Class Warrior? At the core of Labour MP Sue Moroney’s controversial "Just Because You Own" tweet was the unmistakeable whiff of class warfare. Her generous parliamentary salary notwithstanding, she clearly reacted with visceral working-class fury to the visual cues of the Silver Fern Flag and a “flash beach house”. In a peculiar, largely unacknowledged way, voting to retain the flag became, for many Kiwis, a small but satisfying gesture of class defiance.
FOR THE BEST PART OF A WEEK, the Labour MP, Sue Moroney, has been on the receiving end of a vicious media caning. Her crime? Tweeting a photograph of a handsome Waihi Beach property flying the Silver Fern Flag, accompanied by the incendiary caption: “Just because you own a flash beach house doesn’t mean you get to decide our flag.”
Was this an intelligent political gesture? Not really. A moment’s thought on Ms Moroney’s part would have warned her of the inevitability of a swingeing social media backlash, followed inexorably by the heavy artillery fire of the mainstream news outlets. A tweet of such provocative content was never going to pass unnoticed. Better, therefore, not to send it.
Ms Moroney should also have paused to consider the feelings of the people who actually owned the beach house over which Kyle Lockwood’s creation was fluttering. Their motivation for displaying the flag was something Ms Moroney could only guess at, and when you’re a Member of Parliament guessing isn’t good enough. The owners of the property had every right to complain, and Ms Moroney had no option but to remove the offending tweet.
Exactly what Labour’s Leader, Andrew Little, said to his errant colleague, as the controversy she’d created started spawning the most trenchant journalistic criticism, we have no way of knowing. It is, however, very likely to have included a great deal of admonition and very little approbation.
And yet, as the week progressed, and the journalistic vitriol increased in strength, I couldn’t help wondering whether, in this case, the media clobbering machine was protesting too much. Such exaggerated offence, and such ferocious criticism, strongly suggested that Ms Moroney had touched a very raw nerve. What could it be?
When the irrepressible Paul Henry says something provocative, his defenders frequently respond with the observation that he is only expressing what a whole lot of people are thinking. Did Ms Moroney’s inflammatory tweet fall into this category? Had she put into words what a great many New Zealanders were feeling about the social forces pushing for a change of flag?
It is difficult to argue against the proposition that the entire flag-changing exercise was driven from the top down. Certainly a review of the polling data offers scant evidence for there being a popular groundswell in favour of replacing our present flag. On the contrary, in the eyes of a large number of New Zealanders, the whole initiative originated from, and was associated with, the Prime Minister, John Key.
Are the following associative mental leaps similar to the ones Ms Moroney made when she saw the Silver Fern flying above that Waihi Beach property?
Look, there’s a swanky beach house flying that damned flag! — John Key has a swanky beach house. — I bet his is flying an even bigger Silver Fern Flag. — Why does he even want to change our flag? — Just to show us that he can! — I’ve always felt this whole referendum thing is nothing more than the Prime Minister and his rich mates telling us what to do. — It must be why the National Party, the news media, and the rest of the political establishment is backing him so strongly. — Because, when a National Party Prime Minister wants something, it’s important that he gets it. — Well bugger them! — Where’s my cell phone!
If that was the general direction of Ms Moroney’s thoughts, and if she was by no means alone in thinking about the referendum in such terms, then what New Zealand has just passed through may be a lot more significant than the political pundits are prepared to acknowledge.
At the core of Ms Moroney’s tweet is the unmistakeable whiff of class warfare. Her generous parliamentary salary notwithstanding, she clearly reacted with visceral working-class fury to the visual cues of the Silver Fern Flag and a “flash beach house”. Something in her personality (and in the personalities of tens-of-thousands of her fellow New Zealanders) linked together wealth, power, the proposal to change the flag, and the Prime Minister, in a causal chain of extraordinary emotive strength. In a peculiar, largely unacknowledged way, voting to retain the flag became, for many Kiwis, a small but satisfying gesture of class defiance.
Perhaps this explains why Ms Moroney’s tweet has elicited such an angry response from those who, in one way or another, contrived to carry the Prime Minister’s flag. Her bitter caption clearly stung them in ways many found difficult to explain. It implied that at least some members of the punditocracy had behaved discreditably; lined up with the wrong people; backed the wrong cause.
At the very least, Ms Moroney’s “class warfare” tweet has cast the indisputable class divide separating those who voted for the present flag from those who voted against it, in a new and disquieting light.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 April 2016.