Sometimes when I contemplate whether to blog on a political subject or not, I struggle with the question of relevance.
The fact that the subject interests me is not a guarantee of wider relevance. On this occasion, aided and abetted by personal bias I’ve opted to blog.
The catalyst is a column published by Bryce Edwards’ Democracy Project (8 January) by Chris Trotter: Where the people walk. Edwards generously promotes his regular columnist as New Zealand’s “leading leftwing commentator.”
In his excellent NZ Politics Today daily (Monday-Friday) the following day – as an aside I encourage readers to subscribe to it; its listing of daily mainstream and non-mainstream media political coverage is invaluable) – Edwards observed that:
Chris Trotter has provided what is possibly the best account of why the Labour Government lost nearly half its support between 2020 and crashing out of power in 2023.
Trotter argues that Labour never really knew what it wanted to achieve in government, and then when it had an historic majority to do whatever it wanted it got captured by an elite programme of liberal social and constitutional reforms that the party hadn’t tried to persuade the public about. Unlike, leftwing politicians of the past like Jim Anderton and Norm Kirk who argued that you needed to be democratic in your radicalism (“Always build your footpaths where the people walk”), Labour generated a backlash, including from its own supporters, by deviating into “the peculiar notions of the educated urban middle-classes”.
The second paragraph above is a reasonable summation of Trotter’s argument as far as it goes. Certainly Trotter is insightful with his contrasting comparison of the approaches of Norman Kirk and Jim Anderton.
As for the first paragraph – hmm! Read on.
I agree with Chris Trotter that the new National-ACT-NZ First coalition government should not be characterised as ‘hard-right’, at least to the extent that it implies ‘far-right’.
However, his rationale is muddled and what he and others mean by ‘hard-right’ is unclear.
His comparisons with other right-wing governments such as that of National’s Robert Muldoon (1975-84), which he argues was hard-right, are insufficient. Furthermore, comparisons have to be qualified by their respective contexts.
While Labour has always been more social liberal/progressive than National, both internally have had these values to one degree or another. But, consistent with wider society, both parties are more social liberal today compared with Muldoon’s era.
On the other hand, Muldoon’s government had a more positive approach to the role of the state, including in health and education, than subsequent National-led governments. Further, it was his government that established the Human Rights Commission.
Nevertheless I agree that the new government can’t be fairly characterised as hard-right. Instead it is a blended menu of authoritarian and libertarian right-wing politics seasoned by twinges of social liberalism and a dosage of dystopia. In many respects NZ First is the heir of Muldoon’s National Party.
The three components of the coalition are not as opposite as might first appear. The libertarianism is not about individual liberty.
Instead it is about providing a more conducive market for business profits. Individual liberty is the ideological camouflage used to rationalisation the objective.
Simply calling the new government right-wing is sufficient. Qualifiers such as hard or far-right only serve to misinform.
Nevertheless, ‘hardline’ is an appropriate further descriptor based on its attitude to vulnerable low paid workers thorough its repeal of the fair pay agreements legislation and increasing the minimum wage by an amount much less than inflation (ie, effectively a relative pay cut).
Misplaced critique of left-wing politics
Compounding the muddle is that, while Chris Trotter’s article is sharply critical of what he calls the ‘left-wing’ of politics, there is no clarification of what he means other than the Labour, Green and Te Pati Māori parties.
This is unhelpful because the experience of Labour in government from 2017 to 2023 has not been left-wing if the term has to have any useful meaning, other than not being right-wing. It requires being transformational, including by gradual reformism.
Instead of being left-wing Labour today can best be characterised as social liberal elitism. I have developed this conclusion in an earlier Political Bytes post (30April 2023): What does being left-wing really mean?
Trotter’s argument includes that Labour was thrashed in the last election because its focus was on ‘identity’ rather than ‘class politics’ without an unclear clarification of what the former and its distinction means.
Based on his article and other writings, for Trotter ‘identity politics’ is primarily about indigenous and gender identification rights.
Indigenous rights incorporates the myth of Māori privilege. For Trotter this is emotional rather than intellectual as private emails I’ve received from him on both rights suggest.
My analysis is fundamentally different, however, as discussed previously in Political Bytes ( 22 November 2023): Why Labour lost the 2023 election so badly.
Its elitism affected the quality of its decision-making and led it to both fail to deliver and mishandle so much.
For a different but close to the mark analysis see Dave Armstrong in The Post (9 January): Being brutally honest about why Labour lost. Newsroom has published an insightful backdrop analysis by Dr Ian Hyslop (31 January): Emotional appeal of the populist right.
Identity politics muddle and ‘bromance’ breakup
Understanding ‘identity politics’ is not helped by the incessant but lazy use of the label ‘The Woke’.
Chris Trotter, and even more so his former ‘comrade-in-literary arms’ Bomber Bradbury through his The Daily Blog, are guilty of this.
On 12 January the latter posted an extraordinarily imaginative litany of metaphoric and analogous references and images based on a concocted construct of ‘woke versus left’: Bomber’s concocted construct.
Again, my analysis of the approach to identity politics is different– see Political Bytes (9 October 2023): Make war on the word ‘Woke’.
There is a legitimate debate to be heard on the relationship between different layers of discrimination and oppression, on the one hand, and class on the other. Unfortunately one won’t find this in the writings of Trotter and Bradbury.
Amusingly, as an aside, after decades of collaboration the pair have become political enemies. On 23 August Trotter was a panellist on his The Working Group pollical podcast.
Come the new year and what a turnaround (it was evident in December). On 11 January Bradbury at his bombastic best ripped into his by now ‘ex-mate’ describing him as the “Democracy Project’s resident NZ First apologist”: Bradbury rips into Trotter; political bromance terminated.
Bryce Edwards has also become a target of this wrath simply, it appears, because Trotter is one of his paid columnists. Probably collateral damage.
Chris Trotter has been a gifted writer and this still comes through in another Democracy Project article (29 January).
While I would have expressed it differently, I recognise that it is an intelligent and at times devastating critique of Labour’s political leadership, especially since 2017: The Hollow Party.
In contrast, and on the same day, Interest.co published another Trotter piece. From an obviously right-wing perspective, he harshly criticised left-wing opposition to ACT’s proposed Treaties Principles Bill.
He unconvincingly argued, and with little substantiation other than accusation, that this opposition is anti-democratic and driven by fringe interests: Intransigent minorities.
Enter The Platform
The Platform is a relatively new right-wing digital media outlet whose founding editor is longstanding journalist Sean Plunket.
This was the medium used by Chris Trotter to reveal nine months ago (12 May) that he would be voting for NZ First in the forthcoming general election: Trotter on voting for NZ First. This has enraged Bradbury although it is surprising that this didn’t become apparent until December.
Trotter is now a The Platform regular. Plunket sometimes referred to him as his favourite commentator. They have an avuncular rapport and share much in common. It is as if Bomber Bradbury has been jilted and replaced by Plunket in a new bromance.
On 4 December 2023, for example, during a concocted speculation that the media were attempting a coup d’etat against the new government, Trotter endorsed Plunket’s assertion that opposing climate change was an example of being ‘Woke’: Media coup d’etat.
The Platform is not Trotter’s only regular right-wing outlet. He is also a regular contributor to the far-right The BFD of the vitriolic Cameron Slater. Further, the very right-wing Bassett, Brash & Hide often republish his writings.
Constructing a race war?
‘Bromancing’ with Sean Plunket and The Platform, however, is not the end of the matter for Bryce Edwards’ “leading left-wing commentator”.
A further Trotter column published by the Democracy Project on (15 January) reads like a speculative endeavour to construct a race war in Aotearoa New Zealand: Constructing a race war?
His column concludes with:
…the Pakeha settler state faces two, equally unpalatable choices. It will either have to accede to a Māori-led constitutional revolution, or find its own, twenty-first century equivalent of General Cameron [British military leader in wars against Māori in 19th century]. A Pakeha military leader prepared to shove back harder than the movement for tino rangatiratanga can push.
This construct has been nicely countered by Rob Campbell in his Newsroom article (23 January): Race war construct countered.
Bizarre attack on respected veteran socialist
Coming from nowhere, Chris Trotter opted to publish in Interest.co (15 January) a blistering attack on veteran socialist Robert Reid: Blistering attack. If there was a tipping point to me writing this post, this was it.
Trotter had taken umbrage at a brief critical tweet by Reid stating that the new government had effectively declared war without even cabinet or parliamentary debate.
This was in response to the government announcing its support for the United States led bombing of Yemen.
The entirety of his attack centred on a semantic point of whether supporting war was the same thing as declaring war. Semantics were further enhanced by the tongue-and-cheek tone of the offending tweet. The attack also impugned Reid’s integrity.
Subsequently after the government vindicated Reid’s tweet by announcing that it would send a small team to support the military operation.
Meanwhile Reid has effectively rebutted Trotter’s attack by exercising a right-of-reply (30 January): Reid rebuts Trotter.
From left to right
The issue is not that Chris Trotter attacked Robert Reid in such a bizarre manner. Nor is it that the latter was vindicated. Instead the issue is this is a further manifestation of his literary focus being on attacking the left and increasingly from a right-wing perspective.
For many years he was an interesting and perceptive commentator from a left-wing perspective. This included from time to time being critical of both the left and union leaders. In principle there is nothing wrong with this and his critiques often resonated.
Further, there is nothing wrong in principle for using right-wing media outlooks (it would be hypocritical of me to say otherwise).
Interactive relationships between those on the left and the right can be intellectually mutually beneficial. Sometimes pragmatic common ground can be found.
But somewhere along the line he has morphed into adopting their values, even when expressed in a different way.
Sadly, it appears driven more by emotion than intellectual analysis. Regardless, Trotter is comfortable in the skin of the right-wing. He has made their space his space.
Chris Trotter’s final sentence of his 8 January Democracy Project article, which started this blog, sums up his transition well. It confirms his approval for the new government by observing that Chris Luxon is leading:
Not so much a much a “hard-right’ government, as one committed to showing New Zealanders the right way home.
Bryce Edwards is entitled to continue with Trotter as a columnist. But, in the interests of credulity, surely the ‘left-wing commentator’ tag has to go.
Perhaps precede it with ‘former’ or replace it with ‘right-wing commentator’. Maybe even ‘through an Anglo-Saxon lens’.
I would summarise it this way: When people like Robert Reid take a left position Chris Trotter takes a right position; but when they take right position he takes a wrong position.