The news even reached Australia, via the local chapter of Buzzfeed: ‘New Zealanders Are Vandalising Their Political Billboards And It’s Awesome’. Except, it’s not. As Toby Manhire has observed, the defaced billboards, on the whole, are rather unawesome. But it’s true that they are everywhere. I took this picture near my house last Friday.
The next day someone came to replace the billboard, and it was immediately defaced again. Then, for good measure, someone knocked it down, leaving the timber framing neatly disassembled beside it.
It’s a strange kind of vandalism, dutiful, almost polite. You erect your billboard. We’ll add penises and dollar signs to them, or cut your face out, or just knock the bloody thing over.
There is a peculiar drabness to these interventions. They are, with few exceptions, so utterly unimaginative. Only in rare cases is the statement bold enough to at least communicate a sense of passion and feeling.
But for the most part it’s penises, dollar signs, faces cut out. Swastikas and freemason symbols are also common, as is the phrase ‘casual fascism’, an indicator of the lazy shallowness of the prevailing anti-Tory rhetoric.
But the one-sided nature of the vandalism is also worth reflecting upon. The only other significant target is Colin Craig, a businessman who has thrown his personal fortune behind turning his coalition of social conservatives into a political force. You could argue that his unsettling billboards come pre-defaced.
But they have been subjected nonetheless to unusually well-crafted and witty reimaginings.
With the exception of Craig, however, it’s all National Party, all the time. But why? What makes this year and that party special? It’s possible that the hobby has taken off due to the social media resonance it has received after spawning its own tumblr blog. Or it could be the ubiquity of the Tory billboards, all identical, that generated its own backlash. In Christchurch, the city that still suffers from the ongoing devastation of neoliberal reconstruction after the earthquake of 2011, the sentiment is understandable for yet another set of reasons. But the vandalism, and the dreariness of its language, could also be the expression of a growing anti-political sentiment.
Consider the alternative: the centre-left coalition of Labour and the Greens has decided to counter the popularity of John Key’s government and of its matter-of-fact, confident message – Working for New Zealand – with expressions of optimism of their own: ‘Vote Positive’ and ‘Love New Zealand’.
Even though the Greens’ slogan is somewhat undercut by its imagery, these are messages appropriate to a country that has no significant problems to grapple with, and can afford to choose its government based on the cheerfulness of its branding or how effectively the administration projects a sense of technocratic competence. There is no real contrast in the opposition’s campaigns, no real attempt to articulate an alternative set of values and policies, just the requisite reminder that there are other parties besides the one that has been in charge for the last six years.
With that in mind, I think it would be reductive to see this year’s wave of billboard vandalism as the expression of a specific opposition to the Tories, when it could equally voice a more generic dislike of the business of politics, which just so happens – quite appropriately – to be aimed at the party in government and its figurehead. This would explain the incoherence of the invectives, which are sometimes tinged with appalling sexism and racism to boot. These aren’t left-wing values in any recognisable sense. Then again, left-wing values aren’t being cultivated in any meaningful way.
There is another campaign that is ramping up as election day approaches, and it is aimed at getting more people to vote. Politicians and commentators routinely fret about the steadily decreasing turnout, which in 2011 was the lowest since women won the right to vote in 1893. Their inclination, naturally, is to view this trend as a symptom of voter apathy, as opposed to a consequence of the narrow range of choices on offer, or the inability or unwillingness of our parties to represent entire sectors of society. The slogan of the 45-second television ad commissioned by the Electoral Commission to Saatchi and Saatchi nicely illustrates where the moral failing lies:
Do you care about this country? Then you should vote.
Whereas the posters for the campaign articulate the other key tenet of the liberal democratic dream:
Your vote is worth the same as everybody else’s.
Neither of these things is true: voting is not a civic duty irrespective of the range of outcomes that it can be reasonably expected to produce; and the votes of the citizens whose interests are preferentially served by our politicians – most proverbially, those of bourgeois swing voters – are demonstrably worth more than the others.
The rhetoric that dominates the political discourse, in the form of admonishments to vote for the lesser evil and the demand to participate in the political process as a disinterested act of citizenship, represents the enlightened view mitigating not only against voter apathy, but also against billboard vandalism and our most destructive tendencies. Were those in fact the only options, I’d be tempted to re-evaluate and possibly embrace the penises, dollar signs, etcetera. But if the tide of anti-politics is indeed rising in New Zealand – as next month’s election might go some way toward proving or disproving – it will require serious critical analysis as opposed to a saddened, disapproving shaking of our collective heads.