Emotional politics at Labour’s 2017 Congress

I popped into Labour’s Congress yesterday to catch up with a few comrades who were down for the big event. Literally everyone was buzzing about a couple of the speeches which had been delivered earlier in the day, from Deputy Leader Jacinda Ardern and Finance spokesperson Grant Robertson.

Jacinda’s speech was livestreamed, and it’s well worth a look:

The full text is here. Some highlights:

Generation Y are the product of social breakdowns and two decades of rapid economic and global change. And what did that mean here in New Zealand? It meant that basically, they are the product of a time where WE, politics and politicians, told young people we didn’t owe them anything.

We sold their assets.

We told them their education wasn’t a public good anymore.

We traded on our environment while we polluted it for those who follow.

We stood by while home ownership amongst young people halved in a generation and is now the lowest it has been since 1951.

Generation Y have been the ones to watch inequality rise, they have been the ones to watch poverty rise, and they will be the ones who’ll see it compound even further as those who have become those who inherit.

This generation may not be having the same experiences as generations past, but just because they are different, doesn’t make them indifferent.

I was only 13 years old when my best friend’s brother took his own life. I had just started high school and was waiting for class to start when I heard the news. I can remember exactly where I was standing, just outside the science block.

Every single thing about it seemed unfair, and still does to this day. Even at my friend’s wedding just a few years ago, the sense of loss, of there being a missing member of that family, hung in the air.  He was just 15 years old when he died.

There should be no politics in addressing an issue like this, there should only be one thing- the value we place on new Zealanders of all walks of life having a sense of belonging, a sense of support, and a sense of hope. And none of that is more true than for our young people.

Grant also spoke very well. The text of his speech is here. He said:

When Andrew asked me to take on the Finance portfolio I was clear with him that I did not view the job as one that was just about spreadsheets and statistics, or share markets and currency movements.

Don’t get me wrong, those things matter.  But they don’t matter as much as people.

I still cannot get out of my head the story of TA, an eleven year old girl who was looked after by Te Puea Marae last year.  She was living in a van with her other six family members.  She was trying to do her homework by torch light.

Delegates, New Zealand is not at its best if there are children doing their homework by torchlight in a van.

Mr English and Mr Joyce, hear this- you cannot raise a family in a car.

Hearing so many of the Labour whānau rave about these speeches reminded me of last year, when I attended the Party conference up in Auckland, and the speech of the weekend was Justin Lester’s. He brought the entire room to tears talking about the benefit cuts of the nasty National government of the 1990s – not just materially, but psychologically. The son of a solo mother, he found himself adopting the beneficiary-bashing narrative of the day, and blamed his mum for not doing a good enough job. He cried. We cried.

This is what politics is missing. Genuine passion. Real stories of real people affected by politics. It can’t be any wonder that a lot of people don’t vote, and think politics isn’t relevant to them, when every discussion seems to be about costings and Budgets and abstract arguments about the role of government. But when we’re talking about young people being able to feel like they have a shot at a good life or families raising kids without enough money or workers getting a fair deal, it’s real. When our politicians show that they give a fuck about other people’s lives, in concrete and real terms, not as figures on a spreadsheet or projections in a Treasury forecast, it is immensely powerful. The right know this. That’s why they sneer at any hint of emotion in politics, and try to spin passion as a negative with their “Angry Andy” memes.

We should not be ashamed to be angry when young people are killing themselves and children are doing their homework by torchlight and mums and dads can’t even pay the rent when they’re working three different jobs. We should be proud of that anger, because it shows we care. Because it shows we don’t see politics as a fun game to play in between tobacco lobbying and seats on the board of Air New Zealand. Because people want to know we give a fuck. That’s when they’ll start to think that there are politicians worth voting for.

Taxes, greed and David Seymour

Fleshing out one of my recent Twitter rants, kicked off by this tragic bit of capitalist propaganda from the “leader” of the ACT “Party”:

Here’s the thing about taxes. Taxes are schools. Taxes are hospitals. Taxes are protecting our natural environment and biosecurity at our borders. Taxes support small business. Taxes support tourism. Taxes pay for the inspectors who keep our food safe and protect our export industries.

Taxes do all the important things “the market” won’t do because there’s no profit in it.

Parties like ACT exist to funnel money away from those important things via tax cuts, privatisation, and diverting public money to funding private organisations like charter schools.

That’s why they want you to think of tax as a burden, not the contribution we all make to keeping our society healthy and just. They want to pretend that “taxes” and “public services” aren’t one and the same thing. That’s why we have to change the frame on taxes. Not as a burden we need relief from, and not as the price that we begrudgingly pay for social stability and decent public services. Taxes are the way we all chip in to take care of the basics. Taxes are how we all share in building a stronger, happier, healthier, fairer country.

I’m a “net taxpayer”. And I love paying taxes.


And here’s the thing about the way David Seymour and the right glorify “net taxpayers”: it’s the clearest demonstration you need that what they truly value, in their hearts, is greed. They represent, and promote the interests of, people who already have plenty – have more than enough to live good lives – and who resent the contribution they have to make to society (because, as I had to explain to a “taxation is theft!!!” troll, we have democracy. We elect governments to pass laws, and you don’t get to opt out of them just because you’re selfish and narrow-minded.)

But this simply isn’t how the vast majority of human beings work. Look at the way lower/middle-income people give higher proportions of their income to charities, or give up their time to help local organisations. Look at the cultural importance we place on welcoming people, on hospitality, on caring for those who are more vulnerable. It’s not a bland calculation of disbursing surplus resources to guarantee returns. Many people who give their time and money to charity are struggling themselves, but are driven by wanting to support and care for others in even worse positions.

In contrast, politicians like David Seymour (who really has no grounds to complain about “net taxpayers” given where his pay comes from) belong to a bizarre fringe group who treat all human interactions as a cut-throat business negotiation: “what am I getting out of this? Where is the return on investment for this small talk?” This is not normal.

He must be great fun on dates.

People like Seymour don’t understand what a community is, so they refuse to see the benefits we all reap from supporting each other. They look at it like: I don’t have kids. Why should my taxpayer dollars go towards schools?

Because a well-educated population is happier and healthier and more stable and less likely to fall into goddamned fascism, that’s why.

That’s what betrays them as defenders of greed. It’s not ~enlightened self-interest~ or whatever marketing slogan they’re using these days. A strong civil society is in everyone’s self-interest! Whatever “extra” or “net” tax I pay is being returned to me in the ability to turn on my tap and drink clean water, or have proper roads for the bus to drive on to get me to work in the morning, or know that the food I buy for lunch is safe to eat.

It’s no surprise a lot of people buy into the idea that ~greed is good~ – that’s what decades of capitalist/neoliberal propaganda will do to you. But if there is a “natural state” of humanity, it is not the cold, jealous, suspicious attitude which the David Seymours of the world hold up as an ideal.

The right know this. That’s one of the reasons the ACT Party is still alive, aside from allowing National to distort the rightwing vote share in Parliament to hold on to power. ACT provide an excuse to National to bring in policies of greed like charter schools or letting property developers build slums on conservation land (just not in Epsom, because #epsomvalues). National knows it has to pretend to be friendly and relaxed and “just like Labour, only with a few tax cuts!”, because not even 1% of people vote for greed when it’s marketed honestly.

Tax is awesome. Greed is ugly. Let’s make that the conversation for 2017.

I aten’t dead

April 2017: a hell of a month offline, so damned quiet around here. But I’ve managed to do a bit of writing elsewhere, so don’t fret!

Today at The Spinoff: Enough bullshit. After all these years the Pike River families deserve answers

Something you notice about with the Pike crew is how they speak in the abstract. “Our boys.” “Our men.” It’s a natural coping mechanism. No one could survive six years with no closure, no justice, and very little hope, feeling every bit of the grief you’re entitled to when your husband or son goes to work one day and never comes home. Fighting just to get a basic investigation of the crime scene where he died, and accountability from the people whose inaction or negligence or outright greed killed him.

I got involved early with Stand With Pike, by virtue of being the closest millennial to hand when the crew were trying to get the word out about their picket, battling West Coast cellphone drop-outs and Facebook’s clunky Page Manager app. Contrary to the fever-dreams of Matthew Hooton, I’m not paid for it. It’s just the right thing to do. Because it’s so counter to every value I hold, that after six years, no one has been really held to account for letting 29 men die. Anna and Sonya and Dean and the others should not still be fighting for answers and justice. They should never have had to fight for it at all.

And a few weeks back at Overland: In New Zealand, where abortion is still a crime

Today, getting an abortion in New Zealand can involve five separate medical appointments: the initial pregnancy test and referral to an abortion provider (if your doctor provides referrals), two appointments with certifying consultants (if they both approve you), an initial consultation at the abortion clinic, and the procedure itself. …

In the 1970s, the Sisters Overseas Service helped fly women who wanted an abortion to New South Wales. We like to think those days are behind us, but in 2013, a young woman from Wellington was reduced to crowdfunding $7,000 to fly to Melbourne for hers.

How have we let this go on?

Back to the keyboard …

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty

I’ve been thinking more about how we frame our messages this election year, and I’ve realised something pretty significant.

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty.

Because poverty isn’t a hole in the ground, which a few errant kids fell into by accident. Why weren’t they watching where they were going? Can’t they just get themselves out again?

Where did that hole even come from? It’s been there forever. Hell, we put up signs to warn people – “Stay in school!” “Don’t do drugs!” “This way to the free CV-writing seminar!”

If some kids are going to be reckless and fall into the poverty hole, why should my taxpayer dollars pay for a rope to get them out?

It’s not my hole. I was smart enough to stay out of it. My parents don’t live anywhere near that hole. Why should stupid kids who jumped in get a free hand up? They’ll just jumping in again, because we haven’t made them face the consequences of their actions.

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty, because they’re not in there alone. Of course we don’t really blame them for being in the hole. But their parents? They’re adults. They should have known better. Why on earth were they wandering around a hole, with kids no less?

Some of them even have more children in the hole. We can’t reward that kind of irresponsible behaviour!

What if poverty wasn’t a hole in the ground?

What if we talked about poverty as violence. Not inevitable. Not accidental. A deliberate act, committed by human beings who hurt others for their own gain.

What if we talked about poverty as a scam. Greedy con artists stacking the deck in their own favour and stealing everyone else’s cards.

In either case, it’s a choice they’ve made, to profit and rule by robbig other people of options. Offering nothing but starvation wages and windowless garages to live in.

What if we talked about poverty as a wall. Something built by people – CEOs, rightwing politicians, the 1% – to trap everyone else and deny us freedom to live our lives.

What if we said: those people demolished the things we built together – state housing, social welfare, health, education – and used the rubble to block our path.

What if we said: we’re going to tear that wall down, all of us, together.

(What if we realised there isn’t one wall, there are multiple walls, and some people have more than one standing in their way, and we have a moral duty to destroy every single one of them, not just the ones that affect us personally?)

I don’t want to lift children out of poverty. Because I will not treat the deliberately-created, wilfully-engineered exploitation of other human beings as a natural phenomenon. A blameless boo-boo. An opportunity for abstract debate about whether the role of government is to throw a rope down or tell them to pull themselves out of the mess they got themselves into.

I want us to disarm the people who are hurting children by forcing them and their families to be poor. I want us to expose the fraud. I want us to break down the walls of poverty which have been constructed so a greedy few can hoard the profits of others’ labour.

We cannot offer solutions without naming the problem. But we’ve got it all backwards.

The problem isn’t poverty. It’s greed.

The villains aren’t the stupid people who jumped down the poverty hole. It’s the greedy. The rich. The neoliberal mad scientists who created poverty in a lab and sent it out on a dark and stormy night to menace innocent villagers.

The solution isn’t lifting children out of poverty. It’s tearing poverty down.

The right don’t want to have this conversation. They are very happy for us to keep talking about poverty as an abstract phenomenon. They love how much time we spend trying to nail them down to one specific, simple, objective measurement of poverty. They want us to keep saying poverty is a hole, so they can keep saying that it’s not the government’s job to give people free rope to climb out of it.

So let’s stop playing their game.

Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

Labour and the Greens have announced a cornerstone coalition policy for the 2017 general election: a set of Budget Responsibility Rules which will, per the Greens’ website:

… show that the Green Party and the Labour Party will manage the economy responsibly while making the changes people know are needed, like lifting kids out of poverty, cleaning up our rivers, solving the housing crisis, and tackling climate change.

It feels like I’ve been banging my head against this brick wall for a decade. The short version is this:

Labour and the Greens cannot credibly campaign on a foundation of “fiscal responsibility”. It is anathema to genuine progressive politics. It isn’t a vote-winner. It’s a vote-loser.

I’ve heard the defence: but we ARE the fiscally responsible ones! Look at our surpluses in government! Witness our detailed policy costings! BEHOLD OUR GRAPHS!

If empirical evidence worked, we’d already been in government and this conversation wouldn’t be happening, and I know I for one would be happier for it.

Everyone knows this is crap. No one really tries to defend it by saying, “but fiscal responsibility is the most important thing in government”. They say, “but we need people to believe we’re fiscally responsible.” They say, “but the media always ask how much our policies will cost!” They say, “we need to win or we can’t achieve anything, learn to count Stephanie.”

We know we’re selling our souls, but only for the right reasons. The tragedy is, we’re not. Fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench. Once you dip so much as a toe in, it makes everything else you do reek.

Don’t just take my word for it – after all, we’re all rational creatures making objective decisions based on evidence, right? Take it from someone who has the evidence, my favourite American Anat Shenker-Osorio:

Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that money-primed people … become more selfish. They are, for example, much less willing to spend time helping another student pretending to be confused about a task. When an experimenter dropped pencils, money-primed subjects elected to pick up far fewer than their unprimed peers. Also, when asked to set up two chairs for a get to know you chat, those who had money put on their minds placed the chairs farther apart. Money-primed undergrads showed greater preference for being alone.

The results of these experiments should give progressives pause and serve as lessons for how we do our messaging. Talking about money first makes the whole subsequent conversation start in a mean and selfish place — the last thing we want when we’re talking about the common good and our national future. …

Those politicians who actually believe in the institution in which they serve would do far better to speak of what government does for us — and trust that we’re smart enough to know that good things don’t come cheap.

If we prompt New Zealand voters to think about money first, they aren’t going to think about common good, about ensuring their neighbours have a good life too. They’re going to think “actually, getting another block of cheese each week does sound good” and the right’s fourth term is secured. They don’t even have to work for it, because when we explicitly buy into their values, it weakens our own.

It cuts out the heart of our politics. Our critics are absolutely right: Labour and the Greens are not trusted to be good fiscal managers. THAT’S THE POINT. No one wants us to be good fiscal managers – except for the right, who are thrilled that we not only want to play in their playhouse but will obey all the rules they’ve made up to ensure they always win.

It’s like some people watched Mean Girls and thought, “well of course we have to wear pink on Wednesdays and throw out our white gold hoops, how else will we get Regina George to truly respect us?”

Pink is not our colour. Fiscal responsibility is not our strength. The economy is not the most important thing in the world – HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA.

We’re meant to be the ones who care about people, and make sure everyone in our communities is taken care of, whether they’re sick, or old, or exploited by a shoddy employer or having a baby or building a life in a new country. These are the areas where we’re strong. These are the values which we must promote – not just because we hold them dearly, but because doing that is the best way to fuck up the other side’s message of greed and self-interest and exploitation of people and our planet.

People want change. They don’t want poverty and housing crises and public services stretched to breaking point. They know these things cost money! But they’ve been told for decades that government must be small, and the private sector runs things better, that the only metric that matters is that sweet surplus. They know it doesn’t feel right, but there doesn’t seem to be another way of doing things, because we keep telling them we agree with it. And they vote for the party they “know” are the better economic managers, because that’s National’s brand, and not all the graphs and spreadsheets we throw at them are going to convince them otherwise.

We’re never going to win while we keep playing in the right’s playhouse and skinny-dipping in the Bog of Fiscally Responsible Stench because we want to smell just like our enemies. We have to be an alternative. Stop talking about the bloody money and start talking about people.