Which way Winston, and what’s in it for the Greens?

Some quick thoughts off the back of Winston Peters’ comment to a journalist today that the idea of a Labour Green government is a “gross misrepresentation of the NZ political situation”.

What did he mean? Frankly, who knows? Even on the rare occasion that Winston says something in plain language, he still never actually said it according to him. Even when it is published on the New Zealand First website. I have no interest in trying to decipher his intentions from such sparse hints. It is more interesting is to reflect on the bigger picture of the coalition negotiations.

Winston can either go with Labour Greens or with National. Going with National is a risky line to take – and if he does he will be wanting to push the blame onto the Greens as much as possible for being ‘unreasonable’. Even so, NZF was badly damaged after going into coalition with National in 1996 after a campaign indicating that they were going to change the government. It is likely they will be damaged again if he does so now. His election slogan was “Had Enough’. Unless he was talking about himself (and most of us have), this implies an intention to support a Labour-led Government.

In any case, by propping up a last term National Government he will be handing a poisoned chalice to whoever he plans to anoint as successor. Whoever it is will have a hard enough time regardless. Of the two most likely contenders, Shane Jones cannot hide his supreme contempt for anyone who isn’t Shane Jones and is unlikely to have a lasting appeal to voters. I rate Ron Mark as a much better choice, but he doesn’t have anything like the charisma of his boss. If NZF goes with National and then Winston retires, I doubt the party would recover.

On the other hand, if he goes with Labour and elbows the Greens into the position of a support party outside of government, the Greens might end up with more leverage than they have now. The government would still rely on them to pass all its legislation, unless it can get support from National, but the Greens would not be bound by rules of cabinet responsibility. Labour could guarantee to support NZF legislative initiatives but not to pass them. Or it’s own for that matter, unless it ties the Greens into a closer arrangement than confidence and supply.

If the Greens were in a C&S arrangement with the government reliant on them for votes, they would have to use such power carefully and wisely. To be seen to be hamstringing the government would likely provoke a backlash. But what they could do is use the opportunity to strategically carve out a broader support base, by being seen to speak and exercise power on behalf of some new constituencies – ones that disrupt the left / right model of politics that they are currently trapped in.

Finally, it is a shame to see that the small parties are unable to talk together during coalition negotiations (and by all accounts it is Winston that refuses to entertain the possibility). NZF and Greens have plenty in common and no doubt by working strategically together they could achieve far bigger gains for both of them. Divide and rule is an old tactic but I don’t understand why anyone would play that trick on themselves.

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The Politics of Green Coalitions – rethinking our strategy and positioning

There is a lot of talk in the media and in the public at the moment about the merits of a National / Green coalition. It is not a new idea but this post-election there seems to be a deliberate and concerted effort to push it.

National, of course, would love to have a second option strengthening their hand with New Zealand First. It is important to understand, though, that this is not just coming from the Nats. People are increasingly concerned about our looming social and environment crisis and some see it as a way to make progress even if we don’t get a change of government.

Let me state clearly at this stage that I do not think James Shaw should be ringing up Bill English to discuss coalition options. To support the National Party to become a 4th term government would be both impossible in practical terms and politically suicidal.

Impossible because any coalition agreement needs ratification by 75% of the party and there is more chance of Winston retiring gracefully from politics.

Suicidal for a multitude of reasons. First, people voted for the Greens on the clear understanding that we would not support a National Government. To do so would be a complete betrayal of our voters, akin to NZ First going with National in 1996 (for which they got badly punished). Second, it might be worth the risk if we could shape the trajectory of an incoming government. To bolster a government almost certainly in its last term, a government that has shown such disregard for both the environment and our growing social inequality, just before their support collapses, would be a tragic mistake. Third, to make such a move without lengthy preparation and discussion inside the party would tear the Greens apart.

Note I did not say ‘because going into coalition with National kills small parties’. Coalitions are always dangerous for small parties but there are many lessons to be learned from the demise of the Alliance and the Māori Party, and from the zombie resurrection that is ACT.

Entering into a coalition with National right now would be a disaster for the Greens and one from which we might not recover. But as I first said in 2008, at some stage in the future we must be prepared to seriously consider the idea.

The tactical negotiating reason is compelling enough, in my view. Labour is currently the only option for the Greens but the same is not true in reverse. Labour doesn’t owe the Greens any favours, and the fact is that Labour will never respect the Greens until we recognise that truth. Rather than expecting a guaranteed relationship with a party that we aggressively target for votes and constantly criticise for not being enough like us, we need to recognise that Labour will give us just as much as they need to, to stay in power. Having an unconditional promise of support means that they don’t have to give us very much at all.

To put that another way, players only respect other players.

But even if the Greens are ourselves content in our current codependency, there is a more fundamental problem. If Greens cannot carve out a constituency beyond the ‘left of Labour’ cul de sac we are in, we will continue to play out the dynamic of this election over and over, soaring in the polls only as long as Labour is doing badly, but dropping back to 5% as soon as Labour turns left again. Or finds a charismatic leader. We may be mighty in opposition, but we will always be puny in coalition until we stop relying on discontented Labour voters for support.

This does not mean giving up our principles. Green politics is, and always has been, as much about social issues as environmental ones. I attended the first Global Greens conference in 2001 when the Global Charter was decided. What struck me was how the pillars of Green politics are essentially the same everywhere – ecological wisdom, social responsibility / economic justice, peace / non-violence, and local decision-making.

The idea that Green should “stick to the environment” is confused. It shows a deep misunderstanding about what Green politics is, what the environment is, and what human beings are. But does a commitment to social responsibility mean the Greens are left of Labour? Or a left-wing party at all? What does it even mean to be ‘left wing’ in Aotearoa New Zealand today?

Some people on the left think being left means you care about other people and being right means you are selfish. Some people on the right think being left means you are economically illiterate and being right means you are clever. It is sadly common in political debates for people to assume that their opponents are either stupid or morally deficient or both. My experience is that most people from either side are neither.

In fact, if you look at the fundamentals, there is very little genuine political difference between National and Labour. What we have now is more in the way of different political clans, held together by a sense of shared identity (often inherited) rather than by any coherent political core. It is in that way that the Greens have become tied to Labour. Not because our principles demand it, but because of a sense of kinship.

Because if you look at the most fundamental Green concerns: climate change, protection of waterways, child poverty, growing inequality, protecting civil and human rights, tāngata whenua rights, the last Labour government was barely more progressive than National. In fact the main argument used against ever forming a coalition with National – that their economic agenda is fundamentally at odds with a Green agenda – applies just as strongly to Labour.

It might be that Labour is more willing to address these fundamental issues than National, but that would require us to play hard-ball in our negotiations. You can’t do that when you have given your bargaining chips to the other side before you begin. Our current position on coalitions guarantees that we can never do more than greenwash a Labour government.

The problem is that we have bought into an inadequate conceptual model of politics that kind-of works in a First Past the Post political environment but which starkly reveals its flaws when confronted with the political diversity of MMP. This is the idea that political philosophy can be represented in one dimension on a straight line between left and right.

A left / right continuum is simply incapable of representing Green politics. Our most defining issues don’t figure on it at all and neither are the solutions to them a simple application of any one ideology, whether ecosocialism or green capitalism. Both the left and the right have valuable contributions to make to this discussion, but more important for the Greens is the opportunity to articulate uniquely Green solutions as the third point in a left / right / green triangle.

If we take ‘left’ to mean a collectivist orientation and ‘right’ to mean an individualist orientation (which is the only definition that seems to make sense) Green politics is not simply about adopting left social policies and applying left ideas to environmental problems. It is a fundamentally different way of understanding those problems, based on an ecological worldview. When we understand how human society operates as an ecology, when we see how ecological principles can be applied to foster a better education system, or health, or in addressing poverty and inequality, then we are able to offer real, green solutions. This is the approach some leading edge thinkers are already taking in economics, in industrial design and in community development and it has the potential to transform our politics as well.

To illustrate: in order to build a more robust support base and grow the vote for a progressive government, the Greens need to stop trying to poach Labour voters and identify new constituencies. There are around 450,000 small businesses in Aotearoa employing 5 people or less. Self employment speaks to core Green ideals of supporting local economies, building self-reliance and personal autonomy, helping people lift themselves out of poverty and fostering stronger linkages between businesses and the social ecological communities in which they are located. I know a great many small business owners who support the ideals of the Greens but who don’t connect with us a party because we are not speaking to them.

There are actually lots of Greens who are small business owners – probably a disproportionate number compared to either National or Labour. Both National and Labour tend to focus on large corporate bureaucracies and play little attention to how their policies impact on small businesses – who as we know are New Zealand’s biggest employer. For years the Greens put loads of effort into trying to woo the unions. It would be worth putting the same effort into understanding how to support a sustainable, resilient and regenerative business ecology. Certainly no one else is doing much in that space.

Escaping our ‘left of Labour’ trap is not about ‘moving to the centre’. The very notion of a centre sitting half-way between Labour and National is irrelevant when we locate ourself on a triangle. Neither is it about ‘abandoning our principles’. Rather it is about embodying them in their entirety. What they cannot mean, though, is relegating ourselves to the periphery of power just because we are committed to giving Labour a free run.

I expect that Labour will always be a preferred coalition partner for the Greens. We share more values with them than we do with National. And I think it will be a while before the Greens are self confident enough to even find out what might be on the table in a coalition discussion with National. Maybe what is on the table would never be enough, but I think that just asking could make all the difference.

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Greens icon Nándor Tánczos on Metiria and what the party really stands for

From The Spinoff

By Don Rowe | Staff Writer August 11, 2017

In the wake of Metiria Turei’s resignation as Greens co-leader there has been much discussion about a perceived tension between the emphasis on social justice or environmental issues. Don Rowe tracked down Greens icon Nándor Tánczos to get his thoughts.

Nándor Tánczos is undeniably one of the grooviest cats to ever make their way into the government of New Zealand. A former radical activist and leader of the Wild Greens, Tánczos was something of an anomaly even amongst the Green party at large during the early aughts. But beneath the dreadlocks is a capable political brain; during his three terms in parliament Tánczos paved the way for the Clean Slate Act, the Waste Minimisation Act and even the growing of hemp in New Zealand. Though he cut his hair in a purification ceremony two years after leaving parliament, Tánczos remains a practicing Rastafarian and these days resides in Whakatāne, far from the bureaucratic crush. As a member of the Whakatāne District Council he continues to be politically engaged, however, and had plenty to say about the struggles of the Green party in 2017.

Being in parliament you dealt with a lot of stereotyping, how does that intense scrutiny impact you personally? People making value judgements on you based on very little information about a small snippet of your life and so on. 

It’s a very difficult world because you are in the public scrutiny and unlike some forms of notoriety or being in the media, in politics there are a whole lot of resources focused on pulling you down and investigating any dirt to be found, so it’s a pretty tough life and it’s a 24/7 kind of thing. Your family suffer because you’re away from home an enormous amount, and if you’re in the firing line over anything then your family really feels that. That’s one of the hardest things. It’s pretty tough and you’ve gotta have a pretty thick skin but even then it would be pretty rare that at least some of it didn’t get through.

Particularly in a situation like the one Metiria Turei was in. What are your impressions? Do you think she has been treated fairly by the media or the public?

I can’t say about the public, I wouldn’t want to assume that, but there are people who have gotten behind her quite strongly and others who have been very critical – but certainly the media by and large have been incredibly unfair on her. She’s had some very strong support from some of the bloggers, there’s been some very good analysis by people like Bryce Edwards, but I think in terms of the mainstream media it’s been incredibly unfair. You’re dealing with pretty minor things that were done more than 20 years ago, things done by her as a solo mum trying to raise a family and trying to study to better herself, and you compare those to some of the things that our own Prime Minister did as a minister of the crown who took far greater sums of money that he was not entitled to – and far more unethically and for no other reason than that he could. There’s no argument that he faced any kind of financial hardship.

And of course the reason why is because we have an incredibly vicious attitude in our political world towards beneficiaries. They’re treated very harshly and have been the whipping boy for politicians for quite a number of decades now. That’s all kind of embedded in the system. And the other thing is that she made a statement about it, announced it to the world, in the context of saying ‘actually, we treat beneficiaries really badly,’ and that was the thing that made people upset. She was siding with the poor and the oppressed and that’s what our political world cannot stand.

There are some very uncomfortable themes around class, but also race and gender.

We expect abject grovelling from beneficiaries. There’s class, there’s gender, and there’s ethnicity all tied up in this and we expect grovelling gratitude for any crumb from those people. And that’s the interesting thing, the whole episode has really highlighted that and brought that in front of our eyes. That’s why I say I don’t want to make any assumptions about the public because I think the media, the mainstream media, have really shown their stripes and I think that the public has been able to see that. It’s polarised people, there are people who support her and those who are really opposed to her, but it’s brought that contradiction starkly in front of our face and when the dust settles we’re going to have to find some way of resolving that in our own national psyche.

It seems like there’s a fine line to tread where these discussions are important but at the same time the Green party has in some people’s opinion come along way from what they perceive as the original mandate of being more intensely focused on the environment. Now it sometimes appears to be more about issues of social justice and politics of that nature. 

There’s a couple of points I’d make. The first one is that anyone who says that the Green party should stick to the environment fundamentally fails to understand what Green politics is by its very nature. The Greens aren’t the ‘environment party’, they’re the Green party. It also fails to understand what humans are. Humans are a part of nature and our social world is part of the environment as much as the native forest is. We’re part of this world, not some separate thing, and the relationships we have between one another and with the rest of life are all part of the same thing. Green politics has never been about preserving the environment, it’s always been about the relationships we have with each other and the rest of life on this planet. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is back in 1999 when the Green party was first elected, the caucus that I was in, the Greens have always had an extremely strong social justice focus. It’s interesting because back then the criticism was that we only thought about the environment, and it wasn’t even true then. In fact if you look at what the MPs in that first caucus campaigned on, there were more people working in the areas of social justice or social issues than there were people working on the environment. It’s never been true that that is what we did and that’s what we were exclusively interested in, and at the time we were criticised when people thought that’s what we did.

People’s impressions of what political parties do and what they’re about are often quite far removed from the reality of what the party has actually done. People form these general impressions through snatches in the media and it takes a very long time for those impressions to change. Often that’s based as much on what someone said at the cafeteria as what the party is actually doing. Look at the National party – there’s this ongoing perception that seems very difficult to dislodge that the National party are good economic manages but all the evidence says that is just not true. But there’s this abiding perception that National are good economic managers. To me that’s completely unrelated to anything that they actually do when they’re in government.

Another thing I’d say is that when it comes to Metiria and people saying the Greens should stick to the environment, there’s a misunderstanding that’s been spread again in the mainstream media – and I fear that it will take hold – that the Greens lost support in the latest poll because of what Metiria did around beneficiary issues, and I think that that is a complete misunderstanding. People say she made a mistake and should never have said that, but as she said, the Greens have tried everything to get that discussion up in public. It’s been very difficult to get any traction. Well, this has people talking about it, so it worked in the sense of that objective.

That goes directly back to what you were saying around the current media climate. Everybody was clamouring for the scalp. In that environment, is it possible to turn things around?

That’s right. Everyone wants to claim the scalp. I think the challenge for the Greens has been to control the narrative and that’s become very difficult. I imagine they predicted that to some degree, that once that came out it was always going to be difficult to stay on top of it. The problem is what they couldn’t predict is a change of leadership in Labour. I think it will be a challenge to get on top of the narrative again, but I think they could do it. Now is an opportunity to regroup and look at ways to seize the initiative. The real challenge for the Greens is in terms of support on election day. The simple mathematical reality for the Greens is that they do well when Labour is doing badly and they do badly when Labour is doing well. That’s how it’s always been historically, and the difficulty with that is that it makes the Greens very strong in opposition and it tends to weaken them in government. If there’s enough of a swing to Labour to get a Labour-led government, it hurts the Greens. So there’s a more fundamental long-term strategic issue that I think the Greens have to grapple with. How do they solve that dilemma? Because until they do it’s always going to be difficult to be the substantial part of government they need to be in order to make the changes we need to see.

 

https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/11-08-2017/greens-icon-nandor-tanczos-on-metiria-and-what-the-party-really-stands-for/

To Thine Own Self Be True

(Profile piece on me by Jenny Michie in local Plenty magazine August 2017)

Nandor Tanczos may well have one of the most mispronounced names in the country. Certainly in my head he’s always been Nandor Tandor but I know that’s not right, so while his dog and my dog establish sprawling space at the café where we meet, I need to establish the correct way to say his name.

It’s two syllables – first one is Tahnt – rhymes with aunt. Second is zosh. So Tahnt-zosh. My first name is said Naan-dor with a long ‘a’ like the bread” he explains with a smile. I suspect he’s had this conversation before. And with that outa the way and our respective hounds equally sorted, we can begin.

Nandor Tanczos is an immigrant; his father was a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian uprising and his Cape Coloured mother left South Africa as it was constructing the brutal racial segregation that was Apartheid. Respectively his parents were a refrigeration engineer and a Home Economics teacher/entrepreneur, so we can assume education and hard work were important family values. They found sanctuary in England, where Nandor and his brother were born, and in 1974 the family immigrated to New Zealand.

Being an early and avid reader, young Nandor had great expectations of coming to a land where Maori culture was dominant. His visions of living in a raupō whare and wearing a puipui to a country school were dashed somewhat when the family moved to Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore. A wonderful place to grow up, digging for pipi on the beach and working in the local dairy for milkshakes and peanut slabs, but not a multicultural experience.

However, those early days as a new migrant gave Nandor both empathy for others, especially second-generation immigrants, and started his own path of self-discovery.

My whole life has been a journey of recreating an identity and sense of belonging, in a way”.

At 14 he spent a year in Hungary with his grandparents. The complete immersion and living under a communist regime had a profound influence on the teenager from Takapuna and fuelled a desire to become a journalist. The family relocated back to England when he finished school and he promptly enrolled in a journalism course in the North of England. Only to drop out towards the end of it.

The reason I wanted to be a journalist was to be a fearless defender of the truth – after a while I realised that was an unlikely career outcome”.

Then followed a complete immersion of another sort. In Thatcher’s Britain there was much to protest and this he did. During the year-long Miners’ Strike the government froze the union’s strike fund; Nandor was on the ground and collected money for the workers, though he was physically prevented from entering mining villages in the North. “That was the first time I’d ever seen the police used so explicitly as a political force. What I saw in Britain was the police used to destroy a movement.”

He was also involved in the anti-nuclear movement and lived on the road; campaigning for peace.

Coming back to New Zealand in 1985 Nandor was keen to continue his studies to understand the world and make it a better place. During his last year at Waikato University he had a Road to Damascus experience with his discovery of Rastafari. “It wasn’t that I became a Rastafari, it’s just that when I discovered who and what Rastafari was, I realised that’s exactly what I was already.”

We of a slightly older generation have known Nandor (in the way that one ever really knows a public figure) since 1999 when he entered Parliament as the dreadlock-wearing, skate-boarding, civil rights and hemp-promoting young Rastafarian List MP for the Green Party. I was working in Parliament at the time and he was a far cry from the usual crop of MPs, both in looks and attitude.

Nandor did in fact introduce a bill to allow hemp production, which was then illegal (it’s a great source of nutrition as well as cloth and the traditional hemp rope) but the Labour-led government of the time decided it was such a good idea “We’re going to think of it ourselves”. They voted his bill down and introduced their own legislation which effectively did the same thing (but not as effectively he says).

Nevertheless, it is still an issue that Nandor is passionate about, but not in the way many people would think.

We’ve taken pastoral farming to an extreme,” he says. “There’s a whole lot of places where we’re trying to grow dairy cows and it’s just not good land use – such as the Canterbury Plains. Our number one environmental issue – and this is true around the world – is pastoral farming. Hemp production, whilst not a magic bullet, is part of the solution of creating mosaics of productive use; that is exploiting the specific niches and microclimates that are in our landscapes instead of this paint-roller effect where we say we’re just going to grow grass everywhere and put cows on it.”

This is in fact permaculture. Nandor’s pet project, which brings us back to how he came to be here in the Bay of Plenty some years after leaving Parliament, which was his ‘home’ for almost nine years (he left after realizing if he stayed any longer, he wouldn’t want to leave, so comfortable is that particular golden cage).

Nandor’s wife is from Murupara and the family moved to the Bay several years ago. But even without his wife’s roots to the Bay, Nandor has long held a torch for this place.

Lots of sunshine, it’s beautiful, it’s got some of the richest history in the country, both Māori and Pākeha; it’s one of the earliest places for Maori settlement and it’s a stronghold of te reo Maori – people are still growing up here as native speakers. And we’ve got this amazing geology. The earth moves, it’s so alive!”

They intend to stay. Nandor says he feels more at home here than anywhere else in the country, partly because it’s so welcoming. “There’s loads of beautiful places but in a lot of smaller centres you get the feeling that if you weren’t born and bred there you’re never quite going to belong.”

Last year Nandor was elected to the Whakatane District Council. After so many years in Parliament, why enter local government? “There’s so many amazing things going on here but I felt there was a disconnection, things aren’t quite integrated together.” And this is where his passion about permaculture comes into play. The essence of which is to link things together to create beneficial relationships.

I see the potential for this area to be leader in sustainability, in resilience, in regenerative economic and community development and so I felt like I had a useful perspective to bring to the politics of the place.”

So in two year’s time what is a job well done on Council going to look like? “Apart from competently doing the basic work, the day to day stuff that needs to be done well to keep things moving, there’s a few things that I want to see some progress on.”

One of them is the Awatapu Reserve, a lagoon formed by the diversion of the Whakatane River in the 1950s. The original area is called Otamakaokao and a group of locals has started a kaitiaki group and is engaging with the community and council to restore the mauri of the area. “The water is really degraded because it was cut off from the river, so it’s dying. So we’ve got this project to bring it back to life and I’d like to see some real progress on this – it’s about ecological restoration, about community development and also about food security. I want to see a management plan for the reserve which is grounded in what the community wants.”

Another marker of success would be real progress towards solar power, where we are seeing solar panels on public buildings and some kind of process for helping households into solar hot water.”

Here Nandor sets me right on the Council consent fees for solar panels. I thought there was a hefty fee but in fact there are no consent fees for putting solar panels on your house. “A proposal came to council to start charging fees for solar, but Council decided not to do that. Actually the Mayor was very strong on it. But I’d like to see more done. Whakatane is regularly the sunshine capital and yet there’s barely any solar power here. I’ve got a 3 point solar plan for the District and I want to make progress on that.”

The third area where he’d like to see progress is in the creative sector, and he really sees the creative industries as a cornerstone in the economic development of the area.

Creative workers bring their own work with them; when they work in that sector, they often work primarily online and we’ve got UF broadband here. You can do what you do and live in the most beautiful part of the country. So at the minimum we need a clear strategy in place as to how we are going support the creative sector in this District.”

I’m a huge fan of this idea. I’ve long thought Whakatane should be to the North Island what Nelson is to the South – a natural home for the creative arts.

Nandor wraps up the interview by bringing us back to permaculture.

Most people apply permaculture to land use, around small holdings and lifestyle blocks, but what I teach is social permaculture.” And it is important to recall here that he’s got a postgraduate diploma in management and sustainability from Waikato University and is working on a thesis around applying permaculture design to economic development.

The great model of sustainability is nature itself. So we need to look at what are the characteristics of natural systems and how we can apply that to our own economic systems. And when you start to do that, it’s a very fruitful way of looking at things.”

Despite not being able to sensibly pronounce his name, I’ve kept an eye on Nandor Tanczos for over 20 years. He was an interesting man in Parliament and he is now an interesting man here in the Bay of Plenty, with tangible goals to improve the area and the people in it. What I didn’t realize then but do now is that he also possesses a quality that I’m valuing more and more the older I get. It seems the wise advice Polonius gave to his son Laertes in Hamlet – “To thine own self be true” – embodies the man sitting across from me.

Plus, he’s got a dog. Need I say more?

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Black is an invisible colour

I used to say I like every kind of music except Country. That was until my good friend Steve Abel made me sit down and listen to ‘Johnny Cash at San Quentin’, recorded live at the infamous prison. I was an instant fan.

So when “Walk the Line”, the Johnny Cash biopic, was released in 2005 I was eager to see it. I thought it was a great movie, with some brilliant scenes, like the one where Ma and Pa Carter see off Cash’s dealer with shotguns as he quits cold turkey. They seemed to epitomise the best of White Southern Christian Decency, in contrast to the usual treatment we see of Southern hypocrisy, malice and racist cruelty.

The romance between Johnny Cash and June Carter was of course the main thread of the movie. It winds around his protracted wooing of her and ends with a caption celebrating their 35 year partnership on and off stage after she finally agrees to marry him. His first wife Vivian is portrayed as a woman just never suited to be his wife and who drove him away with her bitterness, jealousy and resentment. I remember idly wondering what she was really like, and whether this was a fair portrayal of her character, as the story moved back to his great love for June.

Watching the movie for a second time the other day I was again swept up in what a nasty, bitter woman Vivian was, even as another part of my mind again questioned the representation. In the garden with my wife the following day, we began deconstructing the movie as we worked. As we talked through different elements of the plot, I began to feel more and more uneasy. Later I decided to google Vivian Cash. I found a review of her book ‘I Walked the Line’, written after the film came out. Not surprisingly it gave a very different story to the film, suggesting that their marriage had been very happy until June stole John away. What WAS surprising, though, was when I looked at photos of Vivian. Turns out that she was a black woman.

john and vivian cash 1jonny and vivian cash 3

You’d never know from reading any of the articles about her.

You’d certainly never know from watching the movie, where she is played by Ginnifer Goodwin.

ginnifer goodwin

In fact the only thing I found in my admittedly brief search that referenced her ethnicity was a newspaper headline from when he was busted for drugs that says “ARREST EXPOSES JOHNNY CASH’S NEGRO WIFE”. Presumably exposes her for the sin of being black in the USA.

Interestingly, in contrast to the newspaper article from the time, the film shows him leaving court alone and coming home to her censorious displeasure. It is shortly after this arrest that the chronology of the film shows them separating.

johhnycash

I’d noticed before that there are almost no black people in the film. Two shoe shiners are the sum total are far as I remember. I imagine the director, James Mangold, justifies this by saying that there are no black characters who are important to the story. That is if you don’t include his first wife.

Suddenly the treatment of Vivian makes complete sense. In the world of American Country music, of course the black woman is the villain of the story – even when her husband leaves her and her four daughters for another woman. June and John are considered one of the most iconic couples in country music history, and no black woman is going to undermine that narrative. Her character has to be destroyed. But even that is not enough. Her very identity is robbed from her, made invisible by whitewash.

They say that black is not a colour, it is the absence of light. That certainly seems to be true in Hollywood.

EDIT: I have been asked in some of the comments to withdraw my post because Vivian’s birth certificate and recorded genealogy state that she is white. I will not do so, for two reasons:
1. Regardless of what was written on her documents, it is apparent to many of us (especially those of us of mixed ancestry ourselves) that she is black / mixed (there must be a better word for that). This is an opinion based on every single photo of her to be found. There is a one photo from later in life which some say shows that she is white. I guess if you don’t have elderly multiracial friends or family (and ignore every other photo of her) you might think so but it is not convincing. There are numerous possible explanations for the discrepancy between her official papers and her appearance, many of them outlined in the comments.
2. Given the effort made in the movie to try to cast actors who resembled their characters, casting Ginnifer Goodwin for someone who is at the very least ethnically ambiguous is still whitewashing. Her ethnicity was important to their story, as evidenced by the attacks upon them both.
Ethnicity and racism are very touchy subjects to be sure. I have never had such interest in a post, and almost exclusively from North America. Why? Perhaps the USA needs some kind of national reconciliation process to help it deal with the trauma and shame of its past.

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Youth Offending in the Eastern Bay

I heard some really interesting news on Wednesday. I was representing the District Council at a meeting of the Youth Offending Team, and the Police Youth Aid Officer was talking about offending rates in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

To give some quick background, the Youth Offending Team is a monthly forum where different agencies working with young people can get together and share what they are up to. Not everyone can make each month of course, but we had people from Oranga Tamariki, REAP, Voyagers, Tūwharetoa Ki Kawerau Hauora, Manna Support, Te Pou Oranga o Whakatōhea and others. It was a really interesting and informative meeting that covered a lot of ground.

One of the things I almost always hear in these kinds of forums are cases of really successful schemes that got funded for a pilot, proved their effectiveness and then struggle for enough on-going funding to work properly. This time it was REAP’s Manaaki Programme, designed to support kids to stay in school. Being disconnected from school can be a real blow to some young people as it can disconnect them from friends, adult support and opportunities. It was great to see different agencies offering advice about where pūtea could be found to support this important initiative.

I was also pleased to hear about a mobile playgroup that is starting up and will be focussed on Awatapu to start. Lots of comments made at the Awatapu community day a few weeks ago highlighted the need for more facilities for childrens, so this should provide a useful service in the area.

But the really interesting news for me came when Tom Brooks started talking about offending rates. Apparently youth offending rates across the country are sinking rapidly, except among young Māori. Youth offending by Māori is going up across the country – but in the Eastern Bay it is going down. Similarly the high teenage pregnancy rates in Kawerau and Opōtiki have plummeted. This is a great story and one that I have not heard before.

“What has caused that?” I asked. In reply I was told that the police are being less precious and are taking a more responsive approach through Problem Oriented Policing (look it up). I heard about the police working with iwi, such as through the Hui-ā-Whānau that Tūhoe is championing. I heard about agencies working with the whole family, including siblings, rather than just focussing on “problem” children. I heard about less reliance on courts to solve problems. Most of all I heard about the community looking for its own solutions and coming up with the goods.

To me this was a reminder that we live in a really resilient, grounded and innovative community here in the Eastern Bay, and that we have a lot going on that other areas on the country can learn from. It was great to be part of the YOT and I look forward to more.

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Risk and Responsibility – some thoughts on Matatā

A couple of weeks ago I voted against a Whakatāne District Council decision to try to force Matatā residents in the Awatarariki fanhead from their homes. I was the sole voice against, but to me it was a step too far.

The issue goes back to 2005, when a debris flow destroyed 27 homes and put the future of the township into question. Many residents were opposed to leaving then and the WDC spent millions exploring engineering solutions to safeguard the town. In 2012 it came to the conclusion that protecting residents against another debris flow is practically impossible.

Since then the focus has been on moving people out of the danger zone. The WDC has been working on a ‘voluntary retreat’ package intended to buy out affected residents at a fair price, if we can get Central Government and the Regional Council to chip in. Most residents have indicated that they are willing to at least entertain the idea, but a small number are adamant that they do not want to leave. They just want to be left alone. It is these people that the vote was aimed at.

Because of the risk of loss of life when the next debris flow happens, the WDC wants to change its own District Plan to stop any new building in the danger zone. It does not have the power, however, to move the people already living there. Only the Bay of Plenty Regional Council can do that, with a change to the Regional Water and Land Plan.

WDC has been asking BOPRC to do that at the same time as the changes to the District Plan. Both councils have legal obligations to minimise risk and this is seen as a way for them to do that. The BOPRC, however, seems unwilling or unable to make a decision either way. Because of this, the District Council is looking at making a private plan change to the Regional Plan. If it goes through, people in the danger zone will have to leave their homes.

I can’t help wondering what level of force the council will be prepared to use to make this happen.

To be clear – I support a District Plan change to stop any new building in the danger zone. I support a voluntary retreat package – although I am very worried about the cost. It will be a big bill that will benefit a small number of people and our rates bills are already high.

But I do not support evicting people from their homes because we think they are at risk. People make lawful choices every day to do far more dangerous things than living in Matatā. As long as people are fully informed, I do not believe it is the role of the Council to decide their risks for them.

I write this not to criticise other councillors, who voted as they did for good reasons: genuine concern for residents, as well as an awareness that councils have a legal responsibility to do everything in their power to mitigate or remove threats to life. But by changing the District Plan, I believe, the WDC has done that.

There is often a tension between the regulation of public safety and people’s right to make choices over their own lives. In going beyond its own area of responsibility in this instance, I believe that the WDC has tipped the balance too far.

Published in the Whakatane Beacon 11/7/17

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