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.

In defence of actually standing for something

Rob Salmond has a post up at Public Address, In defence of the centre, to which Mike Smith has written a response at The Standard.

It’s an argument I’m a bit tired of, really, because it feels like NZ Labour has been having this argument since 2008, without actually paying attention to the empirical evidence happening all around us. But hey, let’s get a scary leftwing feminist’s voice in the mix.

To sum up my personal objections to Rob’s own objections to Monbiot (down the rabbithole we go):

First, they don’t consider the alternative. How have centre-left parties gone when they’ve tacked away from the centre? It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it goes badly.

This assumes that in every case Rob cites, “tacking away from the centre” was the decisive factor. That over-simplifies the issues, as the comment thread at PA shows. Leadership, specific policies, economic factors, actual-freaking wars, all play a role in electoral success and failure.

Second, peoples’ votes are more malleable than their values.

The data Rob uses is is based on people self-labelling their position on the left-right spectrum.But being “more left than Labour” and “more right than National” are hardly objective measurements.

The assumption is that the “I’m in between Labour and National” group are making an academic assessment of their place on the political spectrum and the comparative left-wing-ness and right-wing-ness of Labour and National. The conclusion is that there’s some policy-related “ground” in between the two parties which can be “claimed”.

But “in between Labour and National” isn’t a fixed point on a map. “Labour” and “National” aren’t even fixed points on a map.

So if there is a concrete “centre ground”, I don’t think anyone really knows what it looks like. It becomes “not too left” and “not too right” – another set of meaningless labels.

Third, Monbiot conflates policy with competence … Clarity is always a good quality in a politician. But you can have clarity, and be competent, no matter where you stand on the ideological spectrum. “Clear” does not mean “extreme.”

Two objections: “not centrist” =/= “extreme”, and “centrist” usually does mean “not clear.”

First: remember when David Cunliffe appointed Matt McCarten as Chief of Staff? The immediate meme, repeated in way too many headlines, was “Labour veers hard left.” The source of that meme? Cameron bloody Slater. Labelling our opponents as “too extreme” to discredit them is a shabby tactic. Let’s not.

Second: there’s a group of questions which crops up at The Standard every so often, usually right before elections when the base are arguing just how leftwing/centrist/rightwing the present Labour leader is.

  • Do they support a living wage?
  • Do they support a 40-hour working week with mandatory overtime rates?
  • Do they believe benefits should be paid at a liveable level?
  • Do they support truly free education, including or not-including tertiary education?
  • Free healthcare?
  • State housing?

These aren’t “centre-left” ideas. They’re not “extreme” either. UMR’s 2015 Mood of the Nation report notes (p20):

Since the global financial crisis in 2008, the economy and employment have dominated responses to the question on what is the most important issue facing New Zealand today.

In 2014 poverty and inequality issues took over.

This obviously did not stop the re-election of the National-led Government but the agenda is shifting.

Concern about poverty and inequality issues began to rise in 2011 and became the number one issue in January 2014.

All of those traditional Labour principles above are part of the solution to inequality.  So why did New Zealanders’ increased concern not translate into a victory in either 2011 or 2014?

Because Labour was, and in some ways remains, trying to pursue “the centre”, defined as “not too scary and leftwing”, at a time when New Zealanders’ concerns are leftwing concerns. Money, inequality, class and work.

It’s difficult to clearly communicate a paradox.

For Goff, for Shearer, and ultimately for Cunliffe, those questions above were unanswerable. You could go through reams of policy and say “these kind of align with those ideas” but that’s not the same thing as standing up and saying:

“No one should have to work more than 40 hours a week to feed their kids. Everyone has the right to the absolute basics – a warm, safe home, a social life, time off with the kids, good food on the table, good shoes on their feet. Going to the doctor when they’re ill and getting a good education at the school down the road.

Many people can’t find work, or enough work to pay the bills. When people can’t find work because the jobs aren’t there, when people cannot work because they’re sick or injured or are raising babies or taking care of their parents or grandparents, we have a duty as a community to support them, not make them go hungry and live in mould-ridden housing as a punishment for their circumstances.”

Instead, we’ve had three electoral cycles of: “Everyone should get a living wage but I won’t actually legislate for it because I support small businesses, but they should definitely try to pay a living wage and I’d pay it to government employees, maybe contractors, depending on the financial circumstances.”

And: “I support people who can’t find work which is all National’s fault but also everyone has a responsibility to find work if they can because bludgers are a blight on our society but we must help the poorest except the ones who can paint roofs because if you can paint a roof you can’t be really sick I reckon.”

My examples may be just as cherry-picked and oversimplified as Rob’s, but this is fundamentally my problem with “centrism” or “centre-left politics” as it has been practised by NZ Labour since 2008: it cannot clearly tell voters what it stands for. Because it doesn’t seem to stand for anything.

It’s been tried. It’s failed. Let’s try something new.

stop trying to make the centre happen

The worst game strategy guide ever is a masterpiece of writing

I’ve never played any of the Final Fantasy games series – I was a very late adopter of console games in general.

But I was enthralled by this recounting of the worst game strategy guide ever offered for sale:

You see it, yeah? The main text, on the left, gives you brief descriptions about what to see and do, while those blue boxes on the right tell you all about how much MORE there is to see and do… if you go visit PlayOnline.

Again, every page looked like this. Instead of walking players through the game and giving them strategies—like, you know, a strategy guide—this FFIX guide spat up vague descriptions for everything—bosses, sidequests, secret weapons—and commanded readers to go to PlayOnline for the rest. Those abominable blue boxes covered every margin of the book, endlessly reminding FFIX players that the guide was incomplete. Today, this would be annoying; in 2000, when dial-up still ruled the realm and you needed to hog up the phone lines to get on the web, it was infuriating.

It’s undeniably horrible. But honestly, as a gamer and a comms nerd, my immediate reaction wasn’t sympathy for the poor suckers who spent US$20 (in 2000s money!) on a literal paperweight; it was “Oh my god, the poor writers.”

Because that cannot have been an easy job: writing text for dozens if not hundreds of little blue boxes which all, essentially, say “Would you like to know more? Visit the website!”

There are multiple boxes on each page. You can’t get away with copy-pasting the exact same text into every one of them. I’ve done some brain-hurting comms work in my career – finding slightly different ways to say the same thing so you can emphasise a point without sounding like a robot with limited vocalisation options – but imagine the whiteboarding.

“Um, so we’ve got “go to PlayOnline” and “check out PlayOnline” already. Is there another way of saying that?”

“Login to PlayOnline. Visit PlayOnline. Ask PlayOnline to prom.”

“Good, good. Now three different ways to ask the question “How do I get this item?””

“Where do I find this? What is this item’s secret? Why do I want this item? Why am I even here?”

“Brilliant. Six ways to say “this is exclusive website content so for the love of god visit the website”.”

“Um … Have we tried explaining to the boss that putting multiple roughly-identical textboxes down the margin of every page is terrible communications practice?”

“Yes. But the website marketing team said they need it.”

“God help us.”

“No one can help us now.”

I salute the poor lost comms souls who sacrificed who knows how many hours of their lives to the FFIX strategy guide.

Snowden, surveillance, dick pics

I’m late to the party on this most excellent Last Week Tonight segment on surveillance, Edward Snowden, and whether, right now, a US government employee is looking at your dick pics.

The whole segment is well worth watching, but for anyone interested in a really powerful example of effective political communication watch from the point I’ve cued up below.


The difficulty with massive world-shattering revelations about complex technical programmes is that most people, like John Oliver says, simply don’t care. And even I, a politics nerd with serious concerns about government surveillance and privacy in the internet age, didn’t really have much of a grasp on the kinds of specifics Snowden and others are talking about.

Until John Oliver created – or rather, uncovered – the Dick Pic Programme.

People have incredibly busy lives and a huge number of demands on their attention. They need a reason to engage with serious, complex political issues. One of the things the anti-TPPA movement has been really good at is giving those reasons: it’s about Pharmac, and the cost of medicine. It’s about our government being sued for raising the minimum wage.

We on the left have a tendency to get a bit jargon-y. The right understand how this works. That’s why we’ve still got leftwingers talking up the importance of quantitative easing to anyone who’ll listen while John Key sits back and sneers “well you can’t just print money.”

On surveillance, on the economy, on any important issue of our time: we can’t keep repeating our very-clever thoroughly-detailed proposals which put everyone else to sleep.

We have to find the dick pic that makes people pay attention. So to speak.