Set And Setting: Was the Prime Minister's harassment of waitress, Amanda Bailey, a form of political punishment? The behaviour of right-wingers when confronted with left-wingers in "places where they don't belong" is often both punitive and confrontational.
DID THE PRIME MINISTER pull Amanda Bailey’s pony-tail because her “strong political points of view” conflicted with his own? (We know that Ms Bailey holds strong political views because that information was passed on to the NZ Herald’s gossip columnist, Rachel Glucina, by her employers.)
Now, many New Zealanders will object that a waitress’s political views cannot be used to justify prime-ministerial hair-pulling. They’re right, of course, but I hope they’ll bear with me a little longer, because an examination of the way powerful right-wingers behave in the presence of left-wingers promises to recast John Key’s acknowledged misconduct in a new and very interesting light.
Let me give you an example of the phenomena I’m describing from my own experience. Some years ago, I was the guest of the French Ambassador at his official residence in Thorndon. An hour or so after my arrival, the Ambassador and his guests were joined by the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jim Bolger. Spying me, Mr Bolger called out in a very loud voice: “Good God, Trotter, when did they let you out of jail!”
"Good God, Trotter, when did they let you out of jail!" - Jim Bolger.
I took his “jest” in good part and joined in the rather startled laughter of the other guests. But I did wonder how the former Prime Minister would have responded had our positions been reversed. Would Mr Bolger have openly challenged the misbehaviour of a person holding such elevated political rank? Or would he, like me and Ms Bailey, have let the indiscretion (or, in the case of the Parnell waitress, the first of many indiscretions) pass?
Jim Bolger, the blunt King Country cocky and son of impoverished Irish settlers, may well have returned fire without inhibition, I simply don’t know. What did intrigue me, however, was the former National Party leader’s motivation. Quite simply, I believe it was shock. Encountering a well-known left-winger in what, to Mr Bolger, must have seemed the most unlikely of settings, can only have been profoundly surprising.
And, perhaps, just a little affronting. Because the presence of a person holding views so radically at odds with his own was likely received by Mr Bolger in the same way as a soldier on neutral ground would respond to the presence of a soldier from an enemy army. One can no longer speak freely, for fear of giving away important secrets. One’s behaviour, too, must be carefully controlled – lest the enemy be given an opportunity for ridicule or reproof.
Was this how Ms Bailey’s presence at Rosie’s Café, in upmarket Parnell, was perceived by the Prime Minister and his right-wing supporters from the neighbourhood? Did they fear that their “fun and games” and “horseplay” were being silently judged by this left-wing waitress? Had she overheard them saying things that might – if taken out of context – have sounded just a little bit racist, sexist or homophobic? And wasn’t that just a little bit unfair? That John Key, his wife Bronagh, and their friends and neighbours, couldn’t let their hair down and speak freely without every word and action being recorded and used as evidence by this young thought-policewoman?
It may not even have been conscious on Mr Key’s part. His fondness for dangling tresses is now well attested in the photographic and video record. But it’s also possible that the urge to tug Ms Bailey’s ponytail was driven by the same feelings that prompted Mr Bolger to put me so firmly in my place at the French ambassador’s residence.
The New Zealand Right has always had huge difficulty in accepting the Left’s socio-political legitimacy (and it’s by no means alone in this). Throughout the Cold War, self-identifying as a left-winger was tantamount to acknowledging high treason in the eyes of many National supporters. Trade unionists, particularly, were received with venomous hostility by National, which “made its bones” as a conservative political party by brutally enforcing the great Waterfront Lockout of 1951.
But the Cold War isn’t the sole explanation. The New Zealand Right’s hatred of the Left predates the onset of the Cold War by several decades – extending all the way back to the strike-breaking actions of the Reform Party government of William Massey. It has also survived the Right’s victory in the Cold War. To declare oneself a person of the Left, even in the twenty-first century, is to define oneself as not-quite-fit for polite company: “Good God, Trotter, when did they let you out of jail!”
With each tug of Ms Bailey’s “tantalising” pony-tail, was the Prime Minister sending a very similar message of “light-hearted” political disapproval? Was he telling her: ‘You really shouldn’t be here, but, since you are, it’s only fair that you join in (even unwillingly) all the “horseplay”, all the “fun-and-games”, in which the other wait-staff at Rosie’s Café happily engage.’?
What’s the matter, Amanda? Can’t you take a joke?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 April 2015.