On Eleanor Catton, the cost of speaking out and why her words have the right running scared




Last week the right-wing in Aotearoa descended into hysteria over Man Booker winning author, Eleanor Catton’s public criticisms of our National government. I hate to break it to so many of our right-wing pundits who know so little about so much, but Catton has been pointing out the failings of our current government for a while now. So why the right is so put-out by her remarks is beyond me. This is what Catton said at the ‘Jaipur Literature Festival in India that got so many on the right red in the face:

“New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, [is dominated by] these neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government.”

Catton’s words were met with a vicious response with many on the right seeking to silence and isolate her, as shown by right-wing columnist Mathew Hooton who tweeted:


John Key our Prime Minster said he was disappointed with the lack of ‘respect‘ Catton showed for his government (as if she owed his Tory government anything?) and suggested she stop ‘mixing politics with some of the other things that she’s better-known for’. More recently when Key appeared on TVNZ’s Breakfast show he completely dismissed and belittled what Catton had said against his government:

“She has no particular great insights into politics, she is a fictional writer. I have great respect for her as a fictional writer [sic].” Key said.

This is not the first time John Key has dismissed a public intellectual (whose very job is to critique society and challenge those in power) and prize winning writer.

TDB Recommends NewzEngine.com

Last year John Key tried to discredit & minimize the words of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, who released the Snowden files. When Greenwald spoke out against our government and informed us Key had performed mass surveillance against his citizenry and lied about it. Key, in response called Greenwald “Kim Dotcom’s little henchman” and a “loser” and dismissed his claims.

If you cannot fault the message, attack the messenger.

But it was right-wing Radio host Sean Plunket who caused the most controversy when he called Catton an ‘ungrateful hua’, which sounds a lot like the widely and internationally used slang for whore: ‘huer’. Plunket, after he was done using vicious and sexist name calling to shut-down Catton, declared on national radio she was a ‘traitor’ to Aotearoa – as if calling into account those who hold the power was a crime against crown and country. I have not heard such a hyperbolic and jingoist claim in a long, long time.

What Catton said was not an act of treachery against Aotearoa,

It was an act of truth speaking.

Since National took office in 2008 homelessness has grown across the board and one of the biggest areas of growth is youth homelessness. Paula Bennett’s punitive and brutal welfare reforms targeted youth benefits; when young people who live in unstable and often unsafe homes are denied welfare where the fuck does National think they are going to end up? This act of targeting youth benefits sends a clear message to our struggling and vulnerable youth:

Our government does not care if you starve to death on the streets. But hey, all in the name of saving a buck… even if it is at the expense of our most desperate and vulnerable.

While so many of our politicians are hungry for more money and power, so many people living below and just above the poverty line are hungry for three meals a day and a livable basic wage – you can’t live off minimum wage in this country, any low-paid worker will tell you. I hate to break it to John Key but poverty is not a work of fiction.

With all that extra public money saved thanks to denying or forcing people off benefits and the gutting of our social safety nets, National can afford things like limousines and flag referendums, but apparently there is no money to feed the 280,000 kids living in poverty. Money well spent.

National’s unspoken but not so secret neoliberal capitalist mantra for governance for the last seven years has been: profit before people.

Catton also pointed out during her interview in India that our current government does not care about culture, and she is right.

I did five years of art school at AUT and I was a practicing artist for many years until I moved into political writing a year ago. It is nearly impossible to find any other form of government funding in the arts in Aotearoa if you don’t make the cut for Creative New Zealand. Generally, to even be considered for this funding you need to have an established practice. If you are not lucky enough to get government funding for your craft you are left (unless you parents can support you) working a minimum wage job (if you can even find a job in a global unemployment crisis) to support your vocation – what you love doing.

University of Canterbury senior English lecturer Dr Christina Stachurski agreed with Catton’s comment about the Government’s under-valuing of the arts;

“A recent action speaks for itself. National made a massive injection of funding for science and engineering at the University of Canterbury, and none for arts.”

National may show the value they place on fields such as science through massive cash injections into University science departments, but this does not stop them from denying scientific proof of massive global ecological catastrophes such as Climate Change. When I spoke to Christopher Smith, a Microbiologist who has recently graduated from Auckland University he told me,

“The truth is the science community has no doubt about climate change. We have no doubt this is happening right now. And the consequences of denying this are going to be, and have been, devastating.”

Yet, the National government continue to support and promote dangerously unregulated and unsafe practices such as Fracking to extricate natural resources from the planet. In 2012 US fracking generated 1,060 billion litres of toxic wastewater, much of which was dumped back into American waterways. But John Key insists fracking is safe, despite overwhelming evidence that it contributes to climate change and pollutes the planet. As Catton said,

“They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government.”

It is John Key and his  government who are the real traitors to our country, not Eleanor Catton.

Eleanor is a Hero.

Catton spoke for the silenced majority – that is: the disenfranchised, poor, working poor and those who are marginalized by the dominant culture. This political underclass are the most brutally affected by Nationals’ money hungry attitudes, welfare reforms and neoliberal policies. The backlash against her serves as a strong warning to other people, particularly women, that if you speak out against those who hold the power in a public space you will pay a harsh penalty for your bravery.

“Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear.” Wrote the theorist and dissident Susan Sontag, “But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave.”

Catton’s example of principled action will always terrify those who hold the power, namely those who are part of the 1% and the super wealthy who benefit from massive wealth inequality, and self-serving politicians. John Key who is part of the elite 1% and stands to lose too much if cultural values begin to shift in favor of the 99% – in favor of the silenced majority.

Internationally regarded writers and intellectuals such as Catton have a legitimized power to disrupt the mainstream Medias’ narrative that panders to the right-wing and serves corporate interests – and in the process inspire others to do the same. This has sent the right in Aotearoa running scared, and this is why the backlash against her by political pundits and our own PM has been so swift and so vicious.



  1. John Key-“She is a fictional writer. I have great respect for her as a fictional writer”
    Eleanor Catton is a writer of fiction. If she’s a fictional writer then she doesn’t exist.

  2. If Sean Plunkett thinks Catton is a “traitor” because she speaks out against the government, then maybe he thinks we live in a dictatorship.

    Last time I checked a core feature of democracy was the right of citizens to be critical of the government. It’s supposed to be one of those things that differentiates a democracy from a dictatorship. That, and the absence of mass state surveillance.

    I would be curious to know what the right wing in NZ think are the core features of a democracy.

  3. As has been pointed out elsewhere (not sure of the exact location) if Sean Plunket sees Eleanor Catton as a traitor for speaking out against
    the government of the day, how does he view his many tirades on National Radio (as an employee of the government of the day) against the then Labour led government? Or is this another right winger (whinger) spouting do as I say not as I do. They are also like this with fraud, it is not okay to defraud the benefit system (even though it may be absolutely necessary for survival of oneself and ones family) but it is entirely okay to defraud the tax system (very rarely necessary) …

  4. “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing system obsolete.” – Buckminster Fuller.
    As informative as many of the blogs and their responding comments are, inevitably the topic disintegrates into an intellectual debate of Left verse Right. This goes well over my head, and I would suggest, well over the head of the majority of voters. KISS – ultimately, it is the desired outcomes that matter, surely.
    Climate change and its closely related issues of peak oil, peak soil, peak food, extreme inequality, a ‘pyramid’ global financial system that depends on continuous growth that is trashing the environment on this finite planet – these are what matters for the future of societies. Most political parties don’t appear to have any understanding of these issues, let alone policies to address them. While we may not agree with all the Green’s proposals, in the end if we are to survive, the only future is a Green one.
    So I spend little energy on the debate Left v Right, tick the box for Green and then get on with the Transition Town’s solution of building resilient inclusive local communities and hope that NZ voters will eventually wake up. We have to “build for the future, not steal from it”.

  5. Your article is headed – “On Eleanor Catton, the cost of speaking out and why her words have the right running scared,” but you don’t explain why her words have the right running scared, other than to state that Eleanor has “a legitimized power to disrupt the mainstream Medias’ narrative,” which in turn has the right running scared. Your article rambles off on your own critique of neoliberalism (the same as mine by-the-way) but you don’t tie it back into your main argument. Also, you extract fossil fuels but don’t extricate them. B-

    • pretty sure the truth in general sends the right running scared yo. Not everything I write is perfect and most of what I say has flaws, but Im willing to admit that and continue to learn.

    • “…you don’t explain why her words have the right running scared, other than to state that Eleanor has “a legitimized power to disrupt the mainstream Medias’ narrative,”

      Hi Ray, I thnk it is self evident why the Right are running scared. It is in the last part of the quote from Catton which sucinctly skewers these traitors to humanity, with laser like precision as only a good writer could:

      “…They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government.”

      As the saying goes: “The truth hurts”. If Eleanour Catton had only said, they are “neo liberal”, “profit obsessed”, “shallow” and “money hungry”, and stopped there, she would have been ignored. This is the sort of work-a-day criticism that the opposition Labour Party make of the government all the time, and it is water off a ducks back.

      If you want to know how exactly accurate Ellenor Catton’s critism of the true nature of our political leaders is, then go to the link below:


      • So why don’t the opposition Labour Party make the same sort of criticisms of the government that Catton does?

        This is why:

        Labour’s finance spokesman, David Parker, says his party’s policies on oil, gas and mineral extraction are close to those of the Government.

        “I don’t think we are much different from National,” Parker said. “They’ve continued on with the programme that we started in respect to oil and gas,”


        • Very good point. It appears some still hold onto the illusion that Labour is a left wing party. Being “in opposition” to a right wing party does not make you left by default, nor does the presence of so-called “left wing” support. The only reason the Labour corpse is still sucking air is the absence of a viable representative alternative.

  6. Reactions tend to either validate or invalidate criticism, even if there’s no reaction at all. I believe it’s patently clear which category the current reaction falls into. It’s one of the drawbacks of jingoism – the mouth quickly opens to approximately the same dimensions as a foot.

Comments are closed.