Happy Feet vs Feet on Street

Emperor Penguin and Rugby World Cup provide convenient political distractions -- but 30th anniversary of 1981 Springbok Tour a timely reminder of the potential of people power


There’s a classic headline in this morning’s Dominion Post ‘Happy Feet now dining royally on king salmon’.

To me this says it all about current priorities in New Zealand.

We’ve got 20% or more of our country’s children living in poverty, a Government which is quietly and unconcernedly removing half those on the state house waiting list, and the number of people officially ‘jobless’ sits at 271,400.

I reckon the resources already lavished on one lost Emperor Penguin would probably already have gone a long way towards paying for a new house for a homeless family.

Now to my animal loving friends – I’m not trying to denigrate the efforts to save Happy Feet – it’s just that the Penguin’s recovery comes at a high price, and I wonder at the care lavished on this one creature at a time when we have a government entertaining the worst attacks on beneficiaries in my lifetime.

Yes, we should care for and about the living creatures with whom we share the planet.


But at the same time, let’s show at least equal compassion for our fellow humans, without forgetting that sometimes a focus on diversions – whether penguins to rugby games – can be an extraordinarily useful tactic for those who rule over us.


In another news storyout today, Otago University lecturer Bryce Edwards is quoted as saying, "people don’t find politics meaningful anymore and elections don’t interest people in the same way they used to."

Dr Edwards is giving a lecture on this in Auckland on Thursday night and I’ll be along to hear what he has to say on this timely topic.

I’m not sure that he’s right, though, as I reckon people are interested in politics, both electoral and activist, when they’re stimulated and encouraged to take part.

I never give up on that potential, and I think Hone Harawira’s victory in the recent Te Tai Tokerau by-election is an example of what can happen when ordinary people, many quite marginalized from mainstream politics, are sufficiently inspired to engage with the process.

All the 1981 Springbok Tour nostalgia we’re wallowing in at the moment, for example via this fascinating Listener article, is another useful reminder of just how galvanised New Zealanders can be when we’re sufficiently motivated.

Watching that great documentary ‘Patu’ again on Maori Television recently was a salutary reminder of what it felt like when some of us did take our future in our own hands, doing everything we could to stop those dirty apartheid rugby games 30 years ago.

I’m hoping that this 30th anniversary of the tour, and surrounding events like the commemoration march planned for Auckland on 11 September, will be a time when we older activists can talk with younger generations, and increase awareness of the power we do hold in our hands to challenge injustice and change policies, even when the full force of the State is ranged against us.

That force hasn’t gone away, either. The recent inquiries by Police of well known activists in Auckland about what we’re planning for the Rugby World Cup has been a timely reminder of what awaits those of us who may organise activity during the RWC season.

It has been inspiring to read about the building of the Greek peoples’ resistance to the economic austerity measures being imposed on them by the IMF, the EU, the European Central Bank and their own Government.

In the birthplace of Western democracy, citizens have been coming together every day not only to demonstrate, but also to use their Syntagma Square base to debate and discuss politics and economics.

A movie called ‘Debtocracy’ has been a hit throughout urban and rural Greece, with people from every walk of life keenly watching a documentary which explains what’s happened to their country, and why they should not just blindly accede to the bankers’ demands.

Over the next few months I hope we’ll see a rising participation in politics, both electoral and street activist, from ordinary people in this country.

We’re starting from a low base. Activist politics almost always takes a dive under a Labour Government, and it’s true that we don’t face the same economic crisis as the people of Greece and many other countries.

Yet we have to start somewhere.

The rise of the Mana Party as an electoral force which openly defies political convention and stands unashamedly as a voice for the poorest and most marginalised people in Aotearoa gives Maori, low paid workers and beneficiaries a party they can support.

The current and threatened attacks by National on welfare, housing, ACC, employment law, asset sales – and the rest – are another starting point for street action beyond the ballot box.

There will be protests over the next few months. They may be small, but as in 1981, when the first demonstrations we held were tiny, the building of any movement takes time.

It also takes courage and political will, and I hope that an increasing number of my fellow citizens will free themselves of all those seductive distractions and join us on the streets – and at the polling booths – in a serious effort to challenge and change the disastrous direction in which National is leading us.

Yes, let the Penguin live – but those sad, hungry kids down your street – or just over in the next suburb or township – have a right to live too.