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Controversial Causes - the Battle Against Political Correctness

27 July 2005

Don Brash's ability to transform a controversy into a cause lies at the heart of the National Party's electoral recovery. Except that the singular form - "controversy" - is misleading because the most impressive aspect of the Brash-led campaign has been his success at blending a multitude of controversies into one very popular cause: The Battle Against Political Correctness.

Most people trace the dramatic recovery of Brash's National Party back to his Orewa speech of 27 January 2004.

But this was by no means the beginning of the PC battle. Brash's "Nationhood" speech did not occur in a vacuum, but in an environment of mass hostility towards all aspects of political correctness.

That environment was not an accident. It had been carefully nurtured by everyone from radio talkback hosts like Paul Holmes and Leighton Smith to the hard-working ideologues at the Business Roundtable and the Maxim Institute.

Why did the phenomenon later known as "political correctness" make Brash's call-to-arms against its influence so compelling? There is often a lot to be learned from the insults politicians hurl at their enemies.

One of the most frequent charges levelled against Helen Clark's government is that it is driven by an agenda dating back to the 1970s.

The charge is false but it does point us in the right direction.

The social reform movements of the 1970s gave rise to the notion that some forms of human behaviour could be described as politically correct, while others were best forsaken as "politically incorrect" or "unsound." What were these behaviours? Essentially, they involved various forms of prejudice and discrimination. In the 1950s and '60s, for example, it was not unheard of for landlords to erect signs saying "No Dogs or Maoris" outside their accommodation.

As a youngster, I recall being told in some North Island towns Maori children were not allowed to sit upstairs at the cinema.

By the 1970s, such blatant forms of discrimination were becoming increasingly unacceptable, especially to young people.

Growing up, they had been moved by the stories coming out of the American south as blacks and whites together fought to end segregation.

When the white South African government demanded Maori be excluded from All Black touring sides or, failing that, be designated "honorary whites," they realised, even in Godzone, there was a fight to be waged against racism.

Now-familiar names like Syd Jackson, Pita Sharples, Atareta Poananga and Hone Harawira reacquainted Pakeha New Zealanders with the injustices of their nation's colonial past and began to demand redress for the wrongs done to their people.

The long-neglected Treaty of Waitangi acquired a new salience and was recognised as a document of historical significance.

Maori weren't the only group in New Zealand society to feel the sting of discrimination. Women, too, found themselves shut out of the key locations of power and influence.

At this historical remove, it seems preposterous that there were professions, and bars, women couldn't enter, jobs they couldn't do, and pay rates they could never aspire to - purely because of their gender.

It wasn't just a matter of closed doors. A woman brave enough to press rape charges against her attacker found herself being assaulted all over again by his lawyer when the case came to court.

Bloody marital disputes were dismissed by the police as "only a domestic" and the battered victims tossed back into the ring for another few rounds with their slugger.

Unwanted pregnancies could be terminated - for a price.

If you were poor, or lacked the right connections, that price could be high. Abortion was illegal in New Zealand until 1978 and for those forced to seek out criminal abortionists on the back streets of our larger cities, there was the certainty of pain, the probability of infection and the real possibility of death.

The Domestic Purposes Benefit, pioneered by Sir Keith Holyoake's National government and enacted by the Kirk Labour government, was one of the great achievements of the 1970s.

Now, at last, women and children could escape from the brutal prisons so many of their homes had become. Combined with the contraceptive pill and abortion law reform, the DPB constituted a powerful symbol of female liberation.

It would be another 10 years before gay New Zealanders were liberated from the oppressive legal environment in which they had been required to live.

The "blackmailer's charter," as the law against homosexuality was accurately described, was repealed only in 1986 by Fran Wilde's Private Member's Bill.

It would be wrong to suppose the political impulse to redress the worst aspects of racial, gender and sexual discrimination was restricted to those on the left of the political spectrum.

On such "social issues" there was often a large measure of bipartisan agreement.

The National Party established the office of the Race Relations Conciliator and, later, the Human Rights Commission.

Labour and National were similarly active in signing up New Zealand to the growing body of international law on human rights.

But agreement at the summit of the political system did not mean there was agreement at the base. Anti-discrimination legislation was often enacted over the objections of a clear majority of the population.

This was clearly the case with the Homosexual Law Reform Bill: 800,000 signatures - the largest tally in New Zealand history - were collected on a petition calling for homosexual acts to remain illegal.

New Zealanders have long evinced a powerful predilection for treating marginalised minorities harshly.

The Chinese know just how harshly, as do the mentally and physically disabled.

Too many New Zealand churches have preached a form of Christianity fiercely hostile to the slightest manifestation of sensual delight, condemning their congregations to a perpetual struggle against their own most powerful desires.

That so many surrender to temptation merely serves to intensify their self-loathing.

The novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson is not the only New Zealand artist to have observed the grotesque fashion in which many Kiwis project their own inner failings onto the most vulnerable members of the community.

Our political leaders have never been slow to take advantage of these aspects of our national character. Politicians of both the left and the right have ruthlessly exploited our anti-intellectualism, our authoritarianism, and our deep-seated prejudices against all kinds of minorities.

As Bobby Kennedy is once said to have remarked: "Democracy is like a good sausage. It tastes great but you don't really want to know what goes into it." The tragedy and the triumph of Don Brash is that he is both the victim and the slayer in this drama.

As the son of one of New Zealand's most liberal Christian preachers, and no mean student of the nation's moral history himself, Brash knows only too well how steep is the slope that decent New Zealanders must climb to achieve anything worthwhile in politics.

His brave gesture towards Peter Ellis shows where his moral sensibilities would guide him, given the chance.

But they will not be given the chance - not if Murray McCully and Richard Long can help it. They are old hands at this political game and they know the number of votes available for decency is strictly limited.

They are not alone. The whole conservative movement, whose walls the progressives so successfully assaulted in the 1970s and '80s, has slowly mustered its scattered forces and is itching to go on the offensive.

It cannot rally New Zealand in the name of rehabilitating all forms of racial, gender and sexual discrimination - its true agenda - but it can get people marching against "Political Correctness Gone Mad." And, for that one chance to get his hands on the economic levers, Don Brash has been willing to put himself at the head of the column.

That is Brash's tragedy.

Brash's triumph has been to make Helen Clark do the same. How much nobler it would have been for the labour movement she leads to make its own glorious cause out of the controversies Brash has exploited - to remind us all why social change was so necessary in the 1970s, and how proud it was to fight prejudice and discrimination then, and now.

To retreat before evil is to endow it with a strength it does not deserve and should not be given.

If Labour loses this election it will be only because it was too gutless to win.

Chris Trotter, editor of NZ Political Review
The Independent

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