Elections show political rhetoric at its best, awful worst

Metiria Turei. Photo: Getty Images
Metiria Turei. Photo: Getty Images
It has been a horrible couple of weeks for violence.

I, like many people, have been deeply affected by the tragedy of the conviction of a mother for the murder of her three children.

It was the same week that another mother was charged for the murder of her two children.

Senseless tragic violence is very present for many of us right now. So I was especially unimpressed with a politician advocating violence this week.

David Seymour’s ‘‘joke’’ about sending Guy Fawkes into the Ministry of Pacific Peoples to blow them up was not amusing and it was not benign. Seymour made the comment in an interview following his criticism of the ministry for its spending.

He has since double-downed on his fantasy, arguing that ‘‘... we’re living in a world where you can’t say anything, where you make a joke and everyone piles on to you. People are sick of it, like it’s so clearly not serious’’.

Seymour should have greater self-awareness over his own comments, given his criticism last month about Rawiri Waititi’s remarks at the Te Pati Maori annual conference. At the conference Waititi ‘‘joked’’ in his speech about poisoning Seymour by putting karaka seeds in his water. Seymour demanded a public apology from Waititi, saying ‘‘I don’t think it’s funny to joke about poisoning people.’’

I do not either. Just as it is definitely not funny joking about bombing Pacific peoples.

There are two big issues here that intersect in election campaigns.

The most obvious issue is the ease with which politicians think that advocating violence is just another vote-gaining tool in their rhetorical political toolbox. They seem to think that slapping on a smile and issuing a guffaw at the end of a statement advocating violence somehow makes that statement less malicious.

Not so. The women members of Parliament tackled exactly that attitude in 2015 when we objected to the then speaker David Carter refusing to censure John Key for using the issue of rape as a debating device in the parliamentary chamber.

Seymour did the same last month when he took umbrage at Waititi’s comments.

Carmel Sepuloni did the same with Seymour last week in respect of his comments.

It always reads as petty but we have to tackle the violent misuse of rhetoric because rhetoric is such a powerful tool.

Political rhetoric is a skill more than 2000 years old and is practised across time and across culture. It is the means by which we inform and convince others to our argument. It is the clever phrasing that can make an audience cry, laugh or gasp. It is used to elicit emotional responses to win people to your argument.

It is the core skill of a good politician and we see it at its best, and awful worst, in election campaigns.

Which really is the second issue. Increasingly violent political rhetoric is becoming a nasty feature of this year’s election.

Waititi’s comment about Seymour, and Seymour’s comment about the Ministry of Pacific Peoples, arise out of escalating violent rhetoric about advantage, privilege and racism.

National and Act’s proposed erasure of ethnicity as one identifier of vulnerability and risk in education, health and employment is the erasure of those people’s lived experiences.

Erasing their experiences from the purview of decision-makers is the erasure of their futures.

The campaign tactics of racism and division are not mere rhetorical devices used at some town hall meeting to obtain a slightly shameful giggle or a gasp of outrage at the gall of it. These tactics have a real-world impact on how our community treats one another.

In today’s environment of deliberate misinformation and disinformation it becomes even more important for politicians to use their communication power responsibly.

The co-governance argument is one case in point, where a concern about water, often genuinely held, is being deliberately distorted by political advocates of race-baiting and conspiracy theories. Politicians can talk to those concerns without using the racist rhetoric of separatism, which quite frankly, in 21st century Aotearoa New Zealand, is utter nonsense.

There is already so much violence in Aotearoa New Zealand without politicians manufacturing rhetorical violence in order to win votes.

Mental health, isolation, poor housing and underemployment are all triggers that can lead people to violence against themselves and others.

Family violence incidents have increased 60% over the past five years and it is predicted to get worse. This election campaign could be and should be refocused on how to relieve the stress and trauma from whanau and families who are subject to so much violence already, whether family, sexual or financial.

We do not need to add political violence to that list.

■Metiria Stanton Turei is a law lecturer at the University of Otago and a former Green Party MP .