In her final election 2020 column, Laura O’Connell Rapira argues that progressive voters hold more power than they may think.
In the recent TVNZ young voters debate, Kiritapu Allan defended Labour’s decision not to implement a capital gains tax by saying that “what New Zealanders want is stability”. In a recent op-ed Labour Party candidate Vanushi Walters wrote that “what New Zealand needs now is stability.” On Facebook, finance minister Grant Robertson has said “A vote for Labour will give you stability.”
It’s a good line and one that’s obviously tested well but what it also signals to this particular New Zealander is Labour’s commitment to returning us to “normal”.
But I don’t want to go back to normal.
Normal was shit for lots of Indigenous people, people on low-incomes, disabled people, queer and trans folk, young people and migrants of colour.
Normal is the richest 1% owning 68 times more wealth than the median New Zealander. It’s property speculators making millions while low-income families are forced to spend more than half their income on housing and 41,000 people are homeless.
Business-as-usual is three consecutive decades of CEO pay increasing at more than double that of workers, with some CEOs making more in one year than their workers will in 40.
Normal is migrant worker exploitation, insecure work, stingy benefits and mouldy houses.
It’s the government spending more in just two years on locking up people (mostly Māori) in prisons than the entire history of Treaty reparations. It is polluted, drained and dying rivers, plastic choking our oceans and chemicals contaminating our soil.
Do you know who needs stability? Papatūānuku. The planet. Our life support systems. All the best climate science says we have 10 years to transform our economy to one that serves our planet over the profit of billionaires and corporations. Ten years to move away from pollution to restoration, from waste to circular systems and extractive practices to regenerative ones.
The good news is that 10 years is enough time and we already have the solutions. What we need now is coordinated people power outside of parliament and political courage from those inside to make it happen.
In his excellent book Strategy and Soul, US activist and educator Daniel Hunter says, “Politicians are like a balloon tied to a rock. If we swat at them, they may sway to the left or the right. But, tied down, they can only go so far. Instead of batting at them, we should move the rock: people’s activated social values. When we move the rock, it automatically pulls all the politicians towards us — without having to pressure each one separately.”
In other words, where the people lead the politicians will follow. We, the people, just need to be clear, strategic and insistent about where we want to paddle this waka to.
Earlier this year, I delivered a petition signed by 30,000 people calling for Matariki to be a public holiday and crowdfunded independent polling that showed the majority of New Zealanders support this change. I sent the polling to prime minister Jacinda Ardern because I know politicians pay attention to polls and that MPs are unlikely to take action unless they think the majority of New Zealanders support said action too. Seven weeks later, Labour joined the Māori Party and the Greens in confirming they will make Matariki a public holiday if in government.
Of course, it is not only this poll or petition that led to Labour’s announcement. Many Māori over many years have been working for Matariki to be given the recognition it deserves. But what I do think this teaches us is the power of harnessing public support in the right moments. I think our social movements would benefit from working at the intersections of what is popular and progressive. There are many kaupapa where voters are more ready for change than our politicians: government-funded dental care, higher taxes for the wealthy and climate action. With a coordinated and broad-based approach, social movements could make significant gains on all three of these.
Every campaign we win pulls the rock to a more progressive position which makes more change possible in the future. We build hope and belief by winning. We grow our power by nurturing diverse social movements, building the capacity of people to create change and shifting hearts and minds through storytelling and organising.
My message to the next cohort of MPs is we cannot go back to business-as-usual because our planet cannot afford it. You must be courageous with your political capital and remember that on many issues, voters are more progressive than you think.
To those of us in social movements, what are the kaupapa that are both popular and progressive? And how can we work together to take them over the try line? This doesn’t mean giving up on our values or vision, it means achieving reforms while we work towards transformation.
Our movements have the power to create a new normal where Aotearoa is clean, green and beautiful and we honour Indigenous rights. A normal where we nurture nature and ensure every person has great health, education, housing, community, culture, water, food, energy, internet, political voice, equality and a decent income – not just here, but everywhere.
This new normal is ready and waiting to surface if we work together to make it so.