"We can't do it on our own." Andrew Little appeals to the voters of South Auckland to, once again, push Labour over the line to victory.
SOUTH AUCKLAND is another country. The country New Zealand could have been, had colonisation unfolded differently. The country New Zealand may yet become, if current immigration policies are abandoned.
South Auckland is a Pacific country: where the faces are brown; the neighbourhoods are poor; and the churches – of which there are a great many – are full of worshippers.
South Auckland is also Labour country – and that is not something one can say about many other places in New Zealand. In 2005 it was the voters of South Auckland that saved Helen Clark’s Labour-led Government and sent her back for a third term as their Prime Minister.
If Labour is saved again: if it avoids a fourth consecutive defeat at the hands of the National Party; then it will be the people of South Auckland that Andrew Little and his party have to thank.
No surprises, then, that the place Labour chose to launch its Community Action Network (CAN) was in the spacious hall of the Otara Mormon Church.
A sprawling state-house suburb, Otara bends itself around the Tamaki River and Otara Creek. It has the dull topography of a former swamp: low-lying, flat and featureless. Trees are few and far-between, but power pylons bestride the land like H.G. Well’s Martian fighting machines. The streets are full of bright-eyed kids riding bicycles. White faces are rare.
The Otara Mormon Church is itself a sprawling complex set in the middle of an even larger car park. It’s sheer size confirms the central role of religious observance in the communities of South Auckland. As the venue for Saturday afternoon’s launch, however, it also drew into sharp focus the huge cultural gulf separating Labour’s parliamentary leadership from its most loyal South Auckland supporters.
To be sure, the Labour MPs from that part of the world: Jenny Salesa (Manukau East) Su’a William Sio (Mangere) Louisa Wall (Manurewa) and Peeni Henare (Tamaki Makaurau) all offer a comfortable ethnic fit with the communities they represent – and all of them were present in the hall, but none of these politicians are members of Labour Leader Andrew Little’s inner circle of confidants and advisers. That group remains an overwhelmingly Palangi affair.
CAN itself is something of a paradox. It’s prime organiser, Keiran O’Halloran, is an import from Ireland via the British Labour Party. Now, someone who grew up under the government of Tony Blair, and has the accent to prove it, might not strike every observer as the ideal pick to organise the South Auckland Vote. Yet, there he was on Saturday, belting out slogans which may have resonated in the London boroughs, but which left this “Southside” audience visibly underwhelmed.
As an organisation dedicated to recruiting and training hundreds of local volunteers to get out Labour’s South Auckland’s Party Vote, CAN boasts a rather confusing name. A cynic might say that CAN’s gloriously non-partisan moniker testifies to the dwindling potency of the party’s brand. “Volunteers For Labour” would have been a more accurate description of the project: but if that was its name – would they have come?
In introducing Andrew Little, his new deputy, Jacinda Ardern, talked about Labour being “the people’s party”. Its National opponents may have a lot of money, she told the 300-strong audience, but we have people. Engaging those people in a genuine conversation was critical, she argued: “ordinary people talking to ordinary people”.
Little, himself, reiterated Ardern’s sentiments: telling his listeners that: “We win with the love and conviction and passion of ordinary New Zealanders”, admitting, almost plaintively, “we can’t do it on our own”. Exactly why Labour merited Southside’s help remained frustratingly frothy. The audience’s response, as befitted its overwhelmingly Pacific composition, was warm and polite. It was not, however, the sort of speech that inspires young volunteers to form queues at the recruitment trestles. (As they did for Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016.)
Had Donald Trump been in attendance he would undoubtedly have described Little’s performance as “Low Energy”. Given the week Labour had just been through, its leader’s lack of fire was, perhaps, understandable. It was not, however, forgivable. Not in front of that audience.
Because the stand-out moments of Saturday’s launch came not from Labour’s politicians and apparatchiks, but from the South Auckland people themselves. Such energy as was on display all flowed from them. From the child soloists, the traditional dancers, the little Mormon choir and, most especially, from the Pacific audience, when it lifted up its collective voice in song.
That richness of sound; those effortless harmonies; spoke of faith, passion and conviction beyond the reach of Labour’s current repertoire. It spoke of communities forged out of enduring values widely shared - values which Labour was challenged to embrace not only tactically, but emotionally. It commanded them to stop talking – and start listening.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 May 2017.