Dylan Asafo argues that it’s impossible to govern for “all New Zealanders” in an exceptionally unequal society like ours

The night of New Zealand’s general election was bittersweet. Like many others, I was happy to see the National Party’s ever-increasing incompetence and unapologetic racism met with the defeat they deserved.

But in watching the Prime Minister deliver her victory speech, I couldn’t help but feel my happiness quickly fade as she stated her new Government’s focus for the next three years, proclaiming: “We will not take your support for granted and I can promise you we will be a party which governs for every New Zealander.”

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with these words – they are encouraging and warm, and expertly delivered with the Prime Minister’s signature calm and reassuring voice that we have become almost dependent on in a year defined by an ongoing global pandemic.

However, to those of us with the most vulnerable in Aotearoa on our minds, we knew that this message of promising governing for “every New Zealander” was a thinly veiled assurance to the former, recently swayed National Party voters that the new Government had their back. It felt almost like a nudge and a wink to let them know that our deeply unequal normal was to continue.

Of course, none of this came as a surprise. We were all warned well in advance. If not by Labour’s lacklustre and non-transformative first term and inequitable Covid-19 recovery plan, then by the Prime Minister’s refusal to support a Capital Gains Tax and a Wealth Tax – two critical steps towards ending poverty and achieving substantive equality in Aotearoa.

Yet one can’t help but still feel betrayed by how the Prime Minister has once again appealed to the hopes (and fears) of our most vulnerable to gain power, only to then turn around and declare loyalty to the most privileged in Aotearoa whose interests are in diametric opposition to theirs.

The truth is that in an exceptionally unequal society like ours, it’s impossible to govern for all “New Zealanders”. You cannot serve the interests of wealthy conservatives, and then claim to be remotely interested in addressing poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration and climate change. You have to choose one – there is no legitimate and honest middle ground or ‘centre’.

Contrary to popular belief, the ‘centre’ isn’t a place for reasonable, measured minds who can see valid points on both sides and find a just and fair compromise. The ‘centre’ doesn’t actually exist. It’s an imagined safe space for people who are deeply invested in inequality in a settler-colonial, capitalist state but still want to be perceived as kind and decent people.

For the Prime Minister’s former and new Labour governments, this strict commitment to the ‘centre’ has meant persistently peddling messages of “kindness”, “unity” and “togetherness” in order to appear values-based – all while flatly rejecting any all proposals for equity and transformative change that Māori, Pasifika, Muslim, Black, Peoples of Colour, refugees, migrants and our intersecting LGBTQI+ communities and peoples with disabilities so desperately need.

But it’s time to acknowledge that these messages can no longer be seen as just ‘politics as usual’. There comes a point where the blatant exploitation of our most vulnerable and resilient for votes becomes emotional and psychological violence that is added on top of the state-sanctioned violence of poverty and marginalisation. At this point, not only are our most vulnerable and resilient routinely targeted, manipulated, used, and disposed of by these supposedly “kind” politicians who they trusted to take care of them. They are then made to suffer in silence when these popular (and seemingly untouchable) politicians proudly and publicly deny them the means to live their lives with dignity.

To me, the Prime Minister reached this point on Monday with renewed vigour when she rejected the call from Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) to raise benefits to provide a liveable income for struggling families before Christmas, saying, “this is not going to be an issue that can be resolved in one week or one month or indeed one term”. She further reasoned that the permanent $25 boost to benefits introduced in April in response to the Covid-19 pandemic was a “substantial increase”.

As expected, this was all said in her signature calm voice and with her brilliant smile that has seen her celebrated globally as the most compassionate and empathic leader in the world. However, one can’t resist the feeling that her voice and smile are being used more and more as weapons against our most vulnerable and resilient, capable of disguising the cruel rejection of tangible and evidenced-based steps for change as fair and even necessary for the greater good.

Brooke Stanley Pao, the coordinator of AAAP, best describes the Prime Minister’s problem as follows: “Referring to $25 as a ‘substantial increase’ in benefit levels is so problematic and disconnected with the realities of people who are living day to day in this country, and to be frank it reeks of privilege … This Labour government has consistently campaigned and talked about being ‘transformational’ in their approach to social issues like welfare reform and we are yet to see any of these slogans backed up by real and lasting action.”

AAAP’s Janet McAllister also captures the injustice of Ardern’s refusal nicely, stating: “Calling for ‘enough’ for ‘adequacy’ for ‘not-poverty’ is a very low bar. Preventing people from having enough – that’s unreasonable. Using children as economic shock absorbers – that’s unreasonable. Covid-response policies that stretch inequity even further – that’s unreasonable.”

What AAAP helps us to understand here is that this idea that incrementalism is the right path to equality and justice for all is an outright lie. A lie designed to shut down well-justified calls for change and further entrench systems of privilege.

But what is also particularly disturbing about the Prime Minister’s refusal to raise benefits is that Labour has enough seats in Parliament to govern alone, which means they can pass any law and implement any policy they want to. Unlike in Ardern’s first term, Labour is no longer limited by the nonsensical conservative politics of NZ First, which was often cited as the government’s excuse for inaction in the face of poverty and climate crises. To put it simply, the road to the transformative change they once campaigned for is wide open like it has never been before.

However, in my opinion, it’s becoming more and more probable that the Prime Minister and her Labour leaders have never truly cared about achieving transformative change, and that the goal has really always been to acquire and maintain power.

It’s been said in many different ways that when we have power, especially almost unfettered power, that our true selves are revealed. Therefore, to call out the violence of “kindness” and “unity”, it’s more and important than ever that we follow AAAP’s lead in holding mirrors to the faces of our Prime Minister and our other “kind” leaders so that they can be confronted with the truth of who they are, or moreover, who they have become. We need to do this no matter how ‘aggressive’ we may look and how unpopular and unlikable it makes us.

Also, while many of us are excited by the unprecedented number of Māori and Pacific MPs in cabinet – Western, settler-colonial politics have taught us time and time again that when it matters most, class solidarity has always prevailed over aroha for whānau and Papatūānuku. Therefore, it looks like it’s on us Māori and Pacific peoples to continue holding these mirrors to our people in these positions of power and have difficult conversations about their active participation in white supremacy – no matter the awkwardness or discomfort involved.

In holding these mirrors, we must make it clear to our leaders that “kindness”- or “unity”-based politics mean nothing when there are deep, irreconcilable divisions at play that need to be reckoned with. This means that the people of Aotearoa need and demand more than “kindness” and “unity”. We need aroha-based governance and a meaningful commitment to honour te Tiriti o Waitangi that will see all of us in Aotearoa (rich and poor, Māori and non-Māori) thrive and succeed in ways we never even imagined.

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