Still Smiling: New Zealand’s leading political journalists appear to operate a roster when it comes to disparaging Winston Peters and his party. This week it was the turn of veteran NZ Herald journalist, John Armstrong, to put the boot in. That NZ First's prospects have seldom looked better was not permitted to influence Armstrong's tale of decline and doom.
A JOURNALIST FRIEND of mine once told me that most politicians’ credibility was inversely proportional to their proximity. Which was just her fancy way of saying “familiarity breeds contempt”. Which is about the best reason I can come up with for the Parliamentary Press Gallery’s ongoing, undisguised and frequently ill-judged contempt for Winston Peters and NZ First.
New Zealand’s leading political journalists appear to operate a roster when it comes to disparaging Peters and his party. This week it was the turn of veteran NZ Herald journalist, John Armstrong, to put the boot in.
In addition to being “unfashionable – and deliberately so”, Peters followers were also, in Armstrong’s expert opinion, “politically dazed and confused”. With their vision of the future “based on nostalgia for the relatively recent past”, Armstrong described NZ First’s supporters as being “marooned in a time bubble”. And that time would be? The New Zealand of the prosperous 1950s. With Peters’ small-c conservatives revelling in “the suffocating social conformity of that era”.
Entertaining writing, to be sure, but it has little, if anything, to do with Peters or the NZ First Party. Indeed, it’s the sort of condescending tosh meted out (with only a name change or two) to any politician or political party which dares to defy the neoliberal orthodoxy of our own era. The purpose of the insults is to encourage the reader to identify with the writer, and not the subjects, of the commentary. Who in their right mind would admit to being “unfashionable”, “dazed and confused”, living in a “time bubble” or revelling in “suffocating social conformity”?
In reality, of course, NZ Firsters are none of these things. Far from being “dazed and confused”, they are considerably more focused on what is happening in New Zealand – especially rural and provincial New Zealand – than the great majority of the conventionally-wise metropolitans to whom Armstrong is, presumably, appealing. What Armstrong condemns as “suffocating social conformity” and the “myth of a better past”, they recall as a period of strong communities and mass participation, when there were jobs and homes for everyone, and an entire household could live comfortably on a single income.
That Armstrong goes to such lengths to ridicule the historical memory of the NZ First voter is actually highly instructive. History is Kryptonite to Neoliberalism. Like Pol Pot’s genocidal Maoism, it needs to erase the memory of everything that existed before the revolution – “Year Zero”. Only those who know nothing of the child and family-centred social policies of the 1950s and 60s could possibly accept Armstrong’s “suffocating social conformity” as an adequate characterisation of the New Zealand of 50 years ago. There was a time when journalists aspired to do more than promote historical amnesia. But, like so much else, that was before 1984 – our own “Year Zero”.
Armstrong comforts his readers with the thought that NZ First’s prime electoral demographic – the so-called “RSA Generation” born in the 1920s – is a wasting asset. He argues that the party’s refusal to confront the “myth of a better past” condemns it to a slow death: “as those who lived through those times and who gain comforting reassurance from Winston Peters’ pronouncements pass away.”
Had Armstrong but looked around him at NZ First’s Rotorua Conference, he would have realised the inadequacy of that analysis. In 1993, when NZ First was born, the RSA Generation was much in evidence. Twenty-two years later, however, a roll-call of delegates would reveal a preponderance of Baby-Boomers. Armstrong appears to have forgotten that the New Zealanders born between 1946 and 1966 all have direct experience of what New Zealand was like before Rogernomics. Over the intervening 30 years, a great many of them have reached the conclusion that there are much worse things in this world than mediocre coffee and Rob Muldoon. RSA Generation voters, alone, did not take the Northland seat off National.
Armstrong would have done better to analyse Peters’ Rotorua appeal for more party members and a bigger war-chest. Standing atop his mountain of Northland ballots, he has seen a nation struggling to keep its head above water. Old, middle-aged and young New Zealanders are desperate to hear that “Help is on its way”. A NZ First that offers up the achievements of the past as proof that the future can be better, will not lack for voters.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 August 2015.