A Change Is Gonna Come: The militant solidarity and bi-cultural unity on display in the anti-TPPA protests has delivered to the neoliberal elite a symbolic message which they would be wise to heed. They have grown accustomed to dominating this country’s political discourse as effortlessly as they dominate its economy. They are not used to being contradicted by people they dismiss, contemptuously, as “losers”. But as Bob Dylan reminds us: "the losers of now may be later to win – when the times they are a-changing."
TAKEN SEPARATELY, a series of unusual incidents may not amount to much. Taken together, however, they can suggest that, politically, something important is happening. Specifically, that the long-quiescent New Zealand population (the people upbraided by top left-wing blogger, Martyn Bradbury, as “sleepy hobbits”) are beginning to bestir themselves.
Consider the following straws in the wind.
Straw No. 1: As last Thursday’s massive anti-TPPA march swung sharply left at the bottom of Auckland’s Queen Street and headed back towards Sky City, construction workers began punching through the white plastic of their “petticoated” building sites and urging-on the marchers with clenched-fist salutes.
Straw No. 2: Seasoned activists insist that the huge demonstration was the first Pakeha-organised political protest to be led down Queen Street by a Maori Kapa Haka group. (Some claiming that these toa (warriors) were members of the same group who’d earlier refused to provide a Maori welcome to the TPPA’s signatories.)
Straw No. 3: John Key was booed when he turned up to the Auckland Nines on Waitangi Day.
It’s this latter event that will have stung the Prime Minister most painfully. His easy, apolitical rapport with sports-mad Kiwis has been one of his greatest electoral strengths. That a major political issue was able, finally, to penetrate the feel-good force-field that has for many years kept our sports stadia politics-free-zones must have given him genuine pause. It may not have been the whole crowd, but it was a large enough section of it to warrant the journalists present filing a story. And that, as Mr Key well knows, is all it takes.
The mass participation of Maori in last Thursday’s protest activities is also a highly significant development. New Zealand has seen big Maori protests before: the Seabed and Foreshore hikoi of 2004 being the most impressive. Separate Maori contingents, like the Patu squad of Springbok Tour fame, have also featured in Pakeha dominated protest movements.
The 4 February demonstration was different. Last Thursday’s was a genuine bi-cultural protest (the first of any size that the writer has witnessed) in which thousands of Maori bearing fern fronds, and Pakeha carrying placards, marched side-by-side; English and Te Reo mingled seamlessly; and where scores of New Zealand Ensigns flew proudly alongside an equal number of fluttering Tino Rangatiratanga flags.
This is a politically explosive combination: at whose heart lies the frightening realisation that more and more Pakeha New Zealanders are losing control of their future. For Maori, that is, of course, a far from new revelation. As Marama Fox, Co-Leader of the Maori Party, told the Anti-TPPA rally held at the Auckland Town Hall on 26 January: “Welcome to our world!”
For 176 years the rulers of New Zealand have lived in fear of this alliance. Captain Hobson’s 1840 declaration “now we are one people” notwithstanding, the intention of New Zealand’s British colonisers has always been to separate not only the Maori from their land, but to keep forever separate the interests of colonised and colonisers. The Powers-That-Be may have paid lip-service to the ideal of bi-culturalism by linking together the interests of the Pakeha and Maori ruling elites. But the very idea of non-elite Maori and Pakeha making common cause in defence of their common interests, and their common homeland, has always been culturally and politically terrifying.
The fear inspired in the political class by the clearly bi-cultural quality of the 4 February demonstration was expressed, at least initially, in the scornful depiction of the protesters as ignorant dupes of the usual “commie” suspects. What those making fun of New Zealanders very real, if ill-expressed, anxieties about the TPPA simply ignored was the fact that in democratic societies most citizens take their cues from trusted cultural and/or political leaders, by whose deeper understanding of complex issues they are more than happy to be guided.
Only a few days ago, it was to Labour voters’ trust in Helen Clark that the TPPA’s promoters were appealing, in an obvious attempt to convince them that Andrew Little’s opposition to the agreement was mistaken. When, however, it became clear that Centre-Left voters put more faith in Jane Kelsey’s assessment of the TPPA than Helen Clark’s, its promoters immediately began mocking them. The very idea that ordinary people’s views might be taken seriously was treated as a joke.
Which brings us back to those construction workers’ fists breaking through the plastic.
In that arresting image of militant solidarity there is a symbolic message to which the neoliberal elite would be wise to pay heed. They have grown accustomed to dominating this country’s political discourse as effortlessly as they dominate its economy. They are not used to being contradicted by people they dismiss, contemptuously, as “losers”.
But as Bob Dylan reminds us: the losers of today may be tomorrow’s winners – when the times they are a-changing.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 February 2016.