2017 rewind: Thank you, Metiria.

Well, here it is. No surprise that this was the most-read post on Boots Theory last year, because Metiria Turei’s “downfall” and resignation was by far one of the most significant moments in New Zealand politics – not because like Jacinda Ardern’s ascension it led to a change of government, but because it addressed a fundamental question in our society. Are we willing to acknowledge that our welfare system is utterly broken, in a way that’s more than just shaking our head at the sad stories of strangers? Can we forgive a woman, a staunch Māori woman, for the “crime” of feeding her child – if she occupies a potential position of power?

It seems not.

But that’s nowhere near going to be the end of the story.

Originally published 9 August 2017

It was always a possibility in the back of my mind that Metiria Turei’s admission of benefit fraud – and the absolute flood of hatred, hypocrisy, bullying and mucky insinuations unleashed upon her by people who’ve never faced a truly hard choice in their lives – would cost her her political career. I had hope we would be better than that, especially after she had so much support from the members of her party, her co-leader, and the public.

And now she’s gone. And I’m heartbroken.

But let us be absolutely crystal FUCKING clear about this. Metiria did not resign because her admission was political suicide. She did not resign because it ~wasn’t a good look~ or whatever nonsense my commentariat comrades want to spin.

She resigned because her family, any family, could not withstand the appalling, personal, vicious abuse being hurled at them.

And I just hope all the people with loud public platforms, who absolutely dedicated themselves to destroying this wahine toa over the past weeks, are feeling proud. You’ve done great work. You dragged a young woman’s parentage into the dirt for a political hit. You positively salivated at completely minor youthful transgressions and told the nation, unequivocally, that they were the blackest sins. You gleefully reinforced every terrible stereotype about solo mums being lying sluts on the make.

You refused to let the issue die and then turned to the camera to narrate dispassionately: “this issue just won’t die.”

You’re the real winners tonight.

There was an issue people wanted to die, though: the brokenness and heartlessness of our social welfare system. The reality, which has now been exposed and brought into the light, that we as a nation are not looking after the poorest and most vulnerable. We are not making sure every child born in Godzone gets three square meals a day and shoes to run the school cross country in.

We are failing children and their parents, and it is by design, and has been for thirty years. And boy, is it clear after the firestorm of the past few weeks that y’all do not want to talk about it.

Well, too bad.

I’m not letting this issue be put back in its box, to await the magical day when a progressive, socially conscious government, which somehow defies the odds to gain power without ever letting on that it’s a progressive, socially conscious government, pulls the rabbit out of the hat and says “ta-da, we’re going to fix the welfare system.”

The question of social welfare is literally the entire point of government. How does the government ensure people live a good life? Does the government do this at all, or merely ensure the poorest and most vulnerable get just enough gruel to make them useful cogs in the economic machine? Do we give a damn about babies? Yes, even the babies whose parents made a few mistakes in their lives?

Those are the questions we must answer. This is the policy which must be changed, and changed right down to its core, not tinkered at the edges for fear of frightening the middle-class horses.

This is the conversation which we are going to have, New Zealand, because there is solidarity here. #IAmMetiria does not go away just because you’ve bullied the woman who sparked it off the scene.

Thank you Metiria. I am so, so sorry that we are not the caring, compassionate country we like to pretend to be.

2017 rewind: I don’t want to lift children out of poverty

The second-most-read post from last year addresses one of my favourite things: how to change the political language we use to make our messages more powerful.

Labour have persisted with the language of “lifting children out of poverty” with the passage of the Families Package before Christmas, and while the actual changes they’ve made are good, it’s a missed opportunity for re-framing how we talk about poverty and how we get people to think about welfare and community in a different, much more progressive way.

Originally posted 27 March 2017

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.

2017 rewind: The evidence Gareth Morgan doesn’t want to see

TOP three! See, it’s funny because I said “TOP”. The 5% dream may have slipped from Gareth’s grasp, but he’s vowed to keep on trucking, and now even more women have resigned over his evidence-based behaviour he should have every success.

Originally published 24 August 2017

Gareth Morgan. You can’t escape his (hopefully deliberate? Possibly ironic?) Big Brother-esque visage on a distressing number of Wellington buildings, commanding you to CARE. THINK. VOTE. And if you spend any amount of time in the circles of #nzpol Twitter, you can’t escape him railing against anyone who criticises, questions, or so much as engages with his message. “2-bit blogger”, “toothless sheep”, “clot”, “pathetic Jacindaphiles”, do you even care? WELL DO YOU???

It takes a very particular kind of arrogance to assume that you, and you alone, are gifted with the objectivity and sense and rational capabilities to thoroughly sift and measure every aspect of society and come to the only proper, true, evidence-based solutions to all life’s problems. It requires a total lack of self-awareness to notice that all of these evidence-based solutions just happen to align with one’s pre-existing assumptions – or to even realise one has pre-existing assumptions.

But many people are arrogant, and many people can’t reflect on their own thinking. Pretty much everyone believes that they’ve formed their opinions sensibly and thoughtfully and based on evidence (which is why the idea that elections are or should be about Pure Battles Of Policy is rubbish), and very few of us question the subconscious biases and contexts that influence our thinking. So that’s not really Gareth Morgan’s problem.

Gareth’s problem is that he’s an old, white, rich man.

*waits*

Now that the angry trolls are off yelling at me on Twitter about reverse-sexism and ageism and politics of envy, let me explain: none of those things make Gareth Morgan a bad person. None of them are inherently bad things. But each represents another layer of mud on his windscreen, obscuring his view and making it inevitable he’s going to crash into something. And he can’t even see that it’s there.

We live in a society which holds fast the belief that being a man makes you more rational, and being white makes you more intelligent, and being old entitles you to a public platform, and being rich proves you’re right about everything. We have a frankly religious attachment to Enlightenment thinking, raising “evidence” on a pedestal which cannot be challenged. It’s a virtue to not have ideology. “We’ll just do what works,” they nod seriously, from seats across the whole political spectrum.

Yet that is not how the world is.

We know, for example, that many medications do not work as effectively on women, because they are more often tested on men (note: cissexist framing). We know in social science research that the way a question is phrased delivers markedly different results.

Our preconceptions can literally affect our ability to do math.

But none of this gives Gareth Morgan pause, because he’s getting constant positive reinforcement for his worldview. Our society’s base settings mean he’s right before he’s opened his mouth. Criticism from other people –who aren’t as old (therefore authoritative) as him, who aren’t white men (therefore rational), people who aren’t rich (therefore correct) – just tells him he is the lone noble crusader for truth and objectivity in a world populated by gullible fools who need to be educated.

So his personal attacks aren’t immature bullshit, because they’re true; and he can’t be sexist, because he’s sensible; and none of you silly people were going to vote for him anyway so it doesn’t matter.

You must be wrong: you’re criticising Gareth Morgan. And if that weren’t the rational thing to believe, he wouldn’t believe it.

2017 rewind: Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

The fourth-most-read post on Boots Theory last year questioned a pretty strongly-rooted tenet of modern Labour Party faith. People have said to me since the election result, “see, it worked!” Yet National still gained 44.4% of the vote, and Labour’s boost came directly from Jacinda Ardern’s amazing personal appeal. And the question now becomes: is winning one election worth it if we don’t actually change the status quo?

Originally published 25 March 2017

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.

Generational change

This paragraph in a eulogy for Jim Anderton on Newsroom, got me thinking about generational change in politics:

Trapped in near-perpetual opposition since the first Labour Government of 1935-49, with only brief single-term governments in 1957 and 1972, younger members of the party, the so-called ‘Vietnam Generation’ were desperate to modernise the party and reform it into an organisation capable of establishing a lasting government. To this generation, commitment to the party’s union origins was less important than social justice and, ultimately, power; compromise was needed.

It’s been clear for the past decade or more that a significant change is needed in progressive politics and activism. Centrism has drained the passion out of the left; the old ways of organising workers don’t apply to a casualised/”gig” economy; and the problems of poverty, inequality and injustice just keep getting worse (no thanks to the “compromises” the Vietnam Generation decided to make to achieve power – instead of driving genuine democratic and political change through the unions and other progressive movements of the day.)

It’s easy to point at the election of Jacinda Ardern as our second-youngest-ever Prime Minister, with new faces like Grant Robertson and Kelvin Davis at the Cabinet table, and say “things are obviously going to be different.” That thinking certainly drove a lot of Labour’s last-minute poll boost, which came from the disillusioned left, not “soft” National voters.

But it’s more complex than that. We have to reject the kind of “logic” which insisted in the early 2000s that having women in multiple important roles – Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House, Governor-General – proved sexism was dead, or more recently in the USA, where Barack Obama’s election “proved” racism was over, even as more and more black people were murdered by the police at “routine” traffic stops.

There’s always a system, a structure, a machine behind the fresh young faces. Hence rightwing pundits crowed at the news that Heather Simpson, who achieved legendary nemesis status as Helen Clark’s chief of staff, had been brought into the new administration and was exercising a high level of control over its setup. Other Clark veterans like Mike Munro and GJ Thompson were also announced as senior members of Ardern’s team.

Never mind that the same rightwingers would have hammered Labour equally hard for its lack of credibility (and did, over issues like the allocation of Select Committee seats) if the new PM hadn’t picked anyone with previous experience in government.

It would be worrying if Labour’s strategy were driven by people still operating in an early-2000s mindset, both in terms of policy direction and campaigning strategy. Especially with the Greens not delivering a strong election result and thus not in a position to exert as much pressure or provide cover for ambitious, progressive policies. The government sits on a knife-edge; even if you don’t necessarily agree with the need to push a strong leftwing, socially liberal set of policies, it’s a simple matter of survival. National know how to bounce back from defeat and adapt to new political circumstances. Once they’ve figured out who’s going to knife whom for the leadership and who’s going to strategically defect to ACT with a safe seat, they’re coming on hard. A Labour-led government which tries to focus-group and commission-of-inquiry its way through not offending anyone will not survive.

But it’s also a trap to think that progressive change requires youth, and there are no better examples than Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, little centrists, I know neither of them “won”; but I also know – as I suspect they both do – is not about single short-term election campaigns. It’s about changing the world and changing what’s achievable in politics, and if you want to argue that Corbyn and Sanders haven’t fundamentally altered the political activism of their respective countries, you’ll need to let me get a glass of water so I don’t choke on my cackling.

Sanders’ run took the word “socialist” from being a Fox News epithet levelled at anyone who suggested healthcare was a nice thing people should have to a badge of honour; combined with Trump’s victory, the Democratic Socialists of America have gained 27,000 members and seen their average age drop from 68 to 33. In 2017, socialists kept winning elections.

Corbyn – who we all know is totally unelectable except for all those elections he keeps winning or increasing Labour’s vote share in at almost unprecedented levels – is embracing new styles of campaigning, at the cost of traditional party structures:

If Corbyn gets his way, when you think of Labour, you won’t imagine rows of MPs on green leather benches, or a smartly suited minister chatting to a reporter. Instead, you’ll think of activists reinvigorating their estate’s tenants association, while others organise their co-workers and stand with them on picket lines.

The fly in the ointment for us is that a pillar of Sanders’ and Corbyn’s success is in their respective decades of unwavering commitment and activism, which gives them a credibility young up-and-comers can’t get; but there’s no one I can think of in New Zealand politics with similar bona fides.

Ultimately, it’s simply too early to say which way our new government will go. In the most refined managerial terms, there are risks, and there are opportunities. There are other obstacles to be overcome – like entrenched ideologies and ass-covering instincts among our public sector leaders, or the simple inertia of any large organisation which is used to doing things a certain way.

But age doesn’t determine whether you’ll change the world: what does is having the will to do it and the skills to do it well.