Former National leader Don Brash addressed the ACT party conference at the weekend, which was half “catching Australia” boilerplate and half a warming-over of the infamous “nationhood” speech given at Orewa in January 2004 (for a thorough rebuttal of which see Jon Johansson, Orewa and the Rhetoric of Illusion). During his address at the weekend (although no mention is made of this in the text of the speech on his website, linked above), Brash correctly stated that the Treaty of Waitangi was ahead of its time, because the contemporary Australian approach, by contrast, was to “shoot the natives”.
At this point, a heckler in the audience piped up: “let’s bring it in“. (Audio).
Moments like these, when people are put in the position of genuinely involuntary response to some stimulus or other, are pretty rare in a political environment dominated by strict stage-management, spin and counter-spin. Their type and quality can tell you a whole lot about a political movement, especially when the response is collective, spontaneous, and embedded within a heightened or aroused political context, such as in the middle of a keynote speech.
What happened next was that the delegates in attendance at the ACT party laughed. At the suggestion that New Zealand implement a system of genocide against its indigenous people which, even back in 1840, was a source of shame for Australia, those in attendance at the annual conference of a New Zealand government party whose ranks include two ministers of the crown laughed. It is hard to be sure from the audio, but it sounds like Don Brash also laughed — someone on-mike did, and in such circumstances only the speaker is miked. Quickly, the laughs turned to disapproving murmurs, and Brash continued speaking as if nothing had happened. But by then the moment was over — the ACT delegates’ true colours had been revealed.
Not all of them, to be sure. No doubt there were those who were agape at the suggestion. Stony, stunned silence from the delegation at large would certainly have been an appropriate response and one which I don’t think would have been too hard to muster. Eric Crampton has suggested (though I suspect he’s by no means committed to this line of argument) that nervous laughter is a fair response to shock; admitting also that nobody seems to be claiming that the laughter was nervous. Eric also placed one in five odds on the heckler being a ringer whose plan was to elicit just this sort of response, in order to discredit the ACT party. Fair enough, I suppose. But it’s not the heckle itself which was disturbing — every party contains its fringe lunatics, those who fly off the handle and say embarrassing things. What’s disturbing is the response, the spontaneous, reflexive, collective reaction to the suggestion of genocide.
Just as Labour are the party of humourless, tuneless harridans after their “John the Gambler” song at the 2008 annual conference, and the Greens are the party of morris dancing hippies because of their 2001 annual conference, the fundamental take-away here is that ACT is the party who laughs at genocide jokes. The ACT delegates own that moment of laughter, just as much as they own the disapproval which followed it. It’s not even out of character for a party which has for some years now campaigned on the basis of arguments that indigenous people represent barriers to the white man’s progress, and was at the time of the interjection revelling in a sustained argument to that very effect: get rid of the bloody natives, and things’ll be a lot easier around here, and then we might catch up with Australia, who solved their bloody native problem good and proper. It speaks to the core beliefs of those in attendance, and what’s more, it largely reiterates what most peoples’ impressions of the ACT party are, based on their rhetoric, their policy positions, and their steadfast opposition to every bit of legislation giving the slightest acknowledgement to Tino Rangatiratanga.
Whether a ringer or an organic outgrowth from the party delegation, whether speaking his own truth to power or having just had a few too many free glasses of capitalist sauvignon, the people of New Zealand are indebted to this anonymous heckler. He has granted the nation a unique insight into the ACT party, and rare basis upon which to judge its underlying character. That’s good for democracy.