A SPLOG by Peter Matheson
In the Spring of 1989 I was in Halle, in Communist East Germany, for a history conference. Although the natives were obviously restless none of us there had a clue that the balloon was about to go up, the Berlin Wall to disintegrate, the face of Eastern Europe to be forever changed. Secret police control, army loyalty, party hegemony seemed unshakeable. One lives through life-changing events but is seldom aware of them ahead of time.
Could it be that our recent elections signify a sea-change of similar magnitude, that they are much more than the usual three year political roundabout, more than a generational shift? Could it be that the neo-liberal apple-cart is being upturned, and that the common good can again figure as a political imperative? Certainly the sense of empowerment during the election was palpable, the flow of energy for fundamental and redemptive change. A new Prime Minister actually spoke about kindness as a prerequisite. Capitalism’s need of serious revision apparently made the case for the coalition .
The elections, of course, could have gone either way. We won’t forget in a hurry the anxious wait for Winston’s Delphic utterances. But what of the future? Here in Dunedin Claire Curran’s sleep-out in the Octagon had already signalized something new in the air. When we arrived an hour and a half early for Jacinda Ardern’s Hunter Square address we barely got a seat. The atmosphere was electric; her brief talk electrifying. The same at the Univ campus. There is a new spirit in the air. David Clark amassed unheard of support, a whole army of enthusiastic door-knockers. For once cynicism and resignation have been at a discount, grass-roots democracy vibrant, agency has been recovered.
There had been, however, as much despair around as hope. Professor Jonathan Boston’s critique of political short-termism had long gone unheard. Not least in respect to the environment. Teachers, social workers, nurses, psychiatrists were often exhausted and short-staffed, weary of being fobbed off with empty promises about social investment. The cheapening of social discourse seemed unstoppable as ‘alternative truths’ piled up in the election campaign. Metiria Turei, a figure of integrity if ever there was one, was stopped in her tracks by a mixture of selective moralization and media assassination. This was not only a calamity for the Greens. It highlighted the extent to which we have become two nations, the prosperous one blandly unaware of the pressures on the other. Behind all this lurked the convenient myth of the market, which would eventually regulate everything.
This despair, however, has become the tinder for the activism. We are beginning to realise that we are living through apocalyptic times, nowhere seen more clearly than in the renewed spectre of nuclear war, the self-mirroring lunacies of Isis and Trump. A succession of weather calamities is at last awakening people to the “lethal realities” of climate change, though, as the London performance poet, Kate Tempest puts it, “It’s safer just to see what we can bear”?
“Business as usual” is a mantra which no longer convinces. We know we have to change. The first hundred days of the new government have begun with some élan, and the silly obstructionism by the National opposition which is already in evidence will not go down well. Yet the challenges ahead are formidable. If, indeed, we are on the cusp of a more humane era the resistance of those who have profited from the previous dispensation can be imagined. We cannot leave it all to the new government. We will all have to put our shoulders to the wheel. Life is not a spectator sport.