#IamMetiria is changing our politics and it’s about damn time

Metiria Turei’s admission of misleading Work and Income when she was a solo mum may not change the result of the election, but must be a pivotal moment in the 2017 general election and NZ political conversation. The condemnations (almost exclusively from older male commentators) were swift, either trying to drive a wedge between beneficiaries and “the rest of us”, or clutching pearls at the idea a politician, speaking at a political policy launch, was making a political statement in an election year god forbid. The surge of support, from a huge range of New Zealanders (and in the media, particularly younger/female commentators) was amazing. (The latest Colmar Brunton which came out after this post was 99% drafted also seem to show it was a political winner.)

Just over the weekend, three op eds on Stuff illustrated how important this debate is – try as the detractors may to turn it into a black-and-white, “she broke the law she’s a bad person pay no attention to the bad person” situation. Grant Shimmin writing in the Timaru Herald smashed the idea that “working people” will reject Metiria’s statements:

I’m not Metiria Turei because I’ve not experienced the deprivations she has. But when she feels moved to promise a Government she is part of will not be one “that uses poverty as a weapon against its own people”, #IAmMetiria. That should cover all Governments, period.

Michele A’Court, in a piece co-written with Jeremy Elwood, made the realities crystal clear:

In 2017, when we hear the stories about kids going to school without lunch after they’ve left the house without breakfast, we mutter: “A good mother would do anything to make sure her children were fed.” And ignore the fact that no-one – no-one at all – survives on a benefit without some combination of help from foodbanks, charities, the kindness of family, friends and strangers, and lying to WINZ.

We ask where the fathers are. Sometimes the fathers are one or more of these things: violent, dangerous, hiding, unknown, unwell, dead, addicted, not interested.

When we hear about NZ’s high rate of child abuse, we say, “A good mother would do anything to protect her children.” And overlook the fact that often the most dangerous thing a woman can do is attempt escape. And even while we’re asking that question, we stop funding safe houses.

Alison Mau describes it as the Springbok Tour for this generation.

I think it goes even further. Because it doesn’t completely make sense, the way Turei’s critics have banged away at their “the law is the law!” drums.

As a nation we got over the current Prime Minister rorting us for $32,000 of housing allowances he wasn’t entitled to. The ACT Party survives despite seemingly every MP they’ve fielded showing up with a criminal record or some light-hearted rorting of parliamentary allowances. Todd Barclay’s back, for God’s sake.

So what did Metiria Turei really do wrong?

She survived.

Young Māori solo mums are not meant to survive, much less thrive, much less become political leaders a few hundred party votes from being Deputy PM. The system isn’t designed that way, not thirty years post-Ruthanasia. It’s meant to do the bare bones, look good – a hand up, not a hand out! – but still entrench inequality and ensure there are always people desperate enough to compete for insecure jobs and keep wages down, profits up.

Women like Metiria Turei are meant to be cogs in the machine, not staunch, outspoken leaders threatening to upturn the whole system by exposing the truth of it. Not threats to the powers that be.

Then #IamMetiria showed just how many of us there are out there – kids raised on the benefit, whose mums and dads struggled, scraped, lied or jumped through loopholes to raise us – who, when we succeeded, when we got our degrees or built careers or started businesses, did not forget where we came from.

This week it’s become more and more apparent how uncomfortable some are with even acknowledging the status quo – the established fact (hell, the intended consequence) that benefits are not enough to live on, and the current policy direction and operation of Work and Income makes it difficult for people to access the help they need.

The “analysis” and reasons why Turei’s comments are political poison range from “ew, beneficiaries, we Normal People can’t sympathize with them yuck” or “actually, talking about how difficult life is for poor people only appeals to liberal Twitter echo chamber craft beer glitter beards”. In short: nothing to see here. No one cares.

It is vitally necessary to convince us that the issue is not that the system is broken and what people have to do to survive and to provide for their families. Because that is an argument they will absolutely lose.

Peel away the bad Inspector Javert impressions* and the pseudointellectual chin-stroking about whether a politician being political is bad politics, and the worldview being presented by Metiria Turei’s critics is really, really not good.

This is about whether a mother should feed her child. Even if it means breaking the rules. Even if breaking the rules means she can go on to be successful, and independent, and by far a better contributor to her community and our country than anyone who’s hissing at her now.

The decision is whether following the rules is more important than a child’s life.

That’s it.

And we all know where the vast majority of people are going to fall on that question.

That’s why the detractors will scream “NO, IT’S ABOUT INTEGRITY!!!” or “SHE’S PLAYING POLITICS!!!” because they really, really do not want a proper debate about whether robotically obeying unjust laws is the ethical thing to do when children are going hungry.

This doesn’t just apply to benefit systems and parenting decisions. Look at the reaction in Australia when Sally McManus (queen) stated that she wouldn’t damn workers who downed tools when someone had been killed on the job at a construction site. Different issue, same theme: oh god, what happens when the peasants realise that all the rules we’ve invented to constrain their lives and cement our power are actually just bullshit?

We all know that some things are more important that following the rules. Doing *good* trumps doing what’s *approved*, every time. Our history and culture are full of righteous lawbreakers, starting with Jesus, moving through Nelson Mandela and conscientious objectors and suffragettes to classic children’s literature:

During the 1951 waterfront lockout it was illegal to provide food to the workers’ families. How does that feel to us in 2017? How many of us would do what Metiria’s critics assert is the right thing to do – let kids go hungry because their parents are in an industrial dispute, no matter which side of that dispute you were on?

How did almost the entire nation respond to Helen Kelly and so many other Kiwis who came out over the past few years to talk bout their decisions to take medicinal cannabis, despite the law, because it was the only thing relieving their pain?

The backlash against Turei hasn’t been insignificant. Even some allies have felt the need to tut-tut about “condoning lawbreaking” even though of course they understand why she did what she did.

But this is a self-defeating response. There is an opportunity, right now, to redefine how politics works: how we talk about social welfare and community good and the role of the state in ensuring everyone lives a decent life in this amazing country of ours.

All it takes is framing the debate differently. Not engaging with the arguments about political point-scoring or the importance of The Rule Of Law (a concept the powers that be find indispensable when their position is threatened but rather optional if they can make a buck).

Our values are humanitarian values. Equality. Universalism. Social justice. People’s lives being more important than the rules made by the powerful to keep themselves in power. The argument is so easy to make, and so easy to win. But we have to fight for it.

Metiria Turei is, and there are so many people – people who were not feeling inspired this election, people who desperately want a change of government but didn’t know who to vote for – standing with her. Together we can change the conversation. We can make politics about people, not money. We can assert, as hasn’t been asserted for decades, that government’s job is taking care of people, and politicians are servants of the community, and it is good and fair and just that we all pay taxes so the state can take care of the basics that ensure everyone lives a good life.

It is the right thing to do. And it’s the only way we’re going to win.

I admit I’ve been watching a loooooooot of Person of Interest lately.

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*But let’s also be serious, Valjean is a sexual-abuse-enabling dickhead and Javert gets all the cool songs.

Politics in the age of populism

Here’s my speech notes from last night’s Fabians Society panel in Wellington, comprising myself, Rob Egan and Bryce Edwards. A lot of it you will have read before if you’re a regular! As always I didn’t deliver this verbatim, but any rumours of a fellow Piko Consulting director having Facebook Lived my presentation are terrible lies and must not be countenanced.

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Mike asked us to talk about the implications of the recent elections in the United States, the UK and France on our own little general election in September, and whether we’re in an age of populism. I’m going to pull the old trick of immediately finding fault with the question, because I don’t know what populism is. It’s a word that gets applied to a certain style of politics, in a derogatory, if admiring manner. It describes politicians who are brash, loud, take cheap shots, and don’t do politics properly. It’s an elitist label for politics that appeal to people’s baser instincts and aren’t well-grounded or properly thought through.

Donald Trump is populist because he raves about immigrants and Muslims and building walls, and we all feel a bit smug because we’re not stupid and thoughtless like those people who vote for him. Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t really described as populist at all, because if anything his fault was being too thoughtful and unassuming and right up to the exit polls predicting a hung Parliament we all know he was completely unelectable. I admit I don’t know a lot about French politics, but Macron was running against a bona fide fascist in a run-off presidential system which has a tendency to throw up extremists every now and then. Who knows what that means.

I’m less interested in whether we’re in an age of populism and more what it says about us that we want to describe this time as an age of populism. Others call it a period of transition, and there’s an excellent volume published by Bridget Williams Books and edited by Morgan Godfery called The Interregnum, which I confess I haven’t read yet because I’m a terrible person. We are certainly in a time thanks to technology where people can get right in a politician’s face, and politicians can talk to voters directly without being interpreted or framed by the media. It would be generous to say that this is an age of populism because politicians are forced to engage more with real people.

But we also use “populism” as a nice way to say “extremism”, and that’s very dangerous. We’re accepting the idea that rightwing, authoritarian extremism like Trump’s or Le Pen’s is a valid expression of people’s core ideals and instincts – those people who aren’t serious and thoughtful about politics, like us. And the logic follows that in order to win, to be popular, we too have to pander to those instincts, even though we tell ourselves it’s just what we have to do to get into power to fix the mess neoliberalism has made of the world.

That worries me. Because if we jump in without really understanding what’s going on, we will be selling our souls and committing political suicide at the same time.

A good example, because it’s a consistent issue across all these elections, including ours, is immigration. Trump promised to build a wall. Le Pen was blatantly xenophobic. The Leave campaign in the UK played on it. We’re told this was the reason for those campaigns’ varying, worrying levels of success. And, to be blunt, our own centre-left parties, if not promising to build a wall, have made pretty populist statements about the need to cut migrant numbers, and the danger of unbridled immigration on our country.

And if it works, why not? Well, firstly because racism is gross. But secondly because it doesn’t.

I’ve talked at the Fabians before about values and framing, which is what all the cool kids are doing in progressive political communications. Essentially, if you take map fundamental human values – Common Cause in Australia has a really good one – on one side you’ve got intrinsic values like universalism, benevolence, equality. And on the other, extrinsic values like power, wealth, self-indulgence. I don’t need to guess which motivates the people in this room, right? But the short version is all of us hold all of those values to a greater or lesser extent, and all of them can be triggered in us. What authoritarians like Donald Trump do is tap into values like security and social order – which are literally the opposite of the ones that drive progressives and collectivists. They hype up people’s anxieties and fears and then tell them the answer is in those values, in being insular and xenophobic and antagonistic.

Via http://valuesandframes.org/handbook/2-how-values-work/

That’s why anti-immigration rhetoric didn’t work for Ed Miliband in the 2015 UK general election. Because Labour aren’t meant to be narrow-minded and insecure and jealous. It cuts against our values, and people see that, so even if we say exactly what they want to hear, it rings hollow. Corbyn in 2017, in contrast, tapped into those core progressive values of benevolence and social justice and universalism – for the many, not the few – and said the solutions to our anxieties can be found in caring for one another.

It was authentic. And authenticity, as any number of articles about Bill English putting tinned spaghetti on pizza will tell you, is everything.

The question I ponder when polls show people are anxious about immigration is, what’s behind it? Immigration in of itself is just the movement of people across borders. Are they worried about wages? Job losses? Housing pressure? Rents? Traffic? Crime? A loss of our national identity? All those things immigrants get blamed for.

What Corbyn did as well as play strongly to progressive values, is offer solutions to all those underlying anxieties which feed anti-migrant sentiment. You don’t need to fear newcomers if housing and transport and industry and pay and corporate greed are getting sorted. You don’t need to fear losing your identity if your identity is founded on community and collectivism.

We have to campaign on our values not just because they are good but because they are powerful. They are popular, if not populist. We’ve just hobbled ourselves by letting the right push their values into the mainstream and trying to mimic them. What Corbyn’s near-win can show us is that there’s a way to be popular and keep our integrity intact – because integrity is a much better vote-winner, in the short and long terms, than jumping on whichever bandwagon is rolling past.

What progressive political parties in New Zealand need to do – or needed to have done, because let’s face it we’ve got two and a half months until the election – is present a clear alternative, not just to National but to the status quo. I’m sure Labour and the Greens think they are. But I don’t think people – outside circles like these, of political nerds who actually read the policy – are seeing that. If there is one thing to learn from populism, or whatever we want to call it, it’s that a consistent, bold message, which upsets the status quo and hits people right in the values, is what succeeds.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s in the old wisdom that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. And this government is teetering. Looking dishonest on housing and Pike River, heartless on mental health and the abuse of children in state care, lacking in ideas and bereft of their magical charisma leprechaun, John Key. It could be anyone’s to win, and probably Winston’s to decide. But for 2020 and beyond, the game is going to be completely changed, and we know from history that the right will adapt very quickly, so we’re going to have to be even quicker.

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.