The sub­tle art of po­lit­i­cal di­ver­sion

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

The art of di­ver­sion has al­ways been part of po­lit­i­cal life, and there is a long tra­di­tion of bread and cir­cuses.

When­ever the busi­ness of gov­ern­ment gets dif­fi­cult, the cir­cus di­ver­sions – quick, look, over there! – serve a use­ful strate­gic pur­pose.

To that ef­fect, Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Hekia Parata and So­cial De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Paula Ben­nett have func­tioned as a quite suc­cess­ful tag team.

The pol­icy screw-ups by Parata (for ex­am­ple, on class sizes) tend to be quickly fol­lowed by some head­line-grab­bing mus­ings from Ben­nett about . . . oh, should the state re­move the right to have chil­dren from some New Zealan­ders who have com­mit­ted cer­tain types of crimes?

Re­peat­edly, the me­dia has taken the bait.

It pays to never un­der­es­ti­mate the readi­ness of the mid­dle-class com­men­tariat to de­bate and pro­nounce on the breed­ing habits of the un­der­class.

Last week, the tech­niques of di­ver­sion were de­ployed at an en­tirely new level.

Out of the blue, Jus­tice Min­is­ter Ju­dith Collins claimed that the ex­pen­sive de­signer jack­ets worn by Greens co-leader Me­tiria Turei made her a hyp­ocrite for speak­ing out about child poverty. Po­lice Min­is­ter Anne Tol­ley backed up Collins.

For her part, Turei tried to find a dig­ni­fied way to de­fend her­self.

Ul­ti­mately, the ugly round of ex­changes be­tween the three highly-paid pro­tag­o­nists did them (and Par­lia­ment) no favours.

Ob­vi­ously, there isn’t a dress code for mak­ing valid po­lit­i­cal com­ments. MPs can, and do, speak cred­i­bly about child poverty with­out hav­ing to wear op shop clothes to do so.

Collins’ claims came across as right- wing po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness gone mad. More, they also had the po­ten­tial to boomerang on Na­tional.

Was Collins sug­gest­ing that Prime Min­is­ter John Key, as a multi-mil­lion­aire, also there­fore a hyp­ocrite for mak­ing his wellpub­li­cised visit to Strug­gle St in south Auck­land, a visit that cul­mi­nated in him tak­ing 12-yearold Aroha Nathan to Wai­tangi?

Can Paula Ben­nett – who bears the ac­tual min­is­te­rial re­spon­si­bil­ity for as­sist­ing chil­dren in poverty – still wear her own flam­boy­ant jack­ets with the same panache, now that her col­league has deemed such garb to be a po­lit­i­cal sin? As Turei pointed out, only women tend to get judged in that way.

Much more so than men, women are pres­sured to take moral re­spon­si­bil­ity for what their clothes are sup­posed to sig­nify about their in­tegrity.

Un­for­tu­nately for Collins, her com­ments had no wider con­text to them.

Once again, Na­tional had to look to its leader for a mas­ter class in how the dark art of di­ver­sion should be prac­tised.

The Prime Min­is­ter’s res­ur­rec- tion of an old sub­ject – should New Zealand adopt a new flag? – would have in­duced yawns at any other time.

Yet as colum­nist John Arm­strong pointed out, the flag cam­paign makes sense when joined with the news of eco­nomic re­cov­ery.

It en­ables the ‘‘ feel good’’ as­pects of the eco­nomic resur­gence – which will not ben­e­fit ev­ery­one – to be blur­ringly linked to a mes­sage of na­tional iden­tity, in which all can take part.

If those two fac­tors – eco­nomic re­cov­ery and na­tional iden­tity – can be suc­cess­fully fused, Na­tional will have a po­tent emo­tional mes­sage to take to the elec­torate.

In such a cli­mate, Labour’s mes­sages about in­come in­equal­ity might seem not only neg­a­tive, but vaguely un­pa­tri­otic to boot.

Truly, for those with­out bread, cir­cuses can of­ten be the only con­so­la­tion on of­fer.

Ju­dith Collins

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