Politics

The Catton conundrum: What attacks on the novelist say about public debate in NZ

Sean Plunket’s “hua” diatribe was symptomatic of widespread silencing of dissent. But the Booker-winning novelist’s exhortation to “eloquence, imagination, and reasoned debate” shows the debate isn’t over yet, writes Andrew Dean in this extract from The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand


Giveaway: The Spinoff has two copies of The Interregnum to give away, courtesey of Bridget Williams Books. To go into the draw to win a copy, simply email ashleigh@thespinoff.co.nz with the word “Interregnum” misspelled in the subject line, by the end of play Monday March 21.


At a literary festival in Jaipur in early 2015, Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, told the audience that New Zealand was run by “neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians”. “They care about short-term gains,” she said. “They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want.

These comments caused what she would later describe as a “jingoistic national tantrum”, one that ultimately involved broadcasters, politicians, journalists, and even her father. Sean Plunket fomented national fury at her comments when he called her a “traitor” and an “ungrateful hua” on his radio programme. “Oh, that’s nice Eleanor,” he said, “given that you’ve got a job that’s all about culture, that’s paid for by the taxpayer! So Eleanor Catton, stick that where the sun don’t shine!”

Nor was Prime Minister John Key impressed with Catton’s remarks; he commented to media that it was “a bit sad really that she’s mixing politics with some other things that she’s better-known for”. “I don’t think that reflects what most New Zealanders perceive of the Government,” Key told reporters, professedly saddened that “she doesn’t have respect for the work that we do, because I have tremendous respect for what she does as a writer.”

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Catton’s father, Philip, responded in an interview to Key and Plunket’s comments. On Plunket’s Radio Live show, Philip Catton told the radio host: “You are a father … you have disappointed me in the approach that you have taken.” Plunket, Catton said, had impoverished public debate with his name-calling, failing to “advance towards a reckoning, a respectful reckoning of differences of ideas”.

Writing in the Pantograph Punch some months later, Philip Catton reflected on the deeper meaning of the way his daughter’s comments had been received. Centring on the notion of “respect”– the prime minister’s apparent “respect” for Eleanor Catton’s work – Philip argued that for Key this value operated according to a market-oriented rather than a truth-oriented form of reasoning. Such an orientation was no accident, he continued, suggesting that it reflected both the economic changes of the last thirty years and the ideas that support them. In this spirit, he wrote that our current political situation promotes “self-dependency” over “interdependency”, and that life is transformed into a “competitive game” in which we seek to “get ahead of the others, economically”. In public debate this leads us to compete rather than to learn, to argue on the basis of what we may gain for ourselves rather than the truth we may discover. His daughter’s “criticism could be relevant only if in some contest of power with [Key] she were liable to win”.

There are few things less edifying than the sight of the prime minister telling a citizen to get out of politics, or listening to a hurt father publicly defend his daughter from accusations that she is “ungrateful” and a “traitor”. Of course, the outrage to which Eleanor Catton was subjected was manufactured for reasons that had little to do with her, what she had to say about New Zealand, or the government funding she received; instead it had everything to do with the use to which she could be put. Plunket generated a national debate about “our” writers and their responsibilities, and installed himself at the centre of it; Key claimed that Eleanor Catton’s statement “probably summarises the Green Party view of this Government”, not missing the chance to link his politics with what it means to be a New Zealander. These kinds of motivations are the competitive element to which Philip Catton referred in his article: neither Key nor Plunket had any stake in advancing the reckoning of ideas even if it is quite clear that they should have, and their contributions were never designed to add anything positive to the conversation.

For all of the bluster, the saga was, in fact, instructive. For a brief moment, criticism of the direction of the nation’s politics was united with criticism of the nation’s public sphere. We saw how our politics and the way that we talk about them in public are both organised by the very forces of which Eleanor and Philip Catton were critical; that is, the history and practice of neoliberalism.

New Zealand, like many other countries across the globe, has undergone a total overhaul of its politics and economy over the last three decades. The theories that drove the changes, derived for the most part from a small band of American economists, propose that free markets are always the most efficient mechanisms for distributing goods (including social goods such as health care and welfare) and that human development is best progressed in an environment where individuals are freely able to enter into market relations with others. In their ascendency these ideas have become increasingly ambitious. Free market economics is now imagined to be some kind of “science of human behaviour”, in the words of the philosopher Michael Sandel.

“In all domains of life, human behaviour can be explained by assuming that people decide what to do by weighing the costs and benefits of the options before them, and choosing the one they believe will give them the greatest welfare, or utility,” he writes. The implications of these ideas for the state have been manifest in the years since 1984: the state has endeavoured to organise as many areas of life as possible in terms of “efficient” market systems, and has redesigned its institutional structures accordingly.

This model of economic organisation swept across the world in the 1970s and 1980s. Following General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup in 1973, Chile became the first state to incorporate neoliberal ideas across its economy. Free marketeer Milton Friedman and his Chilean disciples, known as the “Chicago Boys”, directed the restructuring, as the new government privatised public assets and social security, opened up resource extraction to private enterprise, encouraged foreign investment and crushed trade unions. The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 saw the beginnings of similar processes in the United Kingdom and the United States, as both leaders moved their nations away from social democratic post-war compromises, choosing, in Pinochet’s words, “proprietors” over “proletarians”.

New Zealand’s development is a part of this global history. In the decade from 1984, successive governments restructured the economy along the same lines as Thatcher, Reagan and Pinochet. Within the space of a few years, New Zealand was transformed from one of the most protected economies in the western world to one of the least. Two ministers of finance – one from Labour, one from National – programmatically pulled government back from involvement in the economy and in people’s lives, selling state assets, slashing personal income taxes and giving over important elements of economic management to the Reserve Bank. At the same time, they attacked unions, cut welfare, removed agricultural and manufacturing subsidies, and created markets in higher education, health care, public housing and other public goods. By the time Ruth Richardson was dumped as Minister of Finance in 1993, New Zealand had become, in Jane Kelsey’s words, “the darling of the world’s free-marketeers”, and international observers were speaking of the “New Zealand model” of economic reform. In the years that followed, the architects of these changes toured the world promoting their successes, and international business periodicals praised the country’s “courage” and “leadership”. New Zealand had been changed forever.

It is to both this history and these ideas that Philip Catton was referring in his various comments, as he attempted to count the costs of what has taken place. There was sadness in his voice when he reflected on the world that he saw every day on “the streets of Wellington”, beyond the Radio Live studio: “I walk to work. I see two homeless people on my way to work. People packing their belongings into that kind of cloth bag that is attached to wheels.” His workplace colleagues were faring little better: they “starve themselves up to Christmas time because they want to provide some festivities [for] their children,” he reflected, and they “lose their teeth because they can’t afford the cost of a root canal”. These “impressions”, he said, had led him to become “highly aware … of things the market doesn’t do, hasn’t done, and, at the same time, enormously depends upon”. Such impressions also made him question “the neoliberal ideas about the market as an important force behind all good in the world”.

Yet Catton’s ruminations fell on deaf ears. Even as his interviewee was making these observations, Plunket sought to engage him in a contest, to determine where it was that he stood, to fight to win. “I’m here to talk with you about ideas, and about the discussion of ideas and how you’ve derailed it,” Catton said, frustrated with the way the conversation was going. Plunket spoke over him to ask, “So you’re against neoliberalism?”

Looking back, in his Pantograph Punch article some months later, Catton offered some suggestions as to why the argument – if it may be called that – proceeded in the terms that it did. “Recent political history”, he wrote, had turned against the project of thinking together in the pursuit of truth. Our nation’s trajectory toward “ever-increasing inequality” was producing the very opposite of the “equalisation of power” that was a precondition for the “ideal of inclusive reasoning”. His remarks imply that in an environment of enormous disparity, we are left with a public sphere that operates unequally, silencing some while privileging others.

Not listening, or refusing to listen, marks our treatment of those who have been disempowered by the changes of the last three decades. The standard we are left with in public discourse is exclusive, a form of dominance. Even in elections, where we are told every vote is equal, the pattern remains. Data from the New Zealand General Social Survey show that those who said they did not have enough money were more than twice as likely not to vote in the 2011 election than those who said they had more than enough to meet their everyday needs. The unemployed were similarly less likely to vote, despite the enormous impact government has on their lives. Even Sean Plunket seemed to recognise the decreasing participation that marks New Zealand’s contemporary politics when he told Philip Catton, at the end of the interview, that if he had his “time again” he would not say “that Eleanor should stay out of politics”. He added: “In a democracy everyone should be involved in politics, and part of the problem with our democracy is a lot of people aren’t, for various reasons.”

These “various reasons” are a matter of structure and design. Foundational to the changes of the 1980s and 1990s were principles that sought to limit citizens’ role in economic decision-making. The Reserve Bank Act 1989 first enshrined in legislation the bank’s independence from political supervision, and then defined “price stability” as the Bank’s primary objective – two decisions which in effect ensured that the ideology of the reformers was not up for democratic deliberation. The Employment Contracts Act 1991 put an end to the era of large-scale union negotiation, sending the membership of these workers’ organisations into freefall in the following years, and dramatically eroding the ability of workers to have a stake either in the negotiation of their own conditions and wages or in the structure of the economy more generally.

The way that the assumptions of the reforms have redefined the boundaries of our politics is nowhere clearer than in universities, which, alongside unions, have been a traditional home for political debate and dissent. The final embedding of the reforms was the “discipline” Ruth Richardson sought to bring to bear on these state institutions: by tying funding directly to a formula based on enrolments, she ensured that universities were responsive to “signals” from “consumers” – that is, students. Universities and eventually departments were made to compete for numbers in order to remain viable. This transition redefined the value that a university provides in narrow terms of student interest and satisfaction, a point that was not lost on faculty at the time but which they had little choice about if they wished to keep their jobs. Their traditional “critic and conscience” role was enormously diminished in these years, circumscribed by what was economically rational.

It was not just faculty who were affected by the new system: students over the last two-and-a-half decades have found that university funding militates against their participation in political debate. The 1991 Budget saw significant cuts to student benefits as well as the introduction of a strict parental means test for all those under the age of 25. To cover the costs that students now faced, which included uncapped tuition fees, a student loan scheme was introduced; by 2014 it had had over 1.2 million people on its books. Paying for university forces students to focus on the value their education will have in the labour market and how they will be able to pay off their loan, rather than the kind of thinking to which they might be exposed, or the way their education might bring about self-development. Market discipline here is also a form of political and mental discipline: most students do not have the time to think about the way things could be when they are worrying about the way things are. It seems entirely unsurprising now that one of the last bastions of union strength in New Zealand, the student unions, recently had their power diminished by the introduction of compulsory voluntary membership – just one more to add to the many restrictions on young people thinking, speaking, and acting together in the public sphere.

Another major institution, public broadcasting, has seen its mission directed toward similar ends. The deregulation of broadcasting under theFourth Labour Government brought private companies into competition with public ones. Television New Zealand was recast as a commercial operation expected to return dividends to the Crown, and, like universities, the primary metric of public broadcasters’ success has become an economic one, in this case the value TVNZ is able to derive from selling its audiences to advertisers. This competitive commercial environment encourages hosts like Plunket to attempt to generate the kind of controversy that they do, with the aim of increasing ratings, irrespective of what these interventions wreak.

It is not, of course, that people have stopped talking and caring about politics. It is that the reforms drastically reduced the power of certain institutions to organise dissent. The process has been one of active silencing. In New Zealand, this included unions, universities, and broadcasting among others. In Britain, Thatcher’s targets were organisations that augured a different way of structuring the world, unions and particular local councils she perceived as being too left-wing. This is part of the story of how the ideologies of the reformers became embedded, and how their assumptions about the economy and even the way people are became an invisible form of common-sense. It is a story too about the kind of public sphere we have where Eleanor Catton’s ideas could be unimaginable, and about the way that she was swiftly silenced. The call by Plunket and Key for Eleanor Catton to stay out of politics creates little dissent in a public sphere uninterested in democracy or, as Philip Catton lamented, something as radical as “truth”. Silencing those who would be critical is a strategy of long standing, as we have seen, and the attacks on the author of The Luminaries were merely its latest ugly manifestation.

The problem for those who would attack her, though, is that public debate is never finished, and the public sphere is still created in the process of speaking, writing and thinking – we are all doing it, all the time, and we can all break open this world, little by little. It was in a spirit of defiance that Eleanor Catton suggested in an interview with the Guardian that “eloquence, imagination, and reasoned debate” may counter the attacks on her, and that these are “qualities … that persist, and will continue to persist, despite efforts to humiliate and silence those who speak out”. There is still room for something better to arise out of this shabby affair. We have reached a point in our politics where questioning what the last three decades have wrought is an urgent necessity, but it is a point where such questions are only getting harder to ask. We must ask nonetheless, with the radicalism of eloquence and imagination.

The above is an extract from The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, edited by Morgan Godfery and published by Bridget Williams Books. More here.

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