Saturday, 4 July 2015

Busy Doing Nothing: Why Andrew Little Needs To Keep Labour Out Of The Headlines.

Schmoozer-In-Chief: Andrew Little and his team are quietly meeting and greeting business and community leaders, leaving behind, hopefully, a few dozen impressed punters who will tell their friends and colleagues the next day: “You know that Andrew Little’s not a bad bloke.” Yes, it's banal, but banal is what gets you elected.
 
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, the Labour Party is currently engaged in a critically important political campaign. No, it may not look like Labour is doing very much at all at the moment, but that is the whole point. After the sheer mayhem of the last four years, a period of tranquillity is crucial to Labour’s chances of re-election.
 
All of the party’s research suggests that by the end of 2014 the New Zealand public was fed up to the back teeth with Labour. As far as most voters were concerned the party was a joke. It seemed to specialise in choosing the wrong people to lead it. Its caucus was incapable of even the most perfunctory political discipline. Indeed, there were some MPs who clearly got a bigger thrill out of sticking the knife into the back of a colleague than they did from sticking it into the front of the Government. The party organisation was no better. It delighted in choosing Party List candidates that struck many of its voters and potential voters as having been drawn from a carefully prepared list of the politically bizarre and/or the simply unelectable. (Which may well have been true!)
 
As 2015 loomed, what Labour most needed to do was to get its name out of headlines. No more leadership elections. No more Caucus back-stabbing. No more shots of furious rank-and-file party members calling for the heads of the “Anyone But Cunliffe” faction. The new leader, Andrew Little’s, best course of action, after he’d spent a little time reassuring the voters that he could string together a coherent English sentence, and that he wasn’t in the least bit sorry for being a man, was to say and do as little as possible and just let the people of New Zealand get used to him.
 
And that, if you think about it, is pretty much what Labour has been doing all year – as little as possible. With the honourable exception of Phil Twyford, who has been waging a solid, one-man-war against the Government’s disastrous housing policies, the Labour Opposition has assiduously (and largely successfully) avoided making a fool of itself. Its key strategists figure that if it can avoid making a fool of itself for another six months, then the electorate might just be ready to start treating it as a serious electoral option.
 
This is an extremely difficult strategy to sell to the sort of left-wing activists who read The Daily Blog. Their preference is for a campaigning Labour Party that is ready and willing to take the fight directly to the National Party enemy. Activists are never happier than when delivering righteous blows to the people’s enemies. Deliver enough of these, the activists are convinced, and the “missing million” will shake themselves free of their apathetic torpor and, falling in behind their progressive government-in-waiting, deliver Labour a landslide victory.
 
Except that is not what the polling and the focus groups are telling Labour. Nor does it reflect the findings of the academic research. Enjoying the confidence of the activist Left is not a necessary pre-condition to electoral victory in New Zealand. What is required is the confidence of a substantial plurality of the New Zealanders who vote. People aged 35 and up, in work, and comfortably housed. People who do not live and breathe politics, but who pay enough attention to formulate a reasonably strong view about who can and cannot be entrusted with running the country. The prevailing opinion among these voters is that National, its growing list of miss-steps notwithstanding, is still the party best equipped to govern New Zealand. Labour’s job over the next 18 months is to convince them otherwise.
 
To do that Andrew Little must do two things. First, he must establish a connection with the people who vote. Second, that connection must, very rapidly, be reinforced by convincing the people who vote that he has the personal and political wherewithal to actually do what he says he will do. In other words: he must come across to the people who vote as a credible proposition for the role of Prime Minister. The two “Cs” – Connection and Credibility – are what Little and Labour are struggling to achieve. And right now the best way to do that is for him to do as close to nothing as it’s possible to get away with.
 
A big part of “doing nothing” is arranging opportunities for the sort of people who influence others to be influenced by the Leader of the Opposition. Quiet gatherings of community and business leaders with plenty of opportunities to exchange a few well-chosen sentences with the man who would be king. Leaving behind, hopefully, a few dozen impressed punters who will tell their friends and colleagues the next day: “You know that Andrew Little’s not a bad bloke.”
 
Yes, I know, it sounds banal – and not at all like the stuff of which revolutions are made. But a huge amount of contemporary politics is banal. And it’s precisely because John Key does banal with such extraordinary aplomb that he has broken every record of political popularity this country has ever set.
 
Banal is what gets you elected.
 
At some point, however, Andrew Little is going to have to give the voters something more than an absence of embarrassing headlines. Part of establishing that all-important connection with the people who vote is to say or do something powerful enough to bind them – the politician and the voters – together. By far the most effective way of doing this is through words and gestures; symbolic moments that imprint themselves on the voters’ minds; events that leave people thinking: “That guy would make a damn good prime minister.”
 
So far, Andrew Little has not managed to do this. His “cut the crap” comment was a promising start, but it was more the product of good luck than good management. In his quest to achieve the two “Cs”, he could, therefore, do a lot worse than to take a leaf out of the new Green Party co-leader’s, James Shaw’s,  political play-book. Whether by good luck or good management, Shaw managed to find himself an immensely talented speech-writer. Danyl McLauchlan will likely prove invaluable in helping his boss master the two “Cs”. Andrew Little, while he’s busy doing nothing, needs to be doing something about finding a wordsmith of his own.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 3 July 2015.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Who Makes New Zealand’s Foreign Policy?

Lessons Learned? Professor Jane Kelsey addresses the 50th Otago Foreign Policy School on New Zealand and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The most important lesson to take home from the school was that if the people stop making their own foreign policy, then somebody else will make it for them.
 
IF IT WAS A SCHOOL, what did we learn? Flying back to Auckland, after three frigid days in Dunedin, that’s what I wanted to know. Were any of us any wiser about the past, present and future of New Zealand foreign policy? Well, yes and no. There’d been presentations that contained material which many attendees were surprised to learn. Like New Zealand’s proud record of support for the Palestinian cause at the United Nations. I had no idea we’d been willing to defy the USA and Israel quite so often. For the most part, however, the University of Otago’s Foreign Policy School wasn’t so much about learning new things as it was about reaffirming old things.
 
Fifty years ago the idea that New Zealanders deserved a chance to be schooled in the theory and practice of foreign policy was both new and vaguely subversive. The conduct of diplomacy and the formulation of foreign policy has for centuries been more or less the exclusive preserve of the executive branch of government. That the Department of University Extension was proposing to subject this elite process to academic exposition and debate would have struck many as not merely unorthodox but even a little risky.
 
University Extension had, itself, grown out of the movement for the democratisation of higher education, represented in the 1930s by the Workers’ Educational Association. Now, in 1966, barely twelve months after a very reluctant Keith Holyoake had agreed to join the USA and Australia in South Vietnam, the Department’s Arnold Entwisle was proposing to induct ordinary citizens into the mysteries and complexities of foreign policy. No wonder the Department of External Affairs felt it advisable to “enrol” a staff member or two in Mr Entwisle’s “school”.
 
And so the battle lines were drawn. On the one hand, the democratisers: determined to encourage public questioning of, and participation in, the formation of New Zealand foreign policy. On the other, the professionals: elite defenders of the Crown’s prerogatives and uncompromising protectors of her secrets. Over the 50 years of the Foreign Policy School’s existence, these two fundamental and contradictory impulses have vied with one another for supremacy. There have been times when it seemed that the annual two-day colloquia were convened for no better purpose than to explain the ways of MFAT’s gods to ordinary men. Through half-a-century, however, the impulse towards democratisation and public participation has maintained a critical presence.
 
So much so, that the professionals are now quite happy to cite the achievements of the popular movements inspired by this country’s foreign policy choices as evidence of New Zealand’s “independent” national temperament. That the campaigns against New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War; her relationship with Apartheid South Africa; and her reliance on nuclear “deterrence” and the ANZUS alliance for her national security, were all regarded with deep suspicion (if not outright hostility) by the “professionals” of those Cold War years has, conveniently, been forgotten.
 
But, as Professor Kevin Clements, Chair of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago (and a long time attendee of the Foreign Policy School) told us on Sunday morning: “there is no national identity outside the people”. The New Zealand character, he said, had been “born out of movements” and “shaped by struggle”.
 
If we’re regarded as egalitarian, it’s only because the struggles of our labour movement made us so. And if we’re “nuclear free”, it’s only because the grass-roots Nuclear-Free New Zealand movement’s astonishing reach and intensity made it impossible for the fourth Labour government to be anything else.
 
Over its 50 years, the Foreign Policy School has played its part in educating and inspiring many of the key participants in the dramatic foreign policy shifts of New Zealand’s post-war history. As it contemplates its next 50 years, however, misgivings must multiply. The foreign policy upheavals of the post-war era were, pre-eminently, the achievement of the Baby-Boom Generation. But as the Boomers’ hair whitens, their places in the front ranks of social change are not being filled by a new generation of idealistic activists.
 
Indeed, after 50 years of struggle, it’s the professionals who now seem to have the edge over the democratisers. Maybe that’s the lesson to take home: that if the people stop making their own foreign policy, then somebody else will make it for them.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 July 2015.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

All That Glitters: James Shaw At The Ika Seafood Bar & Grill.

Is Not Gold: As a Green politician, Shaw is anything but staunch and conventional. His experience in the corporate world projects itself ahead of him like a force field. And, in a party chock full of small businessmen and women, it’s a force field they want him to use.
 
I WON’T SAY HE WAS BAD. That wouldn’t be fair at all. By any standards, James Shaw is an impressive politician. He’s just not as good as he seemed to be the day (30 May) he was elected the Greens’ Co-Leader. One of the reasons he looked so impressive that weekend was the quality of the keynote speech he delivered to the Greens AGM the day after his election. Writing for The Press, I characterised that address as containing: “some of the most impressive political rhetoric I have encountered in more than 30 years of writing about New Zealand politics.”
 
To say that I was disappointed to learn Shaw had not written the best lines of that speech would be an understatement. Foolishly, perhaps, I had allowed myself to believe that the Greens had voted themselves a leader of truly Churchillian virtuosity. Chatting to the man himself at the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday evening, however, it soon became clear that he belongs much more to the JFK than the Winston Churchill tradition. Kennedy had the remarkable Ted Sorensen as his speechwriter. Shaw is verbally equipped with the powerful prose of the scarcely less talented Danyl McLauchlan. It was McLauchlan who penned the following, truly memorable, lines of Shaw’s keynote speech:
 
“There is no name for this system. Nobody speaks for it. Nobody voted for it. It happens in the spaces between speeches and elections. It happens behind closed doors or over dinner with lobbyists. We have a political economy of friendly deals and whispers. Of overnight polling and focus groups.”
 
It is, of course, much to Shaw’s credit that he was able to recognise in the Wellington biologist, blogger and novelist a talent for political communication that was clearly guaranteed to enhance his career prospects. Shaw’s excellent maiden speech to Parliament had singled him out early as a person to watch. That McLauchlan had a major hand in drafting it, now strikes me as entirely unsurprising.
 
But if Shaw is savvy enough to have acquired one of the best political rhetoricians in the country, what about the rest of the political package? Does he come across as a leader who knows where the currents of twenty-first century culture are carrying political parties? And, is he ready to steer the Greens in that direction?
 
That he was elected by his fellow Greens on the first ballot, with 54 percent of the vote, strongly suggests that they think he does – and is. It has been clear (at least to me) that the Greens have, for some time, been growing increasingly irritated with their left-wing label. Since 2005, New Zealand’s overall political trajectory has been towards individualism, market-driven economic and social solutions, and an increasingly authoritarian state. Though many Greens have staunchly resisted these trends, a substantial number – probably a majority – have accommodated them. These rightward-floating Greens constitute Shaw’s political base: their expectations and his political future are inextricably linked.
 
What I found so curious about Shaw’s performance at Ika’s Tuesday “Salon” was his apparent reluctance to embrace these expectations. Now, it may simply have been a case of the wrong audience. The sort of people who turn up to Laila Harré’s restaurant are pretty much the left of the Left. That the Greens are about to embark on a journey to the Right is most emphatically NOT what they want to hear. If that is the explanation for his staunchly conventional presentation of the Rod Donald/Russel Norman version of Greenness, then I’m underwhelmed. As a Green politician, Shaw is anything but staunch and conventional. His experience in the corporate world projects itself ahead of him like a force field. And, in a party chock full of small businessmen and women, it’s a force field they want him to use. I would have been much more impressed if Shaw had used his hour upon the stage to challenge the assumptions of his largely “Old Left” audience.
 
Because the brutal political reality confronting the Greens is that the party’s residual collectivism is radically out of step with the young, tertiary-educated professionals who constitute the Greens’ electoral base. These voters do not want to be told that the market-driven system that employs them is fundamentally incompatible with planetary safety. They want to vote for Green Capitalism – not Red-Green Socialism. Even the trend towards increasingly authoritarian government and the National Security State may be turned to a Green purpose. After all, the sort of measures required to combat climate change will only be implemented with effect by a strong state that brooks no opposition.
 
Shaw shied away from my suggestion that he may soon find himself being courted by a John Key as eager to woo Green voters as he had once been to draw former Labour voters into National’s ranks. But if all goes well at Paris at the end of this year, and National finds itself obliged to take climate change seriously, then a new relationship with the Greens is inevitable. It is then that the people who voted for him will expect something much more radical than staunchness and conventionality from their champion.
 
Were I James Shaw, I would be asking Danyl McLauchlan to begin working on the speech immediately.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 2 July 2015.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Some Brief Remarks On The Use Of The Word "Austerity".

Over-Ruling Market Forces: Middle Class housewives queue to collect their rationed goods and services. In the first Age of Austerity (1945-1951) the newly elected Labour Government made sure that the inevitable discomforts and shortages of the immediate post-war period were shared equitably across the population. In the second Age of Austerity (2010-Present) precipitated by the Global Financial Crisis, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, off-loaded the cost of bailing-out capitalism on to the shoulders of the young and the poor.
 
SOME WORDS ENJOY a second lease on political life. Although, it’s almost never the case that a political term retains its original meaning the second time around. The word “austerity” is a good example.
 
Originally, the word was used to characterise the period in British history immediately after World War II. The Age of Austerity is remembered as a time of economic stringency when food was rationed, luxuries unheard of outside all but the most exclusive circles, and housing was in desperately short supply.
 
There was, of course, a very good reason for all this. Great Britain had just emerged from a six year war in which, for a few crucial months, the very existence of the British nation hung in the balance. Britain had come through, but not before hundreds-of-thousands of her citizens had been killed or injured, and tens-of-thousands of her houses, factories, ports and other key pieces of infrastructure had been destroyed. To win, the British had been forced to engage in a prolonged period of unprecedented military and economic effort. In attempting to pay for the war, Britain had liquidated nearly all of her financial assets and borrowed heavily from the Americans. By 1945 the cupboard was very bare indeed.
 
What this meant was that Britain had to manage what meagre resources it still possessed (or could borrow) extremely frugally. Consumer demand was tightly constrained – both by rationing and by continuing the tight wartime economic controls. It was not a joyous time. Life was hard. Indeed, in the fat years that followed, many British people looked back on the Age of Austerity and shuddered.
 
If you think all these measures sound a lot like the so-called “austerity” policies implemented by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, between 2010 and 2015, then you really need to think again. Because, historically-speaking, the two periods could not be more different.
 
In 1945 the British Labour Party was elected in a landslide to implement what they openly described as a “socialist” manifesto. The immediate effect of Labour’s election was that, from the very outset, the “peace” – at least in its early years – was to be a time of social equality. Inherited wealth was targeted quite ruthlessly and the near confiscatory taxes on high incomes that had been levied during the war persisted. The distribution of goods and services was organised not by “market forces” but according to need. For the upper and middle classes this over-ruling of the market was utterly unacceptable. For centuries, the ownership of wealth had conferred all manner of advantages: social, economic and political. But for the first 5 years after the war the upper classes ability to avail themselves of their customary advantages was severely constrained.
 
There may, therefore, be an element of cruel historical irony in the Conservative Party’s political appropriation of the word “austerity”. Because Osborne’s response to the Global Financial Crisis and the huge debts it had forced the British Government to incur was very different from that of Clement Attlee’s socialists. Rather than sharing the burden of recovery equally, Osborne piled virtually all of it onto the shoulders of the poor and the young. This was achieved by imposing swingeing cuts on public expenditure – especially spending on the unemployed, beneficiaries, students and even, unconscionably, the disabled.
 
The original Age of Austerity was a time of enforced social equality, Osborne’s austerity was an exercise in looking after the interests of the well-to-do at the expense of the poor. Unlike Labour’s post-war Britain, market forces were in no way restrained and all the advantages of wealth were taken by those fortunate enough to possess them.
 
The other significant difference between the late 1940s and the post-GFC years is that, in 1945, the world’s great creditor nation, the USA, had to exercise a measure of common sense in recovering the money it had lent during the war. The Red Army loomed over Europe just waiting for poverty and starvation to drive the peoples of the West into the arms of soviet-style socialism. The Americans were careful ensure that the anticipated social and economic collapse did not eventuate.
 
How different it was after the crises of 2008-09. Governments had been forced to borrow the money needed to keep capitalism afloat and the financial institutions who had purchased the instruments of their own rescue demanded the full repayment of every Pound and/or Euro that they were owed. And this time there was no Soviet threat to moderate the financiers’ greed, or to convince them that unregulated market forces are, politically, their own worst enemy.
 
Austerity, then, possesses a very different meaning, depending on whether it is being used to describe the enforced social equality of the post-war years, or the punitive imposition of the costs of rescuing capitalism upon those sectors of British and European society least able to bear them.
 
Greece, according to Radio New Zealand has been issued with an “austere” set of economic demands. Seldom has the true meaning of a word been so carelessly traduced. What is being asked of Greece bears little resemblance to anything “plain and unadorned” unless it is plain and unadorned cruelty.
 
Between 1945 and 1951 the British learned to live “without unnecessary things”, but they were not forced to starve on their knees so that their creditors could stay on their feet.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 1 July 2015.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Climate Changers: Otago's Foreign Policy School Celebrates 50 Years.

Climate Changers: Ordinary New Zealanders make a very direct and public contribution to the evolution of their country's foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam in 1967. The effort to move New Zealand out from under America's shadow has been a constant theme of the post-war foreign policy debate. Since its first gathering in 1966, the University of Otago's Foreign Policy School has played a significant role in modifying the "official climate of opinion" in relation to the USA.
 
GERALD HENSLEY sums up the congealed orthodoxy of New Zealand’s foreign policy establishment in his 2006 memoir – Final Approaches. In 1989, the veteran New Zealand diplomat and civil servant was awarded a fellowship to Harvard by the Centre for International Affairs. Describing with obvious relish the cosy ivy-league environment of languorous breakfasts and roaring log fires, he rounded-off his observations of the winter the Wall came down by musing upon the performance of a group of classical musicians.
 
“A few nights later I looked down at the Beaux Arts Trio taking their bows after a concert and was struck by the tradition they represented – three dumpy figures with the light gleaming on their white hair and shirt-fronts who had helped carry the values of civilisation through the long totalitarian shadow cast by the twentieth century.”
 
Let us put to one side the obvious retorts that the Nazis are known to have organised classical recitals in the death camps; and that the Soviets’ reverence for the classical tradition was second to none; and examine instead Mr Hensley’s comfortable assumptions about the character of the Cold War’s ultimate victors.
 
The battle, according to Hensley, has always been a struggle between the “values of civilisation” and the “totalitarian shadow”. In framing his own, and, by extension, New Zealand’s, diplomatic choices in these stark Manichean terms, Hensley echoes the conceptual conservatism that has dictated the formulation and conduct of New Zealand foreign policy for the last 70 years.
 
Where, one wonders, were the “values of civilisation” when the United States Air Force was spraying Agent Orange on Vietnam’s forests? (Not to mention its own – and our – troops!) And where, exactly, did the “totalitarian shadow” fall when America’s murderous Honduran proxies (all of them thoroughly trained at the infamous US Army School of the Americas in Georgia) were waging genocidal war against their own indigenous Mayan population? And what about all those Washington neo-cons and their plans for bringing the “values of civilisation” to Afghanistan and Iraq? How’s that working out?
 
It’s not simply that New Zealand’s foreign policy establishment routinely dismiss such questions as evidence of either naivety or (much worse!) anti-Americanism, but that in soaking-up the cosy collegial atmosphere depicted in Hensley’s memoirs, New Zealand diplomats very rapidly lose all interest in undertaking any such ethical interrogation of their very, very, very good friends.
 
Writing 40 years prior to the appearance of Hensley’s Final Approaches, William B. Sutch, in his The Quest For Security in New Zealand 1840-1966, recalled the birth of the Cold War in the late 1940s, when the Labour Party, under Peter Fraser, inaugurated “a period, which has now lasted two decades, when not only was dissent from the customary social and economic way of doing things regarded with suspicion, and sceptical thinking discouraged, but an official climate of opinion developed, conditioned to receive US foreign policy sympathetically just as in past years the support for British foreign policy had been almost automatic.”
 
Academic institutions have played a crucial role in the formulation and maintenance of that “official climate of opinion”. All across the English-speaking world, ‘Centres’ for this and ‘Institutes’ for that make sure that, in addition to churning-out copious quantities of self-serving “research”, they regularly perform the much more important function of bringing together the men and women upon whose shoulders the responsibility for ensuring that the official climate does not change ultimately rests. At such gatherings the official orthodoxy is reinforced, international relationships forged, and new talent spotted and recruited.
 
The University of Otago Foreign Policy School, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in Dunedin over the weekend, was New Zealand’s first attempt at creating an academic adjunct to the official formulators of this country’s foreign policy. Inspired by Arnold Entwisle, and run by him for the first ten years of its existence, the two-day “school” initially did little more than provide an introduction to the rudiments of foreign policy and alert Otago’s brightest graduates to the possibility of a career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
 
As the year’s passed, however, the School’s annual colloquium began to build up a distinct community of participants and attendees. Not only the Ministry but many of the larger embassies regularly sent observers. Prestigious speakers, both local and international, added to the School’s reputation.
 
Much more significant, however, was the way the School adapted its subject-matter to reflect the public’s increasing engagement in foreign policy issues – especially the Vietnam War, sporting contacts with Apartheid-era South Africa, and nuclear disarmament. In doing so the School distinguished itself clearly from its local and overseas counterparts. By no means always, but often enough to perturb the official climate of opinion, the University of Otago Foreign Policy School has been prepared to interrogate, and not always sympathetically, the “values of civilisation” – and American foreign policy.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 June 2015.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Kindness Of Friends

Who? How? and With What? The Defence White Paper currently being drafted will attempt to answer the most basic questions about New Zealand's military posture. Who should do our fighting? How should they fight? What sort of weapons should they use? And, how much are we willing to pay? Historically, that last question has been crucial.
 
RIGHT NOW a hand-picked group of worthy citizens are hard at work spending $26 million of our money. They are doing so at the behest of the Prime Minister, John Key, who decided, a few years back, that what New Zealand really needed was a new flag. At the same time, but a lot further back in the decision-making machinery of state, a diverse collection of top-ranking military officers, senior bureaucrats and politicians are engaged in producing the 2015 Defence White Paper. As part of the flag-changing exercise, New Zealanders are being asked what they stand for. The much lower-key consultative exercise for the Defence White Paper needs to know what they’ll fight for – and how.
 
It’s a great shame that the same quantum of resources currently being poured into the flag-changing exercise have not been devoted to determining what goes into the Defence White Paper. Certainly a country’s flag is (or should be) a powerful symbol of national identity. As many old soldiers are quick to remind us, it’s the object under which tens-of-thousands of young New Zealanders marched off to war in 1939. And it’s still the object we drape over the caskets of the fallen as we pipe them off our ageing Hercules transport aircraft and into the care of their grieving families. It would, however, be foolish to equate the symbolism of war with war itself. Deciding how our nation should be defended, and by whom, is surely as worthy of intense public debate as the colour of the flag they fight under?
 
A Government “White Paper” is, as its name suggests, an attempt to come at important public policy from first principles. It should be a statement of fundamental intent: the starting point from which we collectively determine to set forth. What then, are the first principles of a New Zealand strategy for national defence?
 
The first big question to ask must surely be: Who will defend us?
 
This is not as naïve as it sounds, because if your answer to that first question is: “a defence force made up of New Zealanders”, then you’re immediately faced with a whole host of other questions. Should that defence force be large and conscripted, or small and professional? Should it operate on the assumption that New Zealand will be fighting its enemies alone, or as part of coalitions of allied forces? And, if it’s the latter, then how much of our national sovereignty are we willing to forfeit in return for the military assistance of larger, richer and more militarily formidable nation states?
 
The second big question to answer is: How shall we fight?
 
Should we attempt to equip ourselves with the most sophisticated and effective military technology in order to repel enemies attacking us from any quarter – land, sea or air? Or, should we build military proficiency in only a limited number of areas, relying, once again, on more powerful allies to supply the full array of military options?
 
The acquisition of full-spectrum military capability would entail the reconstitution of the RNZAF’s fighter-bomber squadrons, along with medium- and short-range surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, a submarine force and naval vessels at least equal to the task of apprehending Patagonian Tooth-Fishers.
 
The other alternative is to build a resistance-style defence force, based upon a universal people’s militia, ferociously schooled in the strategy and tactics of twenty-first century asymmetric warfare.
 
The latter option would be by far the cheapest option – a not unimportant consideration. Indeed, the third big question is: How much are we willing to pay?
 
The answer, historically, is “not very much”. Certainly, a defence force capable of defending New Zealand unaided, using conventional military weapons, would be eye-wateringly expensive. Taxes would rise and our welfare state would shrink. In the absence of a slavering, swivel-eyed existential threat, it is, therefore, very difficult to see the average Kiwi voter ponying-up for a Swiss or Israeli-style defence force. Equally unlikely is the prospect of New Zealanders suddenly becoming the South Pacific’s answer to the Viet Cong or Islamic State.
 
All of which leaves us in the position of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche relied upon “the kindness of strangers”, New Zealand’s security depends on the kindness of her “friends”.
 
Bluntly speaking: once a colony, always a colony – with or without a new flag.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 June 2015.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Poisoning Nauru: How Australia Is Destroying A Pacific Neighbour’s Democracy, While New Zealand’s Government Looks On.

Silencing All Opposition: Matthew Batsiua, one of five opposition MPs expelled from the Nauruan Parliament for challenging the increasingly dictatorial regime of President Baron Waqa, is arrested for leading a protest demonstration against its latest crackdown on free speech and the Internet. While Australia, in the name of its brutal "Pacific Solution", is poisoning Nauru's democratic institutions, New Zealand looks on in silence.
 
CORRUPTION IS LIKE POISON. Once inside your system it immediately starts attacking your defences. Eventually, if nothing is done to counteract its effects, it kills you. The tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, situated approximately 4,000 kilometres north of Auckland, has been corrupted by Australia. Slowly but surely, its democratic institutions are being poisoned.
 
Some would argue that it all began a hundred years ago when the Australians turfed out the Germans at the beginning of the First World War. At the war’s end, Nauru was declared a League of Nations “mandate” under the joint control of the British, Australian and New Zealand governments. In reality, however, Nauru has always been an Aussie-run operation.
 
No one would have cared (other than the Nauruans, who weren’t consulted) had it not been for the fact that this tiny dot (just 21 square kilometres!) on the equator had, over thousands of years, accumulated hundreds-of-thousands of tons of top-quality bird shit.
 
Nauru’s phosphate deposits were among the purest in the world, a fact which conferred upon the hapless island territory the dangerous status of “strategic possession”. Ruthlessly extracted for use as fertiliser, Nauru’s phosphate deposits would, between 1920 and 1980, transform New Zealand’s farms into some of the most productive agricultural units on earth.
 
The Nauruans were not permitted to get their hands on this crucial resource until the late 1960s. For a few fat years the newly independent republic of Nauru waxed affluent on its rapidly dwindling guano deposits. Briefly, its citizens enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes on earth. And then, suddenly, it was gone. Leaving Nauru as little more than, in David Lange’s memorable phrase: “a clapped-out quarry”.
 
What was Nauru to do? In 1991 it had $1.5 billion in its Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust – a not insignificant capital base for 10,000 citizens looking for a fresh start. Tragically, by 2001, corruption and mismanagement had reduced the Trust’s resources to barely $100 million. With its levels of expenditure now well in excess of its income, Nauru was broke.
 
And then along came the Tampa and its hundreds of rescued asylum seekers. Little Johnny Howard responded by unconscionably exploiting Australia’s most visceral racist impulses. That created an urgent political need to get the whole festering problem off Australian soil. What Howard and his Liberal Party were looking for was a nation state that was not only willing to “accommodate” Australia’s unwanted asylum-seekers, but to also put a dampener on the enthusiasm of interfering human-rights lawyers, UN rapporteurs, and investigative journalists. Thus was born the “Pacific Solution”.
 
The detention of the Tampa refugees was arranged with indecent haste, but the transformation of Nauru into an hermetically-sealed island of unaccountable state power was bound to take a little longer. Nauru had a perfectly serviceable democratic constitution. It belonged to the Commonwealth and was a member of the Pacific Forum. It had a respectable and responsible judiciary made up of (mostly) Australian judges. Its small, Australian-trained, police force was reasonably competent and honest. On the debit side, the country was broke, and just about everybody lucky enough to have a job worked for the Nauruan government. Politics and public administration was the country’s Achilles’ Heel. To corrupt Nauru, all Howard (or any other Australian prime minister) needed was a fistful of aid dollars – and 10 of its 19 MPs.
 
It has taken 14 years, off and on, but the poison is clearly working. Nauru’s decision to host Australia’s concentration camps for asylum seekers has eroded every constitutional check and balance essential to the survival of democratic institutions.
 
The first casualty was the Nauruan judiciary. In January 2014 the Chief Justice of Nauru, Geoffrey Eames, was expelled from the country, along with the Australian magistrate, Peter Law. With them went the rule of law in the tiny republic. The administration of justice is now in the hands of persons answerable only to the politicians. Opponents of the Government can no longer rely on the courts for protection.
 
The police force, too, has fallen under political control. Its inevitable involvement in the oppression of the asylum seekers has fatally compromised its personnel as impartial enforcers of the law. The Nauruan Police have abandoned their role as the the citizens’ protectors to become the Government’s enforcers. In collusion with the private security personnel responsible for keeping “order” at the refugee detention centres, police officers are increasingly regarded as people to be feared; thugs who can break the law with impunity.
 
The reason so little news of these derelictions filters out of Nauru is due to the ruthless censorship applied by the state-owned and operated television and radio stations. Attempting to report such matters would instantly cost any local journalist his or her job. It’s no easier for foreign journalists. President Baron Waqa and his Cabinet have imposed a mandatory, non-refundable $8,000 “bond” on every journalist attempting to enter the country. If that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm, the Nauruan immigration authorities can always arrange for them to be put on the next plane to Sydney or Auckland. Oh, and just in case young Nauruans might feel tempted to organise and communicate through social media, the Government has shut down Facebook.
 
Not surprisingly, with the Judiciary subverted, the Police corrupted and the news media gagged, Baron Waqa and his allies decided in June of last year that it was time to put the finishing touches to their 21 square kilometre dictatorship. This involved the suspension of all those members of the Nauruan parliament who refused to go along with Waqa’s increasingly lawless regime.
 
Last week, several hundred Nauruans, led by one of the suspended MPs, Matthew Batsiua, attempted to protest the Waqa Government’s ever more draconian attempts to shut down free speech and the Internet. As they approached Parliament House, the Nauruan Police (aided by security officers from the camps) waded into the crowd and a number of protesters were hurt. Batsiua, along with the opposition MPs Sprent Dabwido (a former President of Nauru) and Squire Jeremiah were later arrested and remain in custody. Another opposition MP, Roland Kun, was physically hauled off a plane due to depart for Wellington and has had his passport cancelled. The Waqa regime is apparently concerned that he will inform the outside world about what is happening in Nauru.
 
The silence of the Australian Government in the face of this “Lord of the Flies” descent into lawlessness and brutality is readily understood. Prime Minister Tony Abbott needs the Pacific Solution and he is fully aware that it cannot be made to work in a democratic country where the rule of law holds sway.
 
More difficult to understand, and harder to forgive, is the silence of our own government. The Nauruans and their phosphate may have made New Zealand rich, but that does not appear to have inspired a reciprocal determination on our part to keep them free.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 25 June 2015.