Monday, October 18, 2010

The Two New Zealands

When photographer James Siers sat down to choose the cover for his 1975 book on life in New Zealand, he could have gone for any of the images of unknowns from various walks of life featured in it, or a collage thereof to signify that any depiction of New Zealand society would have to be a composite. But he didn't do that. What he did instead was to approach Colin Meads, who agreed to be portrayed on his farm at Te Kuiti, holding two sheep. A recently retired All Blacks flanker, a pair of bamboozled livestock, and right above, the book's title: The New Zealanders.

Thirty-five years later, this is how Labour leader Phil Goff opened his speech to his party's conference yesterday:

Last week I saw two New Zealands.
The first is the one we know. This is the place where people work hard, they pay their taxes and look after their families.
This is the place where they buy good second hand cars – nothing too flash but with good Ks, and go camping every January.
This is the place where Friday night means fish and chips and a dvd, or the rugby on TV.
This is the New Zealand of many colours and languages.
This is the New Zealand I grew up in, the one I know and love. But things are getting harder here. And I don’t like that.

Goff was first elected to Parliament in 1981, aged 28. It is safe to assume that he would have stopped buying second-hand cars around that time, and his lifestyle block in Clevedon is so large he could probably go camping in it all year round and never get bored. But this is not about the New Zealand in which Phil Goff lives, but rather the one that he sees. To their credit, our parliamentarians spend a lot of time in their communities, and Mr Goff is no exception. In nearly thirty years he must have compiled quite the mental collection of snapshots of what his countrymen and women look like. But now, in this most pivotal speech at the high point of his career, he has to choose a cover. And this is it: a family at home watching the rugby while eating fish and chips, and outside, a sedan with a tent strapped to the roof. The New Zealanders.

Meanwhile, over at Tumeke!, Martyn Bradbury can scarcely contain himself:
Wow. I mean. Wow. I have not heard a left wing speech like that from a Political leader in my lifetime… There can not be any claim in this election that the two parties are cramming the middle ground what-so-ever. The weekly pain felt by the weakest members of society has engulfed the middle classes…

He's talking about Goff's first New Zealand: the good people who buy the second hand cars and the fish and chips and go camping, engulfed. Not the weakest members of society, because those have long since been discounted. There is a passage in Goff's speech that underscores this rather brilliantly:

In this New Zealand your pay doesn’t go as far as it used to because prices are going up. There’s not as much left over at the end of the week as there used to be. People are worried about their jobs. Some of their friends have lost their jobs.

Some of their friends, see? Not them. Because when you lose your job you drop out of the first New Zealand, and into a zone of darkness. And if you end up there, Phil Goff isn't prepared to talk about you except as victims of the conservatives' failed economic policies, people thrown on 'the scrap heap'. And the scrap heap is, well, a scrap heap, all jagged bits of metal and old tires and broken glass. If Labour intends to so much as throw a mattress on it, they haven't indicated it at this stage.

No, to be part of the first New Zealand you need to work, and have a family. I'd really like to know when it was exactly that the word 'families' became a substitute for 'citizens' or 'people'. At any rate, what these families aspire to is to 'achieve the Kiwi dream', which is defined as follows:

We were raised to believe that in New Zealand you could make a good life for yourself. If you worked hard you could get ahead. You helped out at the local school and sports club, met your responsibilities and expected a fair go.

This was the Kiwi dream. It offered families like ours a good education, affordable health care, a home to call your own, and security in old age.

The Kiwi dream involved a basic sense of fairness – that the rungs of ladder reached down to where everybody grew up. There were jobs you could get if you trained and worked hard. Those jobs would pay well enough for you to get some other parts of the Kiwi dream too. Homes and small businesses were within reach of those who worked and saved.

But wait, this is all in the past tense. So what happened to the Kiwi dream? Goff doesn’t provide the answer, but we all know it: the Fourth Labour government happened to it. David Lange put it best in his extraordinary valedictory speech of August 22, 1996:

I want to thank those people whose lives were wrecked by us. They had been taught for years they had the right to an endless treadmill of prosperity and assurance, and we did them.

Labour will always struggle with this history, as Lange did until the very end. A two-term Prime Minister farewelling Parliament with a declaration of pain and regret (‘It was just terrible. That is the sort of thing that happened, and I am deeply aware of that’ were his last words according to the record) is not the most common of historical occurrences. And Goff was, of course, a minister in both terms of that Government, and an unapologetic supporter of the reforms during the term he spent in the wilderness, before being re-elected to Parliament in 1993. But to the extent that I’m struck by this change of heart – to which Goff and the party are certainly entitled – is that it reads like a challenge to history itself, a rewinding of it. Not just in terms of the country’s economic policies (and here, briefly, Labour proposes to abandon strict monetarism, curb foreign land acquisitions, promote local industry and generally intervene more in the economy) but also in terms of its broader development as a society. This is not so much a critique of neoliberalism as the pretence that it never happened, and that New Zealand was still the country in which Phil Goff, born 1953, grew up. A country that still has a burly, two-sheep-wielding former All Blacks flanker on the cover.

Goff signals this in the speech not just with its opening depiction of a New Zealand that may be multi-racial (with its people ‘of many colours’) but is crushingly mono-cultural and drab, a sort of global retirement village, but also with the latest in a series of digs against the social engineering ways of the Fifth Labour Government, evoked when he tells the story of an otherwise classic Labour voter – father, in his early thirties, good engineering job that he lost due to the recession – who revealed to him of having voted National at the last election because he felt that Labour was trying to tell him how to live his life. This classic white middle class complaint – look what you made me do, I had to vote conservative!stupendously espoused not long ago by Danyl McLauchlan, is rich with varying degrees of coded and not-so-coded antipathy for the politics of the subjects who don’t fit in Goff’s first New Zealand: women, immigrants, gays, people who live in or aspire to social units other than the family, people who think that fish and chips taste a bit shit, and generally anybody who complicates that picture unnecessarily.

But we aren't allowed more than two New Zealands, and the second one is all 'dinner and cocktails at a high-class hotel,' and the rich man's welfare in the form of tax cuts. Sandwiched between them, the people on what Goff's heroically calls 'a middle income', namely individuals earning between 60 and 80 thousand dollars a year (not the actual middle income, by a long shot), whom we are told 'are not rich' and therefore must be looked after also. I have a sneaking suspicion that this New Zealand and a half wedged between the other two, of propertied professionals who used to be taxed at the top rate until National came in, will be the main beneficiary of Labour's policies, coming in comfortably under a new top tax rate (will it be neatly set at 100k?) and standing to benefit the most from the further incentivisation of savings. 'For the few, not the fewer,' if you absolutely had to coin a slogan.

While most other commentators aren't quite as sanguine as he, Mr Bradbury is not the only one who perceives these developments as a significant shift to the left and to classic pre-1984 Labour positions. John Armstrong says so (he also thinks a capital gains tax may be on the table), and so does David Farrar, and so does BUNJI at The Standard, and so no doubt will Chris Trotter, although I'm going to make a real effort to stay away from there just so my eyeballs don't bleed. And they all have a point (well, most of them). Just the same, I wonder if it behoves us to condone the rhetorical framing of this new direction from Labour. The neoliberal reforms of the last twenty-five years have hardly been the guarantors of plurality or social progress, so why should casting them off also require turning our collective backs on Māori, the idea of a multicultural society and all the political subjects that don't match Goff's very narrowly defined mainstream? And the nationalism of it, also in light of what I wrote last week, is of genuine concern. Again, not because the sale of the country's land and assets shouldn't be subject to a very stringent set of tests, but because of how this principle is worded in the context of the speech – cue Trevor Mallard's post this morning, proudly and alarmingly entitled Kiwiland. It turns out that it is a small step indeed from the first New Zealand to New Zealand First.

Tim Bowron is right to liquidate the policy as 'preferential support for Kiwi capitalists' – for where is the guarantee that domestic owners will operate in the national interest? – and it's a quip that nicely underscores how little this supposedly giant leap to the Left actually means. For all the puerile talk of Tina vs. Tara (what are we, six?), of there finally being real alternatives to neoliberalism, the two main parties will still be looking after the middle class and above, and managing the economy in ways that will look fundamentally different only to those who look really close, and in comparison to the extraordinary bipartisan convergence of the post-Lange years. Harking back to old Labour may be a progress of sorts, but the world has changed, and the challenges ahead are profoundly different from those of thirty years ago. Creating institutions that fundamentally entrench social equity is a matter of ever greater urgency, but so is promoting an open society able to deal other than in a defensive, reactionary fashion with the outside pressures that will no doubt be brought to bear upon it, the cushion of its physical remoteness notwithstanding. And when that time comes, we'd better have learned to see a lot more than just two New Zealands.

Jim Siers' photographs in this post are from The New Zealanders (Wellington: Millwood Press, 1975), a book he co-authored with Jim Henderson.
Tim Bowron's quote is from Facebook. 


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Thanks Gio, another great post.

Ben Wilson said...

I sit pretty squarely in the crowd that Goff is looking at, but also felt strangely excluded by it. As you say, it smacks of wiping out the history between, which is the history of my life.

stephen said...

I think this speech has to be taken in the context in which it was given and the audience present.

Obviously in the heart of Wellington ones electorate branch is not demographically typical, but even when I went to a regional gathering those present were overwhelmingly middle-class and old. I'm 40, and would have been in the youngest decile.

I guess I share your concerns, but I suppose someone felt that firing up the remaining party die-hards with an appeal to a past they love and are proud of is a higher priority in such a speech than reaching out to those the party has lost, and I can see the merit in that. It remains to be seen whether the party is up to the challenge of being meaningfull for the young, the poor and the non Anglo-Maori.

Giovanni Tiso said...

You know, I thought about that and the fact that the speech was delivered to an audience of party delegates actually troubles me more, if anything. Surely those are the people to whom you can afford to articulate your political vision in all of its nuances, and who will be more likely to respond well to progressive ideas, at least compared to the public at large. But if this is how Goff speaks to the party base, what in the world is he going to say to "middle New Zealand"?

(I would also make the point that the actual audience was the base plus the press, and that the latter was far more important for Goff to reach - they are the ones who will take the speech to the public.)

Philip said...

Surely those are the people to whom you can afford to articulate your political vision in all of its nuances, and who will be more likely to respond well to progressive ideas, at least compared to the public at large

On the contrary, those are the people who must be given simple slogans and well-defined enemies to keep them united, on-message, One. Then the public at large will follow, leaping into your arms like so many bamboozled livestock, because there is nothing the public at large so admires as a lot of people who all say the same.

Word Verification: senovish, adj. After the fashion of Yuri Grigorievich Senov (1874-1927).

alovrin said...

"I'd really like to know when it was exactly that the word 'families' became a substitute for 'citizens' or 'people'."

You weren't wanting a date were you? haha
Cause all I have is a cynical aside, that being.
About the time the political bed had been plumped up enough to make it comfy for long lie ins.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that in both of Goff's New Zealands, people would know that Meads was primarily a lock (47 of 55 tests) rather than a flanker.

(Just saying, not endorsing).

Giovanni Tiso said...

I hang my head in shame, Anon!

Ben Wilson said...

Anon, that counts me out of Goff's NZ *again*. To me, Meads is someone who stopped playing well before I ever took an interest in rugby.

Spitfire said...

I love the way you bring sanity to a discussion - another great post. Thank you.