Miriam Pierard of the Internet Party: “Speaking the language of youth”
by DAPHNE LAWLESS, Fightback (Auckland)
Miriam Pierard, the 28-year-old Internet Party candidate for Auckland Central, is no stranger to Fightback – “a very good magazine”. She compliments us in particular on our “really amazing article” explaining our decision to support the Internet Party-MANA Movement alliance, and she attended our “Capitalism: Not Our Future” conference last Queen’s Birthday in Wellington.
After qualifying as a teacher, Miriam backpacked around the world in 2013. “Thinking that I might want to get into politics, I wanted to see how the rest of the world worked.” In the process, she experienced places like Iceland and Bolivia where local popular movements have rejected business-as-usual neoliberal politics and created space for alternatives.
In Iceland she met with Jón Gnarr, comedian and former mayor of the capital Reykjavik, who led a populist electoral challenge which unseated the conservative local council. “He stood up and said, our political system doesn’t work, let’s bring something new in…. they got overwhelming support because they brought humour into politics, made it fun again – and they gave people hope, because they were normal people who Icelanders knew.”
After spending time in Colombia learning Spanish, she went to Bolivia, occupying herself with “looking after pumas”. “I was interested in the indigenous movement, how they had expelled McDonalds from their country and tried to do the same with Coca-Cola.
“I spoke to miners in Potosí, drinking hideous alcohol and chewing coca leaves. That was a horrific place – I felt really strange afterwards. In some ways, conditions haven’t changed in 300 years. All the mines are worker co-operatives. Even in these dark dangerous places there is still hope, and it’s about personal relationships.
“Experiencing all this across the world, especially in places like that, made me realise just how special New Zealand is and how important it is to take back our proud history of leading the world in progressive change. Looking at the current situation, I’m so ashamed.”
Dawn of the Internet Party
Returning to New Zealand, says Miriam, she was particularly “angry at our country’s involvement with the United States and the NSA”. She was sympathetic to both the Greens and the MANA movement, but “I stayed away from political parties because of that tribal, territorial culture – fighting over votes without seeing the bigger picture.”
When German internet millionaire Kim Dotcom founded the Internet Party, she was originally “more skeptical than I should have been… I had only been reading the mainstream media! But I was excited that there was something new coming to shake up the election.”
Miriam was impressed that the Internet Party managed to reach the requisite 500 members “virtually overnight” and understood that “there was something serious about this party”. However, like Fightback at the time, and like veteran left activist Sue Bradford, Miriam was initially sceptical about the alliance with MANA.
“The mainstream media was trying to paint it as Kim Dotcom buying the Left. I still support Sue in that she made her decision based on her values. But on the day of the rally against the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) in late March, I discussed this with [left blogger] Martyn Bradbury, who explained the strategy… I sat on the floor astounded by the genius of this.”
Not being totally convinced, she decided to attend the MANA AGM which would discuss the alliance. “I was really impressed by the level of debate. I was a little bit wary of what Kim had said, but proud of the MANA leadership and the Internet Party for having the guts to have the conversation.”
Miriam feels that Hone Harawira showed leadership in presenting the debate, and that Kim Dotcom dealt well with questions from the various rohe. “I remember that the Fightback people were nervous about the proposal – but every single person in that room was heard. And now I see that same thing is happening in the Internet Party, except that we do it online.
“By the end of the night I came away feeling really emotional. I ran into Annette Sykes, and I said ‘Thank you so much for this day, the democratic process and debate was so impressive and overwhelming.’ I started crying … I really felt empowered by that debate.”
Sue Bradford has said that the debate was conducted in an “authoritarian and patriarchal” way, but Miriam doesn’t agree. “Perhaps because I wasn’t so involved with the politics of MANA, I didn’t pick up on that. Sue was vocal and public about her stance, and perhaps people were responding to that.” However, Miriam stresses “the Left in New Zealand is much better for having Sue”, and more recently talked to her about how to “stay true to yourself” as an activist in Parliament. “I’m so glad we were able to have that conversation of solidarity.”
Two parties, one vision
On the other side of the debate, Miriam thinks that some Internet Party supporters “see MANA as a hardcore socialist organization which wants to burn down the houses of rich people. Of course MANA has a strong socialist element, but some people are stuck in a kind of 1950s Red Scare mentality about what socialism means.
“The people in MANA with socialist leanings don’t necessarily think that a Stalinist state is a good idea. They don’t want top-down totalitarian control. Both Internet and MANA are interested in using the Internet, this incredible tool, to harness the incredible wealth of knowledge to enable democratic participation.
“Real democratic participation, that is, not just limited to ticking a box every three years.”
Miriam mentions her great respect for the MANA movement, and its leaders such as Hone Harawira, Annette Sykes and John Minto.
“Hone Harawira needs friends in Parliament to raise a voice for the excluded. Hone is seen as this radical Maori separatist, but why is it radical to feed the kids? To want equal opportunities, or a warrant of fitness on State homes? It’s so sad that these ideas are considered fringe.
“But joining MANA would be disingenuous for me, because I’m so Pakeha! I love people like Annette and John, but they have a different way of doing things than I do. John Minto… what a guy!”
As Miriam sees it, Internet and MANA are two parties with the same vision – but different ways of working and talking, and appealing to different audiences.
“The two parties are speaking to different but vital groups in our society, which have both been excluded. My generation realise that if tangata whenua and the poor are falling behind, we all fall behind. And thirty years of neo-liberalism has only widened the gap.
“Because the Internet Party has quite a different constituency to MANA, it is able to bring my generation into activism on issues where we agree, such as climate change, inequality and mass surveillance. These are the issues that will define my generation, and the Internet Party is handing us the power and responsibility to have some say in these decisions.
“This alliance brings credibility to both sides. We have a really good relationship and I’m amazed at how well it’s working.”
The programme of the Internet people
So who exactly are the Internet Party’s constituency? Miriam returns to the day of the rally against the TPPA.
“We were down at the US Consulate [in downtown Auckand], and there were pools of young people wearing purple T-shirts with Internet Party on them. It was the first time I’d seen Internet Party marketing and I was suprised.
“I chatted with these young guys, and what they were saying made me think – wow! I had never seen a political party engage with young people like this. One said he had never been interested in politics or voted, but finally there was a party which spoke their language.”
Miriam names.concerns around the TPPA, threats to national sovereignty from trans-national corporations and foreign powers, mass surveillance, the Five Eyes data-sharing arrangement, and the unaccountable GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau) as issues that have brought young IP activists into politics.
“This made me feel – this is what we’ve been waiting for,” Miriam explains. “We are trying to engage and empower those who have been excluded and disaffected by the system, such as the million people who didn’t vote at the last election.”
Isn’t a concern for national sovereignty a bit strange for those devoted to the globalised, borderless world brought by Internet technology? Miriam argues that the real issue is “fear around multinational corporations being able to sue our government if we have laws that are not in their interest. There’s a strong concern on the Internet around the power and influence that big corporate bodies have – their legal influence, and how they’re able to bankroll politicians.”
Miriam argues, for example, that “Hollywood corporates” bankrolled the campaign of US Vice-President Joe Biden – “which is perhaps one of the reasons America wants Kim Dotcom extradited – they want their money’s worth.”
Miriam agrees with Fightback‘s stand against the international copyright regime as a tool of this global corporate dominance. “It’s quite crippling on creativity. There’s an idea that Kim Dotcom just wants to be able to steal other people’s content. But we’ve got people in the Internet Party, artists, musicians, who’ve felt excluded and ripped off by these major labels and Hollywood corporates.. And royalties are such a messed-up system.
“Corporations are terrified of being cut out of the money flow for digital content – which is why they’re trying to get Kim with this ridiculous civil case! Our policy is about giving more power to content creators. Even the National Business Review wrote a grudgingly positive review of it!”
Laila and Kim
What of the leading personalities of the Internet Party? Miriam is upfront about her huge personal admiration for party leader, and former leftist Cabinet minister, Laila Harré.
“I remember as a teenager driving through Auckland, seeing Laila on Alliance billboards and thinking ‘I want to be like her!’”
Ten years later, when Miriam sold Laila raffle tickets at a Green Party fundraiser, she didn’t recognize her teenage idol at first. A week later, Miriam was catching up with Unite union secretary Matt McCarten, “and we all went out for dinner with Laila – this was well before the Internet Party – and it was lovely to talk to her, and I felt happy that I was able to keep up with the conversation! Talking to her husband Barry and her son Sam, I was impressed by how committed a political family they are, and also how personable.
“One thing that some people can’t understand about MANA is that Hone, Annette and John are strong and loud personalities and come from a protest background, which can put people off. In contrast Laila is so softly spoken, and yet she can have people like Paul Henry under her thumb in such a beautiful, graceful manner.”
Miriam also cites Laila’s achievements in the 1999-2002 Cabinet, such as paid parental leave and fighting against New Zealand troop deployment to Afghanistan. “I’m so happy to have her as my boss. Who better to work with and learn from?”
Some people would think that it’s Kim Dotcom, not Laila Harré, who is Miriam’s boss. And the Internet Party founder has a track record of regularly alienating progressive activists with such things as owning a copy of Mein Kampf autographed by Hitler himself, “racist day” hijinks while recording his album, and most recently an offensive joke about “killing hookers” on Twitter.
But the Internet Party, Miriam assures us, is very far from being “Kim’s” personal plaything.
“Just because he provides a good chunk of our money doesn’t mean he’s in control. A lot of it is John Key’s spin about Kim ‘buying his way into politics’. And that’s bullshit.
“People think we’ve got all this money, but we’re actually on a very tight budget. It’s not a slush fund that we can dip into whenever.
“Without Kim’s funding or vision for the party – around things like easier access and cheaper internet, taking democracy back to the people, a digital economy rather than relying on agriculture, extractive industries or tourism – we wouldn’t exist. He’s a generous donor and he’s really committed to the vision. He’s got his own sense of humour, which doesn’t reflect what the rest of us think.
“John Key says he’s just trying to keep himself from being extradited. No Labour justice minister is going to help him with that, so that has nothing to do with the party at all. But the idea for the Internet Party came in part from the deep resentment, hurt, and fear that Kim and his family felt with the raid on his house. It also showed how deep our Government is with the NSA, how we’re just bending over for America.
“Kim has very little to do with the daily running of the party, and doesn’t want to. He polarises people – the 18-24 year olds seem to really like him, while older voters are wary, but then they respond better to Laila or our other candidates. Our policy is not dictated by Kim – the agenda comes from the Internet Party executive, on which Kim has only vote.
“I have no questions as to whether Kim is to be trusted. I’m grateful for the opportunity that we all have – our generation, our country – because of this new party.”
Miriam is at pains to point out what she believes to be the revolutionary democratic nature of Internet Party online decision-making and policy making.
“A lot of our policy is developed through discussions with our members via Loomio and Google Docs applications. Our environment policy had 300 people working on it. Our health policy was written almost entirely by members – including doctors and pharmacists, as well as ordinary members of the public who visit their GP.
“In contrast, the existing politicians and parties bypass the experts and the people that they represent. Sometimes there’s consultation, but in education there was little to no consultation on charter schools or national standards, and it’s been a complete cock-up.
“And why are the Government spending all the money from asset sales on roads, or the leaky roof of Parliament, rather than Auckland’s City Rail Link? Let’s talk to the experts, let’s have evidence-based policy.”
One problem with Internet-sourced policy formation is the power that moderators and policy committees have as “gatekeepers” of bottom-up initiatives. But Miriam doesn’t see this as a problem.
“It’s fairly self-moderated at the moment. For a while I thought it was inappropriate to get involved myself, but now candidates are getting more involved. I’ve never seen such a high level of intelligent discussion on an Internet forum – it’s not like YouTube comments! A number of people are very involved and we’d like to get more people involved, but we have to think about how we make that happen.
“Loomio is a discussion forum. If an idea gains traction it will get moved into policy development. But we’re on a very tight time frame, so we have to move a bit faster at the moment. One criticism I’ve heard from some members is they’re not aware exactly how the Incubator material gets turned into policy – so we have to make those links clear.
“So we’re having teething issues, but this is really revolutionary… as far as I know we’re the first party in the world to have this. It’s about bringing democracy back to the people, and making it easy to access.”
So is the Internet Party internally democratic?
“It’s early days yet. That’s certainly the aim we’re going for, but there’s so little time before the election, so we have had to push things through more quickly than we’d like. As a candidate and leader, I rely on my friends and our voters and members to keep us true to what they want. If it’s democratically decided on, I’ll fight for that, even if I don’t agree.
“The party is owned by everyone. The members have more say than in any other party I’ve heard of. Candidates talk regularly on our own forum, and the Executive team are very open for us to come and talk to them.”
Openness, conspiracies, and cat ears
Isn’t there a problem with being too open? For example, the recent Aotearoa Not For Sale demonstration had to deal with Nazis turning up. Could the Internet Party be “entered” by people with a vile agenda?
“We’re really committed to free speech,” allows Miriam. “But in the forums if someone comes up with a question about whether we should reject Holocaust deniers as members… Anyone can join, but the hateful won’t get much traction, and the other members will jump on them and slam them in the forums.
“Again, it’s self-moderation of the membership. Internet Party members and supporters are not going to let us be taken over by conspiracy theorists or Holocaust deniers.”
Miriam warms to the theme of conspiracy theory. “When people put emphasis on things like chemtrails, it totally derails the conversation – it takes away the conversation from real issues. Can we focus on the causes of climate change, or on the manipulation of governments by big business – which sounds like a conspiracy theory, but is actually happening?
“We’ve got too much to fight for that we can do real, practical things about. People can talk about things like chemtrails or vaccines causing autism, but we’re not going to have a policy on things like that. There are too many real things to be scared of.”
Quite opposed to the fear and negativity of conspiracy theory, Miriam hopes to bring hope and “a sense of humour” to New Zealand politics, following the example of Jón Gnarr’s “Best Party” in Iceland. “We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take what we do seriously.”
Accordingly, part of Internet Party strategy is the big “Party Party” dance events held in various centres, featuring popular hip-hop and rock artists. These are part of a general trend of strong Get Out The Vote activism at this election, including the similar “Rock Enrol” campaign. “We also need ways to get young people to the polls,” adds Miriam. “17% of non-voters say that they just couldn’t get to the polls.”
The night before our interview, Miriam attended Auckland’s “Party Party”, and her outfit drew comment from NZ Herald right-wing gossip columnist Rachel Glucina.“She made some nasty comment about me, saying I was ‘inexplicably tarted up with cat ears and whiskers’.”
Actually, Miriam was representing Harold, the Internet Party’s cat mascot. “And people loved it! The Internet Party is about positive politics – you’ve got to have fun. Our Party Parties have been off the chain. These musicians really care about getting young people out to vote. We don’t care who they’re voting for, as long as they’re voting.”
Miriam is less distressed than put-downs from gossip columnists than she is by the negativity from the party which she still “really loves” – the Greens.
“The Greens have been hating on us. I suspect they don’t really get it. We’re not trying to take Green Party votes – most Greens I know like what we do, but they’re not going to vote for us. The first generation of Green voters are now middle-aged and less radical than they used to be.
“I don’t blame the Greens for moving towards a more establishment image if it gets them wider support. But we are trying to bring a more ‘radical’ element to progressive politics. We don’t have political baggage where we have to appeal to older voters.”
In contrast to Internet-MANA, whom Miriam argues have realised that “it’s not in anyone’s interest to be so possessive over your own votes,” the Greens seem to sense a threat to their political “brand”.
“Russel Norman came out and said that Laila Harré took the Greens’ intellectual property for our environment policy. If we have two parties with similar policies, that complement and support each other, isn’t that a good thing? That the policy has more power and we can effect change more easily?
“I’d met [Green Auckland Central candidate] Denise Roche before and she seemed like a nice lady. I went to go and give her a hug and talk to her about Auckland Central – I actually don’t want to split the progressive vote, I myself am voting for [Labour’s] Jacinda Ardern. But she was really unhappy to see me – quite short with me and pushed me away. That upset me a lot – I can take whatever the Right throw at me, but if we can’t can’t work together on the Left, we’re through.”
However, Miriam hasn’t let this make her bitter in return. “I hope the Greens get 15% – a strong coalition including them, Labour and Internet-MANA could be really amazing.
“National are talking about ‘the hydra of the Left’ and the instability of all these different parties. I completely reject that. We celebrate diversity on the progressive side because that’s what democracy is all about. It’s unhelpful to bag each other over personal issues.”
She also has some advice for Labour:
“In 1935, when the Savage government brought in the welfare state, Labour was radical, with Ministers who’d spent time in jail, seen as disruptors. Cunliffe could be more progressive, if the Anyone-But-Cunliffe mob would just shut up. We need more disruption.”
Is this the future?
Does Miriam think that the Internet Party could survive without Kim Dotcom? That brings a quick “yes”.
“I’ve put the same question to Kim myself – what happens if you’re extradited? Now we have actually gotten big enough, and have enough credibility, to continue without Kim if that happened, touch wood that it doesn’t. I have faith that he will continue to support us – not necessarily financially – in the future, but we’ve got enough momentum that we can keep going.
“As a teacher, I see the power and the passion and the perceptiveness in my my students every day, and in so many political arguments I wish I had the 14 year olds in my class to back me up, because they’re so onto it. Young people are excluded from political conversations until they’re 18, and then suddenly the political parties are trying to make themselves appealing.
“But it’s not about making parties appealing, it’s about making the issues relevant, easier to understand, and giving young people something to vote for. Policies aren’t aimed at helping the young – they’re about maintaining the status quo.
“ Young people don’t have a tradition of voting so they’re ignored, and policies are created for them. We’re neglected, so we neglect to take part.
“The Internet Party recognize that our generation has a different way of participating in politics, like sharing a petition on Facebook. That might be armchair activism, but it’s as valid as going to vote. Young people think – why should I vote, when politicians lie, break promises, and don’t listen to us? And they understand that Labour and National are pretty much the same thing.
“I wonder, what would have happened if the Labour government hadn’t taken us down that neoliberal track 30 years ago? My whole life has been dictated by this bullshit neoliberal trickle-down theory. But we’re young, progressive and educated, and with the advent of the Internet, we can’t go back to old models.
“Our world isn’t going to be built on nostalgia. We need creative, innovative thinking. We have to reject this old mindset and these old ideas which clearly don’t work. People ask us, ‘So what’s the alternative, a Stalinist government?’ But show a little creativity! There are alternatives, and if my generation works together with those other groups in society who don’t quite fit in, we could change the world.”
“We’re about building a new vision, and a new movement, with optimism.”
Will the Internet-MANA alliance last past the election? “Everyone is open to that as a possiblity. It depends on what the members think, how many MPs we get.”
And will Internet-MANA get the 4.5% of the vote necessarily to elect Miriam herself, number 6 on the joint list? “The polls are going up and up, even those based on landlines. What young, poor or Maori people have landlines, anyway?” She looks forward to the big meeting on September 15 in the Auckland Town Hall, with Kim Dotcom and US radical journalist Glen Greenwald, “where Kim will drop a political bombshell about John Key’s lying, and just how much we’re involved with the American spy network.”
For someone who doesn’t really want to be a politician – because as a teacher, her occupation gets a lot more respect – Miriam sounds ready and willing to commit to the struggle.