Be a thorn in the side of your own party

It's time to lay extreme partisanship aside and for parties to prove their ingredients are worthy - not just that their packaging makes us feel good, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell 

Extreme partisanship has always perplexed me. I’m not judging but perhaps, as an opinion writer, I’ve come to hold my own opinions lightly, and I now watch people defend or attack things along party lines with a mix of admiration, curiosity, and lately, some concern.

Partisanship is never more evident than when you look at the comments on any story or column that even lightly skims the topic of politics. I am always delighted to be accused of having both left- and right-wing bias. As an opinion writer, I get a bit more room than news reporters to let my biases hang out, but I try hard to land somewhere in the middle and being accused of both feels like success. 

Newsroom, alongside almost every other media outlet and journalist in the country, is accused of the same thing on a daily basis, often simultaneously. I’ve seen outlets accused of leaning both ways on the same article. These tribal reactions feel as if they’ve increased, and it’s problematic because they result in criticism of ideas, positions, and opinions along party lines, rather than being an assessment based on merit. Most of the comments on an article from Newsroom yesterday about John Key’s address at a summit about Auckland’s future were about him and his politics, not his proposals.

In all my years working in social media for brands, it’s become evident that those who ask questions and those who raise difficult topics do so not because they’re not loyal, but because they care more than other people.

A recent survey by Stuff and Massey University supports the idea that we’ve become more politically polarised and that party preference is influencing how people view things. When I worked in banking I used to joke that a decision about who to bank with came down to whether you preferred light to dark blue or green to yellow and red. If Thomas Coughlan is right in his latest article, we’re at risk of our political parties becoming little more than ‘brands’ we choose at the supermarket because we like the packaging and don’t want to read the ingredients list.

This is all playing out against the backdrop of the pandemic, and in part because of it.

During lockdown it felt as if criticism of the Government was criticism of the response to the pandemic, and criticism of our response was criticism of Government. A deep vein of fear got tapped and for many of us, the Government response was the only thing standing between us and literal death. It was very good and very necessary but it’s left a residue that strongly embeds Labour in the kind of emotive brand territory most ad agencies could only dream about. This is great for the Government but not so good for the contest of ideas some of us hope our elections will be.

It’s also manifested as a kind of gratitude for, and acceptance of, the status quo. We are bloody lucky, and that is in no small part thanks to the actions of the Government. Managing the country through whatever comes next is no small task, but asking us to accept broad-brush, conservative Covid management from the red team as a substitute for policy creates an environment where to criticise this management or put forward alternative ideas almost feels like an unpatriotic act. It’s a politically adroit strategy but still feels like a play from a clever marketing team.

We desperately need ideas and we desperately need to reconsider the status quo. Before the pandemic, accepting the status quo meant accepting that we have an absolute shitshow of a housing market. It meant accepting Māori were always just going to get the raw end of the deal within our health, justice, education, and social welfare systems. It meant accepting that economic growth was propped up by low-wage migrant labour. It meant accepting the growing gap between the wealthy and the disadvantaged. If anything, we deserve to know more about how all parties plan to address these issues, because the pandemic has expedited the effects of some of them. It will likely expose more, not less, inequity and systemic failure.

Partisanship is necessary. You cannot rally supporters and build movements amongst political parties without it. People who believe and are willing to put that belief out there are to be admired. But somehow, we’ve got to decouple our big emotions about being the lucky country and our benevolent saviours from our conversations about its future.

It is, perhaps in vain, that I turn to the true believers for help. The party supporters, the members, the faithful. You sit closer to the people who will determine our fate than do most people. Many of you are there not because you’re blinded but because you genuinely care. In all my years working in social media for brands, it’s become evident that those who ask questions and those who raise difficult topics do so not because they’re not loyal, but because they care more than other people. Be a thorn in the side of your own party. Help us choose you because the ingredients are worthy and not just because the packaging makes us feel good.

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