Didn't See It Coming: NZ Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly's latest column merits serious scrutiny because such a clear example of anti-democratic thinking is encountered only rarely on the pages of the daily press. Which is not to say that the elitism which lies at the heart of such social disparagement goes unnoticed by the people who are its principal targets. Just as Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” only strengthened her opponent’s hand, the “progressives” all-to-obvious disdain for the competence of ordinary people will inevitably rebound to the Right’s electoral advantage.
THE EXPRESSIONS of stunned horror that greeted the news that Donald Trump had won the 2016 Presidential Election spoke volumes. Almost none of the people gathered to celebrate the election of the USA’s first female president believed a Trump victory was even remotely possible. On display that fateful November night was a lethal mixture of social isolation and social ignorance. The shocked and horrified young Democrats who turned their grief-stricken faces from the television screens clearly knew next to nothing about the America that had just dashed their hopes.
In New Zealand, the world’s most “woke” country, the risk of something very similar to Trump’s upset 2016 victory grows stronger by the day. The 2020 General Election may deliver New Zealanders their first one-term government in 45 years. If that is the outcome, then it will likely be produced by exactly the same combination of forces that toppled the Kirk-Rowling Labour Government in 1975. An angry cocktail of resentments and denials; of ordinary people feeling abandoned by the decision-makers; of core values and cherished traditions perceived as being under threat. A dark tsunami of voter anger: barely perceptible in its approach, but rearing-up to terrifying heights as, finally, it comes ashore.
And, of course, like Hillary supporters, the partisans of Labour and Green haven’t a clue. They just don’t see it: the anger and resentment; the alienation and bewilderment. Or, if they do, they simply don’t rate it. In the eyes of the decision-makers and their opinion-former allies, “ordinary people” simply aren’t up to it.
Consider the latest contribution from NZ Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly. The fact that New Zealand’s District Health Boards contain a majority of elected members strikes her as a serious design fault. “Democratic elections for District Health Boards have always seemed bizarre to me”, she writes. “Though it’s important to listen to the views of the community when designing services to serve them, the idea that anyone, regardless of their experience, qualifications and skill set (or lack thereof) could be elected to a position where they are tasked with effectively running the health system in their region seems a bit bonkers.”
In these two chilling sentences, we can identify all the ingredients of the looming political disaster. Of these, it is Marvelly’s careless disdain for the capabilities of her fellow citizens that is the most telling. That such people might possess insights and understandings of which the “experts” she so clearly prefers are entirely innocent, does not appear to have occurred to her. Neither, apparently, has the thought that democracy itself is predicated on the notion that the views of ordinary people, as expressed through the ballot-box, constitute the beating heart of political sovereignty.
No, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” cuts little ice with Marvelly. The word she offers up in preference to “government” is “governance”: something best left to professionals.
“Making a difference in an organisational setting, providing quality services for clients and ensuring at the very least that the bills are paid and the doors stay open, is a challenge that requires good governance,” opines Marvelly. Such work, she goes on to say, with all the breathless confidence of the recent convert, must be “conducted by directors who have the right mix of skills, experience and foresight to plan for worst and best case scenarios, pivot quickly when things aren’t quite right, and steer an organisation through times of both trouble and success.”
That working-class mums and dads, struggling to make their meagre wages stretch to housing, feeding and clothing their families might also have the skills, experience and foresight to plan for both the best and the worst, pivot quickly when things go wrong, and so steer themselves and their loved ones through good times and bad, is apparently an idea that has never crossed her mind.
Which is why, presumably, she felt compelled to suggest that “at least half of each health board around the country should be appointed experts, or even better, 60 percent.” With astonishing condescension, all the more objectionable for being unconscious, Marvelly concludes: “Retaining a minority of elected board members would allow DHBs to stay connected with their local communities, without giving the balance of power to people who may not have the skills to wield it properly.”
I have quoted Marvelly at some length because such a clear example of anti-democratic thinking is encountered only rarely on the pages of the daily press. Which is not to say that the elitism which lies at the heart of such social disparagement goes unnoticed by the people who are its principal targets. Just as Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” only strengthened her opponent’s hand, the “progressives” all-to-obvious disdain for the competence of ordinary people will inevitably rebound to the Right’s electoral advantage.
The thousands of West Coasters who gathered in Greymouth last weekend to demonstrate their opposition to the Coalition Government’s policies will no doubt be dismissed as feral rednecks. Even worse epithets will be reserved for the 200+ women who attended the Speak Up For Women conference hosted by David Seymour in the Beehive’s banqueting hall. Sticks and stones. The Act Party leader’s gesture, prompted by the failure of Massey University to defend the free speech rights of radical feminists, has significantly boosted Act’s chances of adding two – maybe three – new members to its parliamentary caucus.
There was a time when progressives and conservatives could both agree that 2+2=4. As next year’s election draws near, however, the confidence that there are still some propositions to which all politicians can sign-up – such as freedom of speech – diminishes. When young newspaper columnists openly disparage the notion that ordinary people can be trusted with the reins of government; when the same “experts” who led the world into its current condition are held up as the only persons capable of leading it out; then those still capable of grasping basic political arithmetic should not expect next year’s election to have a happy ending.
So long as ordinary people retain the right to vote; so long will pissing them off remain the very worst political strategy.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 November 2019.