Over the weekend, NZ First did something rather remarkable for a smaller party. They turned 27.
Now, in the annals of music and film, a standout performer’s twenty seventh year is always one that’s for some reason fraught with risk of imminent mortality. Whether Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison or Amy Winehouse … there’s just something about that age that seems to inspire the critical existence failure in the renowned. Their potential never becoming quite realized, and leaving them forever frozen in time. Which can, from an artistic perspective, be no bad thing – there is never the ensuing slide into mediocrity which, say, Metallica underwent in the St Anger era. They are remembered amongst the constellation of Greats by virtue of never having stopped being, even as and when they stopped being.
Except while it is unquestionably the case that NZ First in its two-point-seventh decade is facing a bit of a death-risk in the next few months, that last statement is only of questionable application to the party. In much the same manner as the old parlour-game of asking at what point the French Revolution ceased being a Good Idea, the debate as to whether or perhaps when NZ First stopped being Great (as opposed, presumably, to ‘Make New Zealand Great Again’ – with all that *that* entails) is one that could go on for some time.
For what it’s worth, my answer to the former question is to be unfavourable as to The Terror, but to consider Napoleon to be the apotheosis of The Revolution and therefore fundamentally its savior and the stalwart support for its Goodness going forward to the end and then some. And as applies the latter question …. while I’ve been pretty disappointed upon occasion by my former party (c.f the TPPA volte-face, Shane Jones in general, inter alia), I have nevertheless been broadly content that my vote for it in 2017 was the right one. We did, after all, get a pretty decent Labour-led Government out of it, for a start. And I’ve been genuinely pleased with Ron Mark’s actual forward thinking and strong advocacy in the Defence portfolio – a series of decisions which we shall reap the benefits of for years if not decades to come.
But all up, in recent weeks NZ First has seemed a rather different kind of rock-star to a sprightly young suicide risk of just under 30. In my writeup on NZ First at its 2017 Convention, I compared the Party to Motörhead – on the basis that while it did seem to basically be releasing the same album every three years or so … that was OK, because that’s exactly what the fanbase seemed content with, and it kept things ticking over consistently if perhaps not immensely excitingly for everybody else within earshot of the stadium.
This no longer quite seems to be the case. Insofar as NZF’s found itself in the ineluctable position of no longer quite being able to convincingly play the rebel Outsider following nearly three years in Government … and is instead attempting to deploy an array of rather bemusing foreign-import cliches to try and give itself some maladroit ‘maverick’ appeal to paper over its lack of genuine, transformative change.
These range from those so-called ‘Bad-Boys of Brexit’ that either are or aren’t working for NZ First at this year’s Election contingent upon which day of the week it is and how the question is asked … through to Winston’s apparent keynote sub-theme of rejecting “Woke Pixie-Dust” in his yesterday’s address.
All up, the sense I’m getting from this is not Lemmy Kilmister. It’s rather, some *other* aging, punch-drunk hard-living music-scene stalwart that’s regrettably started to go a bit tone-deaf and as a result has gone down a bit of a peculiar trajectory in a semi-desperate bid to reclaim the ‘vibe’ of their now-distant youthful prime. Perhaps 2020 shall prove to be Winston’s “St Anger” moment. Or, possibly it’s like Dave Mustaine following the frankly remarkable recovery from his stroke – during which his born-again Evangelical Christianity really started to shine through with no off-switch and lead to the critically as well as fanbase panned ‘Super Collider’.
Anyway, I digress.
I wasn’t at NZ First’s Convention this year, so my perception of events is based on little more than media reports and talking with people actually still involved or proximate to the Party who were.
This appeared to confirm that the substance on-view in the media was broadly accurate: that not too terribly much of import occurred (with one major exception), and that in lieu of meaningful announcements, we had Winston attempting to out-woke on being anti-woke Judith Collins in a ‘how do you do, fellow kids’ sounding attack on what in the old days would have been termed ‘political correctness’, while also making pretty standard remarks about the importance of ‘stability’ and preparing for this country’s ‘future’.
And you know what? That’s not actually so bad. Most parties don’t signal flagship policy launches in Election years at their annual Conventions. They save those for when precious oxygen is needed on the campaign trail. Stability IS important, going forward – and it’s a pretty amusing and positive sight to compare the way the Coalition Government, despite containing three occasionally rather different parties … hasn’t imploded or rolled its leadership in the manner that National has done twice in two months over on the other side of the aisle. It would be nice to presume that ‘Stability’ of Government also means that NZ First is keen to make ready to support Labour (and perhaps the Greens) for a second term in office, but I suppose we’ll have to see what happens.
I’m rather less impressed all up with NZ First’s commitment to ‘back our future’, given that its major contribution (again, with the exception of Ron Mark’s decent defence portfolio work) to future-planning for New Zealand has been to turn on a somewhat less than discriminate hose of Provincial Growth Funding and seemingly support the continued status of New Zealand as economic colony through a lack of positive vision for transformative change away from over-reliance on primary industries and tourism (and this, in the same week that Tiwai Point’s closure unlocks by necessity a whole nother conceptual space for regional development in Southland) … but that is another rant for another time.
In terms of actual policy announcements … there appears to have been but one of serious significance – Tracey Martin’s push for the restoration of a Universal Family Benefit. Which is actually a pretty decent proposal. I don’t think that it’s a serious competitor for a Universal Basic Income – or, for that matter, to the Green Party’s significantly watered-down Guaranteed Minimum Income proposal … but that’s because these are different tools with different objectives in mind. You could probably even run them somewhat complementarily. And I perhaps wouldn’t even have brought up the Green Party’s GMI, except for the fact that Martin, in speaking about the NZF proposal, asserted that part of her objective was to “bust [the] myth” that “the Greens have got a monopoly in caring about poverty” with reference to their recent policy announcements in the relevant area.
Interestingly, the brusqueness towards the Greens … by claiming to be equal to or better than the Greens in what’s ostensibly Green Party core competency, was also something Winston got in on – declaring NZ First to be “in fact the greenest party in Parliament“. Presumably with a substance other than envy.
Which, if nothing else, goes to show that I was right all along about the two parties actually realizing they have more in common in terms of values than either really wants to believe … and therefore fighting bitterly, animositically as a result.
Now, in terms of the actual ‘mood of the people’, it may also be worth looking at a few of the policy remits that were successfully passed by the Party over the weekend. These included some somewhat predictable ones around abolishing conscience voting for MPs on matters put to referendum and doubling the manpower of our defence force in order to facilitate better humanitarian (as well as military) response.
But also some slightly more surprising ones, such as a push for greater efforts at recycling and minimizing the use of landfills … and, perhaps in light of present circumstances across the Pacific, a proposal to institute body cameras for Police and Corrections personnel.
All things considered, this year’s NZ First Convention – as seen from a rather far distance of a whole few suburbs away and second-hand (instead of just the smoke being second-hand as in previous years) – seems to have been a bit average. Nothing really bad appears to have happened … but, then, with the plausible exception of Martin’s Universal Family Benefit proposal, nothing rather remarkable seems to have occurred, either. Even the Green Monster that turned up part-way through Sunday was both ‘non-political’ and dealt with outside the venue by security.
As I have said … in an Election Year, this is almost to be expected – you could view Labour’s Convention a few weeks back in much the same light. However, the trouble is that with NZ First, I’m not really sure how much more and different they’re actually going to manage going forward from now until the Election.
It’s certainly possible that the Party shall surprise us with some visionary, big-ticket items that are actually worth turning out for. I definitely hope so.
It’s even possible that some of those visionary, big-ticket items (should they exist) are actually intended to be pursued with some vigour by the Party when (or, perhaps, if) it is back in Government in four or five months time.
Although after the way in which NZ First’s ever-mounting stack of Bottom Lines seemed to become occasional Bottom Afterthoughts during the course of last Election’s culminatory coalition negotiations process (a matter that was, to be fair, not necessarily under NZF’s control – unless it wanted to genuinely go cross-benches and/or subject the country to another election as a result of neither Labour nor National being prepared to countenance some of the more .. unique ones) , it could be well understanded if the Party chose to eschew such things (until it gets desperate) in favour of basically just standing upon its record.
A record which, for all its (occasional) faults – is not actually a bad one, especially in light of its positive contribution to good governance over the past three years, and keeping National seriously hammered for the nine years before that.
Certainly, the notion of ‘Stability’ and continuance for prudent governance is what Labour’s running on this time around – and therein lies at least half of the problem.
The Party will have perceived that being too closely aligned with Labour , effectively means becoming subconsciously indistinguishable from Labour – and therefore likely to become electorally eclipsed by them. This is the opposite scenario to what prevailed in 2011, wherein the Party being fundamentally distinct from Labour (not least, by virtue of being politically purportedly ‘dead’ at the time) induced many left-of-National Kiwis to tactically or enthusiastically vote for NZF as a fairly direct result.
So instead of running on its record of Good Governance with Labour, we see this curious Cat on the Doorstep campaign stratagem (that is to say, not quite sure whether ‘in’ or ‘out) – of simultaneously running on a record of supposed Good Governance against Labour (and the Greens), as can be seen with the ‘handbreak on silly policy’ rhetoric of late. But also performative signalling of just how different they are (or like to think they are) from Labour (and most especially the Greens) in areas that are heavily visually distinctive, but lacking in real substance.
Or, in other words, Winston’s “Woke Pixie Dust” is just exactly that. The Pictsie [with deference to his proud Scottish heritage] dusting of shouting “Woke” about the place [as he recently did to The Spinoff, for instance, to deflect from their scrutiny of his British associate’s pledged assistance], in order to distract from how little there is to easily distinguish NZ First and Labour from each other after three years joined at the hip in coalition governance and Cabinet.
“Where Is My Mind”, indeed.
And yet – it could be worse. While I’m not exactly enthused by this contemporary choice of stylistic veneer … in many ways, it’s preferable to NZF deciding to try and add substance to its claim of distinctiveness from those it’s recently been in government with. Because while in yesteryear it did this rather effectively by actually running to the economic left of the Labour party … I rather suspect that were it to try and do genuine policy or ethos distinctiveness from Labour (and the Greens) today, it would go in the exact opposite direction.
But this comes with a risk. The ‘Woke’ attack line is not merely a distracting bauble for some of its supporters to play with. It’s also something of a cathartic steam-valve for various portions of the Party that probably really do think that they’ve been enabling Government-By-Tumblr for the past three years and are now fed up with it.
What this means in practice, is that what’s supposed to be a gimmick – could turn into a much more genuinely felt and genuinely pushed surge of emotion. Especially with them Brexit Back-Street Boys involved. Soon as that happens, it could well turn into, to quote Megadeth’s Foreclosure of a Dream:
“Backed in a corner, caught up in the race
Means to an end ended in disgrace
Perspective is lost in the spirit of the chase”
That is to say, in much the same manner as Metallica in the early 2000s, NZF may wind up attempting to push through its doldrumish funk by channeling that raw frustration and emotion and have it become the message, the vibe itself. An outlet, rather than outreach, perhaps.
And while this may have worked rather well in previous years, and upon previous releases (by which I mean NZ First at its arguable necessary-best in 1993-1996 and 2011, and Metallica in its early best albums, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets) … the part that’s arguably missing in the here and now is both the technical proficiency to make it a seriously engaging output, as well as the ‘something to say’ to match that emotional heft to other than perceived personal annoyance.
A lack of realization of these facts – a lack of self awareness – and a decision to press forward down the rabbit-hole of what felt good at the time to release … appears to have been how St. Anger happened. An album which, for those unaware of the controversy, was basically the musical equivalent of recording a patient screaming their neuroses out in a therapy session. Which may sound incredibly Metal in theory … but in practice, the questionable (even arguably somewhat ‘tone-deaf’) quality of the result effectively definitively ended Metallica’s reign at or near the top of their relevant musical scene and splintered its fanbase irreparably.
You can see how this might relate to NZ First if it keeps going too hard down this trajectory as we head toward the Election – and especially if there’s little else to offset it or otherwise add substance to its offering.
I could probably take the metaphor further at some length (including Load / Reload and S&M representing NZF’s years in Government … therefore adding pressure to ‘act out’ at the end of the term to draw a line under the previous; and the frankly disconcerting supposition that if NZF’s emotive ‘Anti-Woke’ posturing is Metallica circa 2003, Judith Collins as the larger and likely more successful mobilizer of the phenomenon may be Nu Metal) … but this stopped being a report on NZF’s Convention and started being rather peculiar politico-musical history some paragraphs ago.
To phrase it succinctly, then – NZ First in its 27th year is facing a risky situation. The largely lackluster Convention isn’t really a problem for that – however the prospect of the party doubling or even trebling down on some of the only material from said Convention to actually get air-time (i.e. the “Woke Pixie-Dust” – the ruin of many a rockstar) in lieu of much else of substance … could lead to this becoming the Party’s “St. Anger Moment” – and thence joining the Twenty Seven Club itself.
A fate which, despite the Party’s traditional colours, would be a most unfortunate ‘Fade to Black’, indeed.