Why fear deserves politicians' respect

An election is not just about hopes. It is also about fears. This one is no exception.

Fear is what last week’s excitement over genetic modification (GM) was mainly about. Among voters who don’t go into all the ins and outs it is an issue of fear and the Greens are playing it for all their worth.

The Greens do have a positive side. They try to live their beliefs in the midst of a mostly un-green society. They are, most of them, uplifting people.

There is also, however, a fascination with apocalypse. This can be wearying on the un-elect still succumbing to wordly pleasures, filling up their atmosphere with carbon, their streams with poison and their bodies with bad chemicals. But with GM the Greens have struck a chord with middle-class ladies and many others besides.

The fear of GM is a fear of the unknown. Gracious but steely Jeanette Fitzsimons (“Mother Theresa” or “Steel Magnolia”, co-leader Rod Donald habitually calls her) encapsulates that fear of the unknown when she says of tests for dangerous side-effects of GM that science cannot find what it does not know to look for — like looking for an unknown object in the dark compared with a known object under a lamplight.

But isn’t that the point of science and its great value: to go riskily into the dark and find new things? No scientist can quantify the risks in advance.

Yet the Greens are demanding such quantification, demanding absolute proof GM is safe.

GM is a highly complex, multifaceted issue. It can be debated as an issue of science, economics, the environment, risk management, spirituality, politics and whether direct or representative democracy should decide matters. A domestic focus brings different factors into play from an international trade focus.

But as an election issue it is predominantly about safe food and there is little doubt the Greens’ line is winning votes — and from some surprising quarters. It is also winning votes for Labour from some surprising quarters, to stop the Greens.

Yet the Greens may well win their point. For one reason or another (not least if fear continues to spread) a re-elected Labour-led government might extend the moratorium on commercial release.

Fear is real. Politicians often ignore or exploit emotions, especially fear. Neither is a respectful response and without a respectful response real fears in other countries have mutated into democracy-threatening forms.

In this country fear of loss of cultural unity helped make Winston Peters Deputy Prime Minister in 1996 and seems to be rescuing him from oblivion now.

Talk to those who worship him and you usually find decent folk and good citizens. In the context of their backgrounds, they are understandably disoriented and fearful about crime, Maori agitation and immigration from other cultures.

They see their once homogeneous and unified society disappearing. They feel their culture to be under siege. Alone in this election, Peters represents respect for those fears.

What is more indigenous and authentic, he in effect asks, than to want to protect a national culture from assaults by separatists within and immigrants from without?

Liberals of both right and left shudder, believing people who believe these things are unclean. It is small wonder that those who believe these things believe the liberals have betrayed their culture.

For the moment liberals need not fuss. Labour liberals seem set to dominate the next government.

And Peters showed in the 1990s he could not organise his worshippers into a powerful, sustained political movement. While he is there in that spot, no one will. He is in effect sidelining his constituency.

But their concerns are tribal and natural and one day, when Peters is gone, someone with organising skill might galvanise them into a powerful force.

The Greens, liberals to their back teeth on crime, the Treaty and immigration, are showing us in this election how to build a fear constituency. They play on emotions but they also produce volumes of data, presented in the vernacular of science and reason.

Their opponents were slow to counter them. They thought a rational royal commission report would win the argument. They paid too little respect to the reality of fear. They are now paying the price.