New Zealand’s increasingly dangerous level of political vitriol

A long thin country, marked by its diversity of landscapes. A small population, outflanked by bigger and more powerful neighbours.

An increasingly multicultural society with a significant indigenous group.

It could be New Zealand.

But it’s Sweden.

Like New Zealand, Sweden long had a tradition of personal, retail politics in which politicians rub shoulders with voters as apparent equals. That’s what one expects in a small country.

But there is one big difference between Sweden and New Zealand.

Sweden has suffered not one, but two political assassinations. The first, in 1986, was the murder of then Prime Minister Olof Palme.

The second, in 2003, was the killing of foreign minister Anna Lindh.  Had it not been for her untimely death, Lindh was in line to be Prime Minister.

We should keep Sweden’s experiences in mind when reflecting in the increasingly dangerous level of political vitriol that New Zealand has seen in recent months.

The flying dildo which hit Steven Joyce was seen by most as a joke, including, most charitably, by Joyce himself.

Similarly, the “brown substance” hurled at Gerry Brownlee left the minister bewildered, but otherwise uninjured.

A tremendously open political environment

In New Zealand we are used to meeting politicians on the streets, at school fairs and at sporting events. If you want to meet a Cabinet minister – or the Prime Minister – it is not particularly difficult.

A look at the Facebook pages of New Zealand’s MPs show how many of them spend their time out and about.

There are gatekeepers, certainly, and where Key goes, the Diplomatic Protection Service (DPS) is lurking in the background.

But the public gallery in Parliament is not obscured by bullet proof screens, as in Britain.

Campaign events are not shielded by numerous physical barriers and a wall of security guards, as in Germany.

No sweeps or bag checks are conducted at venues where Cabinet ministers or other VIPs are in attendance.

I once found myself sitting behind Helen Clark at a concert. And next to the Governor General at a café. Neither of these chance encounters would be particularly remarkable to most New Zealanders.

John Key certainly has no qualms about heading down to his local café for coffee, as we famously found out last year.

We do take this intimate political environment for granted. And indeed, anything else would seem like a snub to our perceived egalitarian nature.

Security? Bodyguards? That’s how other countries do their politics.

The far left’s increasingly desperate anger

There is little doubt that some voices on the left have become increasingly angry in recent months.

These are a vocal minority, to be clear. Radicals are by definition a minority.

In recent months, the anger has focused mainly on the TPP.

But another, more deep-seated reason for anger is John Key’s continuing popularity. Anyone who has dipped into the comments section on The Standard, or who follows left-wing activists on Twitter, or reads comments on the various activist Facebook pages knows how central John Key to the discontent.

A constantly updated list of hundreds of John Key’s “lies” on The Standard has been shared thousands of times on Facebook.

There is plenty of legitimate criticism of John Key and the government.

But anyone who has visited the left-wing blogosphere, or Twitter-verse, or the many Facebook pages know that there is a nasty underbelly.

The right calls this “KDS” – or “Key Derangement Syndrome”.

The failure of Labour and the Greens and the substitute extra-parliamentary opposition

Another reason for the desperation is the continued failure of parties on the left to succeed. Labour and the Greens’ share of the vote is going backwards, according to opinion polls.  The left’s champion, Hone Harawira, was voted out of Parliament in 2014 amidst the utter debacle that was Internet Mana.

It is perhaps this parliamentary failure of the left which has led to more extra-parliamentary opposition.

The mass, largely peaceful TPP protest earlier this month was one manifestation of this.

The dildo and mud throwing has been another.

The risk of escalation

On Monday, David Cunliffe tweeted “I’m no great Brownlee fan, but politics is a tough gig and most people try to make a difference.  Doesn’t deserve it”.

Cunliffe’s tweet was in reaction to a tweet by scientist and Green Party activist Dr. Sea Rotmann, who had tweeted: “I’m just glad that NZs proud tradition of throwing things at senior politicians stays alive and well”.

As Matthew Hooton pointed out, far worse was on offer elsewhere: “Do a Twitter search for “Brownlee” and you’ll get to see again just how unpleasant much (not all) of the political left is in NZ”.

The comments are a sign of an increasingly polarised political climate.

There are many other examples, the latest being the particularly extreme anti-John Key comments placed on RNZ’s Facebook page.

Let’s tone down the rhetoric

We are talking about a small minority who hold a visceral anger to the government.

For a handful, this anger is so visceral that that they are willing to take physical action, as seen in the Brownlee and Joyce incidents.

Again, this is a tiny minority.

We have every right to criticise, make fun of, even mock politicians.

We should not tar genuine opposition to the government with the same brush.

We should have robust debate. More than that, we desperately need it., especially given the weakened state of our parliamentary opposition.

Protesters are doing the job that Labour and the Greens currently are clearly not doing adequately inside parliament.

There is nothing wrong with a peaceful protest.

But hurling objects at MPs is not peaceful.

So far, the incidents have been harmless.

But what if the next time a minister is attacked, it is with a bullet?

Impossible? That’s what Sweden thought.

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