Sunday, 24 May 2015

Going Backwards: Table Talk 2 At Ika Seafood Bar and Grill, Tuesday, 19 May 2015.

Generation Why? While the next generation confronts History's camera, a young woman studies the programme of the last United Women's Convention to be held in New Zealand. (Hamilton, 1979) Thirty-six years later, the revolutionary fervour of Feminism's second wave seems impossibly remote - especially when viewed from the Neoliberal culture of contemporary New Zealand society. (Photo by Marti Friedlander)
 
“BUT WE’RE GOING BACKWARDS!” Came the anguished cry from the table in the corner. Amidst all the sororal warmth generated by Amanda Bailey’s pulled ponytail, the speaker’s uncompromising judgement arrived like a blast of cold air from the world outside. A necessary corrective to the perky inclusiveness of the many Third and Fourth Wave feminists in the audience. The women seated at the corner table had been present at the birth of Second Wave feminism in New Zealand. It lent their intervention a special force.
 
As a bloke, I did not consider it my place to enter into the public phase of “Beneath the Ponytail: Women. Work. Progress?” – the second of Ika Seafood Bar and Grill’s “Table Talks”. No matter how many times the panel (Human Rights EEO Commissioner, Dr Jackie Blue; Senior Lecturer at University of Auckland, Dr Michelle Dickinson; First Union Secretary, Maxine Gay; and Labour Party List MP, Jacinda Ardern) reiterated the view that men-can-be-feminists-too, I still recall Second Wave feminists arguing that the best thing men can contribute to discussions about feminism is their silence.
 
Effective political memories (with the obvious exception of those gathered around the table in the corner) were in rather short supply on Tuesday night (19/5/15). Poor Jackie Blue admitted to being a young university student at the time of “Women’s Liberation” and missing the whole thing! (Although, to her credit, she is rapidly making up the lost time.) Maxine Gay, by contrast, who has been a fighter on the feminist barricades since the 1970s and 80s, was for some reason reluctant to acquaint the twenty-somethings present with the often brutal history of liberal versus socialist versus lesbian separatist versus cultural feminism. Inclusiveness was not a conspicuous virtue of the Second Wave.
 
Dr Michelle Dickinson’s (aka “Nanogirl”) contribution commenced with the bleak news that although the numbers of young women entering the sciences has been rising, the number who actually make use of their scientific training (especially in Dr Dickinson’s own field of engineering) remains worryingly small.
 
Significantly, the only viable route out of this situation was deemed to be through the good offices of sympathetic business leaders – most of whom are, predictably, men. A number of these individuals were mentioned, and it would be churlish to disparage their efforts in any way. But the fact remains that it is now only in the business world; only in the place where the values of the marketplace reign supreme; that womankind’s quest for full sexual equality is being realistically contextualised. Grasp that, and the full extent of feminism’s retreat is made apparent.
 
It took the Labour List MP, Jacinda Ardern, to spell out the consequences of this depressing reversal. Paired with National’s Nicky Kaye in what was called “The Battle of the Babes” for Auckland Central, Ardern was faced with a hard choice. Either, take offence at the blatantly sexist framing of the contest and forever afterwards be stereotyped as a humourless feminist harridan. Or, by taking it in good part, risk being dismissed as Labour’s bimbo. Quite rightly, she reasoned that the latter stereotype would be more easily overcome than the former and played along. More than 30 years after Helen Clark poured out her heart to a female journalist about the extreme sexism she’d encountered in the male-dominated Parliament of the 1980s, Ardern’s testimony made me wonder exactly how much has really changed.
 
Indeed the whole evening’s discussion – ably chaired by TV3’s Lisa Owen – had about it a decidedly self-referential quality. Just as it had on the occasion of the first “Table Talk” – about the beleaguered (now cancelled) Campbell Live – the Ika Seafood Bar and Grill had turned into a large left-wing echo-chamber. I got the strong impression that only the women at the corner table understood that the evening’s discussion – for all its undoubted passion and sincerity – was taking place in the belly of the beast: a monster whose ideological victory was as complete as it was unacknowledged.
 
As the Australian sociologist and feminist Professor Raewyn Connell puts it in her paper “Understanding Neoliberalism”:
 
“With a few exceptions neoliberal leadership is composed of men. It’s treasured figure, ‘the entrepreneur,’ is culturally coded masculine. Its assault on the welfare state redistributes income from women to men and imposes more unpaid work on women as carers for the young, the old, and the sick. Its attack on ‘political correctness’ and its rollback of affirmative action specifically undermine the gains of feminism. In such ways, neoliberalism from the 1980s on offered middle-class men an indirect but effective solution to the delegitimation of patriarchy and the threat of real gender equality.”
 
The young women who joined in “Beneath the Ponytail: Women. Work. Progress?”, so inclusive in their definitions of feminism, but, at the same time, so concerned to escape the shaming label of “feminazi” that men of all generations are so quick to pin upon them, seemed to bear out Professor Connell’s bleak observation.
 
Was that what the Second Wavers at the corner table sensed also? That the push-back had somehow been reversed? That the enormous sense of empowerment, of emancipatory élan, that had characterised the feminist revolution of the 1970s and 80s, had, without anyone really noticing, been subsumed in something much, much larger?
 
It’s not as if the many gains of the Second Wave have been rolled back – not at all – but rather that, in some ill-defined way, they no longer matter. As if all the changes that were extracted with so much pain and effort could only ever have worked in a more caring, just and equitable world – the world which a triumphantly masculine Neoliberal Revolution long ago destroyed.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday 23 May 2015.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

If The SIS Director Wants To Tell Us The Truth, She Should Commission Fiction.

Memorable Presentation: Rebecca Kitteridge, the first woman Director of the SIS, laments the fact that the necessarily secret work of her agents cannot become the subject of a reality TV series - as it has for Police and Custom Officers. For shame, Ms Kitteridge! If you would tell the truth - write fiction! Just think Spooks.

REBECCA KITTERIDGE is like no Director of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) New Zealand has ever seen. There was a time when the identities of such national security bureaucrats were, if not secret, then, at the very least, invisible to the general public. In recent decades, an SIS Director’s name might have been slid into the public record, but he (and before Ms Kitteridge they were all “he”) was seldom heard and almost never seen.
 
How things have changed. Like her British equivalent, Dame Stella Rimington, Ms Kitteridge has, as the Service’s first female Director, allowed a Force 10 gale to blow through the stuffy corridors of her publicity-shy corner of the secret state. What Dame Stella did for MI5, Ms Kitteridge hopes to do for the SIS.
 
Her latest foray into the public sphere occurred earlier this week at the 2015 Privacy and Identity Conference in Wellington. Having heard Ms Kitteridge’s frank address, New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner, John Edwards, vouchsafed to his audience that he “could not remember such a presentation from an intelligence director”.
 
Perhaps the most intriguing offering from Ms Kitteridge concerned the Service’s limited options for improving its public image. The sort of PR opportunities that were open to other state agencies – most notably the Police and Customs Officers – were simply not available to the SIS. It would be difficult, she suggested to make a reality show out of a state agency that was required to “do everything behind locked doors.”
 
For shame, Ms Kitteridge! Reality shows are not the only vehicles for showcasing the day-to-day activities of state operatives. Indeed, there’s an old saying among those who have made it their business to report the activities of the secret state: “If you want to tell the truth – write fiction.”
 
If Ms Kitteridge wants to improve the public’s image and understanding of the SIS, she has only to persuade NZ on Air to fund a television drama series about its activities.
 
Was it no more than coincidence that in the years immediately following Dame Stella’s stint at MI5 the BBC began airing the hit series Spooks? The show’s creator, Jane Featherstone, told The Daily Mail that: “At first the intelligence services were resistant, and they let that be known through former members who acted as technical advisers on Spooks.” But, eventually, says Featherstone, the real spooks came around. “They even used the first series to help with their [recruitment] campaign.”
 
Prime Recruiter? The British television series Spooks boosted the numbers of people seeking to join MI5.
 
And it’s not as if there isn’t plenty of experienced writing talent close at hand. The British-born television writer, Neil Cross, who wrote multiple episodes of Spooks, as well as the memorable detective thriller, Luther, has lived in Wellington for many years.
 
The story-lines for such a series (working title “The Service”) would no doubt include many of the issues raised in Ms Kitteridge’s speech. Imagine the possibilities of a story-line based upon Islamic State’s use of social media. Or about tracking-down the member of the public who tipped the SIS off about a plot to contaminate New Zealand’s dairy exports. More controversially, there could be an episode about a terrorist cell undergoing military training in the bush.
 
If Ms Kitteridge is really serious about letting the public know just how difficult her job can be, she could advise the series writers on how an SIS Director might respond to an attempt to use the SIS for political purposes. What does the Director do when someone from the Prime Minister’s Office approaches her with a request to blacken the name of a political opponent? Or when one of her agents discovers that the Israeli Embassy has recruited a prominent blogger to blacken the reputations of pro-Palestinian activists?
 
And, just imagine the dramatic possibilities of a “Black Hat” hacker, recruited to turn the tables on Chinese cyber-criminals who have succeeded in penetrating the defences of one of New Zealand’s most innovative companies. Should the Director use her hacker’s talents independently, or share him with the Government Communications Security Bureau’s own team of “Computer Network Operations Specialists”? And how should she fend off the furious intervention of a Foreign Minister desperate to keep New Zealand’s relationship with the Chinese Government on an even keel?
 
If Ms Kitteridge cannot give us the facts about the SIS, she could at least try to tell us the truth – by commissioning fiction.
 
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, 22 May 2015.

Let Them Eat Scraps: Bill English's Budget Outflanks The Left By Mollifying The Conscience-Stricken Centre.

Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Love! Bill English's seventh Budget may be weak in terms of economic effectiveness, but politically it's a genuine sand-kicker. Labour's Andrew Little is still rubbing his eyes.
 
IT’S BEEN 43 YEARS since a National Party finance minister rose to deliver a Budget in which real increases to social welfare benefits were announced. In 1972, the then finance minister, Rob Muldoon, increased government spending by a whopping 16.2 percent – and much of it went to beneficiaries. Of course, the level of welfare spending in 1972 was considerably less than today’s. The unemployment rate, for example, was well below 1 percent and there was no Domestic Purposes Benefit. New Zealand’s generous superannuation scheme still lay in the future. Even so, 1972’s was a particularly generous budget. “That’s it,” Muldoon cheekily informed his non-plussed Labour opponents, “I’ve spent the lot!”
 
Muldoon’s cheery admission should alert us to just how different the world was 43 years ago. Economic thinking was still dominated by the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, and, as Muldoon would later quip: “Most New Zealanders wouldn’t recognise a deficit if they tripped over one in the street.” Forty-three years later, the National Party Finance Minister, Bill English, has, with considerable reluctance, increased government spending by 2.5 percent – not quite enough to keep pace with the projected rate of inflation and population growth. New Zealand’s economic performance may be one of the best in the OECD, but nobody in 2015 would dream of increasing state spending by 16.2 percent!
 
All of which gives the lie to those who, like former finance minister, Sir Michael Cullen, insist that John Key does not preside over a neoliberal administration. Because, what Bill English has given with one hand he has ruthlessly snatched back with the other. In 11 months’ time, the poorest New Zealanders will receive a $25.00 per week increase in their benefits – just enough to keep them from the clutches of utter destitution. But, as of 2:00pm on Thursday, 21 May 2015, the Government’s $1,000 kick-start grants to new Kiwi-Saver accounts ceased.
 
Which is not to say that this budget isn’t a highly successful exercise in political mollification and repositioning. In the run-up to last year’s general election, pollsters were reporting that one of the few questions registering a strong lead for Labour was about which party had the best response to the problem of child poverty. Even among National Party voters there was a clear and rising level of concern over the number of Kiwi kids living in need, and the Government’s response was generally acknowledged to be inadequate. Bill English’s budget measures will, almost certainly, have mollified these conscience-stricken voters of the Centre. At the same time they have blocked-off one of the very few remaining avenues into National territory. Labour will now have to find another way of reaching what it still insists are “soft” National voters.
 
But how “soft” are these voters, really? Bill English may have surprised the commentariat by increasing benefit levels, but he was careful to ring his $25.00 bounty with new and tougher obligations on sole parents. From the age of just 3 years, beneficiaries’ children are expected to be enrolled in early childhood educational institutions, while their parents go out to work for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Nothing “soft” about that!
 
Indeed, it was to avoid the charge that they had gone “soft on beneficiaries” (as in “soft on communism”) that Labour, for nine long years, steadfastly refused to restore benefit payments to the levels they were at in July 1991, when Ruth Richardson, in her “Mother of All Budgets”, slashed them by the equivalent of $43.00 in today’s money. No matter how many statistics the academic husband and wife team of David and Liz Craig assembled and presented; no matter how dire the evidence of real and growing hardship among beneficiary families; or even of the alarming spikes in poverty-related diseases recorded by the nation’s public hospitals; the Labour-led government of Helen Clark remained unmoved. It’s neoliberal advisers in Treasury and the Ministry of Social Development insisted that the “incentivising” gap between benefits and wages be maintained – and it was.
 
By 2015, however, the size of that gap had grown to such proportions that even Treasury was prepared to acknowledge that it might be time to relent – just a little. And, God knows! $25.00 per week is not a lot! Still, no one should be under any illusions that English’s minimal adjustments will do anything to loosen the bars of the cruel poverty trap in which as many as a quarter-of-a-million New Zealand children remain imprisoned.
 
Many years ago now, at a swanky Auckland restaurant, I found myself seated next to a well-known right-wing journalist. Not surprisingly, we ended up arguing about Rogernomics and Ruthanasia. I asked her this question: “What would you do if you were told that in order to go on receiving all the good things you currently enjoy, you would first have to consent to a person being chained up in a dungeon and fed your scraps?” Well, she hummed and hawed for a while, and then offered me this quite extraordinary reply. It would be alright, she said, because, as she became richer, she’d make sure the prisoner received more food, and that his chains were loosened, “so he could move about a bit”.
 
If you can be reconciled to that way of thinking, then you will have no difficulty whatsoever in both understanding and endorsing Bill English’s 2015 Budget.
 
This essay was jointly posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites of Saturday, 23 May 2015.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Least They Could Do

Tinkerer-in-Chief: John Key announces changes to the law relating to property speculation. Many of John Key's opponents, and some journalists, accused him of executing a U-turn on the issue of Capital Gains Tax. Labour's Andrew Little disagreed, tweeting that Key's announcement was nothing of the sort. The Prime Minister, said Little, was merely "tinkering with the housing market".
 
IT WAS THE LEAST THEY COULD DO. Indeed, had they done anything less it might have been mistaken for doing nothing at all. Still, the measures announced to the Lower North Island Regional Conference of the National Party on Sunday by John Key and Bill English were better than nothing. It’s always encouraging to see a government taking law enforcement seriously. Providing the IRD with the resources it needs to enforce already existing legislation against property speculation (including speculation by foreigners!) may even help to slow down Auckland’s runaway housing market. No, seriously, it might!
 
The government’s announcement is being represented by some Labour and Green MPs (and some of the news media) as a major U-turn. National’s hitherto staunch opposition to the introduction of a Capital Gains Tax (CGT) has, according to this reading, simply melted away.
 
Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, for example, tweeted archly that she had received the news at a Labour regional conference “otherwise known as the place we come up with ideas that National dismisses and then adopts.”
 
In a media release, the Greens’ co-leader, Metira Turei, echoed Ardern’s sentiments, saying: “This is a welcome U-turn from the Government. Only last week they were saying that capital gains taxes don’t work, so it is great they have changed their mind so quickly.”
 
The jibes of its opponents notwithstanding, the term “Capital Gains Tax” appears nowhere in the National Government’s media releases. On the contrary, the measures announced are all couched in terms of making the existing property tax regime more effective.
 
Interestingly, this is also the way that the Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, chose to characterise the Prime Minister’s announcement: “National is tinkering with the housing market”, opined Mr Little, whose preference for ditching Labour’s pledge to introduce a CGT is well known. He described National’s moves as “tentative and incremental”, and accused the Prime Minister of “creating a massive loop hole with his new ‘bright line’ test which will exempt speculators who hold onto their properties for longer than two years.”
 
Perhaps Mr Little was recalling the fate of the Third Labour Government’s Property Speculation Tax, introduced to Parliament in 1973 by Norman Kirk’s Finance Minister, Bill Rowling. Ironically, this measure was aimed at curbing a similarly rampant Auckland property market, and it, too, exempted speculators who held onto their properties for longer than two years.
 
The response of the targeted speculators is well described in a 2010 piece by Fairfax NZ’s business columnist, Bruce Shepherd:
 
“This tax did alter behaviour, in that those who held real estate held on to it for the requisite period and were gratified to do so as the market rose even faster. Simple, really, with hindsight: if you want to reduce property prices, pretty dumb to compress supply.”
 
Pretty dumb? Well, yes, it is pretty difficult to argue that the speculators of 2015 will be any less quick to spot the “massive loop hole” in the two-year rule than the speculators of the mid-1970s.
 
“But, hold on!”, National’s supporters will object. “Isn’t the government putting its thumb on the supply side of the housing crisis scales by bringing more and more residential-zoned land onto the market?”
 
Yes, they are. Although, it’s also fair to say that the measures adopted to date in no way compel land-bankers to relinquish their property at a rate sufficient to achieve the sudden and appreciable drop in the price of sections that first home buyers are so desperately seeking.
 
These sorts of voluntary, private sector-driven half-measures will never satisfy the supply side of the Auckland housing market. The National Party is quite simply incapable, for all the obvious ideological reasons, from launching the measures that will deflate Auckland’s swelling speculative bubble.
 
That task can only fall to a party with an ideological preference for state and municipal intervention in the housing market. Such intervention would necessarily entail the formation of a state-owned design and construction force along the lines of the highly innovative and creative Ministry of Works that grew out of the massive state house construction programme of the 1930s and 40s.
 
Complementing all its actual house construction, however, a future centre-left government would also need to undertake a thorough-going reform of New Zealand’s antiquated and deeply unjust tenancy laws and regulations. Genuine and long-term security of tenure, of the sort enjoyed by the municipal apartment dwellers of Germany and Scandinavia, would drive the shift in accommodation expectations so urgently needed in New Zealand’s major cities.
 
The demographic structure of New Zealand is changing very rapidly and it is increasingly clear that nothing short of a revolution in housing policy will allow our planners, developers and builders to keep pace.
 
Sunday’s housing policy announcements were about the very least the National Government could do. But so much more remains to be done.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 May 2015.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Music Will Save The World: Mandolin Orange - "Wake Me" (2014)

 
 
BEGINNING an occasional series of musical treats under the heading "Music Will Save The World" - the hopeful claim attributed to the great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals (1876-1973).

Our first offering is from my favourite Alt-Country/Americana duo, Andrew Marlin (mandolin, guitar) and Emily Frantz (violin, guitar) who together comprise Mandolin Orange. "Wake Me", recorded live last August at Pendarvis Farm, Happy Valley, Oregon, is their usual mixture of loss and discovery, rapture and despair, all picked out sharply on Andrew's mandolin and Emily's guitar. As bracingly sweet as a glass of freshly-squeezed OJ on a bright summer's morning. Enjoy.

Video courtesy of YouTube.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A Gangster's Charter: Bill English's "Social Investment" Budget.

A Gangster's Charter: Just think about everything that lay behind Tony Soprano’s cynical description of himself as a “waste management consultant”, and you’ll have a pretty good grip on what Bill English's 2015 Budget is all about.
 
NEXT THURSDAY, 21 May, is Budget Day. No, don’t yawn, because if the veteran political journalist, Richard Harmon, is right, then “next week will be a defining moment in the third term of this government and a critical point in its campaign to retain power in 2017.”
 
That “defining moment” will mark the commencement of the next great campaign in Neoliberalism’s thirty years war against collectivism and the public sphere.
 
Some will call it privatisation but that’s not really what this next phase is all about. If John Key and Bill English really wanted to privatise the provision of social welfare they would simply shut down the Ministry of Social Development, close all the Work and Income offices, and sell off every one of the country’s 60,000 State Houses to the highest bidder. The public schools and hospitals would suffer a similar fate.
 
No doubt most of the Decile 10 schools would be snapped-up at a good price. The big public hospitals in the main centres would, similarly, attract plenty of interest. But all those Decile 1 schools? Who would want to pour good money into them? And provincial hospitals? Not much scope for profit there.
 
No, what Bill English is planning is something very different from a straightforward reversion to the “night-watchmen state” so beloved by the followers of Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.
 
In any case, it’s doubtful that such a radical step would save the government all that much in the way of expenditure. Casting adrift the poor on such a massive scale would necessitate huge increases in Vote Defence, Vote Police, Vote Courts and Vote Corrections. Much of the money saved by shutting down the welfare state would end up being spent defending whatever replaced it from the ravages of tens-of-thousands of desperate citizens with nothing left to lose.
 
The “Better Public Services Programme” that Bill English launches on Thursday (almost certainly under a new and catchier name) won’t be about relinquishing all state responsibility for the poor, the sick and the young, it will be about funding private entities to provide the services which, hitherto, have been provided by public servants.
 
In English’s own words to the Institute of Public Administration on 19 February 2015: “Testing for spending effectiveness will be core to this process. If we can’t measure effectiveness, it won’t be funded through social investment. We’ll be systematically reprioritising funding to providers that get results.”
 
To anyone who’s been following the commissioning of the new privately-run prison at Wiri, south of Auckland, all this talk of “social investment” and “providers” will sound very familiar. The taxpayers have spent millions on the construction of the Wiri facility, and the Government has just announced the laying-off of close to 200 prison officers from around the country in order to supply it with a core of highly-trained staff, but the actual running of the prison has been contracted-out to the multinational firm, Serco. For the next quarter-of-a-century a private entity will be permitted to extract a substantial profit for the provision of “services” for which the state has, quite rightly, accepted responsibility (without seeking a profit) for the past 200 years.
 
How has it come to this? Why is the National Government preparing to pay (with our money!) the private sector for taking over the provision of services the public sector is still perfectly capable of providing? In essence, the answer is: because in mature capitalist economies like New Zealand there’s bugger-all new profit-making opportunities available to the private sector. Hence its growing interest in “social investment”, a new kind of venture which promises to pay the private shareholder a handsome dividend without the necessity of massive capital outlays for plant and machinery – all of which is supplied up-front by the generous taxpayer.
 
This isn’t capitalism in any accepted sense of the word. It is, however, instantly recognisable to any enterprising gangster as an officially sanctioned opportunity for skimming-off-the-top.
 
A public body contracts a private institution to supply a much needed social service. The latter offers a price – which includes a hefty chunk of cash for its trouble – and then proceeds to utilise every possible means of cutting corners and short-changing its “customers” so that it can (in the unlikely event of being asked) present the public with a passable facsimile of the service it undertook to provide.
 
Just think about everything that lay behind Tony Soprano’s cynical description of himself as a “waste management consultant”, and you’ll have a pretty good grip on what Bill English and his government’s “defining moment” is all about.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 16 May 2015.

Linking Benefits To Votes: What's Labour Up To?

Why Link Votes and Benefits? It’s possible that the Labour Party is simply attempting to put some legislative flesh on the bones of its new “communitarian” ideology. At the heart of communitarianism lies the assertion that for every “inalienable right” enjoyed by the citizen, there is a corresponding, and equally inalienable, responsibility.

WHO IS PETER GOODFELLOW? Most New Zealanders wouldn’t have a clue. And that’s as it should be. Generally speaking, people only recognise the name of a political party’s president when that party is in trouble. Or, as was the case with National’s Sir George Chapman, when they’ve played a decisive role in their party’s political victories. National’s current president, the aforementioned Mr Goodfellow, enjoys the well-earned anonymity of success.
 
Alas, the same cannot be said of the Labour Party’s governing body, which last week presented a submission to Parliament’s Justice and Electoral select committee raising the possibility of “making enrolment to vote a pre-condition to receipt of various forms of state support”. In other words: if you’re not enrolled, you won’t get your benefit. There are, Labour submitted, “advantages and potential disadvantages to the approach” and, since it had already been adopted in other countries, “it is incumbent on us to examine all options to see if they are feasible in our context.”
 
Where to begin with this curious proposal? Perhaps by pointing out that s.82 of The Electoral Act 1993 already provides for the compulsory registration of electors – on pain of a $100.00 fine for the first conviction, and a $200.00 fine for the second and any subsequent convictions.
 
If the NZ Council of the Labour Party was unaware of this, then it should not have been. And if it was aware, then why did it consider some further inducement to enrolment necessary?
 
It’s possible that the Labour Party is simply attempting to put some legislative flesh on the bones of its new “communitarian” ideology. At the heart of communitarianism lies the assertion that for every “inalienable right” enjoyed by the citizen, there is a corresponding, and equally inalienable, responsibility.
 
Much of Labour’s current policy platform is permeated with communitarian ideas – especially in the area of social welfare. Beneficiaries in receipt of public support are expected to reciprocate by doing all within their power to return to the workforce. If they have entitlements, Labour argues, then so does society.
 
By what right does any citizen not enrolled to vote lay claim to the support of his or her fellow citizens? If such people refuse to fulfil what is both a legal requirement and a civic duty, then isn’t society entitled to withhold its duty of care until those responsibilities are met? Putting it bluntly: without the pro quo, nobody gets a quid.
 
The other explanation for Labour’s curious submission is considerably less lofty.
 
Despite enormous effort by scores of tireless volunteers, tens-of-thousands of likely Labour voters failed to enrol in time for last year’s election. Though technically in breach of the Electoral Act, these citizens will probably not be prosecuted. Receiving no disincentive to repeating the offence, there’s every chance their names will not appear on the roll again in 2017.
 
If, however, tens-of-thousands of social welfare beneficiaries: people who, most experts agree, are much more inclined to vote for political parties of the Left than the Right; were required (ably assisted by Work and Income staff) to fulfil their legal obligations as electors before receiving their benefits, then the Labour Party would be saved a huge amount of hard political slog.
 
Getting people to the polling booths is one thing, but if they are there discovered to be not on the roll, then the bureaucratic hurdles placed before them can be formidable. Frequently, the sheer volume of paperwork proves too daunting for these often poorly educated and/or non-English-speaking citizens to attempt, and the potential Labour vote is lost.
 
When viewed from this perspective, Labour’s submission not only appears organisationally self-serving, but it could also be construed as a subtle thrust against the emerging strategic preference (among Andrew Little’s principal advisers) for Labour’s effort to be directed at “soft” National Party voters. Many on the left of the Labour Party are convinced that the tens-of-thousands of unregistered voters constitute a more wholesome electoral target than some twenty-first century version of “Rob’s Mob”.
 
That Labour’s submission ended up attracting so much (presumably unwanted) media attention more than bears out the observation with which this discussion began. That one of the best ways of telling whether or not things are going well for a political party is how invisible its organisational wing is willing to become, and how anonymous its leadership.
 
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, 15 May 2015.