Originally published in The Independent of 20 November 2008
Phil Goff’s part in Labour’s redemption song must be to offer the angry and frustrated blokes who voted Helen Clark’s government out of office an alternative vision of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century.
THE effortless transition from Helen Clark to Phil Goff makes you wonder why it took so long.
As far back as January, Goff’s supporters were testing the waters for a possible leadership challenge. As far as I know, I was the only journalist to raise the prospect seriously.
No one else believed a change of leadership from Clark to Goff would make the slightest difference to Labour’s chances of re-election.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that their lofty dismissal of a Goff-led Labour Party was mistaken.
For a very large number of New Zealand voters, the only major point of difference between Key’s National Opposition and Clark’s Labour Government boiled down to the fact that Key wasn’t Clark. Apart from this rather obvious distinction, the electorate found it increasingly difficult to separate the two major parties.
Which suggests that Labour came to grief on the same jagged reefs of anguished masculinity which sank the campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis in the United States.
The "Angry White Males" who ushered in the conservative revolution in America in the 1980s, and to whom Key owes his party’s success on 8 November 2008, interpret practically any manifestation of social-liberalism, and especially the successful enactment of social-liberal legislation, as a direct attack upon their beleaguered manhood.
In the United States it was the "judge-made law" which led to the desegregation of public education, and affirmed a woman’s right to choose an abortion, along with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the introduction of affirmative action programmes in higher education and employment, that gave rise to the "Reagan Democrats".
In New Zealand the issues were different.
The decriminalisation of prostitution dramatically reversed the power polarities in the sex-for-money nexus. The introduction of Civil Unions for gay couples was construed by many heterosexual men (and women) as a grotesque parody of the traditional, religiously sanctified, marriage ceremony. And the repeal of s59 of the Crimes Act struck at the very heart of the social-conservative’s understanding of how fathers and mothers should discipline and punish their children.
Labour’s social-liberal workplace reforms: paid parental leave, 4-weeks annual leave, strict protection against unfair and illegal dismissal, the notion of "work-life balance"; were similarly seen as undermining the small proprietor’s ability to manage his own business according to his own best judgement – his "right" to be a boss.
The frustration and anger of this fraction of the male electorate, growing steadily since 2002, had, by the beginning of 2007, metastasised into a single, malignant tumour of rancorous hatred towards both the government and the person of Helen Clark.
The NZ Herald’s political cartoonists, Emmerson and Brody, captured this malevolent misogyny to perfection, their caricatures of Clark becoming increasing hideous and deformed with every passing week.
How easy it would have been to short-circuit this dangerous political wiring by simply replacing Clark with Goff. For thousands of angry and disaffected Labour "men" – voters who shared John Tamihere’s aversion to left-wing, lesbian, "front-bums" – Clark’s removal would have represented, to paraphrase Barack Obama, "the change they needed".
Denied that change, they turned to the only electable bloke on offer – John Key.
That Goff didn’t push for an early transition from sheila to bloke, and that the Labour caucus would almost certainly not have backed him had he tried, is, however, a testimony to the moral wisdom of both.
Replacing Goff with Clark might have worked, but it would also have been the wrong thing to do.
Because appeasing evil is never the right thing to do. And make no mistake, by the beginning of 2008 the anti-Clark movement had become a very evil thing indeed.
Besides, Labour had already tried appeasement in 2004: responding to Don Brash’s extraordinary Orewa speech with a wholesale retreat on the tangata whenua front.
And what did it bring them? The Maori Party, and no viable post-2005-election options except a continuing lurch to the Right with Peter Dunne and Winston Peters.
Those two factors, alone, wreaked havoc upon Labour’s political integrity. Further retreat, in the face of the ugly mob that was baying for Clark’s blood may well have secured Labour a fourth term – but at the price of the party’s political soul.
As things have turned out, it is the Clark-hating male electorate – and not the Labour caucus – which must now bear the burden of its political choices and, hopefully, try for a shot at redemption by voting for the Goff-led Labour Party in 2011.
Labour’s part in this redemption song must be to offer these angry and frustrated men an alternative vision of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century.
And that, in an world increasingly hostile to the core values of manhood, will be no easy task.
It is, nevertheless, a task which Labour must undertake. Because the way out of dead-end, dumbed-down, muscled-up antipodean machismo, is also the way forward for New Zealand as a whole.
We must learn to celebrate intelligence and creativity.
We need to cultivate the non-conformist and the unorthodox.
We should prize critical thinking and the courage to say "No, you’re wrong."
We have to confront the root causes of male anger and frustration – and stop rewarding their cultural symptoms.
The essence of masculinity is the instinct to protect – an impulse inextricably bound up with the heroic qualities of defiance and self-sacrifice. To protect and to serve are the defining qualities of all our most enduring cultural icons – from King Arthur to Winston Churchill; Te Whiti O Rongomai to Mickey Savage; Ed Hillary to Peter Blake. The aggression and violence we so easily and so often equate with masculinity can only ever be justified in defence of the weak and the vulnerable. It must never be used against them.
If the Goff-led Labour Party can embody these, the genuine attributes of masculinity, then it will become more than competitive in 2011.
Because, in the end, the values of the National and Act parties are the doomed values of Arthur Miller’s stricken fantasist, Willy Loman – the self-deluding hero of Death of a Salesman, who sacrifices his manhood and, eventually, his sanity to the dog-eat-dog ethics of the marketplace, and then wonders why his most cherished dreams continue to elude him.
It is in the demonstration of generosity, courage and compassion that men become their true selves.
Solidarity makes heroes of us all.