an old-fashioned tv against an orange background. The TV is showing static with a Election 2023 sticker in front of it. The sticker is ripped in half
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONPoliticsSeptember 18, 2023

Why I’m opting out of the election this year

an old-fashioned tv against an orange background. The TV is showing static with a Election 2023 sticker in front of it. The sticker is ripped in half
Image: Archi Banal

In 2020, Emma Wehipeihana appeared on panels, wrote columns and tweeted about politics with enthusiasm. This time around, she’s giving it all a miss.

On election night in 2020, I finished my final medical school exam, got changed in the grotty university loo and drove over to TVNZ to participate in the election night commentary panel. My exam nerves were transmuted, usefully, into live-TV adrenaline just before sliding into the chair next to John Campbell and Hilary Barry, the benign uncle and aunty of mainstream national telly. 

It was fun. It was when Twitter was still a community of gently antagonistic subcultures and virtue-signalling quoted retweets. I scrolled through digital fist bumps and encouraging messages from actual and online mates in the breaks. I gave the verbal fingers to the fringe pests of the New Zealand Public Party and Advance NZ and nobody threatened me in the comments section or wrote to my employer or did anything intimidating to make me feel like political commentary was an unsafe pastime. 

This year I plan to do nothing more than write this piece, vote, and continue to go to work every day in our catastrophically under-resourced health system. In part this is a practical decision. We are frighteningly short of staff in our department, working extra hours and cross-covering each other’s sick leave and preciously guarded annual leave, such that I probably couldn’t string a sentence together on national television even if I wanted to. 

Emma Wehipeihana, far right, on TVNZ’s election night panel in 2020 (Photo: Screenshot)

Invitations to speak on talk shows, appear on podcasts and write for media outlets are rusting in the neglected shed of my inbox, beneath bills, emails from my daughter’s school requesting parent help at events I didn’t know were happening, and pleas from the regional Te Whatu Ora HR service to fill vacancies in services I don’t have experience in. 

The honest truth is that, even if I had the energy, or a normal sleep schedule, or something resembling spare time, I would not be participating in this year’s election in a public way. My affection for big “P” politics as the often absurd, frequently enraging, and occasionally inspiring vehicle for change has been overwhelmed by trepidation about putting my head above the parapet for anything less than a threat to my family, patients or colleagues. I can see nothing positive in offering an opinion on the merits of one party over another, or aligning myself with anyone in particular in this climate of vicious abuse towards anyone who speaks up, particularly if you’re brown, or a woman, and yes I know that’s boring to say and hear, but the evidence doesn’t lie and if it’s not you being threatened, you can quietly sit this one out. 

The people I respect, the ones making a difference regardless of their sphere of influence, community or public profile, articulate a difference between big “P” politics and political action. The former requires engagement in a civic process that excludes many and forces even its most honourable leaders to swallow deceased rodents at an alarming rate in the name of a political party. The latter requires nothing but commitment to a cause and a belief in something bigger than yourself. 

I started this essay after a set of night shifts. Something about the liminal nature of working at midnight, watching the moon cough up a new day, or being awake in the very early morning dark, is clarifying. I’m in bed at 11am with my laptop and our most senior doctors are preparing for their first-ever strike. Brush aside all the PR and peri-election calculations about timing and you will see good doctors at their wits’ end. Our strikes in the health system are always gentle acts of protest. Life-preserving services first, and then the symbolism – a plaintive act driven by exhaustion and concern for patients, colleagues, the junior workforce, and the future. It’s difficult to fight your way through the tangled wool of media stories about every way that our national capacity deficit puts our healthcare workers and patients at risk, so large-scale protests like that of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists earlier this month offer an opportunity to see the unravelling tapestry in its entirety.  

Most of us are pathologically addicted to work and committed to working specifically in this country. Money alone will never tempt the majority of our clinicians to the questionably appealing Australian health system and that country in general. Not to mention the doctors considering putting a much-loved vocation, for many a childhood dream job, in the bin. In order for this option to be thrown on the table, there has been an erosion of working conditions, of optimism, and a resulting deep sense of futility in continuing to fight. This is what is prompting some in our workforce to say they’d consider leaving – the job, or the country. 

In the face of all of this, it’s difficult to feel enthusiastic about the amateur theatre of the general election. I can’t summon even a little schadenfreude as the depraved and/or deeply odd candidates from our smaller parties are gleefully unearthed by political journos, squinting into the harsh light of our national media sun. I’ll be in Dunedin at the annual writers festival on election day, talking about the health system, equity and the intersection with storytelling with Stacey Morrison, one of my favourite people in the world who does more public and private political activism than almost anyone else I know. I can’t imagine there will be much difference in the mood of the hospital when I return to work the following Monday. There’s a reminder in my calendar for October 14 – “don’t forget to vote.” 

Keep going!