DAVID CUNLIFFE’S DECISION to ask his campaign manager, Jennie Michie, to stand down would’ve been both easy and hard. Easy, because the negative consequences of not standing her down were readily predictable and potentially very damaging. Hard, because Michie is Cunliffe’s friend, a highly effective political operative and, hardest of all, because she had done nothing wrong. That today’s political logic requires the punishment of the innocent shows how divorced from ethics the business of politics has become.
Another reason Cunliffe acted with such dispatch may be that the accusation of homophobia within the ranks of Robertson’s opponents was one he’d been expecting. That’s because it also cropped up in the first significant election Robertson ever contested.
In the latter stages of the race for the presidency of the Otago University Students Association in 1992, Robertson’s sexuality also became an issue. In the middle of a campus election forum he’d reached into his bag and pulled out a crude homophobic poster which he said had been found upstairs in the women’s toilets of the student union. More in sorrow than in anger, Robertson voiced his disappointment at the emergence of such derogatory material. Observers of the campaign were bemused. No one else had seen the poster and it seemed odd that Robertson was drawing attention to it so publicly.
Robertson’s decision to make the poster public was, however, an inspired political move. Though he accused no one explicitly, the implicit message was clear: his opponents were willing to stoop very low to conquer. By publicising the poster Robertson won the sympathy of the liberal student electorate. Support for his only serious opponent, an avowed left-winger, dwindled. Robertson won the election at a canter.
Those with long memories couldn’t help hearing echoes of Robertson’s 1992 campaign in Clare Curran’s tweet of Monday, 9 September.
“The ‘NZ’s not ready for a gay PM’ is prob the biggest dog whistle I’ve ever heard. Extraordinary that it’s also coming from within the Party.”
Once again, there was the implied accusation that Robertson’s foes were stooping low to conquer. By pointing the finger at individuals who had openly declared for Cunliffe (Michie and even the former Labour President, Mike Williams) Curran made it perfectly clear whom she regarded as the stooper.
Curran’s comments were by no means the first attempt to “protect” Robertson’s candidacy from a supposed outbreak of homophobia within the Labour Party. On 24 August, Rebecca Matthews, an employee of the NZEI union (but a member, for purely legal reasons, of the SFWU) and a very staunch Robertson supporter, had gone on Facebook to warn Labour members off the gay issue:
“And another thing, anybody who implies, in even the most coded way, that Grant Robertson shouldn’t be Labour leader because there are homophobic voters/Labour members/whatever needs to drink a big glass of shut the fuck up. Pandering to homophobia to promote your guy is pretty ugly stuff and anybody doing it shouldn’t be anywhere near a position of influence in the Labour party or anywhere else on the left.”
This is an extraordinary statement. In essence, Matthews is calling for an absolute ban on evenconsidering the likely effect of electing an openly gay MP leader of the Labour Party. Indeed, she directly equates weighing the electoral pros and cons of voting for a gay – as opposed to a straight – candidate as “pandering to homophobia”. The logical inconsistency of acknowledging the existence and power of homophobia, while forbidding the slightest consideration of its possible political consequences, is quite obviously lost on Matthews. Her statement stands as a classic example of the sort of ethical inversion that has plagued the Left for nearly 40 years.
But, it also explains how Michie could become the target of a powerful anti-Cunliffe thrust.
On Saturday, 24 August – before any Labour MP had announced his or her candidacy for the position vacated by David Shearer two days earlier – Michie was asked by Rachel Smalley, from TV3’s current affairs show, The Nation:
“Okay, Grant Robertson, Jennie, says that he wants to be judged on his ability, not his sexuality. How do you think the socially conservatives might view Grant Robertson you know in the year 2013?”
To which Michie replied:
“I think it’s not as big a deal as it used to be. You know we now have gay marriage, and it actually went through without that much of a fuss, and the sky hasn’t fallen. Having said that, I think we’d be naïve to imagine that there would be no resistance to a gay Prime Minister at this point. I think some people might have a problem with it, but I certainly wouldn’t.”
It is this, the entirely reasonable and rational response of a progressive political activist with years of campaigning experience, that Clare Curran identified as “the biggest dog whistle I’ve ever heard”. (What, bigger than “geldings”?) and which Rebecca Matthews condemns as “pandering to homophobia”.
Sadly, reason and rationality have very little to do with contemporary New Zealand politics. Once the accusation had been made (and shared) on Twitter, and the individual targeted confirmed as Cunliffe’s campaign manager, the news media had all they needed for a sensational story. And, the longer Michie stayed at her post, the longer the legs of the story would grow. In the final days of the election contest the frontrunner would have found himself at the centre of a media feeding frenzy – just as he did when he refused to rule out any future tilt at the party leadership when confronted by TV3’s Paddy Gower at last year’s annual conference.
That’s why the decision he made to stand Michie down was in many ways an easy one. It immediately cut off the story’s oxygen supply. When the mere perception of “dog whistling” or “pandering” would keep an unwelcome media focus on Camp Cunliffe, sacking Michie became the only sensible option.
But capitulating to that sort of realpolitik exacts a hefty emotional toll. Those who find themselves on the receiving end of something like Curran’s attack cannot respond as they would wish because to do so would only have the effect of pouring petrol on flames that had been kindled deliberately – and for that very purpose.
In many respects Cunliffe’s predicament is akin to that of progressive Americans living in the USA during the McCarthyite “Red Scare”. In the early 1950s, simply being accused of being a Communist was enough to bring ruin. Unless the charge was instantly and convincingly refuted, a person’s career – especially if he or she was in politics, journalism, Hollywood, teaching or the civil service – was over. In many instances the only way to do this was by turning the basilisk stare of the red-baiters on to another target.
Not without reason did the progressive author and playwright, Lillian Helman, dub this dark period of American history “Scoundrel Time”.
Sixty years on, and our own time encompasses scoundrels no less numerous.