Feb 24, 2014

The meaning of Winston Peter's race talk

This is from Winston Peter's state of the nation speech. Don’t act surprised:

New Zealand has gone from a nation of united people to an urban collection of communities, many clinging to where they were, rather than where they are now. 
We have the Chinese community, the Pacific Islands community, the Sri Lankans, the Indians - the list is endless. All hyphenated New Zealanders… 
It’s as simple as this. Our last census had boxes for virtually every race on earth. Except one. There was no box for you to tick that you are a New Zealander… 
When people come to New Zealand, New Zealand First says they should fit in and contribute to our laws, our values, our culture, language and traditions. 
That doesn’t mean abandoning identity. The Irish, Scots, Welsh, Dalmatians never did, nor did the Dutch.

This is vintage Winston. Except the wine has turned to vinegar. Winston speaks to a New Zealand that thinks it's under ideological and demographic siege. Parse the tortuous language of “urban… communities”, “values” and “identity” and you’ll find New Zealanders who yearn for a New Zealand that never existed. Winston speaks to their imaginary past.

If Colin Craig’s “entire political movement and history is based on feelings of humiliation” then Winston Peter’s political movement is based on feelings of betrayal. It’s aimed at New Zealanders who went to sleep in one country and woke up in another: the strong state communitarianism of Kirk and the strong state conservatism of Muldoon had disappeared, the borders had become porous – for both capital and labour - and New Zealand had been “opened for business”.

If you scratch the itch you’ll find that Winston’s people are worried about economics and leadership. That’s the source of their angst, but race is its expression. Why? Because race represents their ideological losses today and their demographic irrelevance tomorrow. Immigration – and Maori bashing, of course – is the lightning rod of their unease and hostilities. But its real source is the economic transformation of the 80s and 90s.

Consider this:

But the so-called economic reformers of the past 30 years dismantled the industries and state enterprises that were the economic life blood of Maori. 
Freezing works closed, the Ministry of Works, Forest Service, Government Print and so many others. When the Forestry Service was privatised, thousands of jobs were lost and 80 per cent of those jobs had been held by Māori. 
Heartland New Zealand had the heart ripped out.
Tens of thousands of Maori were thrown on the industrial scrap heap. Along with unemployment came the twin curses of alcohol and drugs which are creating mayhem among Maori…
Along with the new age economics of selling everything and bringing in more immigrants, a new political arrangement was entered into. 
This is the politics of appeasement to radical Māori demands.

That's a straightforward description of the economic reforms of the 80s and 90s, but it's framed as a problem of Maori radicalism. Now I don't think Winston buys his own rhetoric and that makes it fundamentally dishonest. But it works. When the walls are closing in people fight to apportion blame. It’s easier to blame the other than blame your own political impotence. Communities of colour become a totem for the decline of Winston's provincialists. Don Brash fell short, but he demonstrated the electoral reward for politicians who can tap the reservoir of racism.

When you peel away the forced politeness, the urge to please everyone and suppressed anger in some parts of provincial New Zealand you’ll find a country that’s deeply scarred. If it looks to in the mirror, it's ashamed. If it looks to the future, it's afraid. If it looks to the (imaginary) past, it's at home.

Winston understands this and he uses race to channel their fears. But race isn't the source of their angst and non-racialism isn't the solution to it. Winston's failure to craft a strategic response to his voter's angst only serves to reinforce it. You can't craft a strategic response to neoliberalism off the back of a cabal of hardcore racists. They might like their imaginary past, but Winston can only give them an imaginary future.

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