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The Ginga from Otaki

Keith Ng on the election trail | Sep 08, 2005 01:25

"Social engineering"? "Homosexual agendas"? "Pragmatic sell outs"? What is Labour really trying to do? We ask Labour's Junior Whip, the Ginga from Otaki and career politician, Darren Hughes.

[Update: Ah, guess I'd better take some of my own medicine and withdraw and apologise for calling for the Greens to withdraw and apologise over their claim that National was involved with the Brethren's campaign! Man, and I thought this campaign was going to be boring.]

[Update: Turns out that 1.75:1.95 wasn't the best odds on Labour - it briefly rose to 1.85 - even odds! - yesterday, before the poll was released, but is now settled at 1.70:2.00.]

[Brief interlude: There'll be a charity screening of Campaign, a documentary about the Wellington Central race in '96, on at the National Library this coming Wednesday. Amongst the audience will be the director, Tony Sutorius, and the subjects of the film, then-Labour candidate Alick Shaw and then-National candidate Mark Thomas (who was the one to spectacularly cop it when Jim Bolger publicly urged National voters to vote for Prebble to get ACT in). I wonder if Thomas is feeling any schadenfreude towards Rodney Hide at the moment? Email for tickets.]

Why do you think that Labour had a slump in the polls earlier this year?

We've had a very tough year! We've had a year where we've kinda went from one kind of sideshow to another. And then we had the expectations that built up in the last week [before] the Budget that there were going to be tax cuts, and that just capped off what has been a difficult year.

Labour has never won a third-term during peace-time. We tend to be more reforming, we want to change things, and the country can only ever cope with so much change at one time. So to go for a third term is a hard ask, but the fact that we're looking good for one is testimony that there's a core vote for Labour that's pretty much behind what we've tried to achieve in the last six years.

Do you think that Labour has pushed social changes too far ahead of public opinion?

We are legislating to reflect what's already occurring. Take the Civil Union Bill. We've got 300,000 people already living in Civil-Union-type relationships - majority of which are straight de facto relationships. I don't believe there were any new gay relationships created because we passed the bill.

What happens is that, for members of the public for whom those issues have nothing to do with their day-to-day lives, all of a sudden it's on their agenda and they're having to think about it. But it doesn't actually affect them. For those who it does have an impact on, they can see the reality is there anyway.

Where the Government has to be careful is that the general public can only accept so many of those changes at a time, and I think we've pushed a number of - not pushed - introduced and passed legislation during this term [that] probably rattled the cages of some New Zealanders. I think it's the right thing to do, but I am conscious that you can't keep on doing those things. You've got to keep that in balance so you don't get people feeling as though you're trying to, you know, turn society up on its head.

So are you saying that you haven't been pushing the issues too fast, but you've hit the point where you need to slow down?

Each Labour government has some things that become enduring pieces of legislation. Even the most ardent critic of the Civil Union Bill didn't argue that we should make homosexuality a criminal offence like it was in 1986. Yet at the time [in '86], 800,000 people signed a petition against that bill [to decriminalise homosexuality]. So you do get things being more accepted over time. But you can only ask people to absorb those changes at a reasonably slow rate. We had a lot on the agenda of moral issues this time, and I think we need to just take a break from some of that stuff and just get on with some of the more bread and butter issues that affect far more people, like running the public health system well.

Is this slowing down a concession that you can't push the social agendas that you want to push?

No, it's just that politics is the art of the possible. We haven't been a radical reforming government, and as Helen often says, there's no sense in the country for radical change. We had 15 years of that sort of thing.

That's not backing off, it's just that we've done some pretty big things and you want to get the focus on to some of the other things, because otherwise you end up with this label that we're all social engineering, PC sort of stuff. And yet when you look at the work programme, all those sort of issues have only been a tiny fraction of what we've done.

The irony of the "social engineering" is that most of the things we've done allow people to make choices about their lives. Those who accuse of social engineering often have very narrow, rigid view about the way the world should be and everyone should conform with that. And if they don't conform with that then they're not in the mainstream. Well, that to me seems more like social engineering than anything we've actually done.

Let me put the other side to you, then: Do you think that Labour has become too pragmatic?

If you go into parliamentary politics, you have to accept that it's not an idealistic place and you have to keep enough people around you to keep the overall programme going - so that does mean being pragmatic. There's always been the great debate between the purists - those who don't get involved in the actual practicalities of implementing the agenda they believe in - and those who are pragmatic - who do get out and are prepared to commit to a longer time-frame to see social progress and social change.

We've extended the Working for Families Package by another 60,000 families. Now, if you're "pure" you'd say "why didn't you do that when you first announced the programme". But you can't. The practical side of running a political party is you can't do that.

On the foreshore and seabed, of course, we got accused on both sides of having sold out. A whole political party got started because they thought we didn't listen to them. The National Party have gone around putting up billboards saying "Iwi vs Kiwi" on the foreshore and seabed. Now, both groups can't be right, but that's what you get accused of.

Was that selling out half-way on both sides?

No, because they're both saying completely different things - one says you're stealing it, the other says you're giving it away.

I haven't seen one example of a customary right that has been withdrawn or destroyed because of what the government did on the foreshore and seabed. Equally, to counter the National Party, we haven't seen any serious or credible attempts by Maori to drive Pakeha away from the foreshore and seabed. So, huge amounts of heat, but in the end, our job is to try to get a common sense, practical legislation through Parliament.

So, if the Labour was in government for the better part of the next 20 years, what would NZ look like?

I'd like to think we'd just continue to have a fairer, more tolerant society where we are welcoming and accepting of people, and compassionate towards those who fall on hard times. I'd like to think that we would continue to express more of an independent nationhood.

We are at a pretty delicate time, I reckon. Take the whole arts policy. When that whole emphasis on arts was brought in five years ago, everyone pooh-poohed it as being, you know, arty-farty nonsense. But now you can actually see people creating jobs and making an economic return off the creative sector, and that's good on its own, but the intangible gain you get from those strong creative sectors is people feeling better about themselves, their country - things that you can't really measure, but you feel that there's a lift in the country.

I think we are seeing glimpses of an independent kind of Kiwi patriotism. We were all blown away by the public response to the Unknown Warrior's return from France, when the body came back here and the outpouring of emotion and pride that ordinary Kiwis took from that. There are tentative steps being made [towards becoming] a strong and independent people, and if Labour got a good run in government, we would be able to develop that.

Is that a core value for you, that idea of nationalism and national identity?

I think that's one of the things that we've got to do, and we've got to do it from a position of strength and not from a position of being defensive about ourselves. That's why I'm glad that the whole issue of an independent foreign policy - the nuclear-free issue - [is] on the agenda for this election. To me, as a younger person who was seven years-old when that came in, that says a lot about who we are. That we try and do the right thing even though we're one of the smallest kids on the playground.

Does this nationalism automatically imply republicanism?

I think there'll be a natural parting of the ways [with Britain], and I don't see that as a rejection of the monarchy or anything like that. It's just a natural evolution into what this country should be in the 21st century. For example, it seems odd to me, as a member of Parliament, that I have never met the head of state. In an intimate democracy like New Zealand, where everyone calls their local MPs and the Prime Minister by their first name, that doesn't quite fit with the way we operate.

Do you see Maori identity as part of New Zealand's national identity and as part of our constitutional arrangement?

Oh, [it's a] very important part. Where I disagree so strongly with the National Party is in their statement that the Treaty of Waitangi is not a living document. The Treaty of Waitangi ought to be something that's celebrated, because the very same document that was used to cause so much harm is now being used to put it right.

No one's to blame for that, no one should feel guilty about it, but we've enter this process of trying to do the right thing about it, and I think that that keeps Maori identity very much important in New Zealand's history. And I think for younger people, who've come through it and can pronounce Maori words correctly, and don't see the big problem with things that people of the older generation like Don Brash seem to have such a terrible problem with - it's all just ho-hum stuff, you know?

Is the difference that Labour thinks the Treaty process and race relations is going well and that all it requires is patience, while National think it's going poorly and going to get worse?

By its very definition, that term "race relations" means it's a tricky, bumpy road. And it is. But on the whole, over that whole foreshore and seabed issue, which resulted in a big hikoi outside Parliament and lots of Pakeha New Zealanders getting pretty angry, saying "I'm fed up, this is enough"; despite those high levels of emotions; despite the fact that a Minister resigned from the Government and set up a new party, and despite the fact that it occupied our country's public debate for 18 months, not one person lost their life over it.

We have some pretty serious challenges, but we handle them pretty well, and it doesn't get way out of control. I listened on the radio this morning, they were talking about the pull out from Gaza. They talked about how smoothly it was going, and then the radio announcer said that four Palestinians had been shot dead, and then continued reporting the story. Well, four people lost their lives, just on that one incident, and that's considered smooth.

So here, people get uptight about different things, some people get impatient because it takes too long, some people get impatient because it's going too fast, saying you're being walked all over. But in the end, in the middle of all that rhetoric is the fact that we're a good-natured people doing the right thing, and we've seen the results of it.

Do you want to be the Prime Minister one day?

Me? No, I only want to be the MP for Otaki. My goal is to spend my working life in politics. The people of Otaki willing, I'll get the chance to do that, and I'll do whatever job I get the chance to.

Do you think New Zealand will accept a ginga prime minister?

It's always good to have a first. Equally, no one from Levin has ever done the job, so who knows? I think there'd be an enormous sense of pride to see how far a ginga could go, just to show what a diverse country we are. There's room for everybody in this country.

Even gingas?

Even gingas! That's right - keep [the] hope alive.

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