Paul Henry Again

I almost didn’t post about this, because everyone’s talking about it and surely everything I could come up with will have been covered off most thoroughly by other, wiser writers. But I decided I would anyway, to add my small gust to the storm of disapproval. And because once I’ve written about it I can stop thinking about it.

Breakfast TV panderer Paul Henry dug gleefully into the mire yesterday morning, with comments amounting to a claim that a major public figure wasn’t a proper New Zealander because he didn’t have the right colour skin or an appropriate name.

Henry has a history of provocation, and the line has always been “he says what people are thinking”. Previously he’s caused fury by ridiculing a female guest for her facial hair, calling Susan Boyle “retarded”, and saying that homosexuals are unnatural. This, however, is a whole new level of controversy, as Henry and TVNZ are belatedly realizing.

Henry has waded deep into an argument about what it means to be a New Zealander; it’s something that has been bubbling under in this country for years now, pretty much since our immigration laws relaxed in the late 80s. You see it in the fierce opposition to “special treatment” for Maori; you see it in the eyeroll-inducing campaign to nullify the census ethnicity question by writing in “New Zealander”; you see it in the rough treatment meted out to Asian immigrants. We are becoming a more diverse people, and the Pakeha majority isn’t entirely sure what it thinks about that.

But, while there is anxiety and argument, the public discourse has very clearly settled on criteria for being a New Zealander that is not about skin colour or the number of syllables in your surname. There is argument about whether a proper New Zealander is one who supports the NZ cricket team over that of their own country; about whether a proper New Zealander needs to be fluent in English; about whether a proper New Zealander can wear the hijab. There is no argument about whether you can be a New Zealander if you’re Nigerian, or Japanese, or Fijian-Indian. New Zealandness is open to everyone.

Paul Henry’s comments reveal a nasty truth: that for many people, this isn’t true. New Zealandness isn’t open to everyone. Public discourse positions New Zealandness as behavioural, and therefore egalitarian and in tune with our national mythology. Unrepresented in the public discourse is the sense of fear and resistance to a diverse New Zealand, to an increasingly multi-coloured population, to racial difference. These sentiments are not suitable for public forums, and are kept out of sight. Henry has voiced the unvoiceable, casting a shadow over the entire discussion about multicultural New Zealand. Is it really about sports team loyalty and headscarves? Or is it truthfully about skin colour?

The comeback on this will come from both sides of the political aisle, quite simply because there is no party in NZ parliament that is aligned with racism. (At the moment.) National and ACT, our right-wing voices, are both clearly supportive of diversity, and have both made significant efforts to involve ethnic communities in their activities, National with quite some success. Their views don’t allow for “special treatment” and so forth, but they are quite clear that the door is open to people of any colour with whatever funny-sounding surnames they like.

There is, however, a substantial rump of Kiwis who will nod along with Paul Henry, who will agree wholeheartedly with the initial TVNZ spin line of “Paul just says what we are all thinking”. (And I hope there’s some thunder and lightning in the corridors of TVNZ, sterilising the place of that horrid suggestion.) They are a concern. They are feeling left behind in a changing nation, and resentful of their shrinking space in the public discourse. Perhaps this furore might provide an opportunity to address them, to dig into what is driving their reflexive resistance, and find a way to communicate better about what New Zealand is becoming and how much, much more is gained than can possibly be lost. (The equivalent rump in the U.S. was captured by demagoguery to become the raging tea party movement – that couldn’t happen here, but the emotions at work are the same.)

To address this unpleasantness would take leadership. And so I turn to the real scandal here, that of our Prime Minister John Key grinning and shrugging off Henry’s comments as if they were a mildly off-colour joke. Even now Key refuses to condemn Henry. That is what makes me furious – not Henry’s comments and his smug non-apologies, which are par for the course for a media personality employed to be controversial and earning massive popularity as a result. Henry is there to say awful things. But John Key should be there to lead, to take hold of a situation and stand up for the fundamental principles of our nationhood. Instead he folded and enabled. This is not what we should expect from a Prime Minister. Aunty Helen would have torn out Henry’s beating heart and incinerated it with lasers from her eyes. (Of course, Key’s current counterpart Phil Goff has been utterly useless even in opposition.)

So I’m pleased to see at least a little bit of heat directed at Key over this. But, frankly, there should be more. Key deserves a rebuke from New Zealand, from his supporters as well as his foes. He should be held to a higher standard.

19 thoughts on “Paul Henry Again”

  1. Well said! (and amazing how this fits in with our conversation on Sunday)

    I think most of my ire is still with TVNZ with their “it’s what NZ is secretly thinking” line. But the only reason is that I really can’t think any less of John Key. He is a man who says nothing and stands for nothing. He exists only as the smiling layer of teflon over the worst aspects of the National Party.

    But as for what it means to “be a New Zealander”. It’s quite simple, it’s anyone who wants to be a New Zealander. Regardless of skin colour, name, or funny accent (yes, even Canadian accents).

  2. If we want really want a Governer General who looks like a “real New Zealander” than obviously we should put someone in place from the race that has been here the longest.

    I hereby announce a campaign to appoint a tuatara as Governer General.

  3. Very well said! Henry makes me barf, but the most disturbing aspect of all this is the response of Key and TVNZ (and Goff too!). This has been a serious failure on Key’s part, and it’s a missed opportunity in so many ways.

  4. Imagine we made a rule that, to be governer general, you must have been born in NZ and both your parents must also have been born in NZ.

    Of the four-point-something million people in the country today, how many would meet that definition?

  5. Something that I’ve been thinking about.

    These “white people” are not the people joining the Tea Party. It feels like something not-quite-right is going on here — maybe it’s because they’re saying “white” when they mean “middle-class”? And it’s something to do with the US discomfort with class, and so they displace it to race, a conflict they’re more comfortable with?

    I don’t know.

  6. I usually respect PH for his willingness to say exactly what he is thinking compared to the other airbrushed airheads on TV, even if most of the time I don’t agree with what he says, but jeez yesterday was just stupid. And the apology isn’t really if you read it. I’m inclined to give Key a bit of doubt benefit in not saying anything at the time, as he was probably too busy thinking ‘WTF did he just say?’ to formulate an effective response. Key could have said something more effective by now, but the moment has passed somewhat; anything he says now will look like trivial reaction and lack credibility. Heads should roll at TVNZ as state broadcaster for that pathetic ‘What we are all thinking’ statment (amongst other failings of that once great network) as well. Because, it isn’t what we are all thinking, only the redneck dicks fond of making statements like “you are only a real New Zealander if you ______(insert cultural cliche here)”,

    OT but since Svend linked to it, I’m getting increasingly jaded by sites like ‘Stuff white people like’. I know they are meant largely in jest, but I can’t help but find them patronising and demeaning and adding to the impression that as a western male of european descent living in a former colony, I should just walk around with ‘guilty’ written on my forehead.

  7. …loving that thunder and lightning … and the lasers from her eyes … bring it on.

  8. I played around with blogging about this several times since making a formal complaint yesterday. After a sleep and and Dave Dobbyn to reassure me that not everyone thinks like this, I’ve settled with a letter to Key and Goff.

    The depth of the hurt is much as you and Danyl have already mentioned, it is a very loud reminder that, to some sections of NZ, I will never belong. It reared it’s ugly head with Brash’s Orewa speech, it shows it’s ugly face with the man who called me during to Diwali and asked me to note that because of his think NZ accent, he couldn’t possibly be of Indian origin.

    I’ve faced that type of casual racism so often that I’ve probably blanked out the majority of it.

    I’ve been away for a while, and yes there is most definitely racism in the UK, the vast majority has, however been overt and so my blinkers have not been in practice (and, to be honest, TV presenters have been sacked on less in the UK – the usual practice would be to stand them down immediately and see out whatever compulsory part of their contract on gardening leave). So it came as a major shock when both the PM and the Leader of the Opposition both brushed this whole affair aside as Henry being a “shock jock” or “silly”.

    I can understand that the PM may have been gobsmacked at the time, but it’s not like Henry just said it once, he repeated the sentiment. He could’ve asked, plainly “what do you mean, Paul” but he didn’t, he sat there like a stunned mullet and then proceed to joke (admittedly awkwardly) “we could give it to you”.

    Last night, Sam, an Australian who doesn’t know who our GG , and was only going by what he read from my string of invective on twitter, asked what Henry meant. I told him that it meant that someone who had been born and bred in Auckland still wasn’t considered a NZer (by our state broadcaster) because, like me, he was of South Asian heritage. As I typed this over skype, I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming. As I type this now, I’m holding them back.

    I return, home, to Wellington in January. My older brother (also a born and bred Welly kid) sat opposite me last night as we talked about our shock and asked: Why bother?

    It’s a fight we’ve had our whole lives, we don’t seem to belong anywhere. Yet the South Seas and unfurling koru are tattooed into my back (they form a lotus) and the mountains call me home, so what does that say?

    Sorry, this has turned into a hellishly long comment. I think I’m saying that I hope this isn’t swept away as “two weeks suspended without pay, job done” and that Key or Goff can get out of this so lightly as it will all happen again (Brash’s Orewa speech was not that long ago), something needs to be done by our leaders. But I don’t know what.

  9. Andrew: yes! Our conversation Sunday was remarkably prescient. I’ve referenced it other places too. And I had complete deja vu reading your review of Nightshade just now…

    Joey: I’d back the tuatara. It’s mostly a ceremonial position anyway, right?

    Dylan: Key has really showed his class, or lack of. He tries so hard to stay away from sticky issues, but this was right in his face – surely even he can’t teflon his way out of it?

    Repton: I’d guess around 1/3 of the population wouldn’t qualify. We are a migrant nation.

    Svend: that site has a definite angle and a satirical point to make by identifying all white people with affluent urban hipsters. The class aspect of it is definitely in the mix. I have periods where I love that site, periods where I hate it.

  10. Jon: *nods*

    Samm: aye. TVNZ – heads should roll. Their messaging is appalling these days.

    Simone: heh. Aunty Helen laser eyes – there’s an action figure that wouldn’t be under many Xmas trees!

    Sonal: This comment of yours is hellishly awesome, and I have nothing to say in response but “I love you man”. No I tell a lie I always have something to say: I truly think this is not where NZ is at any more. The casual racism is on the decline. It won’t be gone for a long time, and it can’t come soon enough, and it’s hella little comfort for people getting stepped on in the meantime, but I see a clear line and like MLK said it’s bending toward justice.

    Billy: I see what you did there…

  11. I’ve long thought that you can’t really understand racism until you’ve experienced it first hand. And I don’t mean “by being racist yourself”.

  12. Sadly, I think that casual racism still is common in provincial NZ… Last week I sat in a meeting at work (a multicultural professional organisation) where a fairly senior manager said “some cultures don’t have the same standards of hygiene that *we* do” and 2 of the other 3 people in the room nodded and murmured assent, the 3rd looked uncomfortable, and I said “I don’t think it’s cultural” and was told I’d be surprised or somesuch… and (I’m sorry) I shut up… I’ve heard this kind of thing a lot… cultures never specified of course, but I guess we’re supposed to guess (I can’t)

    FWIW I feel deeply uncomfortable at work…

  13. Look, if the tuatara can sign his or her own name then I’m happy because otherwise our legisation doesn’t get assented to and I don’t know what would happen.


    The thing that’s curling my toes right now is the weasel-worded defense/observation of Henry I’m reading that “its good that this sort of question is put out there”, in other words, how we define what a ‘New Zealander’ is. The question isn’t even moot. Surely the identity of the current G-G is the answer?

  14. Like samm, I usually enjoy the totally un-pc-ness of PH, but this was sadly too far. Said jestingly, and Key would have been best to respond with the question as to what a NZer looks like (as it was PH’s inference that our GG doesn’t look like a NZer). That asked, the conversation might have turned differently. But I was immensely saddened by PH’s apology which I watched. He was gutted that he would be thought racist, and said he would never belittle anyone’s ethnicity – because while many people think he’s a Pom, the truth is “much worse”. He said he was *confession* at least half gypo. Not sure if he meant gypsy or Egyptian, but I immediately felt defensive for yet another ethnic group who were being put down. PH you need counselling for your racism. (Mind you, I met a group of Czechs last year who said calling anyone a gypo was the hugest insult and could result in knives being drawn…)
    Such a strange world we live in…

  15. Look, if the tuatara can sign his or her own name then I’m happy because otherwise our legisation doesn’t get assented to and I don’t know what would happen.

    Nothing, much. We’d just let another feudal relic lapse, rather than ending it deliberately.

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