Thursday, 23 March 2017

New Zealand’s First “Revenge Raid” – Surafend, Palestine, 1918.

Troopers of the NZ Machine Gun Squadron, NZ Mounted Rifles Brigade, Palestine, 1918.
 
The shocking events described by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson in Hit and Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the Meaning of Honour are not without precedent in the history of New Zealand’s military engagements overseas. In the tiny Palestinian village of Surafend, in the final days of 1918, New Zealand troops participated in what was indisputably a serious war crime. The parallels with the SAS “Revenge Raid” of August 2010 are striking. The Surafend Massacre was also sparked by the killing of a New Zealand soldier. It, too, was a  murderous “fiasco”, the details of which were kept from the New Zealand public for many years. This, as best as I can determine, is what happened.
 
 
THE WAR WAS OVER. At the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month 1918, the fighting ceased. For the men of the New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron, and all the other troopers of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade encamped among the barren sandhills of central Palestine, that single fact was all that mattered.
 
But, as the weeks passed, the war’s end, while obviously a source of immense relief, had also become the cause of intense frustration. Now that their job was done; now that the killing had stopped; now that they had survived; all these men wanted to do was go home.
 
 
WHEN Trooper Leslie Lowry pulled his kit-bag under his head on the night of 9 December 1918 it was to home that his thoughts inevitably wandered. Wrapped in his blanket to ward off the late autumn chill, he lay motionless beneath the low canvass ceiling of his tent thinking of New Zealand until, lulled by the companionable snorting of the tethered horses, he drifted off to sleep.
 
An hour later he awoke with a start to feel his kit-bag/pillow being unceremoniously yanked from under his head. He scrambled out of the tent, stumbling in the sand as he pulled on his trousers, and shouting at the top of his voice to the men on sentry duty:
 
“Stop him! Stop that little bastard – he’s stolen my kit-bag!”
 
The thief was clearly visible in the moonlight, weaving in and out of the thorn bushes that dotted the sandhills.
 
Trooper Lowry had always been a good runner and he proved it now by sprinting after his quarry like a huntaway. Within seconds he’d caught up with the man who’d stolen his property.
 
“You give that back – you thieving little swine!”
 
For a moment the New Zealander and the Palestinian faced each other, breathing heavily. In the distance both of them could hear the shouts of the alerted sentries and the alarmed whinnying of the horses.
 
“Come on mate,” said Lowry, speaking in what he hoped was a more reasonable tone, “you’re not going anywhere. Hand it over.”
 
The Palestinian said nothing. Instead, he reached into the folds of his caftan and pulled out a heavy Webly revolver, retrieved six months earlier from the corpse of a British officer. Pointing it at the New Zealander’s chest – he fired.
 
Lowry sank slowly to his knees, hands fluttering uselessly as blood spouted from the neat little hole in his chest, pouring out through his fingers and down over his bare stomach. Without a word he toppled over onto his side, an awkward, quivering bundle in the cold sand.
 
The Palestinian turned and ran off into the darkness.
 
 
THE news of trooper Lowry’s death spread rapidly – and its effect was devastating. For a man to have come through everything the NZ Mounted Rifles had endured, only to be murdered by an Arab thief just weeks before sailing for home, was almost too much for his comrades to bear.
 
“He was unarmed for Christ’s sake! The thief must have seen that. What kind of man calmly shoots an unarmed man, at point-blank range, for the sake of a bloody kit-bag?”
 
“We’re not going to take this lying down – I don’t care what the Heads say. This is too bloody much. Come on you blokes, it should be easy enough to track the bastard through all this sand. Look! – there are his footprints!
 
“You three, go back and round up the rest of the Squadron – and see if you can get some of the Aussies from the Light Horse to join us. We’re going to track this murdering bastard back to the hole he came from and cork it up tight. Make sure he’s still there in the morning when the Red-Caps arrive.”
 
The thief’s footprints led the New Zealanders and their Australian allies across the sand to the nearby Palestinian village of Surafend. Within the hour they had set up a tight military cordon around the cluster of stone houses: no one was permitted to enter or leave.
 
 
THE morning light came slanting down into the village of Surafend and illuminated the faces of the New Zealand and Australian troopers encircling it. But the rising sun brought no Military Police. Indeed, having being informed of the murder of Trooper Lowry and the situation at Surafend by the Australian and New Zealand Divisional Commander, Major-General Edward Chaytor, General Headquarters had peremptorily ordered the cordon lifted. There would be no official investigation, no Red Caps, no arrests. By the afternoon of 10 December all the troopers who had surrounded Surafend were back behind their tent-lines, allowing a steady stream of Palestinian men to make their way out of the village without hindrance.
 
Trooper Lowry’s comrades were furious.
 
“I don’t believe this – I simply don’t believe this! How can the bloody British just sit there, knowing that a soldier of the Empire has been murdered, and do nothing about it?”
 
“You know the Heads. There’ll be some behind-the-scenes skulduggery between the British and that Arab king Lawrence has been squiring around. The last thing they want is any ‘unpleasantness’ – nothing to upset the ‘delicate diplomacy’ between His Majesty’s Government and the leaders of the Arab tribes. What’s one Kiwi digger’s life compared to ‘the future of the Middle East?’”
 
“It’s just like that bloody fiasco at Ain Es Sir – remember? When our lot were sent back to help the Circassians and the ungrateful little bastards ambushed us. Nobody did anything about the men they killed there either.”
 
“Well that’s not going to happen this time. I’ve been talking to the men. They’re ready to do something on their own. And there’s a swag of blokes in the Light Horse who’ll join us. The Aussies are as sick of this turning a blind eye to theft and murder as we are. I hear there’s even a few Brits willing to do their bit.”
 
“Do what?”
 
“We’re going to pay the village of Surafend a little visit. And if they refuse to hand over the bastard who shot Les, we’ll administer some justice of our own – ANZAC-style.”
 
 
THERE was fear in the eyes of the women, children and old men of Surafend as they were assembled in front of the village well. These strange men from distant lands said little, but their gestures were clear enough. Holding the pick-axe handles they were carrying with both hands, they pushed and prodded the little huddle in the direction they wanted them to travel – out of the village and up into the sandhills. One of the old men pleaded with his grim shepherds.
 
“We are friends,” he cried in heavily accented English, “friends of the British.”
 
“You may be friends of the British,” hissed one of the troopers, pushing the old man back into the huddle, “but you’re no friends of ours.”
 
“Keep them well back!” Someone shouted. “Well back.”
 
From the crest of the big sandhill overlooking Surafend, the little huddle watched as around 200 troopers closed in on their homes. In addition to pick-axe handles, the New Zealanders and Australians were armed with the heavy, canvass-sheathed chains used to haul supply wagons and field guns. They were eerily silent, and the expressions their faces wore were hard – very hard.
 
“We want the man who shot Trooper Leslie Lowry.” The leader of the troopers was speaking slowly and very clearly to the village headman. “We tracked him to this village. If he’s not here, we want to know where we can find him. Lead us to him, now, and nothing will happen to you and your people. Refuse, and ….” The trooper cast a meaningful glance at the mute formation drawn up behind him.”
 
The Palestinian looked into the eyes of the New Zealander standing before him. Neither man moved a muscle. Then, drawing himself up to his full height, the headman leaned forward to within a few inches of the New Zealander’s face, and speaking in a clear voice so all the men of his village could hear, he said:
 
“Get your infidel dogs out of my village!”
 
And spat in the trooper’s face.
 
A roar, deep and guttural, leapt from the throats of all the men present, and both sides lunged towards the other. The troopers swung their pick-axe handles high and brought them down with deadly force. The heavy chains hissed and whistled. The air was filled with the sickening sound of wood and metal connecting with human bone and tissue. Men screamed, fell, and lay still, but still the Palestinians continued to hurl themselves upon the troopers.
 
“Allahu Akbar! They cried. “God is Great!”
 
“Get them! Get the bastards!” Shouted the troopers.
 
From a distance it was all-too-clear how the fight would end. The villagers were outnumbered and the troopers superior training and discipline easily overcame their furious resistance. Slowly, methodically, the New Zealanders and the Australians beat and beat and beat. The pick-axe handles rising and falling like some vast threshing machine.
 
Soon the village was ablaze. The contents of the stone-walled houses burned fiercely, bathing the whole scene in a lurid glow. As their men fell, the women up on the sandhill began a high keening. The children, seeing the fathers and brothers being beaten to death, sobbed uncontrollably.
 
By the time the troopers tired of their grim sport, thirty Palestinian men lay dead or wounded on the bloody sand. As the rising wind swirled the smoke and cinders into the night sky, the New Zealanders and Australians formed up in ranks and, without a backward glance, marched out into the darkness of the sandhills.
 
The village of Surafend had ceased to exist.
 
 
NO New Zealand or Australian soldier was ever charged as a result of the Surafend Massacre. The British High Command was furious at what could only be considered a diplomatic disaster in terms of the British Empire’s relations with the Arab peoples.
 
The borders of the Middle East were in the process of being redrawn, and the gentlemen at the Foreign and Colonial Office in London were determined that this process should not rebound to the Empire’s disadvantage.
 
There can be little doubt that the military authorities would very much have liked to punish the ringleaders, but the troopers and the junior officers of the NZ Mounted Rifles and the Australian Light Horse closed ranks against all investigation.
 
In the end it was left to the British Commander-in-Chief, Major-General Edmund Allenby, to state the views of His Majesty’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Forming the ANZAC’s into a hollow square he unleashed a tongue-lashing the like of which no British or Empire troops had heard for many, many years:
 
“I was proud of you as brave soldiers but now I am ashamed of you as cold-blooded murderers.”
 
This outburst aroused such mutinous resentment among the New Zealand and Australian troops that Allenby was soon forced to retract his words.
 
It was a necessary concession because with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the US President, Woodrow Wilson’s, promise of “self-determination” for the world’s subject peoples, the British soon had their hands full keeping the Arab population of the region from breaking out into full scale rebellion. In this task the brutal reputation of the Australian and New Zealand troopers rode before them, striking fear into the hearts of the Arab population wherever they appeared.
 
 
UNFORTUNATELY, there was no Nicky Hager, no Jon Stephenson, to write an exhaustive account of the Surafend tragedy for the New Zealand public of 1918. Bill Massey’s deeply authoritarian government, having expended the blood of thousands of young New Zealanders in the cause of Britain’s empire, was not about to sanction a full and independent investigation into a war crime perpetrated by his own troops. As far as Massey’s stridently imperialistic government was concerned, the “boys” of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade were heroes – blameless heroes.
 
The closest “official” New Zealand ever came to acknowledging the Surafend Massacre was in the bare summary of the event written by, Lieutenant-Colonel C. Guy Powles, author of The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine, the third volume of the Official History of New Zealand’s Effort in the Great War, published by the New Zealand Government in 1922.
 
Of the bloody evening of 10 December 1918, Powles writes:
 
“While the brigade was camped in the vicinity of Richon le Zion a disturbance occurred in the divisional area following the murder of a New Zealander, during which a village and an Arab camp were burned and some 30 Arabs killed and injured ….. It appears that the murdered man’s comrades, feeling aggrieved that the murderer was not immediately brought to book, went to the village and demanded his surrender. They were met by an insolent answer from the head man of the village so they determined to find him and the searching of the houses led to a collision with the natives which resulted in a riot.”
 
Powles also notes, drily: “[A]t the [subsequent] inquiry it was found impossible to get any evidence as to who took part in the disturbance.”
 
Then, as now, the New Zealand military authorities preferred to bury their mistakes beneath a crushing mountain of official silence.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 22 March 2017.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

This Is What Real Journalism Looks Like!

 
Congratulations to Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson for reminding us, once again, how vital fearless investigative journalism is to the health of our democracy.
 
 
This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

John Key's Legacy - A Protected Status Quo.

Shhhh! Don't Frighten The Horses! And that, in essence, is the story of John Key’s prime-ministership. For National Party voters the status quo of 2008 has been protected and extended. The lives of most New Zealanders have not been subjected to sudden and dramatic changes.
 
INCREMENTAL CHANGE is, generally-speaking, the most effective expression of democratic government. Most human-beings are uncomfortable with sudden and dramatic change. They can live with it, and through it, if they have to. (Just ask the citizens of Christchurch and Kaikoura!)  But most people, given a choice between the status quo and massive upheaval, will opt for the status quo.
 
Understanding the New Zealand electorate’s sensitivity to change is what made John Key such a successful prime minister. Like all clever politicians, he approached the whole fraught business of change with the wary circumspection of someone handling nitro-glycerine.
 
There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule about change. If, for example, the status quo has become unbearable, then the prospect of dramatic change acquires a much less frightening aspect. In these circumstances, the smart politician not only embraces the necessity for “Big Change”, but he also does everything he can to cast the dog-in-the-manger defenders of the status quo as “enemies of the people”.
 
On 4 March 1933, the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn-in as the thirty-second President of the United States, nearly one in every three adult American males was out of work and most of America’s banks had closed their doors. For many millions of Americans the status quo had, indisputably, become unbearable, and they were hungry for change.
 
Nevertheless, Roosevelt was mindful of the need to reassure his fellow citizens that he understood their anxieties concerning both the magnitude of the economic crisis gripping their country and the radical scope of the measures required to fix it. “So, first of all,” he told the American people, “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
 
By the time John Key became prime minister on 19 November 2008 there were many who believed that Big Change would be the defining characteristic of his ministry. His election victory had coincided with the full onset of the Global Financial Crisis and the world was teetering on the brink of an economic calamity every bit as transformative as the Great Depression.
 
New Zealand’s free-market enthusiasts were as eager for Key to take advantage of this real crisis as they had been for David Lange to take advantage of the 1984 speculator-driven financial crisis triggered by Labour finance spokesperson, Roger Douglas’s, leaked promise to devalue the New Zealand dollar by 20 percent. Their hope was that the incoming Key government would seize the opportunity provided by the Global Financial Crisis to announce a raft of savage spending cuts and launch yet another round of radical deregulation.
 
But John Key was made of considerably sterner stuff than the politically inexperienced and economically illiterate David Lange. The new National Party prime minister understood that for most New Zealanders – especially those who had been kind enough to vote for him – the status quo was a very long way from becoming unbearable. Quite the reverse, in fact. A lengthy period of economic buoyancy had turned the status quo into something to be protected and, if possible, extended for as long as possible.
 
And that, in essence, is the story of John Key’s prime-ministership. For National Party voters the status quo of 2008 has been protected and extended. The lives of most New Zealanders have not been subjected to sudden and dramatic changes.
 
For those Kiwis living on the margins, however: the unemployed, solo mums, unskilled workers, homeless people; the changes have been wrenching and unceasing. Unfortunately, a majority of New Zealand’s more secure and contented citizens have been willing to accept the suffering of this marginalised underclass as the price to be paid for maintaining their own, very comfortable (and increasingly valuable) status quo. Had the poor mobilised politically against the unbearable conditions of their daily lives, the status quo might have changed. But they didn’t – and it hasn’t.
 
All the evidence points to Andrew Little and (most) of the Labour Party having, finally, absorbed the key political lesson of the past nine years. That a clear majority of voting New Zealanders remain unconvinced that New Zealand faces anything remotely resembling the conditions that confronted Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, or Michael Joseph Savage in 1935. The status quo, for most Kiwis, remains far from unbearable. Big Change is not required.
 
Certainly, the multiplying number of government failures: the lack of affordable housing; declining water quality; land sales to foreigners; overcrowding in primary school classrooms; the sorry state of New Zealand’s mental health services; is fast reaching the point where, after nine years, the voters are ready for “an orderly rotation of political elites”. What the electorate (as presently configured) is not ready for, however, is revolution.
 
The contemplation of six impossibly big changes before breakfast can safely be left to the TOP of Gareth Morgan’s head.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 March 2017.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Maori King's Over-Mighty Subject.

Kingmaker - Or Breaker? Buoyed, perhaps, by the growing economic power of the Iwi Leadership Group, and encouraged by the willingness of first John Key, and now Bill English, to pay lip-service to the Maori Party’s grandiose schemes for constitutional reform and post-democratic power-sharing, Tukoroirangi Morgan is intent on organising a clean-sweep of the Maori electorates and then leveraging his party’s “kingmaker” status into a full-scale revolution in Maori-Pakeha relations.
 
TUKOROIRANGI MORGAN’S AMBITIONS for his king are huge. But are the shoulders of his King, Tuheitia Paki, broad enough to carry them? The Maori Party President’s chances of success would, undoubtedly, be greater if he was able to entrust the realisation of his plans to a more experienced sovereign. But, would a more experienced Maori monarch have been as willing to put the Kingitanga in harm’s way?
 
Because the potential for the Kingitanga to be harmed by Morgan’s ambitious electoral strategy is considerable. King Tuheitia has thrown the prestige of his title behind Rahui Papa, one of his leading counsellors – and the Maori Party’s pick for the parliamentary seat currently occupied by the King’s cousin, Nanaia Mahuta.
 
The insult to Mahuta is both implicit and explicit. Not only has the King broken with his mother’s, Queen Te Ātairangikaahu’s, practice of maintaining a careful neutrality vis-à-vis party politics – to the obvious disadvantage of his kinswoman – but he has also seen fit to garnish Papa’s royal endorsement with the extraordinary charge that Mahuta no longer has any mana in Parliament.
 
This unprecedented foray into electoral politics is reckless on at least two counts. First, the King’s disparaging reference to Mahuta’s current status betrays an inadequate grasp of the intricacies of Pakeha politics. Second, it assumes a willingness to be directed on the part of the voters of Hauraki-Waikato which may not, in practice, extend anything like as far as the polling booth.
 
Mahuta’s fall in Labour’s caucus ranking reflects nothing more than the political exigencies of the 2014 leadership transition from David Cunliffe to Andrew Little. Any change of leader will, inevitably, be accompanied by a reordering of the caucus hierarchy. While the friends and allies of the former leader are eased down, the friends and allies of the new leader are eased up. That Mahuta is still to be found among the top twelve Labour MPs in 2017 is actually a tribute to her enduring mana – not proof of its loss.
 
The King, along with his chief political strategist, Morgan, may also be misreading the character of the Waikato and Maniapoto people’s relationship to the Kingitanga. Throughout his mother’s long reign, the Maori monarchy underwent a subtle but crucial shift from representing the scorched banner of colonial era resistance to symbolising the enduring dignity and resilience of New Zealand’s indigenous culture.
 
Morgan’s determination to see himself as the re-incarnation of Wiremu Tamihana, “The Kingmaker” and to conceive of his political mission as the fulfilment of Tamihana’s dream: the reconstitution and preservation of Maori sovereignty in New Zealand; moves the Kingitanga out of Dame Te Ātairangikaahu’s symbolic realm and into the all-too-real world of cut-and-thrust power politics.
 
Clearly, Morgan is convinced that the outcome of this second attempt to establish dual sovereignties within a single, unitary state will turn out very differently from the first. Moreover, he has been successful in persuading the Maori King to test his hypothesis.
 
Buoyed, perhaps, by the growing economic power of the Iwi Leadership Group, and encouraged by the willingness of first John Key, and now Bill English, to pay lip-service to the Maori Party’s grandiose schemes for constitutional reform and post-democratic power-sharing, Morgan is intent on organising a clean-sweep of the Maori electorates and then leveraging his party’s “kingmaker” status into a full-scale revolution in Maori-Pakeha relations.
 
The Labour Leader, Andrew Little, and Labour’s Maori caucus, are betting that Maori voters on both the Maori and General electoral rolls are nowhere near ready to indulge the Maori Party President’s political fantasies to this extent. They are convinced that if the choice presented to Maori voters is between restarting the Land Wars of the Nineteenth Century, and winning improved access to employment, housing, education and health services in the Twenty-First, then they will opt, overwhelmingly, for the latter.
 
And if they do – especially if they vote that way in the Maori seat of Hauraki-Waikato – then the mana of the Maori King will be diminished to the point where abdication becomes the only remaining dignified response. His successor, if there is one, will then be faced with the challenge of reconstituting the Kingitanga to more closely correspond to the cultural aspirations of Twenty-First Century Maori.
 
King Tuheitia would be wise to familiarise himself with how the kings of old dealt with “over-mighty subjects” – because he has one.
 
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, 17 March 2017.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

New Zealand’s “Non-Negotiable” Mythology: Deconstructing The Dairy Industry’s Latest Propaganda Campaign.

The Myth Of Clean, Green, Dairying: The primary production sector’s stance that what is good for New Zealand’s farmers must also be good for the country as a whole has become non-negotiable. Preserving the Kiwi way of life is now synonymous with preserving the economic well-being of the New Zealand farmer. Specifically, the New Zealand dairy farmer.
 
NEW ZEALAND’S DAIRY INDUSTRY was recently compared to the NRA. A better comparison would be the United States oil industry. Like the National Rifle Association the US oil industry’s lobbying power is legendary. To set one’s face against either group is generally considered to be career suicide – especially if you’re a career politician.
 
The US oil industry is the better comparison because, like our own dairy industry, it plays a central role in its national economy. Both industries are strategically positioned to bend governments to their will.
 
Shortly after assuming the office of Vice-President in 2001, Dick Cheney convened a secret conclave of US oil interests. The proceedings of that gathering remain inaccessible to ordinary Americans. By 2008, however, the effects of the decisions taken at Cheney’s Energy Summit were measurable across the entire planet. The Vice-President was unrepentant, reaffirming to Fox News in the dying days of the Bush Administration the message that his boss’s father, President George H W Bush had delivered to the Rio Earth Summit way back in 1992: “The American way of life is non-negotiable.”
 
Equally “non-negotiable” is our own primary production sector’s stance that what is good for New Zealand’s farmers must also be good for the country as a whole. Preserving the Kiwi way of life has thus become synonymous with preserving the economic well-being of the New Zealand farmer. Specifically, the New Zealand dairy farmer.
 
As anyone who watches television will attest, a colossal amount of money is currently being spent to convince New Zealanders that farming – especially dairy farming – is, in some mysterious way, integral to preserving the New Zealand way of life.
 
Dairy farmers are depicted as dedicated protectors of the land. Striding across their paddocks in the early light, breathing in the scent of their lush natural pastures, these quintessential Kiwis are presented as the uncomplicated stewards of modest family farms passed down from generation to generation over many decades.
 
That most dairy farms are now rigorously commercial ventures, owned by private companies or listed corporations, and monitored constantly by the foreign-owned banks to which they are so deeply indebted, are facts which the makers of these advertisements prefer to keep out of their stirring pastoral narratives. Also missing are any visual references to the complex irrigation machinery so essential to meeting their business’s ambitious milk production targets.
 
Nor, in the dawn’s early light, are we vouchsafed a glimpse of the depleted streams and polluted rivers that the doubling and tripling of dairy herd sizes has rendered inevitable. Indeed, the dairy farmers depicted in these ads appear to be throw-backs to the time when dairy farmers drove only 100 or 150 cows towards the milking shed – not the 400-600 cows found on today’s average dairy unit.
 
Such information would, of course, make it much harder to sell the notion that the farmers depicted in these ads are the ones who make it possible for New Zealanders living in cities to remain psychically linked to the clean, green countryside which underwrites their urban lifestyles. By the power of the ad-man’s dubious magic, these entirely fictional representatives of New Zealand agriculture have been enlisted to reinvigorate the nation’s foundation myth.
 
At the heart of that myth lies the “countryside good/cities bad” dichotomy. It is the dichotomy that fuels the sacred ideological fires of the National Party and which informs the ingrained assumptions that sets provincial New Zealanders against their metropolitan cousins. It also the dichotomy behind the suggestion of urban dereliction which constitutes the unspoken message of the latest batch of Fonterra ads.
 
The rural beneficence being celebrated here is Fonterra’s (and, by extension, the New Zealand dairy farmers’) donation of packaged milk to the nation’s school-children. By which, of course, is meant the nation’s “needy” schoolchildren. These little packages of rural generosity are intended for the unfortunate offspring of the indigent (and probably immoral) inhabitants of the wicked cities’ treeless suburbs.
 
Extolling the virtues of Fonterra’s milk-in-schools philanthropy is no less an icon of provincial virtue than the all-conquering All-Black hero, Ritchie McCaw. Seldom has one complex bundle of national myths been enlisted to the cause of another which such seamless effectiveness.
 
It is worth paying close attention to these ads the next time they appear on your television screen. As you take in the sophisticated messages embedded in the text and imagery, ask yourself why they are being broadcast now, with such relentless regularity, to their overwhelmingly urban audience.
 
Think about the success of Greenpeace’s “Dirty Dairying” campaign; about the shocking images of shit-filled streams, dried-up riverbeds and toxic lakes. Think about the dairy industry’s point-blank refusal to accept that it is more-or-less singlehandedly destroying New Zealand’s clean, green image. Recall its role in the destruction of regional democracy in Canterbury: its determination to overcome all opposition to its plans for vast, government-subsidised irrigation schemes. Think about the fact that nitrogen levels across the country are rapidly approaching danger levels – even in the deep, formerly pristine aquifers beneath our feet. Think of the way the Ministry of Primary Industry and the National Party stand guard over the dairy industry in exactly the same way as Dick Cheney and Scott Pruitt stood and stand guard over the US fossil fuels industry.
 
The dairy industry’s way of life is every bit as “non-negotiable” as the American people’s – and just as big a threat to our environment.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 15 March 2017.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Divergent Generations.

Try And See It My Way: As the Latin root of the word – generāre, to beget – suggests, a “generation” is the span of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring. A period of, roughly, 20-30 years. Obviously, those born during this period cannot help living through the same historical events; facing the same challenges; sharing the same joys and sorrows.
 
THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF NOISE this past week about generations. Bill English’s NZ Superannuation announcement has sparked an explosion of arguments about when particular groups of New Zealanders were born, and to what, in terms of state support, their respective birth dates entitle them.
 
We have heard again (and again and again) about the perfidy of the Baby Boom Generation. We have been invited to feel the pain of the Millennials. There has even been an only half-tongue-in-cheek call to arms directed at the enigmatic Generation X.
 
Also in play – lest we forget – is the “Greatest Generation”. Though their numbers are fast declining, these are the New Zealanders who lived through the Great Depression and fought the Second World War. The first Kiwis to enjoy the social security of Labour’s “cradle to grave” welfare state.
 
But what exactly is a “generation”?
 
The Act Party leader, and its sole MP, David Seymour, offers a guide. In the Act Newsletter of 6 March 2017, he writes: “Adjusting the age [of eligibility for NZ Super] only works if it captures the massive Baby Boomer cohorts set to be retiring through to 2030. The impact of this adjustment will fall on gen-x (born 1965-80) and millennials (early eighties to late nineties). Again, an earlier, more gradual adjustment is needed.”
 
But Seymour’s divisions are far too arbitrary to constitute a reliable definition of “generation”. His deadly foes, the perfidious “Baby Boomers”, appear to include every New Zealander born between 1946 and 1966. Generation X, on the other hand, includes only those born in the 15 year period between 1965 and 1980. The Millennials (sometimes referred to as “Generation Y”) are an even more indistinct group: encompassing Kiwis born any time between the “early eighties to late nineties”.
 
As the Latin root of the word – generāre, to beget – suggests, a “generation” is the span of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring. A period of, roughly, 20-30 years. Obviously, those born during this period cannot help living through the same historical events; facing the same challenges; sharing the same joys and sorrows. It is on the basis of these common experiences that a term like “Baby Boomer” acquires a measure of respectability.
 
What Baby Boomer does not remember The Beatles? Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind”? The Vietnam War? Who can deny that the Boomers were raised at a time of unprecedented and prolonged economic prosperity? Or that the confluence of general affluence and the rapid expansion of higher education gave rise to a cultural revolution that is still unfolding fifty years later?
 
But if the first of the Baby Boom generation’s offspring started appearing between 1965-70, when did Boomers’ children begin having children? Did they, like their parents, start their families around the age of twenty? Or, by the time the Baby Boomers’ kids reached adulthood, had the average onset age of family formation advanced from the early 20s to the early-to-mid 30s?
 
Viewed from this perspective, in the roughly 70 years since the end of World War II there have only really been two generations: the Baby Boomers and the children of the Baby Boomers. And, if that is the case, then there are really only two coherent assemblages of historical events available for consideration when it comes to any discussion of defining generational experiences.
 
For the Baby Boomers, it was the social-democratic era, which extended from 1945 until the mid-1980s. For their children, it has been the neoliberal era, which kicked-off here in 1984 and is still with us today.
 
It is difficult to conceive of two more divergent eras. The social-democratic era was distinguished by economic, social, political and cultural expansion. The neoliberal era by the reverse.
 
One has only to consider the extraordinary generosity of the social-democratic state: its commitment to full employment and elder support; its provision of health care and housing; its democratisation of learning; and its empowerment of civil society; to grasp the true extent of New Zealand’s fall from grace.
 
To hear David Seymour tell the story, that fall has been the life’s work of the selfish Baby Boomers. He could not be more wrong. The vast discrepancy of experience between the Boomers and their children is not based on the social pathology of a single generation, but on the mutually-protective selfishness of a single social alliance.
 
Between the capitalist owners of New Zealand, and the professionals and managers who service them, there exists an unshakeable resolve to extinguish the social-democratic era’s legacy of social solidarity by eliminating every last institutional instance of, and opportunity for, its popular expression.
 
The only inter-generational conspiracy that makes ethical sense in 2017, is an electoral plot which commits the Baby Boomers and their offspring to the rescue of their children and grand-children.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 March 2017.

Why is the Neoliberal Establishment so Pissed-Off with Bill English?

Off Message? Listening to the business journalist, Fran O’Sullivan, last Friday morning [10/3/17] on RNZ, the fury and frustration of the neoliberal establishment was evident in every bitter syllable of her commentary. Her rage at the now solid phalanx of NZ Super political defenders which English’s blundering has brought into formation (Labour, the Greens and NZ First) was palpable.
 
IT’S DIFFICULT TO AVOID THE IMPRESSION that the neoliberal establishment is very pissed-off with Bill English. His handling of the NZ Superannuation issue has been an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end. The media wasn’t briefed. National’s surrogates in academia and the business community weren’t primed. The public was not prepared.
 
Unfortunately, for any proposal to reform an institution as popular as NZ Super to have the slightest chance of success, all three of the above groups must be ready to hear it. One can only imagine the frustration of the Retirement Commissioner, Diane Maxwell, as she watched all her patient public diplomacy reduced to ashes in English’s ill-considered political bonfire.
 
English’s actions take on an even more absurd aspect when one recalls that there is a time-honoured and well-tested process for slaughtering a cow as sacred as NZ Super in relative political safety.
 
For a start, it is ill-advised to announce such plans in the early months of an election year.
 
Ill-advised, but not automatically fatal. Instigating an extensive and entirely independent review of any given set of current public policy settings is eminently survivable – if that is the sum total of your announcement. Indeed, it generally prompts hearty praise from all those “experts” agitating for change. It also allows the instigator to refuse the media anything further in the way of specificity until the review is complete.
 
Had English adhered to this process with NZ Super he could also have increased the political pressure on his principal electoral foes. Labour, in particular, would have found it extremely difficult to oppose any government call for a cross-party commitment to a comprehensive review of NZ Super. After all, in both the 2011 and 2014 general elections, reforming NZ Super had been Labour’s policy. The Greens, likewise, could hardly refuse to join in a sober, without prejudice, quest to arrive at the broadest possible political consensus on this highly contentious issue.
 
NZ First could not, however, credibly lend its name to such an effort without, at least implicitly, being bound by the review’s eventual recommendations. But such a dog-in-the-manger stance would put Winston Peters in an extremely difficult position.
 
Refusing to endorse a review of NZ Super would, presumably, leave NZ First no choice but to refuse to enter into any confidence and supply agreement that did not include its cancellation. Assuming both Labour and the Greens had joined National in supporting the proposed review, NZ First would have nowhere to go but the cross-benches – a position of acute and ever-increasing political precariousness.
 
The beauty of establishing any sort of official inquiry is, of course, that the people doing the establishing get to appoint the people doing the inquiring, and to draft their terms of reference. In almost every case this more-or-less guarantees that the inquiry will produce recommendations which correspond remarkably closely to the wishes of those who set it up.
 
In other words, English had the chance to appoint a Royal Commission of Inquiry into NZ Superannuation which, after weeks of hearings, and months of deliberation, solemnly recommended to his government that not only would the age of eligibility have to be advanced – and quickly – but also that the means of calculating the quantum of NZ super would have to be altered, and a means-testing regime established.
 
Because Labour and the Greens would already have signed up to the inquiry, their endorsement of its recommendations would be automatic. Any ensuing legislation would thus be guaranteed an overwhelming parliamentary majority.
 
Imagine the celebrations at Treasury, the NZ initiative and across the financial sector. Not only would the whole issue have been depoliticised for the foreseeable future, but also (and best of all!) no neoliberal fingerprints would ever be found on the gun that killed the last great universal entitlement of the social-democratic era.
 
All of these highly-sought-after right-wing objectives have now been put at risk by English’s ineptitude. Listening to the business journalist, Fran O’Sullivan, last Friday morning [10/3/17] on RNZ, the fury and frustration of the neoliberal establishment was evident in every bitter syllable of her commentary. Not only that, but in her rage at the now solid phalanx of NZ Super political defenders which English’s blundering has brought into formation (Labour, the Greens and NZ First) she blurted out the Right’s true intentions.
 
In the event of a National victory in September, Act (acting on behalf of the neoliberal establishment) will insist that means-testing and a reduction in NZ Super’s purchasing power be added to the legislation sanctioning the (immediate?) extension of the age of eligibility to 67.
 
No confusion now about the Right’s murderous intentions towards NZ Superannuation – and not the slightest doubt as to whose fingerprints will be found on the gun.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 12 March 2017.