I want change this election. I long for a left leaning government that dials back some of the damage to our communities after nine long years of National: more funding for desperate NGOs; a coherent climate change strategy; transport solutions beyond roads; housing and a safety net for the poor; a review of our settlement process to rebalance the power away from the Crown. When that change doesn’t come, it will be because after nine years our relationships with each other on the left have become toxic and destructive. We have lost the skills needed to be a community: listening, discussion, critique.
It was when I was confronted with being ‘Māori’ by the Iwi Transitional Agency in 1993 that justice and oppression became important to me. It had never been hidden from me, but was irrelevant to my comfortable life in a pre-settlement Christchurch. I’d grown up thinking Christchurch’s history had started with four settler ships; I’d never heard the name ‘Ngāi Tahu’. So to be called out from your class to attend a meeting because you were Māori was a deconstruction of my tentatively formed sense of self.
So I was open to renegotiating my identity at university and being in debating societies for the next decade, I was in the right (well, actually left) community for that to happen. There are a lot of talkers, idealists and idealogues in debating societies and our generation of debaters were predominantly left leaning in their outlook (not the case today apparently). So I was mentored in the language and politics of justice and oppression. I wandered my way through socialism, through anarchism, and then into the church and liberation theology, all the while studying Sociology and Māori Studies.
Meanwhile around us, society was going through its own transformation, as we moved from the third Labour Government’s Rogernomics, to Ruth Richardson’s Mother of All Budgets, to Tony Blair’s Third Way and its model here in the Fourth Labour Government. Over that time there’s been a growing disconnect between the strength of New Zealand’s economy and wellbeing of its citizens. Jenny Shipley once paraphrased “the poor will always be with us” in her short tenure as Prime Minister; successive governments have ensured this will be the case. Under the assault of the ideology of growth and profit, the mythologies of the No. 8 wire, egalitarianism and an independent moral New Zealand on the world stage are now mere semiotic devices rather than aspirations. So our communities have atomised: community organising like Lions and Rotary, Māori Wardens and Māori Women’s Welfare League have collapsing and aged membership; with that has gone any culture of volunteerism; we are increasingly fearful of each other; housing is a matter of investment rather than community building; homelessness for whānau is not a crisis but merely a concern.
Given the grim picture, you’d think during this 2017 election campaign that the politically left, which in all its iterations is about the transformation of society, would be a diverse but coherent movement. After all, we have plenty of grist for the mill with everything going on in Aotearoa New Zealand and throughout the world. But with a certain inevitability, National, ACT and New Zealand First could only dream of leading the concerted attacks against Labour, the Greens and the Māori Party that supporters of Labour, the Greens, the Māori Party and those who want some kind of vague revolution that overthrows our terrible democracy, have launched against each other.
The change in Labour leadership from Andrew Little to Jacinda Ardern is case in point. Greens and Mana Party supporters have raged against the media coverage, attacked her for trying to fool us all with her vagina into thinking she’s part of the revolution (I’m not sure she actually did this), exploded with disgust that she didn’t die in a ditch for Metiria. Outside of parties, anarchists, libertarians and socialists (not comfortable bedfellows) have all agreed that her rise and sudden popularity is but another symbol of all that is corrupt in democracy. Just to remind you, these are the politically left who during this campaign have devoted more column inches and cortisone production to the horrors of a woman who is a leader in a party they won’t vote for and is still a long shot to actually be Prime Minister, than the time they’ve put into analysing, critiquing and providing alternatives to our current, real right leaning, doing nothing for the poor, unconcerned about climate change Government.
Why would the poor and disenfranchised vote for the left? We’re an embarrassment, talking about a revolution in a society when we can’t even find the humanity for a revolution of the heart. What would be lost to just admit that Labour, the Greens, the Māori Party and the Mana Party all have a few good ideas, but none have the full picture? For members and supporters in those parties to stand together, to celebrate new leaders and policies, to lament specious attacks in the media? What would be lost for us to present a picture of a coherent left that wants to change society and has many ideas how to do that?
We are unable to do that because we have lost the capacity to debate and discuss. Every disagreement is heretical, every critique an attack and everyone with different ideas the enemy. On all of our media platforms, the first instinct is to destroy difference rather than abide the possibility of changing one’s mind. It is an horrific abuse of power and so we are repellent to the very communities from which the movements of the left arose. In my local community, most of the working class, tāngata whenua, and beneficiaries who had not previously nailed their colours to mast are quietly going to vote New Zealand First; but they won’t tell us that because they know that we are incapable of understanding, of discussing and of compassion.
If we want to reinvigorate the left, to change the government, to transform our society, to see justice roll down, it is not done with policy, with wit, with critique or with anger; if we want to transform Aotearoa New Zealand, we need to learn again the skills to listen, to debate, to discuss and to allow others to disagree. At this time, the left are more a chattering menagerie than a rainbow of diversity, and people don’t vote for a Parliamentary zoo.