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After Christchurch, politicians need to hand in their dog whistles

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: compassion, decisiveness and clarity. Photo/Getty Images

With firmness and kindness, we can all do our bit to put an end to the dog whistles that have long been a feature of the country’s politics.

Cometh the hour, cometh … well, in politics, you can never be sure.

The Christchurch atrocity of March 15 has produced a magnificent array of civilian heroes, the Muslim victims, in particular, displaying preternatural courage in the face of certain death. Police, paramedics, the bystanders who didn’t just stand by, all went above and beyond even our highest expectations. Came this hour, came numerous brave individuals who embody all the reasons terrorism can never triumph.

For our political leaders, though, it’s been a plunge into an undreamt-of new habitat, and some are struggling to breathe in it.

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Irrespective of anyone’s political leanings, only an industrial-strength churl could fail to be thankful for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s stewardship. Compassion, decisiveness, clarity – her leadership skills have been there for the world to see. “They are us” will go down as among the most dextrous, resonant and healing lines a politician ever said.

Her deftness has given her an iron grip on the political climate downstream. What cynics dismissed as “Jacinda’s ‘kindness’ fairy dust” is the new oxygen of politics. Along with the surrender of semi-automatic weapons, it’s now time for everyone in the game to hand in their dog whistles. Some politicians are going to find this tough, to the point of existential crisis.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has looked like an actor who’s suddenly realised he’s in the wrong play and has no idea how to extemporise. His armoury has always included a huge “They aren’t us” quotient, but overnight this useful electoral tool that’s served him his whole career is out of bounds. He has been unusually non-eloquent, and it’s a mercy he’s been sent to Indonesia and Turkey on a condolence-bearing mission. Let’s just hope those countries don’t dwell on his past observations about Muslim culture.

National, too, is having tin-earitis. It has pointedly not resiled from its ill-advised decision to campaign against the United Nations’ Global Compact for Migration. The compact has been the favoured rallying point for white supremacists and anti-immigration fanatics the world over. Lie down with such dogs and you catch some pretty flea-bitten ideas.

National argues that the compact seeks to remove from governments the discretion over which and how many immigrants to take in. When its 23 objectives are read in their context, it’s clear it does no such thing.

Another part also says that signatory nations will do all they can to address the problems within those countries from which people are fleeing, so they don’t have to become immigrants in the first place. On National’s literalistic reading, this would mean that, having signed the compact, New Zealand will be in big trouble for not having liberated Afghanistan, invaded Syria and generally brought peace to the Middle East.

Given National’s impassioned defence of its open-borders policy while in government – to the point of crying racist on anyone who dared question the pace or quality of immigration – its allergy to the compact is contradictory, anyway.

Now would be the time to back away quietly, but, like Peters, National Party leader Simon Bridges has yet to go cold turkey on the old dark arts of politics.

Illustration/Chris Slane

Political capital

Of course, cometh the hour, cometh the opportunist as well. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has screened the Christchurch massacre footage during his election campaign, and his lightning dispatch of his deputy to New Zealand on a condolence mission could be viewed as making political capital out of the dead.

Others, perhaps less consciously, have been using the tragedy to bolster their pre-existing causes, chiefly opposition to New Zealand’s participation in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, and even the need to have security services at all.

There are dangers in rushing to judgment here, the first being good old-fashioned victim-blaming. This country was victim to a terrorist. This was not the security services’ fault, but the terrorist’s.

Second, we cannot, necessarily, know the counterfactual: how many atrocities have our security services prevented? Do we really expect them to get up and enumerate them before we’re satisfied they’re worth the money?

Third, criticism often confuses the roles of the Five Eyes alliance with that of domestic security services and the police. That they failed to pick up the mosque gunman may indeed reflect a dropped ball, in that our spies admit they stepped up surveillance on ultra-right groups only nine months ago. But it could equally be that we have not given them enough scope or money.

It’s possible that countries such as Australia and the UK, which have more tightly codified hate speech and have allowed their agencies more leeway to patrol it, are better equipped than ours. There’s a price to pay for codifying hate speech. In the UK, police have felt obliged to intervene in schoolyard invective, and been called in for such “offences” as the mockery of the sparsity of vowels in Welsh names.

Security sceptics may also get the opposite of what they want, if it turns out that mass-data surveillance is the only reliable way to detect the likes of alleged killer Brenton Tarrant.

Room for improvement

The previous Government dialled back mass-surveillance and eventually nixed it. Even under National, it was judged politically unpalatable. Should this atrocity change that?

Ardern has advanced a compelling theme around the principle that it’s not New Zealand that needs to change. Our ethos is compassionate, inclusive, free and humane, and no terrorist must be allowed to cow us.

To borrow a precautionary phrase that ministers use in response to ominous questions in Parliament, “… but there is always room for improvement”. Our best way forward is to double down on our inclusive values. That means not censoring, but calling out divisive rhetoric – without inflaming it in the process.

Divisive dog-whistling – and not just about race – has always been a gratifying and electorally profitable pastime. More lately, its rear-guard foe, identity politics, has become something akin to a series of sticks with which to beat people rather than a tool for asserting rights.

For many of our politicians, this will be a harrowing detox.

We can all help. Like dogs, MPs can be trained without dog whistles, using firmness, kindness and frequent corrective exclamations of “NO!”

This article was first published in the March 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.