By Sandy Burgham
I was raised in a solid working-class Labour household but my career was birthed in the 80s, and it took my politics the other way. In retrospect, I was probably desperate to subconsciously distance myself from my upbringing as I started climbing the ladder of the system. I was really part of the great unwashed, completely impressionable, voting for whomever my friends and work colleagues were; I noticed people jokingly voting for someone they thought handsome or hot. No-one, least of all me, seemed to be thinking about what was best for the majority of people but considered things like tax policy which would benefit them individually. I didn’t worry too much about being uninformed because I assumed what I thought or did really didn’t actually matter in the overall scheme of things.
But 10 years ago, something changed. The government was suggesting that certain tracts of Crown conservation land might be taken out of scheduled protection (Schedule 4) to open up mining rights. I woke up. A line was crossed. A deep fundamental value challenged, and a sense of trust breached.
Suddenly I found myself participating in the democratic process.
I rang people I knew in the National Party to complain; I went to see my local politician. God, I may have even called talkback radio. I was furious, upset, and emotional. This wasn’t about my bank balance — it was about legacy and posterity. It was about Aotearoa. The issue consumed me so much that I was distracted at work and spent company time rarking up my young team to join the cause. We had our web developers create a site which sent submissions directly to the Minister of Conservation. When I decided to help mobilise forces to join what would eventuate as a 50,000-person protest up Queen St, my assistant got her signwriter fiancé to make some nifty placards.
That peaceful, impassioned protest got the desired result and government backed down. Other protests have not been so successful. We stopped traffic during a sit-in to prevent some lovely old art deco homes in St Heliers being bowled to make way for a concrete and glass monstrosity. (We lost.) I protested against the University of Auckland closing the fine arts and other specialist libraries. That cause was lost too, but not before our daughter reminded the Chancellor of the issue whom she heckled during his speech at her graduation day. She had had her first taste of civil disobedience at 14, when we made her join the mining march. (Our son, who was 10 at the time, whined so much en route that my husband had to take a break from leading a chant of “What do we want? No mining! When do we want it? Now!”, to nip into McDonald’s for a combo to shut him up.)
I joined a small but determined group earlier this year to protest against the marine dumping on Great Barrier Island’s waters, which seemed to help that cause. More recently I watched (I was feeling a bit off, and also, it was still level two) thousands march past our city apartment in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I have seen many marches from our vantage point high up above Queen St. Go the nurses! Go the teachers! Go the Burger King employees striking for better wages! Go the vegans, even. In fact the only protest I didn’t fully support was predominantly white South Africans taking it to the streets to protest against the repossession of land from white farmers back in the old country. The placard that read, ‘Stop the abuse of minorities’ seemed to be a little revisionist. But I respect their right to protest. It’s critical to get out there and be seen.
So those in their second act, who might have been planning a nice comfortable slide into retirement, think again. If you are appalled by what is happening in the US, what exactly are you doing about it?
It is you who must show future generations that being invisible in an imagined silent majority is a cop out. We must not keep our politics politely hidden away, only to be brought out in conversation in our comfort zone, or in the echo chamber of a Facebook group. Be up for being seen, banging some pots and pans, and starting the fork-dropping conversation at the dinner party. If it feels awkward – great, you are part of social change.
Trust me, you always feel slightly embarrassed at the start of the protest but the idea is to push through it and serve something greater than your ego. Each of us in our small actions does, in fact, make a difference.
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of The Hobson Magazine.