Matt Nippert - navel astronomer, Auckland

Monday, December 13, 2004

Clowns and mirrors

Ever take a look in the mirror? I mean aside from popping zits or spreading the bryl? It's a strange experience, and self-reflection is a lot harder than self-help gurus make out. I've been doing a bit lately, thinking back on how I got into the journalism gig. It wasn't really planned, more a bail-out option after realising the life of a civil servant wasn't for me.

I remember the first place I got a news story published (outside of the crackhouse-cum-club newsletter of student media), in 2001. It was on party drugs, specifically the 'P' of it's day, 'G' aka 'GBH' or 'Fantasy'. The latest issue of Pacific Journalism Review has a good piece by the Herald's Mr Science Simon Collins, and Jeremy Rose, on the paper that printed it: the progressive 90s paper City Voice.

The two founded and ran the Wellington weekly for a decade. I only read it myself for a few years before it folded in 2001, while I was at university sifting through barrooms, boardrooms, newsrooms and the occasional lecture.

I remember City Voice as feisty and, as as with the Shipping News' Gammy Bird, it had a hard bite. The article traces the dream to a sad and messy end, hopefully giving the next generation of idealists something to think about - as well as preserving a genuine media legacy.

By the time the axe fell at City Voice, the Wellington evening daily Evening Post had also been swallowed by the Dominion. If you're a print junkie, this city would send your paralytic. Hence, I moved to Auckland. Although, now as I'm looking across the Pacific, even New Zealand feels small.

Despite the close of the US election, I'm looking eastwards for a reason - naval gazing isn't as fruitless as I once thought. There's the potential for overseas study if I can somehow navigate my way through various bureaucratic mazes, including university admissions and scholarship applications.

Last month the blogosphere intruded into my serious quest. At a scholarship interview in Wellington I fielded questions surrounding media treatment of the US elections ("it's an echo chamber"), the origins of Fulbright awards ("an educational Marshall plan"). I was feeling pretty good, answering a panel of seven including 5 PhDs and the press officer from the US embassy is a little intimidating. But as I was preparing to leave, they asked a clanger that left me flumoxed, ruining my serious facade.

"So, how's the air guitar going?"

DogBitingMen, you bastards.

Fortunately, this was some time ago, and I've recomposed and can end this post on a positive note. In the spirit of adding something new (as I believe all good blogs should do), I've attached below an internet exclusive. Which is, of course, a euphemism for the bulging folder of scribblings I've got stashed under my bed.

But this editorial I wrote for Salient has got a certain spark; I hear the National Party were tossing up legal action after it was published. It's an election autopsy special, written in the hours following the results of the student election being announced. Don't let that put you off though, I'm assured it's funny, and it even has a moral:
Why not to not give a shit (originally published Salient, October 2003)

A lackluster public can provide appetising opportunities. Many years ago now I got involved in party politics for the first and last time. It was part of an experiment into how desperate and corruptible the National Party was. The Rimutaka electorate was ripe for the picking, recently being overrun by New Zealand First and all present party officers well into their retirement years. A vast influx of youngsters would surely convince them all to retire early to fully enjoy their privately paid pensions.

It was easy to begin with, a simple election where showing any interest whatsoever was enough to guarantee victory. Overnight, I became the blue-blooded Treasurer and Policy Officer for a party for which I had no sympathy and even less respect. Too easy, I found. We changed the constitution, and my flatmates and I were able to reach quorum whenever the mood took us. We had sloshed funds.

Many nights were enjoyed at the expense of Shipley and Birch. Membership request forms went unanswered, party membership dropping from hundreds to 50 within one year. Cheques weren't cashed, and my end-of-year financial report was sparse to say the least, dodgy to say the best. Of course it passed scrutiny: my flatmates weren't concerned with my irregularities. We had all gotten drunk on our criminality.

We didn't care about the aims of our supposed leaders. We delighted in contradicting them. Attending conferences became an excuse for getting wasted and feigning respectability, arguing republicanism beneath portraits of Queen Elizabeth in Masonic halls.

But we never were looked down on. Despite subtle insults, a lack of respect for our supposed constituents, and often absolutely outrageous comments (I remarked that Shipley's Code of Social and Family Responsibility was "prescriptive fascism on stilts"), we were never held accountable. Indeed, I was often praised for my commitment to alternative and colourful views, and my passion was attributed to youthful zest. Despite our incredulous agenda, the virtue of our positions meant we had credibility. Faith without foundation is a powerful agent of hallucination.

National politics weren't even beyond our reach. "Our" candidate for the electorate was the most evil man available . He was a former policeman, and a baton-instructor to boot. The Springbok Tour was his proving ground, and his view on race relations and social harmony were a product of his profession. In Upper Hutt, he passed muster, but only barely. The votes of my subversive flatmates ensured baton-man got the nod.

I don't know what I'd have done if our kamikaze candidate succeeded. I'd probably have got a job as parliamentary secretary, but that's an aside, and our best-laid plans came to fruition. He lost heavily, and Rimutaka has been a Swain lock since.

My career as a political saboteur, a sapper beneath enemy lines, came to a natural end. A combination of boredom and a lowered tolerance for conversational pain led me not to renew my membership after only one damaging term. But if real power had been involved, beyond that of frustration and petty machinations, I could have moved beyond being merely tipsy, to being fully drunk.

Until last Thursday this story had been one of celebrating my role in National's misfortunes. While I cannot claim sole responsibility, the paltry performance of Bill English is something I am personally gratified by. However, it also illustrates that when the public, any public, loses interest in who its leaders are and what they stand for, the public's opinions matter for nought. Because a representative unobserved is almost always a representative moving in directions you wouldn't envisage or condone.

Student elections have not had notable participation in recent years. Reasons for this are myriad. Students are busy, there's less time for communal communication and activities. Candidates are boring. Student politics doesn't matter.

But it is when politics seems not to matter, that it really does. When eyes and interest are removed from decision-makers, the decisions made become more removed and odious to those they directly affect. I'll go out on a limb here, and suggest that my experience with the Rimutaka is a humorous anecdote, but only to those outside the National Party. If we could imagine for a moment that we were all members of the Tory brigade, then suddenly the joke is decidedly unfunny. There's no giggling, only lamenting. By the time you realise those around you are laughing, you've long been the butt of the joke.

Despite the fact Victoria's enrolments are the highest they have ever been, the number of people turning out to vote in the VUWSA elections actually decreased this year. We're getting dangerously close to indulging in black comedy, and students won't be the ones laughing at the tragedy - the chuckles will be coming from outside the university. We'll have finally become the sad parody critics have called us: apathetic, delusional, blind while led by real nutcases.

I don't regret gutting the National Party in Rimutaka, far from it, but I am disturbed about how easy it was to corrupt a supposedly democratic process. While I got a decent story to tell, if you leave decisions up to a few the only likely outcome is a tyranny of the minority. Benevolent dictators are few and far between, and amongst opportunists even more rare.

So if you want a moral from all this; 1) Don't join the National Party, even if only to destroy it, and; 2) Pay attention to the world surrounding you, so clowns like me don't play with your future for a few cheap laughs.