Tuesday 28 November 2023

Who’s Driving The Right-Wing Bus?

Who’s At The Wheel? The electorate’s message, as aggregated in the polling booths on 14 October, turned out to be a conservative political agenda stronger than anything New Zealand has seen in five decades. In 1975, Bill Rowling was run over by just one bus, with Rob Muldoon at the wheel. In 2023, Labour was run over by a million busses – driven by ourselves.

BILL ROWLING told New Zealanders that he felt as though he had been run over by a bus. The metaphor was apt. Rob Muldoon’s 1975 electoral victory represented one of the great turnarounds in New Zealand political history. Three years earlier, Labour’s Norman Kirk had sent the National Government of Jack Marshall packing. But, just three years later, Muldoon, Marshall’s populist successor, exactly reversed Kirk’s landslide. National’s majority in the House of Representatives was identical to Labour’s – a whopping 23 seats. New Zealand had voted for the nation they wanted – and Muldoon was determined to give it to them.

It is nearly 50 years since Muldoon’s bus flattened poor Bill Rowling, but, for those with long political memories, the parallels with the election of 2023 are striking. The greatest of these is the profound sense of shock and disorientation among the activist supporters of the Left. Their discomfort is born not only of the brute facts of the election results, but also by the growing realisation that the incoming coalition government is determined to roll back practically all of the Left’s policy advances of the past six years.

Two generations have grown to adulthood since Muldoon’s reactionary political agenda was unleashed upon New Zealand. Young New Zealanders are not accustomed to governments committed to actually dismantling the changes of their predecessors, or, at least, not outside specialist areas such as workplace relations and educational assessment. For citizens under 50, the changes of the last few decades have all been in more-or-less the same direction. Economic policy has been neoliberal. Social policy has been “progressive”. Indigenous policy has been concessionary. Matters may have moved more swiftly under Labour, and slowed down a little under National, but, since 1984, the direction of travel has always been the same – onwards and upwards!

That’s what makes the experience so wrenching for the progressives of 2023. Especially with regard to the one, recurring issue which New Zealanders cannot escape: Race.

It was the National Government led by Jim Bolger that set in motion the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process – ably guided by his Treaty Settlements Minister, Doug Graham – in the early 1990s.

Not to be outdone, Labour, under the leadership of Helen Clark in the early 2000s, launched a policy effort dedicated to “closing the gaps” between Māori and Pakeha. The public backlash created by the policy was hugely strengthened by the Court of Appeal’s surprise affirmation of an enduring Māori proprietary interest in the foreshore and seabed. To keep Labour’s electoral prospects alive, Clark was forced to rein-in Māori expectations dramatically, a move which led to the creation of the Māori Party.

Don Brash, Leader of the Opposition in the run-up to the 2005 General Election, capitalised on the growing public disquiet over ethnic relations by throwing the National Party’s support behind calls for a comprehensive rolling-back of the state’s support for Māori sovereignty.

Brash lost the 2005 election, but only narrowly. “Progressive” New Zealand had been profoundly disturbed by the breadth of support for National’s reactionary policies. Brash, himself, was forced to endure what amounted to excommunication from “polite” political society. His fate was intended to serve as a warning to all serious politicians: mess with Māori (and Te Tiriti) at your peril.

Brash’s successor, National’s John Key, restored his party’s reputation (in the eyes of the political class) by sending the Māori Party’s co-leader, Pita Sharples, to New York to add New Zealand’s signature to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.

Labour’s next prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, went one better; commissioning a group of hand-picked “experts” to compile a secret report, He Puapua, setting forth a pathway to the UN Declaration’s full implementation by the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi’s signing in 2040. Driven forward by Labour’s radical Māori caucus, Ardern and her Pakeha colleagues felt obligated to support their colleagues controversial, Te Tititi-driven constitutional innovation of “co-governance”.

As happened in 2004-05, these bold moves towards Māori sovereignty ignited a Pakeha backlash. In 2023, however, the Left lacked the collective political strength to head-off the forces of reaction.

Across a broad front of social issues, public hostility towards the scope and speed of proposed and/or actual changes neutralised almost entirely the massive support Labour had received in 2020 for its highly successful early handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the psychological and material damage inflicted upon the population by the pandemic, and the measures adopted to contain it, after 2020, contributed significantly to what the Left only belatedly registered as an alarming swing to the Right.

Separated by nearly 50 years from the strikingly similarly political derangement that followed the onset of the global oil crisis in October 1973, the sudden collapse of public trust and confidence in the Labour Government in 2022-23 was experienced by the Left as a Black Swan event of perplexing severity.

Young leftists had read about the swift succession of progressive moves undertaken by Norman Kirk’s Labour Government. The abolition of compulsory military training; the troop withdrawal from Vietnam, the recognition of “Red” China; the sending of a NZ frigate to protest French atmospheric nuclear testing at Mururoa; the cancellation of the 1973 Springbok Tour; the creation of ACC and the NZ Superannuation Fund. This is what Labour was capable of delivering – from the left.

Less well understood were the social dynamics which made it possible for a right-wing politician as shrewd and ruthless as Rob Muldoon to bring about an absolutely catastrophic change in the political climate. In the 15 months following Kirk’s sudden death in August 1974, New Zealanders egalitarian instincts were harnessed to an aggressively populist campaign directed against a Labour Party portrayed as having been taken over by intellectuals and radicals whose values were wildly at odds with those of “the ordinary bloke”. Not only was Muldoon able to present himself as the saviour of the country’s middle-class, but of its working-class as well. National’s slogan: “New Zealand the way YOU want it”, said it all.

Depressing though it is to admit, New Zealanders’ deeply ingrained social conservatism; their fury at any person, or group, who see themselves as being better than everybody else; their unwillingness to tolerate one rule for thee, and another for me; their impatience with intellectuals and artists; their wariness of difference; their hatred of privilege; and their comfort in conformity; remains as powerful today as it was 50 years ago.

Perhaps, not seeing a Muldoon figure looming over the electoral landscape, the Left felt itself to be safe. But, 50 years on from 1974-75, charismatic leadership is no longer strictly necessary. Fifty years on, we have the Internet, social-media, and algorithms. Today, we can manufacture a Muldoon for every taste. A protean Muldoon, who addresses tens-of-thousands of voters every day, with a message cleverly crafted for them alone, and delivered instantaneously through those magic rectangles of glass that never seem to leave the voters’ hands.

The sum total of these messages, as aggregated in the polling booths, is a conservative political agenda stronger than anything New Zealand has seen in five decades. In 1975, Bill Rowling was run over by just one bus, with Rob Muldoon at the wheel. In 2023 Labour was run over by a million busses – driven by ourselves.

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 27 November 2023.

Saturday 25 November 2023

Cans of Worms.

“And there’ll be no shortage of ‘events’ to test Luxon’s political skills. David Seymour wants a referendum on the Treaty. Winston wants a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Labour’s handling of the Covid crisis. Talk about cans of worms!”

LAURIE AND LES were very fond of their local. It was nothing flash. Les liked to describe the decor as “Best Western Modern” – which wasn’t all that far off the mark. Lots of concrete, lots of plastic, carpets that hid the stains, windows that either let in too much light, or too little. Still, there was a corner of the bar, where the window-seat ran into the wall, that was Les’ and Laurie’s own.

On this particular day the sun was shining, doing its best to compete with the cold wind blowing in off the sea. A good day for shooting the breeze.

“I see the Labour caucus has re-elected Chippy as the Party’s leader.”

“Hoo-bloody-ray!” cheered Les, whose contempt for the Labour Party had been taken as read by Laurie since 1984. “You didn’t really expect that bunch of political sycophants to do anything other than reward the man responsible for conducting the worst election campaign since David Cunliffe apologised for being a man.”

“At least Cunliffe knew he wasn’t a woman.” Laurie muttered.

“Exactly. And therein lies the problem. Labour doesn’t know how relate to ordinary people anymore. If you don’t have a degree in the social sciences and work for the government, Labour’s MPs don’t know where to look – or what to say.”

“Hence the sausage rolls.” Laurie volunteered. “They had to stand-in for the ordinary joker that Hipkins so very obviously wasn’t.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Les snickered, “all that ‘boy from the Hutt’ malarkey. As if Chippy had grown up in working-class Naenae with his process-worker Dad and shop-assistant Mum. As if he’d been a union organiser instead of a bloody student politician. Sometimes I wonder if they appreciate how insulting it is to be fed this PR bullshit.”

“Like the West Coast”, Laurie chipped-in. “Have you ever noticed the way Labour is always claiming the Coast as the party’s birthplace? The Miners’ Hall at Blackball and all that? When what the Coast actually gave birth to was the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour – the most militant union outfit this country’s ever known.”

“You so right, mate!” Les agreed. “The Labour Party wasn’t founded in Blackball in 1908, it was founded in Wellington in 1916. A whole host of political groups: parties, unions, anti-conscription organisers got together and Labour was the result. A perfectly honourable origin story, but not one to set the heart racing like the two-gun Aussie agitators that led the Blackball Strike.”

“Story of Labour’s life, really, isn’t it.” Laurie added mournfully. “A moderate working-class party living off the legacy of the working-class militants it had self-consciously supplanted. Morphing, eventually, into a party of snotty-nosed middle-class professionals masquerading as beer-drinkers and sausage-roll aficionados.”

Les snorted derisively. “When everybody knows they prefer smashed avocados and a decent Cab-Sav.”

“Still, that’s who we’re stuck with for the next little while at least – Mr Sausage Roll. How do you think he’ll go against Luxon, Seymour and Peters?”

Les paused to take a deep swallow of his pale ale.

“That’s the worst of it. Luxon, as Prime Minister, could be a complete flop. He’s assuming leadership of the country when his political instincts are only half-formed. The penalty for allowing himself to promoted from rookie back-bencher, to party leader, to prime minister, all in the space of three years. I don’t care how fast a learner he is, that simply isn’t long enough to learn how to respond effectively to ‘events, dear boy, events’ – as Harold Macmillan is said to have remarked when a junior staffer asked what could possibly blow his government off-course. Hipkins could end up running rings around him – making him look completely idiotic.”

Laurie peered morosely into his empty glass. “And there’ll be no shortage of ‘events’ to test Luxon’s political skills. David Seymour wants a referendum on the Treaty. Winston wants a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Labour’s handling of the Covid crisis. Talk about cans of worms!”

“Cans of worms they may be,” Les replied, picking-up Laurie’s empty glass, “but they both need opening. The Covid Crisis has deranged a frighteningly large chunk of the population. A full-scale inquiry could go a long way to debunking desperate myths and conspiratorial fantasies. As for Seymour’s referendum. That will tell us who we really are – something I’m quite keen to find out. Another beer?”

This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 November 2023.

Friday 24 November 2023

"Old Coat" by Peter, Paul & Mary.


THERE ARE SOME SONGS that seem to come from a place that is at once in and out of the world. Written by men and women who, for a brief moment, are granted access to that strange, collective compendium of human experience that comes from, and belongs to, all the ages. 

"Old Coat", written by Paul Stookey, Elaina Mezzetti and Mary Travers in 1963, was never a hit and is barely remembered now by anyone but old folkies like myself. A child when I first heard the song, I have never forgotten its bitter acuity and deep sadness concerning the "hard road" all of us are fated to travel from birth to death.

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Passing Things Down.

Keeping The Past Alive: The durability of Commando comics testifies to the extended nature of the generational passing down of the images, music, and ideology of the Second World War. It has remained fixed in the Baby Boomers’ consciousness as “The Good War”: the conflict in which, to a far greater extent than any other, the stakes were as high as the morality was simple. 

WHEN “COMMANDO’ WAR COMICS first started appearing in the newsagents of New Zealand, the war depicted was just 16 years ago. Think about that for a moment. Cast your mind back to the events of 2007. Helen Clark was Prime Minister. George W. Bush was President. Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government was still ruling the United Kingdom. Our memories of these people (all of them still alive) and their deeds remain vivid.

Memories of “The War” – everybody knew which war you were referring to – remained equally vivid for the men and women who had lived through it. That their experiences would be passed down to their children – the “Baby Boomers” – was inevitable. Commando war comics were an important part of that passing down.

Commando’s impressive stable of graphic artists worked in black and white. This seemed fitting to their young readers, since the images vouchsafed to them of the War were similarly monochromatic. Indeed, as the comic’s readership aged – peaking in number during the 1970s – they found it difficult to conceive of the past as happening in anything other than black and white.

Perhaps that’s why the war films emerging from the studios of the United States and the United Kingdom in the postwar decades never seemed quite real to their Baby Boomer audiences. Too much colour. Many of them felt the same way about the “colourisation” of film footage shot during the First and Second World Wars. It seemed, somehow, a violation.

The founders of Commando were all veterans of the War, a fact which explains their insistence on accuracy, and their eye for anything that contradicted their own recollection. It mattered to them that their boy readers (not many girls read Commando comics!) imbibed as truthful a representation of their fathers’ and mothers’ experiences as was compatible with compassionate discretion and commercial success. By and large they succeeded – although it is most unlikely that the expletive phrases of the average German soldier under fire were limited to “Gott in Himmel!” and “Donner und Blitzen!”

The durability of Commando comics testifies to the extended nature of the generational passing down of the images, music, and ideology of the Second World War. It has remained fixed in the Boomers’ consciousness as “The Good War”: the conflict in which, to a far greater extent than any other, the stakes were as high as the morality was simple. Unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the war against the Axis Powers is still accepted as a straightforward battle between Good and Evil.

That so much of the History Channel’s schedule is devoted to programmes about World War II is proof that this colossal, world-shattering event’s absence of moral ambiguity is as much appreciated by Boomers in their old age as it was when they were twelve.

But, as the war-fighters’ children entered their late-teens and early-twenties, the black and white certainties upon which they’d been raised, the anti-fascist ideas they’d imbibed with their mother’s milk, appeared to have been rejected by the very same “good guys” who’d won the war.

When the blood, tears, toil and sweat of Vietnam were captured in all their true colours, and broadcast into the living-rooms of World War II veterans and their families, they arrived from a very different historical place. Everybody knew that these dreadful images no longer came from “then”. They depicted the horrifying realities of “now”. And all the Commando comics in the world could not dismantle the wall behind which the so-called “Greatest Generation” – the men and women who had defeated Hitler – had so irretrievably sundered the past from the present.

For better or worse, the Baby Boomers’ “passing down” has been a mighty warning about the ease with which heroic men and women can pass from the side of the “good guys” to side with the “bad guys”. When the Boomers saw what their parent’s generation was doing to the world they had won – and on whose behalf – they did everything within their power to persuade their own children to question the historical and ethical narratives passed down to them from the past – including those of their own parents.

This is why the comics of the post-Boomer generations are all about deception and betrayal. About superheroes who fail, and turn bad. About the world which the dead heroes of Commando comics could not save.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 November 2023.

Thursday 23 November 2023

The Right Move Against Hamas Was Not To Make One.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” - Sun Tzu (544 ─ 496BC)

ISRAEL’S LEGAL RIGHT to strike back at Hamas is unchallengeable. No nation, having suffered the sort of horrific attack unleashed upon Israel by Hamas terrorists on 7 October 2023, is ever going to be convicted in an international court of law for defending itself. It is the nature of Israel’s retaliation that is challengeable. In war, doing precisely what your enemy expects you to do is never a good idea. By responding to the 7 October attack in precisely the way Hamas anticipated, Israel has allowed the terrorists’ long-planned (and far more important) propaganda offensive to build and strengthen the pro-Palestinian Cause.

That Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel’s Prime Minister on 7 October was of enormous importance to the success of Hamas’ plans. With the survival of the Likud Party-led Israeli Government in the hands of its much smaller coalition partners – all of them murderously Zionistic – there was no way Netanyahu could have responded to Hamas with anything other than overwhelming military force. The only strategy acceptable to Netanyahu and his allies was the one which called for the utter annihilation of Hamas. If Israel had opted to do something else, then Hamas would have been bitterly disappointed – and thoroughly alarmed.

The massive propaganda effort which sprang into action the moment the Gaza fence came down and Israeli citizens began to die, depended absolutely on the screens of the world fast filling up with gruesome images of Palestinians (their children especially) being killed and maimed by Israeli shells, bombs and missiles. These would be the cue for Palestinian apologists all across the West to start talking about “disproportionate responses”, or, more simply, “genocide”.

Many of these defenders of “Palestine” would be well aware that the charge of disproportionality, when used in such a context, does not mean that one side, having killed roughly as many people as the other, is legally obliged to cease and desist. What must be proportionate, under international law, is the nation state’s response to the initial attack. By this measure, Israel’s response to the horrors of 7 October was unquestionably proportionate.

Those who challenge the assertion, should ask themselves how the United Kingdom, Canada or Australia would respond if thousands of their citizens were raped, tortured, shot, stabbed, and burned alive by enemy forces located within the operational reach of their armed forces. Can there be any doubt that their armies, navies and air forces would have been unleashed upon these enemy forces?

And, if those same enemies attempted to avoid the just retribution that was heading their way by situating their military personnel and resources in or below civilian structures, and by using the bodies of their own citizens as human shields (a war crime, by the way) can there be any doubt that the British, Canadian and Australian forces would not have allowed themselves a moment's hesitation before sending their ordnance to blow every living thing within its range to Kingdom Come?

As it says in the Bible: “He who sows the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.”

But the “useful idiots” who fling a Keffiyeh around their shoulders and recite the annihilationist Palestinian mantra: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”; are not influenced in the slightest by such counterfactuals. They are living proof of the saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; and further, that a little historical knowledge can lead otherwise intelligent and progressive Members of Parliament into some very dark places.

Chloe Swarbrick is a walking testimonial to the extraordinary effectiveness of Palestinian propaganda. On the AM Show of Monday, 20 November 2023, she made reference to the “Nakba” – the catastrophic evacuation of Palestinian cities, towns, villages and farms that accompanied the war between the newborn Israeli state and the armies of the Arab League. (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, “assisted” by sundry Palestinian militia.) To hear Chloe tell the story, 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes by evil Zionists hellbent on seizing their land and property. The Nakba was ethnic cleansing on a massive and brutal scale.

Except, it wasn’t.

What happened in 1948 was the culmination of nearly thirty years of unrelenting Palestinian resistance to Jewish settlement in Mandatory Palestine. Arabs had been bearing arms against the Jews, and the Jews had been defending themselves, since at least the 1920s. In 1947, organisations representative of the Palestinian Arabs had rejected the United Nations partition plan (which the Jews, albeit reluctantly, had accepted). By 1948, the Palestinian leadership were confident that their Arab brothers would rout the Jewish militias, and that “from the river to the sea” Palestine would be what the Nazis called Judenfrei – free of Jews.

A great many of the Palestinians who evacuated their homes and farms in 1948 did so at the urging of the Palestinian Arab leadership. Let the armies of the Arab League do their work, these leaders advised, claiming that their family’s return would only be a matter of days or weeks. Few of those who decamped on the basis of this advice had the slightest concern about the genocidal catastrophe which, for the second time in less than a decade, was about to overtake the Jewish people.

Chloe Swarbrick should know this, but since her knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict appears to have been gleaned from the tendentious accounts of Palestinian nationalists, Islamic fanatics and that great throng of usefully idiotic allies who retail “Free Palestine!” propaganda in the West’s universities and news media, the chances are depressingly high that she does not.

And this is the strategic problem confronting Israel. That the effectiveness of the disinformation from which Palestinian nationalism and religious fanaticism continue to draw their strength depends, almost entirely, on Israel’s willingness to confirm its emotional truth by blowing Palestinians and their defenceless communities to Kingdom Come.

The only winning move for Israel, when subjected to the atrocities of 7 October, was, paradoxically, not to make one. To do nothing. This necessitates imagining an Israel led by a Prime Minister of enormous courage and wisdom – enough to face her people with solemn determination and tell them that, this time, unlike all the other times, the Israeli people will not take the bloody bait laid before them by the jackals of Hamas and their Iranian backers. This time, not a single bullet will fly, not a single bomb will drop. This time the Palestinians of Gaza will be left in peace to contemplate the true nature of the organisation that governs their little strip of hell.

One can only imagine the dismay of Hamas, and all the “Hamas adjacent” politicians, journalists and students who have spent the past six weeks waving Palestinian flags, tearing down the posters of Hamas’ hostages, and telling us what a genocidal, colonialist, monstrosity Israel is, and has always been. Why? Because who, and what, would the world be looking at if there were no babies’ bodies to evoke our horror and disgust? Who would be caught in the media spotlight and forced to answer for their atrocities? Their war crimes? Their unrelenting antisemitism?

Let me give you a hint: it wouldn’t be Israel.

This essay is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Luxon And Leadership.

What Kind Of Leader? It’s the only definition of leadership that makes any sense in the world most people live in – which is not the corporate world. A leader has followers. If a person lacks followers, then they are not – by the reckoning of most human-beings – a leader. The other real world distinction between corporate and political leaders is that the former have power given to them, while the latter take it for themselves.

LEADERSHIP. The corporate world is obsessed by it. In the absence of strong corporate leadership an adequate return on the shareholders’ investment cannot be guaranteed. Poor corporate management can lead to poor dividends, lower share prices, disinvestment and, ultimately, disaster. That’s why corporate leadership matters. In theory, anyway.

Many critics of contemporary capitalism argue that corporate managers exercise excessive influence over the businesses they run. That neither the corporate board, nor the shareholders, any longer exert any real influence over the management – until it’s much too late. Poor corporate leadership can, indeed, lead to failure, but the price paid by bad leaders is often in inverse proportion to the size of the disasters for which they are responsible. When they leave the scene of their managerial crimes, it is only very rarely that they depart empty-handed.

Poor corporate leadership is seldom punished.

Poor political leadership, by contrast, is almost always rewarded with the Order of the Boot.

The reason lies in the very different kind of power that corporate leaders wield. Corporations are permanent hierarchies in which vacancies are filled from the top down. Political leadership works from the bottom-up. If corporate leaders are measured against the power and wealth of the corporations they command, then political leaders are judged by the number and enthusiasm of their followers.

It’s the only definition of leadership that makes any sense in the world most people live in – which is not the corporate world. A leader has followers. If a person lacks followers, then they are not – by the reckoning of most human-beings – a leader. The other real world distinction between corporate and political leaders is that the former have power given to them, while the latter take it for themselves.

It is why all the books written about corporate leadership ring so hollow. The behaviour prescribed for leaders in these breathless volumes is the behaviour of a successful courtier – and the only power successful courtiers wield is the power given to them by their sovereign. A courtier retains power by retaining the confidence of the person at the very summit of the hierarchy. Political chiefs stay at the top only for as long as those below them are willing to trust and follow “their” leader. Without the trust and confidence of their followers, political leaders are powerless.

Christopher Luxon has plenty of experience in the intricacies of corporate leadership. He knows what must be done to retain the support of those above him. His successful career as a corporate executive amply confirms that he has mastered the politics of hierarchy. But, New Zealanders are still awaiting confirmation that Luxon has successfully transitioned from the politics of the boardroom to the politics of the caucus-room. Does he fully grasp, even now, that it is only the support of National’s MPs – along with the more than a million party followers who elected them – that keeps him in the top job?

Luxon became the parliamentary leader of the National Party in November 2021. Not, it must be said, after a strong and successful demonstration of his political leadership skills – particularly those relating to the attraction and retention of followers – but because the National Caucus had run out of options.

Bill English, the man who had led them to a Party Vote of 44 percent in the 2017 General Election, while an excellent Finance Minister, and a deep political thinker, had never quite managed to convince himself that he had what it took to lead the NZ National Party. A great pity, because it is one of the ineluctable rules of democratic politics that politicians who doubt themselves find it extremely difficult to convince others.

English’s replacement, Simon Bridges, appeared equally plagued by doubts. At times he seemed like a nervous adolescent, heading-out with his stylish girlfriend for the end-of-year school ball, wearing his father’s suit. Leadership of the National Party never quite seemed to fit Bridges: it was always too big for him.

Bridges nemesis, Todd Muller turned out to be living proof of “Dirty Harry’s” warning that “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Like Labour’s disastrous leader, David Cunliffe, Muller proved himself to be much more adept at winning the leadership of his party than wielding it. The difference being, Muller took only a few weeks to realise that he was completely out of his depth. A conclusion not reached by Cunliffe, even after winning just 25 percent of the Party Vote!

Muller’s replacement, Judith Collins, had long been hungry for the leadership of her party – and her country. It was just that her preferred means of getting there, beneath the daunting mask of “Crusher”, put off a great many more voters than it attracted. The New Zealand electorate has, over the years, displayed a worrying willingness to elect frightening male leaders. Scary female leaders, with the obvious exception of Helen Clark, have enjoyed considerably less success. National’s terrible showing in the 2020 General Election (25 percent) dissolved what little was left of Collins’ political judgement – along with the confidence of her caucus colleagues.

And that just left the man acknowledged by all to be the preferred option of National’s most successful leader since Keith Holyoake – John Key. Never mind that Christopher Luxon had been a Member of Parliament for barely a year, his successful career as a corporate leader – as CEO of Air NZ – was deemed to be more than sufficient preparation for the job of Leader of the Opposition.

But was it, really? Luxon had been seized upon by his fellow Nats with the same desperation as the drowning man seizes upon a lifebuoy. He was new, he was fresh, he had a bright smile and he wore a suit like the boss he had been. But, unlike his patron, Luxon never quite understood that voters are not employees. You can’t just instruct them to vote for you and your party; you have got to give them a reason for voting that way. In a democracy, politicians cannot simply demand people’s votes, they have to earn them.

Yes, yes, yes: National won 1,085,016 Party Votes in 2023, which is a great deal more than Judith Collin’s 738,275 in 2020, but, Luxon’s 38.6 percent of the Party Vote falls a long way short of Key’s winning percentage of 44.6 in 2008.

That’s because Key, unlike Luxon, had spent two years giving New Zealanders a reason to vote for him. Speech by speech, stunt by stunt, goofy-grin by goofy-grin, Key had done what all political leaders do – he had gone out and got himself some followers. Key may have been a highly successful player in the grand financial casino, but he knew the difference between corporate and political leadership. The electorate doesn’t vote for designations, it votes for ideas. 38.6 percent is what Christopher Luxon got for not being Chris Hipkins. It isn’t enough.

And it’s not at all clear, yet, what Luxon’s ideas are. He had very little that was inspiring to say before the election, and he has had virtually nothing even interesting to say after it. The man doesn’t yet seem to understand that he hasn’t been appointed to lead New Zealand, he’s been elected. There’s a difference.

A political leader would have used the three weeks between Polling Day and the counting of the Special Votes to talk to New Zealanders. There were horrors in Israel and Gaza. There were things to say about Te Tiriti and Democracy. About economics and security. About a world gripped by multiple crises, and about the Prime-Minister-Elect’s confidence that New Zealand would get through them all. Because this, the country he has been given the extraordinary privilege to lead, is a remarkable place, filled with remarkable people.

He could then have strode into those coalition talks, and David Seymour and Winston Peters would have risen from their seats and applauded – their nation’s leader.

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 20 November 2023.

Wednesday 15 November 2023

The Most Unlikely Trinity.

The Three Amigos (Pro Tem): Three politicians, one from National, one from Act, one from NZ First, walk into a bar. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it? The punchline, however, is that all three politicians walk out of that bar as the leaders of New Zealand’s next government.

BY THE END of this week, or the next, New Zealand will have a government. It is unlikely to be a pleasant one. The three political leaders, and the three political parties they lead, comprise the most unlikely trinity. Whether they are able to work together constructively for more than a few months is a dubious proposition – at best. Such overarching visions of New Zealand’s future as exist among them are more likely to divide than unite the members of the coalition government. In a nation already polarised politically – and growing more so by the day – the new regime’s prospectus will struggle to find long-term investors.

National, the new coalition’s dominant partner, has become a party of echoes. Most obviously of the highly successful government of John Key. But, Christopher Luxon has very little in common with Key. Where his political mentor had a keen strategic sense and an instinctive feel for where the majority of his compatriots wanted to go, Luxon is utterly lost without his talking-points. In their absence he reaches for the most banal tropes of the suburban Tory. His ad-lib political observations are peppered with the commonplace insults of his class: “whiney” and “bottom-feeders” being the most memorable examples.

Ask this man for his vision of New Zealand and he will blather-on about building a future where hard-working New Zealanders can “get ahead”. While that is indisputably the baseline ambition of every sensible citizen – who would want themselves and their family to go backwards?! “Getting ahead” is not, however, a vision.

Indeed, the whole structure of the National Party’s desideratum resonates with prejudice and resentment. Identifying only the “hard-working” for advancement presupposes a society containing more than its fair share of shirkers, grifters and malingerers. Luxon and his party see no reason why these sorts – these “bottom-feeders” – should get anywhere at all. Most certainly, they should not be allowed to get “ahead” of all those hard working Kiwis.

Mind you, those “hard workers” may not be the individuals ordinary working-class people think of when they hear the words tripping off Luxon’s tongue. When they hear someone described as a hard worker they may think of their neighbour who gets up when it’s still dark to clean offices in the central city, puts in a shift at the local supermarket, and then prepares the evening meal for her family. That’s a lot of work, and all of it is hard. She’s putting in 14-hour days, six days a week, for just enough to pay the bills. She’s a hard worker, but she’s not “getting ahead”.

In the mind of the National Party’s ideologues, however, “hard work” means something quite different. It refers to the mental agility and stamina required to manage people and resources. Only in the rarest of cases will those resources have been amassed by personal effort. In most cases they’ll belong to the shareholders of the corporation that hired its CEO. Making those resources grow is his job. It means reading reports, attending meetings, making decisions. Often in entails travelling to other cities, staying in hotels, eating out at restaurants. Putting in 14-16 hour days is not uncommon. Where the CEO’s job and the job of the working-class cleaner differ, however, is in how much they get paid for doing it.

For the CEO, earning well into six – sometimes seven – figures, “getting ahead” does not mean being able to put aside a few hundred dollars for family emergencies. No, the “getting ahead” he has in mind means arranging for his income tax to be slashed by tens-of-thousands of dollars. He resents his hard-earned money going to all those “whiney” “bottom-feeders” who haven’t so much lost their “mojo” as never possessed the faintest idea as to what it even means. All those shirkers, grifters and malingerers who have never done an honest day’s work in their lives. All those people without a clue about what people with “mojo” (which some of us refer to as ‘luck’) can do – or what they deserve for doing it.

For the most part, National’s politicians are too clever to say too much of this where anybody unsympathetic to the trials and tribulations of being “well off” might be listening. They expect their supporters (and in most cases these expectations are well-founded) to be able to read the sub-text of their otherwise anodyne political pronouncements. To be a National party member, a National Party voter, means not having, or even wanting, to have things spelt out too clearly. National’s politics is a bit like the hedges, fences and walls they erect around their properties. They are there to conceal what lies behind – lest the little people start getting big ideas about how much wealth is too much wealth.

The difference between National and Act is that the latter is seized by a curious determination to be honest about power and wealth. Raising hedges, fences and walls suggests an unwholesome pusillanimity when it comes to individual prowess. Let the little people see what “mojo” can achieve. Wealth and power is nothing to be ashamed of, indeed, the lack of it can be read as a confirmation of individual deficiency. Act members, Act voters, are comfortable with the idea that all human-beings are not born equal. Nor would they want them to be. Yes, they believe in democracy – but only because it is the best protection against aristocracy and oligarchy: the best political system for allowing the superior individual (rather than the “hard worker”) to “get ahead” without being held back by the leg-irons of class, race and/or gender privilege.

Which leaves us with the classic conservatives of NZ First. Winston Peters and his followers aren’t so much interested in changing the world – or even themselves – as they are in protecting the things they believe should not be changed. They are the sort of people who believe there is a place for everything, and everyone; and that everything, and everyone, should be made as comfortable and secure as possible in that place.

Peters and NZ First despise Act for many reasons, but primarily because, like Mark Zuckerberg, Act believes in moving fast and breaking things. As far as NZ First is concerned, societies cannot be made, societies can only be allowed to grow. And things that grow are not assisted by being hacked at, pruned or cut down. That’s why they’re suspicious of Labour and its recklessly ambitious plans to “build” a better world. But, it is also why they’re reluctant to trust National. Because all-too-often National smiles and smiles at the New Zealand people – and yet proves to be nothing but a villainous pander to the appetites of the ruling-class. The only justification for change, in the eyes of Peters and his people, is to make sure that everything remains the same.

Three politicians, one from National, one from Act, one from NZ First, walk into a bar. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it? The punchline, however, is that all three politicians walk out of that bar as the leaders of New Zealand’s next government.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project on Monday, 13 November 2023.