Monday, August 26, 2013

Who’s on first

Someone has to be first. New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. New Zealand’s Sir Edmund Hillary was the first person in the world to reach the top of Mt. Everest. Now, New Zealand could be about to have its first leader of a major party who is gay or Maori—and that person could go on to become the first prime minister of that description. Or, maybe not.

The Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Grant Robertson, who is also the MP for Wellington Central, was the first person to announce his candidacy for Leader of the NZ Labour Party. He is openly gay, a fact that has become a central focus of the newsmedia coverage of his announcement. They ask, “Is New Zealand ready for a gay prime minister?” or, they might offer an opinion, like the conservative New Zealand Herald’s columnist John Armstrong who said Robertson is “Gay, but not overtly so. Comes across instead as a Good Kiwi Bloke who likes a beer or two while chewing the political fat…” “Overtly?!”

Much of the media has also been uncritically reporting the musings of former Labour MP Georgina Beyer, the world’s first transgendered MP, who worried about some sort of social reactionary “backlash” should Robertson get the leadership, declaring, as Stuff headlined its story, “Gay prime minister may be 'a step too far'”.

My own view is that by asking the question and framing things in this way, the newsmedia is actually manufacturing the news: People who wouldn’t have cared one way or the other will now wonder if they should care about the prospect of an openly-gay prime minister. Beyer’s worries are also unfounded: No “Christian” conservative party has ever made it into Parliament since MMP began in 1996, and there’s no reason to think that’s about to change. “Social conservatives”, as they’re often called, are sensible enough to know that voting for a religious fringe party is throwing their vote away, and they will vote instead for National—not entirely to their liking, but one they like better than Labour. Put another way, the voters that Beyer worries about would never vote for Labour, anyway.

Some pundits have suggested that Robertson as Leader would drive the socially conservative religious Pacific Island voters away from Labour. That would mean that they would put anti-gay prejudice above the very real harm being done to Pacifika communities by the National/Act Government, so that scenario sounds like Tories’ wishful thinking to me.

The second candidate to announce was Shane Jones, who is a List MP and Maori. Did the newsmedia comment on this by asking, “Is New Zealand ready for a Maori Prime Minister?” Well, no, actually, none of them have asked that, nor has anyone suggested that Jones isn’t “overtly” Maori, nor has anyone said a Maori Prime Minister would be “a step too far”. While that speaks volumes about how permissible it is to express anti-gay prejudice, I think the other side of that is fascinating: The fact that Jones is Maori is no longer seen by the newsmedia as important, and certainly not as a limitation. That much IS progress, because in previous years this hypothetical question (but only hypothetical because neither National nor Labour has ever had a Maori party leader) has produced rather lukewarm support for the concept of a hypothetical Maori prime minister.

The third and presumably final candidate to announce (the deadline to announce is 10pm tonight) is presumed front-runner, David Cunliffe, MP for New Lynn, and former Cabinet Minister in the previous Labour Gpvernment. He stood for Leader after Phil Goff stepped down following the party’s 2011 election defeat. He also was caught up on a coup plot about a year ago, was banished to the backbenches as punishment, and has now re-emerged. He is apparently favoured by the left wing of the party. He’s also a white heterosexual male, and having had so many of those, New Zealand is certainly okay with another one being prime minister, so we won’t ask, will we?

It turns out I WILL get to vote for who I want to lead the Labour Party (I wasn’t sure when I mentioned this before), but I haven’t made up my mind who I’ll vote for. All three have virtues and all three have drawbacks. Deciding who has the most positives overall will be the trick, and the most important positive is the ability to lead the party to victory in 2014.

There will be a series of meetings over the next three weeks, giving Party members the chance to hear all the candidates. I plan on attending and I’ll be sure to write about that experience. For a politics junkie like me, this is really exciting stuff!

Excited as I am, I’m also aware of the importance of this whole thing. By helping to choose the next Leader of the Labour Party, I may very well be helping to choose the next Prime Minister of New Zealand (similar to the way that voters in US Primary Elections, who help to select party candidates, also help to choose who can become US President, except on a much smaller scale, of course).

Next year, I’ll also get to participate in the process of selecting the Labour Party candidate for Parliament in this electorate. I did that once before, sort of, years before I began this blog. This time, I’ll be writing more extensively about the whole thing.

But that’s next year. Next month the new Leader of the Labour Party will be announced. The following month are the local elections, and I haven’t even talked about THEM yet!

Throughout all this, I’m going to write more personal accounts and reflections of the events, rather than just the sort of commentary I’ve done in past years. There will still be commentary, of course, but over the next year I’ll have the opportunity to write first-hand accounts of New Zealand politics, and I’m looking forward to it.

This will be an exciting year.

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