A sweeping change is occurring in NZ politics and John Key and his staff have failed to see it coming. Normally, the timeline would go: Key accuses Labour’s advocacy for New Zealanders resident in Australia imprisoned on Christmas Island as siding of rapists, murders, and paedophiles, the left and media challenges his figures and ethics, our political lizard brains choose a side, then it disappears from the news. The public don’t like criminals and, like with the working poor and welfare recipients, ‘criminals’ tend to lack the money, organisation, well-financed think tanks, and media influence to fight back. This time, Key and his staff indirectly picked a fight with women, resulting in a parliamentary protest by female MPs who took issue with this claim, some of whom had experienced sexual assault, some of whom were removed followed by a walkout from the chamber by female and male MPs. Key and his staff misread the situation and were blindsided by the changing role of women in politics and society.
Women’s political and economic clout is becoming much stronger. Now comprising 31% of Parliament, women have a greater voice from a powerful platform. This is especially focused on advocacy for legislative, judicial, and societal action against gender violence. Studies estimate up to 1 in 3 women and girls have experienced sexual violence. Yet, the link between violence and gender is still taken far less seriously by politicians, judicial system, and the media. The lack of action over Roastbusters, closure of a Christchurch’s only rape crisis centre, and the continued popularity of Tony Veitch can attest to this. However, where mainstream politics are failing, new media and social media are are transcending traditional power structures, with the power to make normally unseen videos and quotes go viral. Most notably, satirical coverage by Last Week Tonight is transforming Key from a lesser known world leader to a gaff-prone buffoon not merely on copyright infringement and embarrassing flags, but also sexism. Expect to see John Oliver tearing apart Key again next week as well as more astute political tactics like last night.
While it’s easy to sneer at the stereotype of the hypersensitive, privilege-scorning feminist, opponents are on the wrong side of history. Politically-speaking, Key and National have no choice but to adapt conservatism to incorporate modern feminism. Minister for Women’s Affairs Louise Upston’s notion of meritocracy and hard work are no longer acceptable to a growing number of women who have experienced and realised a great undercurrent of discrimination and are rightly offended when the Prime Minister indirectly accuses victims of sexual assault of supporting rapists and paedophiles. National has proven willing to similarly discard Don Brash’s ideas on racial equality to work with the Maori Party out of sheer necessity, so can and must inevitably make overtures to feminism.
Part of this transformation begins with the tone of parliamentary debate. The withering put-downs that we political obsessives love are ultimately ‘boy politics.’ The spectacle of parliamentary debates that we prize – the shouting, grunting, cat-calls, and insults – have all the civility of a single-sex grammar school. A culture descended from traditionally male-dominated politics may be growing increasingly out of touch with public attitudes. The Crosby-Textor-style of conservative political communication – an approach whose strength of black and white logic ultimately appeals to public fear – has failed to comprehend human acknowledgement of harrowing experiences. The emotionally-charged scene of MPs standing up to the Speaker, revealing their own experiences of sexual violence, and then being denied a voice is a sign of things to come and Key would be wise to acknowledge this – even at the expense of pleasure and praise for well-crafted, parliamentary pantomime.