‘You say that you hate Max Key, but I think you mean you hate most 20 year olds’
I can’t help but think that Max Key would be far less despised if he was gay. At least we’d see him as an unthreatening, liberated party boy rather than the son of a popular, skilful, trickster Prime Minister. Twitter becomes angry any time he does anything public, so his recent Remix Magazine photo shoot justifies our Freudian hatecrush, whose exposure of exposed muscular chest has ruined our libidos.
This is desperation and helplessness under a popular National Government in action: unable to influence politics, we target our frustration at political leaders and their children’s appearances, bodies and accents in a way we would normally scream body/ fat/ slut/ class shaming.
I’ve always found it ironic in how my political and generational contemporaries react to Max Key’s vanity. There’s arguably little difference between Max Key’s Instagram account and photoshoot with our exotic holidayed, bikini bod and sunbathed leg shot, locally-sourced prosecco potluck, LP-playing, cycling weekend-infested Instagram and Twitter accounts. The digital generation and anyone digitally savvy enough readily indulges in promoting their political, musical, fashion, cooking, sport and sexual tastes, but at the same time are equally motivated to simply share and live publicly, even if they’re occasionally overbearing.
Yet, perhaps we too easily rely on promoting our personal political brand values in direct opposition to those we despise, like the Ya Ya Club or Max Key. They have become lightning rods for everything we despise – privilege, wealth, inequality and even lung cancer. There’s a degree to where I can understand why progressive values often fail to gain public traction. Often the loudest supporters appear to be just as shallow and mean as those they claim to oppose. If Max Key is truly an awful garbage person, then we all are; we just do it with less money and promote different political and consumer lifestyle choices.
His faults can far more easily be blamed on media culture. A social media personality with dreams of stardom is behaving just like we would expect him to and his name is viral on social media and news outlets thanks to politically-motivated rage, while Remix Magazine and George FM are commercial media outlets motivated to increase their audience share and profits. If the arts and media are driven by infotainment and networking, then find solace in the Radio NZ/ Guardian bubble or learn to live with all forms of media. Oppose the system that gave X Factor NZ on Air funding and keep this in mind when the inevitable Max Key reality TV series gets commissioned. The heart of this matter is that fanatical fury and condescension against a socialite son of a Prime Minister will not defeat the National Government and usher in a new age of equality and justice, nor would any of us appreciate being in the position where we are an extension of our parents’ actions.
“This game is not a game for sooks and panty waists. It involved hard and fast rucking, a few nut sack grabs, hard tackles and more than a bit of eye gouging. To pretend otherwise is just plain dishonest… Fijians play like they are enjoying, with smiles from ear to ear as they run and grind your face into the ground. So, yes I play politics hard, I play politics like Fiji plays rugby.”
After an election campaign lacking in policy substance, I looked forward to the Key vs Cunliffe leaders debates. During last night’s 3 News debate though, I was reminded of my thoughts of a few weeks ago of a political class “engaged in the theatre of politics as sport.” Paul Henry’s post-debate analysis consisted entirely of play by play and performance highlights. I’ve spent three debates not learning anything new and simply analysing performance, nor am I alone. I observed on social media many politically-engaged people live Tweeting the debates in the form of dispensing commentary, similarly enthralled with the gimmickry of modern politics rather than public discourse.
The mainstream media approach of politics as sport to reporting is central to modern political discourse. Reporting of politics is defined not by competing philosophies but performance: game strategy, delivery, and style, hence debate analysis with titles like ‘Probably a Points Victory to Cunliffe’ or ‘John ‘Bantam’ Key Takes Debate’. Political correspondents define policies, debates, and events by ‘winners and losers’. Rotating post-debate panels of pundits on the Nation and Q&A offer theatre: political scientists offering play by play analysis of facial expressions and how ‘Middle New Zealand’ might respond to a red scarf, and journalists, pundits, and lobbyists with obvious political biases shout talking points at each other. A telling moment during last night’s debate was when Paul Henry panel reduced Cunliffe’s passionate appeal on poverty from the importance of poverty to a cynical game tactic. This format isn’t politics but an ESPN Sport Centre-style show featuring aspects of politics.
Politics as a sport serves the enthusiasm of the fans of politics. Fans are often those highly engaged in policy debates and have thoughtful ideological and philosophical thoughts, though often are simply tribal supporters of parties. Social media has seen the rise of many exceptionally thoughtful fans of politics as bloggers, Twitter users, writers, and journalists. Many of us love the game and that’s the problem. Those of us formerly opposed to mainstream media reporting of politics have surrendered to it, perhaps accepting the idea that this is the future. We who live tweet the Nation and Q&A comment on the performance of politicians now find solace both in channeling ideology and policy into ‘rooting for our team’ and becoming the pundits of our social media sphere.
Politics as sport has enabled the broader political establishment and political culture to justify unethical behaviour as “part of the game.” Politicians, staffers, and politically affiliated bloggers, journalists, and lobbyists might view themselves as heroes fighting to win the game. Politics being judged by battling current affairs pundit panels and scripted televised debates camouflages for the politically involved how politics works, most obvious in Cameron Slater’s quote likening himself to Fijian rugby. Dirty Politics revealed the collaboration between party advisors, and sympathetic journalists, bloggers, and economic interests and lobbyists to drive a stealth narrative under veneer of independence – a truer reflection of politics. If modern politics is indeed a sport, surely Dirty Politics is akin to a Lance Armstrong doping operation: a conspiracy of silence based on unethical actions and dirty plays. The public generally opposes dirty behaviour in sport, but opinion polling after Dirty Politics reveals the public is more likely to judge Hager and Key based on their political leanings. In other words, the public knows the difference between sport and politics, with the latter seen as unethical and damaged.
The ruthlessness and triviality of politics as sport from media, politics fans, and politically involved disengages the public from politics – surely a collective failure. This may be a significant factor for gradually declining voter turnout since the 1980s. While efforts like the Rock Enroll certainly help, they fall short of the full solution. Certainly, better political engagement and voter turnout help, but it must be equally balanced through addressing the root causes in media and political establishment for an often unpalatable discourse.
Some in the media would defend politics as sports as a perfect appeal to the masses through an analogy they understand. In that case, there are numerous television dramas which address politics in an appealing and understandable way. HBO’s The Wire is a perfect example of the infiniteness of what politics is: something on all levels. The cycle of poverty and crime, the plight of industrial workers, and teachers in underachieving schools teaching to the test and watching poor children repeat the cycle. Above them are the under-resourced, overworked police with often questionable practices made worse by politicised targets for crime reduction – eerily similar to falsification of Counties Manukau crime stats. At the top are slick politicians winning office through often contradictory alliances and false promises; Cunliffe and Key are likely little different. If we can understand the Wire, we can understand real politics.
To see politics as a whole, one must see the limits of what analysis, spin, and performance by political correspondents, politicians, pundits, bloggers, and politics fans provides. Public discourse on the issues that matter must extend to the wider public, and this demands politicians, the public, and economic and social interests engage on competing solutions based on coherent philosophies.
David Cunliffe didn’t make the best choice of opening words, yet the quotes that followed,“Family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men” and “Wake up, stand up, man up, and stop this bullshit”, were certainly well expressed and on-message. Women’s refuge, whose interest is reduced gender violence, endorsed his speech. However, those whose interest is increased ratings – viewership or political opinion polling – focused mostly on the preceding quote “I apologise for being a man”. Mainstream media outlets overwhelmingly led with that quote, Cameron Slater joked that Cunliffe’s deceased father would be ashamed, and online news comments sections became bastions of conservative males shrieking the battle cry “not all men…”
The substance of the Labour policy of $60 million over four years for more frontline services in emergency housing, prevention, education, and judicial reforms to assist survivors of gender violence was outwardly substantive, especially given the degree of secrecy around gender violence. According to Women’s Refuge, 80% of gender violence goes unreported and, according to the Ministry of Justice, about 90% of sexual assault is similarly unreported. Nor are modern judicial systems well-equipped to fairly assess claims. In Australian journalist Anna Krien’s book Night Games, a coverage of the trial of an AFL player linked to Collingwood Football Club that explores objectification and permissive culture with the AFL, she notably highlights legislative and judicial practice favouring the opinion of defendants over victims, unlike crimes such as theft or robbery. Comparatively National policy, though offering more support to victims through case management and GPS tracking, doesn’t focus as strongly on addressing root causes.
Like the Cunliffe apology quote, media reporting of gender inequality tends to trivialise issues through emphasising the more emotional, entertaining aspects. Labour’s attempt at equal gender representation in caucus was labelled as a “man ban” without proper consideration of the lack of female voices in parliament, let alone in many areas of the public sphere. Similarly with the Roastbusters case, rather than foster public debate led by women about addressing gender violence, the media focused on the downfall of John Tamihere as a combination of “mission accomplished” and the reaffirmation of “not all men…”; the purging of responsibility to allow the audience to feel good.
A huge factor in this inability to discuss gender inequality in the public sphere is due to the successful right wing narrative dominant with regards to all inequality: an absolutist ideal of meritocracy that claims hard work is rewarded, all must play by exactly the same rules, and all results and actions are isolated to the level of the individual. For example, the general argument against the Labour ‘Man Ban’ was that women should be promoted on merit. Similarly on the Cunliffe apology, John Key criticised Cunliffe, saying the apology was “… a bit insulting to all men in New Zealand, because the vast overwhelming bulk of them are good, loving husbands, uncles, brothers”, and supported by many in the blogosphere and in news comment threads across the nation. The problem with such analyses is that they ignore the hidden individual, cultural, and institutional relationships and biases that distort the idea of merit towards outcomes. Between For women, income levels lag behind, they still carry out the overwhelming share of unpaid childcare, household duties, and caring for relatives is done by women, adult domestic violence is committed overwhelmingly against women, and representation in politics and prominence in many other areas of public life is still behind men.
If anything, Cunliffe’s poorly expressed quote indicated that he saw addressing gender violence as a collective responsibility where men must shoulder a burden rather than absolve themselves of any responsibility to ending it on the basis that they’re not individually violent. That the idea of being a man is not just a man only responsible for “him and his own”, but also understanding that the whole issue of gender violence is not isolated to the actions of perpetrator and that social problems require a great deal of collective responsibility and input from all parts of society.
If the last year is anything to go by, the public cannot expect media or politicians to be the sole means to address gender violence. Change in attitudes and solutions to gender violence will ultimately come from grassroots collaboration of activists and women’s services and advocate groups towards finite policy and legislative change. Here, politicians are effective insofar as they either empathise with advocates for change or are forced to make changes by public demand.
“Fleming’s fired the starting pistol, so we all can start firing our actual pistols into her fat, unelectable, smug head”
-Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It, Series 4, Episode 4
Whether he is innocent or guilty, David Cunliffe has been tainted with the stench of the bipartisan practice of donations for access and/ or favours. Labour developed this approach during the 1980’s and 90’s, dominated it in the 2000’s, and National has perfected it. Labour cabinet connections to Liu look questionable, including Chris Carter‘s letter advising a fast tracking of Liu’s application in 2002, Rick Barker‘s dinners with Liu in China and possibly New Zealand around 2007-2008, and Minister of Immigration Damien O’Connor’s granting residency to Liu against official advice in 2004, and Liu’s $15,000 auction donation in 2007. Given Labour’s own practices on donations for access, Cunliffe has been tainted by association – despite the lack of clarity from Cunliffe’s letter.
While it could simply be the case of an enterprising journalist discovering Cunliffe’s alleged hypocrisy, this was more likely a leak coordinated between mutual political interests. Not only does this follow the hallmark of a setup – a politician set up to deny a premise that isn’t 100% true and a concluded narrative despite the vagueness of Cunliffe’s involvement – it’s election year, where Government is at stake and people will do most anything. If this is true, the aim was to destablise Cunliffe’s leadership so he must step down and be replaced obviously by Grant Robertson, 3 months out from the election.
WHALE OIL BEEHIVE HOOKED
“Nobody talks about fucking dodgy donors, okay, because it makes everybody look bad.”
-Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It, Series 3, Episode 5
If this was a coordinated/ sanctioned move involving National-linked operators and the Beehive, then it was a gamble that changing leadership to relative unknown Robertson would make Labour more vulnerable and divided. There is even a loose link to Whale Oil on June 17th hinting of a forthcoming donations revelation in the Herald. However, a Cunliffe-led Labour could be just as ineffective during the election campaign as it has always been, which would be a positive for National. Also, Robertson – a former Beehive staffer and an excellent debater – could prove shrewder than Cunliffe and therefore a greater threat. Kiwiblog’s David Farrar has repeatedly asserted that he sees Robertson as future Prime Minister. Regardless, for National, it’s a case of symbolic comeuppance for gaining political capital in criticising it’s fundraising practices when both parties have a history of involvement.
ABC, IT’S EASY AS SILENT ‘T’
“I don’t know if you’ve seen those calendars that have got pictures of dogs that are dressed up and have got little dresses and hats on – she was turning my party into that.”
-Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It, Series 4, Episode 6
If this revelation came from within Labour, it resembles the plot of the Thick of It, Armando Iannucci’s brilliant British political satire. A key plot in Series 4 is underperforming Leader of the Opposition Nicola Murray being taken down by her media advisor Malcolm Tucker through coaxing her to call for an inquiry over the suicide of a nurse over a policy she initially advocated in a forgotten email, resulting in the coronation of preferred successor Dan Miller. Farrar could be stirring the pot over caucus involvement, but it’s a possibility.
It’s well known that the ‘Anyone But Cunliffe’/ ABC faction of Labour hates him. During his leadership, Shane Jones was known for frequently contradicting Cunliffe publically, and Kelvin Davis, Chris Hipkins, and Phil Goff recently defied Cunliffe by speaking out against the Internet Mana Party. Yesterday, ABC-linked MPs avoided voicing support for Cunliffe. Given that rule that allows caucus to bypass membership and unions for a leadership election three months before an election comes into effect on Friday, it’s possible that this was a timed move to salvage what many see as certain defeat.
However, introducing Robertson to the public three months from an election is a huge challenge. If he were to accept the poisoned chalice, he’d risk being overthrown if he loses. If this is a Labour move, the situation resembles the 1990 general election where Geoffrey Palmer was overthrown just before the election by Mike Moore and Palmer’s deputy Helen Clark to lessen the scale of defeat. Yet unlike 1990, only a small increase in Labour support could allow a left coalition to gain enough support to form the Government.
Also against this theory is the potential damage to Labour’s image. If right wing pundits questioned Cunliffe’s legitimacy for having membership but not caucus backing during the leadership primary, the same can be applied for Robertson’s defeat by a wide margin in membership and union votes. To overthrow Cunliffe without a grassroots leadership contest could be construed as an undemocratic coup, which could result in a seething within party membership. The only justification would be if Cunliffe resigns and the caucus unanimously elects Robertson.
The initial reactions on Twitter by pundits and bloggers on the left have been in favour of Cunliffe stepping down. This is likely more informed by a cognitive dissonance: a rush to judgement informed by desperation that blames Cunliffe and repeats the same mistake of last five years under Goff-Shearer-Cunliffe: blame the leader and anoint the next disposable saviour.
Media reaction to Cunliffe’s dishonesty/ trivial mistake reflects a hypocrisy of media standards compared to, say, John Key’s donor transgressions, policy backtracks, and circumstances around Kim Dotcom’s arrest. But consider this: mainstream corporate journalists rarely question national security operations or fundamentals of economic order to any meaningful depth. But politicians being hypocrites is an easier sell that the public easily gets.
“For a quarter of a million pounds, that had better be one fucking hell of a dinner! If it’s not unicorn, you’d better be eating roast swan that’s been wrestled to death in a pit in front of you by the Queen herself.”
-John Oliver, on the ‘Downing Street Dinners’ scandal.
Both receiving conditional donations beforehand – like the donation-only anonymous dinners at Antoine’s Restaurant in Parnell or a Cabinet Club event – or after like with Oravida are two sides of the same coin. Both technically legal but raise significant ethical concerns over the role of money and access in politics.
The revelations over National Party practices are part of a global trend in political party funding networks. This week, Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey was revealed to be involved with the North Sydney Forum, a Hockey supporters network which includes a $22,000 per head special membership rate that includes private lunches and audiences with Hockey. The membership includes corporate board members, lobbyists, and long time Liberal Party donor/ operatives. This week, the Liberal Party is hosting a budget breakfast fundraiser in the Parliament building, to be attended by Tony Abbott and senior cabinet members for the price of $11,000 per head entry – just below the $12,000 limit for anonymous donors. This isn’t limited to the Liberals: the Labor Party in New South Wales has begun offering fundraising options between $5,000 to $15,000 to attend lunches, briefings and drinks with senior shadow cabinet ministers and leader Bill Shorten.
The worst case was in 2012, when the UK Conservative Party were revealed to have the Leaders Group program, where for £50,000, “Members are invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches.” The website also makes mention of other annual club memberships ranging from £2,000 local association networks and upwards.
These developments are rooted in the needs of modern political machines in a state of perpetual election campaign mode. A modern party is a professional one: head office staffers, external consultants and services including opinion polling, focus groups and advertising, events, and regional party organisations and networks. Not to mention the pressures of a political reporting approach more tailored towards ‘winners and losers’ and ‘who won the week.’ Political parties need to be at a war room footing to plan for the day, the week, and the next three years.
Despite that New Zealand parties are dependent on Parliamentary Services for the majority of their finances, perhaps we’ve passed the threshold of this balance being financially sustainable.
The needs of the political party machine and the media cycle incentivise political parties to actively pursue more and larger donations. Given that political party membership bases in Western democracies have fallen dramatically and insufficient to fund modern political machines, this means pursuing larger donors. Labour under Presidents Jim Anderton in the 1970’s and 80’s, Bob Harvey in the late 1990s, and Mike Williams in roles from chief fundraiser in the early 80’s to President under Helen Clark pioneered soliciting corporate donations. Williams especially acted a conduit between corporates and cabinet using more subtle methods such as arranging meetings between Clark cabinet ministers and then calling up for donations, as well as engaging corporates to communicate policy concerns to cabinet.
The events at Antoine’s Restaurant and existence of Cabinet Club reflect that National has institutionalised what Labour did informally. As a conservative party more open to a free market business model that implicitly and explicitly favours larger corporate interests, as well as being the incumbents, this has been a natural transition. National politicians could justify mutual interest between business and party philosophy, which is to an extent true. Yet given the financial weight of those donors representing corporates, those on corporate boards, or simply wealthy individuals, they would be more likely favoured over small business or regional business donors. This is likely to favour a free market environment dominated by monopoly and oligopoly corporate concerns: lower top income tax and corporate tax, less regulation especially on consumer regulation and the environment, and weak labour laws.
Consider the registered list of combined donations over $30,000 since January 2011, which certainly in favour of National, but with Labour also receiving corporate donors. National’s list is far larger, and containing notables including Bruce Plested of Mainfreight, the argriculture company Gallagher Group, Oravida, City Financial, Susan Chou (linked to Crafar Farms), and ‘Antoine’s Restaurant’ as the combined total of the infamous fundraising dinner. Labour has received little but since the 1980s has regularly received donations from corporates donating to both major parties.
The ethical question posed by the challenges to both National and Labour is the extent of influence private access can gain. This topic has been covered in an excellent NPR report for Planet Money, ‘Take the Money and Run for Office’, on the impact of money in American politics. From former Rep Barney Frank:
“People say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t have any effect on me,'” he says. “Well if that were the case, we’d be the only human beings in the history of the world who on a regular basis took significant amounts of money from perfect strangers and made sure that it had no effect on our behavior.”
Yet, Frank also says money isn’t evening, claiming “If the voters have a position, the voters will kick money’s rear end every time.”
To an extent, this is true: politicians claim strong personal principles and philosophy on politics and governance. But politicians are ultimately at the mercy of their parties for electorate selections, list rankings, so would tow the line if asked.
The NPR concludes that this type of fundraising is about access. According to the report, a least ¾ of all money fundraised is at breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and receptions, where access is paid and space for credit card numbers are commonly included on forms.
“Fundraisers and campaign contributions don’t buy votes, for the most part. But they buy access — they get contributors in the door to make their case in front of the lawmaker or his staff. And that can make all the difference.”
Certainly, New Zealand politics is not as dependent on lobbyist and third party money as America, but paid access to Government Ministers brings a candidness and direct influence is far beyond that of the ordinary citizen – even in a country where you can easily spot a cabinet minister in the supermarket. We don’t know what goes on, but the results of such financial benefits are obvious. Think Owen Glenn and Labour or the relationship between Maurice Williamson and Donghua Liu. Interestingly, Labour has the potential to gain power in this year’s election, and Oravida and Cabinet club allegations will no doubt play a significant part in this. But to gain and sustain power, they will need more fundraising revenue and there will be more willing donors open to an incumbent government. This isn’t simply a problem of one or two political parties, but one of the needs of professional political machines. The institutionalisation of privileged access reinforces the division between colluding elites and the public.
The use of language to create visual spectres is an effective approach for politicians, their supporters, and allied interest groups to develop a narrative that can become the media narrative.
A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a work report related to asylum seekers in Australia, and had noticed two significant changes made by the Australian Federal government to legal and bureaucratic terminology. First was a change to the term used for those who arrive by boat from ‘Irregular Maritime Arrival’ to ‘Illegal Maritime Arrival’. The aim of this was to legitimise PM Tony Abbott’s assertion of the illegality of arriving without a visa, which legally speaking isn’t true.
Second was the renaming of the ‘Department of Immigration and Citizenship’ – which oversees asylum seeker applications – to the ‘Department of Immigration and Border Protection’. This reinforces the shift from multiculturalism and legal process to gatekeeping, which began under Howard, revived by Gillard and Rudd, and now simply confirmed by Abbott. Even the costs of changes to departmental website, new logo, stationary and letterhead, updating of legal documents, and new business cards often proves expensive, but is trumped by politics, regardless of accuracy.
These changes institutionalise an image of asylum seekers as criminals deserving to be sent to the Pacific version of Devil’s Island. The irony of sending ‘criminals’ to a South Pacific prison colony seems lost on the Australian public.
Political convenience can also treat similar humanitarian cases differently. Consider the S.S Exodus, the people-smuggling boat run by the Jewish Haganah containing European Jewish refugees captured en route to Palestine by the British in 1947, which has become symbolic of a humanitarian cause. Comparatively the Hazara,the vast majority of Afghan people who arrive to Australia by boat and have experienced centuries of persecution and genocide up until today, have an equal case for humanitarian protection. But due to political reasons, public bigotry, and the need of politicians and media to gain an audience, the narrative suggests a “wave”, “swamp”, “flood”, “surge”, or other water-based metaphors coming to take our jobs and blonde virgin daughters.
Key to a successful narrative is a convincing visual spectre which we can project our own hopes and fears. The image of asylum seekers reflects a fear of the foreign other coming to dominate us. Locally, one of the most successful narratives is the fear of a large, interventionist state.
The most prominent concept is the ‘Nanny State’ – the use of state coercion to achieve results. The visual spectre reminds me of Hyacinth Bucket: telling you how to do things and being overbearing. This narrow definition only touches on perceived state intervention in personal choices rather than one that includes accumulated state powers such as spying and collection and storage of internet data. Instead this is limited to purchases, parenting, and dietary choices where freedom is treated similar to personal consumer choice and verging on paranoia. A “quick, hide the non-regulation lightbulbs or the state will collectivise our children” school of thought.
Another successful narrative, on the size of the state, uses language suggesting a large state as akin to a morbidly obese person. Less Nanny State, more ‘Fatty State’. When the public sector is deemed too large, it’s referred to as a ‘bloated bureaucracy‘, akin to an overweight person winched out of the house by crane. Solutions entail weight loss metaphors: ‘belt tightening’, “a leaner, more efficient state”, ‘trimming the fat’ through cutting backroom administrators and to free up or hire front line staff
If you assume the state was similar to an obese person, administration is the ‘fat’ and the front line staff the ‘muscle’. Weight loss requires healthier eating, exercise, and in some cases a stomach staple or liposuction. In reality, redundancies aren’t necessarily healthy choices. Redundancies often shifts admin to remaining staff, who work on tasks previously done by backroom staff. To cope, a government department may hire contract workers or temps at a higher price, albeit usually short term. Governments may subcontract state responsibilities to not-for-profits, not as partners as before but to carry out state functions, political agendas and admin for cheaper notable with the successor to NZ AID, the Sustainable Development Fund. Then there’s private consultants hired to advise redundancy processes, who are expensive and often have offered bad advice such as “pray, do yoga, and get a pet” – the equivalent of a dietary coach who suggests a lemon cleanse diet for a month. This part of the solution equivalent to wearing spanx: no ‘fat’ is really lost, more or less rearranged into more convenient areas.
Interestingly, right wing governments who use this approach also tend to favour more accountability measures for government spending which requires even more admin, often done by front line staff. With National Standards in primary school, teachers must spend more time measuring progress of every child against standards, which means more admin and teaching preparation. Metaphorically, fat can useful when exercise can transform it into muscle, but removing fat can hinder muscle performance and growth.
This metaphor undermines state functions with exactly what it promised to eliminate, like a bad diet and exercise plan. The linguistic metaphor works because of a body conscious society, in which our own fears over our weight are used to describe the state where even the littlest thing is unhealthy “pork”. In that sense, ACT and the Taxpayers Union claims of pork and waste are often the equivalent of the yelling of militant ‘fat camp’ coaches with a strict sense of outward discipline but with occasionally let slip.
Political language can be dangerous when used improperly. The narratives of the asylum seeker and the state trivialise rational debate and confine it to narrow ideas of legality, scope, and size based on prejudice and political convenience. In the case of asylum seekers, political agendas, media simplicity and public prejudice have institutionalised unhealthy realities. One person’s suffering is another person’s criminal punishment. The Nanny State concept is narrow and selectively misses the point about a broader encroachment of state power from all sides. The linguistic ideal of a state akin to a near zero body-fat All Black is a projection useful in a body-conscious society. The state could improve, sure, but isn’t obese. Both physical and metaphorical bodily ideals of perfection are deluded, unachievable, and unhealthy. Inclusive narratives with apt metaphors help, narrow ones are more likely to hurt people.
Homer: I always wondered if there was a god. And now I know there is. And it’s me.
Marge: You’re not a god, Homer.
Lisa: Remember Dad, all glory is fleeting.
Lisa: Beware the Ides of March.
-The Simpsons, Homer the Great.
In October 2003, as a member of Young Labour I attended the annual Labour Conference in Christchurch. The mood was full of jubilation: an incumbent government elected against a National Party who achieved 21% of the vote, major social reforms passed, and glee at the fortunes of Bill English featuring an over-saturation of “Kill Bill” jokes and condescension about the idea of Don Brash’s likely ascension to the National Party leadership. Four months later, Don Brash was level pegging or besting Labour at the polls and with Labour’s substandard response to the Orewa Speech as a final nail in the coffin, I stopped attending Labour meetings.
The dominant narrative of the New Zealand public, media, and political punditry is that of an inevitable National Party win. While not really direct from the party itself, this is more of a media-punditry narrative based mainly on comparative leadership.
National is aided by the most popular political leader who is personally likable, has excellent political instinct, is an excellent debater both on television and quick witted in the house, and knows how to manage caucus and employs good communications staff. Moreover, he’s been able to shepherd through controversial and often unpopular policies such as partial asset sales, banning offshore protests at deep sea drilling, overseeing cuts of thousands of public sector jobs, and maintaining unemployment rates above 6% and often above 7%. As a politician, he is clearly the equal to Helen Clark. Comparatively, media has concluded already that David Cunliffe has bad personal judgement, is corrupt, and gaffe prone – all over one issue.
This narrative is effectively supported by the efforts of allies, especially popular bloggers in their ability to gain traction in the media. Cameron Slater and David Farrar, whether purposefully or by accident, provide a highly effective “good cop, bad cop” routine: the tribal attack dog who relishes the fight against left wing corruption and knows how to create news, and the principled classical liberal insider who focuses on alleged Labour-Greens illogic and hypocrisy and Government “good news”. Both rooted in the National Party so they know networks and inside gossip. Slater especially has been a source of leaks from Labour and National sources, and Farrar especially appears to have good relationships with journalists and the Press Gallery. Labour and the left do not yet have any equivalents as capable, strategic, or well placed.
However, certainly there exists the likelihood for National Party overconfidence and complacency. National’s success relies on the continuation of the narrative of inevitability, the over-reliance on the leadership of John Key, and an ineffective opposition. If two or all of these change, the political dynamics change.
Helen Clark paid the price for the overconfidence of media narrative and expectations in the 2002 general elections. Despite consistently polling above 50%, this fell to the low 40s due to a combination of factors including the late tarnishing of her image due to Corngate. Similarly during the 2011 general elections, despite polling consistently over 50%, National gained 47% of the party vote. Similarly, John Key’s actions over the ‘Teapot Tapes’ distracted from the election. Judith Collins’ conflict of interest over Ovida could be one of a number of contentious conflicts of interest.
While John Key rates consistently high for preferred Prime Minister, it’s entirely possible for a less popular leader to provide a challenge. Key has relied on an ineffective opposition led by a series of ineffective leaders, which might change. Labour had five years led by the ineffective Phil Goff and David Shearer in which is was unable to develop a coherent post-Helen policy narrative to appeal and mobilise both party base and appeal to practical public needs, captive to internal politics that prevented authentic rejuvenation, and divided between pro-Cunliffe and the so-called Anyone But Cunliffe faction of the Labour old guard and allies. Cunliffe has been only in the job for four months and failed to make headway – so far. As a politician, the Nation interview last Saturday clearly showed Cunliffe as an improving communicator who mastered refined talking points and who’s obviously learned from the John Key school of talking over journalists. If Cunliffe can learn to best Paddy like Key bested Campbell, he’ll be a good politician. In that case, debates probably won’t be a major problem.
To address a series of gaffes and an arguably ineffective opposition, there’s signs that Cunliffe is attempting to run a tighter ship. Hiring Matt McCarten as Chief of Staff clearly indicates the intention of uniting party organisation, grassroots members, union allies, and caucus as a unified force. Perhaps McCarten is an indication that Cunliffe will either placate rivals with plum jobs like Clark did with Goff and Cullen or punish dissenters with lower list placings. Key and National have not faced an effective opposition, but this changes if Cunliffe and Labour can improve leadership, network, and cohesiveness.
A tighter ship then makes it possible for Cunliffe to launch coherent policies to potentially undermine Key’s popularity. Once Don Brash ascended the National Party leadership in 2003, despite initial guffaws from the left he and his staffers proved adept at fashioning an alternative narrative around Maori and affirmative action, the economy, and welfare to almost win the election in 2005. Brash never obtained the personal popularity levels of Clark, the policy and narrative were politically appealing. This was similar to Margaret Thatcher in the UK general election in 1979, who won despite being 19 points behind Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in the final preferred PM opinion poll. Though the heralded State of the Nation speech’s Best Start policy of $60 per week for parents of newborns wasn’t a game changer, Labour still has the chance to announce more substantive left-leaning policies, especially on employment, regional development, housing, education, and child poverty that will make a noticeable difference in peoples’ lives. Could be announcing the creation of specialist colleges and polytechs in regional cities, could be Medicare funding for health like in Australia. If it can run a convincing campaign on policy alone, it could provide the challenge to National that is not that far ahead in the polls and previously trailing earlier under Cunliffe’s leadership.
As a politics graduate, I generally don’t make long-term predictions. I’m reluctant to make short term ones. Getting drunk on 2005 election night at the Otago Uni Clubs and Socs building and conceding loudly and despondently at 9:30pm taught me that. The media has nothing seriously invested in these narratives and can change course in order to justify events within a new narrative. Same with pundits. Politicians have everything to lose through overconfidence. If these dynamics change, the election becomes competitive again. It was always going to be competitive, that’s why it’s called an election.