Matt McCarten on politics
Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Petty scandals cloak real horrors

1981 Springbok tour demonstrators go head to head with riot police outside Eden Park. Photo / Northern Advocate
1981 Springbok tour demonstrators go head to head with riot police outside Eden Park. Photo / Northern Advocate

I shared a car trip with Helen Kelly, the Council of Trade Unions president, on Thursday. Inevitably, we got talking about the state of left politics.

We reminisced on our radical youth, when debate was about big ideas and our place in the world.

My first attendance at a political rally was after Big Norm Kirk sent a navy frigate as a protest into the French atomic-testing zone in the Pacific. That action inspired thousands of us to join the nuclear-free movement.

My second attendance was at protests against the cynical use of our national sport by apartheid sympathisers to give sustenance to the fascists in South Africa. We risked arrest and getting our heads mashed in.

Sir Robert Muldoon won re-election after calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist, and many took pride that New Zealand was boycotted at the 1978 Commonwealth Games.

Whina Cooper's Maori land march, and protests about abortion rights, workers' rights and our soldiers killing Vietnamese people for right-wing ideologues in Washington DC, were there too.

We are a proud nuclear-free state, are on the right side of history with Mandela, have a Waitangi Tribunal to hear land-theft cases, and didn't join the United States in Iraq. These are a result of our nation's values, which were won out of mass civil struggles.

Could you imagine any politician now advocating nuclear ship visits?

I remember when Jim Bolger, who was in Muldoon's Cabinet, fawned over Mandela with the rest of his colleagues after he became a rock star.

We are so embarrassed about Afghanistan that we kid ourselves we were on a humanitarian mission to build bridges and schools for the Afghan people. As far as Maori separatism goes, none of the elites bat an eyelid that the very people they used to lock up now sit alongside them in the Beehive in natty suits drinking the finest wines.

My point is, politics used to be about big things. What we did changed society for the better.

The battles have changed, of course. The fight against marriage inequality was won recently, although other human rights - such as a woman's right to choose abortion - are still murky.

Economic inequality and the widening gap between the top and bottom earners is alarming. A privileged few buying many mansions while most of our children will never have a home of their own is unsettling.

I laugh when I hear the right wing attack unions, as if workers had any rights or power these days. The selling of our public assets as cash cows for those with more money than they need is legalised theft. Even though these issues call for attention, the social movements that once mobilised in the streets for great moral ideas have vanished.

Big political news is now relegated to seedy scandal, such as giving a corporation rights to build pokie machines so they can fund a conference amenity. Or sneakily changing the law on state spying so our Prime Minister can cover his butt and let secret police snoop on what we do with our keyboards.

This week was even more depressing. Some in the media have become so bored and cynical they now make up political news.

Labour had a conference remit to allow electorates to restrict selections to women. The media scrum screamed that Labour leader David Shearer would be toppled for allowing PC to go viral in his party. Shearer knocked out the remit. The scrum reversed tack, spinning he would now be toppled for interfering in party democracy.

That was bit weak so they invented a story about a letter signed by MPs, calling for his head. Every MP denied it, which only proved, to the scrum anyway, their fiction must be true. For their own credibility, the media now needs to keep the story alive and frame Shearer as a leader under internal attack. Truth no longer matters.

Politics was once about noble ideas. Now it's about media celebrity and intrigue. No wonder New Zealanders have disengaged. And civil society is poorer for it.

- Herald on Sunday

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