09 Nov Prime Ministers, Ponytails & Punching Down

First published in the Press 6.5.15


There’s a drive I take when I can to clear my head. You probably know a road like it. Back roads through farmland, in parts narrow and winding but mostly wide open spaces. Autumn is the best time to travel Route 27 from Auckland toward Taupo – not the most direct way but the one I choose when the opportunity presents itself.


This isn’t where I grew up, but it feels like home. Periodically I put the windows down to let in the rural smells and slow down a bit to look a cow in the eye. You get the sense that the road is passing through the land, rather than that the land has been placed beside a highway. I like it when the traveller, the one moving through it, is not the most important thing.


I took Lucinda Williams for musical company. On a different trip with my daughter a few weeks ago, she’d been disparaging about Lucinda’s melancholic voice. I’d explained I found it so heartbreaking that in the end it was uplifting. She looked unconvinced. My 17 month old granddaughter, however, waved her hands and waggled her feet cheerfully in time with Lucinda’s languid Southern drawl. We’re going to get on.


This trip was a solo one with work at the end of it. Clear skies, empty roads, time to think. I caught myself grinning at the autumn lushness of it all, and laughed out loud at one point when I poked my nose out to sniff the air and a ute passed the other way with a dog doing the same thing. It was nice.


Except that I took Mike Hosking with me. Not the actual one, of course, the TV one and only in my head. Not a regular viewer, I’d seen the primetime clip where he’d described a young hospitality worker as “selfish” for speaking out about her personal experience of harassment.

I’d been shocked by it – more than I’d expected to be. Not at the calling out – that’s what commentators do – but at the ‘punching down’. We’re used to the Fourth Estate ‘punching up’ on behalf of the Little Guy in a dispute rather than being a voice for one of the bigger players who could just as well hire a PR expert or contact a gossip columnist or whatever the hell really happened. It was like watching Fair Go advocate on behalf of plumbers against someone who failed to leave her underwear drawer open to be rifled through. The status was all wrong.


On the return trip, I managed to push Hosking out of my head by focusing on Amanda Bailey. I wonder what her life is like now at work, at home, in her neighbourhood. And how weird it would be to be singled out as a bad girl by a powerful middle-aged man with his own TV show. A couple of Lucinda’s tracks could have been about Amanda. It’s an old story – being made to feel small, fighting back, being crushed. I’m glad there’s music that gives a voice to it. Someone has to.

– Michele A’Court



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03 Dec Is the Pope a Catholic?

It would appear that we can no longer assume that the Pope is a Catholic. It used to be one of those handy rhetoricals, along with bears pooping in the woods and the less popular but equally trusted, “Is the Minister of Women’s Affairs a feminist?”


Because we’ve lost that last one and suddenly all ground seems uncertain under our feet.


Louise Upston has been our Minister of Women’s Affairs since October. On Monday, she announced a name change to her portfolio – now simply the Ministry for Women. The day before, she had declared that despite being our top government advocate for women’s issues, she is not a feminist. In the same breath, she managed to reduce the proud history of feminism – the one that won us the vote, equal pay, reproductive rights and the right to be elected to parliament to do a job like hers – to “flag-waving”. That’s a helluva slap in the face to a lot of great women from our great-great-grandmothers right down the line to us and our daughters.


I’m pretty sure if the Minister really thought about it for a moment – the tragedy is she hasn’t – she’d realise that being a feminist was the very least she could do. It’s her job to advocate on behalf of women for greater economic independence, more women in leadership and increased safety from violence.  It says so on her Ministry’s website. Which is the very definition of feminism – political, social, economic and cultural equality. So we have a problem when the Minister says she “doesn’t want to be seen as having a feminist agenda”. Because that’s exactly what she’s got.


Upston recently went to a “Miss Tokora” beauty pageant and thought it was awesome. It was like she’d never seen a beauty pageant before. And hadn’t heard that the women’s movement has been protesting against them since 1968 on the grounds they objectify women and judge them according to a prescribed standard of beauty. It’s as though 50 years of thinking, discussion, writing and hard-won experience by millions of smart women have gone completely unnoticed by the Minister.

“What are the things that make a difference to young girls, and setting their sights high?” the Minister asks, and then answers with, “It’s about confidence, it’s about having belief in their ability.” In their ability to do what? Their ability to meet a standard of beauty?


Women do believe in themselves. We’d like a society – and our Minister – to believe in us too. And to fight for equal career opportunities and pay equity. To cease victim-blaming. To acknowledge we have a right to be safe. To be valued as equals, not viewed as objects. And we’d like to be encouraged to enter beauty pageants just as often as men are. As in, never.


“I don’t ever want anyone to look at me,” Upston says, “and say ‘she’s there because she’s a female’.” Sorry, Minister, but so far I can’t find any other reason why you got this job.


— Michele A’Court

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03 Sep Message for Candidates

“In the Beginning, People Created Government for the People”
If you are running for Parliament right now and happen to be reading this, there are a couple of points I would like to make to you.
Ages ago, people, who are fundamentally social creatures, decided it would be a great idea if we all chipped in for the stuff we all use. Chuck some money in the pot for roads, schools, hospitals, general infrastructure and other things the group needs.
We’d then pick some people we could trust to run it – to spend the money we give them, do some planning, maybe every now and then come up with a grand vision on our behalf. Mostly, just take care of organising things so we can take care of each other.
We thought it would be ideal if everyone was fed, and safe and well, and had somewhere to live and a book to read. So we invented Taxation and Government, and grew a Democracy.
We created your jobs and called you our Representatives. Our intention was to choose the best of us – the smart, sensible, and honourable ones (we even put that in your job title so the clue would be in the name) to take care of our community with the money and ideas we contributed.
Part of choosing you to represent us was an assumption that you could empathise with us – imagine our lives, put yourselves in our shoes – exercise compassion, and be in the service of the public rather than serve your individual selves.
Imagine, then, how furious we are to know that many of you are horrible people who have surrounded yourselves with dreadful human beings. That what gets you out of bed in the morning is not the drive to make the world a better place for us, but to score points, bully, smear, obfuscate, divert, diminish and inflict pain. That your “To Do” list is less about justice and social equality, and more about power and revenge.
That’s not what we picked you for, or why we pay your salary, or who we need you to be.
There is a theory, promoted by some of you, that even exposing dirty politics helps keep dirty politicians in power because those of us who love democracy will throw our hands in the air, turn our backs and leave you to it. Essentially, the plan is that you can hold on to government by discouraging people from participating in it.
Don’t go buying stocks in that one just yet. Sometimes, when sufficient people are enraged, we also become engaged. A lot of your own crap has blown up your faces of late. This tactic may turn out badly for you, too.
And if you’re standing for Parliament right now because you’d like to do some good with our money and ideas, then give us a wave so we can spot you over the steaming pile of filth currently in view.

— Michele A’Court

Mainland Live 3.9.14

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17 Jul Rules for Women

It is quite hard being a woman. There are lots of rules. They are not written down explicitly in a list. They turn up implicitly in editorials, popular commentary and casual conversation. A woman works them out from reading between lines and divining the assumptions upon which people’s statements are based.
So a woman doesn’t go to Wiki and read a list of rules about what women should or shouldn’t do to avoid sexual assault. Yet we all know what is on that list.
The first unwritten rule is, of course, that it is up to women in the first instance to avoid being sexually assaulted. She mustn’t be out at night, alone, in a dark place. She mustn’t be drunk. She mustn’t wear a short skirt or revealing top. The onus is on her, if she doesn’t want to be sexually assaulted, to not look like does.
She mustn’t meet someone and get in a car with them, obviously. She mustn’t trust anyone or take them at face value. She mustn’t assume that anyone she doesn’t know yet is a good person. That would be silly, and asking for trouble.
This is despite the fact that it is estimated 85 per cent of sexual violence is committed by someone known to the victim. Most of the time, you might conclude, a woman would be safer with a stranger.
But we must travel in groups and dress Amish, and drink green tea and stay home a lot. Then, if the worst thing happens, we’ve spent our whole lives being ready for people who ask if we broke the rules.
It has become clear in the past week that there are unwritten rules for how a woman should behave, not just prior to a sexual assault, but after one has been alleged.
She shouldn’t talk about it, for starters. Maybe if she’s weepy and looks damaged and frail, sure. If the victim is dead, we’ll take anger and outrage from her family, criticism of a system that let them down. But not from a victim who appears confident, articulate and certain of things. That feels inappropriate somehow, right? We know what a victim should look like. And it shouldn’t be stronger and smarter and braver than us. That makes us uncomfortable.
And she shouldn’t talk about it too soon. Maybe after everyone else has spoken she can have a turn. Though she shouldn’t leave it too late, either. We’re suspicious of those women who leave it years to tell their story. Were they really working up the courage? Or just working on their story? If it really mattered, they would have said something at the time. There is a right moment for a victim to tell her story. We’ll tell her when. It’s not like she’s new to being diminished and dismissed.
Or here’s a different rule we could try: If you can’t trust yourself not to sexually assault someone, don’t go out alone. Stay home, stay sober, wear pants and call a trusted friend.

— Michele A’Court

Rules for Women 17.7.14

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26 Feb The Egg Incident

All kinds of things inform the kind of citizen you turn out to be. One of my seminal moments was The Egg Incident of 1984. I was living in Wellington then, walking along Salamanca Road beside the university on one of those calm, clear spring days the Capital does rarely, but well.
A car load of what my grandmother would have called “hoodlums” drove by, hiffed an egg at me which hit me square on the chest and, shrieking with the hilarity of it all, drove on. Totally random, largely innocent (though someone might have lost an eye) and clearly hugely entertaining for them.
For me, it was devastating in the kind of way that makes you remember it 30 years on. A very close family friend had just died that afternoon and, sobbing, I was walking home from her house to my flat. I didn’t make sense that someone would throw an egg at me when my heart had just been broken.
The Egg Incident taught me that a) you shouldn’t try to make sense of things that don’t make sense; b) you don’t know what is going on in other people’s lives; and c) sometimes the stuff people chuck at you has little or nothing to do with you. It’s just about their joy at chucking something.
That’s how I think of geeks who make computer viruses. They don’t get to witness the effect of their cyber-destruction or how it affects people (deadlines missed, opportunities lost, the expense of repair) but they imagine it and that gives them a thrill.
Hateful stuff on social media is a bit like egg chucking. They can’t see or hear your reaction to what they say – only what people choose to write back – but they imagine a recipient responding with an interior, “Well played, sir,” or perhaps weeping into their pillow in the dark hours. Hey, it’s their fantasy so they get to picture it however they like.
Writing a column can be a bit like throwing an egg. I read one this week about Charlotte Dawson that I wish I could un-read because it felt so cruel. People who hardly knew Dawson – myself included – shouldn’t speculate on what led her to the choice she made on Saturday. And no-one should diminish the reality of mental illness.
What we should speculate about is what the rest of us should do. Social media – just like the village pump, town square or office water-cooler before it – can be a brutal place. Or more correctly, a place where people can be brutal.
It can also be a forum for tremendous support and kindness. I’ve seen people reach out for help on Twitter and find it – tracking down missing family after an earthquake, or somebody reading the anguish in a tweet and driving over to help a friend in crisis.
Someone in my Twitterverse last week created #ShareTheLoveTuesday, a conversation encouraging people to publically name a friend they admire. That kind of thing should go viral.

— Michele A’Court

The Egg Incident for the Mainland Live 26.2.14

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