Deaf ears and young people's populism

Here’s a quote from last week: “We cannot arrest our way out of crime.” Some handwringing leftie? Actually, Anne Tolley, National party Minister of Police.

Tolley was announcing, with John Key, new measures to deal with gangs, which she prefaced with those words.

They fell largely on deaf ears. The primary immediate media focus was on initiatives to contain the drugs trade, GPS-track some gang members and toughen up on guns. Opponents scoffed that it was law-and-order dog-whistle election campaigning.

Actually, much of the focus in Tolley’s new measures is on rescuing children from gangs and helping those who want to get out — an extension of a focus on education and rehabilitation in prisons which she has expanded.

A justice conference in April was told many gang members who in prison get some education and from that aspiration for a better life, have nowhere to go when they come out but back to the gangs. Beatings, including of partners, discourage all but the most determined from making a break.

Contrast Crusher Collins’ lock-em-up two-to-a-cell and in containers (and ACT’s Jamie Whyte’s “three-strikes” populism). Tolley fits Key’s habitually underexposed desire for his legacy to be (in addition to four terms in office) what he does as Prime Minister for disadvantaged children. Children don’t come much more disadvantaged than in many gang households.

But Tolley’s constructive side doesn’t fit modern campaigning.

Take David Cunliffe’s presentation of two big Labour policies.

First, the children policy in January. Shades of Tolley: Jacinda Ardern chose, when Cunliffe divested her of social development last year, to link the police, prisons and children portfolios.

Cunliffe highlighted the $60 a week cash for most families for the first year. The real substance is in interventions to ensure as many children as possible get a good start in life from early in the mother’s pregnancy through the early years. This is not soft-left: while Labour’s Annette King got on to it back in 2010, Parliament’s health committee backed it in a far-reaching, verging on radical, strongly research-based report last November which the committee’s five National MPs (headed by Paul Hutchison) and the Labour, Green and New Zealand First parties all voted for.

With Chris Hipkins’ education policy, the big item at last month’s Labour “congress”, Cunliffe highlighted cash for more teachers to lower class sizes. Actually, the main thrust is on lifting teachers’ professional capability and status which research says is far more relevant than small class-size cuts.

The result: two carefully thought-through policies came across as cash splurges.

At Sunday’s campaign launch, featuring Labour’s star policy, health, Cunliffe again pushed big cash in free doctors’ visits for the over-65s and under-13s — though there was substance in the focus on pregnant women (for the children to be), the disabled, the chronically ill and those over-65s who are needy and in a primary care boost.

The cash line fuels National’s counter-attack: that voting Labour might risk the economic lift from which households mostly have not yet had much but are now more hopeful, according to positive measures of consumer confidence and whether the country is on the right track.

National’s counterpunch politics might work with the over-30s. But does it get under-30s, especially the under-25s and under-20s, out to vote?

That is the target electorate for Kim Dotcom and his allies. (And, it seems, Telecom. Simon Moutter seems to be having a second teenage-hood, renaming it Spark and mailing out a “thanks” flyer which gabbles about “awesome goodies”, “first dibs”, “gigs” and “rock on”, thereby in effect farewelling oldies: “when people say thanks it usually marks an ending,” the flyer says.)

Dotcom’s lot has promoted a video of him winding up a crowd of young people to chant “f..k John Key”.

This was not the start of a descent into fascism, however sinister Dotcom appears to mainstreamers. The rhythm was more a rugby chant than a “sieg heil”. It amounts to a sort of young people’s populism, a comradeship in rejection of the establishment — echoes of young baby-boomers’ rejection of their parents’ stuffy politics in the mid-late-1960s.

The Dotcom lot’s policies are pitched digitally to a digital generation in a way that makes even the Greens look a bit passé. (An aside: note Television New Zealand’s unveiling this Thursday of a website on which voters can test parties’ policies against their own thinking.)

Where the Dotcom show goes no one knows. There is a long road from fun at a rock show to voting in a polling booth alongside oldies. How many will travel that long road? It could be 2 per cent and it could be 6 per cent. The similar Pirates party in Germany got up to 13 per cent in opinion polls and seats in four state legislatures in 2011-12.

But does Dotcom’s party have substance, of the Tolley sort? A clue: the Pirates fell to 2 per cent in 2013.