The Shot Heard Round The World: The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775, marked the opening of hostilities between the American colonies and the British Crown. Looking back through history, it is clear that the impulse to distribute political power more widely through society has almost always been defensive. People seldom risk life, limb or livelihood when none of these precious things are in any way endangered.
THERE ARE HOARDINGS EVERYWHERE at the moment, some intact, others bearing the evidence of anonymous electors’ wit – or lack of it. A great many commercial billboards are also being turned to political purposes.
A number of these have recently begun to carry the messages of a group calling themselves The Opinion Partnership. To date, only three members of the OP have publicly identified themselves. The first is Wellington businessman, John Third. The second, Owen Jennings, is a former President of Federated Farmers who, between 1996 and 2002, sat in the Act Party caucus. The third man (if I may borrow Graham Greene’s famous characterisation) is propaganda maestro, John Ansell, whose in/famous Iwi/Kiwi billboards very nearly won Dr Don Brash the 2005 General Election.
Like the Exclusive Brethren Church before them, The Opinion Partnership hopes to secure a National Party victory by undermining public support for the Greens and Labour. Their repeated claim, that 30 percent of a Labour-led Cabinet will be made up of Green Party ministers, is intended to frighten all those otherwise conservative voters thinking of giving the Greens their Party Vote into thinking again.
Though entirely negative in its conception, and in spite of the fact that many of the Partnership’s claims concerning the Greens are as outlandish as they are false, no one possessing the slightest commitment to democracy would deny their right to design and display these scarifying political messages. Indeed, the Opinion Partnership offers us an excellent example of the democratic impulse at work.
Looking back through history, it is clear that the impulse to distribute political power more widely through society has almost always been defensive. People seldom risk life, limb or livelihood when none of these precious things are in any way endangered. It is only when, in the words of the American Declaration of Independence, “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism”, that it becomes their right, and their duty, “to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The wealthy Virginia planter, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote those words, was no doubt thinking of the efforts of the British Crown to render more efficient and self-supporting the colonial operation it had just expended vast quantities of blood and treasure defending against the depredations of the French and their Native American allies.
There are other examples.
The Peasants Revolt of 1381, which still, 633 years after it began, remains the greatest uprising of the common people of England against their social, economic and political masters, was kindled by the imposition of a crippling “Poll Tax”. Only after the crowds of angry tenant farmers began to gather did the defrocked priest, John Ball, confront them with the revolutionary question: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”
The Peasants Revolt of 1381: The greatest uprising of the common people of England.
Like so many who have come before them, Messrs Third, Jennings and Ansell are responding to what they regard as a threat to their rights and freedoms. In the manner of the American colonists (and their present-day imitators in the US Tea Party movement) they are asking their fellow citizens to “provide new Guards for their future security”. No matter how misplaced their fears of a Labour-Green Government may be, it is their right to do so.
Much more to be feared are those within whom the democratic impulse no longer stirs. I am referring here to those New Zealanders whose comfortable stake in the status quo impels them to risk nothing at all. They will cast their votes on Election Day without the slightest regard to the growing body of evidence pointing to “a long train of abuses and usurpations”. Like the loyal subjects of King George III, whom the rebellious colonists labelled “Tories”, they have no interest in overthrowing anybody. That’s because they understand, as did the King and his lords in 1381, that poverty and profit cannot be separated except at great cost to themselves.
To those Kiwis living in poverty, The Opinion Partnership also has a message – although not, perhaps, the one they intended. Yes, Mr Ansell’s billboards are an appeal to the judgement of his fellow citizens, but they are also a reminder that the citizens’ judgement possesses power. That, in the end, democracy is about defending ourselves – by voting.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 September 2014.