A few months ago, I took advantage of the “subscribe” function in Facebook to follow the postings of rightwing Auckland Councillor George Wood, who represents my Ward. I didn’t vote for him, so I had no desire to be “friends” with him, but I nevertheless was interested in what he was doing as my representative.
What I ended up with was a window on the worldview of Tories at the local level in Auckland. I can’t say I understand them any more than I did before, but I at least appreciate how they view the world, and nowhere has that been more evident than in the strike against the Ports of Auckland.
I won’t get into the specifics of the dispute, in part because even after all these weeks, I don’t think I understand it at all—and neither do most Aucklanders. This, of course, plays into the hands of conservatives, including in the newsmedia, who can slant the story to fit their agenda. And they did.
At first, the rightwing meme was that this was all the fault of the evil labour union, whose members, they declared, are without exception lazy, grossly overpaid, belligerent, selfish and myopic. Their rhetoric exceeded reality, of course (which is a nice way of saying they often lied, exaggerated or distorted in the nature of a lie), but the average Aucklander would have no practical way of knowing that. However, mainstream Aucklanders also probably didn’t really care, being more concerned with the holidays.
Enter meme 2: It’s all Auckland Mayor Len Brown’s fault. Tories hate Mayor Brown because he’s from the centre left (reason enough, in their view), so they look for things to blame on him. In this case, they insisted he should have personally intervened to end the dispute, but the fact that he didn’t meant he was a failure. Or something (their logic was difficult to follow).
The problem for them is that when Rodney Hide and the N’Act Party set up the new Auckland, they deliberately kept assets like the port at arms length from the Council, mainly to make it easier to sell off to private foreign investors (the port is currently owned by the people of Auckland). What this means is that the structure that the conservatives themselves put in place makes it virtually impossible for any mayor of Auckland to have a role in ending a strike, except, perhaps, a largely symbolic one. So, this meme didn’t stick, either.
Enter the third rightwing meme: The port’s problems would all disappear if it was privatised: The unions would disappear, profits would skyrocket and the sun would be shining all day. Their logic is that if the port is taken away from the people of Auckland and sold off, that will make the port “better” and operate “more efficiently” (meaning, apparently, with no unions), thereby delivering higher profits. Why, it’d be Tory Magic in action!
Their agenda-driven meme has major holes, the biggest of which you could drive a port-load of container ships through: WHO owns the port has nothing to do with profitability, “efficiency” or anything else. Such things are the job of management to bring about, and they alone are accountable. In the Holy Private Sector™, if a company does poorly, no one fires the shareholders—they sack the CEO and other top executives. It’s no different with Ports of Auckland. Unhappy with its performance? Then sack the managers!
This saga shows The Tory Trifecta of memes: 1. All unions are bad/evil and must be destroyed, 2. All centre-left politicians are incompetent by virtue of being centre-left and not from the National Party, the Natural Party of Government™, and 3. All problems facing society could be solved if only everything could be flogged-off to foreign buyers.
In my brief exposure to the Tory worldview of local government, I’ve seen one or more of these memes used for any topic they may be discussing (and there have been several), but this is the first in which I’ve seen all three Tory memes. It’s been fascinating to watch.
Much as I disagree with these Tories on asset sales and their anti-union, anti-Mayor Brown posturing, I do give them one thing: They generally don’t display the unhinged ravings of commentators on newspaper websites, and that leads me to think that maybe critics of the Internet are right: It’s the anonymous nature of most comment boards that leads to the vitriol and extreme rhetoric we so often see. On Facebook, after all, people can only comment using their real name (since most Facebook users don’t seem inclined to try and get away with a “nom de web”). All of this means they’re more likely to express honestly-held opinions, even when they’re extreme—but generally not too extreme.
There’s a saying that local government in New Zealand is for politicians who aren’t smart enough to make it in Parliament. There’s another that local government politicians and political activists are made up of the “mad, sad and unemployed”. This Facebook window has shown me why those sayings persist.
Someone finally went there - the last time I talked about George Wood.
My political secret - I referred obliquely to Tory commentators in this post.