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You can go shopping with values: Max Harris on the politics of love

Max Harris reports on the mood of the country during his nationwide book tour of his best-seller The New Zealand Project – and sees the start of ‘a new movement’.

In the lead-up to the election, there’s been a lot of talk of a shift in the political mood – and a generational change in thinking. When I travelled around the country in July and August to speak about my book, The New Zealand Project, I had the chance to see whether and how this shift was occurring.

I spoke with about 2000 people around the country at 28 events in 11 centres across the North and South Island: at a law firm, a youth support centre, a wananga, a union meeting, a bar, a Rotary Club, two public sector hui, a Māori liberation service, and four schools, in addition to universities, public libraries, and community gatherings.

The central argument of my book is that values – principles that we hold dear that contribute to a life well-led – need to be made more central in New Zealand politics. I argue that technocratic politics, the rise of selfishness in society at large in recent years, and the loss of a general sense of direction have all contributed to a draining of values from our politics.

A properly pursued values-based politics for our time requires not just any values, in my view, but a focus on care, community, and creativity – with the value of love underpinning these other values. And these ‘three Cs’ could, I think, be a particularly appropriate basis for politics in Aotearoa New Zealand, given that parallel values (such as manaakitanga, whakapapa, whakawhanaungatanga, rangatiratanga, and aroha) have a long tradition of being at the core of decision-making in te ao Māori.

We’ve heard talk of some of these values on the campaign trail. Jacinda Ardern has cited her parents as a source of her “community spirit”. Bill English has said that “Labour does not own compassion and care.” Marama Fox, co-leader of the Māori Party, has called for an increase in the refugee quota, grounded in the value of manaakitanga. The Greens’ David Clendon said in a JustSpeak election forum that I chaired that the justice system should be based on aroha.

Activists and campaigners – a key part of politics, properly defined – have also drawn on similar values. Three of the values mentioned in ActionStation’s People’s Agenda for the election, Te Ira Tāngata, are manaakitanga, aroha, and community and belonging. Writer and activist Chloe Ann-King wrote in August: “Shouldn’t we demand our politicians operate from a place of aroha and that they work very, very hard at understanding the experiences of those they represent?” Laura O’Connell Rapira, director of campaigns at ActionStation and co-founder of RockEnrol, has spoken of the need to support a political party that “prioritises … love and compassion.”

Bill English did say to Jacinda Ardern in the first leaders debate, “You can’t go shopping with your values.” But English’s denigration of the vagueness of values is a little disingenuous, given his own reliance on values talk.  And his remark misses the point of values in politics. Values are not about shopping. They’re about how we love, how we live, how we lead. And a values-based politics, properly pursued, can make a tangible difference in people’s pockets and people’s lives.

I don’t want to place too much weight on these passing references to values. But I do think they reflect a stirring towards a different kind of politics. They represent, as one senior public servant said to me, a push to move beyond economic management towards a model that is more human – a politics of other people.

Jacinda with a puppy, Bill with a kitten

There was initial skepticism among some audience members about one of these values: love.

Sheryl Tapiki, a student at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in Whakatāne said in a reflection submitted in writing, “When I saw the heading ‘Love and Politics’, my first thought was: ‘Whatever, dude, no way is there love in politics.’”

But she was persuaded that a politics of love could be workable – and something we might work towards – once applied to concrete policy areas such as mass incarceration. “I realised then,” Sheryl went on, “that … using these values in a political setting, change can happen. … There can be love in politics.”

For others, the savage tone of the discussion surrounding Metiria Turei’s disclosure of historical benefit fraud highlighted the lack of love in political discussion – and the need for politicians and those in the media to approach people with love, especially people doing it rough. As Sarah Hendrica Bickerton wrote on Twitter: “I used to think [Max Harris’s] work on a politics of love was honestly a tad hokey. But, after what’s happened to [Metiria Turei], I was wrong. A politics of love is perhaps what we desperately need.”

The other contention, raised on several occasions, was that these values are elastic – and could well be hijacked by individuals and politicians to pursue problematic policy. One young lawyer in Auckland asked me, at a talk at the law firm Russell McVeagh: what would stop care, community, and creativity being used by groups wanting to increase our prison population, since it might be said that imprisonment provides care for victims and keeps our community safe? My answer was, and is, that robust and deep definitions of these values are necessary – so that they cannot be used to justify anything.

Tina Ngata, with whom I spoke in Gisborne, noted that in values-based decision-making in te ao Māori, “the gift is in the wānanga” – the discussion itself is important. Ngata added that the whakapapa, the historical and spatial dimension, of values is relevant to how they are applied: a point that I did not consider in sketching care, community, creativity, and love in The New Zealand Project.

A related point that sparked some discussion around the country was the idea that decolonisation is important for a fully-fledged values-based politics. Thinkers such as Ani Mikaere, Moana Jackson, and Harsha Walia suggest that decolonisation is concerned with understanding and undoing the negative effects of colonisation, recognising the benefits of colonisation unjustly acquired by settlers (Pākehā in New Zealand), and recentring the views of indigenous peoples (Māori in New Zealand).

This collage is wholesome so we’ve put it in again

My suggestion in The New Zealand Project is that decolonisation is necessary for a values-based politics in this country because without it, a values-based politics will be narrowly Eurocentric; it will be pursued on an equal footing; and it will be insensitive to questions of power. I am cautious, as a Pākehā, about saying what decolonisation requires: since, as defined by Mikaere and Jackson and others, decolonisation is partly about Māori voices being more central in political debate. But I do think it is important to speak to other Pākehā about reckoning with our history in Aotearoa New Zealand, and to use the privilege I have as a Pākehā to challenge myths and misconceptions.

Many Pākehā audiences commented that decolonisation was a new idea to their ears. One remark along these lines led to an interview on decolonisation for a radio show based on the Kapiti Coast. The willingness to engage with the concept was encouraging – but the novelty of ‘decolonisation’ as an idea for audiences was also striking, given that for many Māori in this country decolonisation is as old as colonisation itself. Another point of discussion related to how decolonisation could be applied concretely; this was the subject of an incisive discussion at Tu Tama Wāhine in Taranaki, which ranged across issues of land, education, and the relocation of colonial monuments.

One challenge I wrestled with, as I travelled around the country, was how to use my privilege to continue conversations about decolonisation while at the same time making space for other voices. Was I, in doing book talks where I was sometimes the only speaker, perpetuating the centrality of Pākehā voices in the public sphere, even while I attempted to discuss decolonisation? Could I have done more to get out of the way, given the long history of educated white voices taking up space in our public sphere? I made efforts to organise a number of panel discussions and conversations, and attempted to introduce audiences to the work of thinkers like Moana Jackson. But these are questions I continue to think about. I was gently pressed on them by a brilliant 19 year-old writer from the Hawkes Bay, Waitawhara Tupaea, who is now throwing his hat in the ring to be Mayor of Hastings.

What is clear is that the shift in thinking we need – on values and on decolonisation – will not occur overnight. It will require a combination of top-down leadership (securing legislative change) and bottom-up pressure. As vivian Hutchinson, the Taranaki-based community activist, put it to me in writing: “Getting more values into our politics is a question of character and culture … and not just one of organising and management. You can’t just add values to your politics like we add vitamins to white bread. The competencies of character and of culture are about how we grow up as people, as friends, as families and as communities. … We get more values into our political process by doing our cultural work. And this is the work that needs to happen outside of a political campaign or media event. It is more about community-building, a deeper variety of adult education and the making of a movement.”

Hutchinson expresses the point better than I could ever express it. He sets out the challenge that exists for all of us, beyond elections and outside of the realm of policy: to do “our cultural work”, to learn to value a different set of qualities in our communities first, and then to work so that those values are absorbed into parliamentary politics through a different group of politicians and a new guiding ethos for the country.

Here it is again

These were the general themes that were raised repeatedly across talks. What was interesting were the continuities in the conversations across large and small centres – the concern about homelessness in Hastings and Auckland, the interest in youth political engagement in politics in Ashburton and Palmerston North, a worry about climate change expressed with equal depth in Nelson and Wellington.

That said, there were local issues that were articulated with especial vigour – struggles where people felt a values-based approach was conspicuously lacking. I heard about, and afterwards visited, the site of the uncaring sell-off of State houses in Glen Innes. There the value of community has been neglected by a government that has acted with no thought for the familial and historical connections that residents built up in the neighborhood. I listened to people express shock about water contamination in Havelock North. In Whakatāne I heard the moving stories of lives and families damaged by chronic illness traceable back to chemicals used at the local sawmill – a struggle supported by the Sawmill Workers Against Poison group.

I tried to apply the values of care, community, creativity, and love to various specific policy areas, including mass incarceration, climate change displacement, and insecure work. At this more grounded level, three points emerged again and again that I had not anticipated: about local government, a written constitution, and our electoral system.

I didn’t talk at length about local government in The New Zealand Project. But in several centres – in particular, in Hastings, Gisborne, and Carterton – it was emphasised that local governments can play more of a role than they are currently playing in realising values of care, community, and creativity, and love. What I was told, in different ways, is that more space and resources could be directed towards local governments, in order to allow local governments to develop a culture of experimentation. This could be particularly pertinent on policy issues such as the universal basic income, which is being trialled around the world in places like Scotland and the Netherlands because of partnerships between central and local government. As well, I was reminded that the national conversation about younger people being involved in parliamentary politics needs to filter down to local government, since many local governments around New Zealand are, at best, inhospitable to younger councillors – and, at worst, without youth representation at all.

The prospect of a written constitution was also raised more frequently than I had expected. There was no strong view that New Zealand needs a single written constitution, or that we should reject one. But interesting points were raised that are worthy of further discussion. Mention was made of the report of Matike Mai Aotearoa, an imaginative piece of work coordinated by Moana Jackson and Margaret Mutu, which examined big-picture constitutional change from the perspective of values. The report suggests that one way forward could be through the creation of a kawanatanga (government) sphere, a tino rangatiratanga sphere (supporting Māori chieftainship), and a relational sphere in which the two other spheres can interact. What was evident was a hunger for debates to continue about our constitutional future.

I was asked on numerous occasions whether our electoral system provides the best framework for a values-based politics. In particular, audience members asked whether MMP constrains the kind of bold politics that we may well need to break free of neoliberalism, to decolonise, and to realise a politics of love. I had to answer, honestly, that I hadn’t thought enough about this. What the question reveals, though, is a willingness to review, regularly, our democratic infrastructure – and a desire for a more transformative politics.

There were numerous other specific policy areas that were raised forcefully, or across different locations: in particular, young people at schools spoke articulately about rape culture and the need for a different approach to masculinity; there was strong support for the teaching of te reo Māori in schools; and civics education was advocated for by young and old, in urban and more rural areas.

In almost all talks, it was emphasised that for change to occur across diverse fields, younger people need to be empowered to lead political conversations. Older people – and, I must admit, many of my talks had a solid spread of grey hair across the crowd – were keen to ‘hand the keys’ to the next generation. They sometimes expressed guilt that their generation had left behind a legacy of problems to be dealt with, in spheres like housing and climate change. I would emphasise, in reply, that intergenerational partnerships are needed for lasting social change, and that youth-led groups I’ve been a part of – like JustSpeak, Generation Zero, RockEnrol, or the Collective Project – have all relied on mentoring, resources, or advice from older people.

But I think the main point of these older audience members, about handing over the keys to young people, is worth heeding. Young people tend to be more impatient and more imaginative in their demands for political change. We see that in parliamentary politics, in the energy and approach of younger candidates like Kiri Allan and Chlöe Swarbrick, and we see that outside of Parliament. And we might just need a bit more impatience and imagination right now.

One more for good measure

One heartening thing that was said to me around the country was that the conversations about values-based politics gave people hope – whether people were young or old. But these conversations also gave me hope. I saw the reservoirs of warmth and goodwill in people around the country, not yet entirely depleted by neoliberalism. I saw that such warmth and goodwill in the people that invited me into their homes to talk politics, in the people that wanted to pick me up from airports and train stations to chat about values, in the people whom I’d never met before who let me stay in their homes (with the amazing organising support of Bridget Williams Books). I was reminded in all of this that, for all the talk of anti-intellectualism in New Zealand, we have a culture willing to debate big ideas – about values, or decolonisation, or neoliberalism.

I do not, however, want to be too starry-eyed or complacent about the task ahead of us. Our record on fossil fuel emissions, youth suicide, sexual violence, mass incarceration and a host of other issues remains shameful in Aotearoa New Zealand. As the recent leaders debates revealed, it is still difficult to talk about changing our economic model, for example by asking the wealthy to pay a bit more tax. I saw, around the country, a fair amount of anger and unhappiness about the failure of successive governments to deal with these issues.

Our next challenge is to draw on the reservoirs of goodwill and warmth, and to harness this collective anger, in order to turn debate into action. We will have to do that because, to put it simply, debate on its own is not enough.

Election time offers one opportunity to act – to call for parties, of whatever hue, to offer more transformative policies, and to vote with our values. I, for one, think it is time for a change of government.

But beyond September 23, we cannot let up on putting pressure on politicians to help to create something better. In my view, that “something better” is a politics grounded in care, community, and creativity – a politics underpinned, ultimately, by love. The structures of our politics in their current form don’t accommodate how people are doing politics or want to be done. We need to change that.

And to build that different kind of politics we need to do the “cultural work” that Vivian Hutchinson talked to me about: the self-reflection, the listening, the conversations and connections with others. It is, as Hutchinson says, about “the making of a movement”.

My travels around the country suggest that we may have the start of that movement – in the people gathering in search of a common purpose, in the ideas beginning to take shape, in the energy developing in the spaces between us. We mustn’t let go of the momentum.


The New Zealand Project by Max Harris (Bridget Williams Books, $40) is available at Unity Books.

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