Shearer on ‘How big is my politics?’

"It's way bigger than politics!"

Q. What’s the difference between Donald O’Connor, Jimmy Durante and David Shearer?

A. All three of them express the naive belief that “It’s bigger than both of us!” but only two of them have the excuse that they were singing along with a little ditty about love in a trivial 1950 Hollywood musical.

After spending some time ‘listening’ in the earthquake hit Eastern suburbs of Christchurch, David Shearer is reported (not posted digitally) as saying:

“This [the Christchurch recovery and rebuild] is way bigger than politics.”

The Press, Wednesday, January 18, p. A5

Way bigger than politics‘??? That’s like saying the earth is way bigger than a planet. It makes no sense.

If it truly is bigger than politics then why does Shearer, a politician, think he has any part to play in this? Surely it’s for people other than politicians to manage?

Shearer, however, is wrong. The Christchurch recovery and rebuild is all politics.

It’s about who’s interests get served most: Insurers, developers, reinsurers, affected homeowners, businesses, ordinary Christchurch citizens, New Zealanders outside Christchurch and the major corporates involved in the rebuild. There will be – already are – winners and losers in Christchurch, and the wins and losses will mount and compound as a result of what happens over the next decade.

If history is any guide, the likely losers will be those with the least power, the least access to the hastily erected governance bodies (such as CERA) and other institutions (e.g., insurers, EQC), the poorest, the least educated, the voiceless.

Put bluntly, without political support (one would assume from the Labour Party, amongst other political groups) it is these people’s interests that will be ignored, walked over, ground into dust and have the ‘new Christchurch’ built atop them.

Why, then, does Shearer seem to think that it is “way bigger than politics“? I realise that he may be wanting to emphasise that it’s very important – of course it is. But, again, how does that make it “way bigger than politics“? Is politics not about important stuff?

Trying to answer those questions is quite revealing of both David Shearer’s ‘politics’ (if that turns out to be the right term for his approach) and of many people’s understanding of the ‘political’.

To repeat: It’s all politics, and has been from the beginning …

The ghost of politics past, for example, explains why suburbs like Aranui and Bexley were built when and where they were and, thus, got hit hardest. And it is the ghost of politics in the future that hovers over our shoulders, waiting for its chance to exploit – or be constrained by – what the ghost of politics present leaves behind.

The most sympathetic interpretation of this comment, I suppose, is that he meant that it is something that should not be sidetracked by petty, party-political point-scoring. You know, the kind of pointless one-upmanship into which political debate can so often descend?

But, sadly, it doesn’t look like that is what Shearer meant. The next sentence betrays what can only be called an immensely naive view of how highly political problems can be solved.

We should be able to sit down and say, ‘Where do we need to be in four years’ time, five years’ time, six years’ time?’

Who, exactly, is this ‘We’? Everyone in New Zealand? Everyone in Christchurch? The ‘experts’? The current crop of worthies, upstanding citizens and dignitaries? This use of ‘we’ assumes that there is only one answer – shared, deep down, by all of us – to the question he poses (where we want to be).

‘We’ can only hope that Shearer was simply musing in a way more suited to a philosophy seminar on hypothetical political morality rather than actually believing that the rebuild could ever be a ‘politics free zone’ – whatever he imagines that to mean.

David Shearer is now the leader of a major political party. If he eschews his responsibility to respond to the political dimensions of the Christchurch recovery and rebuild then he is simply leaving those he should be speaking for – the less powerful – without any institutional support within our political system. He is conceding the field to those who will have no hesitation in asserting their political muscle and strategic intents.

Some people – and Shearer is by no means alone in this as it seems to include a growing number of supposedly educated, middle-class people – believe that all that is needed to solve most controversial and significant issues is a good sit down, chin-wag and get together. It’s the school of thought that believes that conflict is always just ‘misunderstanding’ and that the ‘solution’ eludes us all only because we won’t talk together.

It’s also the school of thought that believes – against all the evidence – that there actually is a solution that serves everyone’s interests equally and fairly. But, how can this be when it is obvious that some people’s ‘interests’ are, almost by definition, unfair to others?

This approach also appears to assume that those with power and influence will not use that power and influence to affect the ‘conversation’ and that those without power or influence will somehow be given an equal hearing – and be able to take advantage of if it were, surprisingly, given.

Has Shearer learnt anything from his time overseeing aid programmes? Why are the weak, the helpless and the poor so often the victims? Why are they so often the ones in need of aid? And what makes wars start – and end? What are all the conflicts over?

Let me use two quotes I’ve used previously, to help Shearer and others ‘join the dots’, if they haven’t done so yet.

“War is politics by other means”

Carl von Clausewitz

“As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance”

John Dewey

Join the dots.

Attenuate ‘the shadow’ – the ‘politics’ – at your peril. The substance – the power of ‘big business’/wealth – remains. Even unto war.

The aim of any ‘progressive’ politician, any nominally ‘left’ winger should be to turn politics into an arena enjoined by all, not just Dewey’s ‘big business’. That’s why substantive democratisation is always a worthy cause – and why it’s resisted by those who already have sufficient power, thank you very much.

If Shearer has really ‘listened’ then he’ll realise that at the heart of Christchurch citizens’ concerns is the compelling desire to have control over our destiny. The affected people in Christchurch are fighting to that end in so many ways – fighting EQC, the council, Fletchers, the fairness of the government’s offer.

I don’t know how Shearer could have missed noticing. Especially given that in the same article he is pictured, finger pensively poised against his chin, ‘listening’ to New Brighton homeowner Kerry Simpson who is quoted as saying “It seems like something’s changed and the government doesn’t care anymore.”

That fight to democratise the Christchurch recovery and rebuild is the purest form of politics. Shearer should be using his every political instinct to fight that fight. Instead, he wants to take the politics out of it:

He said a bipartisan approach was needed to ensure the city’s recovery stayed on track.

They like ‘bipartisan’ approaches in America – the elite, I mean. It’s great rhetoric for disarming those who struggle to gain some influence.

Why David Shearer should want to sideline this political struggle – when it is most needed – I have no idea.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this is that it reinforces my early suspicions – during the Labour leadership contest at the end of last year – that there is an absence of any form of political analysis in Shearer’s repertoire. The fear that he lacks a coherent – and historically based – sense of how the social and economic worlds operate.

How many other issues, I wonder, are “way bigger than politics” in Shearer’s opinion?

Well, we already know that he thinks poverty should be above politics. And, given his silence on the issue, it looks like the Ports of Auckland industrial dispute is too.

Perhaps the simpler question is to ask David Shearer just how big his ‘politics’ is. Just how big he thinks the arena of political contestation and struggle is – the list of issues might be much shorter than the ones he deems “way bigger than politics“.


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5 Responses to Shearer on ‘How big is my politics?’

  1. iri sinclair says:

    A vaccuum is a void – how could anyone avoid the political fall-out over the Chch quake lack-of-response? I saw Brownlee at the Havelock Four-Square the day after the last big shake, when he had said in the media he was heading back to CHCH. Yeah Right! He was off on a flash boat to some flash spot for a spot of fishing. Apparently very unpopular in CHCH, as is the Mayor and his overpaid CEO.
    As they say – a day is a long time in politics – and another term in opposition is a very long day in parliament…possums!

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Iri,

      A sure sign that something is political is when large numbers of people who would never ordinarily become publicly vocal start to make noise.

      Here in Christchurch there’s a lot of noise being made over a lot of issues that are related, in one way or another, to the earthquake. Far from being something above or beyond politics, I think the earthquakes have brought many things bubbling to the surface other than liquefaction.

      I would have liked David Shearer to acknowledge that and say something like “These ordinary people who are struggling to be heard and whose needs are more than pressing cannot be buried by a recovery and rebuild process that is more and more looking like it is being designed without their interests at heart.”

      Yes, that’s a political statement – and so should have been Shearer’s comments.

      BTW, I like the play on words in the phrase ‘A vacuum is a void/’avoid’‘!

  2. iri sinclair says:

    Too right Puddleglum 🙂

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