Campbell Live tonight returned to McGehan Close (see the report, by Tony Field, here). This street in Mt Albert — on the boundary of Helen Clark’s and Phil Goff’s electorates — was visited by then-opposition leader John Key before Waitangi weekend 2007 for a particularly cynical stunt. This was Key’s first big symbolic play as leader of the opposition, and it was a hum-dinger. He had already singled out the residents of this street in that year’s State of the Nation address at a whitebread rugby club in faraway Christchurch, branding them archetypal members of the New Zealand ‘underclass’, and the visit saw him glad-handing and patronising a bunch of poor brown people who’d already been used as shot in the National party propaganda cannons.
The purpose of the speech, and visit, was to install one of the core planks of the National party narrative about the Clark government — that it was at best unconcerned with the plight of said underclass; and at worst, actively cultivated such a demographic, which would be permanently dependent on Labour’s welfare policies and would therefore be a permanent source of electoral support for the Labour party. (So the ‘bribing the bludgers to breed’ theme goes, rarely uttered by anyone with authority in public but a commonplace among the usual proxies; check almost any General Debate thread on Kiwiblog from around that time for instance.) This is absurd in more ways than it’s feasible to explain here, so I won’t bother. Let’s just leave it at ‘the underclass doesn’t really vote’.
Nevertheless, the visit was a roaring success. Key, bearing smiles and gifts and wearing a tiki t-shirt, charmed the residents of McGehan Close and evidently persuaded them both of his party’s goodwill toward them and of its social and economic plan to lift them from their grim circumstances. The event culminated in Key taking 12 year-old Aroha to the Waitangi Day celebrations — a move full of potent symbolism, even if it was seen to be somewhat exploitative. Drawn out over a full week of coverage (at the time a rare commodity for Key, who had replaced Don Brash as leader just before the Christmas break) this was a highly successful stunt and should have been an early warning of Key’s great talent for making cheesy set-piece events ‘work’ and feel human. The sentiment he evoked in the people of McGehan Close was certainly real.
It’s just a pity the ‘ambitious’, ‘aspirational’ policy programme Key promised them wasn’t.
Joan Nathan, Aroha’s mother, remains on the DPB (having been let go from her hastily-arranged job working for National MP Jackie Blue) and struggles more than ever to cope, now with a sixth child. Aroha, now 16, is living in the care of Child, Youth and Family, which Joan says is the best thing for her, since she is unable to provide a decent life for her daughter. Nathan and others, although they believed in and voted for Key, are now disenchanted and universally express the sentiment that the government’s policies favour the rich, not the poor, and that they haven’t been helped one iota by the change of government; in fact, things have gotten worse. Not much of this is different than it was this time last year, when the Sunday Star Times visited the Close.
So far, so obvious, you might say — and it is; indeed this sort of outcome was very widely predicted at the time. But this is important because it is as strong a counter-narrative as exists for the opposition in this election year. It reframes Key as a faker, a charlatan, an opportunist who’ll exploit whatever circumstances will advantage him, without loyalty or the willingness or ability to follow through on his word; as someone whose focus is on boardroom issues rather than on peoples’ wellbeing. Discussing and reading around the topic on twitter this evening I’ve seen considerable criticism of this Campbell Live story as a cheap human-interest stunt, as opportunistic and exploitative (or moreso) than the original event. I couldn’t agree less. It is a clear, unambiguous example of an investigative journalist simply revisiting a story where much was promised, and measuring it against what has actually happened. This is crucial to its narrative value: these events reframe Key by measuring his own defining stunt — his signature trick — against the objective reality of lived experience. Theory and rhetoric versus real people, living in the real world governed by the policy built from that theory and rhetoric. It is a reality check in its purest form.
There are disadvantages to this narrative line, also, and the virulent responses to the Campbell Live report this evening — I believe I saw presenter Rachel Smalley shudder a little whilst reading some of them out — hint at them. One is the obvious suggestion that Joan Nathan and the other residents of McGehan Close could have done better for themselves, but have chosen not to; the victim-blaming routinely visited upon the poor by the less-poor. A more serious and related line of critique is that there’s a recession on, and everyone’s hurting. Or that it’s only been three years, and change takes time.
But hang on a minute — wasn’t the point of the whole point of electing a Key-led National government to take advantage of the resulting step-change which would boost economic growth, job growth, provide better opportunities, an end to welfare dependency, safer communities and a general increase in general socio-economic mobility and wellbeing? Key made all these promises quite explicitly, not just in person to the residents of McGehan Close, but to the whole nation throughout the campaign and at almost every opportunity since. There are no jobs. There are no higher wages, and without these things you can’t exactly buy shares in SOEs. There is no greater social mobility. The ‘underclass’, as exploitatively defined by Key, still exists.
Having failed McGehan Close, John Key has failed all of us. Quite apart from the fact that we were all promised these things, or things like them, and by and large have yet to receive them, a central theme of the ‘underclass’ policy argument was that by lifting people out of poverty and bringing then into the ‘overclass’ (? — this shows just how meaningless ‘underclass’ is except as a propaganda term), the government would make society better for everyone. This is a noble goal, and one I agree with in its idealistic entirety. I think you would go a long way to find someone in a position of any political credibility who’d publicly disagree with it. The first order of business for any opposition should be to hold John Key to those promises, and demand of Key the wealthier, more mobile, and socially healthier society we were promised.
But the most vicious response will be the one which the initial stunt in 2007 was meant to evoke — the notion that the ‘underclass’ are breeding in order to get more welfare from the Labour party. The core of this line of reasoning, if I may call it that, will be attacks on Nathan herself as a mother, having had a sixth baby and having had Aroha, the subject of the initial stunt, removed from her care. The attacks will be highly personalised, racist and gendered, and they will be lashed closely to Labour party policy and doctrine. But, assuming a competent and spirited opposition, that’s ok — the National party aren’t in opposition, 18 months out from an election; they’re in government in election year. Having been elected on a moderate, sympathetic platform with strong support from women and MÄori, and looking to consolidate that platform into a strong and honestly-won mandate means that the government no longer has such freedom to dog-whistle. Particularly given that an opposition counter-narrative would cast doubt on all those sympathetic characteristics, the resort to the divisive tactics of 2008, such as trying to wedge ‘hard-working kiwis’ against the ‘underclass’, and so on, would be extremely risky for the government.
In light of my last post, perhaps it is a little glib to assume a competent and spirited opposition, and in perfect truth I don’t really think Labour has this fight in them (although Grant Robertson saw the Campbell Live piece and seems to have had a similar response to mine, which is heartening). But it is an argument waiting to be had, and one which must be had sooner or later. The boundaries are drawn up; media interest is already piqued, and this is a bread-and-butter social and economic justice issue for Labour. There’s a wealth of symbolic material and slogans to employ — ‘reality check’ and ‘by failing McGehan Close Key has failed us all’ are two they can have for free, and if a Labour party can’t base a campaign around ‘underclass‘ then they’re not worthy of the name.
Time to engage.