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The unfortunate necessity of the ‘Ordinary Voter’

10 days ago I nearly voted Labour. David Cunliffe’s automated phone call the night before the election nearly got me. Nearly. In the end I gave my two ticks to the Māori Party. I figured it would need them to stay alive, and to have any kind of role in continuing the development of Whānau Ora. In a way I was disappointed in the Māori Party campaign as I did not get a sense of how they would seek to influence economic direction; they almost never talked about the economy, the single most important thing voters can make a choice on. But I voted for them anyway, not so much on policy but on strategy. So, the thing is, I did not vote to change the government, and I knew it. Even as my blimmin’ kids started chasing each other between and around the voting booths, with the four-year old doing a pretty good impression of someone in the grip of a psychoactive substance, I knew it. And when we scuttled out of the Newlands school hall before anyone could throw us out, I knew it. It came down to a matter of trust for me. While I prefer Labour’s economic policies, I couldn’t trust that the Labour hierarchy I would give my party vote to would be the same Labour hierarchy in following months or years. Nor could I trust their ability to hold together a coalition of the Left.Easy enough to say that now, in hindsight, with yet another Labour primary looming. But lack of trust is what drove my decision not to vote Labour, and therefore the Left as a whole.

So, in outing my voting behaviour, I can now admit it’s been a little depressing in the days since the election. Not so much because of the election result, which was predictable (and I was relieved the Māori Party survived, albeit in depleted form), but because of my Twitter feed and FB status updates that have been spitting rage on upon both non-voters and centre right/right voters. [And impliedly, voters like me, who passed up the opportunity to vote Left]. A few of these give the general impression I have been getting..

I am gutted at the lack of compassion and understanding from all those National and right wing voters. You’ve just given John Key and his mates a mandate to continue with corruption, gutting what’s left of a safety net, signing away New Zealand sovereignty, raising debt… […] Soooo gutted FUCKING FUCKTARDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Should have given the right to vote to your 12 million sheep, they have more intelligence and compassion

Many of the people I know that voted National …have a great lack of understanding on how they will affect the future of this country. It makes me wonder how they made their voting decision. As much as I believe that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and that all opinions are valid, I sometimes wish there was a law that prevents stupid people from voting!

I have no love for my country anymore, I despise the All Blacks for helping Key get re-elected, and I don’t respect the 48% who voted for National because they are heartless and brain-dead. I hope they will feel the pain and suffering already experienced by the disadvantaged, it’s the only way to make them regret their decision.

It’s not so much that electoral democracy is not fit for purpose but rather that a large portion of the voting electorate are no longer fit for purpose.

Wag friend on election results: “Evil will always triumph because Good is dumb.”


Many, but not all of the comments I saw came from predominantly Pākehā well-educated, employed and middle-class commenters. The anger and the disbelief was confronting and disturbing. It was also immediate, and visceral and, for the most part, emotionally honest. What worries me is not the emotionalism per se. What interests me is the contempt expressed for The Ordinary Voters. He and She are stupid, gullible, uneducated, corruptible, greedy, and more.

Perhaps these kinds of comments (and the above examples provide just a tiny smattering)  is the product of what often been called political ‘tribalism”. After all, there is nothing so powerful and unifying between individuals joined by a common political ideology as the sense of being part of a chosen people that have the best answers. That is an ancient narrative as old as social humanity, is it not?  Such thinking is, after all, at the heart of our party-based system of political representation. But that belief creates the inevitable corollary that those who don’t share any given belief are at worst dumb, gullible, and corruptible, and at worst, corrupt, craven to ‘interests’ and, well, just plain evil.

On the other hand, there is another strong theme that has been emerging; the Ordinary Voter as Sensible and Discerning paragon. John Key even told us so, on his Campbell Live interview two nights after the election. ‘The Public’ he reckoned are ‘much smarter than maybe all of us the media and politicians give them credit..[…] They are much smarter than we think. Much smarter.’ [That repetition didn’t make it onto the web edit, but I repeat it here because the emphasis is..well, emphatic.]

I don’t take issue with Key paying tribute, as he saw it, to the electoral intelligence of voters (from his point of view, natch) . It would be extraordinarily ungracious for a prime minister who had just led a third term election victory with increased support to neglect to pay tribute, in some way, to the voting public. A couple of things interest me about this quote, though. One is that Key clearly identifies the ‘elite’ (‘us the media and politicians’) as not quite connecting with, or understanding ‘the Public’. The second point is the necessary implication from this quote is that this identifiable elite (albeit wrongly) considers The Public to be stupid in the first place.

I’m sure his observation reflects a truth. After the leaders’ debate on 10 September the TV3 expert panel (including Bryce Edwards and Josie Pagani and Duncan Garner) was convened to discuss the debate. The panellists were convinced The People watching would have drowned in the policy detail (despite the many thousands of text voters who were highly engaged with the issues being debated). They then enlisted a quaintly-named People’s Panel (comprising amusing Ordinary Voters Who Are Clearly Not Experts) and asked them if they found there was too much policy detail for their little heads. ‘Um…no.’ was the general response, to the surprise of all. I found this aspect of the piece patronising.

The theme of an elite  out of touch with Ordinary Voters has also been picked up consistently by those commentating on the demise of the Left vote, and the internal chaos of the Labour party, as shown here, and here. Morgan Godfrey identified that  political elitism of the Left was to blame for electoral defeat, not policies:

Yet the problem wasn’t that the policies were poorly pitched. The problem seems to be that politics – the process, the institutions and then the policies – isn’t reaching voters at the hard edge. Our New Zealand not only talks past the New Zealand that won last night, our New Zealand also seems to talk past the people we claim to represent. Everyone is entitled to a better life, yet our leaders seem incapable of giving convincing expression to that very simple idea.

I don’t know how the Left can rebuild a relationship with Ordinary Voters, or how deep the disconnect really is between “the elite” and those voters. Nor is the “elite”, including mainstream media and others in ‘the beltway’ are entirely to blame for the routing on Election night. I sure as heck don’t think the blogosphere of Right or Left are to blame any more than any other factor; they are merely part of the mix. Focusing blame and attention on that elite or a combination of its parts, I suspect, is only going to reveal some of the problems.

My gut instinct tells me, however, that contempt for ordinary voters is never a good strategy for any political movement, within its elite, or within its broader membership. Rarely have I seen more unattractive advertisements for the Left than those disseminated on social media in the past couple of weeks.Cameron Slater may be a card-carrying attack dog for the Right, but I wonder if the largely middle-class and educated Twitterati and FB Status Update Commentariat don’t themselves comprise a fairly vigorous battalion of attack piranha. Except they attack their friends and family and acquaintances directly and indirectly. For every person who posted “I can’t believe the New Zealand public voted in Donkey and his lackeys again’ there was an auntie or an uncle or a cousin, or old school friend who either voted for the centre-Right, and just held their counsel, or who didn’t vote Left, or who simply didn’t vote, and who also will have held their counsel, because non-voters were just as big a target as voters for the wrong parties. And the divide between potential voters for the Left and actual voters grows just a little bit wider.

So maybe, just maybe, for the Left to regenerate some relevance and numerical support, obviously some serious thinking needs to go not into sorting out machinery of politics and the right platform.  But perhaps  the angrier politically active voters of the Left might also seek to understand (instead of presume) why other ordinary people actually voted as they did. And a hint: it will not generally be because they are venal, corrupt and stupid. Maybe some honest and open conversations could do at least as much for the rehabilitation of the Left than another Labour leadership primary. Maybe political tribalism is less an answer to political apathy or conservatism than a trap.














Why my vote may not be that important after all. (Gulp)

Like a lot of bloggers at the moment I have been toying with the notion of writing a piece encouraging my Dear Readers to get out and vote. Indeed, I found myself starting to get all worked up about how IMPORTANT OUR VOTE IS. And how I OWE IT TO MYSELF AND MY WHANAU to use my  little vote wisely. Then I had to check myself, and tell myself to ‘settle, petal!’ Cos actually, it’s easy to get sentimental about voting; as if it is our one big ritual by which we discharge our duty of civic citizenship. Actually, that’s kind of rubbish, really. That kind of thinking might even verge on fetishisation of voting, potentially at the cost of all the other things we can do to keep democracy alive in this country. Plus, it invalidates the conscious decision made by some to not vote at all, and yes, that too can be a civic and political choice, even if not one I favour. And for so many Maori who are or consider themselves, disenfranchised from national politics, what…are we condemning them to a kind of democratic purgatory when they don’t vote in national elections? In the immortal words of the Black Eyed Peas: Is that all there is [to democracy]? In short, no, it’s not. In my view it’s civic decision making that characterises democratic behaviour: participating in decision making that affects not just me, my whanau and my immediate kin-network, but the whole of my local community, and beyond. I don’t just mean generating a whole lot of heat and light about issues that affect those communities such as we have seen at public fora in this election campaign. Protest alone, or ecstatic hollering at Moments of Truth meetings don’t comprise civic decision-making, for example.  Of course that kind of engagement can often be critically important precursors to people then carrying out democratic actions. Would, for example, thousands of people have joined up to the Maori Party and later, the Mana Movement, were it not for the foreshore and seabed hikoi in 2004? The hikoi alone was not democracy in action, no matter how fondly we might imagine that it was. It was the other stuff, such as the birth of new political parties, the creation of fresh avenues for civic decision making, among other things, that comprised democratic action. Turning up to vote at settlement ratification hui, at local body elections, making submissions to commissions of inquiry, or to Parliamentary select committees, or to local iwi authorities, or other local bodies, giving evidence before the Tribunal, any, all, or other such actions affect what decisions can be made that have an impact on our communities more broadly. And Māori have such an extraordinarily rich, complex and fascinating history of civic engagement throughout New Zealand history. Our focus on the Big Election Every Three Years allows some commentators to bemoan the lack of Māori engagement in some aspects of national politics (re Māori voter apathy, for example), while completely ignoring Māori civic engagement and decision making where it does occur. There are numerous observations from the early and middle decades of the 19th century referring to a specifically Maori democratic practice. As used elsewhere on this blog site, here’s a quote from Francis Dart Fenton from 1857 (when he was a resident magistrate) talking about Maori runanga making decisions:

No system of government that the world ever saw can be more democratic than that of the Maoris. The chief alone has no power. The whole tribe deliberate[s] on every subject, not only politically on such as are of public interest, but even judicially they hold their “komitis” [committees] on every private quarrel. […] In case of a war the old chief would be a paramount dictator: in times of peace he is an ordinary citizen. “Ma te runanga e whakatu i a au, ka tu ahau.” “If the assembly constitutes me, I shall be established,” is an expression I heard used by a chief of rank, and perfectly represents the public sentiment on the question.

Maori civic decision-making processes led to the establishment of Kotahitanga parliaments, the Kingitanga, the Maori War Effort Organisation during and post-World War II. And today, within parliamentary representation, the operation of Maori land law, the Waitangi Tribunal hearing process and the Treaty settlement process we can still identify a large contingent of Maori individuals, tribal groupings and other polities that are deeply invested in using whatever power may be available to them to effect legal and political transformation of the New Zealand civic and political landscape. This, among other things, is the Māori exercise of democracy. Yes, I’ll be voting tomorrow. I’ll be taking my kids down to Newlands School, and kinda chuffed, as I usually am at election-time. But instead of merely asking ‘who I am going to vote for?’ on this last day before the nation goes to the polls, I’m also going to ask myself: what am I going to do after this election? What am I going to do, in the wake of all the sheer volume of information that we ordinary voters have been subjected to, to just….participate in civic decision making? Or will I slip back into my three-year slumber? Mind you..with the way my head is hurting from information overload from the past few weeks, it’s tempting!

Internet Mana: the enemy of my enemy is my friend (atm, lol)

There is a leap of faith that the membership of both the MANA Movement and the Internet Party have taken. That leap is the presumption that voters will be as pragmatic as these parties have been. As one thoughtful commenter on social media observed (commenting on Sue Bradford’s decision to leave the party):

I also was worried about this when it was first mooted. However it is a very pragmatic arrangment with the Internet Party (not Kim Dotcom the individual) and the way it is set up totally leaves Mana intact as well as it has many rigorous safeguards…What it does do is offer the possibility of maximising the party vote in a way that may make some dent in ousting the Nats (without which the reality of a “farleft movement for change” is a fantasy) Realistically Mana had neither the people or resources to promote the party vote alone. The Mana electorate candiate campaign is the same as it would always have been. …. More damage will be done to the “left” by inaccurate negative spin than the arrangment itself.

The last sentence of this post encapsulates the issue I mention. To some degree at least, it won’t matter that the arrangement leave a high degree of autonomy to each party. It won’t matter that  MANA gets most of the top seat spots in the combined party list. These countervailing arguments won’t matter to a significant degree of the voting population because now they can no longer be so sure what each of these parties represent. They are the voters not involved in the decisionmaking, not in the room when the deal went down, or on the email lists. I know MANA apparently has a terrific party organisation, and I’m sure that was a major factor in the decision. I also suspect that standing on lonely principle is not all that attractive to two parties that really want some degree of political power, and memberships that clearly want that as well.

But the abandonment of unifying principle is a dangerous course. Many people still vote on the basis of a positive idea, however muddy that idea becomes in realpolitik. National party supporters really do buy the notion of freedom, autonomy and individual responsibility, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Labour Party voters really do buy the idea of social and collective responsibility, again in the face of all political history that suggests such pure ideals never survive intact. The Māori Party knows better than anyone how difficult it is to sell a party based primarily on a pragmatic idea, in this case that Māori can benefit from being at the decision-making table. That too is a pragmatic stance, but at least it is phrased in the positive, and closely married to the idea of achieving a level of rangatiratanga for Māori. And it might be yet seen that the Māori Party has ended up losing its way because of that pragmatism.

Selling the idea of getting rid of the current government just doesn’t stand for anything in the hands of this new entity.  No doubt ample numbers of the supporters of both future components of Internet Mana can explain the logic and the utilitarianism of this decision, with that unifying goal of bringing National down. But those people are not where the tyre hits the tarmac. How does each potential voter now articulate for themselves and others what this entity stands for? Internet freedom (except in the case of Māori cultural knowledge)? Being the voice of the poor and dispossessed (except when that voice has to articulate, or at least accomodate other concerns)? How does each voter explain their own voting beliefs in the absence of any demonstrable conjoined beliefs in their party?

And thinking of the future..come September, if the election does see the return of a National-led coalition, where will the combined energy of these two collections of people go? On? In 10 years time will there be an Internet Mana? Once the conjugal purpose is either fulfilled or defeated, what’s left?

I spotted this quote a moment ago:

“[The party] was not well received by the general public…The perception that these MPs had “betrayed” their former party was strong. Many voters believed that [the party] had been born out of political opportunism, not out of firmly-held principle.”

Any guesses? Yep, a quote from the Wikipedia eulogy to the very short-lived Mauri Pacific Party formed in 1998.

Of course Internet Mana will likely have a longer presence just because Hone is a sitting MP and favoured candidate. Ultimately my prediction, for what it is worth (!), is that this pragmatic venture can’t have a long life, because it cannot now give voters something they can believe in without a proviso, a ‘but’, or a hedged exception.

A connection between Konrad, Judith & Maurice? You betcha.

I blame Paul Henry for my current curmudgeonly state of mind. There was I, innocently browsing the net on my laptop when I spied, out of the corner of my eye, Paul Henry on the TV in the corner of my lounge bobbing his head up and down in the imitation of…oh dear. A thinly disguised act of intimacy. He was, of course, doing a Henry in regards to the Konrad Hurrell and Teuila Blakely’s little home video that has been in the news lately. Not having seen the video, I nevertheless still have a charming set of images in my mind, thanks to Paul. In truth, I had been getting grumpier as the last couple of weeks have progressed as New Zealanders have had, inflicted upon them, story after story with a very similar central theme. That theme is one of hubris: exaggerated pride or self-confidence, and an entitlement by individuals in positions of power/influence to behave badly in defiance of their respective teams. It takes an extraordinary amount of belief in one’s own competence and value to justify, promote, excuse behaviour that is probably dodgy, if only one takes a moment to step back and take a pause. It takes an absolute refusal to live by that wise old adage ‘may you see yourself as others see you.’

I can only imagine that Konrad thought he really was the Mantis as he broke heaven knows how many road regulations, and trashing his momentary partner’s own reputation in the process by sharing his wee movie, which saw it SnapChatted immediately. The usual mollycoddling excuses came out shortly thereafter, he’s a young guy, he made a bad call, it’s unfortunate, move on, people. ”They get a lot of education on this but they are still young men. They have got physically matured bodies, but maybe not in the mind. Sometimes you make the mistakes and he has made one and he is going to have to live with that.’

I think this is right, and too much ought not be made of the incident itself, certainly he should be dealt with proportionately, and the $5k fine appears to do this. I wonder though, if his own hard-earned status as an NRL player, in the Warriors, of at least 42 games, with a pretty lengthy list of social network videos already to his credit, has meant that Konrad lost sight of how vulnerable he really is to same slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that all high performing sportspeople are. His own attitude does seem a bit ambivalent. He said: “I am so sorry this has happened and want to apologise for the trouble I have caused”, ( Curious choice of words, that: “I’m so sorry this has happened”, as if he was somehow passive in the matter. As if hitting ‘send’ was not an entirely voluntary act. Regardless, he is highly social media-savvy, he knows the power of wider media to enhance his own profile as well as that of his team, as a whole. It defies belief that when he shared the video he did not foresee what would happen to it. He just didn’t appear to care. He certainly didn’t waste any of his time asking himself ‘Now, as a Warriors league player wanting to get selected for the next game coming up..should I send this? How will this affect the team?’ Nup. If only.

Other commentators have written at length about Maurice Williamson and Judith Collins’ behaviours (with Donghua Liu and Oravida respectively) and their insistence, initially, that their actions were entirely normal and justifiable and of no moment to the New Zealand public, or their team-mates. While the clock is still ticking for Collins, the jury is well and truly back on Maurice, and the verdict has taken a regrettable toll on a well-liked and ebullient individual. Notwithstanding, I’m less interested in the behaviours themselves as opposed to the overweening confidence that both Ministers appeared to have had that their individual, personal connections, charisma and positions would justify their actions. At no point do either of them seem to have taken pause and asked themselves, as a Minister should I….[pick up the phone and call the police about this man] / [embark on a ‘royal tour’ of this commercial company and go for dinner with individuals including at least one official that can open pathways for that company?]. Neither appears to have considered the impact of their actions on their team-mates. Perhaps it was their positions and their confidence in their individual status that prevented them from seeing what has been so obvious to so many of us from the outset: you can’t use your ministerial position to create benefit for a commercial company, or to influence criminal prosecutions. These are not very complex propositions.

Arrogance is not solely a right-wing problem, contrary to what many on the left might wish. It is not solely the preserve of the well-heeled nor of those in the public eye. Arrogance, even hubris is found everywhere, nevertheless it is an occupational hazard for some people more than others. Supreme self-confidence is required by all three of these individuals mentioned here to stand out in the ways that they have. This is a necessary tool to enable them to get selection, to pull off the moves that get them noticed, that guarantee them some kind of a future in their particular blood sport.

But there should also be a moderator; the necessary creature that keeps that hubris under control, and enables such strong individuals to be a part of a team. This moderator is something we barely ever mention anymore: shame. Shame is a concept that has fallen into disfavour perhaps in these meritocratic, individualistic times. Shame is often now seen as a disabler, something that keeps women in their place and sexually denigrated, a holdover from earlier, socially restricted, communitarian times. But shame (whakamā) has its place. An ability to feel shame, that is, guilt, regret, or embarrassment is a necessary thing to stop ourselves from bringing harm to others that are close to us, by our own actions. One might feel shame indeed, after having done something egregious. Williamson, Collins and Hurrell have all expressed such regret that they caused some degree of harm to their colleagues, their teammates, for example, but even now I suspect both Collins and Williamson perceive themselves as being treated unfairly as individuals. But what is equally important is the ability to imagine the feeling of shame if we undertake some course of action that will lead to guilt, regret, or embarrassment for those around us. This ability to imagine how our actions impact upon the others close to us, those in our team, is crucial, and clearly, in these three cases at least, neglected.

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