Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONPoliticsJune 3, 2023

You are not serious people: the week in politics

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

As the country contends with a cost-of-living permacrisis and an election year, is it too much to ask that our politicians don’t spend a week playing petty games?

It would be fitting to reflect on this week in politics by simply dropping this gif and, as with Succession itself, calling it done.

Call me old-fashioned or high-minded but during a cost-of-living crisis, a housing crisis and a climate crisis, I am hoping for a little more from our politicians than a fevered descent into a polyglut of cliches, soundbites, petty games, aged TV gifs and kneejerk reactions. I am also hopeful that beyond the weird corners of the internet and the fringes of narrowly held views, voters might feel the same. 

That was certainly the sentiment expressed to me over coffee this week with people who aren’t permanently attached to the hosepipe of politics. Bloody bored of bread and butter and uninspired by the coalition of cuts and coalition of chaos, one exasperated soul offered up “school of solipsists” as the next possible collective noun for our house of representatives. I honestly don’t think we will survive a run that takes us that far through the alphabet. 

The week started with the Labour party congress in Wellington. The main purpose of these things is to fire up the base, and the party was careful to manage expectations ahead of time. Still, when parts of party conferences are always broadcast beyond the faithful it’s a bit specious to say “you’re not the audience” to those who were disappointed by the lack of fresh ideas. But so far, so ‘OK, fine’.   

National pulled a shrewd move by releasing its housing policy the morning of Chris Hipkins’ speech, blowing a hole through the bipartisan housing accord. Apparently the consensus forged in the fires of housing crisis Mordor is no longer required. Is the crisis over? No. Is there an election in four months? Yes. At the least the issue no one seems capable of budging on now is consequential.

Three of the week’s stars: National’s Simeon Brown, Christopher Luxon and Nicola Willis. (Photo: Toby Manhire)

Lurking about were comments made by National MP Simeon Brown at a meeting in Tauranga last Friday. Asked his opinion on Waka Kotahi’s proposal to introduce te reo Māori to road signs, Brown demonstrated his enduring capacity to misstep by saying: “My view is it will make signs more confusing. We all speak English, they should all be English.” 

Rather than cut this off at the pass, National party leader Christopher Luxon stoked the embers by speaking Latin while holding both a stop and a go sign at the same time. Luxon wasn’t opposed to the signs “per se” but didn’t want them printed, he said. Never mind that the signs need to be printed anyway because this is being proposed for new signs only and that the cost is negligible, Luxon wanted “100% of the people” at Waka Kotahi and the Ministry of Transport working on fixing the roads. To the person who runs the Waka Kotahi Twitter account, please send a tweet advising us of which roads you’re going to be fixing so we can avoid them. 

This isn’t a non-issue, especially to those who tirelessly advocate for one of the official languages of this country to be treated as such, but it smells like a halfhearted attempt to play culture war games. Luxon could have nipped it in the bud. Chris Bishop did try to clarify National’s position on the issue and to this day we remain none the wiser. 

wayne brown among a sea of emoji faces and microphones
Mayor Wayne Brown (Image: Archi Banal)

If you were exhausted at this point, drained by the mathematics of aiming for an affordable weekly shop or getting the bus to work, Wayne Brown rolled up with a bunch of road cones designed to stop your safe passage through the week and ensure that you end it with absolutely zero faith in anyone elected to office. The mayor of the country’s largest city maintained he wasn’t cherry picking media to attend an extremely significant announcement about the city’s future, while waving at Stuff reporters who were standing outside because they weren’t invited in. As Toby Manhire writes, various councillors have described this undemocratic display as “frustrating”, “disappointing”, “counterproductive”, “bizarre” and a “shitshow”. 

We are not done yet on this week of embarrassingly petty and amateur performances by politicians. I’ve lost track of when this happened and am too tired to Google it, but at some point National MP Simon O’Connor deliberately chose some words which sounded homophobic during a debate on a child support bill. Apparently his use of “mother and father” wasn’t meant to sound like it did, and was instead aimed at “deadbeat dads”, but it really calls into question the meaning of the word “deliberate”. 

On we go. Utterly hamstrung by his decision to reverse the removal of the $5 prescription fee, Luxon stepped on one of the many rakes on the lawn the policy creates for National. You can call the question from Newshub about whether prescription fees on contraceptive pills would be maintained “a gotcha”, but that it wasn’t anticipated is just poor planning. Reversing the zero-fees policy read as mean when it was announced. Now it also reads as an attack on women.

Labour could have let the inference speak for itself, but instead the party – which has previously managed to remain above this kind of fray – decided to insult women all over the world who live with far less freedom than we do. Labour minister Megan Woods tweeted a The Handmaid’s Tale gif, as if to imply that the current policy settings, maintained over the last six years by the current Labour government, are akin to a fictional dystopia where women are raped each month by order of a theocratic authoritarian government.  

Reproductive rights are a serious issue, taken seriously by serious people, and we should of course remain vigilant. But to reduce your response to that gif is reactionary, divisive and inflammatory. Buried beneath this carry-on is the not-insignificant fact that the prescription fee policy is based on good evidence from University of Otago researchers. For every 100 people who received free prescriptions, 33 were admitted to hospital and stayed for 208 days. For every 100 people who still had to pay the $5 charge, 41 were admitted to hospital and stayed for 326 days. Serious people would talk about that.

Keep going!