The Politics of Distraction

This is going to be a little bit of a rant:

It’s been a while…it seems that running as a candidate, being involved with fundraising and…oh yeah trying to write a Thesis (!) can be a bit much at times. I’ve been sweating the small stuff over little fundraising events, local Te Atatu issues and one hell of a writer’s block; I seemed to have lost my mojo…but I went to Nandor’s talk at the University today (At The Tipping Point: Thinking Beyond Sustainability; see it at AUT tomorrow and Unitec Thursday! Do It!) and found myself re-invigorated, re-energised and re-focussed. Finally! Kia ora Nandor – you were wasted in Parliament! 😉

Living day to day in a world that demands your attention for fleeting engagements, instant gratification and an ever deafening chorus of more More MORE! means it can be difficult to remain focussed on the Things That Matter. It is as if our system of living has been set up, either intentionally or not, to distract us from the really important things in our lives; the relationships with people around us, the inequalities and inequities in our communities, and the destruction of our planet – to rephrase Marx: Consumerism is the opiate of the Masses. Our political system is no better, with politicians using smoke and mirrors to distract us from the big things that are happening. Politics seems to be something that we have, that we consume, rather than something that we do…

Case in Point: National Party politicians were caught red-handed (or rather red-mouthed) essentially admitting that they are willing to say what people want to hear in order to get into power, only for them to enact a legislative and regulatory agenda that will not be subjected to an electoral mandate. Now, on one hand, no big deal: most of us expect that from a party that’s been in the political wilderness for the last 9 years and within inches of regaining the mantle. On the other hand: Big Freakin’ Deal – in the democracy that we ‘do’ rather than ‘have’, it’s unacceptable that a political party would enact said agenda without being transparent about it. Now for the distraction: rather than the media maintaining their focus on what was said, and doing some real investigation, they ran after the stick that John Key threw them. Our media fell for the distraction that who recorded the comments was more important, more scandalous than what the comments meant. Hook. Line. Sinker. Hopefully the public didn’t buy it (and judging by the comments in the ‘Your Views‘ section of the Herald, not everyone did), or else we could be in for the biggest dupe of our electoral history…

In many other aspects though, we’ve bought the messages; the lines that have been repeated so often that we now accept them as truths. In many instances these messages appeal to a darker side to us: the selfish, the individualistic, in some cases the downright mean. Of course we rationalise it with rhetoric about ‘personal responsibility’, ‘choice’ and ‘hard-working taxpayers’: the last thing we want to do is really reflect on the ideas that we’re buying into, what they mean for us, and for our communities.

Case in Point: This week National released (finally!) their policy on social welfare. There are actually some positives that we should support: increasing the abatement threshold for supplemental income for beneficiaries – although this should be much higher if we’re not going to raise benefit levels in real terms-  and fixing increases of benefits to inflation a legal requirement rather than a convention. By and large, however, the policy released by National isn’t new, it isn’t informed by real research into what makes our communities tick, and it isn’t going to actually improve the lives of those it is meant to help. While political pundits are marvelling at how John Key has toned down the rhetoric, it is still there – a wolf in sheep’s clothing tapping into a message, an idea that we bought into as a society only recently: the sick, the poor, the vulnerable exist solely because of our good graces, our generosity. During the last thirty years, we have seen a fundamental paradigm shift that has changed our collective perception of the welfare state from being an integral part of our social functioning – a dignified response of our communities to those who by and large through no fault of their own have found themselves in need of assistance – to one that maligns and marginalises those same groups, tarring them all as lazy; valueless; without worth; ‘breeding for business’.

I am a proud child of a DPB family, much like John Key it seems. Unlike John Key, my experiences moved me into the opposite direction of political views. My mother was blessed with five children from three births and a cheating husband who left when I was about 10 or so. My mum is a pretty proud person, and we never accepted the generosity of our neighbours in the rural community I was raised in. Nonetheless, at a certain point she shifted to the DPB in the early nineties, when the real harm of Shipley’s benefit cut’s was being felt. I still remember to this day my mother apologising to my brother and I that she wouldn’t be able to be home in the evenings because she had to work til late to supplement her income. That one experience has stayed with me: no parent should ever have to apologise to their child because they’re working late – and committing benefit fraud – to try and scrape together enough money to live. Of course, we aren’t motivated by real stories, and we don’t want a real conversation. We were fed the line that beneficiaries weren’t worthy of true compassion, of real dignity. They are lazy. They’re having children to get money. We bought it.

I view this as a fundamental challenge for us to resolve. Labour haven’t forgotten beneficiaries: ‘forgetting’ implies that some passive process occurred. To the contrary – the exclusion of beneficiaries from the in work payment, the exclusion of beneficiaires from Working for Families, the exclusion of beneficiaries from KiwiSaver, the lack of movement on benefit levels – all of this belies the fact that Labour have actively abandoned beneficiaries and low income earners, in the quest for the ‘Centre’ – that mythological beast that guarantees electoral success. Why? Because the ‘centre’ – you and me and all of us ‘hard working taxpayers’, with our relative affluence, our education, our comfortable incomes – has accepted the anti-beneficiary rhetoric. We accept it, we regurgitate it, and we respond to the dog-whistling around it. It’s political poison for a mainstream party to champion beneficiaries. By accepting the lines fed to us, we have fundamentally altered the political landscape so that the party (read: Labour) with the right motivation and power to restore dignity to the welfare state daren’t do it.

Our challenge is not only to restore dignity in financial terms to the welfare state, but to restore dignity to the recipients of that assistance within the wider community. That is going to be a much harder task, and one we can’t afford to be distracted from.

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