Usually we arrive a little late. I sweep the car round into a park and scoot the kids across the tarseal and then up the stairs into the second floor corridor that leads down to the dance studio. Here a little segment of the middle class is busy with its four year old daughters at 9am on a Saturday morning.
Once Rosamund is sent through the studio door to be marched and skipped and pranced through her set of ballet routines it is left to the parents to sit in the waiting room and wait. When the parents know each other it is an opportunity to chat. Usually, because this is New Zealand, the talking is quiet, but sometimes the wealthier set like to dominate the room. It is an act of great self-assurance to feel that you can talk across a room to other people while others stand on the edges. It means that you assume everyone is in agreement, and that it is a “safe” place of shared values where one can be frank.
Today the subject is Auckland where one of the speakers is about to move.
“You need to find your place in Auckland. How can I say this…. the North Shore is where all the ‘standard’ families live.”
I wonder why he doesn’t just say “white”. I suppose that it is a remnant of the notion that New Zealand is egalitarian that stops people saying this directly and forces them to use coded language like ‘standard’. Anyway, we all know what he means, and the two women he is talking to respond with nods and confident clucks to show that they understand the code.
The rooster begins to talk about a friend who is well positioned: “They have an arts and crafts house on 1700 square metres of land in Remuera.”
“Oh my God!”
“So, obviously it’s about the land. You could get four townhouses on that, or six small ones, or even eight apartments. The house is nothing special. Just an old arts and crafts house, but the land.”
This comes after a bit about the crazy housing market in Auckland and how the rooster will rent not buy. Probably partly because of people turning every scrap of land into small townhouses and pumping up the price.
“All the banks have moved to Auckland so it was inevitable we would go.”
“I dread when my husband tells me we have to go.”
“You just have to find your village up there.”
“Most of the people we know are in Devonport and take the ferry to the city.”
Clucks and crowing.
“What will you do up there?”
“Well I don’t need to work, but if I didn’t I would have to be a stay at home dad and that would be terrible.”
They all laugh: “That would be much harder!”
“What do you do?”
“I’m in I.T.. I won’t have a problem getting a job.”
The conversation switches inexplicably to yoga. One of the women is a part-time yoga instructor. She expresses concern about cross training and all the jerky leaping about to music with no concern for posture.
“John does yoga now. He’s so into his cycling that he needs it to balance out all the shortening muscles.”
“Everyone needs their release.”
“Wine!” Mirthless laughter.
“I cook,” the rooster says. “If I don’t cook…” he trails off leaving the suggestion of his potential crankiness hanging in the air.
Still, at least there’s yoga and the high finance job in Auckland, and Devonport, and knowing you can always get a job in I.T. to fall back on if for some reason you can’t make your quinoa and feijoa salad.
It’s not that I am different in many of my opinions and tastes if I am honest.
If I had time I’d like to try yoga. If I moved to Auckland I’d look for somewhere to live where I fitted in. I like wine. I like whatever is the latest ingredient to sweep the menus. It’s that I don’t talk about it across the room and make assumptions. I detest the comradely tone that implies agreement, and the complacency of the views expressed as if everyone has the ability to turn off and on well-paid jobs, and the money to afford the time to do things like yoga, or to finance shipping your whole life to another city.
It’s this kind of thing exactly:
To which the defence is: “He was just saying what we all think”. You can climb on your high horse (it’s nice up here), but there is some truth in the defence. Hemi or John, Moana or Mary, but Anand? Come on, scratch the politically correct surface and admit it. That’s not really a Kiwi name. Paul is just talking across the room to people he thinks share his views and values. People like John Key.
We are often told to celebrate multi-cultural New Zealand, but in the end this just means going to a festival or a parade, or seeing one mentioned on TV and thinking that these kind of things are “good” for some vague reason.
Yet when you actually look at the people who are filling up our air waves they are white, middle class men. Females (white and middle class too) are – I would suggest – often seen as co-hosts. On TVNZ in particular it is always the man who sits in the power seat on the right and the woman who sits on the left as the unspoken “co-host”. Think of all the white, middle-class men telling us things, who are the anchors: ONE News, Seven Sharp, Campbell Live, Breakfast, 7Days, Jono and Ben, Q+A – it is endless. Today, in our diverse, liberal and democratic country I watched a man interview a man about his success in Northland, followed by a man interview a man about his failure in Northland, followed by a man interview a man about how he ran the by-election campaign.
And so we have John Key. John Key who seems to be intellectually complacent in all areas outside his very narrow set of experiences. John Key who understands how some aspects of “high” finance works, and is comfortable in that world. In that world he would have perceptive things to say, based on intelligent observations and experience. He is charismatic and comes across as easy-going, and – I imagine – is fairly good at doing the pressing of the flesh and the making of small talk with the people he needs to. With his set of skills he has been earned great wealth, and has become familiar and comfortable with the trappings of wealth. Luxury hotels, and holiday homes, and designer clothes, and world-class restaurants, and golf courses have become another environment he is comfortable in. The two worlds – finance and luxury leisure – make a nice tight fit, and has been built alongside a “normal” family life. In the worlds he inhabits John is completely acclimatised and normal.
He was a smart student who did well at school and then did well in his job and moved up. For white men the system still works like that. Just like it still doesn’t work like that for brown men. If you are a product of that system and move quickly into the middle class and beyond then you become surrounded by people the same as you, and because you are afforded all the trappings of success and become accustomed to being listened to you begin to talk. You begin to talk across the room at like-minded “kiwis”. You begin to use the word “kiwis” and “mum and dad New Zealanders” with all the connotations of “normal” and “we’re all the same” that these phrases are supposed to conjure up. When John Key talks about “mum and dad kiwis” buying shares who do you think of? The Somali family down the road in the council flat?
Mike Hosking likes to talk across the room. Sometimes to John Key. Sometimes to New Zealand care of his nationally broadcast homilies five days a week. Again, he’s just saying what we are “all” thinking. The clothes that all the presenters wear and the sets they sit in actually help to create the sense of the kind of room we are in. It is a modern, corporate room where people wear business clothes and are white.
Which is why the waiting room at ballet comes to mind. The waiting room at ballet on Saturday morning is like the Seven Sharp studio on a weekend. The suits are off, and the casual clothing is on, but the assumed shared values and views remain the same. Mike is lounging back on the couch dominating the room as his two female co-hosts pitch in occasionally with anecdotes and pretended challenges to his more “edgy” (read: racist, sexist, elitist) comments.
Radio New Zealand can take some credit for cutting across the trend a little bit. Kim Hill runs her own show. She is the voice, she sets the agenda and she asks the questions. On Morning Report the handling of duties seems to be evenly handled and thanks to the format of radio we have no visual cues about clothing or seating positions to tell us who is really in charge. Mary Wilson used to be alone on Checkpoint. Maori TV can also claim some victories. Mihirangi Forbes is pretty highly regarded, and led Native Affairs with Jodi Ihaka through the election campaign in 2014.
Remember that campaign? The leaders’ debates and the minor party debates? Remember all those female voices? Asian voices? Pasifika voices? All the voices of the poor? Remember how all they ever seemed to talk about in the leaders’ debates – with their white male adjudicators – was capital gains tax and housing? We were back in that room with the shared views and values of “mum and dad kiwis”. That room where people are worried about getting into the Auckland housing market, or the margins on their investment property. What was the top issue over on Native Affairs for voters?
“The number one issue for Maori in our polls has been family violence,” Forbes says by phone from Auckland. “We are all surprised. We’ve not had that before. People must be living amongst it or seeing it or hearing it and not feeling empowered to speak out. Maybe the services that used to be there aren’t there anymore.”
Imagine that. A whole section of society not interested in capital gains tax. I bet they didn’t snap up those shares on offer either. I bet if they were sitting in the room with Mike Hosking they would think “who the f*&k is this clown?”.
Not that there would be much point in speaking up. The clobbering machine against dissent is pretty grueling. Hua, loser, plonker, protester, tree hugger, disgusting creature! This is how the white men who control the room deal with dissent. I would like to see some other people being given the floor. How about instead of the aim of the show being to maintain equilibrium it is just as often about presenting genuinely different perspectives. Not as a quirky add-on but as a central voice.
Maybe then we wouldn’t have to hear about roading infrastructure so much in a by-election. Or taxation on your third property in a general election. Maybe the disenfranchised have things that bother them? How would we know? They’re not in the room, and if they shout from the outside they get caricatured and pushed back to the fringe.
Our democracy, which people like Sean Plunket tell us is representative (so, in a way, Eleanor Catton is slagging us all off), is really just the white middle class talking to each other with male voices the loudest. Still.
So let’s just be clear. I might look like you, John, Mike, Sean and Paul. I might be from the same kind of intellectual and social gene pool as you. We might have many, many things in common, but you are not just saying what I am afraid to say, and you do not represent what I think. You come across as complacent, and complacency comes across as arrogance. Leave. Find another job. Step aside.
I really, really want to hear from someone else.