Cute kids, and other enemies of democracy
Some people maintain that wealthy foreign donors to political parties undermine democracy, but I think that cute kids can do the same job much more insidiously. As a new general election nears in Aotearoa, the Green Party is once again filling billboards and newspapers and facebook messages with soft focus images of kids and flowers and fluffy doggies and hard-hitting slogans like 'For a New Zealand to be proud of'.
I find the Greens' deliberate inoffensiveness considerably more offensive than the campaigning of the nasty right. While the Greens have been lurking on Auckland's volcanic cones, getting carefully blurred photographs of those cute creatures, Act Party's philosopher-king Jamie Whyte has been going from one inner-city hall to another, unashamedly promoting a set of policies that benefit the wealthiest 1% of society. But at least Act lets us know what its stands for, and thus allows us to open a debate.
The Greens are a Janus-faced party - they have some determinedly left-wing members of parliament, like trade unionist Denise Roche and Mana Party co-traveller Catherine Delahunty, and they occasionally take a boldly progressively stand on an issue - their recent call for the reform of this country's abortion law was both sensible and brave. But the Greens have always been far better at wooing well-heeled Kiwis than the residents of struggle street. They grab big slices of the vote in Wellington and Auckland Central and Dunedin North, but embarrass themselves in Porirua and South Auckland and South Dunedin.
As that old mechanical materialist Engels liked to say, social being ultimately determines consciousness, and the Green Party list is now being scaled by a generation of earnest young men and women in expensive suits who believe that the best way to rectify the excesses of global capitalism is to work for Cadbury Schweppes or the Royal Bank of Scotland.
There has always been an individualist, essentially conservative strain to the Greens. Leading members of the party in the nineties and early noughties like Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Kedgley often played down the party's left-wing policies with slogans like 'Neither right nor left but out in front', seemed morbidly preoccupied with the shopping habits of their fellow Kiwis, and flirted with conspiracy theories about 9/11 and quacks like reiki 'masters'. The Greens aimed some shameless mating calls in John Key's direction in the months before the last general election, and their sister parties in Germany and Ireland have happily formed governments with parties from the right.
It is hard not to see the Greens' twee, politics-free advertisements as an attempt to disguise their own contradictions. The party doesn't want to alarm friendly Ponsonby lawyers and restauranteurs by emphasising its left-wing policies on employment law and taxation; on the other hand, it doesn't want to antagonise the left-leaning young activists who push leaflets under doors on its behalf in the weeks before polling day. Whether they vote left or right, Kiwis are fond of cute kids and animals, and the party's promise to create 'a New Zealand to be proud of' is so fuzzily inoffensive that it could earn a nod and a smile from John Minto as well as John Key.
The Greens are not the first New Zealand party to adopt a carefully cute approach to election year advertising. During the 1990 general election campaign, Jim Bolger's National Party aired a big budget, low-content television advertisement that showed a group of carefully selected children - half of them were Maori, half of them were Pakeha, and all of them were, of course, impeccably cute - planting small trees beside a gently flowing stream in a forest clearing. A smiling Bolger promised that he would, like those kids, 'build for the future'.
Like the the Greens today, the National Party of 1990 was troubled by extreme political contradictions. A section of the party close to big business was aggressively enthusiastic about the neo-liberal economic policies - the privatisation of state assets, the commercialisation of education, the abandonment of subsidies and tariffs that had protected many domestic industries - that the Labour government had spent six years imposing on an increasingly angry New Zealand. Another wing of the party influenced by farmers and small town businessmen was much less enthusiastic about neo-liberalism, and wanted a return to the much more statist policies of the Muldoon era.
Jim Bolger was smart enough to understand how unpopular Labour's policies had become, and made sure that National went into the 1990 election with a manifesto that promised an end to student fees, the retention of state assets, and other voter-friendly measures. At the same time, Bolger signalled to his shadow cabinet that National's manifesto wasn't to be taken very seriously.
National won the 1990 election easily, after some traditionally left-wing parts of the country, like the West Coast, turned to the party out of frustration with Labour. Shortly after his triumph Bolger junked the manifesto he had taken to the election and set out to deepen the neo-liberal restructuring of New Zealand society that Labour had begun. In 1991 his party pushed the stringently anti-union Employment Contracts Act through parliament, and unveiled a budget that cut many benefit payments by a fifth or more. The economy tanked, unemployment climbed past twelve percent, and National was quickly as unpopular as Labour had been.
Cute kids can be dangerous.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]