Monday 20 May 2024

Leading Labour Off The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

He’s Got The Moxie: Only Willie Jackson possesses the credentials to meld together a new Labour message that is, at one and the same moment, staunchly working-class, union-friendly, and which speaks to the hundreds-of-thousands of urban Māori untethered to the neo-tribal capitalist elites of the Iwi Leaders Forum.

IT’S ONE OF THE LEFT’S favourite games. (And, quite possibly, one of the Right’s as well.) Imagining Aotearoa-New Zealand in “x” number of years.

Over the weekend (18-19/5/24) Labour’s leader, Chris Hipkins, opted for Aotearoa-New Zealand 2040 – the bi-centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. In a lengthy speech, he described for the delegates to Labour’s Auckland Regional Conference a world in which all of their party’s policies have been brought to fruition. It’s an Aotearoa-New Zealand in which Labour’s political opponents have seen the error of their ways, and nobody is indelicate enough to offer the slightest objection to Labour’s plans.

Nearly a century ago this sort of utopian speculation was the stuff of popular songs. One of the most memorable was Harry McClintock’s 1928 hit, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”. McClintock was a shrewd enough entertainer to deliver his utopianism satirically:

In The Big Rock Candy Mountains
There’s a land that’s fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In The Big Rock Candy Mountains

Hipkins, by contrast, takes himself, and his vision of the future, very seriously. On education, he had this to say:

In 2040 Labour has sparked a love of learning. Kids are in a hurry to get to school, because schools have been transformed. Teaching and learning has been re-focused to bring out the best in every child, rather than stuffing things into them. Schools and teachers have been empowered to reject the 20th century factory model of schooling for one that focusses on 21st century skills like problem solving, creativity, teamwork, adaptability and resilience alongside core basics like reading, writing and maths. Practical life skills like home budgeting, how to prepare a healthy meal, and how to look after your own health have also been taught in schools, leaving kids better prepared for life beyond the school gate.

In other words, Labour’s intention, the moment it is returned to power (with Hipkins at the helm) is to force New Zealand educationalists to once again embrace the discredited pedagogical regime that sent New Zealand’s students tumbling down the international league-tables of effective education.

No longer will New Zealand parents have to worry about their precious offspring being subjected to “the 20th century factory model of schooling”. (That would be the model that guaranteed literacy and numeracy, and “stuffed” kids full of useful general knowledge about the way the world works.) Ahead of the Three Rs, on Hipkins’ twenty-first century Big Rock Candy Mountain, children will learn “problem solving, creativity, teamwork, adaptability and resilience”. Meanwhile, their international competitors in Asia and Africa will be emerging from their school gates with the skills needed to acquire nation-building degrees in science, technology and mathematics.

Confronted with this sort of social-liberal dogma, the criticism that Labour has, like the Bourbon rulers of France, “learned nothing and forgotten nothing”, seems particularly apt. At the upper levels of the Labour Party hierarchy there would appear to be an unshakeable belief that the way forward for New Zealand is both well-understood and well-tested. Election defeats notwithstanding, the party’s policy agenda must remain unchanged.

According to this faction, those who suggest a fundamental re-think of the options Labour has placed repeatedly before the electorate should be ignored. Hipkins and his caucus allies are adamant that the party must not succumb to the pressures of populism. The embittered and ambitious individuals who now control Labour’s Policy Council may propose all manner of radical solutions, but they are all well aware that, as the date of the next election draws near, the power to dispose (as in ‘fix’, ‘decide’ and ‘determine’) will always be reclaimed by the parliamentary party.

In other words, dramatic shifts in Labour Party policy can only be effected by a change of leader, and that, in turn, is only possible following the formation of a party faction large enough to guarantee an easy caucus victory (two-thirds or more) for the challenger. The question, therefore, becomes: Is there anyone in Labour’s present caucus capable of assembling the numbers required to topple Hipkins and turn Labour in a new direction?

A number of commentators have pointed to Kieran McAnulty as a possible contender for the No. 1 spot. Superficially attractive as a leadership candidate, McAnulty has steadfastly refused to deliver even the slightest hint that he is, or might become, a serious candidate for the leadership of his party.

Signalling interest in the top job doesn’t always have to be blunt and obvious, it can be delivered subtly in the form of a joke; by forcefully endorsing developments in “sister” parties offshore; or – most commonly – by denying interest in such a pro-forma fashion that the contrary message is conveyed. McAnulty has done none of these things. When he disclaims all interest in replacing Hipkins, he should probably be believed.

Carmel Sepuloni’s name has also been mentioned as a possible contender. It is, however, most unlikely that such a loyal lieutenant would seek to replace her leader in any circumstances other than his stepping-down from the party leadership voluntarily. Sepuloni has been Hipkins’ fierce and reliable ally for so long that it is stretching credulity to suggest that she might become his challenger – rather than his successor.

Which leaves only Willie Jackson. Alone in Labour’s caucus, Jackson has what the Americans would call the “moxie” to mount a serious challenge. The fact that Jackson straddles three of Labour’s key voting blocs: working-class Kiwis, Māori, trade unionists; equips him admirably, as a left-wing politician, to challenge directly the soft, middle-class centres of Labour’s box of chocolates.

Only Jackson possesses the credentials to meld together a new Labour message that is, at one and the same moment, staunchly working-class, union-friendly, and which speaks to the hundreds-of-thousands of urban Māori untethered to the neo-tribal capitalist elites of the Iwi Leaders Forum. In much the same way as Richard Nixon was the only president who could have successfully sold the USA’s rapprochement with China, Jackson is the only New Zealand politician capable of “selling” a Tiriti-based Aotearoa as the best means of uplifting both working-class Māori and working-class Pakeha.

Labour’s ad campaign for the Māori seats in 2017, in which the urban, working-class lives of most Māori were lovingly depicted, and which secured all seven seats for Labour, points the way. With a minimum of tweaking, the messaging and imagery of that 2017 campaign could reposition Labour in a way which would allow it to shrug-off its “woke” middle-class voters to the Greens. Certainly, if Jackson opted to lead the charge for significant and progressive tax reform within the party, he would have scant difficulty in organising a populist left-wing faction behind him.

At the very least, a Jackson tilt at the Labour leadership would be of huge assistance in bringing the party down off its Big Rock Candy Mountain.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 20 May 2024.

Thursday 16 May 2024

This Unreasonable Government.

Losing The Room: One can only speculate about what has persuaded the Coalition Government that it will pay no electoral price for unreasonably pushing ahead with policies that are so clearly against the national interest. They seem quite oblivious to the risk that by doing so they will convince an increasing number of voters that they are extremists.

ONE OF THE MOST PERPLEXING ASPECTS of the National-Act-NZ First coalition government is its perverse unreasonableness. Perverse, because in almost every instance the unreasonable nature of the Coalition’s policies generate reactions that can only be politically counterproductive to its chances of re-election.

Politicians can be radical, or reactionary, it matters little, just so long as they can a make a reasonable case for their intended course of action. A reasonable policy not only stands a good chance of being implemented, it is also likely to be well received by the electorate. If, over the course of its three year term, a government’s actions strike most voters as consistently unreasonable, then its chances of being re-elected will lessen considerably.

What makes a policy reasonable in the eyes of the ordinary voter? Principally, it is the quality of the evidence presented in its favour. If a policy is endorsed by persons with a reasonable claim to being experts, or, at the very least, by people with a long history of being right about the subject under discussion, then its chances of being accepted are high. The more questionable the credentials of those making the government’s case, however, the less faith the public is likely to place in its policies.

Public faith in government policy will dissipate even more rapidly if the only people or organisations to speak up in its favour are those with a clear vested interest in seeing it implemented. The moment the “evidence” of any given policy’s supporters provokes the ordinary voter to respond “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”, then the policy is in serious trouble.

But being in trouble is not the same as being rejected. A government absolutely determined to forge ahead has the power to implement policies that are unsupported by scientific evidence, expert opinion, common sense, or even a majority of the electorate. By doing so, however, the parties responsible not only expose themselves as being unreasonable, but they may also come across as potentially dangerous.

They remind voters of the intoxicated individual who, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, insists that s/he is sober enough to drive home. It’s not just the drunk people worry about, but the possibility that, if s/he gets behind the wheel, then a perfectly innocent person, or persons, may be seriously injured or killed. Unfortunately it’s not as easy to take the keys away from a government as it is to take the keys away from a drunk. Voters may be forced to wait three years, or more, before they can get a government intoxicated by its own unchallengeable authority off the road.

On the subject of roads: car-lovers and the Coalition would appear to be locked in what more and more New Zealanders perceive to be a particularly worrying example of political folie à deux. The Transport Minister, Simeon Brown, unmoved by scientific evidence, expert opinion, common sense, and what is fast approaching a majority of the electorate, is prioritising the construction of more and more “highways of national significance”. His decisions, by favouring road users (and the road haulage lobby) at the expense of New Zealand’s rail network, can only further impede New Zealand’s efforts to meet its Climate Change commitments.

One can only speculate about what it is that persuades the three coalition parties that they will pay no electoral price for unreasonably pushing ahead with policies that are so clearly against the national interest. They seem quite oblivious to the risk that by doing so they will convince an increasing number of voters that they are extremists.

Only extremists are so convinced of the rightness of their cause that no argument, no matter how rational and well-supported by evidence, is permitted to prevail against it.

Only extremists would consider passing a law that allows one of three Ministers of the Crown to over-rule the previous judgements of the courts, the recommendations of expert witnesses, the advice of his/her own carefully chosen advisory panel, and the clearly expressed wishes of affected locals, if they run counter to the Ministers’ preferred solutions.

The last time a right-wing government passed such a law, the author and some comrades, under cover of darkness, chained together and padlocked the doors of the Dunedin Law Courts, on the grounds that Rob Muldoon’s “Clutha Development (Clyde Dam) Empowerment Act” (1982) had just made them irrelevant to the conduct of public affairs.

That same Rob Muldoon would spend the next two years over-ruling virtually every institution dedicated to advising the government of the day on the state of the New Zealand economy, and how best it might be served by the decisions of its ministers. By mid-1984, unable to bring together a budget that added-up, Muldoon called a snap-election. New Zealand would never be the same.

Forty years later, another Finance Minister, against the advice of just about every reputable economist and responsible interest-group in the country, is proceeding with the Coalition’s promise to cut personal income tax. The consequences of this Muldoonesque intransigence are already apparent in public sector lay-offs, health sector cut-backs, and social-welfare sanctions. Not even the latest report from the OECD, which not only recommends against tax-cuts, but actually advocates for a Capital Gains Tax, carries sufficient weight to persuade Finance Minister Nicola Willis to see sense and act reasonably.

An unwillingness to be advised. Turning a deaf ear to ideas that challenge one’s prejudices. Insisting upon following a course of action that is more likely than not to result in unnecessary and avoidable harm to people, animals, and/or the natural environment. Starting down a road that seems to be leading to disaster, but refusing to turn back. These are not the actions of reasonable human-beings. On the contrary, they are the actions of the individuals, parties, and even the nation states, that have dragged humanity into it worst catastrophes.

Barely six months into its three-year term, the Coalition Government of Christopher Luxon cannot avoid the charge that it is manifesting all the self-destructive behaviour listed above. In circumstances where good ideas, no matter their provenance, should be given a fair hearing. Where concessions and compromises aimed at achieving consensus are more than ever necessary to steer the New Zealand ship-of-state through what Leonard Cohen called “the reefs of greed”, and “the squalls of hate”, we are given only the jutting chins of men and women who will not be told.


This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project Substack site on Monday, 13 May 2024.

Is This A “Merchants” Government?

The Merchants of Menace: The Coalition Government has convinced itself that the Brahmins’ emollient functions have become much too irksome and expensive. Those who see themselves as the best hope of rebuilding New Zealand’s ailing capitalist system, appear to have convinced themselves that a little bit of blunt trauma is what their mollycoddled country needs if it’s to recover it “mojo” and get “back on track”.


ARE YOU A BRAHMIN, or a Merchant? Or, are you merely one of those whose lives are profoundly influenced by the decisions of Brahmins and Merchants? Those are the questions that are currently shaping the politics of New Zealand and the entire West.

It was Thomas Piketty, the French author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) Capital and Ideology (2019) and A Brief History of Equality (2022) who devised the Brahmins versus Merchants dichotomy, drawing his inspiration from the Indian caste system. Brutally simplifying Piketty’s argument, his contention is that the evolution of modern capitalism has divided its ruling class into those who make, and those who manage.

The vast expansion of higher education and the multiplication of professional and managerial specialisations made necessary by the growing technological complexity of contemporary capitalism have radically restructured the social architecture which upholds it.

In the Western nations where capitalism first took root, the classic Marxist schema of an ever-increasing working-class doing the making, and a steadily-shrinking ruling-class doing the managing, has been superseded by a society in which a vastly expanded class of technologists, professionals and managers superintends a much diminished working class which no longer makes but serves. A working-class without factories (off-shored by capitalists for obvious economic and political reasons) is a working-class without power. All the action, politically-speaking, now takes place in the hugely expanded socio-economic layers above the downsized proletariat.

Hence Piketty’s Brahmins and Merchants. Those tasked with the financing, design, maintenance, management, sales, and distribution of physical production: bankers, accountants, engineers, software-designers, marketing, sales and distribution managers; the people tasked with producing real goods and services; are the Merchants. Those tasked with preserving and enhancing the socio-cultural conditions in which profitable production can take place: judges, senior public servants, lawyers, architects, academics, teachers, journalists, social workers, counsellors, probation officers; the people who keep society on an even keel; are the Brahmins.

The politics of these two groups are relatively straight-forward to map. The production, distribution and exchange of profitable goods and services requires a society in which practical decisions are able to be made with a minimum of state interference. It requires hierarchies responsive to the exigencies of command and control. A system in which the needs of workers and the environment come well down the pecking order – along with every other potential impediment to the realisation of profit. Accordingly, Merchants veer towards the Right.

What the Brahmins understand is that a society constructed solely for the realisation of profit is likely to be a harsh, even violent, place, and subject to the constant political disruptions attendant upon systems that rely upon force and intimidation to keep the wheels turning. Wherever possible, the Brahmins prefer to deploy the techniques of persuasion and pacification, rather than the blunt-force trauma of coercion.

It is their contention that the hegemony of capital is more effectively maintained by giving ordinary people the fewest possible reasons for attacking and overthrowing it. Brahmins provide the social lubricants that keep the capitalist machine operating smoothly. While not being of the Left themselves, they’re responsible for maintaining the institutions and practices that contemporary leftists tend to identify, erroneously, as their own.

The upshot of this pragmatic compromise between the people responsible for the steel wheels and the people responsible for the grease-guns, is that the principal ideological battleground has shifted from the factory to the campuses of higher education. Not all university and polytechnic students will vote for the parties subscribing to the ideas of the Brahmins (Labour, Greens, Te Pāti Māori). Engineers and accountants still tend to take their capitalism neat, scorning ice and mixers. But, given the huge numbers of graduates required to keep capitalism sweet, it is hardly surprising that those identifying as left-wing in the Twenty-First Century tend to be the holders of tertiary qualifications.

And those without tertiary qualifications? Which way does the working-class, or what’s left of it, break – Left, or Right? On the face of it, all those benefitting from the Brahmins’ emollient interventions should be voting for their parties. And, to be fair, a majority of them still do. Labour, in particular, whose history spans the era of factories and freezing-works, to the era of warehouses and call-centres, continues to attract significant working-class support. It is, however, worth noting that the union movement, largely responsible for creating the Labour Party, is now almost entirely composed of those who do the Brahmins’ business: public servants, teachers, nurses.

But, not all workers will vote for what logic suggests is in their own best interests. This is due, primarily, to the other massive change that has transformed capitalist society. When capitalism ceased to be bounded by the borders of the nation state (thanks primarily to the off-shoring of production) the opportunities for both Merchants and Brahmins expanded to encompass the entire globe. Qualified professionals and managers could work anywhere, providing they were willing to embrace the new culture of globalism. The options for those with limited education and low skills were much more constrained. For them, the nation state, alongside religion, remained one of the few accessible sources of consolation and pride.

The sudden emergence of “Identity Politics”, and its growing power over the lives of professionals and managers, may be nothing more than the codification of what it means to be a good global citizen. Racial prejudice, sexism, homophobia, extreme ethno-nationalist beliefs: none of these attitudes are conducive to getting-on and getting-along in institutions staffed by men and women from wildly diverse backgrounds and all countries. Acquiring globalist values and expectations appears to have become as vital to a rewarding international career as a first-class university degree. Certainly, it would pay those hailing from countries that were colonisers in the past, to become firm advocates of decolonisation in the present.

Clearly, the present National-Act-NZ First coalition government is more sympathetic to the values and aspirations of the Merchants than it is to those of the Brahmins. Indeed, it owes its majority in the House of Representatives to the ability of its component parties to appeal variously to the Merchants’ growing impatience with the sheer scale of Brahmin grease-spreading; the deep resentment of those on the receiving end of Brahmin condescension and control (especially during the Covid-19 pandemic) and the intrusion of Brahmin “wokeness” into the Merchants’ domain.

The degree to which the Coalition has rewarded its Merchant supporters, attacked the Brahmins’ strongholds in the public sector, and indicated its intention to extract the cost of its self-rewarding policies from the pockets of the largely friendless working-class, does, however, suggest a growing conviction among at least some in the Coalition Cabinet that the Brahmins’ emollient functions have become much too irksome and expensive. Those who see themselves as the best hope of rebuilding New Zealand’s ailing capitalist system, appear to have convinced themselves that a little bit of blunt trauma is what their mollycoddled country needs if it’s to recover it “mojo” and get “back on track”.

Politically, this is an extremely dangerous notion for Christopher Luxon’s coalition to entertain. Historically, New Zealand could almost be called the birthplace of Brahminism. What else was the Liberal Government of 1890-1912 and its Labour successors, if not an international exemplar of the wisdom of greasing the wheels of capitalism’s high-friction machinery? It may be tempting to run roughshod over the well-educated, and working-class, New Zealanders, but it’s a temptation this Merchants’ government would be well-advised to resist.

Attacking the smartest and most resilient people in the room is never a good idea.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 13 May 2024.

More Harm Than Good.


How Labour’s and National’s failure to move beyond neoliberalism has brought New Zealand to the brink of economic and cultural chaos.

TO START LOSING, so soon after you won, requires a special kind of political incompetence. At the heart of this Coalition Government’s failure to retain, and build upon, the public support that won it the 2023 General Election are two fundamental errors: one tactical, the other strategic. Tactically, it is a huge mistake to tolerate concentrations of opposition dedicated to thwarting your government’s policy. Strategically, it is fatal to pursue goals that cannot be realised without doing more harm than good. A government committed to radical change must, therefore, be satisfied that its key objectives are both desirable and obtainable, and then be ready to remove all serious obstacles to their fulfilment. So far, the National-Act-NZ First coalition government has failed to do any of these things. That’s why it’s losing.

National and Act (the jury’s still out on NZ First) are both incapable of grasping the central fact of the last forty-five years: that the neoliberal dream of a world governed exclusively by market forces is not only unrealisable, but would be utterly intolerable. Human-beings are complex and contradictory creatures, not cooly rational utility maximisers. In attempting to transform humanity into beings that could survive and thrive in their free-market utopia, neoliberals would first have to inflict immense and unceasing suffering upon the unconvinced majority. Such misery could not be sustained for very long in a democratic context. Thus, only two scenarios confront the serious neoliberal regime: either it will be voted out of office; or it will transform itself into a ferocious tyranny.

That National and Act don’t get this is truly astonishing. Recent New Zealand history offers plenty of lessons concerning what happens to governments who attempt to push the neoliberal project too forcefully. They are defeated electorally. National’s refusal to be guided by the fate of the Fourth Labour Government produced the salutary lesson of MMP – New Zealand’s Brexit – which instantly rendered the neoliberal project even more illusory. National’s and Act’s problem was that they couldn’t come up with anything better.

The abiding tragedy of New Zealand politics is that Labour and the Greens have proved equally incapable of abandoning the neoliberal project. No doubt there are many in both parties who would like to, but the obvious building blocks of an alternative economic and social project – re-nationalisation, re-regulation, workplace democracy – tend to be dismissed out of hand as either an impossible return to the “failed policies of the past”, or, even worse, “communism”. The restraining hands of those who have accepted, however sadly, the claim that “there is no alternative” to neoliberalism, are forever reaching out to prevent the re-creation of the Left. While, on the Right, the promise is always that “just one more big push” will usher in the neoliberal nirvana.

This colossal failure of courage and imagination has brought New Zealand to the brink of economic and cultural chaos. It wasn’t an easy country to break – a truly outstandingly bi-partisan effort was required to wreak such ruin.

Helen Clark and Michael Cullen had the smarts, and their Alliance coalition partner even had the policies, but both of them lacked the faith that anything lay beyond the neoliberal consensus but an arid conceptual desert and electoral death.

John Key knew the neoliberal model was broken – he was sworn in as prime minister as the Global Financial Crisis was breaking it. But, reconstituting a responsible conservatism simply wasn’t in him, and so he smiled and waved for nine years, while everything that mattered in New Zealand rotted away beneath his feet.

Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson had the hearts, but not the heads, for transformation. Then Covid-19 granted them their wish – but not in a kind way.

There was so much that could – and should – have been done. Labour could have done it fast – and with flair. National could have done it at a slower pace – but with more consideration. As things turned out, however, neither were ready to give up on the market. Why would they? Neoliberalism’s success as an ideology is mostly attributable to its core message: leave the economy alone and everything will turn out for the best, interfering with market forces only makes everything worse. It is seldom necessary to tell a politician to do nothing twice.

But, if people are prevented from being useful, then they’ll very quickly learn to be stupid. With the road to a more just economy blocked, leftists opted to re-define human-beings and change their cultures. If you can’t stop the oil companies from cooking the planet, then drive people crazy by demanding that they sort their rubbish into three different bins. If you can’t give working people simple human dignity, then give them some new pronouns. If the neoliberals won’t allow left-wing governments to build homeless Māori houses, then keep them warm with offers of “decolonisation” and “indigenisation”. Let them live under a 184-year-old piece of rat-eaten parchment, instead.

Such was the stupidity that National was elected to stop. But, really, they didn’t have a clue how to go about it. When Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble swallowed the Treasury’s neoliberal Kool-Aid, they were careful to make sure that every economic and administrative institution that mattered in New Zealand swallowed the same brew. Those that tried to fight back, like the Ministry of Works, were simply abolished. The rest were sold. The state sector was required to behave like the private sector. The Nazis called this getting with the programme process Gleichschaltung – co-ordination.

What the Coalition Government doesn’t realise is that, although the Left was prevented from co-ordinating the economy by Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, that didn’t mean that they weren’t left free to co-ordinate just about everything else: the judiciary, the universities, the news media, the arts. If they are serious about rolling-back the Left’s stupidity, then the Coalition Government will have to engage in a little Gleichschaltung of their own. All those concentrations of opposition dedicated to thwarting government policy will have to be dispersed.

Not easy in a democracy, and impossible when the neoliberal dream this government is pursuing has long been exposed as a waking nightmare. If National, Act and NZ First are to fulfil the mandate handed to them by the electorate – to take back their country from the wealthy and the woke – then they will need more than a philosophy that reassures its followers that “greed is good” and that giving humanity’s worst impulses free rein – laissez-faire – is the answer to every problem.

Abandoning the promised tax cuts would be a good beginning.


This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project Substack site on Friday, 10 May 2024.

No Time To Think: Ageing Boomers, Laurie & Les, Talk Politics.

Members of Parliament don’t work for us, they represent us, an entirely different thing. As with so much that has turned out badly, the re-organising of MPs’ responsibilities began with the Fourth Labour Government. That’s when they began to be treated like employees – public servants – whose diaries had to be kept full-to-bursting, in case they found themselves with enough time on their hands to talk to their constituents and start thinking for themselves.”

“WHAT THIS PLACE NEEDS”, declared Les, depositing two brimming glasses of ale on the table, “is a fire”.

“Do pubs even have fires anymore?” Les’s friend Laurie replied, having carefully tested the quality of the beverage placed before him. “Haven’t open fires been banned?”

“Not all of them”, Les insisted, “a friend of mine was telling me only the other day about this pub with a brewery attached – or was it the other way round? – anyway, he swears there was a roaring open fire in the bar, and another one outside for the smokers.”

“However did they get that past the Fun Police? For God’s sake, don’t tell your Green Party mates, or they’ll be in there with buckets of water before you can say ‘Consent Variation’!”

“Truth to tell, Laurie, I don’t really have any friends in the Green Party, not anymore.”

“But you used to have heaps of Green Party ‘comrades’. I had to listen to you singing their praises for years. Hell, you even voted for them, if I recall correctly.”

“You do, Laurie, and I did – many times.”

“So, what went wrong?”

They did, mate. They did. When I had friends in the Greens, the party was led by Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, and it boasted old lefties like Sue Bradford and Keith Locke in its ranks. Back then the Greens were eco-socialists – an ideology I was happy to vote for.”

“They’re still bloody eco-socialists as far as I can see.”

“Yeah, but when it comes to the Left you’ve never been able to see very clearly – have you Laurie?”

“So, what are they, if they’re not eco-socialists?”

“That’s a bloody good question! As far as I can make out, they’re an unholy mixture of Treaty-freaks, trans-gender defenders, and homespun, patchouli-scented, simple-lifers, deeply suspicious of anything ‘more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom’.”

“What’s that? Tolkien?”

“It is indeed, Laurie, straight out of the prologue to The Lord of the Rings – ‘Concerning Hobbits’.”

“Hmmm”, Laurie mused, setting down his glass. “Nothing very Hobbitish about Julie Anne Genter’s performance in the House last week. Poor old Matt Doocey looked like he’d just been admonished by the Witch Queen of Angmar.”

“Well, it’s all in the hands of the Privileges Committee now. But, you know what? I actually feel sorry for JAG. She’s an enormously talented politician with a huge amount to offer.”

“Whether people want it or not.”

“Yes, yes, I know, she is prone to letting her political passions carry her away. But that’s a side-effect of the parliamentary life itself. Nobody should be expected to live that way – in that dreadful, hot-house, environment.”

“They’re paid well enough for putting up with it.”

“True. But it wasn’t always such a crazy pressure-cooker. I remember listening to Phil Amos – Minister of Education in the Kirk Labour Government – recalling the advice given to him when he was a brand new backbencher, way back in the early 1960s. He’d just been elected as the Member for Manurewa and had no idea what he was supposed to do. So, he called his boss, Arnold Nordmeyer, Leader of the Opposition. ‘Well,’ says Nordy, ‘we’ll have a caucus meeting sometime in February, and the Nats won’t call Parliament together until about June.’ (This is the beginning of December ’63, don’t forget.) ‘So, you just use the time to get to know your electorate.’”

“And we paid him for that?”

“Yes, we bloody did, Laurie, but not because he was our employee. Members of Parliament don’t work for us, they represent us, an  entirely different thing . As with so much that has turned out badly, the re-organising of MPs’ responsibilities began with the Fourth Labour Government. That’s when they began to be treated like employees – public servants – whose diaries had to be kept full-to-bursting, in case they found themselves with enough time on their hands to talk to their constituents and start thinking for themselves.”

“Yeah, well, as I said, they get paid more than most employees.”

“But don’t you get it? That’s the whole point! Phil Amos was a secondary-school teacher. His parliamentary stipend wasn’t a whole lot more than his old salary. That, and having time to talk and think, kept him grounded. Prevented him from melting-down like JAG.”

“By keeping him a safe distance from the fire.”


This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 May 2024.

Picking Sides.

Time To Choose: Like it or not, the Kiwis are either going into AUKUS’s  “Pillar 2” – or they are going to China.

HAD ZHENG HE’S FLEET sailed east, not west, in the early Fifteenth Century, how different our world would be. There is little reason to suppose that the sea-going junks of the Ming Dynasty, among the largest and most sophisticated sailing vessels ever constructed, would have failed to make landfall on the Pacific coast of North America half-a-century before Columbus. The colonisation of the Americas, from West to East, would have consolidated China’s global hegemony irreversibly. The cramped and fratricidal states of the European peninsula would have remained minor players in a Chinese world.

In the worst geopolitical nightmares of the United States and its Pacific allies, a China grown as powerful as the empire which sent forth Zheng He’s mighty fleet, threatens to transform the Pacific into a Chinese lake.

Technologically and militarily superior to the internally-riven United States, this China of the future regularly stations elements of its fleet off the Californian coast – in much the same spirit as the United States Navy currently navigates the waters of the South China Sea.

In a diplomatic reversal of the USA’s “island-hopping” strategy of the Second World War, an expansionist China will already have brought the tiny nations of the Pacific under its sway. The naval and air bases located on the territory of Beijing’s new “friends” will have extended its strategic reach alarmingly.

Completing this American nightmare would be the transformation of New Zealand into China’s unsinkable aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine base. Handily located off Australia’s eastern seaboard, China’s military resources would have strategically neutralised Australia’s eye-wateringly expensive fleet of Virgina-class nuclear submarines.

Beijing’s heavy investment in New Zealand’s failing infrastructure, coupled with her role as the principal consumer of its exports, made Wellington’s detachment from the West a much easier project than would have been the case if Washington’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” had run to offering the Kiwis a generous free trade deal to replace their economically-critical FTA with China.

*  *  *  *  *

IT IS ONE OF THE KEY DISADVANTAGES of always being on the winning side of history’s great encounters: not being able to grasp the sheer contingency of such victories.

Had America’s carriers not been at sea on Sunday, 7 December 1941, and gone down in Pearl Harbour alongside her battleships; and had Japan’s bombers eliminated the USA’s Hawaiian-based fuel supplies; then an enemy fleet off the Californian coast would not have been the stuff of strategic nightmares; it could, very easily, have been the reality.

Certainly, with America’s fleet either destroyed or out of action, there could have been no Battle of the Coral Sea, no Battle of Midway, to save Australia and New Zealand from Japanese invasion and occupation.

Preventing the Pacific Ocean from becoming a Japanese lake in the 1940s required the expenditure of an awful lot of blood and treasure – and an awful lot of luck. Had things turned out differently, the Americans, desperate to secure their eastern flank, may have been forced to let the Pacific go. And, if J. Robert Oppenheimer had been run over by a Los Alamos bus in January 1942, then they may never have got it back.

What we New Zealanders need to grasp is that America can no more allow the Pacific to be dominated by China in the 2040s than it could allow it to be dominated by Japan in the 1940s. Global hegemony is a zero-sum game. For every step America takes back, its rival/s will take a step forward.

While China was content to remain the world’s factory, all was well. But, the moment Xi Jinping committed his country to building a blue-water navy to rival Zheng He’s great fleet; the moment his Belt & Road project threatened to link the Global South inextricably to Chinese capital and technology; all bets were off.

That brief geopolitical respite, when the Russians were on their knees, and the Chinese were still getting up off theirs, was squandered by Washington in a profoundly compromising series of adventures in the Middle East. Twenty years of “forever war” in Iraq and Afghanistan has left America’s armed forces physically and morally exhausted, and its ruling class dangerously lacking in fortitude. What better symbol of America’s decline could there be than two old men swinging ineffectually at each other for the custody of an angry and divided nation?

The USA’s weakness at the top notwithstanding, the dice of geopolitical hazard cannot remain uncast indefinitely.

*  *  *  *  *

THE NEW CONCEPTUAL STRUCTURE for the rebuilding of the USA’s global strength is its Indo-Pacific Strategy. To understand the theatre-shift, from “Asia” to “Indo”, one has only to study the actual voyages that Admiral Zheng He undertook in the early decades of the Fifteenth Century.

He’s great fleet swept south and west from coastal China, through the Indonesian archipelago, past Sri Lanka, long the coast of India, rounding the Arabian Peninsula, to journey’s end in East Africa – distributing gifts and collecting tribute all along the way. The economic and political logic was as strong for the Chinese then as it is now. Recognising that logic, the Americans have no real choice but to prevent it from unfolding.

There was a time when the USA could have done it all alone, but now it seems that the retention of American hegemony in the Pacific requires the diplomatic mobilisation of the English-speakers who invaded Iraq in 2003 – the US, the UK and Australia. Hence AUKUS – also known as “bringing the old imperialist band back together for one last tour of an ungrateful and increasingly uncooperative world”.

Can New Zealand stay out of AUKUS? Should New Zealand stay out of AUKUS? The answer to the first question, sadly, is: Only if its people are happy to turn their country into a battleground, upon which Beijing and Washington will wage a protracted ideological war for the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of what both superpowers recognise as a critically important piece of strategic real-estate. Which, even more sadly, answers the second question.

Helen Clark may have got away with keeping New Zealand out of the invasion of Iraq, but that was because, in Iraq, only American pride was at stake. In the looming struggle for the Pacific, the option of “sitting this one out” will not be on offer. Washington will insist that blood is thicker than milk, and Beijing will remind us that milk is New Zealand’s life-blood.

Like it or not, the Kiwis are either going into AUKUS’s “Pillar 2” – or they are going to China.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 6 May 2024.

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Winding Back The Hands Of History’s Clock.

Holding On To The Present: The moment a political movement arises that attacks the whole idea of social progress, and announces its intention to wind back the hands of History’s clock, then democracy, along with its unwritten rules, is in mortal danger.

IT’S A COMMONPLACE of political speeches, especially those delivered in acknowledgement of electoral victory: “We’ll govern for all New Zealanders.” On the face of it, the pledge is a strange one. Why would any political leader govern in ways that advantaged the huge number of citizens who’d cast their votes against her party? Surely, in a nation governed by political parties, strengthening one’s own, and advantaging its most loyal supporters, would be the two top priorities?

That so many political leaders reiterate the “We’ll govern for all New Zealanders” pledge is attributable to what might be called the unwritten rules of democratic politics. A government which ruled in open defiance of all but its own voters would very swiftly unite the rest of the country against it. Worse still, when such a government fell (which would likely be sooner rather than later) its replacement would have no compunction about following its predecessor’s example.

Very quickly, general elections would come to be feared by all sides. Failure to win could mean impoverishment, discrimination, even persecution, for the members and followers of the losing parties. The irresistible temptation, upon winning a general election, would be to make damn sure there wasn’t another one, or, at least, not one conducted freely and fairly. At best, the result would be an Hungarian-style “illiberal democracy”. At worst, outright tyranny.

“We’ll govern for all New Zealanders”, preserves at least the fiction that partisanship ceases when the last vote is counted, and that, henceforward, the election winner/s will govern in the “national interest”. Crude partisanship is banished to the sidelines, right up until the electoral term is set to expire.

In this fiction, the incoming government will be seconded by the public service, whose role, at least theoretically, is to preserve the inviolability of such key state institutions as the judiciary, the armed forces and the police, as well as ensuring the continuity of the state’s day-to-day administrative entities and services.

In reality, the public service serves the interests of the party, or parties, that have just won, or been returned, to power. It advances the new/re-elected government’s policy agenda, offering advice, and doing everything within its power to protect its ministers from their own arrogance, inexperience and/or stupidity. In other words, they are the government’s best friend, right up until the moment it is no longer the government. Very much a case of “The King is dead. Long live the King!”

“We’ll govern for all New Zealanders” is also a pledge to refrain from undoing everything the outgoing government has done whilst in office. Aside from one or two highly symbolic revocations and repeals, the new government is expected to retain those legislated reforms which were well-signalled, widely discussed and debated, and properly passed through all the required parliamentary stages.

Failure to be bound by this unwritten democratic rule is tantamount to repudiating democracy itself. If every attempt at reform is to be ruthlessly undone by the reformers’ successors, then democracy itself will be reduced to little more than a triennial search-and-destroy mission.

The whole utility and, ultimately, the very possibility of meaningful reform will be undermined, to the point where, once again, people begin to ask what democracy is good for.

If every attempt to improve society is countermanded by those who benefit most directly from its defects, then people will begin to insist that a more permanent method be found for negating their advantages. Understandable, but a “people’s tyranny” is still a tyranny.

“We’ll govern for all New Zealanders” is, at its core, a bi-partisan affirmation that the whole point of a democratic system is to make possible the steady advance of the general welfare. Parties of the Left will do their best to speed up that advance. Parties of the Right will attempt to slow the pace. But underlying and informing both Left and Right is a belief that history moves forwards, not backwards. The moment a political movement arises that attacks the whole idea of social progress, and announces its intention to wind back the hands of History’s clock, then democracy, along with its unwritten rules, is in mortal danger.

Is this where New Zealand presently stands? Have New Zealanders elected themselves a government determined to wind back the hands of History’s clock? There are some who insist that a narrow majority of New Zealanders have done precisely this. That the National-Act-NZ First Coalition Government has demonstrated not the slightest intention of governing for all New Zealanders. That it is a government for farmers, landlords, road-builders, mining companies – and the rest of the country be damned!

Or, in the colourful language of The Daily Blog editor, Martyn Bradbury: “This Hard-Right, racist, climate-change-denying, beneficiary-bashing Government.”

Others would argue that the only reason the incoming government felt obliged to wind back the hands of History’s clock is because their predecessors had pushed them too far forward. That, in spite of her promise to govern for all New Zealanders, Jacinda Ardern had allowed elements within Labour’s caucus to promote policies and pass legislation that caused a great many of her fellow citizens to feel disoriented, disliked, and even disinherited. Many Non-Māori New Zealanders felt robbed of what they considered their birthright – the country their European ancestors had built, and the European religious and political beliefs that animated its institutions.

The most precious of these Pakeha taonga is representative democracy. From the election of the Liberal Government in 1891 to the election of the First Labour Government in 1935, the Second in 1957 and the Third in 1972, New Zealanders took pride in their country’s designation as the “social laboratory of the world”. Sure, there were periods of conservative consolidation, when the clock’s hands slowed considerably, but, for the most part, it recorded the steady advance of New Zealand’s socially progressive hours. Not even the years of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia could halt its hands entirely.

What happened to so derange the operation of History’s clock remains a matter of heated debate. Beyond dispute, however, is that at some point between 2017 and 2023 its machinery was over-wound to a degree that gave rise to an unprecedented level of social unease. Changes, uncalled for and ill-explained, came in rapid succession. Too quickly to be either understood, accepted, or forgiven. Political polarisation worsened until there was only one statement that all but the Labour Government’s most ardent followers could agree upon: the politicians in the Beehive are not governing for all New Zealanders.

Entirely predictably, the breaking of one unwritten rule, led swiftly to the breaking of another. And, now, the critical motivational spring of this country’s historical clock – its hitherto unshakeable belief in democracy and the social progress it makes possible – is on the point of failing altogether.

But, if Christopher Luxon’s Government shows no sign of pausing in its reactionary backward lurching, then neither does Chris Hipkins’ Labour Party demonstrate the slightest indication of understanding how close they came to breaking the precious democratic mechanism, nor how urgent is the need for its repair.

Democracy, once lost, is not easily recovered.

If ever there was a time for both Left and Right to declare: “We’ll govern for all New Zealanders” – and mean it – then that time is now.


This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project website on Monday, 29 April 2024.