Hard News by Russell Brown


The epitome of reason

Last week, Matthew Hooton trailered his forthcoming column in the June issue of Metro as being addressed towards the likes of me. The column, published this week, turns out to be part of a fairly large body of commentary comparing the general elections last year in New Zealand and this month in the United Kingdom.

Hooton declares that while the Labour parties in both countries have embarked on the modern Labour tradition of a bout of agonised self-examination, "in reality, UK Labour's story since 2005 is nothing compared with New Zealand Labour's train wreck in the same period."

He then lays out an arrangement of electoral apples and oranges to prove his case that were New Zealand Labour's unending formal review of the last election result (nine months?) to be "brutally honest" it would "conclude the party has little future under its current name and structure."

Labour, as an expression of the trade union movement, is dying along with the union movement itself, Hooton argues. And then this:

Six years ago, Chris Trotter invented the term "Waitakere Man" to describe Labour's ex-voters: a West Auckand computer programmer, say, and his wife, who own a house in Sunnyvale, enjoy tax deducting business expenses and good annual house-rice inflation, and use both to fund annual Pacific Island breaks with their young kids. They plan to employ a minimum-wage school-leaver on a 90-day trial to help out with the business. "Waitakere Man" is a cliche, but cliches only envolve because they're true.

Hooton's "Waitakere Man" is himself an invention. Trotter's "Waitakere Man" was actually a different rooster altogether:

The voter escorting National to its First Term Ball turned out to be the sort of bloke who spends Saturday afternoon knocking-back a few beers on the deck he’d built himself, and Saturday evening watching footy with his mates on the massive flat-screen plasma-TV he’s still paying-off.

His missus works part-time to help out with the mortgage, and to keep their school-age offspring in cell-phones and computer games.

National’s partner – let’s call him Waitakere Man – has a trade certificate that earns him much more than most university degrees. He’s nothing but contempt for "smart-arse intellectual bastards spouting politically-correct bullshit". What he owns, he’s earned – and means to keep.

"The best thing we could do for this country, apart from ditching that bitch in Wellington and making John Key prime-minister," he’d inform his drinking-buddies in the lead-up to the 2008 election "would be to police the liberals – and liberate the police."

Waitakere Man values highly those parts of the welfare state that he and his family use – like the public education and health systems – but has no time at all for "welfare bludgers".

"Get those lazy buggers off the benefit", he’s constantly telling his wife, "and the government would be able to give us a really decent tax-cut."

He was also a bit racist and would, Trotter surmised, be outraged by Labour's selection of Carmel Sepuloni as its 2011 Waitakere candidate: completely the wrong candidate to put up against Paula Bennett and indicative of Labour's disarray As it happened, Sepuloni beat Bennett on the night in Waitakere and lost only on a judicial recount, by nine votes. She went on to win Kelston in last year's general election and that electorate was one of the few in Auckland where (as Hooton notes) Labour won the party vote.

The family of Hooton's "Waitakere Man", the one who's good with computers, hears only that Labour "wants to cut their home's value ... or tax it". Actually, the polls indicate that a majority of Aucklanders do think there's a problem with housing, and a capital gains tax was more popular than Labour was in the months leading up to last year's election. (Moreover, Treasury and the Reserve Bank agree with them.) This year, John Key's government has introduced watered-down versions of both a CGT and Labour's KiwiBuild housing policy, and both seem to have only buttressed its commanding poll standing.

If it's not policy, then what's the problem? The problem is easy to enunciate and devilishly hard to to fix. Labour, in New Zealand and Britain, lost because too few voters saw it as a viable party of government. In both countries, that perception was fostered with carefully-constructed negative campaigns, from the same strategists, aimed at making a change of government look risky, and emphasising what there was to be lost. We were "on the cusp of something special" said John Key. Britain was "on the brink of something special," said David Cameron. No one wants to be the chump who throws it away.

Such campaigns can only really be run from the government benches. They're one of the things that make being in Oppostion so painful. But they also need something on which to gain purchase. Both David Cunliffe and Ed Milliband did look pretty weird. And it's hard to campaign on competence when you make the kind of hash Labour made of Budget week this year.

Danyl Mclauchlan pursued this point in a recent post, declaring a "stark" difference between the respective parties' messaging in Opposition:

National attacked the competency of the government to govern. Overflowing hospitals! Gangs running the streets! Power crisis! While Labour constantly attacks the morality and character of the government. Broken promises! Key is blaming his new tax on a fruit-fly! National is kicking hard-working whanau!

Right. Who couldn't take advantage of Gerry Brownlee jamming his foot in his mouth every time he ventures onto Morning Report? Isn't the hopeless execution of Anne Tolley in any given portfolio just a great big free hit? Actually, Labour's press releases do show its MPs trying to hammer the government on competence.

The problem may be that it has all become too complex. This seems to very much be the case in National's attacks on the Auckland Council. Two weeks ago, as Todd Niall carefully pointed out, both Nick Smith and Simon Bridges used figures attack the council that were, through incompetence or simple cynicism, complete bullshit. The next day, John Key gave an account to a compliant Paul Henry of the government's problem with the council that was, on any factual assessment, utter nonsense. Worse, the goverment has revealed no coherent alternative at all on Auckland's infrastructure issues. But it would take me a long time to explain to you  and I'd probably bore you.

Ironically, for all its problems, Auckland Council has demonstrated a more appealing version of democracy than is ever available from central government. It feels more worthwhile to engage on local politics because it actually seems possible to make a case. The councillors operate across partisan lines; they are persuaded by evidence. For every hairline vote, there are two or three that approach consensus.

Hooton concludes with a blast at the "liberal elite":

Labour denies "Waitakere Man" exists. It's a party overwhelmed by Wellington and Pt Chev liberals: deep in denial, their contempt for voters growing, their belief undaunted that one more Nicky Hager book or ponytail tug and the "sheeple" will wake up and return home. More likely, the voters Labour derides are perfectly happy with the new place they've found. Labour doesn't know that yet.

Yeah, who was that guy who publicly declared that the last Nicky Hager book would end National's reign in government? Oh, right: Matthew Hooton.

The truth is, even if Dirty Politics and the ponytail weirdness aren't persuading a majority of the public away from John Key and his government, neither could properly be ignored. And I think it's a cert that even Key's colleagues sometimes privately cringe at his conduct.

It sometimes seems that Labour's foul destiny is to eternally operate as a blank sheet for everyone else to project onto. They should move to the centre! They should return to their left-wing roots! Be inclusive! Renounce identity politics! Dump the leader! Keep the leader! Be more cynical! Be more principled! Panic! Not panic! Anyone who has the emotional energy for constant kvetching about the Labour Party is doing better than I am.

In conclusion, a story. A few years ago I received an unsolicited email from an Opposition MP, after I'd praised a speech he'd given. He was morose. One party leader had departed in disarray and his replacement was, in the MP's contemptuous words, "another helicoptered-in candidate".  It sounded terrible. It was 2006 and the Opposition MP was Bill English.


Apropos of nothing in particular, except perhaps untramelled liberal sentiment, I did an interview three weeks ago with Tourettes the poet and Louie Knuxx the rapper for their podcast series How not to be an asshole. We talked about media, politics, drugs, autism (from the 42-minute mark) and being a good citizen. It's really not a bad listen.

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