Time for electors to 'vote as if they were free'

20:06, Nov 11 2010

When Matt McCarten told me he was thinking of putting his name forward for the Mana by-election, I shuddered inwardly.

"For God's sake, Matt," I wanted to say, "what about your health?" I didn't, of course. I just waited for Matt to make his case and, as always, he produced a host of compelling reasons for proceeding with his plan.

By choosing Kris Faafoi, a journalist with no discernible links to either the Labour Party or the wider progressive movement - until he became Phil Goff's press secretary - Labour's leadership have made it very clear that, as far as the Mana electorate is concerned, it's going to be business as usual.

Even though, as Matt pointed out to me in the most forceful terms, "business as usual" in the streets of Porirua means poverty, unemployment, homelessness, crime and despair.

The political analyst in me pursed his lips and shook his head.

"With the Labour Party moving steadily to the Left," he intoned disapprovingly, "this is precisely the wrong time to challenge Goff's hand-picked candidate in an important by- election in one of the party's safest seats."


Then I caught the gleam in Matt's eye, and I told my inner political analyst to go stick his objections where the sun don't shine.

Because if being on the Left means waiting for the "right time" to fight for your principles, then, as the hero of Howard Spring's wonderful political novel, Fame Is The Spur, discovered, when the fight comes to you, the bright sword of principle can no longer be drawn. Through all those years, while you were waiting for the "right time", the sword's blade was rusting fast to the scabbard.

Matt McCarten has never been that sort of leftist. His sword never rests long enough in its scabbard to gather a speck of rust. And the trade union he built from scratch - Unite! - has never waited for the "right time" to do anything.

The way Matt set about organising the supposedly "unorganisable" workers of the service sector always reminded me of General Woundwort, the fearless rabbit leader in Watership Down. No matter how formidable the enemy, he always attacked. Watching Unite's young, low-paid workers take on McDonald's, Sky City Casino, and Restaurant Brands, you could almost hear General Woundwort's rallying cry rising-up from the picket lines: "Come on, lads, dogs aren't dangerous!"

And now Matt's out there in the spring sunshine, standing on the street corners of Mana with his crew, talking to state house tenants about homelessness; to low-paid workers about a minimum wage of $15 an hour; to unemployed workers about creating jobs.

And there's work to be done. Matt's canvassers have already discovered several empty state houses, while just a few streets away a young family, crowded into a friend's garage, waits for Housing New Zealand to find them somewhere to live. The empty properties are already being vandalised and the copper piping is long gone.

"What do we need?", asks Unite organiser Joe Carolan: "We've got carpenters, we've got plumbers, we've got electricians. We can fix this place up. We've got people in need. A young family in need. Are you telling me that the only thing we need is to wait for a bureaucrat for another year or two years? We should move people in now."

That's the way the Labour Party used to talk - back in the days when it still remembered how to fight.

I asked Matt if he'd heard of Slavoj Zizek - the Slovenian socialist currently setting the cat of principle among the fat, pragmatic pigeons of the European Left.

"I'm busy, Chris," he chuckled, "of course I haven't." "Well, Matt", I replied, "Zizek is challenging Europe's social democrats to stop looking over their shoulder at the European Central Bank; to govern "as if they were free".

"Maybe that's what you should ask the Mana electors, Matt. To stop looking over their shoulder at Labour. Could be your slogan: 'Vote - as if you were free'."

The Dominion Post