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On The Centre-right’s Internal Ructions

For donkey’s years, political commentary has been all about the binaries: left/right, Labour/National, government/opposition, she said/he said. Yet currently, a lot of the fascinating conflict is occurring amidst the centre-right. That’s because National, ACT and New Zealand First all happen to be fishing in the same pond for cranky and resentful voters.

Why, for example, did Winston Peters break with his tradition of never naming beforehand which major party he would be most likely to support in post-election bargaining? Because he had to. It was Peters after all, who put Labour in the driver’s seat and gave them a platform that carried them through Covid, the 2020 election and beyond. How could Peters campaign next year, and be trusted not to do the same thing again ? To be a credible comfort stop for the Ardern-haters, Peters had to make his allegiances perfectly clear.

True, his excuse for doing so – Labour fibbed and misled him, the poor wee lamb – was rather less than credible. In reality, the Peters announcement had everything to do with NZF trying to ride anti- government sentiment up over the 5% threshold while – hopefully - earning NZF enough votes to enjoy much the same bargaining clout on policy with the next government as he had during the coalition’s first term. To achieve that sort of leverage, he has to play hardball. Peters had no option but to carry out ram raids on National and ACT’s support base.

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As for National… Christopher Luxon’s hard man rhetoric – blame parents, send the kids of the bottom feeders off to boot camps – is intended to stop Winston Peters and David Seymour from stealing his milk-shake. The risk for a major party is that extremism will repel a few moderates. That’s what happened after all, to the Republicans during the US mid-terms.

That’s one reason why Luxon’s tone tends to change completely depending on which media platform he's on. He offers raw meat to the talkback crowd and to Breakfast TV’s Auckland audience, but when he’s on Morning Report he promises there’ll be “wraparound” services aplenty, and whatever funding is needed to get the right results. Lest we think he’s going soft, Luxon has in virtually the same breath ridiculed those very same ‘wraparound’ services as “Kumbaya” politics and “mush.” Buyers beware. Christopher Luxon is a walking contronym.

A contronym, often referred to as a Janus [ie two-faced] word… is a word that evokes contradictory or reverse meanings depending on the context.

Next up is David Seymour. For the best part of a decade, ACT carried the torch for neo-liberalism. Since only about 5% of voters (at most) ever truly believed in that failed gospel, ACT hovered for years and years around only 1% in the polls, while living off a National Party handout in Epsom. Thanks entirely to the euthanasia issue, Seymour then had a makeover and embraced reactionary populism. ACT soared in the polls. Ever since, Seymour has been coming across as Young Winston, while pushing all of the populist buttons of fear, anger and resentment he can find.

As a result, a stern contest has developed on the centre right as to who can most loudly portray the government as a bunch of over-educated elitists out of touch with heartland New Zealand, and hellbent on forcing their liberal views down the throats of decent, hard-working Kiwi battlers, farmers and tradies. Allegedly, these salt-of-the-earth types are held dear by the man from Epsom. Not that Epsom-ites would want any of them moving in next door, if you don’t mind.

Is there room on the centre-right stage for three mutually hostile, actively resentment-mongering populists? Probably not. Seymour has grasped the threat to his newly won fan base and has been doing his level best to portray Peters as a political has-been – which is pretty amusing, given that the ACT Party is still peddling the Thatcherite policies of forty years ago. That’s the crevasse Seymour is straddling: he keeps pushing for more neo-liberal economic solutions while angling for votes from the angry people who have been left behind by such policies. During 2023, Peters is going to be helping those victims to join the dots, so that they realise in time that David Seymour is not really their friend.

In sum, New Zealand is shaping up to have its own version of the Trump vs DeSantis battle for the soul of the centre-right. Except in New Zealand’ case, there are three people in this marriage. They’ve already started to throw the crockery at each other, but the best is yet to come.

Footnote One: With all that in mind, it seems obvious what Christopher Luxon’s theme song for Election 2023 should be:

Footnote Two: In case this column sounds a bit “ hypothetical”, let's take a concrete example: Truancy. Last week, Education Ministry figures showed that New Zealand has a problem with school attendance, in that just over 40 percent of year seven students and just under year eight students went to school regularly during Term 2.

That key term “regularly” is crucial. In this context, it means attending school for 90 per cent of the time, or more. Do the math. Term 2 lasted for ten weeks, or fifty potential school days. Within that period there were two public holidays, leaving 48 days in all. One tenth of that is 4.8 days. So... To qualify for the official definition of being truant, kids would only need to have taken 5 days off school in that midwinter term 2 during an ongoing Covid epidemic, and while a really nasty version of winter flu was circulating. Also keep in mind that some Maori and Pasifika kids would have been attending funeral ceremonies for relatives who had died of Covid.

It is not as if all the news this year on this subject has been entirely bad. As the Education Ministry told Parliament’s Education and WorkForce Committee earlier this year:

The ministry’s report said that most students responded to the end of the national lockdown in Term 2 2020 by attending at higher rates than over the same time in 2019. However, student attendance in response to these lockdowns was inequitable.

"The negative impacts of Covid-19 on attendance are heavily concentrated in primary school, especially for years 1 and 2. Covid-19 also appears to be significantly worsening inequities in attendance, particularly in Auckland, for Māori and Pacific ākonga [students]and in low decile schools," the report said.

So… This would seem to indicate that there are links between poverty, ethnicity, low decile schools and patchy school attendance. Who would have thought? Henderson Intermediate principal Wendy Esera pointed to other contributing factors noted at her school which currently has an 81% level of “regular” school attendance:

"We get issues and I'm quite sure this is the same right across the country with parents saying things like, look, my child's not in school because I haven't got petrol in the car," she said.

"We haven't had food last night, so there's no food this morning either. They've grown out of their uniform and they can't afford to pay for the uniforms, so we're just going to keep them home until we can."

None of this seems to have got onto the radar of the three wealthy, well fed, and comfortably housed centre-right politicians who all have a common enemy in their gunsights: Parents. Luxon, Peters and Seymour appear to be competing over which one of them can make life more miserable for parents who fail to get their kids “regularly” to school. Here’s Luxon:

"You chose to have these kids, you have to wake up at 7am, get your kids to school at 8am…You have now got subsidised free lunches, free breakfasts, subsidised period products [ !!!] subsidised school uniforms. There is (sic) no excuses. What we have in New Zealand is a culture of excuses."

Note how Luxon equates “parent”” with “woman.” Yes, those mothers getting their free tampons have a lot to answer for. And then there’s ACT. What is the ACT Party’s solution for low income families who can’t always manage to get their kids to school? Fine the parents! 

….[The] Government is failing to use its existing powers. [Written Parliamentary Questions] show that only one family has been handed a fine for their children’s truancy in five years under S244 of the Education and Training Act 2020.The Government already has the power to address parents of truants, the problem is that no one in the Government appears willing to actually do anything.

But wouldn’t you know it? In this ‘blame the parents’ fiesta, Winston Peters had already got there months ago:

There needs to be consequences for parents in these cases as much as there needs to be consequences for the youth. It is no secret that truancy, education, and home life play pivotal roles in teenager’s lives - this shouldn’t be just the state’s responsibility.

In a nutshell, that’s the alternative vision of New Zealand the centre right has to offer. You don’t like the current government? Well, welcome to a nastier, punitive version of society where the privileged use their power to make life even more miserable for the people on Struggle Street.

Short People etc

While watching Lionel Messi and his colleagues lose to Saudi Arabia the other day, it struck me for the first time that this football genius is somewhat on the short side. Turns out, he’s only 1.69 metres tall. But– blimey – Pele was only 1.73 metres. Neymar is only 1.75 m. Kylian Mbiappe is only 1.78 m. Radamel Falcao is 1.78m. Xavi is 1.7m. Diego Maradonna was only 1.65m. And so on.

In other top sports – tennis for instance – very tall people have become the norm. Not in football, where even a mere 1.83 metres ( ie. six foot) is something of an exception. Thus we do get: Robert Lewandowski and Robin Van Persle at 1.83m. Zinedine Zidane is/was 1.85m. Gareth Bale is also 1.85m while a towering Cristiano Ronaldo is 1.87m tall. Beyond that… There’s Zlatan Imbramovic at a freakish 1.95m. Yet by and large, World Cup football is a beautiful game in which quite short people run around the pitch very fast on short little legs.

The Real Skinny

Talking of tall and thinnish… Born in South Africa, raised in South Yorkshire and long tipped for bigger things by the UK music press, Skinny Pelembe has a soulful new single out called “ Like a Heart Won’t Beat”…

Like deep soul, classic reggae from the 1970s seems to be an inexhaustible treasure trove… From the golden period, here’s Nora Dean with the unique soundscape of “Angie La La…”

And since I mentioned Bruce Springsteen before, let it be noted that he has just released a cover version of Motown producer Frank Wilson’s 1965 (and subsequently northern soul) classic track“ Do I Love You”, a song also well covered at one time by Motown’s Chris Clark. But there’s no beating the original.

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