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September 18, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Politics of Caring: Interview with Max Harris

Max Harris is the author of The New Zealand Project, which argues for a values-centred approach to politics in New Zealand. Max is a recipient of the All Souls Fellowship and is currently completing his PhD at Oxford University. We spoke with Max over Skype as he ate his dinner in a café in New York while faint sounds of Coldplay and the Goo Goo Dolls permeated the background.


The New Zealand Project centres on values that you’ve identified to be core maxims — specifically community, care, and creativity (as well as a little bit of love). Given that the interpretation of these values is deeply personal, how do you think we can ensure accountability?

The first thing I’d say is that, with all values, we have different ways of interpreting them. With more conventional political values, like freedom and equality, we’ve become accustomed to talking about positive and negative equality, equality of freedom, and equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. We should build up depth and robustness in how we understand those values so they can’t be superficially co-opted or hijacked.

I try in the book to unpack what care, creativity, community, and love are in hopefully a deeper way. For example, I think the value of community comes from a worldview that sees us as interdependent — a kind of ontology if you will — and I think there are ways of seeing creativity and care in more individualistic senses, but I think it’s pretty important to understand those against the backdrop of a connected world.

I’ve also thought a bit about Māori ways of approaching values. Tina Ngata, who’s an intellectual and campaigner who I met in this last tour, was talking about how in values-based decision making in te ao Māori, there is a focus on the whakapapa of the value. I think that’s really helpful in thinking about care, community, and creativity, and love as well — what is the background and history of the value? That adds depth, which allows us to at least hold people to account against our conception of values.

The goal is to build up a shared understanding of the values so that they’re both personal and capable of being collectively held.


I guess an example I was thinking of is that, for many religions, values-based decision making is quite prominent. For example, in the Newshub debate, Bill English talked about how he wouldn’t vote for decriminalisation of abortion. That reflects his personal interpretation of community and care, but is in direct conflict with many others’ interpretations. How do we prioritise different interpretations of values?

Yeah, it’s a difficult one. Something else Tina Ngata said to me comes to mind: the beauty is in the wānanga, the discussion of the values, and so we have to have the argument out about what we understand to be the most compelling interpretation of the values.

And I think that we have to be aware that we interpret these values in a society that already has certain priorities and commitments because of where we are and our histories. To me, and I talk about this in the book, we need some kind of intermediary concepts that help us in moving between those values and specific conclusions — I talk about pre-conditions of a values-based politics in the book, like decolonisation and people-power and the state.

Throughout those pre-conditions, there’s a focus on power — in who holds power and who doesn’t. To me, that’s really important in deciding on what the most compelling interpretation of, let’s say, community is. If you’re being blind or ignorant of who has power, who has historically held power, then we end up with a relatively naive, or an out of touch, application of those values.

Another issue that comes up whenever you talk about multiple values is whether one of those values trump. For me, it’s about striving for a harmonious interpretation that is the best approach — striving to interpet care, community, creativity, and love in a way that respects all of those.

I don’t really see those values as, like, absolute truths for how we need to live for all time, but as values that we particularly need at the moment. We might need to refresh this conversation as society changes.


In The New Zealand Project, one goal which seems really clear is to take conversations about values, about ideology, and manifest them in change, in a practical way. The book presents a lot of possibilities, but there’s something I’m still unsure on — how do you think we can actually get the public to want to vote, even before we get to these conversations on values?

The first thing that comes to mind when you talk about voting is that I do think engagement — which is a little bit of a sterile term, it makes us think about military or something — goes beyond elections. Participation is practiced throughout all forms of politics. And politics is about power, not just parliament. We participate when we have conversations, when we do art that’s political, and when we make music that’s political. I think that’s really important.

To focus on voting, I think one way to shift the conversation on voting is to change who we’re demonising when we are talking about voter turnout. At the moment, the conversation blames people who are voting in generally lower numbers, as opposed to seeing lower voter turnout among certain groups as a signal of the failure of the political system. So, we know from the Electoral Commission’s work that Māori, Pasifika, young people, recent migrants — and from other research, those with lower incomes — tend to vote in lower numbers. I think that we need to stop stigmatising that and see it as a quite rational response to a system that hasn’t met the needs of a lot of those people. I was at a forum recently run by Paiaka in Wellington and this point was made really well there.

I think that starts to respect people’s engagement in the system, and politicians then have to start thinking about what they can do to change a system which excludes people in those groups.

Another thing is that when we talk about participation and engagement, we often talk about process — a problem with method that we need to resolve. The Electoral Commission has been doing good work about where voting booths are. But, to me, really it’s substance that gets people out, and low voter turnout should be seen as a failure of substance. I reckon this was brought out in the 2017 British election as well, in that [Jeremy] Corbyn’s campaign brought out a lot of young people, and that was partly to do with good process methods — using musicians, like Stormzy, and being strategic; but more importantly I think it was about providing a real choice and providing ideas. More importantly, that’s where the focus should lie. We should create a politics of substance that draws people in. To me, that’s partly about being practical with values, as you were saying, but it’s also about addressing political blind spots like Māori and young people, and people with low incomes.

I do respect people that don’t vote. I think more people than you’d think from media discussions decide not to vote having thought about it, because they feel the system is disengaged from them. We need to find the political in places we tend to not to define as political — e.g. being willing to see tags in Christchurch as depictions of despair at how Christchurch is being treated; the music of Alien Weaponry as an assertion of tino rangatiratanga in their use of te reo Māori and discussion about confiscation. It enriches our debate by including more perspectives and widens the window of what we see as political.


Just to pick up on that point, you spoke about decolonisation earlier, and one specific failure of the political process is a failure to engage with Māori people. How can we centre Māori voices in the context of an election that mainly revolves around the voices of two Pākehā people, neither of whom seem to wholly or effectively engage with Te Tiriti? How do we move towards decolonising a wholly Pākehā electoral process, which is aiming to engage non-Pākehā people?

The first point is that it won’t happen overnight — decolonisation is not a switch we can turn on. Unpacking what that actually means, drawing on the work of people like Harsha Walia, Moana Jackson, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith; to me decolonisation is about undoing and understanding the negative effects of colonisation and then recentering the views of indigenous peoples. That’s a big task given the longstanding effects of colonisation.

The second important point is that central to decolonisation is Māori being leaders in the process of undoing the effects of colonisation. I would want to be quite cautious in saying how I think the political process should be decolonised.

I definitely agree with you in that what we have seen in the debates shows that we still have arguably colonial mentalities at work in discussions on politics. In the second debate, Paddy Gower asked this extremely broad question about Māori over-representation across a range of statistics and asked, expecting short answers, about what each leader would want to do about it. I think that the answers were pretty disappointing. Bill English spoke about education and Jacinda Ardern spoke about poverty in very general terms. That whole frame, which was one of the few times that Māori were discussed across the three debates, was a deficit frame as well.

The sorts of things I would gesture toward are rethinking the whole political system. It can’t just be about tinkering with voting methods, again. Engaging with the work of Matike Mai Aotearoa, the report of the independent working group on constitutional transformation, coordinated by Margaret Mutu and Moana Jackson, where they talk about a kāwanatanga sphere, a rangatira sphere, and a relational sphere of government — that’s the sort of thinking, from what I’ve seen, that draws some Māori into a discussion on politics.

Working on Māori voices in media — the fact that we’ve had, I think, three Pākehā journalists moderating the debates doesn’t help. You see a different kind of journalism coming out from people like Mihingarangi Forbes than people like Patrick Gower and Mike Hosking.

I think it’s about Pākehā talking to each other as well, in a way that builds up awareness of issues and means that it is not possible for debates to happen before the elections without discussing the effects of colonisation.


When I saw you speak at VUW, and I imagine this is true for lots of your talks, you were introduced as being a millennial. In a similar way, when commentators talk about Jacinda Ardern, there’s often a disclaimer about her age. For example, Tracey Watkins, in the New Zealand Herald, compared English’s “competence” to Ardern’s “youth”. This is something you spoke about in relation to youth lobby groups like JustSpeak in The New Zealand Project — that young people are assumed to have too much inertia, when they are actually capable of great influence. How do you think young people can assume importance, instead of having to use those disclaimers?

I think one feature of the debate about young people contributing is that we have a very old definition about what is young. You know, I’m 29 and Adern is 37. There are people at high school doing great political work that we marginalise if we think you’re young if you’re 29 or 37. Chlöe Swarbrick has talked eloquently about how this focus on a person as “young” tends to diminish the way their contributions are seen at the debate. You have to be evaluated at a different table from the “adult’s table”.

At the same time, I think it’s true that young people have a lot of common interests. It’s interesting to wonder whether we can see young people as a kind of class even though their economic and material interests are likely to differ and even though young people are not homogenous at all.

As for assuming importance, as with any other group in the population, finding points of common ground from which to organise and to build movements is, to me, one way for young people to come together. Like debt, climate change, or a different view on criminal justice. That’s one way to acquire power, because it means that a young person is not left fighting these issues on their own.

There’s only so much young people can do to assume importance — it takes other people to shift how they’re listening to young people and regarding and talking about young people. There’s a cultural problem in NZ in how young people’s voices are appreciated. What I try to push in the book is that actually often the most exciting contributions to political debates are coming from young people who are less censored, less filtered, maybe more imaginative and more urgent, and tend to speak truths that people might be unwilling to raise. It’s kind of like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” story.


Earlier this year, Salient spoke with Moana Jackson. When we asked him about idealism, he told us “realities are created by humans… I’ve always thought that every change is a shift in reality.” In your conversation with Jackson in The New Zealand Project, he told you that politics might be “the art of what might not seem possible at the moment.” Do you see a shift in political consciousness on our horizon? Is the future bright?

Firstly, Jackson is an absolutely amazing thinker and person — everyone should seek out his work, his thinking is transformative. Second, on what’s possible and realistic, and my thinking is very much influenced by Jackson’s thinking, what we need to recognise is that when someone says something is unrealistic, that’s not an argument, it’s a prediction. As Moana has said recently, it’s a retreat from dialogue. It’s also a political claim — we should be cautious when someone says this. Nelson Mandela once said that it all seems impossible until it’s done, which is a nice reminder about not being held back too much by initial worries about realism.

In terms of a shift — I hope, and then also have reasons to feel cautious. There’s a window opening up around discussions on decolonisation, sparked by the work of Jackson, Forbes, Morgan Godfery, Leonie Pihama, and others. At the same time I still hear the Labour Party talking about legislating for water without recognition of tino rangatiratanga, and I worry about whether that window will be quickly shut.

I think there’s an opening in discussions about neoliberalism and I found that, going around the country, more and more people wanting to name that as a model that isn’t the norm anymore and shouldn’t be. At the same time, I watch these leaders debates and hear how timid people are talking about tax, how no one’s talking about industrial policy, or an active role for the state, and I still think we are in the grip of certain assumptions that were left with us from the ’80s.

However, there does seem to be a surge of radical thinking, especially in university spaces. More people being drawn to the language of socialism and Marxism. There’s interesting thinking coming out of feminist spaces and tino rangatiratanga spaces, for example with groups such as People Against Prisons Aotearoa. So I think we are potentially seeing signs of a shift and how we read what is changing is also a political act. What I’d say for activists, and people wanting that shift, we need to amplify and support those tendencies but not be complacent about the power apparatus that remains in upholding the patriarchy and neoliberalism and colonisation and other forms of oppression.

I do think we lack a bit of intellectual and movement-building infrastructure, which would allow people (in and out of universities) to develop critical and imaginative thinking, and which would allow campaigns (formal and informal) to receive the support they need. Filling the gaps in that infrastructure should be a priority for all of us, and it would be something that would give me even more hope.

Progressive, principled new politicians like Kiri Allan and Chlöe Swarbrick give me hope (even while the treatment of Metiria Turei shows how loveless so much of our media and political debate can be).


What would you march in the streets for? Would you attend Bill English’s “March to Elect Bill English”?

That was such a cringey answer from him, you just saw him floundering — I guess it’s because Bill isn’t really a marcher.

I’d march for lots of things. One thing that I think would be a great, positive campaign is compulsory te reo Māori in schools, which has been spoken about by the Green Party and the Māori Party. Actually, I shouldn’t describe it in that way — we should really be talking about whether te reo Māori should be part of public education rather than whether it is compulsory, given that all public education is compulsory. That is something I think that people are moving towards as a way of honouring an official language and an important part of Aotearoa.

I also feel very strongly about decarceration, and shifting our economic model which has made inequality and insecure work part of a background that we seem to acquiesce in.

Mostly I’d march against abrupt incursions into fundamental rights. What’s important is that we have the consciousness and instincts which mean we can march positively and negatively. One of the reasons for writing the book is that we’ve lost those instincts that allow us to react quickly and with a shared confidence when something goes wrong — consolidating the values that we think we should have can help us to decide when to march.


Salient has developed a tradition that we haven’t been able to shake for interview segments this year. What’s your favourite colour?

Sheesh that’s political as well… I really don’t have a favourite colour… maybe orange? I guess I just won’t explain that….


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