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.

Statistics are political

Today is the New Zealand Census. And if that comes as a surprise to you, your surprise is not a surprise to me. If that makes sense.

I’m obviously a political nerd, and have heard almost nothing about the census. Officially, at least. We’ve had the one letter to our household with the access code (which was … not particularly well written), and there was a Stats NZ stall at the Newtown Festival on the weekend, but besides that, I’ve only heard from people having trouble with it.

People who haven’t received access codes, and have been on the phone to Stats NZ multiple times trying to get one – which can’t be authorised by a first-tier support person, it has to be bumped up to a supervisor, and which can only be sent by snail mail, not email, or maybe it can be sent by email, but it takes a week? Nobody seems to know.

(Let’s take a pause here to remember that New Zealand Post, under the guidance of awesome progressive statesman Sir Michael Cullen, shut half its processing centres and halved the number of deliveries throughout the country, which is why it takes so long to get mail from Wellington to … Wellington.)

People who will not be able to fill out the census because Statistics NZ, in its pursuit of cutting costs and pushing everyone online, has completely screwed up the process for people who are blind.

I suppose I have the option of being out of New Zealand on 6 March. Maybe a quick trip to Aussie is in my future, so I can boycott the Census without breaking the law. It’s a sad situation where I must contemplate being a refugee from my own country to make a critical point about the need for Government to own its responsibilities.

And then there’s the perennial issue, the issue Stats NZ have been aware of since well before the previous census: its complete erasure of trans, genderfluid and any other people who don’t fit neatly into two boxes marked “male” and “female”.

It feels like Stats NZ has not only dropped the ball on sex, gender, orientation and identity, it’s kicked the ball as hard as it could and shrugged as it went over a fence. Its own justification for the lack of questions demonstrates that it’s incredibly easy to explain the difference between biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. But they won’t. The very scientific and unbiased conclusion they’ve come to is “well, it’s too hard and there aren’t many of them anyway, so who cares?”

I care. I care about marginalized groups being represented and included in the official records of our society. I care about the huge amount of work done by gender diverse people and groups who have tried so damn hard to help Statistics NZ get this right, and who have been ignored for years because some platonic notion of statistical propriety trumps their existence and welfare.

I care that it took four years for our world-leading source-of-much-nationalist-smugness health system to find one surgeon who can provide gender confirmation surgery and wonder if maybe that would be different if we didn’t erase trans people from our premiere official population count.

I care about the message that is sent when the Minister for Statistics blames people’s “silly answers” in test surveys for the lack of decent gender and sexuality questions – yet “Pastafarian” – a parody specifically created to mock our attitudes towards organised religion – is not only permitted but gets its own autocomplete suggestion on the online form.

Screenshot from Twitter.

I also care about the assumptions our society makes about sex and gender and childbearing. At the last census I recall, but cannot confirm (damn Google) that Stats NZ stated they “impute” people’s sex based on their answers to a range of questions – so if you ticked male but said you’d given birth to two children, they would “correct” your sex to female. This is obviously completely unproblematic and hunky-dory as long as it makes the data ~clean~.

At this stage, there’s an outstanding OIA request on FYI.org.nz asking if Stats NZ continues this practice. It will clearly not be answered before the census closes today.

It simply irks me that for all the head-patting and condescension the LGBTQI+ community gets from Stats NZ, and the hand-wringing over ~reliable data~, the census is a shambles anyway. They’ve even re-jigged the meshblocks so apparently it’s going to be hell for anyone doing long-term research to match this census to previous ones (edit: though I’ve also heard they recalculate previous census data to match the new meshblocks). A couple of additional questions to shine light on an underrepresented and marginalized community whose health, legal and social needs are often ignored and diminished was hardly going to ruin everything for the data nerds.

This is something we should all care about. Not just because of the particular concerns around gender, sex, accessibility, and a government department’s ability to get the basic logistics of its primary job right.

Statistics are political. Data are political. They do not exist in a vacuum, because they are shaped by human perceptions and decisions from day one. Decisions about who should count, or what should count – religion but not political ideology; (assumed female fertility) but not sexual orientation – are political because they have political impacts.

A minor but illustrative point: the census includes motorcycles and scooters under “Other”, not “Motor vehicle”, for commuting options. What about a scooter makes it not a motor vehicle? How does this data reflect assumptions about how people commute, or should commute, or want to commute? How does this reinforce our preconceptions around policy to reduce congestion or address climate change?

I’m sure there’s a reason. I’m sure there’s academic papers and statistical standards and longstanding taxonomic principles in play. And every single one of those exists within a simple context: our society has been car-obsessed for a century with all the consequences for urban design, social behaviours and infrastructure spending.

It’s very nice to think you’re able to sit above the world everyone else lives in and observe it like a wise man atop a mountain, but it’s bullshit.

(This is also why groups (*cough*TOP*cough*) who try to claim neutrality or objectivity, because their policies are “evidence-based”, are either lying or kidding themselves (*cough*TOP*cough*). The only thing more dangerous than having biased data is having biased data and insisting it is not biased. If we willfully ignore the role of unconscious bias and attitudes in shaping the data we collect, decisions justified by that data will only harm people.)

It does make it wonderfully easy to ignore the existence of the queer community and then say “oh no, we made that decision on entirely statistical grounds” though.

The problem is, census planning takes a hell of a long time. The work putting together the 2023 census is likely already well underway, and making the kind of significant shift that’s clearly required – producing modern, relevant information with modern, relevant and inclusive processes – may simply be beyond the capabilities of a department which couldn’t even take decisive action moving its staff out of a lethally unsafe building.

Whoever wins, National is going conservative

Claire Trevett at the Herald has a piece up examining the five National Party leadership candidates’ views and voting records on various social issues. It’s interesting reading. And the conclusion I draw is that whoever’s on top when the dust settles will take the party screaming back into good old-fashioned conservatism.

To summarise:

Adams: anti-general decrim of marijuana; supported first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill; voted for drinking age of 20

Bridges: anti-decrim of marijuana; voted against marriage equality; opposed first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill

Collins: opposed first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill; voted for drinking age of 20

Joyce: anti-decrim of marijuana; opposed first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill; supported drinking age of 18

Mitchell: voted against marriage equality; supported first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill

Trevett notes that Mark Mitchell “in hindsight … would now support [marriage equality].” This should be a black mark against him whether you agree or disagree. It’s impossible to put trust in politicians who pander to reactionaries when it actually matters, but turn around later and insist “I would totally vote for equality and basic human rights now, if I had the chance.” There’s no high democratic principle in place: it’s an overriding instinct to cover your ass and please whoever you’re currently talking to. (God, he’s sounding more and more plausible as “New Zealand’s Trump” every day.)

All five candidates are against abortion law reform, even though Simon Bridges’ favourite Bill Clinton quote specifies abortion should be safe, rare and legal. (Abortion is still covered by the Crimes Act in New Zealand, Simon, and its safety is reduced by the bureaucratic hoops pregnant people have to jump through, delaying their access to safer procedures. Something to think about?)

Family First’s ever-ironically helpful Vote Your Values website also has a guide to the contenders. Judith Collins … certainly has a voting record.

The others are more of a mixed bag, and it might seem premature to assume that all five would drag the party back into the dark ages. John Key’s own voting record was hardly a clean sweep of decency and compassion. But the thing about Key was not that he was tremendously socially liberal, nor conservative: he was simply pragmatic. He let the dice fall where they may, and when he did look like being on the wrong side of history, he had an incredibly slick media strategy and no compunction about rewriting that history to make himself the hero.

It worked for him. It did not work for English. It is not going to work for self-proclaimed scrappers like Collins or Joyce. Bridges doesn’t have the panache to carry it off (his infamous Campbell Live interview shows what happens when he’s not given the easy ride he thinks he’s due.)

Nobody except Simon Lusk wants to have a beer with Mark Mitchell, and although Amy Adams comes to many voters as a relative unknown, that’s really a weakness when you’ve been in Parliament for nearly a decade and a Minister for two-thirds of that time. (Nanaia Mahuta took this criticism a lot in the 2014 Labour leadership election, albeit mostly from Pākehā who never pay attention.)

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? Buggered if I know. But if there is, are any of the leadership contenders willing to take those guys on and keep them mum until the party can Labour Lite its way back into the Beehive? Mitchell will fold. Bridges and Adams will weasel. And Joyce, of course, stands on a strong record of fixing things.

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.

And the real winner may be David Seymour. More than anything he and his funders are capable of doing, National swerving into the judgemental daddy-state ditch could deliver a lot of “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” votes back to the yellow clown car.

Labour could benefit too: but it’s going to take more than sitting back and reaching for the popcorn. They have to seize the opportunity to drive one hell of a wedge between National’s new conservatism and the progressive values most New Zealanders hold. That means being active and unapologetic on drug and abortion law reform, and unequivocally rejecting the kneejerk law-and-order frame.

I hope they can do this.

Recommended reading

Have a great weekend!

The Human Rights Commission must show it has its own house in order on sexual harassment – Toby Manhire

The last week has seen another woman at the centre of allegations over sexual harassment in the public centre. There has been no chiding statement from any commissioner at the HRC, however – however much they may wish they could. This is because the complaint this time is at the Commission itself. The way it has been handled casts serious doubt on whether the HRC is practising what it preaches, and risks staining the moral authority upon which it depends.

The Great Stink – Laurie Penny

I was among the ones saying that we should give him more time, no, he really does want to change, he’s trying to understand what he did wrong, and if we go hard we’re going to lose him. I had forgiven him the demeaning, dehumanizing things he had done to me long ago, and I had forgotten that it was not my job to decide whether anyone else should do the same. I was terrified that this man, who I loved deeply and still do, would end his life. I was angry at Twitter Justice Girl for forcing the issue. I thought she had gone too far.

I was wrong. She did the right thing. We only found out how much of the right thing she’d done when all the other stories started coming out. The guy had spent 20 years hurting women on three separate continents and — I find it hard to write this, so give me a moment — he wasn’t going to stop. He wasn’t going to stop until the women who loved him stopped giving him chances. He might have wanted to stop, but he didn’t have to, so he wasn’t going to.

Why can’t the Government be my landlord? – Julia Schiller

Especially in the wake of the latest report confirming what we already know about the state of the housing crisis, it is time for the Labour Party to remember that it is a democratic socialist party and that the greed of the rentier class is merciless and insatiable. We saw proof of that when owners of student flats raised rents by $50/week, the exact amount the new government had raised the student allowance.

Labour must stop crowing about that and other payments, such as the winter fuel subsidy, that the rightwing can justifiably criticise as handouts. These payments may potentially alleviate some financial distress in the short term but they do nothing to redress ongoing inequality.

So long and thanks for all the defishits

I’ve been a bit distracted over the past week setting up a wee side project* but what do you know, the omens were right: comfortably within the two-week period after fronting the media to say that any talk of a leadership change was rubbish, a major political party is changing leaders.

I’m just so bloody glad it’s not Labour this time.

Nobody would believe for a second that I have any kind of inside knowledge on the factions and agendas of the blue team, and I just don’t have the sheer gall of a Matthew Hooton to make things up and count it a success if people squawk at it. So what to say?

There’s been an upsurge in mischievous #crushingforCollins tweets from the left, and a huge amount of tea-leaf reading and bold predictions from the press gallery, who know that being the person to call the result early means bragging rights for life, while being one of the many calling it wrong will vanish like tears in the rain.  The broad consensus puts Collins, Bridges and Kaye at the top of the list – the arguments for each, respectively, “because nothing can stop her”, “because he’s comparatively fresh-faced but experienced” and “because she kind of fits the Jacinda mould”.

But who knows? And does it matter? The National Party, despite holding on to their polling numbers for the time being, don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. Since Key stepped down at the end of 2016, they’ve been in a holding pattern in terms of strategy, and entirely failed to re-jig their campaign to account for having a very different leader at the helm. And none of the possible contenders – not even the outside bets – seem to have Key’s sorcerous mix of affability, Teflon coating and unthreatening blandness. Certainly not Collins. Certainly not Bridges:

Ultimately, it’s the Catholics I feel sorry for. When Bill became Prime Minister for a  blessed few months, there was a sudden flurry of activity from the marriage-is-sacred, pregnancy-a-duty corner of the National Party – a corner which has seriously kept to itself for the past decade. They clearly saw their moment, nominating candidates in very safe seats, like Simeon Brown, former President of the student group ProLife Auckland, in Pakuranga and Chris Penk – who believes “a baby should have as many human rights inside the womb as it did outside of it” – in Key’s old stomping ground of Helensville.

But Bill was their only shot. As far as I know – and like I said, I’m no expert on the internal workings of the National Party – none of the genuine contenders for the leadership come from that side of the altar. They might placate them by promising not to advance abortion law reform or to repeal assisted suicide, should Seymour’s bill go through, but that’s never enough for extremist religious types. For a brief glimmering moment, they might have thought they were going to get genuine conservative change. And it’s gone. And all they have left is a party possibly on the brink of schism (which wouldn’t be the worst idea, electorally speaking) and a pregnant 37-year-old socialist* in the Beehive.

Poor things.

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.

Jog on, Bill.

~

*I just launched a YouTube channel for snarky reviews of romance novels. If that sounds like your kind of thing, head on over to Op Shop Romance.