Judith Collins leads her caucus into a press conference at parliament on October 20, 2020 in Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Judith Collins leads her caucus into a press conference at parliament on October 20, 2020 in Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsMarch 10, 2021

Is a war on wokesters and cancel culture a smart strategy for the National Party?

Judith Collins leads her caucus into a press conference at parliament on October 20, 2020 in Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Judith Collins leads her caucus into a press conference at parliament on October 20, 2020 in Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Time to cancel the culture war. The opposition is better when it’s focused on the hard yards of asking questions, following leads, and tugging on the loose threads, writes Ben Thomas.

New Zealand has long been a taker of American culture. Even as shipping routes have dried up during the pandemic, we have imported Wandavision, getting nostalgic for a culture we only know secondhand.

The same could be true for some members of the National Party, who seem deeply sentimental for “culture wars” that New Zealand has fortunately never had.

Former leader Simon Bridges has taken aim at the “wokester” police commissioner; leader Judith Collins has accused the government of “cancelling” radio hosts Peter Williams and Mike Hosking, as opposed to cancelling its appointments with them.

Can the National Party use “wokeness” as a political weapon?

Last week Stuff reported that National pollster David Farrar had spoken to a party membership event saying that “cancel culture” and “woke” issues could prove winners for the opposition.

It’s important to note that Farrar gives many speeches and addresses to a wide variety of audience and there’s no suggestion that this was backed up by polling, or research other than a request on Twitter earlier that day for examples of cancel culture, a la JK Rowling, that he could use in his speech.

Getting into a discussion about whether “cancel culture” exists and what exactly it might be is a fool’s game in 2021. But it’s easy enough to grapple with a few heuristics. Thanks to the online environment, public recrimination for attitudes or speech that’s deemed “problematic” is now commonplace. Some of this is deserved; some of it is wildly disproportionate, and such public opprobrium can have significant effects on anything from the target’s employment to their mental health.

There are two ways a war on wokeness could go, drawing on National’s past. In the best case scenario for the opposition, it could harness a public mood like the attacks on “the nanny state” of 2008, when regulations about energy-efficient lightbulbs and proposed standards for showerheads assumed gigantic proportions for an electorate that was sick of being “bossed around”.

In the worst case scenario, it could replicate the misadventures of National under Don Brash four years earlier, which started with complaints about “special privilege” for Māori and ended with the appointment of unassuming MP Wayne Mapp as “spokesperson for political correctness eradication”. Dubiously obtained emails in Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men show party strategist Murray McCully telling staffers to stall on interview requests about “Māori special treatment” because National hadn’t managed to find any yet, despite already launching a campaign against it.

The likely outcome is the latter, not the former. Identifying and articulating a problem is a key political skill. But the natural question for politicians making fiery stump speeches about discontinued Dr Seuss books or “wokester” police commissioners is: what are you going to do about it?

The government’s agenda of “woke” legislation is thin: hate speech laws may prove difficult to calibrate, but Act has owned that space even when it was back in the doldrums of 1% support.

Jacinda Ardern is no Hillary Clinton. Coming from small-town Waikato she is finely attuned to middle New Zealand sensibilities. Unlike her online super-fans, she doesn’t ascribe the trials she faces as prime minister to evil or bigotry. It is simply not in her nature to label any part of the electorate “deplorables”.

Without any concrete government target to react against, and only an amorphous feeling of cyber persecution, Bridges et al may as well be complaining that Zoomers don’t understand why side parts and skinny jeans are cool.

If the prime minister is not going to give National any free hits on out-of-touch performative progressiveness (and experience says she isn’t) that leaves National in the uncomfortable position (for a party of small government) of trying to regulate private behaviour itself. The Sean Plunket (Reinstatement) Bill, or requiring the National Library to divest from all Dr Seuss books except the ones with racial stereotypes, does not seem like a recipe for success.

It’s not quite as easy as saying MPs should spend less time on Twitter, although that’s true as well. Fox News and Facebook have given — predominantly middle-aged male — New Zealanders a new set of outsized fears based on the American culture wars, as the veil separating online and IRL wears ever thinner. Louise Upston told Stuff that Taupō constituents had been increasingly worried about cancel culture, and party members enjoying the Wellesley Hotel’s fine range of whiskeys may have nodded approvingly. But National’s task is to poll back to the mid 40s in order to challenge for the Treasury benches. If a significant portion of voters are concerned about “wokeness” it’s an entirely different question whether they are the voters who defected from National to Labour and could put the Tories back into power.

Outside the Wellesley, National’s successes this year have come from low-risk, forensic opposition work: the hard yards of asking questions, following leads, tugging on the loose threads of the government’s work programmes.

Housing spokesperson Nicola Willis has successfully shown up the government’s Kiwibuild-like lack of progress in the first year of its shared equity scheme, as house prices skyrocket to eye-watering levels and lock out more young voters.

Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop has uncovered the lack of impetus on state-by-state travel bubble options with Australia. East Coast Bays MP Erica Stanford even scored a hit on itinerant Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March through forensic questioning in select committees, revealing he had tried to queue jump twice to re-enter the country.

Collins had her best press since the election calling for contacts of Covid cases to be fully reimbursed to stay home for testing and stop community spread.

The review into the party’s disastrous 2020 election campaign has been finished and is by some reports too “brutal” to be shown to even MPs. Its reported findings, blaming lack of unity and message discipline, are as relevant as ever. Let’s hope the party is not too “woke” to let snowflake MPs read it.

Ben Thomas is a PR consultant, a former ministerial adviser in a National government and part of the Gone By Lunchtime podcast.

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