After Christchurch, NZ politicians have had to do some soul-searching

by Bevan Rapson / 16 April, 2019
Opinion
Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters speaks to media as Parliament resumes on 2 April. Normal parliamentary business had been suspended following the Christchurch mosque attacks on 15 March that left 50 people dead and dozens more seriously wounded. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Getty.

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters speaks to media as Parliament resumes on 2 April. Normal parliamentary business had been suspended following the Christchurch mosque attacks on 15 March that left 50 people dead and dozens more seriously wounded. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Getty.

Like the rest of us, our politicians have had to do some soul-searching.

After a grief-stricken couple of weeks, it was more than a little ironic that Winston Peters should be the one to give some of us a passing moment of amusement.

His indignant dismissal of Aussie senator Fraser Anning as a “four-flushing, dingoistic moron” was classic late-period Peters.

The sentiment was hard to argue with. Within hours of the 15 March terrorist attack in Christchurch, the unlovely Anning had issued a statement blaming it on Muslim immigration, incurring the odium of Australian politicians of all shades, and most memorably that of the youth who slapped an egg on the senator’s head, winning himself celebrity status along with a roughing up from Anning and his goons. The egging might prove almost as memorable as the time Act’s Mt Albert by-election candidate John Boscawen got a lamington squashed onto his head.

Giving Anning another serve was like spearing a barramundi in a barrel, and Peters knows from long experience that taking on an over-opinionated Australian – any over-opinionated Australian – will go down a treat with the domestic audience.

The “dingoistic” was his dad-joke way of underlining the nationality of his target, while the “moron” was as good a descriptor as any. Nincompoop, cretin or imbecile would have served just as well.

But “four-flushing”? I can’t have been the only one who first wondered if our acting Prime Minister was casting outrageous aspersions over Anning’s toileting requirements. That would have taken dirty politics to another level.

Read more: What New Zealand can learn from Norway's response to their terror attack

But, no, a quick search revealed the phrase to be American poker jargon, sometimes used to describe a failed bluffer. Mysteriously, Peters chose to employ a phrase that might have been growled by a narrow-eyed 19th-century riverboat gambler. Who knows where he picked it up from – watching too many childhood Westerns at Saturday matinees in the 50s, perhaps – or why he thought this was the time to give it an airing. In any case, it served to raise a smile, at a time when they were in short supply.

Many Winston watchers would have also allowed themselves a snort of amusement the previous week at Peters’ claim that footage of him at an overseas conference, with his head slumped and eyes closed for extended periods, actually depicted him in a state of “deep contemplation”. 

Without stooping to make fun of the aged, it’s understandable – from a distance, and if you’ve got a taste for it – to find just a little entertainment value in our 74-year-old Deputy Prime Minister’s custom blend of cantankerousness and charm. Which doesn’t for a moment absolve him of responsibility for his track record of cynical anti-immigration tub-thumping, and in particular a 2005 speech in which he suggested moderate Muslims were operating “hand in glove” with extremists.

Those who have consistently called out Peters on the toxicity of views like that deserved a better hearing over the years. Those who found ways to cut him a little slack – probably because that charm factor helped set him apart from outright oafs such as Pauline Hanson in Australia or Nigel Farage in the UK – have had to reassess. Will they be as willing to shrug off similar tactics in future, whoever employs them? Hopefully not.

The conflation of ordinary Muslims and extremists was always indefensible. In the wake of the Christchurch attack, it’s sickening to recall that it was espoused, however briefly, within the relative mainstream of New Zealand politics.

Challenged on his 2005 comments a few days after the attack, the New Zealand First leader said he made no claim to be blameless over his long career in politics, which from someone as pugnacious as Peters came close to an admission he’d got things wrong. And to be fair, he is far from alone in having employed rhetoric and tactics that look much uglier today than they seemed prior to 15 March.

The Labour Party, for example, has only to look back to 2015, and its release of data on the sale of real estate to people with Chinese-sounding names. Though immigration policy is always up for discussion, those debating it need to be much more mindful than Labour was then of how easily sentiments against a particular group might be stirred. Immigrants, welcomed to start new lives as New Zealanders, deserve better.

As has been noted elsewhere, National’s Gerry Brownlee struck a chord in Parliament on the Wednesday after the attack when he said that in its wake New Zealanders have become “more aware of our own actions, our own omissions, and our own oversights and aware too that they are more pronounced at the more unattractive edge of what is us”. We should recognise “that small change in each of us can make a big difference”, he said.

Brownlee wasn’t the only one whose words were worthy of the moment. The Prime Minister has been rightly praised for her compassion and resolve in responding to the attack, but a glance through Hansard for the first couple of sitting days afterwards confirms that a wide cross-section of her fellow parliamentarians, from the party leaders on the first day to the couple of dozen who spoke on the next, also made heartfelt contributions to the expression of our collective grief, and shared useful ideas about where we go from here.

For better or worse, our MPs remain a pretty fair indicator of who we are; that’s the way democracy works. Even those who might at times have traded in the seamier side of politics act as a reminder that our society contains all sorts, and that malign forces have to be confronted, wherever they arise, whether in public life or our day-to-day worlds.

The outpouring of compassion from the public and our political leaders – returned with interest by our Muslim communities – helped ease the pain of those first days, but the attack is an indelible stain on the country we liked to think we were.

We should have been able to keep our fellow New Zealanders safe. Our gun laws weren’t fit for purpose, and were in the process of being overhauled when this article originally went to press in North & South. The security services have many questions to answer about whether, as it seems, they paid too little attention to the possibility of a white-supremacist terror threat here.

According to the UK Home Office, the number of white suspects arrested in Britain for terror offences in the year to last June topped those of any other single group. In the US, an Anti-Defamation League report shows that far-right extremists were responsible for almost all the lethal terrorism there last year, killing at least 50 people. In a world where these groups can so easily spread their poison online, we had to be more vigilant. The Royal Commission of Inquiry announced by Jacinda Ardern must get to the bottom of why we weren’t.

We’ve always known white supremacists exist here. We’ve known about the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, and seen the sad little far-right bands at their rare public gatherings. But was it a little too easy to dismiss them as isolated fantasists? Their moronic ideologies have bloomed anew on the internet, creating a threat that we down here in the South Pacific, with our false sense of insulation from the rest of the world, didn’t recognise soon enough.

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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