PULLING OUT of the truck-stop at Mercer (home of Pokeno Bacon’s incomparable toasted sandwiches) I noticed three large signs. Hung from a chain-link fence, the signs were hand-painted and impossibly wordy. Whoever it was who placed them there was angry – very angry. They were also completely unskilled in the dark arts of political communication.
It obviously never crossed their minds that the overwhelming majority of those passing their signs would be travelling at 100 kph. Nobody driving a motor vehicle at that speed has time to take in more than a few words. It’s only political tragics like myself who take the time to read these angry manifestoes.
Having done so, however, and for the benefit of my wife, who was driving, I condensed their author’s cries from the heart into three simple statements – one for each sign.
The Government Is Lying. The Media Is Lying. Stop The Lies.
When I told this story to an old comrade of mine, he exhaled noisily through his teeth and said: “There are times, Trotter, when I’m really glad you’re on our side.”
The anger and mistrust manifested in that angry Mercer signage came back to me a few days later when I tuned into a RNZ news bulletin to receive the startling information that the leader of the Act Party, David Seymour, wanted to blow-up the Ministry for Pacific Peoples. Now, I was aware that it’s Act’s policy to abolish all of what might be called the “identity” ministries: Women’s, Youth, Māori, Pasifika; along with the Human Rights Commission. I was unaware, however, that the policy mandated the use of high explosives!
And, of course, it doesn’t. What I had heard was what the writer of RNZ’s news copy had distilled from a political quip, uttered by the Act leader on the evening of Thursday, 17 August, during an interview on Newstalk-ZB. The context of the quip is crucial – especially in relation to what happened later. It involved a discussion of the Ministry of Pacific People’s gross overspending ($40,000!) on a farewell bash for its departing Chief Executive. Asked how he felt about the overspending, Seymour replied:
“In my fantasy, we’d send a guy called Guy Fawkes in there and it’d be all over, but we’ll probably have to have a more formal approach than that.”
Though you would never know it from the leaden humourlessness of the party political and mainstream journalistic responses to his words, Seymour was joking. In exactly the same way as the person who came up with the oft-quoted quip: “Guy Fawkes – the only man to enter Parliament with honourable intentions” – was joking.
The Deputy-Prime-Minister, Carmel Sepuloni, did not get Seymour’s joke. Or, if she got it, she didn’t like it: “David Seymour’s remarks are in line with his history of race-baiting and creating divisions, particularly concerning Pasifika and Māori communities”. Clearly, nobody in Labour was laughing. The Greens, too, remained stony-faced: “Just a man who received donations from known white supremacists making a ‘joke’ about his fantasy to bomb brown people institutions” tweeted Golriz Ghahraman.
Here, at least, was the source of the dreary literalism inspiring the writer of RNZ’s news bulletin. A humorous historical reference to Guy Fawkes (who would have posed no threat at all to the Ministry of Pacific Peoples, given that he proved singularly incapable of blowing up the Palace of Westminster on 5 November 1605!) had somehow morphed into the unembellished claim that the leader of New Zealand’s third-largest political party, the man set to become New Zealand’s next Deputy-Prime-Minister, had entertained seriously the terroristic notion of blowing-up a building housing a government ministry and, presumably, everyone in it.
It is, of course, possible that RNZ is, all-unwittingly, harbouring yet another unauthorised “editor” of contentious news items going out under its name, and that the publicly-owned radio network is every bit as outraged at the suggestion that David Seymour has ideas about blowing things up as the 12-15 percent of New Zealanders telling the pollsters they intend giving Act their Party Vote on 14 October.
One can only speculate, however, about the number of New Zealanders who found it strange that a number of mainstream news media outlets had chosen to make a news-story out of the fact that two citizens had entered a government building with some stern questions for the staff about what they regarded as the outrageous expenditure of tens-of-thousands of dollars of public funds on a senior bureaucrat’s farewell function.
There was a time in this country’s history when citizens asking questions of public servants was an entirely unremarkable exercise of their civil rights. A time when, far from causing fear and alarm, the practice of holding bureaucrats to account was regarded as a pivotal feature of a properly functioning democracy. That the questions asked by these two citizens went unanswered, and that they were physically ejected from the building, is, surely, prima facie evidence that our democracy could do with a bit of a shake-up. Oops! Sorry. Some “refurbishment”.
Similar thoughts arise from the fact that it required some heavy-duty interventions from a number of prominent right-wing habitués of social-media to nip in the bud the thoroughly disinformative narrative that placed the “disruptive” individuals at the Ministry of Pacific Peoples after (therefore because of) David Seymour’s remarks on Newstalk-ZB. The facts of the story, however, produce a timeline in which the “threatening” citizens arrive at the Ministry long before Seymour’s quip hit the airwaves.
A small story? A storm in a teacup? Unworthy of all these words? Well, had I not read those signs at Mercer, I might agree. We are, after all, less than two months away from a general election, and peak rough-and-tumble is still weeks away. But, I did read those signs, and they disturbed me.
The point I’m labouring to make is that grown-up politicians are assumed to be capable of differentiating a rhetorical quip dressed-up in Jacobean finery, from an Al Qaeda To-Do list. And so are professional political journalists. The claim that David Seymour spoke seriously about blowing-up the Ministry of Pacific Peoples is, quite simply, a lie; and references to “race-baiting”, and bombing “brown people institutions”, advance the dial well beyond “rough-and-tumble”.
The practice of New Zealand politics, and the reporting of it, has changed – and the voters have noticed. Many more citizens than the major parties appear willing to acknowledge are furious about the changes the political class continues to impose upon them. Nor do they appreciate being gas-lit by politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists who clearly consider themselves a cut above the average voter.
Rhetorically-speaking, an increasing number of citizens would be quite happy to see someone put a bomb under a system they no longer trust. Which is why, heading into this election, nothing is more important than for New Zealand’s political and media leaders to do everything within their power to regain the public’s trust.
Otherwise someone, somewhere, will start hanging signs that everybody can read.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website of Monday, 21 August 2023.