Fear

In a post lost to the mists of Internet time, on one of those forums like Tumblr or Ask A Manager, a tech support person related the tale of helping a member of the US military with a computer problem. They’d told him to make sure everything was turned off and unplugged, then, as the repair proceeded, heard a sharp, “Ow!”

“Did you unplug the computer, sir?” they asked.

The reply has been burned into my mind for maybe more than fifteen years.

“Marines don’t FEAR electricity!”

The same swaggering macho arrogance is on full show in the recent rhetoric of Aotearoa’s rightwing political parties, and their former leaders, around our COVID response.

“Fear and hope are not a strategy” declared John Key, a man who governed for nine years on little but.

“It’s time to move from fear and uncertainty to hope and optimism” ACT leader David Seymour echoed while also contradicting.

A month before Key decided to break back into the political discourse and save his party from itself, Chris Bishop, National’s tragically unsupported COVID spokesperson, characterised the general attitude of New Zealanders to COVID as “… very persuaded by the idea that one case in the community is Disasterville.”

The obvious retort, and one which makes this a very short post indeed, is to ask whether fear is an unreasonable response to a global pandemic of a massively infectious virus which has so far killed more than four and a half million people.

That’s where the machismo comes in. If your politics are rooted in ego and individualism, there’s nothing worse than showing fear. Than acknowledging uncertainty or the need to rely on other people.

I satirised it on Twitter as “what, you SCARED? You SCARED of THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE DYING? Like some kind of WUSS??? Harden UP love, destroying our health system will build CHARACTER.”

You can see the same thinking at work when Chris Bishop warned that the government, having moved Auckland to level 3, would have a “tricky decision” to make if case numbers increased. It’s only tricky if you think acknowledging “we were wrong, we need to do better” is a show of weakness, Chris.

The longer answer is perhaps crueller. It makes you ask, have the right been paying any attention to our actual response to COVID, or are they simply incapable of comprehending Ardern’s and others’ communications, the overwhelming approval they’ve been met with, and the unquestionable success of our approach?

I went back and re-watched the Prime Minister’s first (I think?) televised broadcast at the start of the pandemic, on 21 March 2020.

She reassures us that the majority of people who contract COVID 19 will have only mild symptoms. But some will need more care. We want to slow it down, so we’re just getting “groups of cases that we can manage properly as they arise”. Other places have done this! She compares the alert levels to fire risk or water use warnings – making them familiar and normal. She emphasises things you can do; and things the government can do. Supermarkets and essential services will always continue. Shop normally! She asks friends, family and neighbours to support older NZers and those with suppressed immunity. Change how you work. Limit your movement. Even at this earliest stage of the pandemic, the PM appreciates people want a lot of information, and that misinformation is a risk, and gives a strong source of truth – the official covid19.govt.nz website.

Her final message emphasises great traditional “Kiwi” values: “We know how to rally and we know how to look after one another, and right now, what could be more important than that? … Be strong, be kind, and unite against COVID 19”.

This is not the politics of fear. It’s the politics of caring for each other and taking reasonable, measured, practical steps to do it.

Nowhere is this better highlighted than in the bumper Toby Morris & Dr Siouxsie Wiles box set of graphics at the Spinoff. Whether it was flattening the curve, staying in your bubble, breaking the chain and predicting with hilarious accuracy that if our approach worked it would be denounced as an over-reaction – these graphics are serious and authoritative but also calm, approachable, accessible and (I’m going to say it) kind.

They literally went around the world, and not in a Boris Johnson “incoherent panic-inducing terrible COVID communications” way.

Now, you can argue about specific alert level decisions or point out that there have been critical errors in implementation – like when we found out that a lot of border workers, contrary to repeated statements from the government, weren’t getting tested – but that doesn’t change the simple reality that the only people sowing fear and anxiety are those who are mad we didn’t sacrifice other people’s grandparents to ~the economy~. Which would have tanked anyway. Because global pandemics are like that.

That’s the final irony. It is the right who are operating on fear. Fear that COVID will drive home lethal political lessons: that people are more important than profit, and profit doesn’t happen without people anyway. That the Sacred Economy doesn’t work if you let thousands of people die.

Fear that their model of politics, with its kneejerk reactions, short-term money fixation, and utter disregard for human life is being dismantled bit by by every day we work together and fight this pandemic as a community.

In his op ed, Key opened with an anecdote about Apollo 11 (definitely a natural thing for him to do and not the kind of intro a PR company drafts for you as part of a lobbying strategy.)

On April 11, 1970, when Apollo 13 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, its mission was to land on the moon, but on just the second day, an explosion on board changed everything.

Suddenly, with diminished oxygen supplies, a frantic process began to try to return the three astronauts to Earth.

In a crisis, humans can be creative and inventive. 

What Key and his ideological pals cannot see is that humans aren’t just creative and inventive. We are social animals. In a crisis, we come together to support each other and find solutions. It doesn’t fit the Great Men Of History model (and it’s always men, isn’t it) which assumes a few key (sorry) individuals are the trailblazers and disruptors shaping the future. But that’s because the Great Men of History model is garbage, which has always relied on downplaying and erasing the communities behind those men.

We are at our most creative and inventive when we are working together, for each other. And that’s what New Zealand has demonstrated over the past year and a half. We made evening walks a cultural touchstone. We put teddy bears in our windows and distracted ourselves making (and giving up) sourdough. And our frontline community organisations are still pulling out all the stops to get people tested and vaccinated.

There are plenty of criticisms to make about the Labour government (would you just spend some bloody political capital on actual transformational change already????) but the alternative? Now that’s frightening.

End conversion therapy in Aotearoa

I’ve just hit “send” on my submission to the Justice Select Committee on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill – also known as the “conversion therapy ban”, except it’s not therapy, it’s torture.

Submissions close 8 September. They definitely don’t have to be as long and detailed as mine, they can be more personal, or as simple as “I support the Bill”. The Parliament website makes it really easy to make your voice on this.

What I’m saying is, make a submission on this Bill, because we know that the evangelicals certainly will. And after that, do one for the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill because it’s “be a good ally to our gender diverse whānau” week.

Here’s what I had to say on conversion practices – minus some quirky formatting which WordPress was not happy with!


To the Justice Select Committee

Submission on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill

Kia ora koutou

My name is Stephanie Rodgers. I am a feminist, Pākehā, mother and public servant from Wellington, and I write in support of the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill.

I unreservedly support a ban on conversion practices, which are often mislabelled “therapy”. These practices seek to alter or suppress fundamental parts of a person’s identity – their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. They are unscientific, harmful, and grounded in bigotry against those who differ from the norm, because of who they are, who they love or how they live.

The PRISM report released by the Human Rights Commission in 2020 [pdf] stated:

Multiple comprehensive reviews show that people with a diverse sexual orientation and gender identity experience a higher risk of physical and sexual violence than the general population. In most cases, the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity was a factor in the perpetration of the abuse.

This highlights how critical it is for our Parliament to send the message that these facets of a person’s identity and life are valid and worthy, and that it is neither acceptable nor possible to change them by force or coercion. Banning conversion practices is a powerful way to send that message, as well as responding to the specific harms caused to by these practices.

Specific recommendations

I support section 5’s definition of conversion practice, and especially wish to endorse its inclusion of gender identity. New Zealand, following the United Kingdom, has unfortunately become a battleground for trans rights due to a vocal, minority, orchestrated campaign which seeks to marginalize and erase trans and nonbinary people, reaffirm a strict gender binary in society, and position the rights and lives of trans and nonbinary people as antagonistic towards cis women and LGB people.

The reality is that trans people are real and valid; every person’s gender identity is an intrinsic part of themselves which, like sexual orientation and gender expression, cannot and should not be forced or coerced to change; that trans women face misogyny and discrimination based on their gender much as cis women like myself do; and that bigotry against trans people is driven by the same restrictive binaries that are used to oppress cis gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

It would considerably weaken this legislation to remove gender identity from the definition of conversion practices.

I am concerned at the exclusion of the intersex community in section 5. Intersex people also face unnecessary and often non-consensual medical interventions, particularly in childhood, and these should be seen in the same lens as other types of conversion practice, i.e. an attempt to force or coerce someone to suppress their true selves and conform to a rigid idea of sex or gender.

I urge the committee to reject any submissions which seek to exclude gender identity from the definition of conversion practice, or re-frame affirming therapy for trans people as a “conversion practice” against gay or lesbian people. This is simply a tactic used by a transphobic minority to justify abusive and coercive treatment of young trans people, forcing them to pretend to be cisgender, and contributing directly to the extremely upsetting statistics of mental distress and suicidality among trans youth documented in the HRC’s PRISM report:

Youth12 data for suicide rates supported [the findings of the Counting Ourselves report], showing 37% of trans participants had attempted suicide at some point; more than twice the rate reported by same or both-sex attracted young people.

I oppose section 5(2)(a)’s blanket exemption for health practitioners. The 2019 Counting Ourselves report found that:

  • 26% of respondents had experienced a health provider “knowingly referred to [them] by the wrong gender, either in person or in a referral”
  • 21% had experienced a health provider “knowingly used an old name that [they] are no longer comfortable with”
  • 16% had been “discouraged from exploring [their] gender”

These incidents all have the effect of suppressing an individual’s gender identity or gender expression, and when done knowingly, meet the definition of conversion practice in the Bill. However they are not necessarily “outside of the scope of practice” of the health practitioners in question, who should be held accountable for their actions.

I further oppose any exemption for conversion practices performed on religious grounds, or by parents. Such exemptions would render the legislation toothless, and undermine the fact that conversion practices do not work and are never acceptable.

I recently became a mother, and rather than changing my mind on topics like these, having my daughter has only reaffirmed that no parent has the right to force their child to be something they are not.

Everyone has freedom to follow their own religion and practise it how they choose; however, that freedom clearly stops when it becomes an excuse to abuse people. The fundamentalist churches who claim that this Bill will criminalise prayer must have a very different definition of prayer to the mainstream, and if it involves coercing people to change or suppress their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, it should be criminalised.

I propose that section 8 be expanded to include people who are under the care or guardianship of others, regardless of age.

Jurisdictions such as the District of Columbia, despite having a more restricted ban on conversion practice (limiting the ban to people under 18) have explicitly expanded that ban to include people for whom a conservator or guardian has been appointed.

People, including those with disabilities, who are either not permitted to make or assumed to be incapable of making their own medical decisions, are at a much greater risk of having conversion practices imposed on them. They may also be at a disadvantage when advocating for themselves, again because they are assumed to be incapable of doing so.

I question section 9’s reliance on the notion of causing serious harm, or a person’s intent to cause serious harm. Conversion practices are inherently harmful, yet those who commit them typically believe they are in the right and even “helping” the people they are abusing. I am concerned that a requirement to prove that a person “knew” the practice would cause serious harm or were “reckless” about the possibility of causing serious harm creates an obstacle to properly prosecuting and ending these abusive practices. 

I oppose section 12 which requires the Attorney General’s consent for prosecutions under this Act. I refer the Committee to a comparably “contentious” piece of legislation, the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 which abolished the use of parental force for the purpose of correction, and required the Chief Executive of the relevant department to monitor the effects of that Act and report on them two years after the commencement of that Act. I invited the Committee to consider a comparable clause if they believe this legislation requires close oversight.

I note that the report into that Act found no evidence of any detrimental impact on parents “lightly” smacking their children nor any other unintended consequences. This is often the case with pieces of legislation which challenge abusive, but socially accepted practices, and attract overblown, even paranoid responses from those who do not wish to have those abusive practices challenged.

I do not wish to make an oral submission to the Committee.

I commend Parliament for progressing the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill and hope it proceeds smoothly through the remaining stages. It is important, it is necessary, and it is past time to put such practice behind us.

Benefits, Budgets and b***s***

Are they going to do it?

At long last, isthe Labour government going to significantly increase base benefits and ensure that people actually have enough to live on, reversing the stagnation that’s existed since the horrors of the 90s?

People say the signs are there. I hope they’re right. I desperately hope that after so long, we will see genuine action, a real shift, something that we can hold onto during the lean years when National inevitably get their acts together (sorry, that was an unintentional pun) and regain the Treasury benches.

But the bar is pretty high.

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group report recommended increases to the various benefits of between 12 and 47% (note this is from 2019 and just think about something random like how much housing costs have increased since then.)

The head of the Auckland City Mission put the figure at $200 a week.

Either of those would be pretty amazing, and change a lot of people’s lives. And while I find it a bit gross how often we talk about “child poverty” as though it’s fine for adults to go cold and sick and hungry and homeless in our country, it would do incredible good for thousands of New Zealand children.

It might even be enough to save Jacinda Ardern’s legacy as the Prime Minister who anointed herself Minister for Child Poverty Reduction.

But still … I’ll be a bit angry about it.

Angry because it has simply taken too long. It is year four of the Great Transformational Kindness Ardern Government, and I simply reject the idea that the first three years don’t count because mean old Uncle Winston said “no” and there was just no way to negotiate, bully, build popular support to shift the narrative, or otherwise make it happen despite him. To accept that excuse would render all those global accolades for the PM’s amazing leadership meaningless; and that would be terrible. 

Angry because I know how the story will go. Labour will trumpet it from the rooftops. Look at us, the bold, the brave, the transformational (or whatever word we’re using now), we are the good ones, we understand how terrible poverty is in this country, we are the government who cares and will make a difference, let’s do this, hashtag he waka etc.

And it will be like the last four years never happened.

Because this is one of Labour’s weird psychological foibles: they cannot never acknowledge that their decisions to date are in any way flawed, or insufficient. Until they do a u-turn, and then it’s like it never happened.

That is why even a week before this Budget (assuming this Budget does significantly increase benefits) the answer to any criticism of their failure to substantively deliver on welfare was still “but we did a $25 a week increase. We introduced the Winter Energy Payment. We indexed benefits.”

Sometimes they throw in a line like, “we know we need to do better” or lean hard on the phrase “we’re making progress” so the audience infers that more things are happening behind the scenes. But the overall tone is still: look at what we’ve done! We’ve done the good things! Stop asking questions about the other stuff, it’s so unimportant I’ll ignore it entirely!

There is never an acknowledgement that $25 a week ain’t much; only a Steven Joyce-esque assertion that it’s “the biggest increase made by any government” (biggest doesn’t mean sufficient). There is never an acknowledgement that the Winter Energy Payment is a pretty sad $20-30 a week for only five months of the year. The indexation of benefits – which is good insofar as it stops the increasing cost of living from creating real-life benefit cut, but does nothing to repair the damage done in the 1990s and 30 years of stagnation on top of that –  gets cynically trumpeted as “increases” rather than adjustments.

But here’s the thing: if we get what we want on Thursday, all this will be wiped away like tears in Grant Robertson’s rainy day.

It happened with the hated 90-day fire-at-will “trial periods”, which Labour resolutely campaigned against for years, only to turn around and suddenly decide really, the issue was “fairness”. They ultimately retained the trials for small businesses. 

It happened with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which saw massive popular opposition, leading to Labour setting down five strong bottom lines prior to the 2017 election. These were possibly mostly met, if you believe Stephen Jacobi, and mostly weren’t if you believe Jane Kelsey, but either way it took Newshub to check because Labour never mentioned them again.

It happened in record time recently with the public service pay freeze: on day one Chris Hipkins was bold as brass, calling out the Public Service Association (the largest union in New Zealand representing more than 75,000 workers) in Question Time thusly:

I’d also say to them that the guidance is consistent with the decision last year by the Remuneration Authority that Ministers and MPs would not be getting any pay rises for the next three years because of COVID-19 and the decision by the Public Service Commissioner, who sets the pay of Public Service chief executives, who will also not be increasing any of their pay.

…directly comparing a pay freeze for staff on $60k+ to a couple of other pay freezes for elected officials and CEOs on $150k+.

Then after the apparently unexpected backlash it became (from Grant Robertson):

“I understand this has caused distress and upset, I obviously regret that deeply, but we are not talking about a pay freeze here, we are talking about a process or guidelines for negotiation.”

It’s not a pay freeze, it’s just guidance, a starting point for negotiation (unless you’re a nurse) and frankly we should be apologising to him for the misunderstanding.

The trick Labour does is not to simply change their minds – anyone can do that, and if it follows reflection, research, fact-finding or a change in circumstance, it’s admirable. No, instead Labour engages in a form of gaslighting – pressuring people to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes and experiences by insisting that reality is otherwise. We never said 90-day trials were completely terrible, we just want them to be fair. We have bottom lines – no, we just want a fair deal for New Zealand. We’re implementing a pay freeze, take that, unions – the unions are our friends and we love working with them and also never announced a pay freeze (it’s the media’s fault you think so!).

Let’s do this. Actually, we’re not able to do this and never made any commitment to any particular timeframe. 

And so it will be, after  Budget. If (and I still would not put money on it)* the Government delivers a massive boost to benefits, we will be scolded for daring to suggest that the past four years of inaction happened at all, that the WEAG report has largely languished, that concrete steps to implement it have been actively countered,** that the child poverty indicators are going nowhere. “We’re tackling child poverty and ensuring New Zealand is the best place in the world to be a child!” the social media accounts will announce. That will be the new reality and you will be the obstacle to real progress for remembering differently. 

Why does this matter? Because Labour’s consistent refusal to actually be a progressive, transformative, caring-for-people government is a recipe for disaster. It is an open door to National’s penny-pinching benefit cutting ways. It is an excuse for every swing voter to say The Two Parties Aren’t Really That Different, Right? Wouldn’t Mind A Tax Cut Actually. It is tinkering at the edges, leaving the shattered, gutted sense of community and fairness lying on the floor instead of taking the opportunity they were given – four years ago – to reshape this country in a better direction. To actually do all the good things they campaigned on doing! To live the values they happily slap on tea towels and Facebook shareables.

I really hope they start to prove me wrong tomorrow.

~

*Okay, I’ll put $1 on a marginal, but insufficient, increase in benefit levels nevertheless touted as the biggest, best, most poverty-eliminating increase ever, and then next February the Salvation Army’s State of the Nation report will point out that too many families still can’t actually afford the basics and Jacinda Ardern will furrow her brow and insist that those statistics don’t count because the Budget 2021 package hasn’t been fully implemented yet.

**Yes, that is the Labour government pulling the same “fiscal veto” that Bill English used to defeat increasing paid parental leave to 26 weeks. 

Boots Theory top 3 for February

Bit of a quiet month (god, it was too hot to think) so not enough contenders for a proper top 5! Here’s the three posts y’all really seemed to enjoy in February.

I got very excited about Marama Davidson’s campaign launch.

As to the first: we aren’t thermometers. We can’t be content to reflect where people are. We have to be thermostats, pushing the political temperature in the right direction. And Marama Davidson is doing that just by being who she is: a Māori woman, a mother of six, launching a political campaign at the leisure centre in Ōtara where she learned to swim as a kid.

But it’s further reinforced in a speech which does not make a single mention of economic growth (she does cite the “steady economic development” of her grandparents’ day) or business but uses the word “communities” 20 times. This will be decried by the Kiwiblogs and Whaleoils of the world as demonstrating her inability to be part of a proper government.

I pondered that whoever wins, National is going conservative.

So the best-case scenario is National gets a new leader who can’t/won’t articulate a strong position on social issues, either to conservatism or liberalism, and who lacks Key’s ability to make that work. And we know that more conservative, religious candidates started to come up through the National ranks the minute Bill English became leader. Is there a big chunk of socially judgey National supporters, who were simply biding their time while things were going well under Key, now ready to push the party back towards its “real” values?

The worst-case scenario is National gets a leader who can articulate a strong social position, and it’s Judith Collins and her position is strongly terrifying.

Thank God we dodged that trainwreck.

And Bill English said so long and thanks for all the defishits.

But what to say of Bill, now he’s off? The Prime Minister and others have made the usual polite noises about “his service” and the deep mutual respect all politicians theoretically have even for those on the other side of the spectrum. The meme has always been that he was a fantastic Minister of Finance (they all have to be, after Rob Muldoon) and he kept the country running (because we kid ourselves that “the economy” is a fickle and temperamental demigod who must be bound from doing harm by arcane ritual, published in bright blue covers and distributed to the priesthood during the sacred time of “the Budget lock-in”).

I say: this is a man who, despite professing a deep spiritual faith in a saviour whose paramount message was of love, compassion and mutual care, spent decades hammering the message that only money mattered. That the only measure of success and health for our country was balancing the books and making the numbers come out right at the end. And he couldn’t even do that. He failed by his own calculating, cold-hearted metrics, and did immense damage to the people of this country in the process.