Southern man: stirring it in a new city
John Minto has long been the familiar face of Kiwi protest. So what brings him to settle now in Christchurch? JOHN McCRONE reports.
It seems a surprise for some reason. Auckland's John Minto, the radical activist – aka the screaming skull – has moved down to Christchurch.
There he was on a Monday night at the Canterbury Workers' Educational Association (WEA) hall, sharing the platform with fellow activist Sue Bradford, fielding the question of: "Where to now for the New Zealand Left?".
Minto has been living in Christchurch since early 2015. And he appears to have hit the ground running.
Within a month of arriving, he had helped set up a new local activist collective, the Christchurch Progressive Network, modelled on his old one up north, Global Peace and Justice Auckland.
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And checking out Christchurch City Council's YouTube public hearings page finds Minto with his wife of 10 years, Bronwen Summers, getting stuck into the city's Long Term Plan, making a submission against council asset sales.
Mayor Lianne Dalziel seems equally nonplussed to discover Minto as a new rate-payer. Nice to see you John, didn't know you were here, she greets him rather nervously.
For decades now, Minto has been the face of the New Zealand demo. It started with Halt All Racist Tours (Hart) in the 1980s. Other causes like Palestine and anti-surveillance followed. There was his six year spell as an organiser with the union, Unite.
And he remains a national political figure as vice president and list candidate of Hone Harawira's Mana Party.
So what are his reasons for shifting base to Christchurch – particularly a Christchurch that has been voting rather bluer since the earthquakes. Is Minto seeing himself as the man to inject a little more radical energy into the city's scene?
I knock on his door the next evening just as 63-year-old Minto is finishing off his dinner.
His unkind nickname, "the screaming skull", was dreamt up by an old foe, property investor Sir Bob Jones, for a newspaper column and has stuck because there is indeed a gaunt asceticism to Minto's visage.
But in person, he turns out to be soft-spoken and thoughtful even when talking about his strong convictions. The worst swear word he seems to know is "fricking".
A further surprise – who knows how activists support themselves? – is Minto has a busy full-time job. He earns his crust as a physics and maths teacher at Hornby High.
The choice to come to Christchurch was mostly just about family, Minto says. His own sons have grown up, left home. And Bronwen has a large number of children and grandchildren in the city.
They have settled in working class Waltham, building a new house after pulling down a near derelict dunger. Minto says he likes the neighbourhood and also the fact they could afford a decent quarter acre section.
Bronwen loves her garden. Flowers and a flourishing vegetable patch. An oval blue plastic swimming pool is half-dug in the lawn and the large spread of decking is waiting to be finished. Minto says he feels at home and established in the city.
We tick off a few more biographical details. His political activism began growing up in Dunedin and Napier as the son of a large Catholic family with a strong social conscience. His dad worked for Inland Revenue.
"It was the 1960s and that was when the Church was standing up for the poor and oppressed around the world in a relatively uncompromising way." Minto says he was an altar boy, although long since a confirmed atheist.
At teacher's training college he became involved with the anti-apartheid movement as a social justice cause. The teaching career was parked for five years after he became the national chair of Hart, leading the protests against the Springbok tours.
Minto chuckles. One of his most memorable moments was here in Christchurch – a student rally at Lincoln University in 1982. Being an agricultural college, plenty of rugby stalwarts turned out.
"That was about the most fiery fricking meeting I've been to. I walked in and there was just this avalanche of eggs, tomatoes, everything. The whole front of the lecture hall was splattered.
"I kept going, but every time I said something, there would be this roar and more eggs. I remember a couple of people sitting in the front row with their umbrellas up."
Everyone enjoyed the day. It couldn't have been more entertaining.
Bronwen reminds him that a Christchurch lawyer sent a belated apology soon after they moved down last year. "He asked, are you the John Minto? He said he had been there, and hadn't thrown anything, but was appalled now at his own behaviour."
Yes. With anti-apartheid and the other social causes of the 1970s and 1980s, Minto certainly found himself on the right side of history. The world wanted change and New Zealand was ready to lead it. Minto says anti-nuclear was like that as well.
But now politically, it is a little different. The country does not seem so receptive to his activism.
There has been a shift to the centre. The Labour Party is struggling to be seen as unthreateningly middle-of-the-road as possible. When Harawira's Mana teamed up with Kim Dotcom's Internet Party, it got laughed almost out of the polls.
Isn't Minto's particular brand of progressive radicalism simply an irrelevance in this day and age?
The WEA meeting, organised by Minto's Christchurch Progressive Network, did seem almost comically "come the revolution" at times.
There was a good turnout, but mostly of grey heads. And the few young radicals who stood up to speak launched into such windy diatribes the chair had to interrupt with an impatient "was there a question?".
Christchurch used to be a manufacturing town, a city of unions and proud socialist politics. The Wobblies – the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant movement that led widespread strike action in 1913 – got plenty of mentions.
But all that seems long ago. So where to now for the New Zealand left, as the meeting was wanting to ask?
Sue Bradford, the former Green Party MP who resigned from Mana over of its alliance with Dotcom, described her current activism work with Auckland Action Against Poverty.
She admitted Parliament seems not to hold much hope for the true left anymore. "Some people on the left still have faith in the Green Party and Mana. Some people still even have faith in Labour. I don't. And many people don't."
On the other hand, Bradford says there is a mood for deep political change brewing.
The recent anti-Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) street marches have felt like old times. "We stormed through the streets of Auckland in a way I haven't seen since 1981."
Likewise the union campaigns against zero-hour contracts and other forms of modern worker exploitation – the realities of "precarious work" in a neo-liberal financial system – is causing youth to wake up, Bradford claims.
She says the left is in a period of preparation, of grassroots activism. Surely the wheel is about to turn again?
Minto took the same line. Since the global financial crisis, New Zealand has been sleepwalking, he says. But worldwide, the political backlash has already begun.
Remember the Occupy movement – a generation waking up to the fact that economic inequality is its social justice issue of today. That was an action without an agenda, too much social media and not enough proper political organisation, so it rather petered out.
But Occupy set off ripples that are now being felt, says Minto. Look at the rise of Europe's pirate parties. Look at an old radical like Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader in the UK, Bernie Sanders emerging as a left-wing candidate in the US.
New Zealand has become accustomed to being run by two parties whose economic policies are separated by the width of a cigarette paper.
"But change is going to come to New Zealand. And it's going to arrive quicker and deeper than we expect. It is going to catch us on the left – who are used to political defeat over the last 30 years, used to being on the back foot – by surprise."
Meeting up the following day, I am interested to discover if Minto's conviction is really so strong.
As he acknowledges, he was on the right side of history when it was about the politics of race, gender and human rights – pushing at an open door. However now it has come down to economics.
And Kiwis have voted consistently to maintain the neo-liberal reforms of the late 1980s, so long as the basics of a welfare state – like health, education, pensions and benefits – are not dismantled. There is a consensus wanting to resist his change.
Minto certainly has not had much luck with Mana so far.
He stood for Auckland mayor in 2013 to help put Mana on the map. Minto argues he was doing quite well against incumbent, Len Brown, until right-wing independent John Palino entered the contest and began to gain traction.
"People got worried about splitting the vote. So I ended up with about 10,000 votes, which was pretty poor."
In the same way, the general election in 2014 turned into a mess for Mana, Dotcom's "Moment of Truth" conference being the final straw.
Minto says he can't see himself contesting for this year's Christchurch mayoralty, but he expects to be giving it another spin with Mana nationally in 2017.
He is a reluctant candidate. Minto says he is always most comfortable as an activist – a campaigner free to shake a placard and flirt arrest. However apart from Harawira being a life-long friend, there is a logic to Mana as a political vehicle.
It is true that it has come down to economics. "I never understood that when I was young, but I absolutely understand it now. Once you have decided your economic policies, everything else follows."
So tactically, says Minto, the issue for the left is that New Zealand thinks of itself as the original classless society. It is the national myth. Yet your economic position is your definition of class. And never has New Zealand been more divided in its wealth.
"For half the country, their total asset base would be a few thousand dollars – a battered used car, maybe a fridge and washing machine, and bugger all else."
Possibly an exaggeration. But Minto says the Left's strategy has to be to make Kiwis economically class conscious – to identify as workers with a collective interest. And Mana, with its platform of taxes on financial speculation and inheritance, was meant to appeal like that.
Minto was hoping Pakeha voters would get it, even if Mana first seemed to be a strictly brown party. "My gut feeling is that if we get things right for Maori, we get things right for everyone. Because Maori are at the absolute heart of the working class."
However Mana of course came across as a party based on race, rather than class. And the tie-up with someone like Dotcom completely confused any positive economic message.
In Christchurch, Minto plans to stick to grassroots activism, get something going by building the local network.
He says naturally the city has been worn down by the earthquakes. Its radicalism seems at a low ebb. But Minto says he finds there is still a strong neighbourhood-based politics here, unlike Auckland where the progressives all have to commute into central town to meet the like-minded.
And Minto argues that Christchurch, through its recovery, is right up close and personal to the neo-liberal beast.
Minto says the anti-TPPA rallies have been big in Christchurch as people get what such trade treaties are about – international big business trying to wire in economic policies in a way smaller nations like New Zealand can't change, even if they vote for a change in government.
"I've been on two really big marches through Riccarton, one where a group of 300 or 400 of us split off through Westfield Mall." That was a leading item on the news, causing a pleasing stir with mall security, Minto says.
He has also been busy with Keep Our Assets (KOA), the group led by another old Christchurch activist, Murray Horton, that has been protesting about the council's need to sell down rate-payer assets like City Care, Christchurch Airport and Lyttelton Port, to help fund the central city rebuild.
Minto says if there is an issue to light up the coming October council elections, this is it. The protests have been muted so far, but City Care could be sold by June. And if ratepayers find it is then owned by some foreign business, that will really rankle.
Minto says he can't believe the way Christchurch's rebuild has become a game of spending public money on anchor projects so as to de-risk the city as an investment prospect for corporate interests.
"We're being corralled in Christchurch into providing confidence for businesses. And to do that, we have to build these big white elephant projects in the central city before the private sector will commit to the developments it wants to do."
The thought prompts a few more semi-apologetic "fricks". Minto says the corporates ought to be told to bugger off. The rebuild should be about the people. Business does not need its hand held.
Bronwen laughs her approval from the couch where she has been knitting. These are the things that need to be said. Exactly what they told Lianne Dalziel at the budget hearing. Just say no.
At the time, sitting in the Mayoral chair, Dalziel had clearly struggled to bite her tongue.
Life isn't so simple, John, she replied. Councils have a limited voice in practice. Budgets have to be balanced by law. It is all right for activists to talk about an ideal world, meanwhile back here in reality, there is a broken city to mend.
And that, I suggest to Minto, is probably how most will regard him – speaking now from the fringe. Perhaps people have got the social change and the general economic settings they want from a past of activism on both the left and right?
Minto responds mildly. We'll see. Neo-liberalism has been around 30 years. The disillusion has developed and is awaiting its political expression.
When it happens, he is looking forward to being on the front-line with his loud-hailer and banner. As there is nothing like a noisy demo for a bit of good fun.