Friday, 24 June 2022

Matariki: Thoughts and Questions.

Guided By The Stars? This gift of Matariki, then, what will be made of it? Can a people spiritually unconnected to anything other than their digital devices truly appreciate the relentless progress of gods and heroes across the heavens? The elders of Maoridom must wonder. Can Te Ao Māori be concentrated into the equivalent of spiritual orange-juice – to be distributed freely every June in a handy cultural packet? “Here you are Tau Iwi – just add water!”

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT MATARIKI? Are you delighted that, at last, New Zealand has a holiday entirely unrelated to its colonial heritage? A holiday, moreover, that celebrates the natural cycles of a South Pacific island chain, rather than the western extremities of a vast northern continent. Coinciding with the Winter Solstice, Matariki, like Christmas in its original setting, marks the year’s turning: away from the constraining darkness; towards the liberating light.

Or, do you see Matariki as something contrived and imposed? A festival seized upon for ideological purposes? A holiday with an agenda attached?

And how does that make you feel? Guilty? Do you blame yourself for harbouring sentiments driven, consciously or unconsciously, by racism? Or, does it make you feel angry? Do you blame the Government for creating a holiday that highlights the cultural differences between its citizens? Are you antagonised by the state’s presumption that these differences are something to be celebrated?

Then again, you may be a strong believer in secularism. If you’re “not big on religion”, as most non-religious Kiwis tend to say when subjected to spiritual inquiries, you may be experiencing a twinge or two of impatience when you see, hear and read references to Matariki that embrace without challenge its overtly religious content. Your brow may furrow even more deeply when you consider the likely consequences of attempting such a challenge.

Is it not the height of hypocrisy to laugh along with the atheists who poke fun at the Christian eucharist, only to recoil in horror from the suggestion that there might be something just a wee bit peculiar about offering-up a cooked meal to a random configuration of stars?

For a country which, historically, has eschewed the very idea of a state religion, isn’t it also a little jarring to hear state broadcasters helpfully instructing New Zealanders on the ways in which their new state-sanctioned religious festival can be appropriately celebrated?

As anyone who has ever watched the excellent television programme, Waka Huia, will attest, Te Ao Māori pulses with spiritual life. Mountains, rivers, forests, the stars that fill the sky, all are sentient and powerful entities. One approaches them with reverence – and caution – as is fitting when dealing with ancient and holy ancestors to which one is inextricably and irrevocably connected.

It is to be wondered if the men and women who walk in this world are pleased, or alarmed, when they see Matariki – and all it portends – transformed into a public holiday, thoughtfully supplemented with a handy Cole’s Notes summary of the complex spiritual significance of the nine rising stars. Will they experience the emotions of devout Christians as Christmas and Easter approach?

To those who sincerely embrace the Christian faith, these public holidays have been transformed into crass orgies of commercialism. Santa and the Easter Bunny have ruthlessly shoved aside the manger and the cross. People stuff their faces: they bicker, fight, get drunk; and, just maybe, shed a maudlin tear when a particularly effective rendition of “Silent Night” rises above the hubbub of the shopping-mall.

Not that this bothers the overwhelming majority of Kiwis, for whom Christmas was long ago transformed into a celebration of family and friendship. Not for us the dark of winter. Our Christmas is a secular quest for sunshine and happy release. We Pakeha are a people of the middle: beginnings and endings are not really our style.

This gift of Matariki, then, what will be made of it? Can a people spiritually unconnected to anything other than their digital devices truly appreciate the relentless progress of gods and heroes across the heavens? The elders of Maoridom must wonder. Can Te Ao Māori be concentrated into the equivalent of spiritual orange-juice – to be distributed freely every June in a handy cultural packet? “Here you are Tau Iwi – just add water!”

Too harsh?

Isn’t it possible that Matariki may yet prove a cure for, rather than a cause of, racist contention? Maybe, as the Earth grows warmer, and the pretensions of science and modernity are increasingly laid bare, the hunger of all Aotearoans for gods and heroes will increase. Perhaps, when we realise that these islands are all we’ve got, the thought may grow in our hearts and minds: If all things are, indeed, related and alive, then why not be guided by the stars?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 June 2022.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

From “Friend”, To “Threat” – In Just Five Years.

New Zealand’s Most Profitable“Friend” Dangerous “Threat”: This country’s “Five Eyes” partners, heedless of the economic consequences for New Zealand, have cajoled and bullied its political class into becoming Sinophobes. They simply do not care that close to 40 percent of this country’s trade is with China.  As far as Washington, London, Ottawa and Canberra are concerned, Wellington is simply paying the price of putting all its milk powder in one basket.

WELL, THANK YOU, JACINDA! In just five years, you and your government have turned New Zealanders decisively against their country’s most important trading partner. According to research released today (22/6/22) by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, the number of Kiwis who view China as a “friend” has fallen from 62 percent in 2017, to just 13 percent today. Meanwhile, the number viewing the People’s Republic as a “threat” has risen from 18 to 58 percent, over the same period.

That dramatic rise (40 percentage points!) in the “threat” perception, is the entirely predictable result of a relentless, American-led, campaign to demonise, isolate and “contain” China. New Zealand’s “Five Eyes” partners, heedless of the economic consequences for New Zealand, have cajoled and bullied its political class into becoming Sinophobes. They simply do not care that close to 40 percent of this country’s trade is with China. None of them are willing to make good its loss by opening their markets to New Zealand exports. As far as Washington, London, Ottawa and Canberra are concerned, Wellington is simply paying the price of putting all its milk powder in one basket.

It is difficult to grasp the precise cause of the West’s falling-out of love with China. Since the late-1970s, the leading industrial powers have been falling over themselves to invest in the Chinese economic miracle. Without compunction, or compassion, they relocated Western industrial production to an authoritarian state where labour costs were low and unions docile, eliminating in the process the factories that had kept millions of their own workers gainfully employed. There were no complaints then about China’s lack of democracy, indeed, its absence was pretty much the whole point!

Ask them, today, what they were thinking, and they’ll spin you the usual yarn about how certain they were that this new, mutually beneficial, economic relationship would lead to the gradual liberalisation of the Chinese regime. Just as it had in the Soviet Union, democracy was coming to the PRC. You are invited to imagine their surprise and horror when Beijing opted, instead, to combine the Chinese people’s economic prowess with the Communist Party of China’s authoritarian political impulses. Western investment hadn’t created a friend, it had produced a monster!

To which we are all entitled to call “Bullshit!”.

Let’s just consider the counterfactual that China had, indeed, embraced democracy, or something approaching it – a la Singapore. According to the West’s own theories, the country would have become even more powerful, economically and culturally. It’s people, freed from the tutelage of the Communist Party, would have grown even more confident and productive. In other words, China’s inexorable rise to global economic dominance would have happened faster under democracy than it did under authoritarianism.

It is simply implausible to argue that the United States would have behaved any differently when faced with a democratic Chinese hegemon than it has in relation to the real-world’s authoritarian China. What can be asserted, however, is that if China had adopted democracy, then the United States would have found it a great deal easier to destabilise and dominate.

That’s the great attraction of democratic political systems to powers like the United States, they are just so pathetically easy to subvert. Pick a colour – any colour – and Uncle Sam will organise a “revolution” in no time. Don’t believe me? Go ask Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine. Or, dig out Time of 15 July 1996, and read the Cover Story: “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.”

There are, of course, many ways to destabilise and break-up a rival nation. If its authoritarian political system makes the organisation of a “colour revolution” impossible, then a global superpower can always stir up ethnic and religious communities in border regions with sympathetic neighbours. Arms can be smuggled across mountain and desert frontiers. Jihadists can be schooled in terror. Bombs can go off in crowded marketplaces. Innocent people can die. The Chinese have watched and learned, and in Xinjiang they have applied the lessons.

Once again it helps to examine the counterfactual. Imagine a China whose leaders were unwilling to take the measures necessary to suppress an Islamist insurgency. Very quickly, Xinjiang would have come to resemble Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Terrorist atrocities would have become commonplace. Beijing would have been forced to field substantial military and intelligence resources to its autonomous region. Communal hatreds would have grown and spread. Hundreds-of-thousands of the native Uighur population would have fled, or been interned. How different, in terms of repression, suffering and death, would it be from the present situation?

Not that these sort of questions are ever posed by the political classes of the Five Eyes powers and their Asian allies. Roughly six years ago, America’s strategic thinkers finally abandoned their dream of a democratic China that the USA could control, and began to intensify its parallel policy of containment. An important part of that effort was the co-ordination of elite opinion across the Indo-Pacific.

It is necessary, now, for earlier narratives of co-operation and friendship with the Chinese – of which New Zealand was a leading exponent – to be abandoned in favour of Washington’s new narrative of a dangerous and expansionist China, hellbent on establishing, first, regional hegemony, and then, full global dominance.

How easily that change of narrative was achieved by Washington should prompt New Zealanders to query the robustness of their own democratic institutions. That there has been no significant divergence of opinion concerning New Zealand’s pivot away from its largest trading partner – with all that entails for the health of New Zealand’s economy and society – should, surely, give us pause. This country’s much vaunted “independent foreign policy” stands revealed as rhetoric – not reality.

Uncle Sam has informed us that New Zealand is at war with Eurasia: that New Zealand has always been at war with Eurasia. Dutifully, our politicians, academics and journalists all contribute lustily to the compulsory “Five Minute Hate” against the People’s Republic. The “friend” that made us rich, has become a “threat” to be contained.

When the export orders dry up – and they will if China decides we’ve become her enemy – then we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. Oh, and our “very, very, very good friends” – the Americans.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 23rd June 2022.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Uncomfortable Comparisons: If Labour’s Harking Back To 2017, Then It’s Not Looking For A Win.

2017’s Queenmaker: Five years ago, Winston Peters’ choice ran counter to New Zealand’s informal, No. 8 wire, post-MMP constitution, which, up until 2017, had decreed that the party with the most votes got to supply the next prime minister. Had National not been in power for the previous 9 years, it is very unlikely that Peters would have installed Jacinda. Certainly, a repeat performance (even assuming NZ First surges back into Parliament in 2023) is out of the question.

THERE IS LITTLE to be learned from most of the analyses of the Tauranga By-Election results. Those on the Right continue to present 2020’s general election as a normal contest. It wasn’t. The 2020 General Election was in fact an aberrant political event. Labour’s majority was the product of Jacinda Ardern’s world-beating response to the Covid-19 pandemic: a hearty “Thank you!” from at least half of her “Team of Five Million”. The Tauranga By-Election was always going to register the return of traditional National voters to the conservative fold. The result for Labour did not spell “catastrophe”. Nor did a represent a “failure” on Jacinda’s part. The percentages won by the two principal contenders closely matched the 2017 result – exactly as anticipated.

The return of those traditional National voters, while anticipated, nevertheless poses a series of very difficult questions for Labour’s strategists. While there is comfort to be drawn from the proximity of Saturday’s results to those of 2017, there is absolutely no comfort to be taken from Labour’s overall 2017 result.

Five years ago, Jacinda Ardern did extremely well to lift Labour’s Party Vote from 25 to 37 percent, but she still found herself 7 percentage points shy of National’s extraordinary (after three terms!) Party Vote of 44 percent. Jacinda’s rather flat speech on Election Night 2017 reflected her understanding that, by failing to win a plurality of the votes cast, she could not expect to become New Zealand’s next prime minister.

Winston Peters changed all that, but, as the photographs taken of Jacinda and Grant Robertson listening to Peters’ speech make clear, they really didn’t know if they had successfully persuaded him to put Labour into power – or not. Certainly, Peters’ choice ran counter to New Zealand’s informal, No. 8 wire, post-MMP constitution, which, up until 2017, had decreed that the party with the most votes got to supply the next prime minister.

Had National not been in power for the previous 9 years, it is very unlikely that Peters would have installed Labour in 2017. Certainly, a repeat performance (even assuming NZ First surges back into Parliament in 2023) is out of the question. Peters reprising his kingmaker role only makes sense in the political context of an electorate that has undergone a pronounced shift to the right. An important part of that shift has been the dramatic re-casting of the Prime Minister: from faerie queen and national saviour, to pantomime demon – and worse. A minor party opting to keep Jacinda Ardern on the Ninth Floor of the Beehive would provoke nationwide fury.

Well aware of this possibility, it is also unlikely that the Māori Party would opt to keep Labour in power – even if it could. Between them Rawiri Waititi, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and John Tamihere have more than enough nouse to discern what would happen if they backed a Labour Party beaten into second place by National. Yes, they might secure another three years in which to implement the He Puapua blueprint, but it would be against a backdrop of racist rage that would not be stilled until te Tiriti and all its works had been cast into the fire.

If the Māori Party’s votes could make it possible for National and Act to rule – moderately – then it would be well advised to let them. The ultimate threat: to pull the pin and bring them down with Labour and Green support; need never be spoken. Christopher Luxon would have the muzzle he needed for Act – without ever having to ask.

There are no friends in politics – only interests to be defended, and opportunities to be seized.

That said, the victory that now looms ahead for National and Act will not be founded upon an enthusiastic right-wing majority within the electorate, but upon the fatal absence of left-wing support. Christopher Luxon is set to become prime minister not on the strength of those who turned out to support him, but on the disillusionment of those who opted to stay at home.

The historical record tells this story in the most unequivocal terms. In 1972, when Norm Kirk romped home to victory, the turn-out was 89.1 percent. Three years later, when Rob Muldoon steamrollered Labour’s hopes for “A New Society” to dust, it was 82.5 percent. In 1984, when Labour again won the Treasury benches, the turnout was a record 93.7 percent. In 1990, when Jim Bolger defeated Mike Moore, it had fallen to 85.2 percent. National Party victories are almost always built on the defeat of Labour voters’ hopes.

Is there anything Jacinda and Labour can do to avert the National-Act triumph that looms ahead? Of course there is! In the simplest terms, they can give their supporters a compelling reason for turning up at the polling-booths. This time, however, it will take more than rhetorical gestures and snappy slogans. This time Labour’s programme will not only need to spell out a clear sequence of reforms, but also the mechanisms required to implement them. And it must be a compelling programme: one that makes losers out of those who have spent the last three decades winning all the prizes; and winners out of those who have spent the same 30 years chewing on their leftovers.

“Bottom rail on top!” That’s how freed African-American slaves described the transformation wrought by General Army Order No. 3, which on 19 June 1865 – “Juneteenth” – gave effect to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Māori New Zealanders have never been so close to seeing te Tiriti o Waitangi honoured in practical and enduring ways than they are today. For this country’s bottom rail to make its way to the top, however, this government must frame the next election as a straightforward battle between the entrenched colonial legacy of “old” New Zealand, and the enlarged democracy of a new “Aotearoa”.

The mission of Labour’s Māori caucus is clear: to persuade their Pakeha colleagues that they must give rangatahi – young New Zealanders of all ethnicities – a reason to get out and vote. Not only is this the only way that Labour can win another term, but it is also the only guarantee that it will not fade into historical oblivion.

Jacinda and her caucus need to take a look around the world and note what is happening to those political parties who still cling to the idea that the centre-ground is the safest place to play. Look at what has just happened in the French legislative elections – where the Far-Right and the Far-Left have both made huge gains. Observe the fate of the business-as-usual candidates for the Colombian presidency, and the historic victory of the former revolutionary guerrilla, Gustavo Petro: Colombia’s first left-wing President.

In his victory speech, Petro thanked the party workers who had fanned out across the nation to “seduce” Colombia’s voters. An interesting choice of words, and an accurate one. Victory for the Left has always been a matter of seduction: of making the voters lust for what the Left is offering. And if that is not, as Petro told the thousands gathered before him in Bogota, a government of love and hope, then what good is the Left? What is it for?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 June 2022.

Monday, 20 June 2022

Tauranga: A Predictable Result, With A Warning Attached.

Walking On Sunshine: National’s Sam Uffindell cantered home in the Tauranga By-Election, but the Outdoors & Freedom Party’s Sue Grey attracted an ominous level of support.

THE RIGHT’S gadfly commentator, Matthew Hooton, summed up the Tauranga by-election in his usual pithy fashion. “Tonight’s result is poor for the National Party, catastrophic for Labour, very good for the Act Party and brilliant for the far-right nutter fringe. The last bit makes it terrible for New Zealand.” About National and Labour, Hooton is simply being provocative. But his assessment of “the far-right nutter fringe’s” impact on the by-election is spot-on.

The 2020 election result in Tauranga, which saw the gap between National and Labour shrink dramatically, was – as every political commentator should know (but apparently doesn’t) aberrant. Hell, the entire General Election was aberrant – as National’s loss of seats like Rangitata and Ilam made clear. For Jacinda Ardern and her party to have held onto the roughly 400,000 “Thank-you for saving us from Covid-19” votes that pushed Labour up-and-over 50 percent of the Party Vote, would have required her to shift New Zealand into some sort of weird parallel universe, where the absence of success goes unreproved, and political failure is rewarded.

Much as she might like to be living in such a universe, the Prime Minister knows that she is not. Which is why she and her advisers would have been looking at the results of 2017 for guidance – not 2020. On that basis, the Tauranga By-Election was very far from being a catastrophe.

As Greg Presland, lawyer and regular contributor to the Labour-leaning website “The Standard” tweeted shortly after the result was announced: “Election night Tauranga result is Uffindell 56% Tinetti 25%. 2017 election result was Bridges 54% Tinetti 26%. Beware of claim this is a bad result for Labour. Looks like business as usual without the anti-Government bounce that opposition parties hope for in by-elections.”

Equally untrue is the claim that the Tauranga result represents a poor showing for National. To easily restore the status-quo-ante-Covid was all anyone could reasonably have asked of Sam Uffindell. This was especially true of a contest precipitated by an incumbent National MP in circumstances entirely lacking in political drama, whose outcome was never in doubt. Uffindell was always going to win, and win he did in a commendably boring campaign. (Exciting campaigns in safe seats are generally regarded as unhelpful – even dangerous!)

In these circumstances the risible 40 percent turnout was as predictable as the result itself. With the outcome a foregone conclusion and the rain bucketing down, only the most faithful of party stalwarts were ever going to make it to the polling booths. That they did so in almost exactly the same percentages as the 2017 contest should be enough for any sensible commentator to conclude that normal electoral transmission in Tauranga has been resumed.

Although Act’s candidate, Cameron Luxton, should have felt extremely pleased with his 10.26 percent of the votes cast, he could be forgiven for feeling that he had earned a much bigger share. Most observers of the by-election campaign concur that Luxton was by far the most dynamic candidate.

Once again positing a parallel political universe, this one featuring publicly-owned local broadcasters committed to bringing fulsome coverage of electoral contests to their viewers (don’t guffaw, New Zealand once boasted such broadcasters!) Luxton would have ended his campaign with an embarrassingly large number of traditional National voters in his column.

Those Tauranga electors who tuned into the debates on the weekend political shows can hardly have avoided drawing unfavourable comparisons between Luxton and Uffindell. Not that he really needs to, given the result, but if Sam could arrange for a generous injection, or two, of political passion, his value to Team National would undoubtedly be boosted. Languid-and-Aristocratic is not the Kiwi way – not in politics.

But, if the Tauranga candidates with the best chances appeared to lack all conviction, then at least one of those written off as belonging to the worst was definitely not lacking in passionate intensity. Sue Grey, candidate for the New Zealand Outdoors & Freedom Party, managed an impressive 4.72 percent of the votes cast.

Just how impressive is immediately apparent when one considers that the nationwide support for the Outdoors Party in 2020 was a miniscule 0.1 percent. (3,256 Party Votes.) On Saturday, another 53 votes would have put Grey over 5 percent. Replicated across the country in 2023, that would put at least six NZOF MPs in the House of Representatives.

It is important to acknowledge that Grey’s result was achieved in a by-election with a very low turnout (40.6 percent) and in which the Greens, NZ First, and the Māori Party opted not to field candidates. Nevertheless, the 47-fold increase in the NZOF Party’s support is so dramatic that it merits serious political scrutiny.

The Outdoors Party’s beginnings are nothing if not firmly rooted in the “heartland”. It was founded to represent the huntin’, shootin’ fishin’ community: rugged, authority-scorning, Kiwi blokes and sheilas entirely lacking in affinity for the vegan “Greenies” of the big cities, who wouldn’t know one end of a hunting rifle or fishing rod from the other. On the other hand, the sort of hippies who hare off into the bush to live off-the-grid, and who decry the use of 1080 poison by DoC, are a different story. Like them, these outdoorsmen and women also favour the legalisation of cannabis and would like the state to FRO out of their lives.

If that description rings a bell, then it’s because a great many of these characters could be found camping in Parliament Grounds earlier this year. Begin with a general pre-disposition towards believing the absolute worst of the Powers That Be, mix-in the uncompromising government demands of the Covid-19 Emergency, and then allow the resulting anti-vaccination fury to be articulated by a personable online spokeswoman – who just happens to be a lawyer and scientist – and hey-presto! Sue Grey gets 917 votes in Tauranga.

It is also important to note that Grey’s co-leader is fellow lawyer Donna Pokere-Phillips. This bi-cultural aspect of the NZOF Party is important. Though harbouring a strong anti-immigrant element within its ranks, there is very little evidence of the anti-Māori sentiment that disfigures so many far-right groups. If this is fascism, then it is of a quintessentially Kiwi, backwoods libertarian, variety. Not so much brown shirts as black singlets.

Unsurprisingly, the evangelical Christian leader of the Freedoms & Rights Coalition, Brian Tamaki, has been working hard to draw together all the parties of the far-right into a single electoral proposition – an “Alliance”-style coalition of the Dark Side, if you will. So far unsuccessful, Tamaki is likely to remain so. Too much of his message bears a “Made in the USA” stamp. New Zealand, one of the world’s most secular nations, marches to the beat of a very different drummer to Donald Trump and Q-Anon.

The NZ Outdoors and Freedom Party, while far too angry and conspiratorial for most New Zealanders, has, nevertheless, clearly shown itself to have something going for it. Good keen fascism, perhaps? Something that was always there, just below the surface of New Zealand progressivism. The New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter, saw it and wrote about it in his “Pig Island Letters” series.

Lines that could have been written for Sue Grey and her comrades:

Her son is moodier, has seen
An angel with a sword
Standing above the clumps of old man manuka
Just waiting for the word

To overturn the cities and the rivers
And split the house like a rotten totara log.
Quite unconcerned he sets his traps for possums
And whistles to his dog.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 20 June 2022.

Friday, 17 June 2022

Jacinda Ardern’s Radical Reshuffle.

Radical Options: By allocating the Broadcasting portfolio to the irrepressible, occasionally truculent, leader of Labour’s Māori caucus, Willie Jackson, the Prime Minister has, at the very least, confirmed that her appointment of Kiri Allan was no one-off. There are many words that could be used to describe Ardern’s placement of two tough political fighters in Justice and Broadcasting, but “conciliatory” isn’t one of them.

KRIS FAAFOI’S DEPARTURE from Parliament has left the Immigration, Justice and Broadcasting portfolios in need of new ministers.

In the case of Immigration the Prime Minister’s choice of Michael Wood to replace Faafoi is a sound one. The issues of employment, migration, and workplace relations are closely related, so entrusting the portfolios of Labour and Immigration to a single, highly capable, politician makes a lot of sense.

When it comes to the Justice and Broadcasting portfolios, however, matters are nowhere near so cut and dried. Between now and the General Election issues with considerable potential for creating serious political division are likely to test the skills of the new ministers to their limits.

Before examining those issues in more detail, however, it is important to establish what the Prime Minister has, and hasn’t, done.

The opportunity existed for her to make good her error in assigning Justice to Faafoi. Although acknowledged on both sides of the House as a man of great integrity and good-will, Faafoi was clearly out of his depth in the Justice portfolio. Unusually, given the requirements of the job, he was not a lawyer. Nor did he appear to have a very firm grasp of the foundational principles of this country’s legal system.

Nowhere was this more clearly manifested than in the fraught subject of “Hate Speech”. Faafoi floundered shockingly when questioned on scope and implications of the Government’s proposed legislation. The experience rendered him gun-shy for the rest of his stint as minister. At a time when the Government needed a person of demonstrable intellectual subtlety to explore with the public the full ramifications of controlling Hate Speech, it was saddled with a Justice Minister who, in spite of his background in broadcasting, seemed inordinately wary of the news media.

To be fair to Faafoi, he did not seek out the portfolio assigned to him by the Prime Minister. Indeed, he had told her back in 2020 that he wished to step down from Parliament altogether. Ardern would have been kinder, both to Faafoi, and her Government, if she had granted his wish.

The Prime Minister’s choice of the qualified lawyer, Kiritapu Allan, may, however, make matters worse. Faafoi’s bumbling, by pushing the Hate Speech issue onto the back burner, was almost certainly a godsend politically. Should Allan take up the cause with her characteristic élan, the chances are good that she will ignite a full-scale culture war between the Government and the defenders of Free Speech.

Ardern could have opted to further settle the feathers of the free speakers by appointing a Justice Minister singularly deficient in “woke” credentials – the Attorney-General, David Parker, perhaps? That she has, instead, opted to advance a feisty member of Labour’s Māori caucus: a woman lionised by Labour’s “progressives”; has sent the New Zealand electorate a message of admirable (if not entirely sagacious) clarity.

By allocating the Broadcasting portfolio to the irrepressible, occasionally truculent, leader of Labour’s Māori caucus, Willie Jackson, the Prime Minister has, at the very least, confirmed that her appointment of Allan was no one-off. There are many words that could be used to describe Ardern’s placement of two tough political fighters in Justice and Broadcasting, but “conciliatory” isn’t one of them.

If Allan presses forward with Hate Speech legislation, and Willie Jackson delivers to the people of New Zealand a state broadcaster that is te Tiriti-driven, committed to advancing the cause of “partnership”, and completely unabashed in its promotion of “co-governance”, the result will be a synergy of political enablement practically guaranteed to raise the hackles of at least half the nation’s voters.

An exaggeration? Not at all. The material made available to those seeking financial support from the Public Interest Journalism Fund (overseen by New Zealand on Air) makes it crystal clear that no state funding will be made available to journalists who do not adhere to te Tiriti, the doctrine of partnership, and co-governance. The advisory documents spelling out what that means in practice are of an historical and ideological inflexibility that would make even the most zealous of Stalin’s commissars blanche.

That the new state broadcasting entity will adhere to these revolutionary stipulations in every respect may be taken as a given. Likewise the temptation for both the Justice and Broadcasting ministers to characterise the inevitable chorus of opposition as Hate Speech.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times  and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 June 2022.

Protecting Freedom/Preventing Harm. Can New Zealand’s New Chief Censor Do Both?

A Delicate Juggler? Internal Affairs Minister, Jan Tinetti (above) has appointed Ms Caroline Flora as Chief Censor. Ms Flora owes New Zealand a comprehensive explanation of how she intends to juggle her duty to respect and protect the citizen’s right to freedom of expression, with her understanding of what is likely to cause society harm? 

IT IS TO BE HOPED that the new Chief Censor, Caroline Flora, will waste no time explaining herself. It is important that New Zealanders are told how her old job, Associate Deputy-Director Strategy and Performance, at the Ministry of Health, made her the obvious choice for her new job.

According to Peter Dunne, the Minister of Internal Affairs responsible for the appointment of Ms Flora’s predecessor, David Shanks: “The Chief Censor is responsible for protecting New Zealanders from material likely to cause harm while balancing the important right to freedom of expression”.

Clearly, the person tasked with this delicate legal and cultural juggling act should be someone with a solid background in law, and more than a passing acquaintance with philosophy, political history, the arts and literature, film, television, and social-media. Are these the core competencies required of the Associate Deputy-Director Strategy and Performance at the Ministry of Health? They may well be, but the prima facie case is not strong.

Which is why Ms Flora owes New Zealand a comprehensive explanation of how she sees, and how she proposes to carry out, her role. Where, for example, is her duty to respect and protect the citizen’s right to freedom of expression positioned in relation to her understanding of what is likely to cause society as a whole, or a vulnerable sub-section of it, “harm”. How does she define harm? A question which, depending on how Ms Flora answers it, will play a central role in how she carries out her responsibilities.

It is vitally important to remember that freedom of expression relates not only to the citizen’s right to communicate his or her thoughts and emotions to others, but also to their right to have their thoughts and emotions excited and stimulated by the communications of others. Our own Bill of Rights Act spells it out: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.” In other words, the right to emulate Shakespeare, as well as the right to read and watch Shakespeare’s plays.

What threshold will a book, play, film or video have to cross before Ms Flora bans it? Would she consider banning the performance of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice on the grounds that it is antisemitic? Would she ban a film which presented a young person’s decision to transition from female to male in a negative light? Would she pull from the bookshelves a work of history that purported to prove that the chiefs who gathered at Waitangi in 1840 knowingly surrendered their sovereignty to the British Crown? Would she prohibit the distribution of a video depicting Islam as a religion of violence?

One would hope that the new Chief Censor’s answer to each of these questions would be an emphatic “No.” But, considering the censorious times we are living through, it is, sadly, necessary to ask. From the Caucus Room to the Common Room, the urge to shut-down and shut-up those accused of inflicting “harm” on others is strong – and getting stronger.

In the United Nation’s summary of the “International Bill of Human Rights” the notion of harm is spelled out in relation to communications inimical to the free exercise, individually and/or collectively, of those rights and freedoms the International Bill of Human Rights was created to protect. The latter provides for protection of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to freedom of opinion and expression. Significantly, it also calls for the “prohibition by law of any propaganda for war and of any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

If this is Ms Flora’s definition of harmful “speech”, then she will find most New Zealanders are in agreement with her. Incitement of ‘discrimination’, ‘hostility’ and ‘violence’ would strike most of us as a sensible test for determining whether material not already defined as “objectionable” in the legislation establishing the Chief Censor’s office should be deemed so.

Were Ms Flora, in explaining herself to her fellow citizens, to refer approvingly to the legacy of her erudite and classically liberal predecessors, Arthur Everard and Bill Hastings, many of them would breathe a huge sigh of relief. They could then feel reassured that the Chief Censor’s power to rule a particular instance of communication objectionable (invoking all the powerful legal sanctions associated with that term) would be used both wisely and sparingly.

The worry, of course, is that Ms Flora will use the powers of her office to extend its reach into the communication of ideas and policies that, while falling well short of inciting discrimination, hostility or violence, nevertheless are likely to upset and alarm specific individuals or communities.

The new Chief Censor’s background in the upper reaches of the public service raise fears that her institutionally-honed inclination will be to move in the direction of the incumbent government. Given this Government’s growing obsession with misinformation, disinformation and extremism, driven by the Christchurch Mosque Massacres and the Covid-19 Pandemic, it would be helpful to know whether Ms Flora plans to go with the flow, or stand against the tide. Will she be guided by the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism? Or, will she be moved by the definitions of extremism supplied last year to the Department of Internal Affairs by the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue? If it’s the latter, then freedom of expression in New Zealand could take a hit.

This is why the new Chief Censor owes New Zealand a clear explanation of where she stands, and where she would like to go. Ms Flora is taking up office in a climate of deepening antagonisms between ethnicities, identities and faith communities. If the Labour Government’s announced intention to criminalise “hate speech” is expedited by the new Minister of Justice, Kiri Allan, then the Office of the Chief Censor, along with the Human Rights Commission, will find themselves caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. The dual mandate set out by Peter Dunne: to protect New Zealanders from “material likely to cause harm while balancing the important right to freedom of expression” can only become harder and harder to fulfil.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 June 2022.

Monday, 13 June 2022

Beating The Gangs.

Active Shooters: With more than two dozen gang-related drive-by shootings dominating (entirely justifiably) the headlines of the past few weeks, there would be something amiss with our democracy if at least one major political party did not raise the issues of law and order in the most aggressive fashion. (Photo Image: Freeze-frame from CCTV footage of American drive-by shooting.)

IT IS FASHIONABLE, in some quarters, to sneer at political parties who advance the issues of law and order in an election year. As if it is not one of the prime duties of the state to ensure that its citizens live in peace and safety. With more than two dozen gang-related drive-by shootings dominating (entirely justifiably) the headlines of the past few weeks, there would be something amiss with our democracy if at least one major political party did not raise the issues of law and order in the most aggressive fashion.

The National Party has done just that and, over the weekend, spelt out in some detail how it proposes to address the rising level of gang-related violence. For the most part the measures announced: banning the public wearing of gang patches; passing non-consorting legislation; issuing immediate dispersal orders; and empowering the Police to undertake unwarranted firearms searches/seizures; have been borrowed from the Australian states – most particularly, Western Australia.

National’s Police spokesperson, Mark Mitchell, insists that these measures have proved to be highly effective against the Australian gangs. Criminologists and lawyers beg to differ: arguing that the principal effect of this kind of highly intrusive law enforcement is to drive the gangs ever deeper underground. Meaningful engagement with the authorities is rendered even more difficult, and there is an amping-up of the aggro between the “outlaws” and “law-abiding” citizens.

The banning of gang patches, for example, is unlikely to slow down gang members for very long. The most obvious workaround for such a ban would be to substitute the wearing of coloured items for the banned patches. For many years, those associating themselves with the Mongrel Mob have worn red, while their traditional rivals, Black Power, have favoured blue. Any number of indicators might be used to denote a member’s position in the gang hierarchy: bandannas, tattoos, hats, belts, boots. It is hard to see how Parliament could ban the wearing of particular colours or items of clothing without inspiring all manner of legal challenges.

Laws forbidding certain classes of persons from consorting with one another have a long history. The rationale behind such laws is that since most serious crimes require careful organisation and planning, making it a criminal offence for known felons to be found in each other’s company would render the orchestration of criminal activity especially difficult. Australia’s anti-consorting laws not only make it illegal for criminals to communicate face-to-face, but also electronically. Telephoning, texting and e-mailing are verboten, along with social-media messaging and online meetings courtesy of Skype and Zoom.

The issuing of immediate dispersal orders, and the carrying out unwarranted firearm searches and seizures, raise all manner of health and safety objections. It would be a very brave collection of constables that would order a couple of hundred patched gang-members en route to a fallen brother’s funeral to turn their Harley-Davidsons around an go home. How, exactly, would they respond if the gang leader did a quick head-count of the officers present and politely informed them to stick their dispersal order where the sun don’t shine?

“Or you’ll what?”, is the oldest question in law enforcement. (Or politics, for that matter.) Throw a search for unlawful firearms into the situation described above and the potential for serious – even fatal – violence rises exponentially. Simple prudence would suggest that before attempting such measures the Police would first have to assemble an enforcement body of sufficient size and fearsomeness to give even the staunchest gang leader pause.

What’s more, such a force would have to be available more-or-less instantaneously. It took the NZ Police upwards of a week to assemble the 250-500 police officers needed to clear Parliament Grounds of its anti-vaccination protesters. Gang members are not going to sit on the side of the road for a week while the Police assemble a force equal to the task of disarming and dispersing them!

Building-up such a force is not impossible, but it will require a lot of officers, a lot money and a lot of time. What’s more, the existence of such a highly-trained and fearsomely-armed company of Police Praetorians may prove to be no less disconcerting than the gangs they were created to eliminate! Add to this unease the Bill of Rights ramifications of National’s draconian law enforcement proposals, and the chances of their early introduction are slim.

With the National Party Opposition so far declining to confirm the dramatic increase in Police numbers and resources required to implement its tough anti-gang policies, taking its promises seriously is rather difficult. More knee-jerk than needful, perhaps?

To make an appreciable dent in the gang phenomenon, it is necessary to address its principal raison d’être – the making of money. Risking injury, incarceration and death makes sense only when presented with the prospect of massive profits. Eliminating this incentive may be accomplished in two ways: Politicians can reduce the demand for illicit substances and/or services by legalising them. Or, law enforcement agencies can reduce dramatically the supply of these substances/services. This can be achieved by seizing the product, arresting the suppliers, smashing the distribution system, or, preferably, managing to do all three at the same time.

If this is your strategy, then it is brains you need, not brawn. The key to interdicting and reducing the supply of illegal substances/services is intelligence. Law enforcement needs to know where it is coming from and when, who will be carrying it and uplifting it, where it will be stored, and who will be organising its distribution. Discover these facts, and supply cannot help but be disrupted. What’s more, the management structure of the organised criminal enterprises involved will be seriously damaged. Two birds, one stone.

Disrupting supply in this way can be achieved in three ways: by persuading well-informed gangsters to inform on their confederates; by infiltrating undercover operatives into the heart of the criminal organisation; and by using state-of-the-art electronic surveillance techniques to intercept the communications of the criminal organisation. Preferably, all three of the techniques will be used by the Police. Certainly, this was how the five Mafia families of New York were brought down by the FBI in the 1980s.

The drive-by shootings currently plaguing Auckland are a reflection of a supply operation that has grown either too loose or too tight. Control of “the corners” (as they used to say in the TV series The Wire) is being contested by The Tribesmen and The Killer Beez because there is either an over-supply of product and one gang is attempting to seize the entire market for itself, or, there is a shortage of product and the two gangs are competing for the corners (distribution points) because until one or the other controls the lot, their respective operations will become increasingly unprofitable.

The National Party Opposition would be better employed talking to the Police Commissioner about the best ways to hack the communications of the distributors as well as the suppliers of illegal substances and services. It is difficult to shoot up somebody’s house if you are intercepted en route, your weapons confiscated, and you are sent down for criminal conspiracy to commit murder for five years.

In the immortal words of Sun Tzu: “Foreknowledge cannot be gotten from ghosts and spirits, cannot be had by analogy, cannot be found out by calculation. It must be obtained from people, people who know the conditions of the enemy.”

Gang violence will not be ended by politicians getting tougher, but by police officers getting smarter.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 13 June 2022.