Morgan Godfery has described his sense of alienation in the days preceding last Saturday’s election – when poll after poll painted an ever-more-accurate picture of the scale of National’s eventual victory – as being akin to ‘a full-scale culture shock’. It’s a very canny observation: we are reminded from time to time, and not just around elections, that our country is many countries. We think we know the lay of the land yet occasionally find ourselves plunged in one of these other places, geographically contiguous but socially and culturally so distant as to make us recoil. Who are these people, these alien neighbours? Who are we?
John Key knows. Not because he lives in every New Zealand or visits there often, nor because he spies on us (although he does that too) but because he speaks every night to his faithful pollster. He has the data. The rest of us are left guessing, extrapolating wildly from local realities that are too small, from media narratives that are incoherent or downright false.
There is nothing so politically disarming as the inability to predict the future, which is to say apply a logic – any logic – to it. For instance: for a whole month I honestly thought that National would lose. It started shortly before Judith Collins was forced to resign, just as the feverish interest in Dirty Politics had begun to diminish somewhat. This is going to keep building, I figured. The stories have only just started to come out. How do you begin to neutralise a scandal when you can’t even trust your people to tell you what they’ve done?
But John Key knew. He could track the waves of popular sentiment from day to day. He knew which storms he needed to weather and where to erect his stonewalls. It would still have taken all his skill, no doubt, and we should never allow ourselves to forget what a formidable politician he is. But he has a fundamental advantage: he knows us better in a collective sense than we know ourselves.
Last week I took part in the local launch of Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch. It’s one of those rare books that makes me hopeful, and not just about New Zealand: hopeful about politics as the collective act of shaping society and its institutions.
Conceived and published by an independent collective, Once in a Lifetime is a startlingly ambitious work. Even as I was writing my essay for it, I had no idea of the overall design, its breadth; that it would articulate so many ideas, sometimes clashing directly with one another, never settling for simple pictures of crude political statements. It’s a book that matches the complexity of building a city.
Predicting short-term political outcomes is hard and expensive. But there are long-term objectives that don’t change, even though they may appear more urgent at times like these. One is to reform our media so that it may be less vulnerable to manipulation, less subject to commercial pressures, more diverse, more useful – or simply so it may reflect back to us as many New Zealands as there are. Another is to create institutions that strengthen our democracy and protect us from the exercise and abuse of state power. Coalitions of students and workers, of associations, that are resilient and independent enough to resist government intimidation and carry through long-term projects of advocacy or reform without fear of defunding or disbanding.
I sketched those objectives in those terms on social media at the beginning of the election campaign, just before Dirty Politics came out. They strike me now as akin to a rebuild. One of them has become even more painfully urgent, as we are reminded daily that we simply cannot carry on with the media we have. I listened on Sunday morning to Mary Wilson – one of the nation’s very best broadcasters – calling for the resignation of the leader of the opposition as if it were owed to her. This, on the publicly funded station that more than any other single media outlet has given and continues to give a voice and the highest form of legitimacy to the stars of Dirty Politics. It’s intolerable, and it’s quite simply killing us.
It’s been two days and I’m tired of hearing people talk about 2017 already. So here’s a job that begins now and that you don’t need to join a party for: rebuilding our media. It could start with what that small independent press in Christchurch did. A conference, or a book. We bring together our best ideas, including what’s already out there. We decide what requires long-term political campaigning and what we can do ourselves, what needs funding and what we can fund. Then we try things out. What works, works. What doesn’t work, doesn’t work: we scratch it, we move on. Consider this a first call for expressions of interest. What we don’t do ourselves will be done to us.
But it isn’t just the media, and some jobs are harder than others. In its devastating but important analysis of Saturday’s defeat and the state of the Left, the ISO notes that ‘the disjuncture between the scale of our task and the state of our forces can seem overwhelming’. I read in that an echo of Morgan Godfery’s ‘culture shock’ moment. These feelings matter, just like the widespread anger after Dirty Politics mattered, so long as we can draw strength from them for the work that needs to be done.
On a slightly but not entirely different note, Justine's new exbition - about mapping the suffrage petition in Wellington - opens this Thursday at Toi Poneke. She'll be interviewed by Laurie Foon on Wellington Access Radio tonight at 5.05pm.