Tuesday 1 November 2011

Remembering & Forgetting

Masterful Evocation: Labour's opening television broadcast recalled its electoral base to their party's history and values, firmly locating its contemporary leadership within a strong and compelling narrative. The work of film-maker Dan Salmond, the broadcast ranks alongside the very best examples of New Zealand political propaganda. Following National's deeply flawed effort, Labour's production gave its campaign an impressive kick-off.

IT’S EASY TO FORGET how little people remember. Scholars call it “political amnesia” – the curious inability of modern voters to keep a coherent historical narrative in their heads. When tested, voters’ political recall closely resembles those “flashback” scenes in movies about people who have lost their memories. The images and the words follow one another in a rapid, disjointed, almost random, stream. The hero knows they mean something, and that buried deep within them is the answer to his or her problems. And the movie’s plot is all about putting the garbled elements of the hero’s story back into their proper order.

Watching the opening broadcasts of the major political parties I was forcefully reminded of how disjointed and decontextualized modern political communication has become, and what a powerful effect the recovery of historical memory can have on people’s political perceptions.

Labour’s opening message demonstrated the latter effect with extraordinary panache. Seldom have I seen the historical record used to such telling political effect. The 20-minute broadcast re-told Labour’s story, from its birth in the trade union movement of the early 1900s, to the watershed elections of 1935 and 1938. It used original newsreel footage to chronicle the creation of the welfare state, and we were reintroduced to the Labour pantheon: Mickey Savage, Peter Fraser, Walter Nash, Norman Kirk, David Lange, Helen Clark.

Most significantly, we were reminded of the anger and division which accompanied the implementation of Rogernomics. For the first time, Labour held a mirror up to this, the most shameful moment in all its long history, and did not flinch or turn away.

A lot of the effectiveness of this technique is due to the fact that our own history, and the history of political parties, are inextricably interwoven. Our parents and grandparents were there during the Great Depression; they remember the difference Labour’s policies made to people’s lives. Just as we recall Rob Muldoon’s trashing of Labour’s superannuation scheme in the 1975 General Election. By putting those images up on the screen, Labour’s film-makers stirred the viewers’ own memories. Theirs become ours, and in a potent demonstration of political alchemy, ours become theirs.

Placing Labour’s leader, Phil Goff, and the party’s spokespeople, into this living historical context allowed them to show us how and why they’d entered politics. Suddenly, they ceased to be “politicians” seeking our vote, and became instead people whose own family and personal histories had led them to embrace the values of the Labour movement.

There was Phil, seated alongside his eighty-seven-year-old Dad, recalling the privations of a working-class family in the 1920s and 30s. We met Damien O’Connor, who seemed to have absorbed the West Coast Labour tradition through the pores of his skin. And David Cunliffe, the parson’s son, imbibing the redemptive message of the Carpenter through the busy spiritual commerce of the Manse. And, most tellingly, we encountered Jacinda Ardern, windswept amidst the remains of the once thriving forestry town of Murapara, recalling the waste and ruin of the 1980s.

It was as stark and evocative as the black-and-white film of its historical newsreels. Labour was no longer running from its past, it had turned and, for better or for worse, embraced it with love and with pride. “This is who we are”, said Labour’s opening broadcast. “We’re as ingrained in the history of this country as coal-dust in a miner’s palm. We fought, both metaphorically and physically, to make this a country the world could admire – and we’re ready to do it again.”

The contrast with National’s opening broadcast could hardly have been greater. Where Labour’s message had been about the many, the Government’s story celebrated just one: John Key. The overwhelming impression was of a political figure stripped of everything but the quality of his suit and the glibness of his tongue.

The Prime Minister stood in the dark, his audience barely more than deferential shadows. Clearly, the production was inspired by the “town hall meetings” so beloved by presidential candidates in the United States. It didn’t take the viewer very long, however, to understand that this, unlike those, was a carefully scripted affair; and that every question “from the floor” had been crafted to show the PM off to best advantage.

And he was alone: his caucus colleagues, his Cabinet team, nowhere to be seen. Our future, our “aspirations” (to use a favourite Key-word) were presented as being in the hands of a single individual. This man who knows the answer to every question that is put to him – but only because, one way or another, he wrote them himself.

But history is never the work of just one man. Every person stitches the thread of their life into the tapestry of their times. Labour’s opening was a celebration of that fact; National’s shrouded it in darkness.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 November 2011.


Anonymous said...

Not forgetting Labour's deregistrion of the Carpenter's Union.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Apropos of not much, but with no other way of communicating seemingly - this is interesting.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Yes and how quickly we forget Goff's role in Rogernomics.

Victor said...

As mentioned on your previous thread, Chris, I liked Labour's PP broadcast.

But I can't help wondering what a hard-pressed, ethnic Chinese solo mum in Dannemora might have made of those grainy photos of other people's grandparent's yesterdays, let alone of the blow-by-blow, decade-by-decade narrative history that accompanied them.

Let's remember that 37% of Auckland's population was born overseas. The immigrant population in some other urban centres has also moved dramatically upwards in recent years.

How relevant to such immigrants is the history of anything in New Zealand before, say,1990?

My question is not a rhetorical one. I'd genuinely like to know your thoughts on this issue.

More to the point, I'd love to learn what immigrants (those who, unlike myself, haven't married into old-stock Kiwi families or come from countries with closely related cultures)made of it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and John Key seems to think he is like a President, but with lines like the 'drunken sailor', he hardly matches Obama. Phil Goff and Labour have obviously discovered teamwork, detailed policy, and the imagery Chris describes.

But what sbout substance. TVNZ's political editor has to be commended for asking both leaders if they would do anything directly about poverty, the basic answer was no. So a large part of the citizenry would be completely disenfranchised if it were not for minor parties. And the separation of the 'major' from the 'minor' party debates is not especially helpful. So most of the economic debate is still over how much the top income earners are prepared to pay, and to tolerate, for an increasingly unequal society.

Anonymous said...

With all that long history surely Labour could have worked out capitalism is the problem by now.
I don't know whether it is sadder to not remember our history, like a big chunk of the population, or not learn from it, like the Labour Party.

Anonymous said...

While it was very well done and effective, to reiterate Victor's comments, the history Labour is envoking means nothing to a very large minority of New Zealanders's today, as does the harking back to the 80's Government.

The message Labour is pitching was not aimed at the demographics of New Zealand and particularly Auckland today but rather the reducing majority who share that common history.

I think it is easy if you live outside particularly Auckland to realise how much New Zealand is changing.

Bravo to Labour for the quality of their presentation. Both major parties have to realise that the New Zealanders of even 30 years ago is vastly different to the New Zealanders of today and the face of New Zealand in 20 years time.

Brendan McNeill said...

I thought Labour clearly won the media contest with its opening footage. John did look a little lonely on stage, fighting the good fight by himself.

I'm not sure how well the nostalgia footage plays with those other than the committed base, but it was well constructed.

Multi-media presentations to one side, is Labour the same party today as it was during the 30's when it introduced the welfare state, and captured the workers vote?

Perhaps Damian O'Conner is cut from that cloth, but as he himself has pointed out, he is a disenfranchised white male in a party of gays, feminists and identity politicians.

How Ironic that Labour calls upon Damian to front much of their presentation. Is this a tacit admission that the electorate by and large, is not like 'them' and insticntively they know it?

Having previously castigated him because of his 'straight talking' the Party is now deploying him because of his straight talking. The stone that was rejected has become a cornerstone.

If anything, this demonstrates the gap between perception and reality when it comes to the Labour Party. It remains to be seen if evoking the ghost of 'Labour past' will sufficiently mask the reality of Labour present.

peterquixote said...

Labour dead fighting in dark rooms and dying a miserable socialist death, there could be a new way, but it is not the way you think

Loz said...

Hi Chris, I dont know if you managed to come across the New Scientist article "Revealed" , recently published by Andy Coghlan and Debora MacKenzie into the relationship between transnational shareholder ownership?

The research provides an important insight into the economic control of the planet. It also highlights why income tax band alteration is not enough to reproduce the egalitarian nation of the past.

Eighty percent of global revenue is controlled (directly and through subsiduary ownership) by a core group of 1318 transnational firms. Out of that group, the entangled web of ownership can be straightened to show 40% of that wealth is controlled by only 147 super-corporations.

The only way to halt the bleeding of wealth that remains within this nation is to restrain these super-corporations, yet, this is exactly what the Free "Trade" agreements advocated and supported by Labour and National deliberately prevent.

Labour is trying to rediscover what it stands for but without abandoning its free market baggage it will struggle to define a credible method to deliver on the pledges its supporters expect.

Cloaca said...

Like your historical hindsight, but after a few minutes watching there was nothing to be achieved the way the programme was produced that we switched to the real evening winner "Shortland Street".

Neil Stockley said...

I have watched the Labour video a few times, with deep fascination. It's a clever and creative mix of "who I am" and "values in action" stories. But is it really aimed at shoring up the core vote, rather than trying to become the largest party?

Andy C said...

@Victor I work in one of those high tech companies that all sides are saying we need more of. We have, in no particular order..

1 POM , me.
2 Chilean
2 Chinese
1 Black Zimbabwean
2 White Saffers
3 Indian (Not Fujian)
1 HK Chinese
1 NZ from CHC
2 NZ from WLG
1 NZ from AKL
1 Iranian was on our team but he's been promoted up.
1 Serbian just left to return home to care for his mum.

My boss comes from WLG but her boss is a Saffer.

All of these people have a vote, how many do you estimate give a rodents posterior about what happened 30 years ago. All bar 3 of us , were not even born then.
The majority came here during the Clarke years although I was here for the last part of the Shipley Govt.
I can tell you this from our little bunch. I use the term "We" as a non ethic NZ born member of a particular group.
"We" the immigrant group, neither know, nor care, about the waterfront disputes, "The Tour" or a whole bunch of other pre Y2K stuff.
"We" have real issues comprehending the whole Treaty thing. Its important but its baffling.
"We" don't have political amnesia yet. I'll be the first to admit a few grey hairs but our political memory is still fresh.
"We" have no idea what Rogernomics is.

Chris , when you are next in Auckland, I'll buy you a coffee and we'll stand outside the ANZ on lower Queen street and we'll watch the New Zealand as it now is go past and try to relate it to your experiance.

The world has moved on. Actually I think its fair to say the world has moved. And they are living in apartment blocks around Mayoral Drive.

On a more serious note, please please please, can you post here in advance when you next get an invite to RNZ so I can tune in.

Derek said...

Have to agree with Andy C. I am continually surprised by the number of recent immigrants, particularly middle-aged South African women, who are in a wide range of front line jobs. Are they more employable than NZers with much longer residency, and if so, why?
I wonder also if the Labour's looking back isn't a subliminal admission that they cannot cope with change.
I thought David Cunliffe was the pick of the performers.

Chris Trotter said...

I'm afraid Victor and Andy C. that I have little patience with the "we're immigrants, don't give us history" line of argument.

Anyone seeking to make a new life in a new country is, I believe, morally obliged to become familiar with its history, its traditions and its cultural idiosyncracies.

To expect the native-born citizens of a nation to "move on" from their own past is tantamount to asking someone to refrain from talking about their own parents and grandparents, and expecting them to make no mention of the events which shaped their character and career.

It is, quite simply, objectionable - and very rude.

Anonymous said...

"To expect the native-born citizens of a nation to "move on" from their own past is tantamount to asking someone to refrain from talking about their own parents and grandparents, and expecting them to make no mention of the events which shaped their character and career.

It is, quite simply, objectionable - and very rude."

Right, but you have no hesitation in telling Maori they have no business in voting for their ethnically based parties but should tie their lot in with the immigrant pakeha party of Labour advocating a foreign ideology?

Consistency is the bedrock of credibility

Victor said...

Well, Chris, I did solicit your response and this you have provided in no uncertain terms!

But I didn't think we were discussing a work of art, which could, perhaps, be judged purely in terms of its creative integrity or other aesthetic factors.

Still less did I consider us to be discussing a work of semi- religious, national iconography, aimed at achieving a sense of the numinous amongst devotees.

I actually thought that we were discussing a Party Political Broadcast, viz. a piece of marketing designed to garner votes.

As such, the relevance of its message to the sensibilities of various sizable demographics is surely a subject worth contemplating.

I would certainly agree with you that it behoves immigrants to a new country to acquaint themselves with its history, culture etc.

I would also add that it behoves those born in a country to learn rather more about its history than tends to be the norm in 21st century New Zealand.

But even were we to reverse the well-entrenched global trend towards historical amnesia, it would still mean that some messages had more resonance with some demographics than with others.

In that case, there would still be a requirement to work out what was the most effective message to put out, in the limited airtime made available to political parties by our current electoral broadcasting regulations.

And, seeing that, however regrettably, there are a great many (immigrants or otherwise)who do not have a profound knowledge of New Zealand history, would you prefer them to desist from voting Labour until they have gained such knowledge?

Put another way, would you really rather that everyone who has never heard of Walter Nash should vote for National or Act?

I'd have thought not.