A week out from election day 2023, Denis O’Reilly sizes up another round of “bread and circuses”.
Whether you consider Aotearoa’s 2023 election process to be a circus, an opera, or a rodeo, you must admit it’s entertaining.
Rome was the kōhanga of democracy. Consider the Latin phrase used when the government at that time sought favour with the masses: “Panem et Circenses.” That’s “bread and circuses” — or bread and games.
Democracy in Aotearoa now means there’s plenty of bread being promised, and money melting faster than snow around an alpine chairlift. There’s anything you wish for, including venal promises and even extinguishing civil rights for the perceived bad ‘uns. Just give us your vote.
Games, too, are everywhere. The Rugby World Cup, Cricket World Cup, to say nothing of Matua Winston’s electoral rodeo. The skills of rodeo stem from cattle herding. Feed and water the beasts with whatever they want to consume. Make it palatable. Throw in some showmanship and perhaps a kaupoi ballad, but get them to the polls. Rawhide, maybe.
Round ‘em up,
Keep movin’, movin’, movin’,
Though they’re disapproving,
Keep them dawgies movin’, Rawhide!
Don’t try to understand them,
Just rope, throw, and brand ’em,
Soon we’ll be living high and wide.
Perhaps a voter from Parnell in the Epsom electorate might prefer an operatic metaphor. Anything on a continuum from tragedy to farce. The elements are all there: arias, recitatives, overtures, orchestration, including the possibility of twerking from the jester of Epsom who, as a star turn, has a decisively divisive twist on matters of race. Anything for applause. Anything for a vote.
But the curtain call is saved for October 14. This is when we’ll discover the scoreline of the game.
This is the operatic denouement in which the fate of the actors and the nation will be revealed. And, as the house lights go up and the theatricality fades, we’ll be forced to deal with the reality of the contest, and the consequences for each of us individually and collectively.
There’s been nastiness on the hustings. Nanaia Mahuta, for whom I’ve developed enormous respect, says some individuals have become “emboldened”, not only with unfettered racist cant but also exhibiting physical threats and misogynist abuse against politicians.
Nanaia’s closest electoral candidate, Te Pāti Māori’s Hana Maipi-Clarke, has been the target of intimidatory messages. In an oddly inverse parody of “me too”, National Party candidates and their acolytes apparently have allegedly been pursued by politically conscientised gang members (whisper “Māori”), one of whom, in a demonstration of the type of waste that Act rails against, is said to have thrown a beer over a National Party candidate.
The matter of gangs provides fodder for the herd. The promise is that, in the first 100 days of a National-led government, Aotearoa will see the scourge of gangs eliminated — or at least, gang members corralled in a feedlot at an annual fee of only $190,000 per head. Systemic labelling and prejudice come at a price.
But wait, there’s more. If you want to spend funds on suppression, then a radicalised underclass is the ticket. Declare gangs to be terrorists! Kia tūpato. Be careful what you wish for.
There’s been equal angst over gang members participating in the electoral process. The Mongrel Mob have been stirred up by a Chinese man named Tam. On Matua Winston’s whakapapa logic, perhaps he’s the only true Indigenous activist in the land.
Harry Tam bats for the red team, although exactly why is hard to fathom. There’s hardly a sliver of light between the gang policies of either Labour or National. They’re equal opportunity suppressors, both dissing the value of Section 27 cultural reports as an attempt to deal with the poor outcomes for Māori in the criminal justice system.
It’s not all one way, though. Here’s a tidbit for the keen-eyed political commentator, spotted in London’s Sunday Times, in a story on Black Power leader Mane Adams’ demonstration of upside-down political thinking by mooting gang member support for the blue team.
Adams, an imposing figure, wearing a black, North Face singlet and sunglasses, said he welcomed the pledge to crack down on gang patches. “If they take our patches away, they’ll do me a favour because we won’t be labelled, and people won’t know who we are.” He said he would be tempted to vote for the National party if they can find a way to bring down the cost of living. (Sunday Times, London, September 10, 2023)
Covid has created a discontinuity. That gap has been exploited by malign actors, often based in foreign lands, who, for their own purposes, seek to divide us by means of disinformation. Some of the disinformation is only marginally damaging — Liz Gunn’s “Loyalty” party, for example, which is fed by, and feeds upon, a Covid-created, stay-at-home, internet-trawling constituency.
Only one other member of the Loyal party managed to get registered as a candidate for the election. It was in my local Tukituki electorate and that’s possibly because he did it himself. The probable incompetence at Loyal party central to successfully register candidates has been externalised and is now itself positioned as a state-enabled conspiracy.
The Loyal campaign signs are cheerful, and the yellow ribbons around the trees on supporters’ home sections, although hackneyed as a device, bring a touch of spring. Spring is sprung, Liz is riz! Bishop Brian must be considered somewhere in the mix too. “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and, for a small but regular tithe, I will give you rest.” (Apologies to Matthew 11.28.)
I wouldn’t get too riled-up by the peripherals, no matter how maddening their policies might seem. When the lust for power is satiated and a coalition of elected members is shuffled around the House, the conventions of parliament and the process of law-making will kick in.
True, there may be a period of polarisation — and radical activism may be required. Roll on the revolution! Create real change! Take back our country! Get Aotearoa back on track! In it for you! For you, not for them! Circus, opera, rodeo. Yeeha!
Denis O’Reilly lives at Waiohiki, Hawke’s Bay, and is the chairman of the Waiohiki Community Charitable Trust.
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