Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Hooked On A Feeling: There Was Nothing Rational About Brexit.

Britain's Bellwether: The big vote for "Leave" in Sunderland was the first sign that Britain was on the way out of the European Union. But why did Sunderland, a strongly regenerating industrial city, not grasp the rational arguments for EU membership? Because rationality had nothing to do with how people voted. As always in politics, it was about power and control. Who had it - and who didn't.
 
SUNDERLAND was Britain’s bellwether. When the news came through on (our) Friday morning that 61 percent of its citizens had voted to leave the European Union (EU) the Pound went into freefall. Suddenly, the political class’s smug confidence that Britain would remain in the EU was exposed as wishful thinking. If the prosperous, go-ahead city of Sunderland had decided not to stay, then, clearly, Britain was leaving.
 
Sunderland prosperous and go-ahead? Well, yes, apparently. Once famed for its shipbuilding, coal-mining and glass manufacturing, this classic north-east English industrial city (roughly the size of Christchurch) has certainly experienced some very hard times over the past forty years. Today, however, it ranks as one of Britain’s more successful “regenerating” communities. The automobile manufacturer, Nissan, set up shop in 1986, and Sunderland now boasts Britain’s largest car factory. More recently, the city’s burgeoning service sector lifted Sunderland into Britain’s top seven “intelligent” cities.
 
From this distance, the temptation is to imagine a stereotypical group of cloth-capped, blue-collared, left-behind “Mackem”, sitting in the pub and jeering whenever a “Remain” campaigner appeared the TV to warn them of the serious economic consequences should Britain vote to leave.
 
“Eee, by heck, lad, yer cam oop ‘ere and tell us abart ‘serious economic consequences’, and we’ll sha yer tee rotting docks and tee closed pits and send yer back tee London and all yer canny mates wi’ tee message that lee-if oop ‘ere could ‘ardly git any worse!”
 
In Maggie Thatcher’s Britain of the1980s, maybe. But not in the “Sunlun” of 2016.
 
On the basis of Sunderland’s recent economic performance, the response of its overwhelmingly working-class population to the EU Referendum was expected to reflect a cautious optimism. It is, after all, a city in which upwards of 60 percent of citizens own their own homes, and where large numbers of young people are taking full advantage of its expanding tertiary education sector. Sunderland is also an overwhelmingly white city, with fewer than 10 percent non-white residents.
 
Why then did it vote so decisively to leave the EU?
 
Exactly the same question is being asked by members of the political class from all over Britain – and the world. Wasn’t “Remain” the only rational choice? Even with all its flaws, weren’t the British people indisputably better off within the EU than without it? Obviously, voting to “Leave” was politically irrational. It made no sense. Why would anyone do it?
 
But leaving the EU was never about behaving rationally. Those asking their fellow Britons to vote for “Leave” were speaking directly to their hearts – not their heads. Overwhelmingly, the people who voted “Leave” in the referendum were guided by how they felt about themselves; their community; and their nation. And these feelings, like just about everything else in politics, were driven by issues of power and control.
 
Do you feel in control of your life? Do you feel in control of your community? Do you feel in control of your country? Do you feel in control of your future? Who has power over you? Who do you exercise power over?
 
To those whose employment is both precarious and/or oppressive, the sense of being in control of one’s life is weak. The sense of being at the mercy of others, on the other hand, is very strong.
 
The presence of EU immigrants in British communities, with all the attendant pressures on local housing, health, education and employment, not only fuelled anger and prejudice, but also stoked a deep sense of powerlessness. The EU’s rules had steadily eroded local communities’ power to decide who could, and could not, join their ranks. It was a power they were anxious to reclaim.
 
The growing realisation that the candidates chosen by both major parties were fundamentally out-of-sync with the values and aspirations of the people they purported to represent was alienating significant numbers of voters from the entire electoral process. Democracy means “power is exercised by the people”, but more and more of the British people were beginning to feel that they no longer exercised any power at all.
 
The flipside to these feelings of diminishing power and control were identifiable in that fraction of the British population who experienced their country’s membership of the EU as both liberating and empowering. Far from feeling oppressed in their working lives, these folk saw the EU as the bringer of ever more exciting opportunities. They welcomed the growing diversity of Britain’s communities and regarded migrants as exciting and valuable additions to the national mix. Nor were they alienated by the sort of people ending up in Parliament. In their eyes, at least, they were admirably representative.
 
Feeling thus ruled both sides. “Remainers” clearly believed a majority of Britons shared their positive feelings towards the EU. “Do they heck as like!”, responded the good folk of Sunderland.
 
This essay was originally posted on the Stuff website on Monday, 27 June 2016.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Four Limericks On The Friday Britain Took Her Leave.

Or Not: David Cameron's future as Britain's Prime Minister looks decidedly shaky in the aftermath of Britain's narrow, 52-48 percent, decision to leave the European Union. Cameron wagered everything on his country voting to remain in the EU - and lost. Anyone for Boris?
 
1.
 
William, with a conqueror’s grin,
Told the English: “It looks like you’re ‘In’!”
But, after one thousand years,
It’s all ending in tears.
Europe’s welcome has worn wafer thin.
 
2. 

Sheffield used to make knives, forks and spoons,
And sang all of the Left’s favourite tunes,
Until Labour’s “Remain!”,
Drove it’s voters insane,
And now UKIP is over the moon!
 
3.
 
Scotland’s voters were all shouting “Boo!”
As the Sassenachs turned England blue.
“If you all lack the brain
To vote for ‘Remain’,
Well then, fuck-it-all – we’re leaving too!” 

4.
 
Nigel Farage cried: “Look what we’ve got,
Without having to fire one shot!”
He’s forgetting the price,
That Jo Cox was shot thrice,
In the name of – come on Nigel – What?
 

These limericks were originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 24 June 2016.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

God’s Bigots: The Religious Origins Of Homophobia.

Owen Jones Takes Offence: Dismayed at British Sky Television's handling of the Orlando Massacre, left-wing author and LGBTI activist, Owen Jones, gets ready to disengage from the live media review in which he is participating. Owen's viewpoint, that Orlando should be seen purely and simply as a homophobic atrocity, not an Islamic terrorist attack, while understandable, is, nevertheless, an oversimplification.
 
OWEN JONES: democratic socialist, LGBTI activist and Guardian journalist: takes homophobia seriously. So seriously, that earlier this week he pulled off his microphone and stormed out of Britain’s Sky News studio in protest at the network’s treatment of the Orlando massacre.
 
To Jones, what happened in Orlando was very simple: more than a hundred people had been killed or wounded by a gun-wielding assailant because they were gay. Before it was anything else, Jones declared, Orlando was a homophobic atrocity – the worst since the Second World War. Alleged connections with ISIS; the assailant’s religious beliefs; these were secondary to the killer’s primary motivation, which was, according to Jones, the violent erasure of LGBTI identity.
 
Watching the video, it is easy to see why Jones became so irate. There is an unmistakeable tone of correction in the presenter’s voice when he emphasises the victims’ humanity over their sexuality. It was almost as if he felt unable to identify with the dead and wounded until they had been redefined into persons for whom he could legitimately grieve. Not queers, but “human-beings”.
 
Jones had been invited into the Sky studio to discuss the way the news media had presented the tragedy. This was, of course, why Jones was so angry. The dominant theme of the British and American coverage was that Orlando represented yet another Islamic terrorist assault upon the “freedoms” and “tolerance” of the enlightened and democratic West. The homophobia which drove Omar Mateen to gun down the LGBTI patrons of the Pulse nightclub was thus elided in favour of a more comfortable narrative: “They [ISIS, Radical Islam] hate us [The West] because of our freedom.”
 
What must also be acknowledged, however, is that Jones’ determination to keep the focus squarely on Mateen’s homophobic motivation, itself begs the question of what made Mateen a homophobe in the first place? In this regard, Jones’ determination to dismiss the killer’s religious beliefs – along with his declared allegiance to ISIS – as matters irrelevant to his homophobic actions, is, almost certainly, misguided.
 
If we reject the proposition that homophobia is genetically predetermined, then we must accept it as a socially constructed phenomenon. In the simplest terms: homophobes are not born, they are made.
 
And if homophobia is a social construction, then we must acknowledge the important roles played by powerful societal institutions – including organised religion – in its creation. The Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; all of them militantly monotheistic and aggressively patriarchal; have always dealt harshly with homosexuality and lesbianism. Those found guilty of such “abominations” were to be put to death.
 
It is only in the course of the last half-century that Western statute law has ceased to offer powerful secular reinforcement to these religious strictures. Meanwhile, in the overwhelming majority of Islamic countries, homosexual conduct continues to rank as a capital offence. Even where more liberal and permissive penal codes now prevail, the legacy of organised religion’s condemnation of homosexuality is a strong one. In a great many parts of the supposedly “tolerant” West, anti-homosexual prejudice – homophobia – continues to lurk just below the surface.
 
How disturbing the apprehension of this intolerance must be for those whose sexual orientation is other than heterosexual. In communities where homophobic antagonism is construed by family and friends, employers and workmates, as obedience to the will of God, the situation for LGBTI individuals is much, much worse. Constantly being made aware of one’s “otherness”, while not being able to either acknowledge it, or escape it, can only generate the most acute psychological stress.
 
Was Omar Mateen gay? Quite possibly. Patrons of the Pulse nightclub remember him, but only as a loner, someone who held himself aloof from the club’s easy-going conviviality. His first wife remembers him as an angry man, from whose violent behaviour she had ultimately to be rescued by her family. Looking at his many brooding selfies, the world will remember Mateen as someone determined to present his best possible face to the world.
 
And that could never be his gay face. Was this the crucial negation which fuelled his anger and twisted his perceptions? When he saw two men kissing in a Miami street, did he envy their freedom or resent it? Unlike him, they appeared to fear neither God’s punishment, nor their families’ rejection. How had they done it? How had they moved beyond sin, beyond shame? He could not be such a person. He would not be such a person. He would ask God to make him a different person – a righteous person. He would wage a jihad against his own desires.
 
In the end, did he despair of ever defeating those desires? Is that when he began to fantasise about martyring himself in the holy war against Western corruption? In the online communities of Islamic fundamentalism he would have found plenty of encouragement. Paradise awaited those who fell in the battle against the sinners; the unbelievers; the enemies of God.
 
The operator who took Mateen’s 911 call, just minutes before he unleashed hell at the Pulse nightclub, described him as sounding “calm”. In his final moments, before a hail of Police bullets cut him down, witnesses similarly recalled his calm, untroubled demeanour.
 
These descriptions do not conform with Owen Jones’ characterisation of the killer as some sort of enraged, frothing-at-the-mouth, homophobic thug. It does, however, sound remarkably similar to the descriptions of the early Christian martyrs as they waited to be torn to pieces in the amphitheatres of Ancient Rome.
 
It is what religion does to people: it transforms their world.
 
For the early Christian martyrs, the evil arrayed against them was not a barrier, but a portal, to the presence of God. For the contemporary soldiers of Islam, dutifully slaying God’s enemies, Paradise awaits.
 
On that terrible Sunday morning, where did the broken human vessel that was Omar Mateen believe himself to be standing? At the gates of heaven? In God’s favour? Or, was the Pulse nightclub simply the place where he killed himself – forty-nine times?
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 18 June 2016.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Defending What? Against Whom?

Are Armed Forces A Necessary Evil? Conservatives assert that government’s highest priority is, and must remain, the protection of its people from armed assault by foreign and/or domestic enemies. A state that can neither defend its borders, nor protect its citizens, is hardly worthy of the name. But, if national defence does not mean ensuring the basic welfare (Health, Education, Housing, Employment) of every citizen – then what does it mean?
 
IF POLITICS is the language of priorities, then we have been left in no doubt as to how this government ranks the importance of housing and defence. Twenty billion dollars, over the next 15 years, will be spent on weapons of war. Though the outcry against homelessness grows louder every day, hardly a voice has been raised in protest at this monstrous outlay on the NZ Defence Force.
 
How to explain this reluctance to compare the Government’s willingness to expend more than a billion additional dollars every year, for 15 years, on new and improved weaponry, with its unwillingness to expend a similar sum on the construction of homes for New Zealand’s poorest citizens?

No doubt conservatives would respond by asserting that government’s highest priority is, and must remain, the protection of its people from armed assault by foreign and/or domestic enemies. A state that can neither defend its borders, nor protect its citizens, is hardly worthy of the name.
 
Conservatives would further insist that, since a small nation like New Zealand will forever be dependent on the willingness of larger powers to come to its defence, it must be prepared to “pull its weight” military expenditure-wise. Expecting our friends to pour out their blood and treasure in our defence, when we are unwilling to do the same, is not only unrealistic – it’s morally indefensible.
 
But this romantic – almost chivalric – understanding of national defence bears little resemblance to the brute historical realities of international conflict. Blood and treasure are almost never poured out for purposes unrelated to either expanding the borders, or defending the interests, of the state/s doing the pouring.
 
If the only arguments in favour of military intervention are moral arguments, then it is most unlikely to happen. How many nations with the military capability to do so intervened in time to prevent the Rwandan genocide? None. Contrast that fatal inaction with the number of New Zealand’s “friends” who joined in the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a ruined nation which posed no threat to its neighbours – let alone its aggressors.
 
The eminent Jewish scientist and historian, Jacob Bronowski, described war as “organised theft”. How many equally wise scientists and historians would be prepared to argue that war is organised morality? (Acknowledging that nearly all American politicians, and an alarming number of their British and Australian counterparts, believe that war and morality go together like apple and pie!)
 
A more realistic assessment of New Zealand’s national security (or lack of it) would take as its starting point our extraordinary geographical isolation. So far away are we from the rest of the world that only a major military power could hope to assail our shores. That being the case, we need to ask ourselves what other major power would be willing to prevent such an assault – and why? The blunt answer is that any intervention on our behalf would be undertaken solely on strategic grounds. If the subjugation of New Zealand was deemed inimical to the interests of the United States and Australia, then they would hasten to our defence. If not, they wouldn’t. The capability and readiness of our miniscule armed forces would not materially alter their calculations. Although, it’s at least arguable that the weaker we are, the quicker they’ll come.
 
Perhaps, therefore, we should follow the example of Costa Rica and abolish our armed forces altogether. On 1 December 1948, following a bloody civil war, the President of Costa Rica announced the abolition of that country’s armed forces. His decision was confirmed the following year in Article 12 of the Costa Rican constitution. The monies previously spent on the military were reallocated to education and culture. The maintenance of internal security was left to the Police.
 
Why not do the same? We already have the SIS to warn us of terrorist attack. Protecting our fisheries could become the task of a specialised division of the Ministry of Primary Industries. Defence against cyber-attacks could, similarly, become the responsibility of a special unit within the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management.
 
Imagine the number of state houses and affordable apartments this country could build over the next 15 years with even half the $20 billion currently promised to the NZ Defence Force. Surely, in a democratic state, it is the adequate provision of health, education, housing and employment that should take priority over the vast sums required to purchase the most up-to-date weapons of war? If national defence does not mean ensuring the basic welfare of every citizen – then what does it mean?
 
As the Costa Rican President realised 68 years ago, if you maintain a body of armed men, then they will forever be searching for opportunities to use their weapons. If not provided with foreign foes to fight, they will start looking for enemies at home.
 
This essay was originally posted on the Stuff website on Monday, 13 June, and published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 June 2016.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Ideal & The Real: The BDS Movement And Palestine's Future.

Idealists Or Realists? Sadly, the BDS Movement is a work of idealism, not realism. Its demand that the Israelis concede the Palestinians’ so called “Right of Return” is particularly unrealistic. Only an idealist could make such a demand. Because only an idealist could believe that Israel would ever accede to its own dissolution.
 
THE GREATEST ENEMY of the peoples of the Middle East is idealism. It was the idealism of the Zionists that led them to Palestine. Likewise, the idealism of the American Neo-Conservatives that led them to Iraq. The young idealists who gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square wished for a democratic Egypt – only to reject it in favour of military intervention when their wish came true. Idealism is hard to please. It does not compromise. Neither does it surrender. Idealists cry – “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!” – though very few of them are to be found living in the ruins. That’s because idealists are very good at lighting fires, and notoriously bad at putting them out. Why else does Syria continue to burn?
 
As their starting point, those who call themselves “realists” do not judge the world according to how it should be, but as it is. Unlike the idealists, they are always willing to compromise. In the ears of the realist, “surrender” is not a dirty word. They understand that to secure peace, it is sometimes necessary for one side to give up the fight. Realists understand that the cry for perfect justice is all-too-often a cry for perpetual war.
 
Peace in Northern Ireland was not negotiated by idealists, but by realists. Peace in Palestine will, likewise, be the achievement of those who begin with the situation as it is, not as it should be, or, as it was.
 
The Zionists have been in Palestine since the end of the nineteenth century. For more than 100 years, they have waged an unceasing – and largely successful – struggle to transform Palestine into Israel. Since November 1917, their staunchest allies in this endeavour have been the world’s pre-eminent powers: first Great Britain and then the United States.
 
In these circumstances the restoration of the status quo ante is simply not a realistic option. Nor is a recourse to force majeure. Three times that has been attempted (1948, 1967, 1973) and three times it has failed. What’s more, if threatened with imminent destruction, the State of Israel now possesses sufficient nuclear firepower to turn the entire Middle East into a radioactive wasteland. No one would be found living in those ruins.
 
All of which raises the question: Is the current Palestinian-initiated campaign to boycott, divest, and impose sanctions on Israel (the BDS Movement) the work of idealists or realists?
 
Sadly, the BDS Movement is a work of idealism, not realism. While it is not inconceivable that the Golan Heights may one day be returned to Syria (or whatever entities succeed that tragic state) as part of a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel, it is very difficult to conceive of a situation in which the Israeli Government would agree to empty the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Any attempt to do so would be politically suicidal.
 
The BDS Movement’s final demand: that the Israelis concede the Palestinians’ so called “Right of Return” is even less likely to be met. Only an idealist could make such a demand. Because only an idealist could believe that Israel would ever accede to its own dissolution.
 
The “Right of Return” is the supreme example of the Palestinians’ belief that a return to the status quo ante (i.e. the legal situation that prevailed before the outbreak of full-scale war between Israelis and Arabs in 1948) is possible.
 
Elderly Palestinians who fled their farms and villages in 1948 speak openly of reclaiming their property from its Israeli possessors. Many still keep the keys to the houses they abandoned at the outbreak of the war. Even though the vast majority of Palestinians living today were not born in 1948, the “Right of Return” remains non-negotiable. Palestine is their home – and they will settle for nothing less.
 
From the perspective of the Israelis, however, the “Right of Return” is regarded as code for the destruction of the State of Israel. Not all Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1948, say the Zionists, many left voluntarily – confident of reclaiming their property the moment the invading armies of Israel’s Arab neighbours had driven the Jews into the sea. Fortunately for the Jews, say the Zionists, the Palestinians lost their bet. Israel won the war and Palestine ceased to exist as anything other than a geographical/historical expression.
 
The Palestinians reject this description utterly. In their eyes, the geographical/historical entity known as Israel has erected a racist state comparable to Apartheid South Africa, which must be given no legitimacy while the territory’s original, Palestinian, inhabitants remain dispossessed of both their land and their rights.
 
While the “Right of Return” remains non-negotiable, the Realists’ “Two State Solution” (in which an independent Palestinian State is erected on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip) remains dead in the water. While the Palestinians refuse to accept that the status quo prevailing within the British Mandate of Palestine’s 1948 borders can never be restored, the Israeli settlers on the West Bank will never be persuaded to dismantle their communities.
 
Which also means that while the BDS Movement continues to demand the Palestinians’ “Right of Return” its chances of success remain slim. Already Israel’s allies in the USA, the UK and the EU are mobilising their considerable political and media resources to thwart its divestment campaign and to brand its leading activists and supporters anti-Semites.
 
Within Israel itself, the sense of being isolated and “persecuted” by individuals, organisations and nation states hell-bent on its destruction has already driven its domestic politics sharply to the right. Far from weakening the power of Zionism over Israeli society, the BDS Movement is strengthening its grip.
 
How ironic it would be if the actions of the BDS Movement, and other like-minded NGOs, succeeded in transforming the 93-year-old proposal of Zionism’s most extreme advocate, Vladimir Jabotinsky, into the only “realistic” alternative.
 
In 1923, Jabotinsky wrote:
 
Thus we conclude that we cannot promise anything to the Arabs of the Land of Israel or the Arab countries. Their voluntary agreement is out of the question. Hence those who hold that an agreement with the natives is an essential condition for Zionism can now say “no” and depart from Zionism. Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy.
 
The Israeli Government has already constructed a concrete wall to both contain and constrain the lives of the Palestinians within the territory it occupies. How long can it be before an unrepentent Zionism pushes every last member of Palestine’s “native population” beyond an all-encompassing “iron wall” that cannot be broken through?
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Saturday, 11 June 2016.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Red & Green Must Move Beyond Left & Right.

Sharp Focus: An alarming lack of spin-control by Labour and the Greens meant that for several days the story of their "understanding" went flapping-off in all directions – many of them extremely negative. It was only after Andrew Little had delivered his rip-roaring speech to the Greens’ AGM, and been eloquently seconded by the Green co-leader, James Shaw, that the virtues of the new relationship finally came into focus.
 
THE ANNOUNCEMENT LAST WEEK of an “understanding” between Labour and the Greens demonstrated the critical importance of spin-control. Given less than an hour’s notice that something big was in the offing, most – perhaps all – of the Parliamentary Press Gallery was left guessing.
 
Given that journalists, no less than Cabinet Ministers, hate surprises, this was remarkable. Worse still, it was the sort of behaviour that makes journalists wonder why they expend so much energy building relationships of trust and confidence with senior politicians and their spin-doctors.
 
If something big is looming, the expectation of the fourth estate is that it will be given slightly more than an hour’s warning. A little help in answering those five all-important questions – What? Who? When? Where? Why? – while not mandatory, is also appreciated.
 
The major consequence this curious deficiency in spin-control from Labour and the Greens is that for several days the story went flapping-off in all directions – many of them extremely negative. It was only on Saturday, after Andrew Little had delivered his rip-roaring speech to the Greens’ AGM, and been eloquently seconded by the Green co-leader, James Shaw, that the virtues of the Red-Green “understanding” finally came into focus.
 
Whatever the reason for Labour’s and the Greens’ initial failures in communication (and there are some intriguing explanations currently doing the rounds) the clear priority, now, is for the news media to continue debating the political meaning of this new Red-Green entente.
 
The most important question arising out of this debate is: Will the new relationship grow or shrink the combined Labour-Green Party Vote?
 
The current journalistic consensus holds that it will shrink.
 
Under the new relationship, runs this argument, the Greens can only increase their support at Labour’s expense; leaving Labour to grow its vote at the expense of National and NZ First. This strategy is unlikely to bear the required electoral fruit, however, because neither National nor NZ First voters will embrace a government-in-waiting which includes the ‘weird and wacky’, ‘Far Left’, Greens.
 
Those advancing this argument go further: insisting that not only will Labour be unable to attract the 5-10 percentage points it needs from National and NZ First if it and the Greens are to win a plurality of the Party Vote, but also that Labour’s more conservative supporters – alarmed by their party’s new relationship with the ‘weird and wacky’, ‘Far Left’, Greens – will desert Labour for the altogether more familiar fleshpots of Winston Peters and the Tories.
 
The alternative – much more optimistic – argument in favour of the new relationship takes as its starting-point an alleged majority of voters’ disquiet with the way New Zealand society is developing. This disquiet, it is claimed, extends right across the traditional political spectrum. It is fuelled by a deep concern that the nation has lost its way: that far too many New Zealanders are turning their faces from the demonstrable distress of their fellow citizens; and that unless there is an immediate and radical change of direction, then the country they grew up in, the country they love, will become unrecognisable.
 
For a change in voting behaviour on this scale to have the slightest hope of occurring, Labour and the Greens will have to convince the electorate that the 2017 election is not going to be a battle between Left and Right, but between simple human decency and self-centred social indifference.
 
The choice Labour-Green needs to be offering voters is: to start moving forward again as a nation; or, to continue the present downward slide into more inequality, more poverty.
 
Crucial to the success of this strategy will be the degree to which the Labour-Green alliance can convince the nation that it’s the Right – not the Left – who have become slaves to an ideology. Labour and the Greens must persuade voters that theirs are the policies offering practical, common-sense solutions; and that if New Zealanders want to be part of a progressive future, then they must reject the regressive policies of a ruthless, market-driven dogma that is demonstrably failing.
 
The great virtue of this argument is that it reserves for Winston Peters and his voters an honourable and influential role in the destruction of the present government, as well as in constructing the next.
 
John Key’s reign will not be ended by one party, or two. It’s going to take the whole Opposition.
 
UPDATE: Following the announcement of the Red-Green "understanding", Colmar-Brunton's pollsters registered a statistically significant shift towards Labour of approximately 5 percentage points. This additional support had, however, come at the expense of NZ First and the Greens. National's support hardly budged. It is, of course, early days, but this result suggests that the anti-Government vote is beginning to consolidate around the Labour Party, as those who had more-or-less given up on Labour ever getting its act together thankfully return to the fold. - C.T.
 
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, 10 June 2016.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Judging Our Leaders By What They Mean To Say.

Right Place, Right Time, Right People: Andrew Little earned a standing ovation from Green Party members for his speech to their AGM, held in Lincoln over Queens's Birthday Weekend. (4-6/6/16) He was followed by the Greens' Co-Leader, James Shaw, who delivered the best speech of his career. Wouldn't it be nice if our political leaders were judged by these considered and deliberate statements of their political intent, rather than by the "Gotcha!" journalism of today's news media?
 
HOW DIFFERENT politics would be if our political leaders were judged solely by the force of their public speeches. Fanciful though it may sound to twenty-first century ears, a good or bad speech could make or break the politicians of yesteryear. It’s why such political giants as Winston Churchill devoted so many hours to perfecting the wording and delivery of their public utterances. It’s why Abraham Lincoln will forever be associated with the 266 words he penned on the train to Gettysburg. Likewise, but in darker hues, can anyone imagine a successful Adolf Hitler without the extraordinary power of his public oratory?
 
Had these giants of yesteryear been subject to the unending and intimate scrutiny of today’s political leaders would they have succeeded? Would Churchill be remembered for his inspiring wartime speeches, or for the screaming newspaper headline: “Lazy Winston’s silk undies!” Would the fledgling Republican Party have pinned their hopes on such a peculiar-looking candidate as Abe Lincoln? Or would their media advisors have ruled out broadcasting so odd a face into the living-rooms of America? Could Hitler have survived the Twitter flash: “Adolf and Geli! Keeping it all in the family?”
 
These were the questions that occurred to me as I watched first Andrew Little, and then James Shaw, address the Annual General Meeting of the Greens last Saturday afternoon. What if these two speeches were all that we, the voters, had with which to assess Labour and the Greens?
 
Both addresses were well constructed, well written, and surprisingly well delivered.
 
James Shaw, in particular, was visibly buoyed by the audience’s reception. Having heard him speak on a number of occasions, I was not expecting much more than an adequate presentation. Even with an excellent text to read from, Shaw’s past performances have typically involved considerably more wood than fire.  Not so on Saturday. As the audience – already heated by Little’s rousing address – stamped their feet and cheered, Shaw braced himself against their warm gusts of positivity and, digging deep, found that magic vocal register which at once reassures and inspires a political audience.
 
“I want to give New Zealand a better vision of the future”, Shaw effused. “It’s a future where, on your weekends away, you’ll go to sleep at night safely knowing that the same beach that you’re enjoying will be there for future generations, unthreatened by rising seas. In the morning, you’ll be woken by a dawn chorus from flocks of birds that once bordered on extinction. After lunch you’ll pack the family into your electric car and head safely home on uncongested roads while your kids count the containers on the freight trains running on the tracks alongside you. If you’ve got time, you might even stop by a river on your way home – and actually swim in it!”
 
So vociferous was the audience’s response that the static camera through which the event was being streamed live across the Internet actually began to shake on its tripod. It was only when I glanced at the meter displaying the number of people logged-on that I realised how very few we were. While I watched, it never registered more than 172 viewers.
 
Five hundred people, tops, would have absorbed the messages that Little and Shaw delivered live on Saturday afternoon. (Although, it must be admitted, tens-of-thousands more may have tuned-in to watch the one-to-two minute clips of the event broadcast on the six o’clock news.) What is undeniable, however, is that how the event should be framed, and which tiny fraction of the two speeches should be broadcast, were decisions over which neither Little nor Shaw exercised the slightest control.
 
Eighty years ago, Labour’s first Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, got over this problem by legislating for the live broadcasting of Parliament. Notwithstanding the near universal media hostility, Labour’s leaders were soon able to communicate directly with their supporters. Tens-of-thousands tuned-in to hear the parliamentary debates that changed a nation. Speeches were more important than ever.
 
The opening of Labour’s 1984 election campaign is the last time I can recall a party leader’s speech being broadcast live to the nation. David Lange’s minders were biting their nails, but the moment the big man opened his mouth it was clear their fears were groundless. Lange’s rhetoric, to paraphrase Labour’s campaign anthem, soon lifted them up where they belonged.
 
So, the next time you see Andrew Little rear like a startled draughthorse as the camera lights are switched on, and the microphones, like snakes’ heads, are thrust under his chin, ask yourself whether this is the sort of test which the great leaders of the past (or, indeed, any ordinary person) could have taken in their stride?
 
If our leaders are no longer judged by their speeches: but by their gaffes; in what way is our democracy improved?
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 June 2016.