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Debating New Zealand

There were three fantastic guests on this morning's panel about the possibility of a future beyond neoliberalism in New Zealand: blogger Morgan Godfery, former MP Holly Walker and poet Courtney Sina Meredith.

Host Linda Clark acknowledged the elephant in the room by saying they were preaching to the (mainly older) choir. She also whipped off a zinger about being asked to chair because there were no New Zealand journalists willing to attack neoliberalism (I get this is a joke, but I thought it was pretty condescending and invalidating to the people who are slogging away in the media doing exactly that - but I talked to her about it afterwards and we are definitely going to disagree on this, so I'll leave it here). 

But the fact they were preaching to the choir is a shame, because there was a lot worth hearing, presented in a very fair and even-handed way. It wasn't, even for a second, a "debate", but I do think our focus on debates (look at Question Time or the US right now) often doesn't lead to good discourse, so I rather enjoyed hearing three people being quite gentle with each other in exploring big ideas.

The main ones were:

(a). whether disruption can create real change, and can become just as recognised an approach as supporting the status quo, 

(b). whether a politics of love is a nice idea but ultimately a fantasy, and

(c). the paradox of your message not reaching or affecting the people you think you're advocating for. 

On the first, everyone was forced to confront the idea that the level of disruption to the political system has not been reflected in the polls. 

Morgan Godfery pointed out that polls can't point out feelings and levels of disruption - which he acknowledged is still not the strongest answer - and that a large number of people are not captured by polls at all since they're not engaged with the system.

He also pointed out that we haven't necessarily figured out exactly how the emancipatory power of the internet works yet.

On the second, Holly Walker had some fascinating things to say about her time as an MP. She said she's a lot more cynical now than when she went into the role. She said a lot of politicians go into parliament with lofty ideas about a politics of love, but lose the ability to reflect and think because of the exhausting treadmill of the quotidien that prioritises the urgent over the important. 

Holly, a self-proclaimed opinionated and privileged person had the experience of getting up to ask questions in Select Committees or speak in Question Time and feeling like she had physically lost her voice (I used to occasionally compete against Holly in debating back in the day and know from her talent that this would feel like a pretty scary thing).

Linda Clark made the point (later) that this happens to most liberals at some  point - that you get your nose bloodied a few times and your message starts getting watered down. 

The third topic came up in relationship to Donald Trump (who Morgan referred to as "racist, sexist, ableist, and a drop-kick"), and a discussion about how both his and Bernie Sanders' messages turn on the same grievances and trauma - but that Sanders supporters are often "wealthy university professors", while Trump's are more often those affected by these problems. 

Courtney told an interesting story about her book Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick being incredibly popular with older white ladies when she thought she'd written it for younger Pasifika women - that they found it really empowering. Which is great. But how do you reach your audience?

Holly had had similar experiences with the Green Party; creating policy for working people - but they weren't Green Party voters. 

Morgan, it must be noted, had had the opposite experience: having his best conversations about politics with working class people. 

(Also, I realise this conversation has become quite racist in the US, with the incredulity around black people voting for Hillary Clinton in the primaries, so I should say here that this conversation wasn't about the "whys" - just noticing that often there are unintended consequences of your work for people you didn't expect.)

Speaking of untintended consequences, Courtney hopes the flag debate (of course it had to come up) would mobilise younger people to be more political.

At the end of the session, we still seemed to be stuck with this dichotomy: is it worth engaging with a system that's probably going to exhaust you and wear you down? Do we have any hope of it changing? In some ways, I don't know that any of us know - though I think we can do a much better job of acknowledging and promoting the efforts of those who are trying. 

Holly said the dominance of the status quo makes it hard to articulate how it could change - and that it's in the interests of some to never admit that it's not working. But for Morgan's "radical reshaping" of politics to have any hope of happening, it's crucial that conversations like this continue, and spark action.