With the appointment of Judith Collins as the National Party leader, Patrick Thomsen fears that New Zealand’s most marginalised will become collateral damage in the lead-up to the election.
Four years is not long when you’re an adult over the age of 30. Yet, the past four years have felt like a lifetime of nightmares for me and many marginalised folks I imagine, watching the multi-vehicle pile-up on the highway of the Trump presidency in the United States.
I was living in Seattle in 2016 when the unthinkable happened. At that time, I was an international student on a scholarship, completing the first parts of my doctorate at the University of Washington. I was also helping to teach an undergraduate course as a teaching assistant: States and Capitalism; the Making of the New World Order.
It was a dream come true.
I was the classic story of a boy from the South Auckland “hood” who’d made good, despite being raised in a state house by a solo mother who washed our clothes in the bathtub because we couldn’t afford a washing machine. My childhood included endless trips with her to WINZ to get social welfare quotes for school uniforms, catching the bus or walking to buy groceries because we didn’t have a car, and always being the last to fill out my school stationery order at the beginning of every school year.
Hardship was a common theme for many people I know who grew up in my neighbourhood, many of whom still carry the trauma from those times.
Yet, despite that, I’m grateful that I grew up in South Auckland, even suffering under Ruth Richardson’s “mother of all budgets” and from the failed vanity experiment that was Rogernomics.
I’m glad because I learned so much about inequality, power, privilege, and the myth of meritocracy. I didn’t learn this in a textbook. I learned this from my own sensitivities and intuition — then studying at university gave me the tools to intellectualise that experience. It was my intuition which told me that “productivising” your way to success is a myth under a capitalism born out of the embers of feudalism.
I recall a conversation I had, back in 2016, with one of my friends at a Seattle bar, while we sipped on some craft beer. We were gearing up for the summer programme we’d be working on together, trying to make sense of Trump’s rise at the time. She, a lesbian woman, me a Sāmoan gay man, jostled over what impact Trump’s campaign would have on our communities.
We were both sure he wasn’t going to win, but she was adamant that the campaign itself would do the most damage because he was likely to run racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic lines — and he’d run it hard, stroking the vindictive and worst impulses of the US population.
Me, trying to play devil’s advocate, suggested that it could be a good thing. At least now, I said, the enemy was known, and society was compassionate enough to adjudicate in our favour.
My Kiwi sensibility toward the reasonable nature of most people taught me (incorrectly) that conversation over a cuppa and a plate of gingernuts could solve most misunderstandings.
I was naïve, wrong, and was about to become very, very remorseful. Far from allowing the reasonable centre to admonish the extremism of the right, it emboldened the right and allowed their heinous views to dance all over the centre.
It was a humbling and painful experience because even I — a foreigner and a PhD student (so supposedly a good one) — was racially profiled and verbally attacked on the Seattle streets.
This helped to solidify in my mind the fact that there can be no open, fair, and honest conversations or “equality” when one side denies your history, denies your narrative, denies your suffering.
Gaslighting in politics is all about weaponising the experiences of the privileged to invalidate the realities of the marginalised. In doing so, one appeals to the privileged “core” of a nation whose interests reflect where the centre of power resides. Centrist politicians know this, and they can play to either the insecurities of the core, or the aspirations, or both.
Thus, the appointment of Judith Collins as the leader of the National Party heading into the 2020 election is a particularly hairy moment in New Zealand’s political journey when you look at the global trends. Where this will end is anyone’s guess at this point but, like all watchers of New Zealand politics, I like to draw on what I know and the experiences I’ve had in the past to give me a preview of what we’re likely to see in the future.
In 2002, my first year at university here in Auckland, the soon-to-be MP for Clevedon, who later became the MP for Papakura, was brought in to address a group of students who were debating the value of the Māori and Pacific quotas at universities. Granted, our understanding of equity initiatives has improved remarkably beyond the argument that “quotas lower expectations of us and confirms that we aren’t as good as mainstream students”. But, 18 years on, one thing still irks me about my experience that day.
Even back then, Collins felt it important to speak to us through her Sāmoan husband’s experience. But, rather than offer sympathy, she went on a neatly dressed tirade of gaslighting, suggesting that if we all worked a little harder, we too could be as successful as her Sāmoan husband.
Her strategy was to deny any of our valid experiences with the structural and institutional barriers of class oppression and racial disparities in this country — and argue that, whatever our problems, they could be overcome with a little bit of good ole elbow grease.
This is a theme that has followed her political career. She has loudly proclaimed herself a woman of colour — as a white woman. She has said that she’s sick of being demonised for being Pākehā. And she has asked the now infamous question: “Is there something wrong with me being white?” This, in response to the criticisms over a lack of Māori representation on National’s front bench.
And this is all within the most recent parliamentary term. I haven’t even mentioned her involvement with the dirtiest of New Zealand’s dirty politics in the past — or her predisposition to hardline law and order policies in an era where the rationale for prisons is coming under severe strain.
During her time as the police minister, she earned the nickname of “Crusher” after pushing through a law that enabled the police to crush the vehicles of boy racers.
She has sharp political instincts and she knows how to call specific demographics to her banner. She’s what some have called a “chameleon” — or, in other words, she’s a scrapper and she knows how to put people on the defensive. And she has the scaremongering thing down pat. In a time when we need people to show faith in progressive politics, Judith’s style leans more into the misinformation and blindsiding aspect of our country’s provincial-sized national politicking games.
For me, the biggest concern with Judith Collins taking the top spot in the opposition’s pecking order is not because she’s controversial. It’s because she’s a classic gaslighter who denies that racialised structural and institutional oppression exists in this country.
The day that, as a student, I sat and listened to the Crusher Judith-splain to me my own ineptitude being due to my people’s aversion to hard work and hard conversations, was also the day I had to go to my call centre job for hours after class.
I worked right through my university life, as a debt collector, order-taker, customer service representative, kitchen hand, and recipient of daily abuse from irate customers and clients. And, throughout all this, I had to listen to the patronising and racist noise from politicians claiming that our community’s dependence on welfare was due to our own cultural predisposition.
It was too much for me. Despite all my promise, in my final year of university, I barely made it across the finish line, and I swore to myself that I would never go back.
And I never did, in New Zealand anyway. My success with academia would never have happened if I’d stayed in New Zealand. The urgency of working to survive would have prevented me from taking on postgraduate study.
That’s a systemic barrier, and nothing to do with my ability, as was proven when my doctoral committee at a US Public Ivy university awarded me my PhD with distinction.
Sure, I’m only one example, but my experiences are valid, even if politicians like the Crusher continue to deny that there are structural and systemic barriers preventing marginalised groups from just living in their truth. I, like many others, grew up without the privilege of generational wealth, property ownership, or the social capital associated with family and kinship networks here in New Zealand.
We’ve all been conditioned to champion a diversity of perspectives as part and parcel of a healthy society. But not all ideas are equally humanising, nor designed to elevate the mana of others. My greatest fear is that, if the campaign does turn dirty, New Zealand’s most marginalised will become collateral damage.
So, as we head into the election with a gaslighter on one side and a relentlessly positive incumbent on the other (who engages in her own form of gaslighting, too — think Metiria Turei being thrown under the bus), New Zealanders, who I believe to be mostly decent and reasonable people in comparison to the polarised US, need to be aware of what kind of campaign we may be in for.
Most New Zealanders have no idea what it feels like when a politician or a political commentator goes on a national platform to call your people lazy, leeches, criminals, thugs, or abominations if you’re queer. All the while, the people you work with, live with, and love and support, are struggling to survive. They may be incarcerated or have their mental health pummelled as they’re offered up as expendable along with the cautionary tale of how diversity has gone wrong.
To many, the Crusher’s appointment will mean very little besides a new pawn to be excitedly added to the chess game of New Zealand politics. Identifying her potential moves will require the convening of political panels of experts (most likely involving none of us) over the next few weeks.
But I do hope that people understand that these “thought exercises,” these discussions — and our mainstream media’s role in allowing gaslighting and other divisive forms of politics — all have real, material and visceral impacts on many of us who are on the fringes.
We’re watching on and hoping for a dose of humanity and decency to come our way, even if that’s only occasionally. I don’t want New Zealanders to just talk about being kind. I want New Zealanders to actually be kind, and not let the dirty, divisive and disempowering politics that has infected other western democracies to gain any foothold here.
Seuta’afili Dr Patrick Thomsen was born and raised in South Auckland and is from the village of Vaimoso in Sāmoa. He is a lecturer in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, having received his PhD from the University of Washington – Seattle, Jackson School of International Studies. He was also the first Sāmoan to receive his MA in international studies from Seoul National University in South Korea, where he lived for nine years.
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