Posts Tagged ‘Pita Sharples’
Tonight’s Native Affairs debate between Pita Sharples and Don Brash is now up on their website, and it is must-watch television for a few reasons. The first and most immediately evident is Julian Wilcox’s quality as an interviewer and moderator — this was not a structured debate, with time allotted and mechanical switches between speakers, nor preset, pre-scripted questions. It was a free-flowing affair, with Wilcox acting as both interviewer and moderator; and throughout the two speakers were respectful, genuine, and both had ample opportunity to get their points across. It was superbly done. (Hone Harawira, in a later discussion, twice jokingly invited Wilcox to stand for Te Mana, but for mine he’s too valuable in the media.)
Another reason it was remarkable was because of Don Brash’s bizarre, out-of-touch equation of sentimental or cultural attachment to natural features — maunga, awa, moana and so on — with “animism”. It’s a perverse position to take, given the deep connection New Zealanders — both Māori and Pākehā — have to their landscape, about which I’ve written before. Imagine, if you will, a series of billboards featuring Aoraki Mt Cook, the Waitemata Harbour or Rangitoto, the Waikato or the Whanganui, Wakatipu, Taupo, or my own ‘home’ mountain of Taranaki — with the legend “Brash thinks this is just a lot of water”, or “Brash thinks this is just a rock”. If ACT were politically relevant, it might be worth doing.
Like the gangstas of Staten Island legend, this sense that only what’s literal and material matters, that when push comes to shove, money trumps everything is integral to the faux-rational actor model to which ACT subscribes, and this leads into the major thing which made this interview important:
(Image snapped by Michael John Oliver, via twitter, thanks!)
And a brief transcript:
Brash: “Pita, I put …”
Don Brash, the archetypal white rich guy, brought along a fifty dollar note — a note that many poor Māori voters rarely even see — to a debate that was substantively about the reasons why Māori are politically, socially, and economically deprived.
To appeal to Sir Apirana Ngata in a newspaper advertisement — as Brash did this weekend — is merely crass. To bring that actual visage in as a prop in an argument to dismantle the Aotearoa that Ngata and others had worked to build — that, as Sharples said, Ngata was criticised for being a “radical” by rich white guys like Don Brash — and seeking to imprint his divisive and offensive policies with Ngata’s mana is offensive to the man’s memory. To seek to take personal credit for Ngata’s mana being properly recognised — “I made the decision” — is obscene. To play a statesman’s memory like a chip on a weak hand at the last-chance saloon is no sort of respect. It is the ultimate “I’m not racist” gambit — “look, some of my best banknotes have Maaris on”. I wonder if he would treat the memory of Sir Edmund Hillary or Kate Sheppard in this way. Distancing himself from John Ansell’s misogyny by saying “hey, I put a broad on the $10″ would be a thing to see. He had a decent crack at “I’m not racist, my wife’s from Singapore” back in the day.
Don Brash, during his brief run in politics, accumulated a series of bad images — “poor optics” as the lingo goes. Walking the plank, struggling to climb into the racing car, scooping mud out of his mouth at Waitangi, and so on. This image — of Brash big-noting to Māoridom, if you’ll excuse the phrase; showing them who’s got the Benjamins, or the Apis — should be one of the enduring memories of the campaign. Brash probably thinks it’s a smart symbolic play, but it calls to mind a bunch of things he doesn’t want to call to peoples’ minds — his own wealth, the extent to which he’s economically out of touch with those he claims to want to represent, and perhaps most of all an almost unspeakably flawed sense of political and historical reverence, which places him out of touch at a deeper level; a level of shared sentiment and aspiration, of common culture and values.
In television, the rule is: don’t tell, show. No matter how often he tells Aotearoa that he shares our views and aspirations, we won’t believe it unless he shows us. Since storming the lofty heights of the ACT party Brash is busily telling us that what we stand for what he stands for, despite 98.3% of the evidence contradicting that assertion. And now he’s showing us exactly the same.
This brief report from Radio Waatea brings into crispish focus a few issues regarding the māori party’s support for the new Marine & Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill, and perceived collaboration with the National-led government against its constituents’ own interests:
Sharples is right in several important respects. The role the māori party party has played in getting take Māori and tino rangatiratanga on the government agenda has been crucial. The māori party really does have a unique claim to an “authentic” kaupapa Māori politics, and this should make Māori media such as Waatea, Māori Television and TVNZ’s Māori programming division (which produces Te Karere and Marae) should be strongly sympathetic towards their policy programmes. Should, I say, if the end policy result was seen to be consistent with those kaupapa.
But these agencies do not owe the māori party any favours. As media outlets their job is not to shill for a party line but to present a considered view of current events in context, and by reporting the deep dissatisfaction within Māoridom regarding the MCA bill they are doing just that. Māori media have generally shown a strong commitment to independence and impartiality — which is a particularly tricky thing to do given their cultural focus — and their coverage of the māori party’s policy platform is simply an extension of that commitment. Long may it continue, and would that it were more broadly shared.
What this episode really illustrates is the extent to which the māori party is isolated from its support structures with regard to its position on the MCA bill. Just as the party has failed to persuade its own constituency, and indeed its own caucus, that the MCA bill is worth supporting, it has failed to persuade the only media establishment which might be sympathetic to its cause as to the merits of that cause. All this illustrates one of two things: either the party is way off base; the strategy of supporting the bill is bad for Māori and Māori know it; or that the strategy of supporting the bill is actually a great deal better than anyone knows, but the party has largely failed to articulate this.
I know which I’m tending toward, and I invite readers to argue their case. But no matter which you believe, I think it’s clear that attacking the media is neither a mature nor a useful response. Successful actors in modern democracy lead the media, like they lead their electors — in the knowledge that both must follow willingly, by consent (however grudging), or not at all. If, as a politician, you ever find yourself running a sustained campaign of trying to shove either the media or your constituents in a certain direction against their will, berating or harassing or whipping them for their stupidity or intransigence or for simply failing to follow instructions — then you have very probably already failed.
Recently commenter Tiger Mountain raised the parallel between solidarity with Actor’s Equity regarding The Hobbit and support for the māori party given their coalition with National and sponsorship of some bad legislation. I explained how they’re not equivalent, but leaving aside the main difference of mandate (which the māori party has and AE doesn’t) the wider issue of critical solidarity is an important one, and one which has been raised several times recently. In the wake of The Hobbit fiasco matters of class, identity and solidarity are high in everyone’s minds, and I think in spite of our many differences, we can agree that’s a good thing.
Another contribution to the wider debate is by Eddie at The Standard. For once I find myself agreeing with Eddie’s opening sentence about the māori party, which is:
It’s true, although I would have phrased it as follows:
I wrote at length about this dynamic tension at a time when it looked like Labour was going to force Māori to choose between their class identity and their identity as tangata whenua — and how foolish forcing such a choice would be. (It’s still not clear whether Labour has abandoned it, but it at least seems obvious that they don’t have a full-blooded commitment to the blue collars, red necks strategy. But that’s by the way.)
What tends to follow from statements like that one is a series of value judgements about which set of interests ought to take precedence. This can be valuable, but is often tiresome, particularly when those making the pronouncements are “fighting a corner” for only one half of the equation (usually, it must be said, the “class” corner). But Eddie has mostly (not entirely) resisted the urge to do so and focused on the internal dispute within the māori party, and in particular the rather dictatorial stance taken by Tariana Turia regarding opposition to the new Marine & Coastal Area (hereafter MCA) Bill. That’s an important debate and examination of it is valuable, but what’s not really valuable is Eddie’s attempt to frame Turia’s stance as a matter of māori identity v class identity. It’s not. It’s a matter of the tension between moderate and radical factions within the movement; part of the internal debate within Māoridom.
Class is an element of this internal debate, but it is not the only element, and I would argue it is not even the predominant element. I think it’s clear that the conciliatory, collaborative, third-way sort of approach to tino rangatiratanga taken by Turia and Sharples under the guidance of Whatarangi Winiata (and whose work seems likely to be continued by new president Pem Bird is the predominant force. I also think the main reason for the left’s glee at the ascendance of the more radical faction is largely due to the fact that there’s a National government at present (and recall how different things were when the boot was on the other foot from 2005-2008). Those leading the radical charge against the MCA bill — notably Hone Harawira, Annette Sykes and Moana Jackson (whose primer on the bill is required reading) are not Marxists or class advocates so much as they are staunch advocates for tino rangatiratanga, who oppose the bill not so much for reasons based on class, but for reasons based on kaupapa Māori notions of justice. The perspectives of all three are informed by these sorts of traditionally-leftist analyses, but those analyses are certainly not at the fore in this dispute (as they have been in some past disputes). In fact, the strongest (you could say “least refined”) Marxist critiques of the bill advocate for wholesale nationalisation of the F&S, unapologetically trampling on residual property rights held by tangata whenua in favour of collective ownership.
For Eddie’s caricature of the dispute as “identity” v “class” to hold strictly, Turia, Sharples, Flavell and Katene would need to occupy the “authentic” kaupapa Māori position, the legitimate claim of acting in the pure interests of mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga; while Harawira, Sykes and Jackson (among others) would need to be largely denuded of this “identity” baggage, and be more or less pure class warriors. Neither is true; Harawira, Sykes and Jackson’s critique of the bill isn’t a Marxist critique; they’re arguing that the bill doesn’t serve the imperative of tino rangatiratanga and is therefore not an authentic kaupapa Māori position; an assertion that Sharples has tacitly accepted with his response that the Maori Party must accept compromise. (This is true, of course; I agree with Sharples and Turia as far as that goes. I just disagree that this bill is the issue upon which to compromise so heavily. Because of that, I come down on the side of Harawira, Sykes and Jackson.)
The other misguided thing is how Eddie frames Turia’s insistence that Harawira and others adhere to the party line as some sort of manifestation of Māori over class identity within the party — the quelling of dissent and insistence on loyalty to the leadership elite’s position as a “Māori” way of doing things, opposed to a “Left” way of doing things. This is absurd. The “left” does not automatically stand in defence of dissent or the public airing of heterodox views, much though Eddie (and I) might wish that it should. As I already mentioned, this is shown by Labour’s response to Turia in 2004 and the māori party’s first full term, suspicious at best and hostile at worst. The AE dispute is also an excellent illustration. In that case, the prevailing, “authentic” left position (including that taken by many writers at The Standard, though not — as far as I can recall — by Eddie) was to insist on total public solidarity with the union. In other words, precisely what Turia is insisting upon. I disagreed with this position in AE’s case, and I disagree with it in the māori party’s case. Dissent of this sort (or the imperative of its suppression) is not some innate part of “the left”, nor is it absence a characteristic of “identity politics”. It can exist or not in movements of either type, depending on the merits and specifics. It’s my view that such dissent is the beating heart of a movement, and it is peril to quash it. It is a shame that Turia seems to be making the same error as Helen Clark made regarding this issue in 2004.
But despite these objections, ultimately I agree with Eddie about one other thing: the dispute is really interesting, and the emergence of radical critiques and challenges within the movement is exciting and important. The māori party has a mandate to agree to the MCA act as drafted; after all, according to Edmund Burke’s famous saying, representatives owe their constituents not only their efforts but their judgement on what is just and right and possible. They’re not elected to always take the easy route of political martyrdom, and because of this they may find themselves staring down their constituents. Sometimes they may win. But nowhere are representatives guaranteed that those constituents must not try to stare back. If those who oppose the bill can raise a hīkoi in support of their cause, then let them do so, and more strength to their waewae. And let members of the “left” movements, if their enmity to the bill is genuine, rather than a reflexive attack on a National-led government and the māori party orthodoxy which supports it, march alongside them in solidarity. That will be some sort of justice.
Via 3 News journalist Patrick Gower on Twitter, the news that Pita Sharples is the keynote speaker at the Destiny Church annual conference this Labour weekend. Concerning news.
Except I’m not sure it’s completely accurate. According to the Destiny press release, Sharples is the keynote speaker at the Friday night Awards & Recognition event which kicks the conference off, while (who else) Bishop Brian Tamaki is the “keynote preacher” for the weekend-long event. I think this is an important distinction: it’s appropriate for Sharples, with a lifetime of support for Māori excellence, to be present for an event which celebrates achievements in “business, management, the health and social services sectors, Pacific arts, family breakthrough and contribution to at-risk youth” for a large and largely Māori organisation, featuring pasifika and kapa haka performances to boot.
But that’s quite a different thing to lending the imprimatur of his status as the co-leader of a government party and Minister of Māori Affairs to the shady cultishness of Destiny’s main event. This is not to say that Sharples should shun Destiny outright: after all, as a kaupapa Māori politician he does represent some of the group’s members, and many non-members who share some of their values. Such ‘Dark sides’ of support exist for almost every party; the Greens have their crazed dark-green environmentalists; Labour has the blue-collar rednecks about whom I’ve written previously; ACT has mostly sucked away the white-collar rednecks (and doesn’t mind admitting it) from National, but the Nats still have the worst offenders among the farming lobby and many of the least-savoury Christian sects (much of Destiny undoubtedly included). For all that they might be abhorrent to some, these are all legitimate interest groups and — within reasonable bounds — they must be tolerated and their needs entertained in a free society. Their members have as much right to democracy as anyone else, but (as with any fringe group) politicians must be extremely circumspect about the type and quantity of support that they grant.
There is a danger that Pita Sharples will be seen to pander too much to Destiny; and indeed a danger that he does pander to them. The māori party paddles turbulent waters at present; having compromised very heavily on the Marine & Coastal Area/Takutai Moana legislation to replace the Foreshore & Seabed Act, and now finds that Faustian bargain under attack both from the ACT party without and from Hone Harawira within. Despite the former, and probably because of the latter, they have been very quiet lately. Although they — ironically — share some common ground with Labour on the Takutai Moana bill, there remains a very large gulf between them; not least because Labour’s own conference signals a much more classical materialist direction than that which has previously obtained. Sharples and Turia are no fools, and can see that remaining a client of Key’s pragmatic-instrumentalist National party is a hiding to nothing — even with the ACT party likely out of the picture after the next election, the likelihood that they can maintain common cause once the other has outlived its immediate use seems slender. So they feel like they need another support base, and it must be very tempting to team up with a charismatic leader such as Brian Tamaki at a time like this.
It would be ruinous to do so. Most obviously, this is because outside of his most loyal followers — his 700 Sons — Tamaki’s is an illusory sort of strength, based on the smoke and mirrors of a showman’s art rather than upon deep loyalty and conviction. This much was clearly shown in the 2005 and 2008 elections, where the Destiny Party (and later the Family Party with Destiny’s express endorsement) failed to come close to success, due largely to a lack of internal cohesion. Destiny has failed to demonstrate — even at the height of its profile five years ago, under a government largely hostile to it — that it could mobilise a meaningful number of votes.
The second, and by far the more important reason, is the abhorrent nature of the policies and principles Destiny stands for — crude Daddy State authoritarian Christian conservatism with a brownish tinge; illiberal, intolerant, homophobic and misogynistic, quite opposed to where Aotearoa is heading. And that’s to say nothing of the corruption and appalling social dysfunction endemic to the evangelical cults of which Destiny is an example. The sorts of scandals which currently rock the church of Tamaki’s own “spiritual father” Eddie Long in the USA must undoubtedly also exist within Destiny. This is essentially the same package of qualities which turned the Exclusive Brethren to political poison for Don Brash’s National party in 2005. Because of this deep and fundamental disconnect, and New Zealanders’ innate distrust of folk who think they’re ‘exclusive’ (especially if they’re brown, wealthy or religious), the reality is that an alliance between the māori party and Destiny would likewise be poison, and would probably circumscribe any future prospects of working with either of the two main parties, not to mention utterly ruling out the Green party — with whom the māori party shares the most policy in common.
So there is no easy course for the māori party in the long term; the swell is heavy and the winds both strong and changeable. But to extend the nautical metaphor, Destiny is a reef; not an island. Better that they paddle on by their own course and seek more solid ground.
So the māori party has accepted the government’s Foreshore and Seabed Act repeal proposal.
As I posted the other day, the Iwi Leadership Group, chaired by Mark Solomon, was dead-set against the proposal, with Solomon speaking in very strong terms against it. But now, while residual concerns remain, the ILG has now issued an admittedly grudging and vague endorsement. But there is a lot of daylight between Solomon’s words previously and the content of this acceptance. So my question is: what’s changed? While writing this, I was pleased to hear that Brent Edwards and Barry Soper asked the same thing during the PM’s presser. According to Turia, what changed is that:
That’s very squishy. The problem hasn’t really been the veracity of the rights in question; it’s been the barriers to their acquisition and the limitations on their extent. Neither of those problems have been addressed. The matter of ownership isn’t trivial, and in particular the glaring difference between nascent Māori title-holders whose potential rights have been largely circumscribed while the possessions of existing, mostly Pākehā, title-holders are retained, was of particular concern to Mark Solomon — has not been addressed. More than that, the requirement that claimants not be disadvantaged in their claims by a prior Treaty breach is nowhere to be seen. This is particularly crucial, since it distinguishes to an extent between legitimate and illegitimate alienation. Under such a proposal (as I understand it, and in general) a claimant would be able to claim rights to privately-owned raupatu land and resources, whereas under the present scheme any land in private ownership — no matter whether it was originally confiscated at gunpoint — cannot be subject to a claim. That’s a big deal.
There are some positives in this scheme. As I’ve said, I dislike the “public domain” aspect of it; but I think the recognition of two distinct levels of customary title is good (particularly when set against the FSA’s draconian all-or-nothing approach in which all would get nothing). I generally approve of the mechanisms by which those claims can be tested. But it’s my view that this proposal grants little to Māori that they didn’t already have under the FSA, and although the barriers to test a claim are lower, and the mechanisms are more robust, and there’s generally better faith between the crown and Māori now than there was in 2004, it’s fundamentally the same sort of beast: iwi petition the Crown for rights that, according to the common law of the land, were never extinguished and ought never have been abridged; Māori debased as supplicants, begging the very agent of the crimes perpetrated against them for recompense.
Anyway, my initial position of criticism in the former post was that the māori party would be acting against their mandate if they accepted the government’s offer, it having first been unanimously rejected by the ILF. But the ILF having turned on a dime leaves me in two minds: I don’t like this proposal and I don’t think it has sufficient merit to be acceptable to Māori; but regardless of that the māori party is fulfilling its mandate by accepting it, acting in accordance with the guidance given it by the Iwi Leadership Forum as representatives of the iwi groups with claims to test. What puzzles me is not why the māori party have agreed to it — although the blame will no doubt be laid at their feet more than anyone else’s, and I agree that they ought to have done better — but why the ILF changed so rapidly and so completely. I’m left feeling much like I did when Michael Laws claimed victory about the h when the result of the government’s decision would be to establish Whanganui as a new orthodoxy, and relegate those wanting to use Wanganui to quirky outsider status:
There are a few possible explanations. One is that Solomon’s position as articulated on the Sunday politics shows and later on NatRad was not truly representative of the ILG’s position, and he has since been hauled back into step. DPF favours this line of argument and reproduces a Ngāti Porou press release in evidence. Another is that Solomon’s remarks were an aggressive negotiating position. But he’s not usually the sort to play brinksmanship games, and this government, with its solid parliamentary majority and two-winged coalition structure, is a poor choice of target for such a strategy. Another possibility is that something really did change, and they’ve received more than just assurances. A fourth, and no doubt very popular possibility is that Turia, Sharples, Solomon, Mahuika and all the other Hori Tory tribal elites have been bought off with baubles of office, beads, blankets and limousines.
I guess we’ll see when the final bill is drafted and introduced. And, of course, the response from the flaxroots will be important, because if they feel like they’ve been sold down the river, no amount of baubles will keep them from abandoning the māori party. And nor should they.
Pita Sharples has severely undermined his own and his party’s credibility with his Race Relations Day speech criticising “one person, one vote”. As a minister in a democratic government, he has taken aim at one of democracy’s fundamental symbolic virtues, in such a way as to give the impression he (and his party) are anti-democracy. After years of fighting for the voices of mana whenua to be heard in democratic politics on strong principled grounds, Sharples seems now to have accepted the extreme right’s framing of that representation as antithetical to democracy.
Let’s just be clear: “one person, one vote” is no sort of actual democracy, it is an illusory ideal which persists only in hearts and minds, placed there by bold principles and the stirring oratories brought by democratic leaders of old looking to appeal to something bigger than they were. Even our present democracy, which is a very great deal closer to the ideal than the original American system, is pretty far from “one person, one vote” at a functional level. For a start, we have two votes. Even if you had one, what sort of vote would it be: first-past-the-post, where you’re at the mercy of geography; or single-transferable, where you’re not sure until after it’s all over who your vote actually got counted for; or what? For another thing, you can be a person and not have a vote — people under 18 don’t, prisoners convicted of serious offences don’t (and that could soon include all prisoners). There are more, but I won’t go on — the point is that “one person, one vote” is symbolic, not literal.
But neither are Sharples’ objections literal, they are symbolic. In the non-literal sense, what “one person, one vote” means is the opportunity for equality of input into the electoral process — whether that be by one or two votes, in a big electorate or a small one. What happens after that is democracy in action. In this regard, an electoral system which pays at least some regard to the principle of “one person, one vote” is a minimal bound for a modern democracy (though there are others also). Sharples’ criticism is that this isn’t enough — that democracy should be about equality of outcome rather than input. I agree — and I think very many other people do as well. Making democracy work takes much more than votes. But when it’s framed in the way he has framed it, this sort of discussion is political poison, because it attacks the heart of our political culture. This “race-based” framing of mana whenua political representation has been expressly developed in order to make those things seem indefensible in a liberal democratic context. Sharples has swallowed the hook, and instead of continuing to defend the Māori Seats and mana whenua representation on the existing and well-proven grounds (that it’s necessary for the establishment and maintenance of tino rangatiratanga, guaranteed by the Treaty) he has made a declaration which amounts to “yeah, they’re anti-democratic: so?” The most ridiculous aspect of it is that the existing mechanism which is so reviled complies with the principle of “one person, one vote”: electors on the Māori roll get get the same vote as anyone else, the only difference is in how they cast it. There is equality of input to the democratic process by Māori at the electoral level — it’s elsewhere in the process which is the problem.
I’ve argued before that the core symbolic and philosophical stuff of modern democracy is liberalism of one brand or another. No mainstream political concern can hope to win a democratic mandate without founding a lot of its agenda in liberalism. The symbolism of “one person, one vote” is crucial to this orthodoxy. Charles Elder and Roger Cobb, in The Political Uses of Symbols presented a typology of political symbols in the American context, organised into “political community” symbols which express political values at the highest level (“America”, “The Flag”, “The Constitution”); through “regime” symbols which express the political values of the current orthodoxy (in this case, American democracy, not a specific administration — the examples given are “The Presidency”, “Congress”, and “One Person, One Vote”); and three classes of “situational” symbols which express particular policy or administrational preferences of lesser affect (“The Reagan Administration; “gun control”, etc.) The higher up Elder and Cobb’s typology you go, the greater the degree of political consensus on the values imbued in a particular symbol. Nobody in American politics gets anywhere if they stand against “America”: the task of politics in that context is to convince people that what you stand for is “America”. “One person, one vote” is pretty high up that symbolic ladder. It is an illusion, but it’s a sacred illusion.
Every party in New Zealand’s parliament at present, except one, lays claim to this broad liberal tradition in one way or another. That one party which does not is the māori party. That is not to say that their agenda isn’t broadly liberal in function, but that it’s largely that way for non-Western-liberal philosophic reasons. This is the māori party’s great electoral purpose: to normalise an indigenous political-philosophical tradition. But they can’t do so this way, by attacking the liberal orthodoxy’s sacred illusions, the bedrock values held even by those who would never dream of calling themselves liberals. The māori party, more than any other, must recognise the value of “one person, one vote” as part of the history of democracy working for downtrodden minorities rather than against them, and adopt this as part of its own political basis.
As libertarians have discovered, if you don’t really believe in democracy it’s best not to bother with it — then you get to maintain whatever you claim as high moral ground and leave the actual business of governing to those who lack your unshakeable principles. But that’s not what the māori party is about. They do believe in democracy; they do recognise the importance of engagement and compromise and consensus, and they do plenty of work toward it, and a misguided outburst like this one puts it all in jeopardy. “Race-based” is National’s catch-cry from just a few short years ago, and they will take any encouragement given them to reach out to New Zealand’s conservatives, who are already distrustful of the māori party. It will force Labour further down the path of attacking the māori party to try to recapture the centre ground, rather than encouraging cooperation and the mending of fences. Most critically, it could create a backlash against the very mechanism Sharples seeks to save, generating opposition to the Māori seats his party needs for its survival, and which exist only by the pleasure of the Pākehā majority whose sacred illusions he has slighted.
While it should have been underway already, the māori party must now redouble its efforts to appeal to voters outside the Māori electorates, and prepare to live in a world without them.
It’s a sound speech full of bread-and-butter Labour appeals, not too heavy on the wonkish details, and it doesn’t spare anyone who oughtn’t be spared, targeting a range of elites: Finance company sharks, big business shysters, benefit fraudsters, nearsighted property developers, the honours list, public sector CEOs. Also obligatory references to education, justice and community systems failing young people, which ties into a small serve for the māori party (not named) about the Foreshore and Seabed Act and Tino Rangatiratanga flag, although wisely appealing to Kelvin Davis’ mana rather than Phil’s own, which shows that while he still doesn’t really get tino rangatiratanga, he at least realises that it’s a topic to be treated carefully. Also the absence of a direct attack on the māori party or its principals themselves is a good sign for future reconciliation; an indication that Sharples’ hints of recent weeks that the two parties retain much in common have been understood.
It speaks to the continuing narrative that the government is coasting on a gradually improving economy which has turned out to be much less dire than predicted — a good choice given the same chord has been struck by people like Matthew Hooton in the past week, and playing into Key’s “relaxed” persona. This narrative will stick.
It’s a solid speech, but not a great one. I didn’t hear it, perhaps you had to be there, but this is largely pedestrian stuff, and while “the many, not the few” is an excellent platform for any social democratic leader, this needed to be a speech which burned bright, not one which smouldered. The biggest reason it didn’t, for me, was because it wasn’t clear about who its audience was.
The collective noun of choice, something over which important battles have been fought in recent years, was generally “all new Zealanders”; sometimes “(hard)working New Zealanders” or “working families”. I’ve argued before that the first (“all New Zealanders”) is too broad except as a rhetorical device, and this was an opportunity for Labour to drive home it’s “the many, not the few” focus by telling us who it stands for, to clearly frame of who “we” are to Labour, and to oppose it to who is meant by National’s “we”. You can’t win 100% of the electorate, and you shouldn’t try: if your position isn’t pissing a fair chunk of the polity off (your ideological enemies) then it’s probably not doing much for your friends, either. Mealy-mouthedness is the bane of effective political engagement.
If Labour represents “all New Zealanders” then, by definition, it represents the few as well as the many, and you can’t base a political appeal on that. You can’t represent both the interests of the minimum-wage workers and the stuggling middle classes and the disenfranchised urban poor and the sharks and speculators and fat cats you claim are leeching off them: you need to distinguish one from the other and say: “we work for you, not for those guys”.
This is implicit through the speech, but it must be explicit, and must be repeated over and over, forged as a bond of identity with a Labour party from whom the electorate feels disconnected. All the good policy initiatives in the world won’t save Labour unless it reconnects and re-engages its base, and it can’t do that until it sorts out who its base is, and lets them know. This speech could have done that, but it didn’t.
Two topics in this post, because I don’t have time to fully develop them.
First, John Key must not ignore the anti-smacking referendum. Although the question was leading, the result was decisive and will embolden people like the Copeland/Baldock/McCoskrie axis of evil to drive the stake deeper into the heart of NZ’s traditional social liberalism. Tinkering with guidelines won’t mollify them, and won’t stop the electorate from listening to them because it doesn’t address the substantive point about the status of a light smack in law. What will do that is the Borrows Amendment. With a view to neutralising further attacks on the discipline legislation, I think the government should adopt and pass the Borrows Amendment with due haste, and put the issue to bed (without its dinner). It’s a mutual-second-best solution, whereas the repeal as passed in 2007 was not and will not endure.
Second, Rodney Hide’s position on the Auckland mana whenua seats is consistent and his behaviour is responsible. The (proposed) mana whenua seats in the Auckland case aren’t the same as the Māori electoral seats – they’re appointed, not elected, and this gives him separate grounds to oppose them. It is not inconsistent that he favours entrenching Māori electoral seats if they exist, but not of implementing any more such seats, and not implementing any seats which aren’t elected. He’s being responsible in clearly signaling his intentions in a fairly measured way. He’s not trying to exercise any more power than he has, but simply saying ‘my resignation will be a cost of making this decision, just so you know’ and requiring John Key to consider whether that cost is worth it. In addition, he’s working with Pita Sharples on the issue rather than taking a reflexively oppositional approach. Finally, this is strengthening his core political brand. It’s smart politics all around because whether he gets his way or not, he comes out of this looking good.
Update: A third thing – eternal guest-poster r0b at The Standard continues to go from strength to strength.