Cultural insecurity looms as a big election issue

Go to a National party hui these days and you’re in John Tamihere’s constant company. He’s a star of the show. Ooh-la-la.

JT is the man who told it like it is inside the supposedly unified and competent Labour-led government. Vote National.

JT is the man who forced Helen Clark to give him yet another chance (after yet another and yet another and yet another). Vote National for a firm leader. Take a bow, Georgina te Heuheu and Katherine Rich.

JT is the man who told it like some Labour men want it told about Labour’s “wimmin” in charge. He used a kid’s word to infantilise them — and all women. Vote National for proper treatment of women.

And the Chief Human Rights Commissioner and all the women’s groups said not a word about JT’s apostasies. Nor did the Race Relations Conciliator about his Holocaust talk. So, National says, they are Labour patsies. Vote National to fix that — and for respect for 6 million dead Jews.

But, most of all, Nationalists like JT’s exposure of what they say is Labour’s endemic viral political correctness. JT was politically incorrect in the right ways, they say. Vote National for correct politics instead.

And that hits a tender electoral spot. Big majorities in a poll I ran last year and in TV3’s poll last week said Labour is too politically correct.

What is or is not politically correct is in the eye of the beholder. If the beholder self-identifies as mainstream, the politically correct are those who insist the mainstream accept misfits or fringe-dwellers or fancy social theories as normal and sanitise their language accordingly.

If, like National, you are trying to recover a mainstream role in politics after a decade of vote shares of between a fifth and a third, it is useful to paint the present 45 per cent Labour party as fellow-travelling with fringe-dwellers. JT has helped out nicely by pointing out (exaggeratedly, but that is neither here nor there) the power of women and influence of the gay/lesbian/transgender Rainbow group within the Labour party.

National comes at this down two main routes.

One is to exhume Robsmob — men who preen themselves as no-nonsense, red-blooded males, sick of being told they are rapists or racists or homophobes or smokers. JT put it in a nutshell: their prostates are not nearly such a concern to the state health grandees as breasts and cervixes. (Robsmob women stick with their men.)

The second is by extolling the traditional family. In Auckland National is trying to tap into ethnic minorities and has attracted candidates from those minorities in part by emphasising conservative social and family values to which those societies still adhere, they say. Conservative mainstreamers proclaim them, too.

Labour’s political correctness is painted as undermining those traditional values.

So what is opposition to political correctness? It is a dimension of cultural insecurity — which large and perhaps growing numbers of people feel.

Winston Peters was the first to tap into this insecurity, with his immigration stance — immigrants from different cultures are changing our society in ways some people find offensive or at least discomforting.

Recently Don Brash has been tapping into that vein: we export dinkum Kiwis and import Asians.

But Brash has also been fishing in a much bigger pool: cultural insecurity triggered by the rise of indigenous rights, the “Treaty of Waitangi industry”, concessions to iwi for consultation in decision-making and official respect for Maori spiritual values — all now intensified by the Maori party’s rise.

Maurice Williamson summed it up to cheers at National’s Auckland conference on Saturday: under National no road would be delayed by as much as an hour “because of any bloody taniwha”.

Labour comes in from a totally different angle (and so, sotto voce, do many National liberals). Labour thinks of initiatives for Maori, ethnic minorities, gays and other minorities as extensions of human rights to the previously marginalised — the mark of a humane and civilised modern society.

And, by and large, polls report majorities for each such human rights extension. This is still broadly a liberal country.

Moreover, Maori culture, especially music and language, is now becoming a larger part of mainstream culture, especially among the young. This will inexorably grow with passing generations. National will need to be more culturally nimble than Robsmob if it is to form long-run governments. Some speakers at the weekend’s conference gave inklings of awareness of that.

But for now it is the accumulation of Labour’s initiatives such as civil unions, respect for taniwha and rescue of muslim refugees that counts, not the tolerance for any single initiative. Cumulatively, they have rendered a large number of citizens insecure about the culture of their country.

National has lined up on the side of the culturally insecure. It has correctly recognised it as an election issue — perhaps a big one. JT has been a big help.