Speaker by Various Artists

1

Yes, of course festival organisers will follow the law on vaccination

by Jamie Larnach

On Tuesday 5 October the New Zealand Government announced that proof of COVID-19 vaccination would be a requirement to attend large events this summer.

It took a few days for event owners to absorb the information and understand the implications. By the end of the working week, most of the big summer events had announced that they would be following the new regulations. Refunds were offered on tickets. Patience was called for. Thanks were given.

Then a part of the audience decided to weigh in. Keyboard warriors, dressed in their armour of good intentions, let loose a war cry of “Vitriol, Vehemence and Disdain!’ and charged to the front.

I’m flabbergasted by some of the comments I've seen posted on the announcements. The number of people who are outraged that well-organised festivals actually intend to follow the letter of the law beggars belief.

Our festivals reflect society at large; some people will be attending who simply can't get vaccines or who are immunocompromised. By surrounding these people with vaccinated individuals, we protect them from harm to the best of our ability.

Why the recent outpouring of derision for event organisers gets my goat is that during times of hardship and emergency is exactly when we should be thinking about those who can't help themselves, those who have no choice. We protect the young and infirm. We care for those who cannot care for themselves. Shield from violence those who cannot protect themselves.

If you're currently thinking about how you're going to miss out on a good party because you don't want to be vaccinated you need to take a seat and have a serious look at yourself. Put this in context, this really isn't all about you, it’s about the greater good, collectivism over individualism.

You may think you have a super-duper immune system, but not everyone does and it's these people who we should be caring for. If you have chosen not to be vaccinated, you live with that choice and with the subsequent consequences. Or maybe you think none of us should be celebrating if you can’t?

If putting the needs of others before your own desires is an anathema to you, maybe imagine that you've had the foresight and tenacity to build a festival from the ground up and now it is a well-known name in your community. You pour yourself into your event. The financial rewards never equal the effort but you know in your heart of hearts that it's worth it because there's more to life than money. You do everything you can to keep the event moving forward including working with consent conditions, contractual obligations, licencing laws and adherence to H&S regulations.

Now consider how you will react when the government imposes new rules to protect the most vulnerable in our society. Would you break the law? Would you be willing to face civil and possibly criminal prosecution if it goes badly wrong? What about the prospect of becoming a national or international pariah if your event became a super-spreader?

If your answer is “Yes … Yes I would go ahead” then have at it buddy, start your own event, see how that unfolds for you. However, if you think for a second that festival organisers should break the law and put themselves in legal peril you're completely out of touch and have probably never had this level of responsibility.

As an adult, I have actively sought 'alternative' communities to share my life with. I have found the festival, art and entertainment community to be full of wonderful, caring, intelligent and creative humans. Generally speaking, it’s in these environments that I have found the greatest connection to other people and through these events, I have seen slow changes within our culture as a whole. I actually love this community and I love celebrating life with you all.

I try to maintain an even-keeled response to the range of differing opinions that I see on the internet. I’m not burdened with the belief that I will change anyone’s opinion, especially if they’ve done their own research. I do however implore anyone before commenting here, or elsewhere, just take a second, breathe in, breathe out (repeat as necessary) and take time to consider “Would I say this in person?”. It's so easy to be snarky behind a keyboard, but you're a better person than that aren’t you? All of us have the capacity for love and compassion and now is the time for that to come to the fore. Please.

Jamie Larnach has been part of Aotearoa's dance festival culture for nearly 30 years and was a founder of both Entrain and Splore.

2

Adventures In Gender Identity

by Shel Walmsley

It started during a recent visit to a gynaecologist. Don’t worry, I’m fine. 

I felt an intense discomfort as I picked up my prescription and I knew immediately that this was gender dysphoria. I’d experienced it many times before but my understanding of it in the past was so narrow and uninformed that I didn’t even realise that’s what it was, which left me wondering what on Earth was going on.

What I can tell you now is that I’ve had what is referred to as gender incongruence, which is when your gender identity does not line up with the gender you were assigned at birth, for as far back as I can remember and that gender dysphoria has ebbed and flowed for me over decades.

I thought briefly about telling you everything in the spirit of honesty. I’m not ashamed, it’s only a body. We all have one and we all sometimes need medical intervention. I’m physically disabled though and with that can come the feeling that our bodies are somehow not entirely our own or at least that our embodied narratives do not belong to us and so I sacrifice radical honesty at the alters of dignity and privacy, for today. I will tell you what you need to know.

When I was young, I always wanted to play the “boy” parts in any roleplaying games. That doesn’t mean much, that’s the experience of plenty of kids. Personally, I wish it were more permissible, particularly for little boys who are often taught from so young what are acceptable outlets for play and expression and what might get them into trouble. I probably wanted to play dog and cat parts at least as often. That doesn’t mean I really wanted to be a domestic pet, though maybe I did. Kids are weird.

I preferred playing with gender neutral or traditionally masculine toys. I loved Transformers and guns. I hated pink. It was the 80s anyway and while there was a good amount of gendered play going on, you could definitely fly under the radar as a gender nonconforming child. None of this matters. None of this means anything. 

I grew up in a family with three sisters, a mother and a father and I’ve never had a fixed idea of myself as a girl or woman. I didn’t feel a sense of alienation, even as a physically disabled child. I had an idyllic childhood outside of surgeries and medical procedures and physiotherapy, with parents who loved us very much and sisters whose company I enjoyed. I don’t remember feeling like an outsider, even if I could only imagine myself as male and I did occasionally wonder why that was.

My fantasies were of wearing an Italian tailored suit and carrying around a leather suitcase to and from a job that would earn me loads of money – this was the 80s. I was exposed to a lot of images of men who wore jeans, white t-shirt and black leather jacket and that came into future fantasies I’d conjure up for myself, too. Nothing I ever imagined for myself as a child was through a female lens or point of view. This too is perhaps incidental. After all, I never imagined myself as disabled, either. 

At intermediate school, I hated that I had to wear the “girl’s” uniform. I wanted to dress like the boys. I started to feel like I really didn’t have anything much in common with the other girls. I never found any of it stressful, though I did start to wonder why it was that I wanted to be a boy. I was still young, preteens, and I had no real concept of what it was to be transgender back then. I knew about drag queens, I knew a little, too, about transsexuals and transvestites as they were classified then. I was a fairly precocious child I suppose and I latched on early to anything that had the slightest whiff of queerness with gay abandon. 

When I was around 11, I was sent on my own for a month to Burwood Spinal Unit in Christchurch to be assessed and to see if they could help me with things like gaining more independence in my own self care and other aspects of living with a disability. There, for most of the time, I was both the only child and the only female on the ward and I was in heaven. Many of these men had been disabled through building or sporting accidents. Being in that masculine environment felt like another kind of home to me.

I didn’t understand why. I just knew that while it was horrible to be away from my family, this was a liberating experience for me and one that subconsciously helped me to understand myself better.

In my teens, I began to present myself as masculine as possible. I’d had my long hair cut short and I would style it with so much product that my hair would crunch if it was touched. I remember this specifically because I was at Wellington Hospital for an annual checkup with the Children’s Spina Bifida Clinic and the neurologist, who was checking my shunt function by pressing the valve located under my scalp, commented on it. 

It was around this time I started being called, “sir”, “mate” and “buddy”. I’m 40 now and this has never stopped, though these days I get “bro” more. Being read as male, for me, is more consistent now than it’s ever been. This has never bothered me for one moment. Quite the reverse, it’s always made me feel better, somehow. I don’t understand it but I know it is connected to the time I spent at Burwood, I know it’s related distantly to never really feeling like a girl, I know it’s of a piece with the intense feelings I had when I saw an image in a magazine for the first time of a transgender man, knowing one day that could just as well be me. For now though, I was allowed to wear mainly masculine clothes and I was allowed to have my hair short and that alleviated a lot of what I now appreciate was a fixed and deep incongruence I felt between what I knew myself to be and what others might have seen. 

In my early 20s I had a severe and long lasting problem with depression and along with that depression came extremely difficult gender dysphoria. I had access to the internet via shared computers at the university hostel where I was living and I spent a lot of time that year researching female to male (FTM) transition. In the end and with a lot more knowledge under my belt, I decided that it wasn’t the right thing for me to do, to transition. I’ve always been sure of who I am, I just haven’t always had the words to describe that side of myself or known whether anything was to be done about it and so I never talked to anybody because I didn’t know how. 

I can be self destructive but I also have a dedicated and strong streak of self preservation. I’d like to think too that while I haven’t always understood myself, I’m quite self aware. Imagine my surprise, then, when at the age of 40 I had such intense feelings of gender dysphoria I began to question who I am all over again. 

While I do sometimes feel too old for all of this, all of the different words that people are using now to describe themselves have helped me. It seems to be a not uncommon thing now for people like myself who are trying to figure out where we fit, to label ourselves in a few different ways, on our way to a place that feels right and comfortable for us. I’ve done this myself and have tended towards umbrella terms that might do for a wide range of experiences and identities. Gender nonconforming very obviously fits, gender diverse, genderqueer, I’ve embraced all of these and happily describe myself in these ways, still. More recently I came upon transmasculine and was happy to note that it’s being used more and more as an umbrella term for people who were assigned female at birth but identify as masculine. It feels like a comfortable fit for me. 

Back at the gynaecologist, at my second appointment I explained that I had experienced quite intense gender dysphoria during and following my last appointment. At the previous appointment I had explained to her that I lived with severe and sometimes debilitating medical trauma. Disclosing both of these things about myself led to the most affirming and positive experiences I’ve had at the intersection of disability, gender and medicine to date.

Since then, I’ve been on yet another journey of self-discovery, sparked initially by trauma and dysphoria and shaped into something more positive. I’m starting to have very real compassion for myself, which is something that doesn’t come easy. I’ve come to the conclusion that while in another life and at a different time it might have been right for me to transition, in this life it is right for me to continue as I am in this liminal space that has always felt more comfortable for me in not being quite definable. My pronouns are whatever you like and however you see me. I know who I am and that’s enough. 

22

New Zealand’s far-right hate preachers and the platform YouTube gave them to build a movement

by Byron Clark

Following the storming of the US capitol building in January, Twitter cracked down on accounts that were using the site to promote false narratives about the US election, in particular accounts associated with the Qanon conspiracy theory. The mass removal of accounts included a number of New Zealanders. Many of those far-right influencers remain active on other platforms – in particular, on YouTube.

It was just over a month before the terrorist attack targeting Muslims at Al Noor Masjid and the Linwood Islamic Centre that Lee Williams, a UK born former prison guard residing just outside of Christchurch, uploaded his first YouTube video to a channel he had named Cross the Rubicon.

Praising an article on the now-defunct WhaleOil blog, which he referred to as "probably the only conservative news outlet in New Zealand', Williams said that the New Zealand High Commission had sent a representative to meet with the South African Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who he describes as "the party of terrorists". He claims that the EFF advocate the murder of white farmers. "There's going to be some kind of civil war leading to a genocide by the blacks against the whites," he insists, echoing a myth that is fueling far-right violence

In a subsequent video, he makes the claim that Europe is being overrun by Muslim immigrants who are deliberately trying to have more children than white people. "These [Muslim] wives are just knocking out babies with baby factories you know and vastly outnumber the birthrate of native populations. This is in every country in Western Europe'."

There’s an argument to be made that these videos and the people behind them are best ignored, so as not to spread their reach further. But as recent events have shown, ignoring the far-right doesn’t starve it of oxygen causing it to die. Rather, ignoring the extreme fringe of our body politic is more like ignoring a cancerous growth hoping it will go away, when instead it just grows and grows until it becomes deadly, and can’t be ignored any longer.

In the description of that video Williams implores viewers to act: "Stand up, get out, say it as it is and be proud of doing your bit to save your country from islamisation." That video is likely the one that led to him being visited by police after the Christchurch terror attacks. Although it could have also been the one (now removed) where he spoke at a rally in Cathedral Square claiming "Europe and its people are being replaced" while the notorious white supremacist Phil Arps waved a New Zealand flag in the background.

Photo: Lee Williams speaks at a rally in Christchurch with Phil Arps beside him

Rather than being deterred by police attention, Williams took to YouTube with a new video, titled Two fully armed police visits in 5 days. They asked me if I was a Trump supporter. This is NZ now! He claimed the police were acting in the service of "globalist" politicians who are "destroying nations by mass migration of alien cultures that will not integrate - and they will, at some stage, dominate."

Williams framed the police visit as an attack on his free speech, telling his audience "police are gonna come knocking when you express unorthodox views of this government and the way they run the country."

The video went viral – or at least viral among the people inclined to engage with this sort of content – and now has had more than 78,000 views, with Williams netting thousands of new subscribers. Praise flooded in from around the globe: "You are 100% CORRECT. It's ok to be white. And stand up for your country['s] values and culture. You just sound like a patriot to me. We must never ever give in," wrote a user calling themselves OUTRAGED Aussie. "I can't believe they censored the 72 page manifesto and the video because they were afraid the Whites would wake up and riot!!!" wrote a user going by the name THE WHITE DEVIL, referring to the censored manifesto and livestream of the Christchurch shooting.

Some commenters identified themselves as New Zealanders: "Your (sic) dead bro, she [the Prime Minister] is going to distroy (sic) this beautiful country. First they take your land, then your freedom and then your ability to protect and speak. Welcome to the Islamic state of New Zealand,'' wrote someone with the handle Deca 303. "I can hardly believe it, is this what our country has come to in just a few months.?????" commented Karen Strong.

While no more of his many uploads have gained as many views as that one, Williams has continued to produce content for a dedicated core of followers, which number in the hundreds. He uploads two or three videos every week, usually touching on the same set of conspiracist beliefs, which are outlined most explicitly in an August 2019 video titled What Cross the Rubicon channel's values are.

“We believe the United Nations is a corrupt organization bent on the destruction of all Western nations...We believe the Marxists and Political Islam are in an unholy alliance to flood Western nations with mostly people from Islamic countries to create a voting bloc to keep the Marxists in power forever...We believe the mainstream media of all Western nations now are just propaganda machines on behalf of globalists who control most Western governments”

Just when you think his tirade can’t become any more detached from reality, he continues, implicitly drawing feminism and the LGBT community into his sprawling narrative.

“We believe that the Western caucasian man is being deliberately emasculated to believe he is guilty for all the ills in the world and we believe that this thought process and its implementation is driven by the world wide Marxist movement in our governments, in our media, in our academia, TV and our movie industry."

His followers eat this stuff up. "You're just a New Zealand Patriot that's tired of the leftist wingnut agenda. Stand strong and rock solid my friend.  You're doing a fantastic job!" commented a user going by the name Mountain Man, "We are totally behind you, stand strong," read a comment left under the name Red Barron. "I'm with you! I'm on board.  I've donated.   My only regret is I'm at the other end of the country." wrote a woman named Helana Jordan. 

"The best NZ days are Over!!!" commented Stephen Williams. "We are in serious trouble with no way out! I won’t (sic) to cry... as a true blue kiwi I see war on the horizon." Lee then invites him to "come to our rally in Christchurch when it's organized."

These discussions are not happening on encrypted messaging apps or the dubious online image boards that have become known for hosting terrorist manifestos and bomb threats, but on one of the most popular social media platforms on the internet.

By mid-2020 Williams was beginning to be something of a minor celebrity on the right-wing fringe of New Zealand politics. In July, the New Conservative Party shared one of his videos on their Facebook page, calling it "an intelligent and succinct review, with a profound, poignant conclusion." When he endorsed the party a few weeks later, they shared his endorsement video commenting "we are so humbled and encouraged to see critical thinkers jumping onboard." 

In the lead-up to the election Williams held weekly rallies in Cathedral Square. Other speakers included former National Front leader Kyle Chapman, and Carl Bromley – another YouTube personality who is also the pastor of a small baptist congregation – whose social media hosts numerous links to articles on an anti-Muslim conspiracy blog. The lineup also featured Adam Nuttall, the conspiracy theorist who would later hold up a local bus in protest against the requirement to wear masks on public transport, and several New Conservative Party candidates. 

Photo: Lee Williams speaks in Cathedral Square while a man in a New Conservative Party t-shirt films

Williams and Bromley took a road trip to Nelson in June 2020 to speak at a rally with Mark Thompson. Thompson is a conspiracy theorist involved in anti-lockdown protests as well as attempts to bring the disparate right-wing populist parties – such as the New Conservatives, Advance New Zealand and Sue Grey’s Outdoors Party – closer together. 

Williams got his biggest offline audience when he flew to Auckland to speak at a rally promoted by Advance New Zealand. One of the other speakers was Damien de Ment, another YouTube personality who promotes the Qanon conspiracy theory as well as anti-migration rhetoric and opposition to "globalism" similar to that espoused by Williams. Then-Advance NZ co-leader Jami-Lee Ross told Newsroom the party had not selected the speakers.

Being in Auckland gave Lee the opportunity to meet some of his YouTube subscribers in person, as well as rub shoulders with his YouTube peers. He met with Terry Opines, a man who recently uploaded a highly Islamophobic video just after the second anniversary of the Christchurch shooting entitled "NZ's annual March 15 terrorism propaganda has begun". (YouTube has added a warning to that video, stating it "has been identified by the YouTube community as inappropriate or offensive to some audiences" but has allowed it to remain online.)

He also met with Carol Sakey. Sakey, a retired Auckland woman, had uploaded a video to YouTube alleging an "Islamic takeover" of the West was underway just four days before the Christchurch terror attack. She was behind a petition to parliament calling on New Zealand to reject the UN Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The compact was the subject of a far-right disinformation campaign and the Christchurch shooter had the words "Here’s your migration compact!" written on one of his guns. 

At that rally Sakey wore a black cap embroidered with the words "MAGA Make Ardern Go Away". These hats are sold (via TradeMe) by Christchurch-based businessman Mike Allen, who in 2019 made comments on his Facebook page about "destroying mosque after mosque until they take me out".

Photo: Carol Sakey at an anti-lockdown rally in Auckland, from one of Lee Williams’ videos

Lee also sat down for an interview with Sarah Smith. Smith is a prominent member of the anti-lockdown group Mothers Who Stand for Freedom. "I’m here with Lee Williams from Cross the Rubicon, he will be very familiar to most of you," she tells her audience. On Facebook she has described the group of people gathered around Williams in Christchurch as having been "the inspiration for so long".

Picture: Sarah Smith praises Kyle Chapman and the far-right activists in Christchurch

The impact YouTube has had on far-right radicalisation is well-documented, though debated. The Royal Commission report into the Christchurch terrorist attack notes,

“In the past, YouTube has been often associated with far right content and radicalisation. There has been much debate about the way YouTube’s recommendation system works. One theory is that this system drove users to ever more extreme material into what is sometimes said to be a “rabbit-hole”. 

But the Royal Commission didn’t completely buy this line of thought, and also suggested another reason.

“An alternative theory is that the way in which YouTube operates facilitates and has monetised the production of videos that attract viewers and the widespread availability of videos supporting far right ideas reflects the demand for such videos. What is clear, however, is that videos supporting far right ideas have been very common on YouTube.”

YouTube claims that "We address extremist content by removing videos that violate our hate speech policy and violent criminal organizations policy.” and that their recommendation systems significantly limit the reach of content “that brushes up against the policy line but does not cross it."

Youtube’s progress has been sluggish at best. Rebel News, a channel the Christchurch shooter had donated to, was only just demonetised (made ineligible for a share of YouTube’s advertising revenue) in March 2021, and remains online. Lee Williams frequently claims that YouTube is not promoting his videos to his subscribers, though he still gets in excess of a thousand views on most of his uploads. Williams knows he is walking a fine line as he skirts around topics that could see him penalised by using phrases like "people of a certain religion" instead of "Muslims". He’s fully aware that his audience, but not YouTube’s algorithms, will know who he is talking about.

In January 2020, YouTube terminated the channels of several prominent white supremacists, including that of Stefan Molyneux, another channel that the Christchurch terrorist had donated to. But New Zealand’s own home-grown crop of far-right influencers seem to be operating under the radar. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has spoken of raising concerns about radicalisation directly with YouTube, following the release of the royal commission report where the Christchurch terrorist singled out content on the platform as a source of inspiration.

Every channel mentioned here could be removed from YouTube without even the need to introduce new community standards – just a commitment to enforcing the ones that already exist. With far-right terrorism growing 250% in just five years, much of it invigorated by a deluge of angry, hate-filled videos, what will it take to finally see YouTube take some responsibility for its role in giving these people and their ideology a platform?

Byron Clark runs a YouTube channel that that focuses primarily on New Zealand's far-right.

This essay was written with the support of his patrons on Patreon.

2

Mum

by Michael Appleton

Ten years ago this week, Mum died.

Her death wasn't surprising: my mother Alison had been living with a terminal breast cancer diagnosis for two and a half years.

But it was still shocking. One evening, she was sleeping in the living room of our family home in Karori, Wellington. The next morning, she was gone.

At her funeral, her four children described Mum in the following ways: she told the truth, even uncomfortable truth; she nurtured her family and her friends with empathy, patience and kindness; she was a control freak, trying to manage in great detail every situation or event she confronted; she was sociable, fun, forgiving and compassionate; and she placed a premium on dignity - on things being done properly. 

Mum lived for almost six decades, of which I was around for almost three. She's been gone for a decade - and it really is no easier that she's not here now than it was on the day she left.

The difficulty and discomfort and sadness that I feel at her absence hasn't faded or lessened; it's merely changed with the passage of time.

Some of the sadness relates to things she has missed: my marriage to Nayan, her only daughter becoming a mother, one of her sons becoming the Deputy Principal of our local primary school; and her two other sons being posted as New Zealand diplomats to the United States, India and China.

There were few things Mum liked more than radiating with pride at a family event or accomplishment, and she’s missed far too many of them. And many of the things she missed she predicted, before she died, that she would miss. 

Four of her grandchildren will never know her touch. My son, Samraj, is two and a half. He knows Mum’s face – and can pick her out from a photo at a considerable distance. When he sees her, he says, “Grandma Alison”, though he struggles with the middle syllable in her name. His life will be brightened by my memory of her, and by her example – but it will be much poorer for not having known her.

A decade on, it’s rare that a day goes by without me thinking at least once about what Mum would say about a situation before us.

2020 has been particularly confronting in this regard. Mum was a health professional: a nurse, a midwife, then a human resources manager for a primary health care organisation. I would give a lot of money to know what she would have made of COVID-19, and the Government’s response.

What were we getting right and what were we getting wrong? As someone whose whole life was about bringing people together, and managing competing interests, what would she have made of those conspiracy theorists who risked undermining our COVID response?

Her political views always fascinated me. She came from a small c conservative family, and had personally socially liberal views. While she kept her voting reasonably close to her chest, she revealed a lot once she was sick. She was in fact a classical swing voter: jumping between the major parties again and again.

So I wonder: what would she have made of it when John Key, who she admired, stepped down? Would she have embraced Jacinda Ardern – and if so when?

Mum’s experience with terminal illness made me a swing voter when it came to this month’s euthanasia referendum. As I approached my vote, I worried quite a bit about the dynamic between a terminally ill person and different family members. 

Would a doctor really be able to tell in every case if a terminally ill person had “chosen” euthanasia because of explicit or tacit pressure from family members? If not, what precisely was the safeguard in these situations? 

But Mum’s role in my life was also to try and ensure I kept things in perspective – especially when it came to sporting results. She would have been scathing and dismissive of my strongly emotional reaction, for example, to the Black Caps’ “loss” of last year’s Cricket World Cup final. She would have given me 24 hours of mourning and then told me to stop being silly and to get over it.

The end of our eulogy for Mum included this sentence: “We like to think that she realised she was leaving behind a creation of great toil and considerable love: a large, tightly-knit family which, though wounded by this grievous injury, shall only grow stronger, forever carrying her in its heart.”

As my family, including her three siblings, gathers to remember Mum in coming days, we will have made good on this sentiment. It says something profoundly positive about our childhoods that three of Mum’s four children live within 750 metres of the family home we grew up in. There have been setbacks and tribulations for our family in the decade that has passed without her, but we have met these trials together, as the family that she and Dad built. 

The coming year would have been a bittersweet one for Mum: my brother is being posted with his family to Japan, and I am going with mine to Sri Lanka. Via these two family movements, two of Mum’s four children and three of her seven grandchildren would have been out of New Zealand. And COVID-19 would have made it much trickier for her to go and visit them. But she, using her prodigious organisational skills, would have found a way – jumping through a window of opportunity the moment it opened. 

And as I prepared for my next overseas assignment, she would be saying a very predictable but very true thing: “Michael, remember that family is always the most important thing. Look after yourself, look after Nayan, look after Samraj. Everything else is secondary.”

Yes, Mum.

18

Rewarding competence

by Joshua Drummond

If you were listening to New Zealand’s punditocracy in the days since Labour won the general election with a record-setting outright majority, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Labour had actually lost.

Last time around pundits could barely deal with the fact that the National government had lost its majority, and this time, faced with a left-wing landslide, there’s been a retreat into full-blown fantasy. The sheer depth of the cognitive dissonance on display can be seen in these RNZ snippets from the last few days: 

Analysis - There's only crumbs for the Greens from Labour's table, National's caucus backs Judith Collins but there's anger in the ranks over what went wrong, and the huge swing to Labour indicates there could have been tactical voting on an unprecedented scale.

24 hours earlier, on the same website:

In this week's final Caucus podcast, the team agrees the red tide has flowed, in large part as a nationwide thank you to Ardern and the Labour-led government's handling of Covid-19.

 24 hours before that:

But with the wisdom of the crowd, centre-right voters have seen National's internal problems, looked around for a handbrake on a Labour-Greens transformative government and landed on a fascinating champion – Labour itself.

It’d be hilarious, if it wasn’t so earnest. They really believe that? Bless! 

The problem with these takes is not just that they can all be boiled down to “no matter the appearance of a sweeping left-wing victory, if I conduct a brave, take-no-prisoners interview with my keyboard, it turns out my own personal ideology won, yay!”

Nor is it merely the fundamentally broken pundit heuristic that the truth is probably found at the point of balance between two competing issues. The issue is that these takes ignore Occam’s Razor. The idea that voters are engaged in a complicated game of five-dimensional chess at the ballot box is way too complicated to hold water. 

I could go on, but Joe Nunweek, aka “that politics guy,” the standout Twitter commentator of the election campaign, already beat me to it. In this excellent piece, he advances the bold, controversial notion that people voted for Labour because they liked them. But if I was to write my own hot take, based entirely on the undeniable fact of a left-wing election landslide, post-hoc anecdote and my own keen understanding of “the vibe,” it would run like this: 

Labour won because they demonstrated competence. The end. 

But because hot-take think-pieces apparently have to be longer than 100 words, I should elaborate a bit. 

It’s important to note that a government demonstrating competence is an exception to the rule. Governments are not usually able to demonstrate competence, due to the fact that a.) competence makes for a boring story, and the only way we really find out about the stuff the Government does is through the news media, which does not like boring stories and b.) there’s always incompetence to find. This is true for governments of all political stripes. Very rarely does any government get a pat on the back for doing the right or even just the OK thing.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t expect competence of our government - we absolutely, obviously should - but the miracle of a system that manages to get public health, education, and democracy more or less right gets significantly less airtime than the far more entertaining spectre of some dingus of a Minister making a public tit of themself.  

(In fact, the public service is what does most of the job of actually running the country, and they generally do their job with enough competence that it’s boring and you never hear about it.) 

But Covid-19 upset the usual order of things, and instead of the standard, endless parade of incompetencies great and small (Kiwibuild! Tax reform! Anything to do with New Zealand First!) we were treated to a government that wasn’t fucking it all up. Instead, they were doing a obviously excellent job, visible over time through both our success compared to other countries and admiring write-ups in publications like The Lancet.

This demonstrable competence, and the comms strategy that piloted it (which, non-coincidentally, sidelined the Greens and New Zealand First, Labour’s partners in Government), turned into a great rumbling machine that destroyed anything stupid enough to get in the way. David Clark rode his mountain bike in front of it and got squashed. National Party leaders sniped and criticised and made half-baked suggestions about opening the borders that the electorate hated, and the machine ate two of them in quick succession before destroying the rest of the party at the ballot box. 

That Labour demonstrated competence in their Covid-19 response should really be beyond doubt at this point to all but the most hard-bitten cynics or ideological diehards. But I do think it worth mentioning what fuelled this machine: an evidence-based, big-spending, Big Government intervention into a systemic issue affecting all New Zealanders. 

The parallels with climate change are obvious, and with reports showing that New Zealand’s climate has already warmed remarkably, as well as an abundance of evidence that a large majority of the electorate now considers climate change an urgent concern, Labour – governing either alone or with the Greens – would be incredibly foolish to miss the memo.  

The time for decisive action on big issues like climate change (and attendant top-of-mind concerns like health, housing and transport) is, more than ever, now. That’s the actual mandate delivered by the election landslide - not the milquetoast, do-nothing, business-as-usual approach advocated by the nation’s optics-addled pundits, who are too blinded by the light of their own op-eds to see that the centre has comprehensively shifted. 

Even if they were somehow right, and it turns out the electorate voted tactically en masse to avoid the spectre of the same scary Greens who have been in government for the last three years, they need to learn that there’s no such thing as “lending” a vote, and that people who vote for an left-wing party with explicitly left-wing principles should be rewarded with left-wing policies. 

Voters delivered the Left their election victory based on their rediscovery of the power of government to aid society; and to stay in power, they’ll need to continue wielding it. It will be up to all of us to make sure they do it well.