“Apartheid” message misses the mark

Every now and then local government throws up a political race that’s far more meaningful, far more entertaining to watch than the national version. That’s happening right now in New Zealand’s Northland.

If you’re not from New Zealand, or if you’re one of those Kiwis who believes nothing that happens up here is of any importance to the rest of the country, stay with me. Because the looming PR battle is fascinating.

In the blue corner we have incumbent Far North district mayor Wayne Brown. Tall, cadaverous, laconic and polarising – lauded for his straight talking and common sense approach; derided for several perceived abuses of office, alleged conflicts of interest and his autocratic leadership style.

In the other blue corner (for he’s also a conservative politician) we have former cabinet minister and mayoral hopeful John ‘Hone’ Carter. Of military bearing, with a trademark walrus moustache, he was a long-standing Member of Parliament for Northland praised on the one hand for his service to the community and criticised on the other for being largely ineffectual during his tenure.

Carter has resigned his most recent position as NZ High Commissioner in the Cook Islands in order to contest the mayoral elections in October this year.

One of the early sparring points between these two characters has been a pitch for self-governing autonomy by Mayor Brown’s Far North District Council. This would take an axe to the influence currently held over the district by the over-arching Northland Regional Council headquartered in ‘far away’ Whangarei, an urban centre which Brown says has little in common with his constituency.

The other point to note is that Mayor Brown has brought the local Maori community (or, at least, those who profess to lead the local Maori community) into his waka by offering them a guaranteed number of seats on the new-look Far North governing body if and when this ever materialises.

The messaging around all of this is great. Brown is going hell for leather playing the ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ card, pointing out instances of where ‘common sense’ decisions affecting his poor, rural community have been ignored or reversed by the ‘urban interests’ of the Whangarei-based über-authority he’s raging against.

And, for his part, Carter’s playing the sceptic card, arguing that no-one has yet really asked the residents of the Far North what they think, and what they’d like to do. While it’s true that the Far North District Council has made several presentations to community groups about its intentions, Carter argues that this hardly comprises an endorsement of the district’s bid for autonomy – let alone ‘proper’ consultation.

And the many letters of support from Maori leaders? Well, Carter argues, with the promise of guaranteed seats at the Top Table they would say that, wouldn’t they?

And here’s the thing: Carter has now played the race card, arguing that by guaranteeing Maori seats Mayor Brown is introducing “apartheid” to the Far North (from 1’30” in this clip).

But somehow it feels contrived. Like he’s drawn a bit of a long bow.

You’ve got to be real careful with this kind of stuff.  Not because of the racial thing – because the point is, at its heart, a racial one. But because this kind of language invites extremely critical scrutiny of the point you’re trying to make. The point has to be sound and it has to make immediate sense with people in order to resonate.

I know what he’s trying to say. You know what he’s trying to say. It’s about institutionalising racism.

But somehow it feels contrived. Like he’s drawn a bit of a long bow.

That’s because there’s something not quite right with the logic. You see, despite ultimately being about institutionalising racism, the actual term “apartheid” is more readily associated by most people with a minority imposing dominance over a majority. What Wayne Brown’s doing is cementing the political presence of a minority. And there’s the rub. That’s why Carter’s use of that emotive term doesn’t quite work.

In my book, effective PR has at its heart messaging that is both credible and easily, almost instinctively, understood. If it’s even slightly contrived, or if people have to spend even an instant trying to understand what worries them about it, they’ll dismiss it and move on – perhaps even give the other guy a go.

If Carter wants to argue the ‘dedicated seats’ issue he’d be far better off playing the card that’s so close to the Kiwi heart – the fairness card. The argument that Maori comprise a significant chunk of the population and that there’s nothing stopping us electing, through the normal process, a great deal more brown faces onto a future Far North governing body than Brown’s deal would give them. And why it’s wrong, in a modern democracy which is trying so hard to break down racial barriers, to hand a given chunk of votes to a single ethnic group. To institutionalise racism.

It’s a colourful debate, alright, and one I’ll be watching unfold with interest.

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