With the election less than three weeks away, what co-governance means in practice — including in water management, education, planning law and local government — remains largely obscure. Which is hardly surprising when anyone who suggests that co-governance may not be fair or democratic has to be prepared to be accused of being racist. Or, perhaps, the target of the slightly less direct term “dog-whistling”, which has become the slur du jour.
Ryan Bridge, the co-host of breakfast show AM on Three, led the way when he interviewed Chris Hipkins in May. The Prime Minister has been quick to imply critics of Three Waters and other forms of “partnership” — such as bilingual road signs — are racist and he was obviously surprised by Bridge’s line of questioning.
Bridge asked the Prime Minister, “You have accused Chris Luxon of dog-whistling [over bilingual signs], which is a hugely provocative and damaging thing for him to be wearing. Who was he dog-whistling to, in your opinion?”
Hipkins sidestepped Luxon as an example and referred to comments by Simeon Brown, National’s transport spokesperson, that road signs should only be in English because “most people speak English”. He described the comments as a “dog whistle” and said National should be called out over them.
Bridge said he fully supported using bilingual road signs himself, but persisted in his interrogation over the words Hipkins had used. “Who was [Luxon] dog-whistling to — to ‘get votes’, as you put it?” he asked the Prime Minister. “Are you saying he is dog-whistling to racists?”
It slowly dawned on Hipkins that Bridge wouldn’t be deterred from his mission to expose his lazy and disreputable tactic. He blustered about there being “nothing to fear” from bilingual signs until Bridge asked again: “Are you saying that anybody who opposes the signs is inherently racist?”
Hipkins: “No, I’m not saying that at all.”
Bridge: “So who is he dog-whistling to?”
Backed into a corner, Hipkins offered a lame explanation: “There is a racist underbelly in some of the public dialogue around this, and that does seem to be an audience the National Party are trying to appeal to.”
So, it turned out that the problem in Hipkins’ mind was a vaguely defined “racist underbelly” — presumably akin to those whom Hillary Clinton famously and disastrously called “a basket of deplorables”.
Television host Moana Maniopoto took a similar tack as Hipkins when she interviewed Winston Peters in a sit-down interview last week, accusing the veteran politician of “dog-whistling”.
“Why would Māori vote for New Zealand First when you’re chucking out words like apartheid, when you’re against co-governance?… You‘re dog-whistling.”
“Oh, they are dogs, are they?” Peters asked. “So, according to you, these Māori are dogs?”
When Maniopoto claimed he was “twisting words”, Peters replied: “No, that’s what it means.”
The doozy, however, came late last week in the panel discussion after the first of the leaders’ debates that pitted Christopher Luxon against Chris Hipkins in what was a thoroughly anodyne match.
The panel discussion however, was anything but anodyne.
NZ Herald journalist Simon Wilson thought it would be a good idea to reprise the theme he had presented when he was interviewed by Moana Maniopoto in July, alongside like-minded panellists Tapu Misa, a journalist, and Rob Campbell, the former chair of Te Whatu Ora.
In that roundtable discussion on Te Ao with Moana, the discussion turned to co-governance and Three Waters. Wilson told his sympathetic crew: “The big thing that is driving opposition to the government — or one of the big things — is racism. It’s that simple. Racism underlines opposition to Three Waters. It underlines a whole lot of things and it’s at the level of ‘Māori have just been getting too much.’”
Presenting that view months later during the post-mortem of the leaders’ debate, however, went down like a lead balloon. Wilson was sandwiched between NZME head of business Fran O’Sullivan and the Taxpayers’ Union Jordan Williams, with the libertarian Damien Grant at the lectern.
Wilson claimed Act’s David Seymour had opportunistically “stirred up racial hatred” by his opposition to co-governance and that constituted racism on his part. He also maintained the topic was of relatively little concern to most voters.
Williams declared himself to also be a critic of Three Waters and the RMA reforms because he believed that “dividing us and our rights based on race” is the “biggest threat to our long-term prosperity”. He asked if Wilson thought his “genuine concerns” made him a racist.
Wilson tried to avoid giving a direct answer. But Damien Grant, as moderator, would not accept such evasiveness. He told him emphatically: “It’s a yes or no question. Is Jordan Williams a racist because he does not agree with co-governance?”
Wilson said “No” — which sparked an explosion of indignation from Grant. “So if Jordan Williams isn’t a racist, what about all the other people [like him]? Are they ‘They’re not racist,’ either? You cannot, sir, you cannot turn around to somebody and say, ‘Because you disagree with me on this issue, ipso facto, you must be a racist.’ The people who are stirring up racial hatred are [those] who infer, from someone’s political views, malice. And that, sir, is wrong and you shouldn’t do it. You are a member of the Fourth Estate. You should do better.”
Grant might have also quoted an observation at that point by economist and political philosopher Thomas Sowell: “Racism is not dead, but it is on life support — kept alive by politicians, race hustlers and people who get a sense of superiority by denouncing others as ‘racists’.”
Fran O’Sullivan then added to the withering fire with another impassioned statement of her own, which also received a burst of applause. She referenced a “whole range of topics that aren’t talked about” — including gender ideology — and concluded, “There is something pretty damn evil in society at the moment” that stops civil discussion and cancels people or labels them “racists, Terfs, or whatever… and this has got to stop”.
It shouldn’t be at all remarkable, of course, that a journalist or anyone else in public life should so directly and forcefully speak in favour of free speech as Damien Grant and Fran O’Sullivan did, but unfortunately it is. Consequently, the response on social media has been overwhelmingly one of jubilation — and gratitude.
The fact that commentators mounting a public defence of free speech have been so rapturously applauded must also be seen as a sad indictment of the stifling and oppressive atmosphere that has become entrenched under the Ardern-Hipkins government over discussing contentious issues. Not least because of the requirement that any media organisation wanting to access the $55 million on offer via the Public Interest Journalism Fund has had to view the Treaty as a “partnership”.
The hope for more direct and open public debate is one of the propellants for a change of government next month. After all, David Seymour is a fierce advocate of free speech and Christopher Luxon has echoed him, albeit much more faintly.
As the USSR’s leader Mikhail Gorbachev said in a speech in 1986 referring to his new policy of freer dialogue and transparency known as glasnost: “Those who attempt to suppress the fresh voice, the just voice… need to get out of the way.”
Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by ThePlatform.kiwi and is published here with kind permission.