Winston’s last stand: Tailoring the Emperor’s New Clothes, again.

Leading into the 2014 election I recall Chris Trotter was feeling pretty optimistic, he even suggested National’s vote could slump to the low 40s and a Labour – Green bloc would therefore have a chance of clinching power.

He must have been polling in Mt Albert.

Fast Forward to 2017, and the ever adaptable Trotter had taken a more pragmatic approach, channeling Winston Peters as man of the hour, someone willing to call ‘time’ on the experiment we refer to as ‘neoliberalism’.

So, Peters the revolutionary? Oh, Please.

What is true about Peters is that for decades he has been part of an enigmatic group of politicians around the world who ply their trade casting suspicion over society’s elites. In 1992, he became fed up with his place in the National Government and buggered off to start his own political party, calling it ‘New Zealand First’.

Under the auspices of Mr Peters, New Zealand First have constructed a political platform that resembles a ‘giant jenga’ of bicultural nationalism and blue rinse conservatism.

In contrast to the liberal order that arose and its claim to ‘empower’ individuals, Peters spoke about the faceless elites within it who he claimed were in fact ‘disempowering’ the nation. It is a form of politics that has struck a chord with a significant cross section of the voting public.

But from the mid 90s, Peters had started tailoring the first of his invisible ensembles, something he could drape over a newly empowered and marauding constituency. He accomplished this by promising many things to many people.  He promised the workers that he would ‘stop the clock’ on economic liberalisation, the elderly were promised that he would safeguard their retirement and Maori were promised an end to the National Government. He would also sing a tune that would resonate with all 3 groups, an end to the record numbers of Asian immigrants arriving in the country.

In New Zealand’s first MMP election he garnered 13.4% of the vote and every single Maori constituency. This brought him 16 MPs and more crucially, the balance of power.

It was in the period between 1996 and 1999 that Peters suffered his first public calling out.  After tailoring the imaginary threads of National’s demise in the ‘96 election, he made an about face and joined with them in coalition. And instead of providing the elderly with the financial security he promised, he severed the area between his spine and lower back and fought for a referendum on compulsory superannuation – a proposal that was bitterly rejected by voters.

By now, the facade of fine tapestry became clearer and the popularity of Peter’s party begun to plunge, as did National’s.  Shortly thereafter, a plucky Jenny Shipley rolled Jim Bolger out of a job and Peters knew it was time to abandon ship. But a small group of New Zealand First MPs, led by Tau Henare, broke away and continued to support the now Shipley-led National government.

Peters’ plan to flush away the Shipley government and save himself had backfired spectacularly.  When the 1999 election finally came around just about everyone linked to New Zealand First were bundled out.  Peters himself only clung on to his seat by only a few dozen votes.

But Peters was by no means a spent force.

The old yarn of a child finally calling out the Emperor for ‘not wearing anything at all’ should also present an opportunity for us to reflect on why we have such difficulty calling out politicians who offer us such little substance.

It is as if the ‘system’, this ghastly form of neoliberalism, has taken on a form of personification that absolves those who have spent decades governing within it, from taking any responsibility for its existence, or any meaningful action to replace it.

By 2002 Peters had bounced back, scooping up votes from a National Party that had plummeted to its lowest share of the vote in electoral history.  He still rallied against immigration from the sidelines but the Clark Government didn’t require his services until 2005.

Just as the first tranche of baby boomers started heading into retirement, Peters reentered government and produced a ‘senior card’. But seniors would have about much use swiping a Flybuys card, because the price of everything had started increasing at a rate not seen before.

Ironically, despite decades of isolationist rhetoric Peters traded in domestic policy for a post as Foreign Minister. And throughout his tenure the bi lateral trade agreements continued, the numbers of cashed up immigrants accelerated and the gaps between rich and poor widened.

By 2008 the public started to howl that the fine tailored ensemble they had been sold (again) was in fact ‘nothing at all’.

This time Peters and his mob were voted out entirely, albeit for only 3 years.

Peters emerged from the ashes in 2011 to lay claim as a guardian of democracy. Just as he had done decades earlier, he convinced the public that he was the man who could be trusted to keep those faceless elites in line, especially those who frequent otherwise innocuous looking Auckland cafes.

By 2014 he was so emboldened by the response to his campaign that he took his immigration stump speech to the oldies a bit further than he usually would. “Two wongs don’t make a white” said Peters, who made the news that night for being a racist dick.

Peters has spent longer in the New Zealand parliament than the time neoliberalism has dominated its politics and he has been part of 3 governments (Bolger, Bolger / Shipley, Clark) that were proponents of it.  Meanwhile, his go-to election issues have remained practically unchanged for the past 25 years, the only notable exception is that his party sometimes oscillates between pro Maori positions and others which are clearly antagonistic.

New Zealand First policies are just ‘common sense’, Peters will say.  And it is the promise of ‘common sense’ that leads a disillusioned public toward measuring up for his triennially regurgitated and largely evidence-free vision for the country.

It is as if every 3 years the Emperor’s subjects become inflicted by one of those memory cleansing devices you would find in a ‘Men in Black’ movie.

Now to the 2017 campaign and the mood for populist quasi-conservatism articulated by Peters is perhaps stronger throughout the world than it has ever been. Some political pundits are even suggesting that Peters could go as high as 20% of the party vote, virtually all of it coming at Labour’s expense.

The blue rinse constituency will tell you that a vote for Peters is a return to the nostalgia of better times. A time when New Zealand was supposedly prosperous, egalitarian and grounded in its bi-cultural underpinnings.

It’s actually just a vote for the Emperor’s new clothes.

Chris, the facade is not neoliberalism – just those who pretend to be doing something about it.

TL;DR Peters ain’t your homeboy.

This column was originally published here by my good friend Josh Van Veen.


Explaining privilege – without getting a latte to the face.

Sitting in an undergraduate class a few years back I remember the lecturer, a middle class white woman, asking each of the straight white men (SWM) to explain what they thought of SWM privilege. I yawned and most dudes in the room slumped in their seats. We were either unamused at the prospect of being labelled ‘privileged’ or unimpressed by a woman suggesting it, or both. She was one of those rusted on Social Justice Warriors that would often use her lectures to make crude and not so coded political arguments (and other ‘trendy shit’). As had become a pattern during the semester, I had already registered my ambivalence by getting drunk the night before. Some of the SWM used the pulpit to exhibit their confidence in confronting a female lecturer to disagree entirely with the notion that they were privileged.   

I never saw myself in a position of privilege to start with. As such, it was pointless giving the notion any further thought. I’m privileged? Lol, wot? What about height privilege! I am 5 ft 7 (does she not know how much harder it is to ‘pick up’, than say 5 ft 11?), my hair was falling out too and I had a 60k student loan and a train wreck of false career starts. At that time I felt there was really only one sensible response to a woman suggesting to me that I was privileged: Fuck you.

Though not long after, I met two young and unemployed indigenous women while out and about in the community. Their grades had been pretty good prior to leaving high school and so I suggested they attend a foundation studies course at the local University. As I was providing the link between the University, their home environment and social services I figured that they would do alright.  

In the week preceding their studies I took one of the young women to a social services office so she could switch her income support to a tertiary funding arrangement. Her case manager offered these words in support:

‘You do realise there’s a stand down period if you need to reapply for dole, don’t you.  What are you going to do when you drop out?’

My mouth opened and closed like a goldfish.  

Despite their initial enthusiasm, both started missing classes after the first 2 weeks. By week 8 both had left the programme despite one still comfortably passing. I asked them both what happened, and they both said the same things, ‘they didn’t feel like it was a place for them’ and that ‘none of their other friends went to uni’. The whole experience led to some painful introspection. I had blindly assumed that by bringing these young women into a new environment, a place I perceived as offering ‘limitless opportunities’, I had magically altered the trajectory of their lives for the better.  

Privilege can be loosely defined as acquiring an otherwise hidden knowledge of how to go about something, having an assumed competence or proficiency in something or having a more illuminated pathway toward something (that is less accessible by others).  I had all of these things on my first day at University: family members that had attended University, some even at the same institution; strong references from high school teachers; and an abundance of people wandering around campus who looked like me and talked like me.  As McIntosh points out, privilege is the invisible system conferring dominance to a particular group in society. It is a virtue of certain individual characteristics not of your own making (such as your sexuality, skin colour or gender).  

So where do short, going bald, broke af SWM fit into this discussion?

Well, let us transpose for a moment two persons with the same basket of circumstances. They are both 5 ft 7 and are ageing faster than they would like, both are deep in student debt and both have gone in circles trying to establish a career. Now assume that you could choose to be one of these people + a SWM or a Gay Brown Female (GBF), and that your goal in life is upward mobility.  Who stands a better shot at turning all these things around? Considering all the structural disadvantages at play for females, homosexuals and ethnic minorities, you would surely respond with SWM. And that is what SWM privilege is, a relative term. Your life could still be pretty shit, even as an SWM. It could even be more shit than every GBF you know,but chances are you wouldn’t know many GBFs anyway.  

So is there someone else to blame for not explaining that SWM privilege is a relative thing or have SWM, like myself, never really been interested in hearing about it in the first place? I don’t know the answer to that question. But the implications are important for election campaigns taking place in liberal democracies all over the world. Just ask someone like Jeremy Corbyn, whose own UK Labour Party is desperately trying to win back the support of working class voters who are now more likely to vote for the Conservative Party. Wait, what? So working class people are now more likely to vote for tax cuts and a reduction in the outlay of social services?  How the fuck did that happen? 

Is it because they fled Labour after being confronted with their privilege? Or, am I now the one making crude and not so coded political arguments?  

TL;DR?  SWM privilege is a thing, in relative terms.  I started wearing hats in 2010.