oriented people and forward-looking Maori.

ACT will not succeed until it champions the latter and tells the dishonest others to go to Hell.

In short, their catchment is men and women who think like men. Not men and women who think like women. ACT is the party of the strong father, not the soft mother.

(By strong father I include strong women like Rand, Richardson and Thatcher, and by soft mother I include weak men like Key.)

I hope you people will think about that.

[Update: A NZ Herald article titled Act ad man blasts ‘apartheid’ contains more such statements from John Ansell, who is ACT’s creative director; and in it Don Brash distances himself from them, saying “I don’t want to associate myself with those kind of views at all”. He may not want to, but he is. His own press release issued in conjunction with the advertisement above calls any form of “preferential treatment” — such as concessions granted under Article II of the Treaty, which ACT apparently does not recognise — “a form of apartheid”. Perigo is fond of the term, and also of referring to Māori, Muslims and anyone else who doesn’t quack like an Aryan duck as “savages”. Moreover the prospective MP for Epsom, John Banks — who represents the kinder, gentler face of the ACT party — also has form on this issue, having previously referred to Māori TV as “Apartheid Television”, and holding views generally very comparable with those of Ansell and, in some cases, with Perigo. So Brash’s will to not be associated with such views really raises a question: will he, in order to dissociate ACT from these views, fire his creative director, the press secretary for his Parliamentary leader, and the only MP likely to win an electorate? I rather doubt it, but I believe Aotearoa deserves answers.]

[Update 2: Ansell is gone. One down; how many to go?]

As Russell Brown said, Ansell’s comment is “essentially an incitement to race war“, and I don’t believe Ansell himself would deny that. But it’s more than that; it’s also an incitement to sex war. It’s easy enough to dismiss as the usual sort of dark mutterings, but hang on a minute: this fool is claiming to speak for me, and if you’re a man (or a woman who thinks like a man, whatever that is), he’s claiming to speak for you too. But he doesn’t speak for me. To head off the inevitable speculation, I’m hardly what you’d call a feminised liberal pantywaist; I have a beard, I hunt, I fish, I provide for a family; I like whisky and brew my own beer; I like rugby and rock’n’roll and Rachmaninov, and breaking things to see how they work; I’ve spent years studying martial arts and I’m trained to do or have done most of the things on Heinlein’s list. I wear a Swanndri to work in an office on Victoria Street, for crying out loud.

But in my world, masculinity isn’t measured by warrior prowess or the vulgar ability to force one’s will upon others, whether by physical, social or legislative means. Those things, as anyone who’s studied totalitarianism will tell you, only garner a mean and hollow sort of respect; the sort which dissipates as soon as the heel is lifted from the throat of the oppressed. No, in my world, masculinity is judged by honest work, truth and wise counsel, respect and tolerance, forbearance and understanding, accommodation and partnership; from love and support, and strength of a kind which intersects with but is not eclipsed by that to which Ansell appeals. As I have argued before, that sort of view — the dictator’s view that power comes from the barrel of a gun, that only the whims of the mighty matter — is a bare and miserly sort of humanity. And if that’s how Aotearoa actually is, then I say: come the feminised, Māorified revolution, because we desperately need it.

Of course, it’s not. Ansell no more represents Aotearoa’s men than Muriel Newman does its women, Lindsay Perigo its homosexuals or Don Brash does Pākehā. Their methods have become unsound. As Conor Roberts put it, “if you gaze for long into the sub-5 percent abyss, the sub-5 percent abyss gazes also into you.” Let’s see how long they can keep gazing.

L

‘Come back Helen Clark, all is forgiven’

datePosted on 12:31, August 18th, 2010 by Lew

Thus spake John Ansell, who’s back with another cracking demonstration that he’s the nation’s pre-eminent racial fearmonger. He really is peerless in this regard.

And there’s plenty more where that came from.

Incidentally, you can read Scott Hamilton’s (and others’) thorough and systematic destruction of Ansell’s rather slippery and Victorian views on race, ethnicity, culture and religion (yes, Virginia, ‘Māori’ is a religion) in the comments thread of this post at the excellent Reading The Maps.

L

Yours, not mines

datePosted on 10:08, March 25th, 2010 by Lew

Labour’s campaign against mining Schedule 4 land looks strong, especially at the iconographic level.

The slogan and to an extent the photo frames the issue as a matter of identity, echoing Phil Goff’s “the many, not the few” and Phil Twyford’s “not yours to sell” (though the visual style has come a long way since that campaign, and there’s some subject-object confusion). It also echoes Iwi/Kiwi, undoubtedly the most effective campaign of this sort in recent memory. The hard economic matters — the cost-benefit analysis between mining and tourism and so on — are there, as they should be, but backgrounded to the symbolic concerns.

Goff is clear that he’s not anti-mining, but wants to focus on the 60% of mineral resources outside the DOC estate. That’s the crucial point to make because it draws a bright line between acceptable and unacceptable which is still well north of Schedule 4 — to cross that line the government must first gain electoral consent to mine DOC land, and having done that must gain consent to mine the most precious areas of that estate. The point isn’t that mining is all bad; the point is that mining conservation land is worse than the alternatives. The job of the opposition, environmentalists and anyone who loves the fact that NZ still has wild places which are sacrosanct, or who thinks of those places as a part of them, is to relegate the idea of mining them to the political too-hard basket.

Labour and the Greens are also well-coordinated on this, with Metiria Turei pointing out the government’s duplicity in not revealing its intent to mine areas on Great Barrier Island which are under Treaty negotiations. The māori party should get in on this, as well. It looks good.

L

Insensitive and hypersensitive

datePosted on 22:33, November 26th, 2009 by Lew

In the Insensitivity and hypersensitivity paper I referred to previously, Raymond Nairn and Timothy McCreanor studied submissions to the Human Rights Commission in response to the Haka Party Incident in which He Taua, including one Hone Harawira, broke up an offensive Auckland University engineering school mock-haka (this is poorly documented on the internets, but see here). They found that Pākehā responded by conceding that while the students may have been insensitive, He Taua were hypersensitive. This was and remains the default mode of rationalising race relations incidents in NZ: no matter whether it’s having their haka mocked or their Foreshore and Seabed nationalised, those Māoris are always complaining about something.

The insensitive-hypersensitive contrasting pair is a victim-blaming technique: the assertion that while we may have been insensitive, they are hypersensitive. This is presented as a concession but is in fact an attack which minimises the ‘insensitive’ party’s wrongdoing and magnifies the other party’s ‘hypersensitivity’ as a character flaw:

The term ‘hypersensitive’ carries a psychological load for which there is no parallel in ‘insensitivity’. Insensitivity is represented as deriving from ignorance; as such it can be dispelled by information. It is to be regarded as transitory, incidental, and non-deliberate. From a state of insensitivity an individual can act in ways similar or identical to those who are malevolent but is less culpable because a plea of ignorance can be made in mitigation.
[…]
In contrast, hypersensitivity is represented as deriving from emotional sources and is thus internally mediated. Such psychological phenomena are seen as part of the person’s nature and are not easily accessible to adjustment. Hypersensitivity is thus regarded in the same way as aggression, introversion and other personal characteristics. […] The association of hypersensitivity with emotion and indeed with extremes of emotion facilitates the marginalising of the actions and beliefs of people so labelled in ways which removes them from serious contention in social debate.

… and it’s ‘Warrior Gene’ all over again. Moreover, the common lexical root of the terms produces a false equivalence which amplifies this imbalance:

Blaming both sides, albeit one more than the other appeals to readers’ commonsense lore. […] It doesn’t matter that the unequal weighting of the ideas of hypersensitivity and insensitivity prejudices the judgement.

The sweet irony of this device is that, where there is a genuine imbalance of offence perpetrated by one group against another, it requires the offending group to be both insensitive to their own actions, and hypersensitive to the response of the group against whom the major offence was given. So it is with Hone Harawira’s deeply foolish, divisive and unhelpful comments of late: Pākehā New Zealand took hypersensitive umbrage at the terminology while insensitively ignoring the much greater offence caused by the repeated injustices visited upon Māori. I do not defend Harawira; the purpose is only to illustrate that this remains very much the standard means of reasoning around such incidents.

And so it is with Phil Goff, who played the insensitive/hypersensitive Pākehā role to the hilt in his response to Harawira, and has compounded that ill-considered reactionary stance by extending the narrative to the Foreshore and Seabed and the māori party’s decision to coalesce with National. This implies that Labour still thinks that Māori were unreasonable to object to the mass nationalisation of resources to which they had a legitimate claim in law, and that by cutting loose and forming another party they had somehow given greater offence to Labour than the original nationalisation had justified.

The message from Goff’s Labour party is loud and clear: we make no apologies for the decisions taken while being chased by the Brash Iwi/Kiwi monster, and are now prepared to do it all again if need be. This is a damned shame for the country, and for the party. Labour had a great opportunity to mend its bridges with Māori, as the māori party is burdened with an appalling ETS and its more and more fraught partnership with National — and instead of doing so they set another charge and detonated it. The Māori electorate will not support a Labour party which has declared itself the party of blue-collar Pākehā rednecks who are sick of ‘those Māoris’ and their complaining about things which happened the century before last. Where will they go? What will Labour do without them?

L

In the first few days of July I began writing a post about the report of the Foreshore and Seabed Review Panel. Due to absurd busi-ness* I never got it finished. Since the government has this week responded to the review panel’s findings, two months after it undertook to do so, by kicking the issue to touch, I figure now is as good a time as any to examine the issue again.

First, let me begin by clarifying my position on the issue and the government’s handling of it. I have been vocal in my support of the māori party’s willingness to work with National in government, and their willingness to accept a range of lesser policy concessions in service of the repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act — not so much on the basis that it (the repeal) will necessarily result in a greater quantum of economic or social benefit than those other concessions might have, but on the basis that the decision is for Māori to make. The māori party, (it is often repeated, mostly by disgruntled Labour supporters) does not represent all Māori, and this is true — but inasmuch as it has kaupapa Māori foundations, it has a stronger philosophical claim to representat those māori who share that kaupapa basis than any other party in parliament; and on this issue in particular, a stronger mandate than the Labour party.

Indigenism

The striking thing about the review, and perhaps the reason for the tardy and incomplete response from the government, is that it is grounded in indigenist principles. It’s not the only indigenist policy document the government has kicked to touch in recent months: the NZGB recommendation that the spelling of Wanganui be corrected to Whanganui is another such thing. Indigenism, here used, is not so much ethnic nationalism (as it is usually given to mean) as a non-eurocentric philosophical basis; one which does not presuppose a Pākehā worldview or rules of engagement — a necessary quality in that sort of political action, but not in itself a sufficient quality. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book Decolonising Methodologies provides a clear explication of the practice of indigenist and indigenising research in the Aotearoa-New Zealand context.

The indigenist position derives largely from the choice of panellists (two of whom are Māori scholars) and from the scope of the inquiry, which explicitly gave the panel a mandate to assess the extent to which the FSA “effectively recognises and provides for customary or aboriginal title and public interests” in the foreshore and seabed. This accepted the facts of NZ’s constitutional and legal history and jurisprudence from the Treaty of Waitangi, the Native Land Court and more recently the Māori Land Court, the Waitangi Tribunal, and the Court of Appeal in the Ngāti Apa case: that there are customary rights; they are not a legal fiction or a ‘simple nullity’ as Prendergast had it. These were facts which Labour, claiming to be the natural party of Māori representation, needed a court to tell them — and they reached for the nuclear option of legislation when the court did so. This change is important because it lays the tracks for future legislative and legal events: because the review was conducted from an indigenist basis, the resultant action must necessarily take on an indigenist hue. This was the complaint levelled by all of the usual suspects when the panel was named — as if the job of assessing a dispute over historical rights and legal process could shomehow be neutrally conducted by those whose institutions were responsible for its ongoing rancour.

More than ‘One Nation’

The indigenist perspective embedded in the review process and its frame has resulted in the forthright rejection of “all New Zealanders” rhetoric and the homogenisation which that discourse implies. Diversity exists; different groups have different rights in custom and culture and in law; that reality needs to be carefully managed, not ignored or subsumed by a system which says “we all have the rights I think we should have, and not those which you value”. This is the central foundation on whcih the report and its recommendations stands. In the words of the panel:

the very real problem that arises from the populist notion of “one people” under one law is quite simply that it does not recognise – indeed denies – the fact of the ethnic, cultural and social diversity of our population, which we would argue considerably enriches rather than divides our society. […] We are acutely aware that the notion of “one people” is, in the main, rejected by Māori. Māori say that we are simply two peoples comprising one nation. They see the notion of “one people” emboldened within a western paradigm that is constructed upon those premises and values which underpin the majority culture, the effect of which is to deny their existence. Māori collective property rights have rarely been treated in law in the same way as have non-Māori property rights.

Indeed they haven’t. And there are different conceptions of property rights issues in play here — rights of heredity and customary usage. Submitter Edward Ellison on behalf of Te Rūnanga o Otakau:

What we’re talking about is the mana or rangatiratanga rather than what we might term title or ownership as in the narrow European concept. It just doesn’t do it justice and it can be easily turned against us.

It’s the same issue which resulted in widespread alienation of land in the half-century following the Treaty’s signature: Western legal paradigms of ownership didn’t recognise collective landholdings, so they assumed that lands were the possessions of a given rangatira (or just someone who claimed to be rangatira) to dispose of. The panel, again:

More importantly, throughout this country’s history Māori advocacy and claims have not been made on the basis of ethnicity but of inherited rights – just as non-Māori have made claims and had them met on the basis of inherited rights. Indeed, property and customary rights are not argued on the basis that people are ethnically Māori, but because they have historically inherited rights to specific areas and resources – in the same way as a non-Māori landowner is able to pass down his or her land and associated resources to their children, and so forth.”

This illustrates a point of framing which has shot clear through the discourse around the issue: most discussion is about entitlement or claims under the Treaty of Waitangi, underlined by the fact that tangata whenua have had to go cap-in-hand to the Crown and its authorities. This isn’t a matter of claims or entitlements: it’s about securing rights to resource access and exploitation which never lapsed. The ‘troughing modies’ argument simply ignores the fact that parts of the coast owned by private concerns can and frequently are passed undisturbed down through successive generations of landowners. Just because the resources in question have been handed down collectively in accordance with tikanga, and just because the holders of rights to those resources refuse to accept a Western paradigm of property rights, the claim should be no less valid. This is not to say, however, that the matter is strictly one of property rights. Fundamentally it’s a matter of adherence to the Treaty, which guaranteed tangata whenua the right to their cultural practices (part of ‘tāonga katoa’ from Article 2) which permit them to consider the issue in ways not limited to a strict property-rights interpretation imposed from without.

The excerpts above demonstrate a strong critique of the ‘one nation’ rhetoric, and the falsity of that discourse, in which a culture which is dominant both in terms of numbers and of power draws artificial and appropriative distinctions between transfer of rights and property which are deemed legitimate and those which are deemed illegitimate. This is the discourse which gave rise to Iwi/Kiwi and to the Foreshore and Seabed Act; they are cut from the same cloth. It is the discourse, and the self-serving assimilationism it represents against which the critique is levelled; not against the Pākehā establishment except inasmuch as the two are indistinguishable. Those Pākehā taking umbrage at the critique should, therefore, examine their own role in and allegiance to that discourse and the system which bred it; those who reject it and what it stands for have no cause for alarm from the review process.

Divisions within

But what’s curious is that indigenism, and indigeneity, were central to the review, and to the issue and its future solutions, but ethnicity was not itself a determinant of position among submitters to the review. The panel found that

It was not possible to categorise the submissions by ethnicity in a reliable manner. While provision was made for submitters to specify their ethnicity, this option was not always used, or people elected more than one ethnicity. In any case, ethnicity is not necessarily determinative of viewpoint; some Māori submitters tended towards what might be termed a “Pākehā world view”.

The Foreshore and Seabed dispute is not just a dispute between Māori and Pākehā, as Don Brash and Michael Laws and Chris Trotter would have you believe: the divisions are as much within Pākehā society and Māori society as between them. A ‘clash of civilisations’ paradigm here obscures what’s really happening, it does not illuminate it.

I’ll look more closely at this point, and its cultural and constitutional ramifications, in a future post (when I get time). To be continued.

L

* The same busi-ness which has rendered my posts rare and largely prevented me from participating in the frequently-excellent discussions which have emerged in response to them. Please read my absence as an interested ‘points noted’, and please don’t let my scarceness dissuade you from continuing as you have been.

Democratic Service and Repair

datePosted on 17:25, September 14th, 2009 by Lew

In the shadows of chain-store ghost towns
Where no-one walks the streets at night
A silent nation, hooked on medication
Stares into a blue flickering light.
— Calexico, Service and Repair

This verse has been on my mind rather a lot since moving to my new exurb (it’s not quite a chain-store ghost town, although there sure is one of every chain store here.) But it’s the second pair of lines I’ve dwelt most upon; a potent image of Brave New World escapism as a substitute for real-life engagement, a soma-ed out populace who’ll take what it’s given.* This is a fashionable refrain in postmodern affluent liberal polities: democracy is being undermined by apathy, generated by those who would prefer you didn’t engage in politics at all so they can just get on with running the world without pesky peons interfering.

Political engagement in NZ is fairly weak and superficial, and that is bad for democratic politics. Engagement with and understanding of both the function and the presentation of political process is critical sustenance for democracy; but note, it must be with both the function and the presentation. It can be active (marches, submissions, donations, party membership, etc.) or passive (caring about the news, writing letters-to-the-editor, talkback, bloggery, heated discussions at the pub).

Both are important. In a political network model of concentric circles, a party’s leadership is surrounded by a wider group of insiders, cadres, activists, lobbyists and so forth, surrounded in turn by the party’s wider electorate. Organised political activity will only ever be the domain of a relative few, whom we might call second-circle elites; those who are involved in the political process but who do not drive it. The major role of these second-circle elites is to act as intermediary between the first and third circles; to channel information from the electorate to the leadership and to spread politics out to the electorate. These two functions (in and out) are very different; the former involves constant, frank and honest self-appraisal, a critical assessment function which must be independent from the proselytising imperative. The latter is the proselytising imperative; it requires faith and focus and adherence to doctrine and discipline.

When the feedback loop breaks down and information is fed out but not back in, a political movement becomes hijacked by its elite base — as if the second circle can somehow substitute for the third circle, as if burning desire among a few people can somehow substitute for smouldering will among a much larger number, in apparent ignorance of the fact that votes are not distributed on the basis of intensity of feeling. Ultimately the role of second-circle elites is to promote engagement between the first and third, and where apathy reigns in a polity, it is generally due to their failure to adequately perform those gatekeeping, proselytising and critical assessment functions. But second-circle elites all too frequently blame the electorate for these failures. Often, as in NZ at present, this leads to them decrying ‘politics by focus group’ or ‘pandering to the masses’ as defence of their own ‘principled’ or ‘just plain right’ positions; a view which scorns and patronises the electorate. Often, this position is combined with the grudging acknowledgement that the masses do in fact have all the votes and must therefore be ‘pandered to’ in order to gain sufficient support to prosecute a political agenda which may or may not resemble the agenda campaigned upon. This elite-centred view of politics kills engagement and increases apathy among non-elites, and results in the self-fulfilling prophecy that the unwashed hordes make poor political decisions — they often do, because they often don’t get what they vote for and didn’t have much of a hand in defining it anyhow.

But although the elites might sneer, engagement among the so-called silent majority is highly valuable, and the number of their votes is the least part of their importance. Their scrutiny of political events, policy and discourse may not be so intense, but it is broader and more stable. Even a moderate degree of political and media literacy among a wide section of the electorate provides a valuable check on how much government, its delegated authorities, lobbyists and other political actors can get away with, raising the bar of political action and discourse and providing a check that a high degree of literacy among a small second-circle elite can never provide. This is simply the wisdom of crowds.

Political movements need to decide whether their main priority is to agitate their own partisan lines for short-term electoral gain and alienate those segments with whom they disagree, or to build a democratic infrastructure of engagement and literacy in the polity in the knowledge that greater engegament and literacy will pay dividends. Or, to put it another way, political movements need to decide how much of the one they are prepared to sacrifice to the other. It’s a tricky balance, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s a precise zero-sum tradeoff, but the project of building democratic literacy and engagement is not usually compatible with a partisan agenda, and this means accepting that some proselytisation opportunities will be missed. But if the core problem is a low standard of political action and discourse in the polity, and the imperative is to drive up the quality of political action and discourse by increasing polity-level political and media literacy, then the strategic job of the agitators should be to promote political literacy above all else; even to the partial exclusion of short-term partisan gains. In my view, too much has been sacrificed to the electoral cycle; that the government so often gets away with the ‘nine long years’ gambit, itself a propaganda device to deflect attention from some policy failure or unappealing priority decision, indicates the failure of this imperative.

The NZ electorate is not entirely unengaged, though the standard of that engagement is quite low. There have been a number of catalytic issues in recent years which have made people sit up and care about politics: the Orewa Speech, the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Electoral Finance Act, the s59 repeal; the h debate are a few which spring readily to my mind. Most of these were created by the right for largely partisan reasons, realising that engagement was a way of taking the political initiative. It is critical to note here that engagement is not the same as literacy, but that it can lead to literacy in the long term if properly managed. While the iwi/kiwi debate and the smacking debate and so on generated much heat and little light, they provide an illustration that political activism isn’t quite hunched before the TV screen with a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. What’s needed is a cultural change in NZ democratic politics; issues that the polity cares about, politicians who are responsive to those issues, and elites who are committed first and foremost to raising these issues and sustaining the discourse betwen the first and second circles for the good of democratic politics rather than strictly for partisan gain.

Crowdsourcing politics for democracy’s sake is preventative maintenance. It’s well overdue.

L

* Really, what will we do now that NZ’s Next Top Model has been cancelled?