Posts Tagged ‘symbolic politics’

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

Are we?

datePosted on 15:51, February 25th, 2010 by Lew

While at the Save Radio NZ lunch-at-parliament today, it occurred to me that we’re probably the only country in the first world where you’re allowed to climb the trees on parliament grounds. Is this true?

If so, I think it says a lot about us.

L

Unmix these metaphors

datePosted on 22:57, February 23rd, 2010 by Lew

ace_of_spades

In the last couple of weeks the government’s pistons have started pumping. After a year’s worth of blue-boiler-suited (non-unionised) engineers making sure the sleek machine is primed and fuelled and oiled and ready for action, the engine has roared into life and is beginning to blow out a cloud of smoke in preparation for a screaming burnout. As it proceeds, the party has dealt its Labour opposition a decent hand of cards; you could say they’ve built a house of them, which the mighty engine is in danger of knocking down. After campaigning on a platform of returning integrity and effectiveness to the Beehive, the public are beginning to get an inkling that the emperor may lack a couple of vital articles of clothing.

hughes12

Returning to cards: the strongest card is the decision to mine the conservation estate, announced last year. Classic crony capitalism is shaping up to be the trump suit. The other cards: Hide‘s junket timed to coincide with a wedding; Harawira‘s trivial but more spectacularly mismanaged junket; Key‘s and McCully‘s mining shares; revelations that Brownlee lied about being lobbied by mining interests which would stand to benefit from his actions as a minister; attacks against Radio NZ which benefit Joyce‘s former business partners; attacks against ACC which benefit the insurance industry to which the party has well-known ties; and ministers Heatley, Brownlee and Groser who were pinged pinching from the public purse for their own private pleasure.

corporate_crooks

Mining the conservation estate is the keystone of all this, the central peg on which the whole thing hangs — because the allegations cannot be denied outright, only explained. Particularly in the cases of Key and McCully’s shares, the value of the conflict of interest is irrelevant. It probably should be relevant, but it isn’t really: either there is a conflict of interest, or there isn’t. While there would be (much) more hay to be made from a large shareholding, that isn’t necessary to plant the seed of doubt in the rich loam of the electorate’s and the media establishment’s collective consciousness.

plant-a-tree

Likewise the other issues: trivial, but they ring true and all riff on the same themes. Hide’s transgression was much more significant in actual material terms than was Harawira’s, but Harawira was punished much more harshly because he failed to recognise the symbolic matter in play: both required abject, cringing apologies. Key’s “sloppy” uranium shares, which he was “too busy running the country” to recall owning is reminiscent of John McCain‘s failure to remember how many houses he owned, for which he was rightly crucified by a country staring down the barrel of an economic crisis which would cost many people their only home. The smiling visages of the three ministers on the front page of the Dominion Post: the Minister of Economic Development who can’t be trusted with a credit card; the Fisheries Minister who likes to splash out on feeds of kaimoana for his mates and party hangers-on; the Minister for Climate Change Negotiations wining and dining the former National minister who was an integral part of the Copenhagen negotiation, and now heads the environmental branch of the OECD apparatus. And so on. These are symbolic issues, not matters of real actual wrongdoing. But the government can’t just dismiss them outright, it needs to argue the merits, and by the time you have to argue the merits on this kind of thing, you’ve probably already lost the symbolic battle. This sort of behaviour passes the public’s sniff-test about how they think about the National Muldoon gave us. And it fits the narrative of the modern Key/Brash-era Nats as wheeler-dealers, well-heeled fat-cats with a finger in every pie, feathering the nest for their secretive plutocrat mates. It brings to mind an iceberg, with the tiny, trivial transgressions peeking above a glassy surface which hides the monstrous mass below.

iceberg

The job of the opposition is to tie all this into a coherent story which people can understand and feel in their guts: a myth that trips off the tongue at the pub or in the line at the football, in the front seat of a taxi, sitting on the bus, standing around the water-cooler or in the smoko room — in as many variations as there are poets of the NZ electorate.

This post cannot end without a mention of the good work the folks at The Standard — particularly Eddie — have done toward assembling the blocks for this narrative pyramid. I am often critical of them, and their tendency toward partisan hackery frustrates me, but they do a lot of good work, and it shouldn’t go unrecognised. They’ve covered all the main aspects listed here, but they can only go part of the way: now is for the opposition parties and their allies to lurch into action. All the cards have not yet been dealt; the ace of spades may yet be seen. Although the raw material is all there, it won’t be easy writing this story — just ask Lockwood Smith, who only by dogged repetition and worrying away at the Taito Phillip Field bone managed to raise the electorate and media’s awareness of that actual and manifest case of political corruption. But this is the opposition’s job, and if they can untangle the metaphors and lay them out for people in simple, appealing, resonant terms, they will gain some traction. Then perhaps, they too will begin to belch smoke and fire, and roar down the road to victory.

L

The glow of the furniture, piled high for firewood

datePosted on 22:19, February 10th, 2010 by Lew

There’s been much analysis, wisdom, whimsy, and snark about Gerry Brownlee’s plans to mine the conservation estate. But rather than talk about it, I’m going to repair to a rather dubious poll from stuff.co.nz:

stuffminingpoll

Two things are interesting about this poll. First, for an internet poll, the options are uncharacteristically nuanced. This leads to the second interesting thing: these results are deeply incoherent.

I’m going to work from two assumptions (both of which are pretty arguable). First, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that stuff.co.nz poll respondents are pretty similar to NZ Herald poll respondents and the commenters on “Your Views” and Stuff’s equivalent — putting it very charitably, let’s just suppose that they’re somewhat further economically to the right, less environmentally conscious and with stronger authoritarian tendencies than Gerry Brownlee. Second, I’m going to assume that a poll like this should break roughly along partisan lines, since it’s a government policy opposed by the opposition, part of an overall strategy to mimic Australia, a complex topic of national significance with which people generally have little first-hand experience (the sort of thing they tend to entrust to their representatives), and the poll answers are heavily propagandised using the government and opposition’s own sorts of terms.

The poll result is incoherent because it doesn’t break along (rightward-slanted) partisan lines, although it initially looks like it does. A total of about 56% of respondents approve of mining in principle, and this is roughly what I would expect given this framing, the current government position on the topic, and the demographic characteristics of this type of poll. It’s what the government is banking on in terms of support with this policy: if it drops much lower, they’ll probably back down. But where it gets incoherent is in the other two options. The third option (“too damaging to NZ’s green image”) is about what the Green party is polling, and the fourth (“National Parks are treasures”) is about what the Labour party wishes it was polling. That’s bass-ackwards, because the third option is the Labour party’s actual position on many environmental matters (even Carol Beaumont’s passionately-titled post falls back on NZ Inc. reasoning), while the fourth position is the Green party’s actual deeply-held position of principle. A second source of incoherence is the political framing of the second (most popular) question. By definition, if conservation land is mined it’s not being conserved any more.

Both Labour and the Greens have huge opportunities here, but they need to position themselves to properly take advantage of them. Labour, for its part, needs to tone back the NZ Inc. reasoning which plays into all the assumptions of the second question: that it is a simple trade-off of one type of economic value against another type and come out looking good on the margin. This is classic trickle-up politics, rationale which appeals to the brain instead of the gut. The people who are picking options one and two probably think they’re doing so on solid rational bases: more money, more efficient use of resources, etc. — but the real reasons are probably more to do with ideology (mastery of the environment) and nationalism (catching up with Australia). Labour’s best move here is to appeal to peoples’ identity: New Zealanders think of themselves as people who live in a wild and pristine country, and they like having that country to go and ramble about in (even if they hardly ever do it). The Greens could also adopt such a position, abandoning the wonkery for things which matter to people. Russel Norman tried with his speech in reply yesterday, but I swear, whoever wrote it needs the ‘G’, ‘D’ and ‘P’ keys removed from their keyboard. He needs to take a few hints from the team who got an organic farmer elected to the Senate in Montana on an environmentalist platform by telling him to stop talking about environmentalism and start talking about how much he loved the land. The Greens also need to rethink their deeply confused firearm policy, but that’s a minor thing. In a country with such a strong constituency of outdoorsfolk and wilderness sportspeople it’s an absolute travesty that the MP who represents the hunting lobby is the urbane Peter Dunne, and the only party who genuinely values wild places is represented by earnest city-dwelling vegetarians.

But Labour and the Greens can’t divide this constituency between them; they need to make this appeal positive-sum, and steal back some of those who voted option two. The way to do this is to attack the implicit logic of option two, the idea that you can mine something and still be conserving it, and to remove the idea that this sort of thing is for a government to decide, that it’s somehow too complex or technical for ordinary people to understand. This shouldn’t be hard to do — it’s a plain old political education campaign. But it requires framing and a narrative whereby reasonable people can really only bring themselves to choose the wilderness; causing them to lose faith in the assurances of the government’s “strict environmental criteria”. The narrative needs to be about who we are in New Zealand, and it needs to be one which appeals to socially-conservative rural and suburban folk who would never think of voting for earnest city-dwelling vegetarians even though they share many of the same bedrock values. It needs to be like the lyric in the title: we are burning our furniture, and that’s not what civilised people do. New Zealand is not a nation of environmental degenerates, except when insufferable environmentalist smugness forces them to choose degeneracy as the less-bad identity position.

This is an issue on which the left can win, because it’s already a pretty marginal issue for the government. It cuts against a long-standing bipartisan reverence for National Parks, and it cuts against New Zealand identity as New Zealanders see it. Even on what should be a pretty reactionary online poll, the government only wins by 6%. Turn one in six of those people around and the issue gets put on ice for good.

L

The “I” thing

datePosted on 09:06, February 9th, 2010 by Lew

iAs much as there are great expectations on John Key’s statement to Parliament today, the pressure on Phil Goff is only slightly less. He may not have the responsibility of running a country, but that’s the problem: little or nothing indicates he will have a country to run in the foreseeable future, the optimism of the activist left notwithstanding. Goff’s reply needs to be a game-changer; it needs to reframe the past year, foreshadow the coming “middle year” when the policy engine runs at full noise, and it needs to demonstrate that Goff has got some game and is willing to bring it.

It looks like Labour have just such an event in mind, but I have substantial misgivings about Goff’s planned reply to Key’s throne speech.

If the article in the Sunday Star Times is to be believed, the speech’s greatest asset will also be its greatest weakness: it’s to be delivered in the first person. There’s going to be a lot of “I have failed to” and “I should have” sort of statements coming out of Goff’s mouth which will undoubtedly be taken out of context, and on a more subtle level, it will reiterate the fact that Goff is in a pretty impotent position at present. Labour is disconnected from key constituencies, and there remains a perception that it still doesn’t really get why it lost. People will more naturally associate “failure” and “sorry” and so on with Labour than with National. The task of this speech and the coming months is to turn that around, but it will be hard work to sufficiently remind the audience that these things relate to Key rather than Goff himself, given that they’re coming from Goff’s mouth and because it runs counter to the established narrative about Key and what people want to believe about him.

He’s staking his own personal and political appeal against that of the PM. It’s a big risk, but hey, boldness is what’s needed. It’s not as if Goff has much to lose, and if he can make it work, it has potential to reframe the debate from being about the opportunities of the future to the missed opportunities of the past.

L

In January and February 2008 my wife and I did a road trip the length of the country, twice — from Wellington to Bluff, back to Wellington, up to Cape Reinga, and back to Wellington again. For most of the trip, we flew a small Tino Rangatiratanga flag, one of those small ones which clip onto a car window. It was partly a matter of literally “flying the flag” of my political views at this time of year — I must note, with some misgivings on her part — and partly an experiment to see what response it would get.

Photo by Adrienne Rewi.
(Photo by Adrienne Rewi — because its surprisingly hard to take a shot of your own car-flag while driving and we didn’t take one. Used without permission but with thanks — I’ll take it down on request.)

Most obviously, traffic seemed to treat us somewhat differently, though this might be down to regional and seasonal driving variations. Some cars honked, some flashed their lights or waved; others rode closer behind or seemed to overtake more aggressively. Many times I saw drivers staring or otherwise reacting with surprise at seeing a couple of Pākehā in a white station wagon flying such a flag. Truck drivers were particularly well-represented in all these reactions; the road is their territory, and visual vehicular statements of identity or loyalty mean a lot to them.

This was especially true when driving around Otago and Southland with my ZZ Top-bearded and bemulleted uncle in the car. Mostly in the South, though, people were cool but not hostile, and too polite to mention anything they might have thought. The response, both positive and negative, was strongest in the central North Island, Northland and the Bay of Plenty. In Taumarunui we got into town late and a group of local Māori were drinking and singing karaoke at the hotel where we stopped. They were intrigued and after a few friendly waves and “kia ora bro”s a couple of kuia came over to suss us out — asking us who we were, where we were from, and so on. Learning that we were from Whanganui, and that I have family connections to Jerusalem put it in context and they treated us with easy amiability. Their only mention of the flag was to remark that it was probably a pretty good guard against theft; said with warmth and irony and humour. There were several of these sort of encounters. Later, stopping for side-of-the-road hāngi on the road between Wellsford and Whangarei, the young guy gave us $2 off and claimed it was because it was the last, though I could see there was plenty left and it was only just lunch time. Especially in the Far North, and through the Bay of Plenty from Te Puke through Whakatane down to about Rotorua, Māori pedestrians and kids playing near the street would shout and point and wave. Usually, this was in run-down areas, and the people waving and shouting “chur bro!” often wore gang colours.

The “anti-theft device” line was replayed unbidden in Tauranga while visiting some in-laws, though this time in all seriousness, with none of the warmth of the Māori in Taumarunui. This was combined with a rather heated debate as to the relative merits of the Clark government, Foreshore and Seabed Act and general state of the bicultural nation. The two events were on consecutive days, and the contrast could not have been more stark.

In a couple of cases — once in Lyttelton in the carpark of the Wunderbar, and again outside a petrol station in Whitianga — we were asked by random strangers if we were Māori, and if not, why were we flying the flag. In Lyttelton this was good-natured and curious; in the other case, the question was asked with gruff suspicion, and the answer — an explanation of what the flag means and its origin — didn’t cut any ice with the chap who looked and seemed rather like Garth George. I’ve encountered that sort of reaction before — once a guy called me a “race traitor” in Molly Malone’s because I was wearing a Tino Rangatiratanga hoodie — and that one didn’t even have the flag, just the words.

But on a trip of 7,500km on the busiest roads in the country, passing through all the main population centres at the time of our national holiday, in an election year, not long after the Urewera Terra arrests and with issues of racial separatism and colonialism very squarely on the agenda, the thing which was most obvious was how little such a statement changed anything. It reiterated to me that New Zealand is a pretty tolerant and easy society, as long as that tolerance is not stretched too far. Another example of this was this evening’s “Great Debate” on Māori TV between celebrities and comedians and such folks on the moot “now is the time for Aotearoa to close the immigration gates”. I won’t spoil the result, because it really is worth watching (and I assume Māori TV will put up a video), but while the moot was robustly (and often very personally) contested, it was all done in wonderful good humour. The same good humour as of a Māori joking ruefully about Māori crime — and the opposing siege mentality the following day. Happily, I think the former predominates in this country, and provides a sound basis for the ongoing development of a bicultural — and eventually multicultural — society.

L

Great prospects

datePosted on 21:15, January 29th, 2010 by Lew

Hat tipped to Paul McBeth for this one.

As one side engages in some tentative but hugely premature triumphalism, and the other side points the accusatory finger, a sleeping giant awakes. This man — our Nixon, in whom we apparently see ourselves as we really are — has rekindled the fire which once consumed the hearts and minds of the nation (and the knickers of untold women old enough to know better) and thrown himself with renewed fervour into the task of “getting his old job back”.

Thanks either to wicked humour or outright shamelessness on the part of Auckland University political science staff, Winston Peters has been granted the unlikeliest of springboards to launch his 2010 campaign to return to the Beehive in 2011: a lecture to (presumably first year) political science students on the MMP political system. Of course, if they’d wanted a serious lecture on the topic, any number of graduate (and even some of the more geeky undergraduate) students could have done it, but the choice of Winnie was inspired because, instead of just telling these young things the dry facts and functions of the system — let’s face it, they can learn that from a book or even wikipedia.* But here’s a chance for them to learn how the system works in actual fact, from someone who has used it to screw others and been screwed himself, and to learn all that from someone who, just coincidentally, is in a position to demonstrate that no matter how down and out a politician might seem, under MMP he’s only one voter in twenty away from the marble floors, dark wood and green leather benches which house our democratic institutions.

The speech itself is the saga of the heroic battlers who guided the noble, fragile MMP system through the minefields of bureaucracy, persevering despite the “inner cabal cherishing hidden agendas” intent upon bringing about its premature demise. Those heroic battlers were represented by New Zealand First, epitomising the “traditional values of New Zealand politics”; “capitalism with a kind, responsible face”; the “long established social contract of caring for the young and the old and those who were down on their luck through no fault of their own”; a strong, honest party which was forced into coalition with National, although even then the dirty hacks in the media failed to correctly report these facts.

It’s a wonderful story, a fabulous creation myth, and if you’ve listened to Winston’s speeches over the years, none of it will be foreign to you.

But the speech dwells upon the darker, more recent history of MMP, and particularly its perversion by the forces of separatism. This initially seems odd for a speech which praises MMP, but it makes perfect sense when you consider the wider narrative: you can’t rescue something which isn’t in trouble, and the wider narrative is, naturally enough, that Winston is here to rescue New Zealand from MMP and the separatists — blue and brown — who have overtaken it. This is done, in true Winstonian style, with a masterful play on words:

You’ve all heard or seen the British comedy TV show “the two Ronnies” – well we have our own comedy show starring the “two Hones”. Hone, of course, is Maori for John – and the two “Hones” don’t give a “Heke” about who they insult on Waitangi Day.

If you listen closely, you might almost be able to hear the sound of undergraduates giggling nervously, and more quietly but present nevertheless, the sound of confused and frustrated battlers who don’t see what they stand to gain out of any of the current political orthodoxy starting to think “you know, Winston wasn’t so bad after all.”

So, Winston is back. For the record, I still don’t think he’s got the winnings of an election in him without the endorsement of an existing player, and I think it’s better than even money that he would drag any endorser down with him. His credibility is shot to hell, and this is a naked attempt to reach out to a Labour party who have just begun to put a little historical distance between themselves and him, but it will be very tempting for a Labour party struggling to connect with the electorate. If we as a nation are very, very unfortunate, Labour’s failure to reinvent themselves and the illusory success among some of the usual suspects of the “blue collars, red necks” experiment last year — notably not repeated in this week’s speech — will cause them to reach out for the one thing they lack: a political leader who understands narrative, who possesses emotional intelligence and political cunning in spades, who knows how to let an audience know who he is and what he stands for, and make them trust him (sometimes despite all the facts), and who has a ready-made constituency of disgruntled battlers who feel (rightly or wrongly) that the system doesn’t work for them.

Please, let it not come to that.

L

* Incidentally, it may come as a surprise to some of you that these dry facts and procedural details were the reason I dropped out of PoliSci in my first year, and studied Film instead (before realising that it all came back to politics anyway).

The riddle of Key’s incredible popularity

datePosted on 16:53, January 7th, 2010 by Lew

ONE of the year’s intriguing mysteries remains the source of Prime Minister John Key’s popularity when there is no evidentiary reason for the continuing level of public support he enjoys.
In the US, the American public, both Republicans and Democrats, have long realised that President Barack Obama’s “yes, we can” is more accurately defined as “no, we can’t”, despite the passage of his health-care bill on Christmas Eve.
In this, he has achieved rare bipartisanship. Both major parties accept that the bill, in its current form, is a real stinker.
So much for compromising with the states and with every Congressman and Senator to get it passed.
Given Key has achieved nothing of similar magnitude […] he has finished his first year in office with a duck on the political scoreboard.
[…]
The mystery of Key’s incredible popularity may well lie in the sneaky admiration New Zealanders have for those who get away with extraordinary scams.
Remember how the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs found a haven (for a while) with his family in Melbourne while on the lam from British authorities and how he managed to stay ahead of the law while making good his escape to Brazil?
Biggs was no Ned Kelly, nor a Robin Hood, but managed to gather a surprising mass of public sympathy despite dudding his wife and children and was in all reality no more than a petty criminal addicted to good-looking women and a lazy lifestyle.
New Zealanders appreciate clever rip-offs and may not yet have cottoned on to the personal cost that they will have to bear from Key’s profligacy with their cash.

If I could spy on you, dear readers, I suspect I would see a few heads nodding in approval.

As the second-to-last paragraph hints, the above wasn’t written about John Key — it was written by conservative columnist Piers Akerman in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph the week before last. I’ve replaced ‘Kevin Rudd’ with ‘John Key’ and ‘Australian’ with ‘New Zealander’ (and cut it, obviously).

But dedicated partisans on both sides are frequently similar in their thinking, and I’ve read pretty much this sort of argument again and again from Key’s enemies — people whom I hope are embarrased that they deal in the same sloppy generalities and bitter grumblings as Piers Akerman — over the past year. It misses the point, which is that he’s still popular. By definition, he’s doing well. And yet there is no ‘evidentiary reason’ for it to be so.

This provides a clue as to Akerman’s puzzlement, and that exhibited on this side of the Tasman with regard to Key’s ongoing favour: you’re looking at the wrong factors. The main factor omitted by Akerman and others of his sort is that he (Rudd or Key, take your pick) is emotionally resonant with the electorate. This matters; in some cases, it’s enough on its own. He (either of them) won a campaign based on next to no policy at all, leading the incumbent oppositions of the day to ridicule him, ignoring what was right under their noses: that policy wasn’t necessary.

The modern left’s obsession with facts and figures, expected utility and measurable outcomes should, in a rational world, grant them a strong advantage in any political contest. Indeed, the classical analysis is that democratic political systems which apportion votes by population rather than by wealth are inherently biased toward the working classes who are more numerous by definition. Given the assumption that Labour’s policies objectively provide greater material advantage to a larger number of electors than National’s policies, they should win that horserace every time. But they don’t, because politics is not rational. Concrete policy achievements are not the key to political success; their impact is largely limited to how they make the electorate feel about the party and candidates, not how they impact on the electorate in observable, material terms (although, depending on the policy, this can have considerable impact). The link is not direct and linear: there’s a crucial and very complex layer of abstraction which most politicians on the left simply don’t see.

Drew Westen (about whom I’ve been raving to anyone who’ll listen for the past year or so) goes into much more detail about this, and his book The Political Brain should be required reading to anyone who wants to know how people actually think about politics — when they think at all, which isn’t very much or very hard.* He calls this focus on reason ‘trickle-up politics’; as valid, he says, as trickle-down economics. This strategy concentrates its firepower on the dispassionate brain, the least-important part when it comes to making important judgements, and disdains that which lurks beneath — the part which can call upon deep-seated experience and instinct to order the supposedly rational brain to do what feels right, utility calculations be damned.

Generally speaking, the right understands this better, and they tend to lead from the gut. This provides the left with what they think is an opening to debate the matter on facts, not realising that facts aren’t very important in political decision-making. Westen and other researchers have found in a wide range of experimental situations that they can predict with greater than 80% accuracy a person’s position on a given political issue of the day, knowing only how the person feels about the issue. Adding facts back into the equation only improves predictions by a few per cent. They literally don’t matter without the emotional resonance. This is true for everyone from randoms on the street to justices of the Supreme Court. It’s just how people are.

So, my one wish for the NZ left for 2010 is this: stop thinking of political popularity as the result of naked appeals to the material self-interest of utility accountants; stop hectoring those who remain unconvinced and ask why they are unconvinced, without resorting to the lazy option of complaining that they are fools or stricken by false consciousness or that they just like a good scam when they see one. Start thinking of politics as a system for engagement and trust-building, by which to build a mandate to make a better country. National aren’t that strong; it’s just that they’re against opposition who turn up to the battle for hearts and minds armed with a spoon.

L

*Westen’s research is American and focuses solely on the two-horse Republican v Democrat battle, so it isn’t directly analogous to NZ or Australian politics. Nevertheless, most of the traits he observes hold true to a fairly large extent.

The flag: politics either way

datePosted on 09:34, December 15th, 2009 by Lew

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that every single one of those Māori I’ve heard speaking out against the tino rangatiratanga flag has a tribal axe to grind. Shane Jones, Kingi Taurua, Pita Paraone, Winston Peters — they’re all from the iwi of that group of rangatira who established the United Tribes of New Zealand confederation under Busby in 1835, in the Tai Tokerau. They, naturally enough, want the United Tribes flag flown instead of the one which represents the aspirations of wider Māori. The root of this claim is the belief among those groups that theirs was the ‘state of origin’, as it were — the first actual state in these lands. That’s a complex and disputed claim but regardless, the belief abides, and this sense of primacy is no small part of the reason that so many of this country’s Māori statesmen and women, great thinkers and inspirational leaders, come from the tail of Te Ika a Maui.

They say there’s an ulterior motive in the flying of the tino rangatiratanga flag on the part of the māori party, who have adopted it as their own, and I accept they have a case. They also have a case to argue that the United Tribes flag should be flown — especially at Waitangi Marae (Te Tii), where the choice belongs solely to mana whenua. But let’s not pretend there’s no ulterior political motive on their part: they have every reason to decry the flag as ‘separatist’ and ‘divisive’ in order to fly their own. Not only that, but the motive is no more unanimous among Ngāpuhi than among other Māori — the tino rangatiratanga flag is supported (obviously) by Hone Harawira, and was designed by Hiraina Marsden, the daughter of the Rev. Māori Marsden, one of the most important philosophical figures of that iwi, and a mentor to Shane Jones and many others. So the political motives in play are much more complex than they appear.

As for Winston Peters’ objection that the tino rangatiratanga flag is ‘political’ — was there ever a more ridiculous assertion? The whole purpose of such a flag is to symbolise and propagandise political identity, to provide it focus and expression. The United Tribes flag is no less political than the tino rangatiratanga flag — and so it becomes a matter of picking which symbolism is more appropriate.

On the one hand we have a long historical pedigree, and a flag which represents the early unity of the NZ proto-state and the formal beginnings of collaboration between tangata whenua and tau iwi, but which actually represents only a small subset of the Māori population and whose political cause (to establish a client state sympathetic to the English in their manouvres against the French) was superceded by the Treaty of Waitangi only a few years after its establishment.

On the other, we have a relatively new flag, one whose symbolism and history is exclusively Māori, rather than being part of a wider game between colonial powers; a modern flag representing modern, rather than historical aspirations but which has, to an extent, been hijacked by the radical movement.

For me, it comes down to the process enacted by the government: wisely, instead of deciding by fiat, John Key instructed Māori to decide, and decide they did, with more than 80% of the 1200 submissions in favour of the tino rangatiratanga flag. This is not to side with majoritarianism, but to say that choosing another flag would have been manifest politicking. Better from Key’s perspective to devolve the decision and allow an age-old struggle to re-emerge: he looks statesmanlike, and both his erstwhile political friends and his enemies get bogged down in internecine fighting. I had hoped it wouldn’t happen; and it might yet prove minor. But the issue won’t go away — nor should it.

L

Headline battle!

datePosted on 17:25, September 28th, 2009 by Lew

LingLingBattleWithin a half-hour, the two leading trumpet-blowers of the blogosphere have favoured us with their interpretations of the latest developments in the Bill English accomodation saga, and their headlines are marvellous. Both are factual; neither contain any misleading or false information, and yet they convey such different things.

First (chronologically), in the red corner: The Standard:

English admits he’s been rorting us

  • “English”, formal, invoking his role and status as a public personage and the head of a noted family (who also benefit from the ‘rort’).
  • “admits”, an implied concession of wrongdoing (even though English’s statement — not linked or substantively quoted in the post– makes quite clear that he’s conceding nothing of the sort).
  • “he” and “us”, an active phrasing emphasising the power dynamic in play, in which “we” are being exploited by “him”.
  • “rorted”, a hugely fashionable term in these parts nowadays (a fact on which someone recently wrote an interesting article; can anyone remember who?). It’s a strong, colourful term redolent of the back-slapping corruptness of entitlement, viewed as harmless and trivial by those privileged few who, by dint of social station, connections or wealth are able to perpetrate it, and as an insufferable reminder of greedy injustice by those not so able. This is the word it all hangs on: it provokes the visceral reaction of disgust, and divides the “him” from the “us”.
  • “[has] been” and the past tense throughout, focusing on what has happened. In some ways represents a softening: he has been, but he isn’t any more. But in the wider context this emphasises the ongoing nature of the campaign against English, an unspoken “see, we were right all along, and we have forced this admission” — again, despite the fact that English claims there’s no such admission. Being backward-looking, it focuses on the matter of principle, not of practice; it doesn’t matter that he paid the proceeds of his rort back, what matters is that he rorted it in the first place.

And in the blue corner, Kiwiblog:

Bill pays back allowance

  • Parsimonious, omitting a part of speech which in this case would bear important information, leaving the question open: “his” allowance? “the” allowance? We don’t know if the author thinks he has a right to it or not. It’s just “allowance”.
  • “Bill”, informal, emphasising his individuality and personal characteristics rather than social roles or position. Familiarity suggests reliability, trustworthiness.
  • “pays back”, active phrasing indicating Bill’s volition — he was not forced into anything, he did it of his own accord. Also echoes the Nats’ favoured cat-call of the past half-decade: “pay it back!”, first directed at Helen Clark, then at Winston Peters, a clear delineation drawn because Bill is paying it back and they didn’t.
  • “allowance”, something one is allowed. As in the other headline, this is the word it all hangs on. Its use implicitly disclaims any wrongdoing; because it’s impossible to ‘rort’ an ‘allowance’ by definition, this begs the question of whether Bill is, in fact, allowed it.
  • “pays” and use of present tense throughout, focusing on the future rather than the past, practicalities rather than principles, actions and consequences rather than character or trustworthiness. No harm, no foul, right?

With headlines like this, why would you even need to read the article — or the actual statement?

L

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