Why the Internet Party is resonating
Why the Internet Party is resonating
By Byron Clark (Fightback).
May 4, 2014
In the March issue of Fightback we examined the politics at the then new Internet Party. The verdict at that time was that “there is no sign that it represents a progressive force”. There have been some developments since then, Kim Dotcom has dispelled the idea that he is a libertarian, confirming in his The Nation interview that he supports a welfare state. Later at the members-only picnic held at his Coatesville mansion he also spoke in favour of free education.
The policies released on their website, internet.org.nz, are all supportable (though the one about a digital currency seems like a silly gimmick). The main difference between the Internet Party and the Green Party -at least in the areas they share policy- appears to be a question of emphasis. If Dotcom were to fold the party if it failed to get over the 5% threshold for seats in parliament, something he indicated he would do, it could have been expected that the Greens would gain his endorsement.
This isn’t what happened. In what came as a surprise to many, he looked further to the left and sought out an alliance with the MANA movement. While Fightback opposed an alliance, the outcome of talks at the MANA AGM was to continue discussions between the two parties. Fightback remains opposed, but will continue to participate in the MANA movement, provided there is no compromise of core policy or principles.
The Internet Party has only got as far as it has with MANA because its message has resonated with a significant number of members. The greater chance of changing the government post-September 20th appears to be the only significant gain for MANA, and that wouldn’t be enough on its own to get people excited. The Internet Party has signed up over 2000 members in a matter of days, attracted 700 to its launch event and is equaling MANA in the polls (not to mention three other parties currently in parliament) before even officially registering. This level of support is not insignificant.
Some in MANA, as well as commentators watching the saga unfold, have questioned how relevant an ‘Internet Party’ is to ‘someone who can’t afford a computer’. This might have been a valid point had the party emerged 15 years ago, but fails to see that internet access today is seen by most as an essential utility for full participation in society. Its notable that those making this political criticism are doing it largely via Internet platforms such as social media, and purporting to do so on behalf of those who don’t have the same level of access to those platforms.
One of the Internet Party’s core policies, increasing access to high speed internet and halving the price is a policy in the same league as halving the cost of electricity. It will appeal to a late night World of Warcraft player of course, but it will also appeal to a single parent aiming to escape life on the DPB through an internet delivered distance learning course. The latter actually benefits more from the policy, even if the former might be closer to the idea of an Internet Party supporter we have in our minds.
Examples of the crossover between the demographic targeted by MANA and the the policies of the Internet Party are easily found. Wahine Paewhenua of Te Kotahitanga Marae in the Whangarei suburb of Otangarei told The Herald that when they surveyed a newly formed youth group about what they’d like to have available, computers and internet access were to top of the list. The Marae now has an IT hub with twelve computers connected to ultra fast broadband.
“Before there was nothing happening for the children and the youth. Now they just have so many projects,” she told the Herald, adding that a lot of children in the area didn’t have internet access at home and that those involved in the project also wanted to roll out the programme to the senior citizens as a lot of them didn’t have a telephone.
“Otangarei has a very transient and poor population and to run a project like this is a big ask, but this has the potential to upskill people with the many opportunities that are available,” said Piripi Moore, project manager of the hub.
This sort of project is something MANA would support in principle, but the policies to make it happen are under developed. In contrast, the Internet Party places them front and centre. The “missing million” who didn’t vote in 2011 are over represented among youth, Maori and the poor, three groups that often intersect. No doubt many MANA members including in the leadership are in favour of an alliance as they see the potential for Internet Party policy to mobilise these groups. The growth in MANA’s membership since media coverage of the proposed alliance lends credence to that idea.
While there are local branches forming and an online forum for developing policy, the Internet Party is not holding an AGM until after the election, so its membership is not having the democratic discussion about an alliance that is going on within MANA. Yet some members have been vocal about their support.
On his Facebook page Hone Harawira shared an email he received after appearing on Nine to Noon. “My husband and I are geeks, that is to say, privileged, well paid, middle-class etc. We are natural supporters of the Internet Party and I want you to know that I don’t have any problem with an alliance between MANA and the Internet Party because from my perspective, the two have a lot in common – as Internet Party supporters, we believe that good internet access is a way out of poverty.” The email went on to say;
“I am appalled by Duncan Garner’s casual racism when he talks like this: ‘Dotcom wants internet freedom. Many of Hone’s rural supporters in outback Hokianga and Kaikohe don’t even own computers, let alone have super-fast broadband at their doorstep Hone wants jobs, opportunities and better wages; Dotcom wants to stay in NZ.’
He’s talking as though he can’t imagine a world where your supporters in Kaikohe and the Hokianga use computers to access the web, and this speaks volumes about the kinds jobs he sees them doing.
A big reason for our support of the Internet Party is that we believe that the people of rural Hokianga and Kaikohe should have computers as well as super-fast broadband because it’s a path towards jobs, opportunities and better wages for them as it has been for us and our family. If poverty is an inability to participate in society then the internet is a powerful tool that can break down the barriers that prevent participation.”
Indeed MANA and the Internet Party are not necessarily the strange bedfellows a casual observation would make them appear.
The risks of an alliance
Members of MANA, and no doubt voters as well, have been skeptical of Kim Dotcom because of the treatment of his own workers, the fact he is a foreigner lacking knowledge of Te Ao Maori (the MANA AGM was the first time he had been on a Marae), his class position, and the presumed politics that come with that. People have noted his use of the phrase “social fairness” during his address to the MANA AGM rather than “social justice” or “social equality”. The difference in meaning here is subtle but significant.
The woman who emailed Hone is correct when she says “good internet access is a way out of poverty,” but it’s only a way, not the way. It’s the way used by Kim Dotcom in his rags to riches story. Providing the opportunity might be “fair,” but it can’t work for everyone – not because of individual failings, but because capitalism is not structured in a way that means everyone can be an entrepreneur and become wealthy. If the focus on innovation and entrepreneurialism that Dotcom and party president Vikram Kumar are so keen on overshadows MANA’s goal of lifting everyone out of poverty, that becomes a problem.
Internet Party members have also raised their own worries about the alliance. “My biggest concern is that the Internet Party is not going to be taken seriously by voters because it is choosing to make an alliance with the Mana party,” writes a member going by the name Alana Hyland on the party’s policy forum “Everyone that I have talked to about the Internet Party has told me that they weren’t going to vote for the Internet Party because “they’re joining with the crazy racist group”. I think the Internet Party would do better on its own.” Responses to a photo of Kim Dotcom and Hone Harawira the former shared on Twitter seem to be of the nature Alana talks about: “You had my vote. You lose it if you align with that racist idiot!” and “Hone is the biggest racist I’ve ever seen in a while” (sic).
These views of course are ignorant and incorrect, and we shouldn’t judge the party based on its supporters (its worth commending the Internet Party for a clause in their constitution stating “the Internet Party will also maintain and promote economic, cultural, social, ethnic, age and gender diversity and equality within the membership, candidacy and organisational structure of the Internet Party.”)
That said, how many potential Internet Party voters share the “Mana are racist” view, and would stay home on polling day rather than vote for an alliance? iPredict and other media are estimating the number of seats an alliance would win by adding together the poll results of both groups, yet this wont be an accurate prediction if a significant number of supporters of each party abstain.
Moreover, a joint list would have to mean a shared policy platform. At the AGM, Dotcom criticised MANA’s support of the Hone Heke (Financial Transactions) Tax and Capital Gains Tax, instead endorsing ‘luxury taxes.’ While Dotcom says he supports taxes on the wealthy, he appears to mean taxing consumption, not property or business. After Harawira’s principled opposition to raising GST, and endorsement of the Hone Heke Tax, it remains unclear whether Dotcom will compromise on this point. While it is entirely possible for a capitalist to support progressive working-class struggles, this also must mean betraying their class and making sacrifices, and Dotcom’s choices so far seem more opportunistic.
Perhaps MANA’s best course of action would be to adopt the Internet Party’s progressive policies and continue to advocate lowering the threshold for entry to parliament, remaining independent. As we go to print, results of the negotiation remain to be seen.