Monthly Archives: January 2008

How to lose some critical votes

There’s a vile photoshopped image of Helen Clark doing the rounds in NZ. It’s posted on one of the more outrageous right wing blogs: go hunt for it yourself if you really want to see it.

I can’t understand why the idiots who put together the image and posted it on a blog would want to do such a thing. It’s puerile, and ultimately, it’s counterproductive. I’m making the wild assumption that people who make and use such images don’t like Helen Clark, don’t approve of her, don’t want to see her re-elected this year. Perhaps they even hate her, ‘though I don’t need to make that stronger assumption to make my argument here work.

Whatever the feelings of the people who made the image, to me the whole process conveys the idea of laughing at Helen Clark because she’s a woman. “Ha ha ho ho! Isn’t this funny? This is person is a woman! Crikey – that’s a good joke! Yep, being a woman sure is a funny thing to be. Sensible people wouldn’t ever dare to be women. Ha ha ha!”

You can imagine it with guffaws or snickers, or snide comments over drinks. Whatever. The point is that being a woman is a joke.

If you don’t think that’s what going on, here’s another take on what might be motivating the perpetrators. Helen Clark dares to be a powerful woman, and for that, she must be put in her place, so that the rightful lords of the universe don’t have to acknowledge her as their equals any more. One sure way of putting a powerful woman in place is to make fun of her sexuality, to constantly deride her in sexual terms, and at the same time, incoherently, to imply that she is somehow less of a woman, because she is powerful. At a minimum, I think the perpetrators are attacking her because she is a powerful woman, in a way that they would not attack a powerful man.

So what, you may think. Who really cares about what deluded fools nudging each other in the ribs and massaging their egos behind the bike sheds think or do? The perpetrators have been taken to task in no uncertain terms for simply being crass, even by people who have little time for Helen Clark. And surely that’s all there is to say.

Except I think there is more to say. These people aren’t merely being vicious and crass, they are also being stupid.

Last election, back in 2005, it seems that women’s votes went to Labour and Helen Clark. A big generalisation, I know – there are plenty of women who voted for other parties, including voting for Labour’s main opponent, National. But the received wisdom has it that National lost the women’s vote, probably because women wanted to retain services like health and education, and whatever the reality of the case, Labour managed to convince women that the tax cuts proposed by National would lead to significantly reduced services in health and education. I have tried, without much success, to track down some detailed analysis of the vote in 2005, particularly with respect to a gender breakdown. Nevertheless, my recollection is that the received wisdom was that National under Don Brash couldn’t get enough women to vote for them. This 2006 transcript from Agenda on Scoop has Dr Brash saying something to the effect of National needing to reach out to women, and this August 2005 Herald Digipoll reports that:

National’s support among women and among Aucklanders is well below its overall support. Only 31.1 per cent of decided women support National, compared with 51.3 per cent who support Labour.

So there’s a key block of voters that National needs to win over – women.

Of course, National is doing well in the polls at present, and as Colin James points out, now that they have a leader who was reared in a state house himself, it won’t be so easy to run the tax-cuts-equals-services-cuts bogeyman. However, no one thinks that it’s likely that National will get more than 50% of the vote come election day, and in order to form a government, it will need to find some friends to play with. Depending on how the numbers fall out for the minor parties, that could be difficult. On most analyses, the numbers are pretty even between the left and the right. So even though National is polling well at present, every vote will count. National simply can’t afford to burn off women voters.

I do not think for the least moment that the National party had anything to do with the nasty image of Helen Clark. I don’t know, and I don’t care, whether the people who made and published it are National party members. I don’t think the image should be associated with the National party, at all. I don’t even think that it will give people a reason to vote against National. It ought not to, because it simply isn’t the sort of thing that the National party, and the great, overwhelming majority of National party supporters and voters would do.

Just in case I’m not making myself clear – this is NOT a National party plot, nor do they deserve to lose votes because of it. Got that? Loud and clear?

But…

Every time someone attacks Helen Clark for daring to be a woman, other women can feel threatened. What will happen to me if I dare to stick my head above the parapets, dare to try to achieve something in public life? Will I too be humiliated and ridiculed, just for being a woman?

Every time someone puts Helen Clark down for daring to be a woman, other women can feel as they too are being put down, insulted, held to be of little account. If it’s okay to put a degrading image of Helen Clark on the web, for everyone to see, will someone hold me in so little regard that my face, my body, my being will used for people to titter over, just because I am a woman?

Every time someone patronises Helen Clark because her clothes are wrong, her hair is wrong, she doesn’t use the same name as her husband, she doesn’t children, she speaks in a deep voice, really, she just isn’t a real woman at all, other women can feel that no matter what they do, they too will be poked at and criticised, for not being a woman in the right way.

Over time, all those attacks add up to sympathy, even identification with Helen Clark. And that in turn can translate to votes. Irrational maybe – it seems odd to vote for someone just because she is a woman, just as it would be odd to vote for someone just because he is a man. Nevertheless, attacking Helen Clark because she dares to be a woman is a counterproductive tactic. Sooner or later, that will translate into votes, and it may be just enough votes to enable Labour to retain the Treasury benches this year. Far better to attack Helen Clark’s record in office, her policies, her proposals for the future. Those are all up for discussion and debate, as they should be for any political candidate. But not the mere fact of being a woman.

Other bloggers are right to criticise the people who made and circulated the revolting image for being nasty, vicious, crude and peurile. But let’s add another adjective to that string of epithets. Stupid. These people are plain stupid.

I’m Elinor Dashwood

Julie Fairey sent me a link to this quiz: Which Austen heroine are you? I turn out to be Elinor Dashwood, which surprised me a little, because in recent years the Austen woman I have most identified with is Anne Elliot: I like her reserve, her confidence, as a mature woman, in her own judgement, her constancy and loyalty, and the way she constantly balances the claims that society and her family have on her, with what she thinks she really ought to do. She doesn’t disregard the social context in which she moves, but she is sufficiently self-assured make her own assessment of a situation, and act accordingly.

However I do like Elinor Dashwood too, who takes responsibility, looks after other people, allows herself to feel deeply, but doesn’t force her feelings on everyone around her. She is someone to be admired, though she is not so immediately appealing as Elizabeth Bennett (anyone who doesn’t like Elizabeth Bennett is a fool).

So, take the quiz. Which Jane Austen heroine are you? Post your answers in comments, if you feel so inclined.

Mr Key and teh girl-mumz

In amongst all the huffing and chuffing, the hurrahing and nay-saying, and plain old stimp-stamp-stomping in respect of John Key’s State of the Nation (that is, the state of New Zealand) speech today, no-one quite seems to have picked up on the one significant attitude change in amongst all the dog-whistling.

Recall that back in 2005, Don Brash, the thankfully former leader of the National party, had this helpful suggestion to make about teenage mothers.

Ultimately, reducing the number of those on the DPB must be about finding ways of strengthening families, about educating people about the responsibilities of parenthood, about taking a tougher line on the financial responsibilities of non-custodial parents (while improving access for those non-custodial parents), and about acknowledging adoption as an acceptable option, particularly for teenage girls.

However nicely put, the subtext, and it wasn’t so very sub a text in any case, was that teenagers should be “encouraged” to give up their babies for adoption.

Katherine Rich, a woman whose integrity I admire,* was the National party spokesperson on welfare at the time that Brash made this speech. She simply could not stomach this return to the 1950s, so Brash fired her, and replaced her with Judith Collins. Brash was, unsurprisingly, taken to task for his views on the suitability of adoption. It was a bizarre call to make in any case – it was as if he had never, ever read any of the psychological and sociological literature on the effect of adoption, both on the birth mothers, and the babies, especially when the adoption was forced, either literally, physically forced on the birth mother, or forced through economic and social circumstances.

Believe me – I know that there are many, many people who long to be able to adopt a baby. I have been there myself. But that’s no excuse whatsoever for putting pressure on teenagers to give up their babies. Nevertheless, Brash saw that as a viable option.

Here’s what Key has to say about teenage mothers:

A pregnant teen or teen parent might not be able to access a place in a teen parent unit, but could stand to gain a lot from a specialised parenting course.

and…

Teenage parents will be specifically catered for. Programmes incorporating childcare, parenting advice, and tailored education will be developed to meet their particular needs.

The expectation is that teenagers will be given the training and resources to be able to support themselves and their babies, not have their babies taken away. That’s a huge about face, and a huge rejection of the sort of policies that Don Brash stood for.

Of course, these sorts of programmes will be massively expensive. A training programme for a teenage mother is no good if she can’t get childcare. To implement this sort of policy, Key will need to make a substantial commitment to funding childcare as well as funding the courses that the teenage mums are taking. And that’s not going to sit well alongside his commitment to funding tax cuts out of expenditure cuts. Nevertheless, this is a massive shift in attitude on the part of the National party. Will there be any more?

______________________

* Rich supported the repealing of section 59, and continued to do so, even when the entire National caucus, bar her, was set to vote in favour of retaining it. That takes courage.

Public vs private

Back in the old country, while some parents send their children to private schools, most don’t. Only about 4% of New Zealand children attend private schools. The rest just go to their local state schools, and a very, very small proportion, less than 1% (based on my own calculations – I’m very happy to correct the figure if I have it wrong) are home schooled. (Not an option that appeals to me – I would go crazy within a week. But we both hold PhDs, so we figure that we could homeschool them if they want to do degrees.)

It’s a different matter in the new country. About 33% of children in Australia attend private schools (data table downloadable here). That’s a huge proportion.

People give various reasons for wanting to send their children to private schools – better education, smaller class sizes, religious education, the “right” environment. And it hurts – private schools cost a lot. Of course, they are more affordable now than they were say, twenty years ago: John Howard and his Liberals pumped a lot of money into the private school sector (44kb pdf).

It’s that “right” environment that I find difficult. In the few weeks that I have been here, when we have said to people that our daughters will be going to the local public primary school, and then the local public secondary school, both of which are within a few hundred metres of our home, we have gotten the raised eyebrow treatment. I find it hard to understand why. Both schools enjoy a very high reputation, both have dedicated staff, the secondary school gets some of the best academic results in the state, it has a thriving arts programme, and it has rich programmes for non-academic children. Children from all over Adelaide apply to go to the school, but very fortunately for us and our girls, we are in the zone for the school. So we will be able to access an excellent public education for our daughters.

People acknowledge that the schools are good, but nevertheless seem just faintly disapproving. It seems that any private school would be better than even an excellent public school.

I have been puzzled about how to respond to this. I feel immediately forced onto the defensive, yet I know I shouldn’t. I have good reasons for wanting my children to go to state schools. I don’t want them sequestered in a precious environment, I am committed to state education, so that every child really does have a chance, I am concerned that the more children exit the state system, the weaker it becomes, with the poor thereby being excluded from a good education. I am also concerned about funding structures – I have no problem with people choosing not to educate their children in the public system, but I see no reason for the state to support their choice to go private with taxpayers money.

In addition to all that, I can see no reason to send children on a bus or car trip across town, when there are good, if not excellent schools within a few minutes walk of our home. What is it with people who think that it’s a good thing for a child to spend 90 minutes commuting every day?

These are all complicated, complex reasons, and they are hard to deploy at short notice in a polite social, getting-to-know-you conversation. But at last, I have come up with a “stop-them-in-their-tracks” quick one liner response. As it turns out, all the private schools near enough to our home in Adelaide are religious schools. Even the ones that say they are non-denominational claim to be “non-denominational but teaching Christian values.” Nice. Would those be the values of the crusades then? Or the hierarchical, misogynist church? Maybe it’s just the idea that there are ghosties out there that can help you get through life. Whatever. There simply is no private, secular, education available until the last couple of years of school education (years 11 and 12 in the Australian system, equivalent to years 12 and 13 in the New Zealand system, when the students are aged about 16 to 18). So, my quick one-liner?

“We just couldn’t find an atheist school.”

I have yet to try it on someone… but I shall report when I do.

A happy day

I have a new niece. She arrived this morning, safe and sound, and my sister-in-law is well, after a very nervous nine months. My brother and his wife have two other children, but the last little one arrived 10 weeks early. She is a bright and bubbly little girl, but she does have some serious physical side effects from her premmie arrival, which came about because her mum experienced some problems. So when my sister-in-law found that she was pregnant again, both she and my brother were worried. This third pregnancy was a risky pregnancy, for my sister-in-law, and for the baby.

I know we all complain about the New Zealand health system, but when the chips are really down, things do happen. The high risk team assisted my sister-in-law and her midwife through the pregnancy and delivery. And this morning that care paid off, with a full term delivery of a beautiful, healthy little girl whose mother is in good health.

Welcome to our family, and to the world, little one. We are so pleased that you are here.