Winston's one-man band

ANTHONY HUBBARD
Last updated 12:35 17/06/2012
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.
SHANE WENZLICK/Fairfax NZ
LONE RANGER: New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.

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OPINION: Winston Peters is giving an audience to his followers this weekend. New Zealand First calls the meeting a party conference, but that is mere euphemism.

It would be easy to laugh at the cult of Winston - and perhaps we should laugh. His party is a one-man band in the purest sense: if Winston dropped dead, it would disappear. Nobody could replace him and keep the movement alive.

That's why it doesn't matter that he has no deputy leader and why the party is "in no hurry" to elect one. You don't need a deputy for a prophet. What would the deputy do?

Winston this weekend launches one of his familiar crusades, against immigrants. The timing is perfect. The economy is stuck, unemployment is high, there is no sign of it falling any time soon, and so it's time to revive the usual scapegoats. Stop the foreigners stealing Kiwi jobs!

New Zealand First is based on xenophobia, race-baiting, class resentment and brainless adoration of the leader. That, at least, is its rhetoric and its style. Whenever Winston gets into power, he is orthodox and mildly reformist. He doesn't turn the cult's darker prejudices into policy. He was a cautious and accomplished foreign minister.

His statement yesterday vowing to keep the age of entitlement for government superannuation at 65 was a classic. The move to increase the age was a big business plot to get more of our money. "It is simply the privatisation of superannuation."

So there's a conspiracy of the rich against the little people. There is a murky scheme to grab our assets. The talk about fiscal crisis is nonsense. The whole thing can be fixed just by making the economy grow a bit more - and this, of course, is easy.

Winston has made a career out of blaming the Other. In the 1980s he raged against the Treaty and those who backed it. In the 1990s he campaigned against Asian immigrants. Nowadays he preaches against Whanau Ora and the "bro-ocracy" and unskilled foreigners.

He aims, in short, at older lower-middle class Pakeha, the social conservatives who resent the wealthy elite and brown-skinned militants and funny-looking immigrants. He has picked a political niche and mostly he has held it with great skill. He is our most charismatic politician. When he growled in the House last week that the sell-down of state assets was betrayal and treachery and treason he was at his Churchillian best. But perhaps this just shows what a bauble charisma can be.

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What is most interesting about Winston is his speech. Politics has been rightly defined as organised hatred. Winston, like all party leaders, plays off certain passions. He has built a movement on petty-bourgeois rage.

It is curious that Maori once flocked to him, just as working-class conservatives often vote National. There are even said to be Asian immigrants among his followers. How can voters support a party that seems so clearly to oppose their real interests?

An American politicial scientist, Jonathan Haidt, has just published a book that tries to explains some of these mysteries. Political argument, he says in The Righteous Mind, is not so much a reasoned debate as a collision of emotions. We think we are arguing on the basis of logic and facts. But our "reason" is just verbalised passion.

That is why facts play such a small role in political argument. Two opponents will consider the same data and not only draw different conclusions, but want to hit each other as well. When we do politics, he says, we are like politicians' press secretaries: we use facts and arguments to defend our position, not to establish the truth.

This goes for the supposedly rational and well-educated as well as the inarticulate and stupid. The PhDs are just better at dressing up their political allegiances. What's more, says Haidt, the Left is at a disadvantage in politics. Its arguments are based on only a couple of what he calls the six taste buds of politics. The western Left base their appeal mainly on two: the avoidance of harm to individuals, and fairness.

But there are other political values that clash with these. Haidt talks about values based on the good of the community rather than of individuals, on loyalty rather than individual rights, and on religion. He is a classic American liberal, and was shocked when he went to India to study. There, women were subservient to men, the lower class to the upper, and the perceived good of the community trumped individual rights.

But after some months of living in India, Haidt started to feel the pull of these alternative values. Part of the aim of his book is to bridge the gulf that now divides Democrats and Republicans in the United States. If Democrats can start to understand the different moral system that drives the Republicans - and vice-versa - then maybe the political wars will become less fierce.

Well, maybe.

Haidt shows that we can still change our minds during political argument. We are not merely the slave of our passions. Sometimes our reason can decide to take a different view - but we rarely change our minds by ourselves. Our habit, if left alone, is to find facts that confirm our opinions.

But others push our nose in the less convenient facts, and attack our view. In this sense political argument is not an abstract disagreement. It is more like verbal assault and battery. That is why political argument is so violent. But it is the emotional strength of these arguments that can change our minds.

So let's come back to Winston. Sometimes he appeals to liberal values of fairness and harm reduction. He argues for increasing the minimum wage, for instance, because it would reduce the suffering of the poor and lead to greater economic justice.

But sometimes he appeals to other values. His attack on immigrants is based on nationalism and group loyalty. His attack on Maori militants and the bro-ocracy is based on some sense of racial community and solidarity, to put it politely. His critics would call it something much less respectable.

Sometimes these darker passions have their uses. Haidt shows that we need political opponents to challenge our views - otherwise we will just stay the same. Liberals hate the way Winston attacks the Whanau Ora scheme, but sometimes he might expose a genuine case of abuse. That doesn't mean the scheme should be scrapped, although Winston probably thinks it does. But it does encourage Tariana Turia and her minions to make sure they don't do anything that Winston could exploit.

The emotional clash of political values, in other words, can help keep us honest. And in this, even New Zealand First has a part to play.

- Sunday Star Times

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