Monday, August 25, 2014

The Jane Clifton continuum


With his beatific, martyred air, Saint Nicholas of the Perpetual NeoLiberal Sorrows is the perfect foil for the charmless, foul-mouthed Whale Oil, butt of a thousand blubber and blowhole jokes and oh my God what is with this metaphor? But I must set the scene. A struggle between a good that isn’t so good and an evil that isn’t so evil. My greatly extended column space so I can make you believe, as I do, that it’s all grey. A continuum.

So far the revelations from, and subsequent to, the publication of Hager’s Dirty Politics book of purloined Slater email traffic have divided people along predictable lines if, like me, you’re good at predicting things after they’ve already happened. Those immersed in politics profess no great surprise at the sleaze-grubbing that goes on behind the scenes at the extremely popular Whale Oil blog, while those not immersed in politics accuse the immersed of being complicit by negligence in not decrying such grubbiness long ago.

Look, we were busy, okay?

Then there’s the division of right and left. Polling shows a small minority of National supporters will be deterred by the dirty politics this outed cabal of National supporters I knew about all along but didn’t see fit to report on because it would have been too easy, plus it’s not the kind of stuff that wins you awards, are shown to have played.

What this will probably boil down to is that the people most vigorously exercised by the skulduggery were already anti-National and will just not vote for National with even greater relish. Those already voting for National, are unlikely to be swayed by the rogue actions of the Whale Oil cabal, even though in a few of its aspects the rackety behaviour strayed uncomfortably close to the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

(Skullduggery and Rackety, coincidentally, are also what I named my cats. Funny story: once Rackety really did stray uncomfortably close to the Prime Minister and had to be removed by his security detail.)

But the most fascinating division is between the proponents of both the major party factions’ extreme wings, which in reality unites them. In essence, Slater and cohorts are what’s traditionally called a rump, a gnarly minority in a party that sometimes peels away.

Labour and the other leftist parties, too, have a rump. My task therefore is to attempt to persuade you that the Right’s rump – whose actions, if not the background conversations that led to them, have been documented since well before Dirty Politics – is no worse than the Left’s rump, which consists in a marginal to non-existent group of petulant cranks.

THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES

The issues Hager’s book, and the mere existence of operators like Slater, raises will never be resolved while I’m in charge around here – sorry, I mean because they boil down to a partisan view of means and ends. Each side believes its end justifies its means, but the other side’s does not.

Hager, in accepting illicitly obtained emails, and publishing his book without providing those tarred in it with a right of reply, is declaring that it’s acceptable for him to break rules because his is a worthy cause. There is a public good defence. I hope I’ve janesplained sufficiently how investigative journalism works – I’ve seen it done in a movie once, I think Robert Redford was in it – while at the same time making it sound seedy and wrong.

What Hager says at the same time, however, is that Slater and his team’s use of exactly the same means to further their ends, of keeping the left out of power, is not acceptable. Having obtained information someone doesn’t want him or her to have, any activist is going to spin it and frame it to fit their desired world view.

Hager might be a respected peace researcher, but what he does is on a continuum with what Whale Oil seeks to do.

Fig. 1: The continuum

There is a continuum between planning political hits with one of the Prime Minister’s senior advisers; publishing the address details of a journalist in the hope that the Chinese mafia will murder him; colluding with various Ministers and agencies to obtain in advance requests for information by media organizations, so you can lodge the same requests and get ahead of the story with a favourable government spin; colluding with a Cabinet Minister to publish the details of a public servant you suspect of having leaked embarrassing details of an accommodation rort perpetrated by another Cabinet Minister, in the hope – or rather, with the certainty – that he will receive threats to his life, which you will also publish; discussing how to blackmail the leader of a party in government to force him to step down; attempting to force the disclosure of a sexual affair to subvert the result of a Mayoral election; manipulating party candidate selections by means of protracted and vicious personal smear campaigns; colluding with a ruthless PR operative to vilify various public health campaigners, academics and civil servants, running attacks written by others under your own name for money as part of so-called ‘below the line’ operations; there is a continuum, I say, between all of these activities – did I forget anything? – and reporting on them based on illegally obtained private conversations.

It’s roughly the same continuum as between parking in a towaway area and slaughtering all the first-borns, but it’s a continuum. You can’t deny it.

What I’m charging here is that both Hager and Slater have the same ends – keeping the opposite political side out of power – therefore the means are also, as I said above, ‘exactly the same’. Me, I have no ends. I have only means, in the form of my weekly column, which today is taking extra space.

The rest of this section is 600 words long, so I’m going to just give you the abstract. In it, I will:

1. Portray Nicky Hager as a pawn of the persons or persons who are now releasing the illegally obtained conversations, as if having presented the information sensitively makes him somehow responsible.

2. Praise Cunliffe for running a clean campaign, but only in order to castigate him for not demoting Steve Gibson, so I can segue into equating that failure of leadership with the Prime Minister’s decision not to sack Judith Collins, who – unlike Gibson – has not apologised, and never will.

3. Claim that the Left is just as bad but without adducing any evidence, as if it were some sort of axiomatic cosmological constant (‘although it’s lazy and complacent to say that politics is always dirty and that one side is invariably as bad as the other, it’s also true’) and that anyway the bad isn’t all that bad (‘to take a reality check on dirty politics, it’s very much a minority sport’).

NIMPY – NOT IN MY PARTY!

I’m becoming acutely aware that, if you’ve read this far, you’re going to expect me to say something about the Left’s rump and how it’s so very bad. Frankly, I was hoping you’d have moved on to some of the excellent material in this week’s issue by now, like Diana’s interview with Peter Capaldi. Come on, it’s Peter Fucking Capaldi! And he’s playing Doctor Who!

Okay, look, I’m going to give it a go. But I can’t promise we’ll get there. The south face of this thing is pretty steep.

One of the most dazzling features of this debate is the lack of self-awareness party activists have about grubby politics, even while they’re engaged in it. The climate in which Slater operates is greatly fostered by the normalisation of hate-filled commentary online.

(You have a horrible feeling you know where this is going. A chill.)

The most common form of dirty politics is much less elaborate than what’s described in Hager’s book. It’s the hourly drip-drip-drip of invective engaged in by party supporters, very often against their own side. It’s disloyal and damaging, but when you’re in the rump, you can’t seem to help yourself, and the internet gives you every opportunity to vent. Systematic vilification is there to see every day on all manner of blogs. The Standard, the blog most closely aligned to Labour, has an unending stream of it, even while claiming the moral high ground over Whale Oil because it no longer tries to break news stories but restricts itself to commentary.

Here we are. We’ve reached the summit. Left-wingers who use social media to criticise other left-wingers. They create the climate in which Slater’s dirty politics thrives. They are to blame, and not the politicians, advisers, public relations men, editors and journalists who have been complicit in perverting the way information is circulated and used in this country. They are the ones who used Cameron Slater’s tipline, allowed themselves to be manipulated by him, had him invited to our corporate parties at Eden Park and finally, most heinously, forced the newspaper industry to give him an award and treat him as one of their own. It was Lynn Prentice and the Standard who made us do all those things.

Look, they even criticised Josie Pagani. They said mean things to her. They said she was “A Fox liberal,” “incoherent, disjointed and illogical”. Someone even said “I bet she misrepresents this criticism of her behaviour and statements as a personal attack.” This is exactly like that time a commenter on Whale Oil said Simon Pleasants should be summarily executed, and his wife and kid should also be killed if they refused to pay for the bullet.

And Josie. Will the rump stop at nothing? We must tackle the national crisis of politicised people using public forums to openly criticise the spokespersons that the media have selected for them.

TITLE OF NEXT SECTION GOES HERE

Why are you doing this? Quit punishing yourself. This a 94-page magazine and it’s packed with superb writing. The arts pages. The film reviews. The thrill of finding out which letter by child poverty expert Susan St John we didn’t publish this week. A Tory editorial. Bill Ralston.

Or you could read something else altogether. You know as well as I do that 800 words from now I’m going to put an end to this by claiming that I warned everyone about blogs. I will actually use the words ‘maybe I was just right too early’. Trust me, you don’t want to be here when that happens.

***

The above started as a series of tweets late last week as a result of which a senior writer for the New Zealand Listener opined in a blog post that I am a disturbed individual who shouldn’t be allowed to leave the home unless heavily sedated. Cameron Slater, whom I've publicly defended in the past whenever his mental illness was used to attack him, quickly republished the post on Whale Oil. I’m used by now to that kind of attention, as well as to dealing with assorted trolls and my very own online stalker. I know of the time and energy it sometimes takes to sort those people from the legitimate and honest critics. But it bothered me more, this time. There is a climate. I feel differently vulnerable, as I’m sure many others do.

What we have come to call dirty politics, and which Jane Clifton paints in her column as a product of minority grassroots extremes of our political environment, is in fact an institutional practice. It doesn’t start at the bottom, but at the top – in this particular instance, with the son of a National Party President colluding with a freelance political advisor, a powerful PR company, a Cabinet Minister, National’s pollster and the very office of the Prime Minister. It uses intimidation and coercion to protect and consolidate vested powers, and in this of course it’s hardly unique. We know of the advocacy groups that have been silenced, of the police raids on Māori communities, of the Ministers who have disclosed the private details of citizens without needing to resort to Mr Slater or his associates. We’re just not always sufficiently aware of how this other power operates at any one time. And so, whenever its story gets told, it produces a loss of innocence among those who have not yet witnessed that particular incarnation of the state. It’s like the first time a cop swings a baton at someone in front of your eyes during a demonstration, unprovoked, gratuitously, just because he can. You didn’t feel the blow but you feel the shock. Nothing prepares you for it.

There is a climate. It has made me apprehensive about what I can and cannot write, and embarrassed to feel that way. But fuck it, we can’t let this go.

Read this thing that David Fisher wrote.



Monday, August 18, 2014

Of journalism and monsters


Being picked out for casual accusations and vigilante justice is of course a shocking experience for the people concerned. A few hours after Slater published the first Pleasants post a commenter called Sinner left a message on the blog. Responding to another commenter who had said ‘If this Simon Pleasants is guilty…’, he wrote, ‘he is clearly guilty, he should be fired, he should be bankrupted, his family thrown in the gutter, he should [be imprisoned] for at least 6 years, then he should be banned from any civil service position…’ Then he said, ‘Ah fuck it. Shoot him, and shoot his wife and kids if they can’t be bothered to pay for the bullet.’
(Nicky Hager, Dirty Politics)


It’s been a good week for some of us. A week of feeling vindicated, of feeling galvanised. Where it goes from here will depend on several factors, some of which are largely outside our control. What’s playing out is a quiet struggle within our media, and within single media organizations. A battle between people who want to continue or, in some cases, go back to doing their jobs, and those who are trying to cauterise the wound, so that in time – not long: a week, a month – they can go back to presiding over the status quo.

If the characters were arranged on a plastic board, you could flip them up or down accordingly. ‘As predicted by most of those that have been around a while and seen it all before, the Hager book has amounted to basically nothing,’ declared Mike Hosking this morning on Newstalk ZB, just as his colleague Guyon Espiner, over on National Radio, subjected the Prime Minister to the most devastating interview of his political career to date. New Zealand Herald chief political commentator John Armstrong suddenly remembered where he had been for the last six to ten years, while reformed liberal Bill Ralston went within days from calmly announcing that Dirty Politics wouldn’t shift anyone’s tribal allegiances to flouncing off Twitter because of‘left trolls’. Some, like Duncan Garner, engaged in soul-searching. Others, like Paddy Gower, initially tried to make the story go away through sheer willpower (‘the book would have hurt John Key more if it had been about Snowden’), but then remembered their training.

I doubt our collective ability to greatly influence this struggle, at least in the short term, other than by continuing to pay attention to the story and grasp its ramifications. The work of reforming our media, while urgent, operates in a different time frame. But the struggle is now, and not because of the impending election. The struggle is now because, if the story told in Hager’s book were truly allowed to ‘amount to basically nothing’, we’d lose a unique opportunity to freeze-frame, comprehend and – if we can – disrupt the mechanisms that govern the corporate, commercial and political manipulation of our media.

***

It was like a stream of courtiers seeking an audience with a powerful aristocrat, but they were journalists waiting for their turn to congratulate Cameron Slater. As a fellow Canon Media Award nominee in his category, I was asked by a couple of people if I would join the queue. No, thank you. But I enjoyed observing the spectacle sporadically, from the wings, as I talked with others.

Once the crowd had dispersed somewhat, he talked the longest and seemingly most cordially with Jane Clifton, then with New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie. Currie, whom he had recently declared his new best friend and whose corporate hospitality he enjoyed at the Nines tournament at Eden Park, in February; and Clifton, who as fresh winner of the best editorial writer category at the awards may or may not be behind a string of extraordinary unsigned pieces for the New Zealand Listener attempting to defuse the impact of inequality and child poverty on the coming election (one, two and three). Regarding her audience with the Whale, someone explained to me that, to her, he was a source, and that therefore she needed to cultivate him, ‘work’ him. I wasn’t quite so sure just who was working whom.

Throughout the night, as well as being commiserated with by people who shared my opinion of Cameron Slater and having a generally good time talking about other, more pleasant matters, I had to field a number of strangers who came up to me – as if under some sort of compulsion – with the sole apparent aim of informing me that the award had gone to the right man. I listened politely at first, then changed tack. ‘Walk me through it, then.’ I insisted on knowing what it was that made his breaking of the Len Brown affair and the way in which he went about it worthy of a media award, if we even could somehow divorce that material from the rest of his output, including the excerpts at the top of this post. I asked the question last to Rick Neville, editorial director of the Newspapers Publishers’ Association, organisers of the award. He seemed unwilling or unable to process my objections. He disagreed, anyhow.

In his book, Hager describes Slater’s victory at the Canons as a ‘sad joke’, and goes on to observe how he used his acceptance speech to make further accusations of sexual impropriety against the Auckland Mayor. Neither Currie nor Clifton nor any other of his smiling petitioners seemed to mind.

In my own account of the evening for the Pantograph Punch, I wrote this:
With the benefit of hindsight – but also of foresight – I was never going to win. The purpose of the exercise was always to induct Cameron Slater into official journalism, to give him the legitimacy that he at once craves and abhors. In turn, this allowed official journalism to eat a piece of his still-beating heart – in a sort of black-tie Satanic ritual – and hopefully acquire some of his powers. That was the transaction, to the point of my wondering if the category had been created for the express purpose of celebrating the man who broke the big story that other outlets were too decent to run. As if to say: ‘To you, who do our job, but without ethics.’ If not, it was almost certainly to his celebrity status – itself the product of journalism’s obsession with its monstrous double – that the prize owed its otherwise inexplicable prominence in the evening’s proceedings.
I went to the awards in part to observe that relationship, to see if it would be amicable or strained. But it was quite clear to me from the outset that Slater used the media as much as the media used him.

This is the part of the story that we didn’t need Nicky Hager to document for us: the extent in which having someone who obeys none of the laws or codes of behaviour governing journalism, and is therefore ideally positioned to break or engineer stories that otherwise wouldn’t see the light, is highly useful to our almost exclusively profit-driven media. In most stories, with the exception of some political ones, there is little harm in being scooped by Cameron Slater. Notwithstanding his pathetic delusions, he is no rival to organizations like the New Zealand Herald. But he can help them sell papers.


I heard from Rick Neville again the other day. He wrote to express his disappointment at my defacing of Canon’s logo in a polemical tweet after the publication of Hager’s book. As I had duly acknowledged, I wasn’t in fact the author of the image – I’m nowhere near that clever – but regardless: Neville was worried about the repercussions on the sponsor, and the risk to future events. He wrote:
If you have to criticize anyone, then criticize me – for choosing the judge – and the NPA. It was my decision to include an award for blogs for the first time in the Canon awards. We did not need to do this, but thought it time to recognize the growing significance of digital media. You and your colleagues are choosing a strange way to show your appreciation. We will certainly reconsider inclusion of this award in 2015.
I would ask you to reflect on your actions, and think about the effect on good people who do a lot to support journalism in this country.
At the same time as he was writing this email to me, Neville was reassuring the media that Slater would get to keep the award in spite of the sensational revelations about the extent of his machinations. 'The NPA has not considered this, and Canon has made no request for this to happen,' he is reported to have said.
In the 40-year history of the awards, none has ever been withdrawn and it would be an extreme, highly unusual step. The only justification for even considering this would be if concrete evidence came forward of illegal or highly unethical methods having been used to obtain the Len Brown story.
The moral: I and my colleagues – as opposed to Cameron Slater and his – are the ones who are hurting journalism in this country. There is evidence of our wrongdoing, but none of theirs. The real victims in all this are the sponsors (or that most kind and sensitive of souls, Bill Ralston, beset by left-wing trolls), as opposed to the public servants, political enemies, investigative journalists and ordinary citizens who have been vilified, threatened, blackmailed, ruined.

Yet this much I know: that if it’s ever allowed to become a question of the media versus the public, the media will win. There is a political goal that must emerge from this, if Hager's book and the broader story it tells are allowed to have that much of an impact: how to strengthen the institutions that are supposed to keep us informed, reinforce their relationship with the public and make them less vulnerable to manipulation and commercial pressures. It is a goal that the best of our independent media, including blogs, must help campaign for and achieve. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Autarch



The appearance is that of a round table, with cupboards underneath and room for six people to sit. Except there is a handle at one side which, when operated by the host, causes a cylindrical drum in the centre to rise. The drum consists of two levels. The bottom one contains plates, cutlery and glasses. The top one contains the food to be served. The drum rotates, allowing the guests to help themselves or be helped. Each of the cupboards underneath the tabletop, when opened, reveal bottles of soft drinks, wine and liquors, which slide forward and can be tipped without needing to be removed from their holders. In this way the meal can be consumed without either the guests or the host having to leave their seats, or the need for waiters or maids.


The table, known as l’Autarca (the autarch), was designed in 1936 by a Genoese attorney by the name of Angelo Fasce. It got its current name much later, though, when it became a museum piece. In his patent application, Fasce had called it, less poetically, a ‘table containing all the necessaries for serving meals’. It is reasonable to assume that he protected his design in the hope that it would be mass produced and become a feature of the modern home, along with the first automatic washing machines and the other appliances of the coming era.


By the time Fasce’s filing was accepted by the United States Patent Office, it was 1937 and the short-lived economic sanctions following Mussolini’s brutal invasion of Ethiopia had been lifted. The forced isolation that the regime had turned into a tool for political propaganda was no longer dictated by external conditions, but had since developed into the means of expressing materially and economically the Fascist ideology. So perhaps the posthumous name for this dining table isn’t misplaced. The autarch is proud and resourceful. By reducing his household staff, or the domestic duties of the wife, he will help the nation preserve the labour force needed to achieve and maintain its self-sufficiency.


 



I saw the table earlier this year in its current home, the Wolfsoniana museum in Nervi, on the outskirts of Genoa. It was donated to the collection in 2010 along with its original set of red earthenware plates by Richard-Ginori, bakelite coffee cups, Murano glasses and embroidered linen placemats. It is a magnificent object, yet also deeply ridiculous: what crazy, hopelessly impractical design was this, which would need to be carefully set up in advance (and how would it cope with hot foods in its belly for prolonged periods of time?), then operated while sitting down, always strictly in the correct order, when it might be easier to just pass the foods along, or get up and grab a bowl of salad from the kitchen? Would this beautiful machine really spare any time or effort? And how long would it take for its novelty to fade?


1936, the year the Autarch was invented, was also the year Modern Times was released in the United States, and the mind runs to the Billows Feeding Machine, that great invention designed to ‘eliminate the lunch hour, increase the production, and decrease the overheads’ of the most advanced Taylorist factories. This machine also takes labour-saving to preposterous extremes:
Let us acquaint you with our automaton soup plate, its compressed-air blower – no breath necessary, no energy required to cool the soup. Notice the revolving plate with the automatic food pusher. Observe our counter-shaft, double-knee-action corn feeder, with its synchro-mesh transmission, which enables you to shift from high to low gear by the mere tip of the tongue. Then there is the hydro-compressed, sterilized mouth wiper: its factors of control insure against spots on the shirt front.
It doesn’t take the catastrophic, high-speed failure of the machine as it is tested upon the worker played by Charlie Chaplin to understand that the design is absurd, and yet utterly coherent and consistent with contemporary ideology and the role of people within in it.

The Autarch is genteel by comparison, less dehumanising, and we can admire it today as a museum piece, like we would the contraptions that entertained the aristocracy in earlier times. But it’s also a historical object, made at a time when a loutish and deeply uncultured regime presided over the extraordinary flourishing of our industrial design – another oddity of which this very odd object is an expression and a relic – then plunged us into a war that destroyed nearly everything.


You couldn’t sit at the table these days, although seeing as the full designs have survived and the inventor has been dead for so long, someone might yet build another Autarch, and play again at hosting dinner parties that resemble an elaborate mechanical dance while we all wait for history to end.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Pākehā grievance industry


It is a feature of every election campaign, as well as a larger feature of social life and the culture: the lamenting of Māori privilege. The feeling, more or less palpable, more or less explicitly stated, that there are citizens upon whom the laws and our institutions look with benign eyes on account of their race. These citizens elect their own members of Parliament from a special roll; are entitled collectively to restitutions for land that never belonged to them personally; have access to special education programmes and scholarships; are consulted on a preferential basis on local government and resource management issues. And even to the extent that they can be shown to be materially disadvantaged – most notably in terms of their higher rates of incarceration and unemployment, or their poorer health – this, too, is notched perversely as form of privilege, since all of these things cost everyone’s money.


It is difficult to quantify the extent of this sentiment, in part no doubt because it changes over time, but also because it is tapped into in different ways and by different people. ACT leader Jamie Whyte is but the latest in a very long list of politicians to have done so. Like most of his predecessors, he approached Māori privilege as if he had just discovered it, or was the only person bold enough to speak the truth to this particular form of power. Whereas in fact there are few discourses that are less taboo in this country than the discourse of Māori privilege. We all know how it goes. We can almost sing it by heart, or time the exact moment in the election cycle when the music will start. Whyte’s cover version contained a new line: that the privilege of some Māori is comparable to that of the French aristocracy before the Revolution. It was his way of stamping the song, making it his own. But it made little difference.

Whyte’s performance fell flat, and so out came a second speech, lamenting how he had been wilfully, spitefully misunderstood. ‘I was warned that it is impossible to have an intelligent discussion about New Zealand’s race-based laws,’ he passively aggressed. Then he made further contributions to the civilised debate that he so craves, with gems such as this:
I am white but my daughters are not. I want them to live in a country where that is legally irrelevant. I do not want the law or the government to treat my daughters differently from any other citizens. And, although she is only 11, I think my elder daughter would be bewildered and appalled by the idea that the law would treat her differently on account of her skin colour.
Which it wouldn’t. It won’t. The African heritage of Jamie Whyte’s daughters doesn’t make them tangata whenua any more than their father’s eponymous skin colour would. This puerile and offensive act of misdirection, confusing pigmentation with ethnicity – that is to say with historical, social and cultural belonging – exposes the profound dishonesty of the underlying argument, which is barely an argument at all. What motivates Dr Whyte isn’t a coherent desire to assert the liberal principle of equality before the law, but to tap into the latent anxieties of a portion of the electorate in the hope of doing nothing more noble than converting them into votes, hence power.

The real object of the discourse, then, is not the mythical, non-existent Māori privilege, but the actual Pākehā grievance. And this grievance, while it always exists to some degree, can be cultivated, amplified, as Whyte did at the same time as he attempted to profit from it: for every new formulation of the theory of Māori privilege does its bit to perpetuate the racist fiction.

Now here’s an apparent paradox: that when Jamie Whyte and others, like Colin Craig or Winston Peters, articulate this grievance from the margins of our political discourse, they do so in terms that are generally more hedged, less extreme than when Don Brash did it as leader of one of our major parties.


Every time I go back to read the 'One Nation' speech that Brash gave at Orewa in 2004, I realise that I have contrived to forget just how vicious it is. Compared to Whyte’s ludicrous ancien regime comparison, Brash’s digs appear more cynically calculated, more lethal. In the interest of dispelling a myth of gentle savagery that no-one has put forward in modern times, he paints the picture of pre-colonisation Māori as barbarous and blood-thirsty, and implicates them in their own dispossession at the hand of the British (‘any dispassionate look at our history shows that self-interest and greed featured large on both sides’). He is much bolder than Whyte in his exculpation of living Pākehā (‘None of us had anything to do with the confiscations. There is a limit to how much any generation can apologise for the sins of its great grandparents.’), his mockery of Māori customs and spiritual beliefs (to honour which we supposedly ‘allow our environment law to be turned into an opportunistic farce’), and his insistence that the claims process must be wound up soonest (‘it is essential to put this behind all of us’) and all mentions of the Treaty expunged from legislation so that everyone, ‘and Maori in particular’, can ‘stop looking backward and start moving forward into this new century’.

If we were inclined to feel a very limited amount of sympathy for Jamie Whyte, then, we could observe how commentators wasted no time calling him a racist and picking his diatribe apart, whereas within days of Orewa a much more insidious and extremist speech had already been processed as a vehicle of sensible mainstream views, simply by virtue of who had delivered it. The staggering shift in political fortunes that followed it – National gained 17 points and overtook Labour in a single poll’s leap – can also be attributed to the sense that the map of politics and race-relations had been fundamentally redrawn, a feat that Brash alone was in a position to achieve. No-one will test the resonance of Whyte’s ideas on the streets of Auckland or Putaruru, as they did for Brash, because journalists don’t feel an obligation to reorient the national conversation around them. There is no power compelling them to.

The contrast is instructive. It tells us that the Pākehā grievance can be mobilised to great effect, by the right people and under the right circumstances. Even in its latent form, as the mere threat of a backlash, it guards against Māori developing radical ideas about sovereignty and self-determination, and against interpreting the Treaty as a living document, as opposed to a near-exhausted legal instrument.

Yet a grievance it remains, the cry of the over-privileged. We shouldn’t forget this. Should you have trouble remembering, think of Jamie Whyte: the leader of a party that is in Parliament because of a loophole in our laws and an act of charity. A party that exists because of special treatment, and to entrench economic power – which in this country is also if not primarily the fruit of colonisation.


This power was on display not two weeks ago in Act’s own gifted constituency, the electorate of Epsom, when the mere possibility of two low-decile colleges extending their catchment into the area prompted political commentator Matthew Hooton to issue a stern reminder of the $100,000-plus premium on house prices that his and other ACT-voting families pay to be guaranteed access to the country’s best public schools. ‘Any perceived threat to these zones will be met with fierce resistance,’ he thundered to the sympathetic press. ACT’s David Seymour was going to attend a public meeting scheduled for the following Sunday in order to organise this resistance, but there was no need: the Ministry of education stepped in and amended the proposed zones before the end of the consultation period. All those property investments and guaranteed futures were spared.

At its heart, the Pākehā grievance is an attempt to negate the historical and social context in which all those white fortunes were made. ‘It is essential to put this behind all of us’: only by forgetting the origins of that privilege we can teach ourselves to see it as something other than privilege, and call upholding it a kind of justice.

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