Bread-and-Butter-Land: Andrew Little's keynote speech to Labour's 2015 annual conference took "Rebuilding the New Zealand Dream as its theme If this conjures-up an image of a 1960s family; Dad, Mum and the kids; standing in front of Dad’s shiny new Ford station-wagon; with Mum’s spotless suburban bungalow in the background; then Little’s speech-writers have done their job. And yet, for so many, the Dream he seeks to restore was never anything other than a nightmare.
SOME VERY STRAIGHT TALKING went on behind closed doors at Labour’s annual conference in Palmerston North. Persons described only as “senior party people” visited the party’s “sector groups” (Women, Youth, Maori, Pasifika, Rainbow) with a very clear message. All reform proposals smacking of what some experts call “identity politics” and others refer to as “social liberalism” are on the down-low. Not forbidden, exactly, but to be kept well away from the media spotlight. In the simplest terms: the days of “man bans” are over.
The Party Leader’s stirring keynote speech highlighted in dramatic terms where Labour’s focus has shifted. When Andrew Little was a young industrial lawyer, working for the Engineers Union, his conservative “brothers” would have described Labour’s new stance as “concentrating on the bread-and-butter issues that ordinary people care about”. Other organisers, in more radical unions, would have lamented Labour’s “economism”: a Marxist-Leninist term denoting an exclusive focus on working people’s material (as opposed to their political) advancement.
Little, himself, is calling it “rebuilding the New Zealand dream”. In the simplest terms: “Owning a home; having security for the people we love; a chance to enjoy the outdoors and the environment we love and a job that gives us the time and the money to lead a fulfilling life. These are the aspirations that we all share.”
Now, if that rather clunky definition conjures-up an image of a 1960s family; Dad, Mum and the kids; standing in front of Dad’s shiny new Ford station-wagon; with Mum’s spotless suburban bungalow in the background; then Little’s speech-writers have done their job. Because if you ask the Baby-Boom generation to describe how the New Zealand Dream looked, back in the days when it seemed within the reach of every Kiwi family, chances are they’ll say it looked like that. And if you ask the younger generation to describe the New Zealand dream, they will likely begin by highlighting how little of their parent’s idyllic ensemble they can expect to replicate.
Nostalgia and aspiration are powerful emotions, and when you attach them to a simple set of desired things, then the political effects can be startling. That’s why, in one way or another, the idea of the New Zealand Dream is exploited by every political party. National might substitute a Mercedes Benz for the Holden, and a graceful Arts and Craft mansion for the suburban bungalow. The Greens might add solar panels to the bungalow’s roof and put the whole family on bicycles. NZ First might include Grandma and Grandpa in the family line-up. In essence, however, the dream remains the same.
Allowing the Dream to slip away is thus, for most of the electorate, the very definition of political failure. Accordingly, parties will argue endlessly about whether they are succeeding or failing to keep the New Zealand Dream alive. Most will react with alarm, however, if the reality and/or desirability of the Dream itself is challenged.
Hence the hard words delivered to Labour’s sector groups last weekend. Those “senior party people” are determined that the discordant notes of feminism, indigenous rights and LGBT activism do not intrude upon the nostalgic and aspirational harmonies of the militantly “normal” New Zealand Dreamers. The memory of 2013’s “man ban” still rankles, but a much deeper psychic wound was inflicted by the “anti-smacking” legislation.
Dream - Or Nightmare? (Collage of 50s imagery by Sally Edelstein.)
The New Zealand voter did not enjoy being reminded that behind the happy familial images of material prosperity there often lurked horrific stories of child abuse. The idea that they, themselves, might have ventured even a little way along that grim continuum of domestic violence infuriated and repelled them – and Helen Clark became the lightning-rod for their rage.
Labour’s leaders are determined that it will not happen again. No rancid additives from the world of identity politics will be permitted to contaminate the bland bread-and-butter promises of Little’s keynote speech.
And yet, for so many, the Dream he seeks to restore was never anything other than a nightmare. A horror story made worse by the unrelenting pressure to pretend that the injustices and discrimination endured by women, Maori, gays, lesbians and transgendered persons wasn’t real, and wasn’t happening. Little’s soft-focus rendition of the New Zealand Dream was never more than a sociological version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. A cursed portrait that, with every tortured victim’s revelation, grows increasingly hideous.
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, 13 November 2015.