Photos of ordinary people by Kina Sai
Last Thursday, Auckland CBDs tarmac roads swelled under the heat and weight of mass protest, roaming blockades and restless collective energy. An estimated 20,000 took to the streets in opposition to the signing of the TPPA.
But “ too many” anti-TPPA protesters on the 4th of Feb “didn’t even know why they were protesting,” complained columnist Heather du Plessis-Allan.
Commercial TV news visibly relished in writing-off protesters. Selected soundbites were brandished as definitive evidence that we’re all afflicted with a shallow understanding of trade and economics.
If you divorced their commentary from the reality many of us are experiencing, their glib analysis might hold up. But thanks to successive waves of neoliberal reform ravaging our lives, many of us understand the issues all too well. We know who benefits from relinquishing further control over our lives to corporate interests, and it isn’t ordinary people.
A few things need to be said here, the first is to retrace the political context to identify where this familiar narrative about protesters being idiots originally came from. It’s bull, but its also a contrived exercise in making our collective struggles invisible and invalid.
The second is to point out that without training, most people don’t spontaneously perfect the art of talking to media. Even with experienced spokespeople, commercial media can’t be relied up as the primary tool for communicating ideas. Our ideas aren’t contesting the Governments spin on a level playing field. Not because all journos are right-wing lackeys [though some are], but because the format of TV news isn’t made in the interests of promoting public good.
The third is to explain why contempt and ridicule from media pundits is something that will ultimately backfire and shouldn’t discourage those of us who’ve been characterised as “mud-dwellers” too much.
You know the one. It goes something like this, opposition to the TPPA is predominated by ‘loony lefties’ and susceptible idiots. And because collective ownership of something is a foreign concept for our Govt, we’re reminded that this whole misinformation campaign is all being driven by nefarious law professor, Jane Kelsey.
The Government is particularly skilled at framing issues. It’s no conspiracy. As PM, Key has greater access to news media and camera time than any other person in the country. But beyond that, the National party run a well-oiled spin machine in constant motion behind him.
Today’s troop of advisers and spin doctors paid to make National look good are costing more taxpayer resource than ever before, dramatically more. Of 155 Ministerial officials working for National, 53 earn in excess of $100,000 a year and 23 earn more than $130,000. All at a time where National have told other Govt workers in education and health that there is no money in the pot for their underfunded sectors.
The Government has been fighting a losing battle on public opinion over New Zealand’s inclusion in the TPPA. Closing the parameters of who is qualified to speak on it is a great way to deligitimise widespread opposition.
It’s relevant to remember National is systematically making it harder for people from poorer backgrounds to access university education. They’re also under-funding our public school system into engineered crisis and giving more tax money than ever before to elite private schools.
According to Key, having a complex understanding of World Trade a la Kelsey still doesn’t make you qualified on the matter. Critical expertise can get fucked. Only those who are evangelical believers in the virtues of further opening our lives up to the forces of the market understand the true trues here.
Promoting the view that those of us living the real and ugly consequences of neoliberalisation, “just don’t get” the many benefits of the TPPA is a great way to belittle opposition grounded in knowledge of the real world. It’s also a justification for secrecy.
MFAT is about to run a nationwide road-show to explain to peop– no sorry, just businesses, how the TPPA will be advantageous to them. It is those with vested interests that are the stakeholders to be communicated with here.
The main frame of reference on anti-TPPA protesters for news media reporters? Key of course. He’s had years and hours of air time to firm up the proverbial parameters. His positions, and the positions of the wealthy business elite are wholly over-represented in the news. The avenues through which their version of reality can inform ours are almost limitless in commercial media.
Lights, camera, action
Major media outlets were out in force as events unfolded on Feb 4th. All were gathering hours of footage and visual theatre with the thirst of commercial fishing trawlers. Reporters even argued with cops on camera about their need to be close to the action as a group of us charged down Hobson street and successfully blocked the motorway entrance; “we’re not protesters” they protested.
In a world of commercialised everything, reporters too face the remorseless pressures of a competitive market. Competing with other outlets for ratings and clicks, they seek out exclusive moments of controversy and action.
By the time Lisa Owen of 3 news approached a group of us on the motorway blockade, I’d already been briefly questioned by reporters from two other outlets.
I gave my OK to a first interview with her on pre-record. Her vacant eyes peered off into the distance, presumably scanning for the next shot, all while she robotically fired formulaic questions at me. “Why are you here? Don’t you think ordinary kiwis stuck in traffic will be annoyed?” Ordinary kiwis huh? Let’s revisit that later.
Later on, without so much as a hello, or a moment to signal consent, Lisa returned to my face, wielding a different camera, “You’re on livestream. What do you want to say?”
Most people don’t enjoy being cross-examined on live TV without a minute to compose themselves. Even though it still fails me, I’ve even been lucky enough to have a little media training. Half-a day of media training is more than most people, but still a shit load less guidance than Key. Something about the pressure and immediacy of TV means I usually fail to convey what I wanted. Even on the rare occasions I’ve been happy with how I answered 4 questions, Murphys law will have it that my least compelling 10 seconds ended up on the final news edit.
This is the nature of news, people like us are given rare moments to convey their reasoning, and these moments will then be further distilled in line with the stories angle.
Unsurprisingly, some of us featured on the news couldn’t compellingly articulate the complexities of world trade in 15 seconds flat. However, watching clips of the people most gleefully torn apart by the likes of Duncan Garner and Heather, I heard motivations that made perfect sense. I recognise shared human experience and substance in their words. The exact opposite sensation I get when listening Key’s media comment on any given day.
“”I’m just here for my people,” said one Māori person attending the protest. What an idiot, scoffed Heather. Heather is a white South African who grew up with maids and cleaners who weren’t even paid a minimum wage.
Māori are still facing the devastating legacy of dispossession and ongoing land theft in their communities. The institutionalised nature of racism in Aotearoa is no statistical secret. Māori know that the TPPA gives mining and oil companies rights to exploit and exhaust their whenua. All at a time where hapū and iwi land rights are still being contested.
Beneficiaries of stolen wealth and entrenched racial privilege like Heather might find it harder to understand why Māori were out in force on Thursday, marching under United Tribes and Tino rangatiratanga flags, standing proud for the honouring of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, for a different future for their whenua, their moko and for their iwi.
Still as Lisa implied, surely ‘ordinary Kiwis were all annoyed by protesters’? Reporters have really embraced Keys lexicon. I don’t know what an ordinary kiwi is, but Key has done a good job of using this mythological demographic as a convenient focus group who always agree with his decisions. Apparently ordinary kiwis are Pākehā. Ordinary kiwis go alright, they don’t moan. Except about people poorer than them. Ordinary kiwis are smart citizens who appreciate that National are experts at managing our economy for capitalism.
Here’s the thing. Even when people like my friend Nat, one of the most intelligent people I know, are given a fleeting media moment to articulately explain the motives of anti-TPPA disruptive action, she is still written-off as stupid by right-wing commentators. She teaches at university. But what apparently makes her stupid by the logic of Key & Co is not a lack of economic understanding. No, it is her disturbing lack of faith in the current political ruling class. It is daring to have an alternative vision of democracy.
Commercial media isn’t intent on destroying the protest movement, but by nature of the position of the news institutions and their proximity to the politics of parliament, they view things through particular frameworks. Frameworks that mean one powerful mans view can determine overarching narrative more than the views of 20,000. Journalists uncritically reproducing Keys media lines are the ones whose capacity for independent thought needs to be called into question.
Why pundits are wrong to write us off
In line with the messaging, Ordinary kiwis are consumers of news and political messages, not political agents capable of transforming the world. I’m not sure where the dozens upon dozens of friendly toots of support which echoed across a city of frozen cars were coming from last Thursday, but obviously somewhere extraordinary. After all, ordinary kiwis have no complaints, right?
Well no. As my friend Vanessa pointed out the other day, things aren’t adding up. “How can the National government still uphold the position that if people just work hard they will not be in poverty when the cost of living, low wages and low benefit payments are forcing people into their cars?”…the median rent in Auckland in December was just under $500 – not including bills. An adult working full time on minimum wage will earn $590 a week before tax” she asked.
We are not stupid to have identified a chasm between what we are told is good for us, and the direction our Govt is actually taking our lives in. The main proponents of the TPPA are business leaders, not ordinary people. Looking around me last Thursday, I saw a more representative and diverse sample of our country than any cabinet meeting.
We are those elusive ordinary people. Not Keys version, but a genuine cross-section. Young and old. Māori , pākehā and tau iwi. The health and education workers who are already grappling with corporate interests undermining the quality of our schools and hospitals. The kuia concerned about the prospect of rising prescription costs. The union members and officials who witness daily exploitation at the hands of international companies. The unemployed who are punished for being the victims of structural unemployment. The kaitiaki who have already seen the destruction of our environment at the hands of mining and oil companies. The children of user-pays, saddled with debt.
In spite of a well-oiled campaign to denigrate us, thousands trusted their reality over the one we’re being sold. We were there in our thousands because we deeply recognise what the TPPA will mean for our different communities. We’re living the preamble, and we don’t want a continuation of this status quo. We want alternatives.
One of my favourite accidental media gems was when reporter for Story, Julian, rounded off his insulting piece with the observation that the protest seemed to be less about the TPPA and “more of a blanket rage at the Government, corporations..and even the media for peoples’ lot in life.” He meant it discursively, but he’s almost right.
Many people in attendance last week were there because our ‘lot in life’ is one marred by a Government working exclusively in the interests of a wealthy elite. We are witnesses to unprecedented wealth being stolen from working class communities, and going straight into the hands of foreign and local capital. Our communities and experiences are diverse, but we share a view that opposition to the TPPA is important.
As Key and reporters reinforcing his logic proceed to belittle and mock these experiences, cites of our collective anger and energy make perfect sense to many people. Google trends clearly demonstrated the rippling impact our agitation had on public interest in the TPPA.
A friend who was part of a blockade on Hobson St asked a few hundred people he was with if they had protested before, two-thirds hadn’t. Many road-users were frustrated by the disruptive actions of protesters, but many others were vocal in their support. Some even left their cars to join in.
The TPPA may have been signed, but it still faces hurdles before it can come into force. Popular resistance has derailed the ratification of similar trade deals in the 90’s.
But regardless of what happens lies ahead for the TPPA, we should use gulf between political spin and peoples’ reality as an advantage to all our connected struggles. When we take action people ask themselves where they stand on the issues. When they take a side, they are galvanised to take action and our collective experience and strength grows.
The experiences of people not doing so well in Aotearoa are widespread, discontent is an inch beneath the surface. Hopefully soon we’ll stop being called stupid and start being called dangerous.
Nadia Abu-Shanab is a human rights activist with Unite