Miriam Pierard of the Internet Party: speaking the language of youth

Miriam Pierard of the Internet Party: “Speaking the language of youth”

by DAPHNE LAWLESS, Fightback (Auckland)

Miriam Pierard (left) with Internet Party leader Laila Harré

 

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.”

Online democracy

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’.”

Miriam Pierard at Auckland’s Party Party, 25 July 2014

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.”

Hostile Greens

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.

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Why the Internet Party is resonating

te kotahitanga o otangarei

By Byron Clark (Fightback).

In the March issue of Fightback we examined the politics at the then new Internet Party. The verdict at that time was that “there is no sign that it represents a progressive force”. There have been some developments since then, Kim Dotcom has dispelled the idea that he is a libertarian, confirming in his The Nation interview that he supports a welfare state. Later at the members-only picnic held at his Coatesville mansion he also spoke in favour of free education.

The policies released on their website, internet.org.nz, are all supportable (though the one about a digital currency seems like a silly gimmick). The main difference between the Internet Party and the Green Party -at least in the areas they share policy- appears to be a question of emphasis. If Dotcom were to fold the party if it failed to get over the 5% threshold for seats in parliament, something he indicated he would do, it could have been expected that the Greens would gain his endorsement.

This isn’t what happened. In what came as a surprise to many, he looked further to the left and sought out an alliance with the MANA movement. While Fightback opposed an alliance, the outcome of talks at the MANA AGM was to continue discussions between the two parties. Fightback remains opposed, but will continue to participate in the MANA movement, provided there is no compromise of core policy or principles.

The Internet Party has only got as far as it has with MANA because its message has resonated with a significant number of members. The greater chance of changing the government post-September 20th appears to be the only significant gain for MANA, and that wouldn’t be enough on its own to get people excited. The Internet Party has signed up over 2000 members in a matter of days, attracted 700 to its launch event and is equaling MANA in the polls (not to mention three other parties currently in parliament) before even officially registering. This level of support is not insignificant.

Some in MANA, as well as commentators watching the saga unfold, have questioned how relevant an ‘Internet Party’ is to ‘someone who can’t afford a computer’. This might have been a valid point had the party emerged 15 years ago, but fails to see that internet access today is seen by most as an essential utility for full participation in society. Its notable that those making this political criticism are doing it largely via Internet platforms such as social media, and purporting to do so on behalf of those who don’t have the same level of access to those platforms.

One of the Internet Party’s core policies, increasing access to high speed internet and halving the price is a policy in the same league as halving the cost of electricity. It will appeal to a late night World of Warcraft player of course, but it will also appeal to a single parent aiming to escape life on the DPB through an internet delivered distance learning course. The latter actually benefits more from the policy, even if the former might be closer to the idea of an Internet Party supporter we have in our minds.

Examples of the crossover between the demographic targeted by MANA and the the policies of the Internet Party are easily found. Wahine Paewhenua of Te Kotahitanga Marae in the Whangarei suburb of Otangarei told The Herald that when they surveyed a newly formed youth group about what they’d like to have available, computers and internet access were to top of the list. The Marae now has an IT hub with twelve computers connected to ultra fast broadband.

“Before there was nothing happening for the children and the youth. Now they just have so many projects,” she told the Herald, adding that a lot of children in the area didn’t have internet access at home and that those involved in the project also wanted to roll out the programme to the senior citizens as a lot of them didn’t have a telephone.

“Otangarei has a very transient and poor population and to run a project like this is a big ask, but this has the potential to upskill people with the many opportunities that are available,” said Piripi Moore, project manager of the hub.

This sort of project is something MANA would support in principle, but the policies to make it happen are under developed. In contrast, the Internet Party places them front and centre. The “missing million” who didn’t vote in 2011 are over represented among youth, Maori and the poor, three groups that often intersect. No doubt many MANA members including in the leadership are in favour of an alliance as they see the potential for Internet Party policy to mobilise these groups. The growth in MANA’s membership since media coverage of the proposed alliance lends credence to that idea.

While there are local branches forming and an online forum for developing policy, the Internet Party is not holding an AGM until after the election, so its membership is not having the democratic discussion about an alliance that is going on within MANA. Yet some members have been vocal about their support.

On his Facebook page Hone Harawira shared an email he received after appearing on Nine to Noon. “My husband and I are geeks, that is to say, privileged, well paid, middle-class etc. We are natural supporters of the Internet Party and I want you to know that I don’t have any problem with an alliance between MANA and the Internet Party because from my perspective, the two have a lot in common – as Internet Party supporters, we believe that good internet access is a way out of poverty.” The email went on to say;

“I am appalled by Duncan Garner’s casual racism when he talks like this: ‘Dotcom wants internet freedom. Many of Hone’s rural supporters in outback Hokianga and Kaikohe don’t even own computers, let alone have super-fast broadband at their doorstep Hone wants jobs, opportunities and better wages; Dotcom wants to stay in NZ.’

He’s talking as though he can’t imagine a world where your supporters in Kaikohe and the Hokianga use computers to access the web, and this speaks volumes about the kinds jobs he sees them doing.

A big reason for our support of the Internet Party is that we believe that the people of rural Hokianga and Kaikohe should have computers as well as super-fast broadband because it’s a path towards jobs, opportunities and better wages for them as it has been for us and our family. If poverty is an inability to participate in society then the internet is a powerful tool that can break down the barriers that prevent participation.”

Indeed MANA and the Internet Party are not necessarily the strange bedfellows a casual observation would make them appear.

The risks of an alliance

Members of MANA, and no doubt voters as well, have been skeptical of Kim Dotcom because of the treatment of his own workers, the fact he is a foreigner lacking knowledge of Te Ao Maori (the MANA AGM was the first time he had been on a Marae), his class position, and the presumed politics that come with that. People have noted his use of the phrase “social fairness” during his address to the MANA AGM rather than “social justice” or “social equality”. The difference in meaning here is subtle but significant.

The woman who emailed Hone is correct when she says “good internet access is a way out of poverty,” but it’s only a way, not the way. It’s the way used by Kim Dotcom in his rags to riches story. Providing the opportunity might be “fair,” but it can’t work for everyone – not because of individual failings, but because capitalism is not structured in a way that means everyone can be an entrepreneur and become wealthy. If the focus on innovation and entrepreneurialism that Dotcom and party president Vikram Kumar are so keen on overshadows MANA’s goal of lifting everyone out of poverty, that becomes a problem.

Internet Party members have also raised their own worries about the alliance. “My biggest concern is that the Internet Party is not going to be taken seriously by voters because it is choosing to make an alliance with the Mana party,” writes a member going by the name Alana Hyland on the party’s policy forum “Everyone that I have talked to about the Internet Party has told me that they weren’t going to vote for the Internet Party because “they’re joining with the crazy racist group”. I think the Internet Party would do better on its own.” Responses to a photo of Kim Dotcom and Hone Harawira the former shared on Twitter seem to be of the nature Alana talks about: “You had my vote. You lose it if you align with that racist idiot!” and “Hone is the biggest racist I’ve ever seen in a while” (sic).

These views of course are ignorant and incorrect, and we shouldn’t judge the party based on its supporters (its worth commending the Internet Party for a clause in their constitution stating “the Internet Party will also maintain and promote economic, cultural, social, ethnic, age and gender diversity and equality within the membership, candidacy and organisational structure of the Internet Party.”)

That said, how many potential Internet Party voters share the “Mana are racist” view, and would stay home on polling day rather than vote for an alliance? iPredict and other media are estimating the number of seats an alliance would win by adding together the poll results of both groups, yet this wont be an accurate prediction if a significant number of supporters of each party abstain.

Moreover, a joint list would have to mean a shared policy platform. At the AGM, Dotcom criticised MANA’s support of the Hone Heke (Financial Transactions) Tax and Capital Gains Tax, instead endorsing ‘luxury taxes.’ While Dotcom says he supports taxes on the wealthy, he appears to mean taxing consumption, not property or business. After Harawira’s principled opposition to raising GST, and endorsement of the Hone Heke Tax, it remains unclear whether Dotcom will compromise on this point. While it is entirely possible for a capitalist to support progressive working-class struggles, this also must mean betraying their class and making sacrifices, and Dotcom’s choices so far seem more opportunistic.

Perhaps MANA’s best course of action would be to adopt the Internet Party’s progressive policies and continue to advocate lowering the threshold for entry to parliament, remaining independent. As we go to print, results of the negotiation remain to be seen.

The Internet Party: A progressive force?

Kim-Dotcom-and-Internet-Party-logo--Getty-Images

By Byron Clark, Fightback (Christchurch).

The Internet Party is going to fundamentally change this country’s political landscape, apparently. It’s unusual for a party that has not registered with the electoral commission, and who haven’t announced any concrete policy or candidates, to be viewed in such high regard by the media, yet we are seeing comments like “something fantastic is brewing for New Zealand and I for one am watching happily as it unfolds,” from Derek Handley in the National Business Review, the publication that for one reason or another has given the party the most coverage. “Kim Dotcom will unleash the force of innovation and the internet in the electoral and democratic process,” claims Handley, what exactly he means by that is unclear.

The vague policy points that Internet Party have so far around issues of surveillance and high speed internet are not exactly new and exciting. “The emergence of the Internet Party is somewhat frustrating for the Greens,” writes former Green MP and intelligence spokesperson Keith Locke on The Daily Blog, “given that pretty much all of the Internet Party’s policies (such as internet freedom, defending privacy and withdrawing from the Five Eyes) are already Green policy.”

Locke seems to agree the the new party will be significant though, stating that “the Internet Party and the Greens, together, will be able to push [these issues] more strongly in the election,” and that “the Internet Party helps legitimise Green policies,” implying the policies of parliament’s third largest party need to be legitimised by what could turn out to be nothing more than the latest plaything from the mind of an eccentric millionaire.

Maybe its not the policy that is exciting, but how that policy comes to be. For Vikram Kumar, the former CEO of Kim Dotcom’s Mega.co.nz service who resigned to become general secretary of the new party, “the process of making the Internet Party’s policies, in an inclusive and engaging manner, is as important as the policies themselves.” Presumably Kumar envisions an Internet based system for determining policy. Again this isn’t particularly new, democratic parties have always use some mechanism to create policy, there is nothing  fundamentally different if such a system uses the most up to date communication technology.

The German Pirate Party, with whom the Internet Party has been compared (though ‘Pirate’ is probably a word they are keen to avoid given Dotcom’s circumstances) who have several MPs use an online system called ‘Liquidfeedback’ to shape policy, but the system doesn’t yield anything  particularly profound. “The ridiculous truth about the Pirates,” German Green MP Volker Beck told an interviewer in 2012, “is that they take our proposals from parliament and put in in their Liquidfeedback to discuss… they are taking up our content and [proposing it] as their own”

Liquidfeedback does even less good when the Party is voting on issues of little concern to its membership, when members don’t bother using it. The magazine Der Spiegel  described it as “a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate”.

“The Internet and technology are tools and ways of thinking,” writes Kumar. He is only half right. Somewhat confusingly he states that “Technologists know… that technical solutions to essentially political or business problems don’t work,” but also “it is up to us, whether by design or plodding along, to build a future for New Zealand we want. I believe the Internet Party can catalyse discussions about both the design itself as well as the need for a design in the first place. It’s not only what the State does but how.”

If by “design” he means reshaping the democratic process with a Liquidfeedback type system the future will likely be dead on arrival.

A left-wing option?

With policies most in common with The Green Party the Internet Party appears to be a left-wing option, the involvement of blogger Martin Bradbury, and former Scoop.co.nz editor Alistair Thompson lend credence to that idea. Kim Dotcom however is a capitalist by any definition. He is anti-establishment in that he represents a new media group of capitalists who are going up against states who have taken the side of the old media elite.

When manufacturing based industries began to decline in the USA and intellectual property based industry (such as film, music and software) became a substantial part of the American economy, laws were written to favour copyright holders and protect intellectual property. Among other changes, copyright terms were extended and copyright violation was turned into a criminal offence rather than a civil matter.

While New Zealand may seem a long way from the US, that didn’t stop Dotcom’s mansion being raided by armed police due to alleged copyright violation. Something that should seem ridiculous. In fact,  leaked US embassy cables from the trove released by Chelsea Manning show that a great deal of lobbying went into an effort for local intellectual property laws to reflect those of the USA.

The lobbying efforts for US-friendly copyright and intellectual property law continue through the negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPPA), with John Key’s trip to Hollywood, and intellectual property negotiators from the US Trade Representative’s Office visiting Wellington.

Dotcom can take a populist anti-TPPA position that is no way in conflict with his business interests, such as when he told Russia Today two days before the announcement of the Internet Party, “What Hollywood is trying to do is basically to turn the internet into a totally censored and controlled network to their liking, and that’s what I’m fighting against.”

He’s not alone of course, no doubt Amazon.com would like to see copyright reform that let them create thousands of new ebooks that could be sold cheap but profitably without paying royalties to the authors, and Google would love to stream every possible movie and TV show on Youtube (with their own advertising of course).

But while the founders of Google and the CEO of Amazon.com are among the 85 people who together own more wealth than half the planets population, Kim Dotcom is relatively small player, allowing him to keep his folk-hero status even at a time when the wealthy are increasingly disliked and distrusted.

Kumar wrote in his NBR piece that, “the things that New Zealanders typically care about when voting can all benefit significantly from the Internet and technology. This includes the economy, jobs, health, education, and inequalities.” He doesn’t elaborate on how ‘the internet’ or ‘technology’ will solve inequality, in fact he goes on to say that “technological innovation not only perpetuates but amplifies societal divides.”

If not left, then what?

Some have been quick to label the party as ‘libertarian’, a political philosophy advocating only minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens. Certainly the announced policies of the Internet Party would not be out of place in a Libertarian manifesto. Pure libertarianism with its talk of dismantling the welfare state and abolishing the minimum wage has never been popular in New Zealand for obvious reasons (as we go to press the electoral commission has just deregistered the Libertarianz Party, most likely meaning they now have less than 500 members).

The Internet Party is unlikely to veer to that extreme, and more than likely it will want public money to fund the broadband internet infrastructure required for the high-tech future they appear to envision, as well as expecting the state to pick up the tap for the education required to create ‘internet-economy’ IT professionals, in line with how things are done in actually-existing capitalism.

The question must be asked though, with all the talk of innovation and entrepreneurship; quickly moving on from the brief mention of inequality Kumar praises “technologists” Rob Fyfe of Air New Zealand and Sir Ralph Norris of ASB Bank. Kumar then asks readers to “consider the simple yet immensely powerful call from the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan for New Zealand to be a country where talent wants to live.” How would Internet Party MP’s vote on issues such as raising the business and high income tax rates to fund social programmes? Or bringing about protections for casualised workers?

But will they get anywhere?

Despite the hype, there has been no obvious groundswell of support for the Internet Party. While the press release for the first Roy Morgan poll conducted since the party was announced noted their existence, they failed to make a showing in the actual poll. Perhaps when the party registers with the electoral commission, announces some candidates and policy and begins a campaign funded out of Kim Dotcom’s deep pockets they will improve their polling, but its hard to say for certain.

Much of the media optimism about the Internet Party has spoke of their potential to bring members of generation Y who didn’t vote in 2011 to the polls. This view is somewhat condescending – members of this generation have concerns greater than their internet speed, things like student debt, insecure work and the falling prospect of home ownership, just to name a few examples. While digital populism may motivate some young voters, the Internet Party does not represent the alternative needed to address these concerns.

While progressives may share some common ground with the Internet Party, there is no sign that it represents a progressive force.