How Activism Dies

Written By: - Date published: 9:33 am, March 4th, 2023 - 40 comments
Categories: act, activism, climate change, Environment, labour, national, Politics, science - Tags:

If anything progressive is to come out of this current government other than disaster recovery, really focused protest must prevail. It isn’t.

This week we had the worst of all political worlds. At the beginning of the week one of our most highly qualified public servants was fired for expressing an opinion about National Party policy concerning a flagship policy of the Labour Party that they had worked on for many years, with an opinion that everyone left or right could see was correct (agreeing for different reasons of course). At the end of the week we had a student march of several thousands with no effect at all and no consequences for any policy change at all.

Neither changed anything, but united and to common purpose and effect they might have had a shot at it.

It is not that hard to identify the right targets for such common purpose. Right in the middle of the week we got a snapshot of how deep and strong the institutional bias is within the public service against mode shift in transport.

Target acquired.

In the middle age end, leftie leaders like Steve Maharey as Chair of ACC and Chair of Pharmac and Chair of Education New Zealand was easily allowed to directly criticise both National and Act in January 22 this year:

Indeed, it is hard not see the National Party in the same light as the Republicans in the US, Liberals in Australia or Conservatives in Britain. They seem more interested in the past than the future.”

ACT has pointed this out already as it worries National in government would revert to type and do nothing. This is a view perhaps reinforced by the list of large donors to National’s election coffers. Nothing about them suggests they want change. They made their money under a system that favoured them.”

Not so Rob Campbell. He was fired from two chair positions for a 3-line opinion far less trenchant than as Steve Mahrey did stating that the National Party was actually bought by its donors.

In the younger end, the school student march had specific though quite unrelated initiatives, but with no political support (other than from the Greens who weren’t quoted anywhere) and no follow-up debate, its effect sank without trace within 12 hours of a media cycle.

One Chair’s firing got a weeks’ worth of coverage and tonnes of debate, and thousands got near zip.

Far be it from me to propose the perfect formula for strong and perpetual social change, but that ain’t it.

Progessive positions have been consistently rolled in New Zealand under the steamroller of value-free politics cloaked in the camouflage of crisis and exigency. All those tens of millions of consultancy fees spent in the first 2017 term have amounted to so little. None of the reforms are complete and little of the legislation they have proposed is complete. RMA reform still has an entire bill to go. Health reform is barely starting. Tertiary education reforms a mess. The only major transport projects to complete were National’s.  Welfare reforms near imperceptible. Car fuel replacement gone. Reform of immigration a perpetual tinker, broadcasting reform gone, ACC reform gone, tax reform gone, all such memory flashed away in a storm like the last 6 years was a Men In Black rerun.

And the great motherload of policy change in water reform – the only reform that would have altered our political economy for good – has had its legislative inertia killed by the Prime Minister, fired the Minister, its wounded corpse taken out the back and hit with a shovel and then covered with 2 metres of dark fetid silt.

Some forgave Prime Minister Ardern for riding twice into government with no worked out policy platform and shunting Labour hard to the right with a broad reaggregation of state power to incoherent end. Ardern’s strengthening of the state was mostly a continuation to the strengthening of state powers under Key and English for near identical reasons. Kindness as a substitute for political ideology was the mere difference, and now that difference cast aside leaves their near-zero difference naked to human eye.

It has become near impossible to criticise the Labour government or the National opposition because both stand for near-nothing except recovery after disaster.

This enables Labour to agree with National and fire the public servants who they both dislike and agree to keep the ones they prefer, which is what happened when you compare the silence attending Maharey’s article and Campbell’s firing.

Deep in our history there were public servants and elected officials with brains who were prepared to publish their own very popular books. One may have different reasons for disliking W. B. Sutch, or Roger Douglas, or Bruce Jesson, but these people were published and elected and hard thinkers and deep within public policy formation and execution. They had strong followers in their day and they changed this country. Imagine if Rob Campbell and the students had worked out a plan beforehand.

New Zealand is facing a collapse of activist power and the only way to reverse it is to connect the right people together with a plan at the right time and make good change happen.

Raise the Standard or weep.

40 comments on “How Activism Dies ”

  1. pat 1

    Have you considered that the political/public inertia is not so much a lack of intent but rather the result of a lack of ability/knowledge?

  2. tWiggle 2

    It always seemed to me that Ardern's governments were short on strategic direction. As well, the reforms they drove in the public sector, apart from Little's overhaul of Justice, appear very top-down.

    I had a fantastic CE once, brought in as a 'change manager'. In two years he had tightened systems and enormously improved internal culture. He kicked the process off by touring round and chatting with staff all round the place for 2 months. He only met with the SET team twice in that time, watching how they worked from a distance. No doubt he was also chatting with clients and funders while talking with us.

    He then started gradual change, 'improvement in place', while keeping staff well-informed. Gradually shithead SET members were eased out, and great talent, mostly from within the company, took their place.

    He showed how a humane, and effective reorganisation is done. It's not by listening to the existing executives, who probably caused much of the problem in the first place, or to outside consultants. Ardern’s bureaucrat wranglers, in contrast, seemed to have a poor idea of organisational management.

  3. Darien Fenton 3

    I dont think anyone should be feeling too sorry for or glorifying Rob Campbell. He is an experienced chair and board member with many portfolios over the years, including at POAL during the lockout of 2012 and Summerset Retirement Villages, who were notoriously (and maybe still are?) anti union. He joined the Rogernomes in the 1980s against the union movement and was notably silent as the reforms of the 1990s ripped through our society. He also has ownership in property companies and established the consultancy Wheeler Campbell which those us who have been around a while will remember for its right wing promotion. He is Chancellor of AUT and I didnt see a peep out of him on recent redundancies and restructuring. In his quest to prove himself right he has just told hundreds of Te Whatu Ora workers they will be losing their jobs, even before anything is announced, let alone consultation with the union begun. He now seems to me to be on a mission to take down the government. Won’t affect him of course. He’s had a lucrative career.

    • Incognito 3.1

      It seems to me that this Government will do just about anything to regain control of the narrative on a few hot potatoes and not in the least because it is Election Year. As the OP is about activism, or the death of it (just in NZ?), IMHO, activism is as much about influencing and countering the dominating narrative as it is about direct and immediate practical changes in the way things are done by whatever target group of people who are deemed (and damned) responsible (aka culprits) and complicit (which is not the same as complacent). In this sense, Rob Campbell is/was an activist.

      • Darien Fenton 3.1.1

        I don't agree activism is dead. I work for a union; have most of my working life after I moved from being a worker on the shop floor, to a delegate and so on. I see activism all around me in West Auckland as our community confronts devastating changes to their lives. I see people organising food, help, advice and solidarity, I see Phil Twyford out on street corner meetings talking with locals about what needs to come next and Carmel Sepuloni and Local Elected Labour Board members at the shelters listening about how we help in the immediate and how we influence changes that are needed. Thats what politicians do. I saw and supported the Climate Change School Strikes yesterday ; as did unions. I noted that National couldn't scrape together an MP to speak and sent one of their "candidates" unsupported and subsequently booed. And whether you like it or not, the "narrative" is important to how people vote. Spend a day in my shoes to see what the Left is dealing with and how working people respond. If we are talking about appointments to government boards and the PSC that is a different question. If we want a public service that has no restrictions on political or personal opinion, then lets have that debate. It will be a biggie and I will be all in. I think the big lesson of the 1980s and 1990s was the politicisation of treasury and other government departments. We shouldn’t forget that.

        • Incognito 3.1.1.1

          I don’t think either that activism is dead or dying, it is changing though. I see activism as a ‘PR exercise’, primarily, e.g., to change the so-called Overton window.

          We expect politicians having opinions (and associated policies – are you there, Mr Luxon?), being vocal about them, and defending them. Yet we expect Officials to be apolitical and unbiased and not voice any (?) opinion that might or could be misinterpreted as outspokenly partisan, even in their private personal capacity. However, this expectation is often a formal requirement of the job and many employers are quite keen to protect their (corporate) image, etc. For example, I cannot bring my employer in disrepute by spouting my opinions on LI or SM, but I’m (relatively) free to opine on other things not pertaining my work place (and I use a pseudonym on this forum).

          There appear to be two streams of thought: one says that human are intrinsically political and another that states that most people are more concerned with more universal needs & interests and much less with self-serving power games of politics & politicians. So, yes, by all means, let’s continue the debate about this.

        • Incognito 3.1.1.2

          As it happens, I was researching for a related issue and found this paragraph, which is relevant here and seems to align quite well with Parliament protest of a year ago:

          While there’s been a great deal of progress here, there is still an unresolved question posed by the different findings of Fiorina and Abramowitz. Abramowitz is correct that the most polarized are the most active, but what is the direction of that causality? The implicit premise lurking behind the Abramowitz findings, at least as I read them, is that extremism causes activism: individuals have strong beliefs that drive them into the political sphere, and the participation of extreme voters polarizes politics. Yet this is at odds with more qualitative research on issue activists, which tends to find that people come into activism for apolitical reasons (e.g. they were asked by a friend), and as a result of that activism, their beliefs become more extreme (Munson 2009). In short, the causal arrow may run from activism to polarization rather than the reverse. Unpacking the direction of causality matters, because it changes how we think about efforts to ameliorate elite polarization. One commonly proposed solution to elite polarization is to inspire more moderates to become politically active, on the assumption that moderate voters will demand moderate candidates. If greater levels of political activity lead voters to become more extreme, greater political activity may, paradoxically, increase polarization (see also Mutz 2006).1 A better understanding of the linkage between extremism and activism an important step to understanding whether more citizen participation would actually reduce elite polarization.

          1 Further, as Ahler and Broockman (2016) note, it is not necessarily true that moderate voters will prefer centrist politicians.

          Taken from:

          The Forum 2017; 15(1): 189–201

          Matthew Levendusky*

          Morris Fiorina’s Foundational Contributions to the Study of Partisanship and Mass Polarization

          https://bpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/web.sas.upenn.edu/dist/9/244/files/2016/10/Forum_Fiorina-pz5cpg.pdf

        • Anne 3.1.1.3

          I think the big lesson of the 1980s and 1990s was the politicisation of treasury and other government departments. We shouldn’t forget that.

          Amen to that. Witnessed it unfold in the government department to which I belonged. Out the door went the long time loyal public servants and in came the rogues and imposters. Their mission was to do away with the tried and true processes that had evolved over many decades and replace with a market driven philosophy – that is, the extraction of a maximum amount of money from the users for a minimum of effort. In other words:

          Quantity took over from quality.

          We are still struggling with some of the after-effects as has been all too evident in just the past few weeks.

    • pat 3.2

      A decision taken pre Linked In post….hes been around long enough to know the consequences

  4. Maurice 4

    Just what is needed – privileged white children … shreaking?

    • Incognito 4.1

      Taking potshots at the messenger

      • georgecom 4.1.1

        teenagers expressing a view on a matter which should be at the forefront of most peoples minds this summer. Kids putting pressure on political parties whose track record of addressing the issue is weak at best. Putting MPs under a bit of pressure and asking questions about their commitment to resolving a big problem. Kids expressing a view and talking publicly about a vitally important issue. Various people may not like some of the shrillness expressed, I don't at times. I cannot argue though with the overall general thrust of what they are raising and asking for.

        • Incognito 4.1.1.2

          My reply to Maurice was deliberately subtle aka ambiguous – was it an answer or something else?

          • Maurice 4.1.1.2.1

            … just as much as was my initial proposition?

              • That_guy

                I could not agree more with that post.
                And I thought SS4C Auckland cancelling themselves was absolutely infantile, lazy, and not even in the interests of POC. That said, I don’t actually expect the kids to save the world, that’s kind of our job.

                • weka

                  Fucking Bradbury, hardly the champion of climate action but always ready to denigrate progressive politics that aren't a good cultural fit for him. I agree that SS4C cancelling themselves was incredibly stupid. Shitting on the current organisers and protestors isn't solidarity or helpful or progressive or leftist.

                  • That_guy

                    I think you know I respect your viewpoints, but when two separate movements (SS4C and Pride) drop 90% of their members after a bout of identity politics, there are some serious questions that need to be answered. And if Bradbury is the one to ask the question, hey, it has to be somebody.

                    For SS4C I don't think it's a simple as "Identity politics = drop 90% of your members", I think there's an element of simple exhaustion here, but still. It's a problem.

                    • weka

                      I have no problem with an analysis of why SS4C numbers were lower this year, including the role IP has played. Bradbury just called the strike and the protestors pathetic. This is class Bomber, slagging off what he doesn't like. How does this build climate action? That's not a rhetorical question.

                      I don't think we can easily separate out people being put off by IP from the Auckland group disbanding. But also, the pandemic. And yep, people are overloaded and exhausted. All the more reason to support people rather than trashing them.

                    • That_guy

                      I'd rather someone rudely ask questions than politely not ask questions, but I take your point.

    • That_guy 4.2

      So this is a bit weird.

      A few posts down you link to a blog that correctly points out that identity politics is a disaster for the left. Yet here, you go straight to the racial and class identity of the protestors without discussing what they are saying, which you describe as "shreaking".

      • Maurice 4.2.1

        The shrieking drowns the message.

        • That_guy 4.2.1.1

          OK, well it's your choice to describe it as "shrieking", but you can if you want to, but that still doesn't explain why you've gone straight to the racial and class identity of the protesters. Especially when you seem to understand quite well why that's a bad strategy.

          • Maurice 4.2.1.1.1

            Cynicism perhaps?

            One from Chris Trotter has some explanations:

            https://thedailyblog.co.nz/2023/02/21/adapting-to-climate-change/

            "But, just how receptive are the poorest peoples on Earth likely to be to a message delivered to them by their former colonial masters which boils down to: “Please don’t try to become as rich as we are – the planet can’t take it.” "

            [I fixed a typo in your e-mail address. Please be more careful next time – Incognito]

            • Incognito 4.2.1.1.1.1

              Mod note

              • Maurice

                My apologies – pays for me to check each time as I type it in as cut and paste puts it into the Website box as well and has to be deleted.

                • Incognito

                  I have some sympathy for that, which sounds like a caching issue with your browser. Try clearing it and re-starting the browser (followed by a device re-start to be sure).

                  Depending on how busy Mods are, a pending comment can sit in the Auto-Moderation queue for quite a long time. When the Mods are really busy & tired they might even delete the pending comment.

            • That_guy 4.2.1.1.1.2

              I agree completely. I'm just not sure the kids are really the right target. Most of them would probably agree with the concept of climate reparations. But they probably thought "we need a reasonable number of specific demands that the media will report on and that the public will support, or at least not hate". And reparations didn't make the cut for strategic reasons. It's a defensible strategy.

              • Maurice

                Was there any organic strategy? More likely led into the streets holding placards penned by their teachers? The huge drop in numbers shows that the message is no longer resonating with the rank and file?

                Those who turned up outside Parliament stayed far longer …… and showed more commitment!

  5. Stuart Munro 5

    Activism grows out of perceived injustice, and prospers in relation to how effectively it is presented to its target audience. That would be quite effectively in the case of Counterspin, and less so on the part of contemporary social justice campaigners.

    The Greens at one time ran a number of original and effective protests, but the group that did so seem not to have passed the core skills on. There will be new campaigns, and there may come new planners that will seize the public imagination and achieve meaningful change.

    The climate protests seem likely to be a cause around which functional dissent will coalesce – and official inaction will certainly prompt increasingly provocative action – the more so because the far right is already creating a kind of counter movement predicated on Orwell's "Ignorance is Strength" routine. So, don't count activism out just yet.

    • pat 5.1

      Id suggest activism is effective when the remedies are evident….and therein lies the current problem

      • Stuart Munro 5.1.1

        Life is possible in the interval between entropy and creativity. If we are no longer creative, our prospects become very finite. We have in fact an abundance of creative thinkers – mostly kept from acting by a resoundingly unsuccessful economic orthodoxy.

        NZ should be world leaders in climate mitigation and adaption – but we are ruled by the menkurt slaves of dead economists – creative they are not.

        • pat 5.1.1.1

          Id suggest we are conflicted by the belief we can seperate ourselves from the troubles of the world while maintaining the ease/benefits the paradigm provides…..difficult to be radical without changing much.

          • Stuart Munro 5.1.1.1.1

            12% of NZers are living in poverty – and many more have little or no disposable income thanks to the failure of our far-right economists to moderate an explosion in housing and electricity costs. There is no ease for us – and we make up a large and growing proportion of the population. Try re-engineering your rental accommodation to lower its energy consumption and see how long you stay off the street.

            • pat 5.1.1.1.1.1

              Oh yes the paradigm will change without a doubt….but it wont be a choice 'we' make that brings that change.

  6. tsmithfield 6

    I think activism eventually dies out if it is just based on protests and shouting but nothing else.

    But, activism is more likely to achieve something if it can come up with practical, workable solutions to the problems that are being highlighted.

    In that respect, kudos to the protesting students who put forward the idea of a subsidy for e-bikes, and those subsidies based on income. Better than the governments subsidy plan that extends subsidies to millionaires to help them buy high-end Teslas.

    • In terms of the most practical thing the protesting students could do, turning around the 'drive to school' mentality in favour of public transport, cycling, or walking, would be pretty high up on the list.
      If there is a huge groundswell of students out there, just waiting for leadership – then this should be really easy. [My, rather cynical, opinion, is that teenagers are much like the rest of the population: there are a relatively small number of activists willing to make personal sacrifices, the vast majority will passively resist doing anything of the kind]

      There would be very, very few students in the cities at least, for whom public transport is a true impossibility. Yes, it's almost certainly going to take longer and be more inconvenient.

      Having a school – or better yet, hundreds of schools, who have altered their transport footprint for students away from private cars, would put the school climate protestors in a much stronger position to tackle the next thing on their agenda.

      • tsmithfield 6.1.1

        And there lies the problem. Many students want to save the planet but can't even keep the rooms tidy. LOL.

        That is the test for activism though. Protesting students who have been molly coddled by being dropped off to school every day may not be so keen in planet-saving strategies that involve biking, walking, or jumping on a bus.

  7. Simbit 7

    I haven't posted here in months, maybe over a year, but any commentary on activism in NZ that doesn't at least note Māori activism is, arh, strange. The last time I systematically read anything here was about matauranga and that was, arh, weird too. I'll touch base on this thread again later today or tomorrow…

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