Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: It's best to learn to pick your fights

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Blocking traffic did little to win over public support for students and their protest against cuts to loans and allowances.  Photo / Richard Robinson
Blocking traffic did little to win over public support for students and their protest against cuts to loans and allowances. Photo / Richard Robinson

If the transit of Venus was supposed to cast an aura of love over the country, astrologers will be disappointed to learn that it was apparently thwarted by the cloud cover over the Beehive in Wellington.

Bill English came perilously close to inciting public disorder by, like the matador taunting the bull, dismissing student protests over changes to loans and allowances and suggesting they learn a lesson from the Greeks.

He went on to say the protests mainly made it into the media because they blocked traffic.

"Who's listening?" he pondered.

As it happened the students were listening, and played right into his hands by staging a repeat protest which involved blocking traffic - a fool's way to try to get public sympathy for a cause given the high value Aucklanders put on smooth-running arterial routes.

One of those stuck in the traffic was reported to have shouted "stupid socialists, dumb communists" at the students, before telling them "I've got a f***ing living to make, I had to pay fees too and now I have to work to pay them off."

That man was presumably among those of us who went through university in the initial days of student loans in the 1990s. In those days, interest was charged from day one and the parental income threshold for student allowances was so low that if your parent was capable of taking a gun and shooting rabbits to feed the family through winter there would be no student allowance for you.

There was no write-off where repayments did not cover interest, ensuring loan balances almost doubled before a salary reached the stage where it covered the interest. Those were the days when then Education Minister Lockwood Smith was seen crawling out of the window at Canterbury University to escape the madding crowd beneath. In a strange way, the much more rigorous application of National's loans scheme then has given today's National Government some insurance against student revolt now, for it spawned a generation of former students for whom life was much tougher and left them still trying to pay off the interest of yore charged on their own balances.

Envy is a powerful driver - and so there is a certain level of resentment among the had-nots towards the have-nows.

That generation tends to agree with English's claim that today's students - who get their loans under much more favourable terms - don't know how lucky they are. The only policy shift that would unite those past and present students would be if the Government reintroduced interest on those loans.

The National Government is also reaping the benefits of the "divide and conquer" approach. This has ensured students who do not qualify for student allowances have little sympathy for students who do get student allowances.

Those who already have to rely on loans - and it is a fallacy to suggest that this is only the wealthy - see little wrong in other people having to rely on student loans for at least a year or two given their incomes after graduating will be similar, regardless of whether they have a loan or an allowance.

On top of that, there is a perception that students protest at the drop of a hat and this does tend to rather weaken their cause.

There are competing schools of thought in this regard. One is that the squeaky wheel gets the oil, although it clearly depends on the circumstances as to whether this is the good oil, or the snake oil.

The other is the school of thought which maintains that the power of a protest is diluted by every protest held. The most potent protest is one involving groups of the population which are rarely inspired to protest because it tends to show a strong, legitimate sense of grievance.

Students have protested since time began over matters large and small and the sum effect has been to render it as mere background noise - expected and easily ignored. Joe, one of those students at the protest, did not advance the cause much when a Close Up reporter suggested that at a time when all segments of society were suffering, there was no such thing as a free lunch.

"Well, why shouldn't there be?" Joe replied, before pointing out that there was money there, it was just going to "the wrong places".

Last week should be a lesson for those protesting students to pick their fights and ensure they have some wider public support, rather than going out of their way to disrupt the very public they are trying to win over purely to prove a point to the Finance Minister.

It's a lesson Bill English as well has possibly learned. At National's regional conference he boasted that there had been little outcry from the public service about the Budget. He said the voters trusted Prime Minister John Key's instincts and he expected the party to romp home in 2014. That, of course, pre-dated the rising concern about the changes to class sizes and the inevitable teacher control.

It is possible English was exhibiting a symptom of that disorder known as hubris which is common to Greek heroes - and, some would argue, Finance Ministers in second-term governments.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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