Friday, 17 November 2017

What Are The Greens Playing At?

"WTF, James!" The Greens do not appear to understand that the key to improving their party’s position electorally, as well as strengthening its hand politically, lies in conceiving of the Labour-NZ First-Green government as a single entity: one which must either hang together or, most assuredly, it will hang separately! Stealing their comrades’ electoral lunch, in these circumstances, can only damage the Greens every bit as much as it damages (and enrages!) Labour and NZ First.

WHAT DO THE GREENS think they’re playing at? Their response to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has done themselves, and the government they’re ostensibly part of, a huge disservice. Honestly, it’s the sort of reaction one might expect from a clutch of radical student politicians: long on “principle”, short on common-sense. If this is how the Greens plan to conduct themselves over the next three years, then they had better find themselves an electorate they can win (without Labour’s support!) and fast. Because keeping their party above the 5 percent MMP threshold is likely to prove a constant struggle.

Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves that by waving their anti-TPP banners across Twitter and Facebook they will pick up all those “woke” voters who’ve accused Jacinda Ardern and David Parker of “selling out” to global capitalism at Danang. How many might that be? Almost certainly a lot fewer than the very substantial number of generous Labour supporters who gave the Greens their Party Vote on 23 September to make sure they didn’t disappear from Parliament altogether. If the Greens aren’t willing to reciprocate that sort of solidarity, then there’s bugger-all chance of it being repeated!

The Greens do not appear to understand that the key to improving their party’s position electorally, as well as strengthening its hand politically, lies in conceiving of the Labour-NZ First-Green government as a single entity: one which must either hang together or, most assuredly, it will hang separately! Stealing their comrades’ electoral lunch, in these circumstances, can only damage the Greens every bit as much as it damages (and enrages!) Labour and NZ First.

But, then, strategic (or even tactical!) thinking would not appear to be the Greens’ strong suit. Was there no one in their caucus capable of imagining the grim spectre that was bound to be raised by their very public repudiation of the CPTPP? Not one person in their ranks with the wit to realise that by withdrawing their 8 votes from the Government, the Greens would be driving Jacinda straight into the arms of Bill English and the National Party? Did no Green MP pause to consider the “optics” of that? Of how much damage it would inflict on all three of the governing parties?

Even if Labour capitulated at the last moment, and agreed to pull New Zealand out of the CPTPP – would the Greens count that as a “victory”? If so, they’d be wrong. Such a public demonstration of the tail wagging the dog would be catastrophic for Labour and the Greens alike. And if Labour refused to be blackmailed and allowed the National Party to ride to its rescue? What would that say about the viability of the Labour-NZ First-Green government? What would it mean for the relationship between Jacinda and James Shaw? Labour’s wrath would be terrible to behold – but not as terrible as their revenge!

It all could have been handled so differently. All that was required of the Greens’ caucus was some evidence they understood that contributing usefully to the work of a progressive government requires just a little more in the way of political finesse than denying the right of free speech to a handful of National Front tragics in Parliament grounds.

On the CPTPP issue, for example, the Greens could have reached out to their Canadian counterparts for advice on how to build the largest possible political consensus around what should – and should not – be included in a multilateral trade agreement. In this, they would have been doing Labour a huge favour: making the arguments that the Prime Minister and her Trade Minister could not be seen to make, but which would, nevertheless, strengthen their hand in future negotiations.

As it is, by firing off all their “principled” bullets at once (and before their target was even within range!) they have taken themselves out of the game. Even worse, they have demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that they don’t even know what the game is – or how to play it!

That is not something which can be said of NZ First. Winston Peters has maintained a judicious silence concerning the desirability – or otherwise – of the CPTPP. He will study the problem professionally, from all angles, until he locates exactly the right point to exercise his leverage.

My advice to the Greens? Watch and learn.

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 November 2017.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Darkness At The End Of The Rainbow?

YES! Australians cheer the result of the postal plebiscite on Marriage Equality. This emphatic victory for social liberalism (61.6/38.4 percent) will hit conservative Australians hard. Liberal and National Party strategists may, however, attempt to exploit the fact that of the 17 federal electorates that voted "No", 11 are held by the Labor Party. Progressive Australians have won an important battle - but the culture war will go on.

WEDNESDAY, 15 NOVEMBER 2017 will go down in Australian history as Marriage Equality Day. In an unprecedented national plebiscite, 61.6 percent of the 79.5 percent of voting-age Australians who returned their postal ballots voted YES to marriage equality. With this resounding vote in favour, Australia joined the rest of the world’s progressive nations in rejecting homophobia and discrimination.

But, Wednesday, 15 November 2017 will be remembered for something more than Australia’s endorsement of marriage equality. It will also be recorded by social historians and psephologists as the day conservative Australians were required to accept a forceful and irrefutable message confirming their minority status in Australian society.

Hostility towards homosexuality is one of the most reliable markers of the authoritarian personality. It will, therefore, come as a profound shock to people of this personality type that their attitudes are not shared by an overwhelming majority of the population. That nearly two-thirds of their fellow citizens see nothing untoward about same sex couples getting married will deliver a shattering blow to their perception of “normality”. They will be dismayed by how far the world has strayed from their “traditional values”.

For some, the events of 15 November 2017 will prompt a thorough-going reassessment of their moral and political expectations of themselves and their fellow Australians. If they are lucky, this reassessment will liberate them from the debilitating effects of conservative ideology, fundamentalist religious beliefs and authoritarian attitudes. For many others, perhaps a majority, however, the discovery that their hatreds and prejudices towards the LGBTI community is shared by just 38.4 percent of their fellow Australians will evoke a very different – and potentially dangerous – response.

For these conservatives, the plebiscite outcome will be interpreted as irrefutable proof of how sick and sinful their society has become. Religious conservatives, in particular, will have no difficulty accepting their minority status. After all, doesn’t Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, enjoin them to enter in by the strait gate? “[F]or wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat”? And doesn’t he also say that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

No, the Christian fundamentalists will not be in the least bit surprised to discover that 61.6 percent of their neighbours are going to Hell.

Political conservatives and authoritarian personalities will have a much harder time of it, however. For their brand of politics, 15 November 2017 can only have been a profoundly delegitimating experience. Electorally, it could very easily signal their imminent marginalisation. “Mainstream” politicians will now have to adjust to the fact that social liberalism, which they understood to be confined to the effete inhabitants of the inner-cities, is actually embraced by a much more extensive cross-section of the Australian population. For many, on both sides of the parliamentary aisle, it will rapidly become advisable to evince a more progressive and tolerant political persona.

For the diehards, however, it is not yet the time to lay down their arms and surrender to the bacchanalian throngs gyrating joyously in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. They still have eleven cards left to play.

The more sharp-eyed and ruthless members of the Liberal and National party rooms will have noticed that of the 17 federal electorates which voted “No” to marriage equality, fully 11 of them are held by the Australian Labor Party. In the strategically vital “Western Suburbs” of Sydney, the seats of Greenway, Chifley, McMahon, Fowler, Warriwa, Blaxland, Watson, Barton and Parramatta – all of them held by Labor MPs – voted “No”. Some, like Greenway, only very narrowly. (53.6 percent) Others, like Blaxland, by a huge margin. (73.9 percent!) In socially-liberal (some would say, radical) Melbourne, the only electorates which rejected marriage equality were the Labor-held seats of Calwell and Bruce.

There is simply no way the Labor Party can defeat the Liberal-National Coalition if even a handful of these eleven safe seats slip from the Opposition’s grasp. And while, in normal times, any suggestion that a seat like Chifley might be lost to the Liberals would be greeted with full-strength Aussie derision, it remains an awkward fact that we are not living in normal times.

Prior to 8 November 2016, the very idea that the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania might be about to fall to Trump would have been met with loud American guffaws. But not after 8 November. Lashed and goaded in just the right way, the normally left-voting inhabitants of places like Michigan – or Chifley – can end up doing the strangest things.

For progressive Australians, 15 November 2017 will forever be bathed in all the vibrant colours of the rainbow. But, for the conservative ideologues, the religious fanatics and the authoritarian personalities trapped in their suffocating character armour, 15 November 2017 will be registered as nothing more than a temporary setback. The bigots might concede that, on this memorable day, they have lost a battle. But, for them, the war against a society grounded in gentleness, tolerance and love will go on.

This essay has been posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 November 2017.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A Very Lucky Escape.

Brave Faces At Danang: David Parker and Jacinda Ardern field questions from the news media at the meeting of Apec in Danang, Vietnam. What the new Labour-led government needed more than anything else from this meeting was what they came home with - Time.

THE TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP (TPP) is not dead, but neither can it be said to be in the rudest of health. Considerable last-minute diplomatic scurrying was required to save the Japanese government from a humiliating loss of face. Negotiations, accordingly, are said to be “continuing”. Nothing, however, should be expected before February 2018 – at the earliest. Which means that, for the moment at least, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Trade Minister David Parker, like Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, have taken possession of the commodity they most needed to bring home from Danang – Time.

The situation into which Ardern was flying aboard the RNZAF’s Boeing 757 at the end of last week offered no guarantee that such precious time would be on offer. Danang was fraught with multiple dangers: economic, diplomatic and political.

As the leader of a small trading nation, New Zealand’s prime minister simply cannot affect a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to something as big as the TPP. The inescapable truth confronting Ardern (as it has every one of her predecessors) is that this country’s status as a first-world nation is inescapably contingent upon earning sufficient overseas currency to import the sort of lifestyle to which most Kiwis believe themselves entitled. Bluntly: faced with the choice of announcing whether her government is “in” or “out” of a major trade agreement; no New Zealand prime minister can say “out” with impunity.

All of the official advice the Prime Minister has received to date on the TPP will have kicked-off from that position. Certainly, it will have been the argument reiterated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). It will also have been the lustily repeated refrain of this country’s major exporters. Likewise, from what might be called the “globalisation lobby” imbedded in NGO-land, academia and the media.

Taken together, a very large and intimidating crowd to say “no” to!

Even larger and much more intimidating, however, are the nation states determined to see the TPP (or, as it has rather tendentiously been re-named, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership – CPTPP!) ratified and implemented. The agreement’s principal cheerleader (now that the USA has withdrawn) is Japan, whose diplomatic reach proved to be more than long enough to secure Justin Trudeau’s return to the negotiating table. (It may have been Canada’s wish to walk away from the TPP-11 altogether, but Japan’s “arguments” were clearly “persuasive” enough to cause its prime minister to have second-thoughts and turn around!)

If Canada, with 36.3 million people and the second-largest economy of the remaining TPP signatories, couldn’t make it all the way to the departure lounge at Danang, then what were the odds of little New Zealand making it even as far as the door? New Zealand political leaders have only to review their country’s diplomatic, military and economic experience with the USA between 1984 and 2010 to gain some appreciation of the costs associated with taking a “principled stand”. World headlines last only a few days – their consequences can last for decades.

And then, of course, you have to come home.

It is probable that the National Party was hoping more earnestly than Professor Jane Kelsey and the entire New Zealand Left that Prime Minister Ardern would take a “principled stand” on the TPP. Had she stood up and said “no”, not only would she have felt the full wrath of Japan and its allies, but, from the moment her feet once again touched New Zealand soil, she would also have felt the full blast of a searing political firestorm.

The Urgent Debate in Parliament, which Speaker Mallard would have no choice but to grant the National Opposition, would only be the beginning. Day after day, the voices of exporters, business leaders, bank economists, business journalists, media commentators, academic experts and the globalisation lobby would be ringing in the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s ears.

The Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues would then have just two political options: either back-down, or double-down.

If they backed-down, then Ms Ardern and her government would stand exposed as a bunch of juvenile attention-seekers who simply had not thought through the consequences of their irresponsible actions. It would be a full-scale debacle from which they could not recover.

But, doubling-down would be even worse. By adopting a sharp-edged, radically left-wing, stance on international trade at both the diplomatic and domestic levels, Ms Ardern’s government would rapidly find itself re-positioned among the world’s “nutty” nation states. Inevitably, New Zealand would find itself drifting, economically and diplomatically, under the influence of China and Russia. For an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders, this would represent an unmandated repudiation of everything their country stands for. Politically, it would be unsurvivable.

To Ms Ardern’s and Mr Parkers’ no doubt immense relief, both of these catastrophes have been avoided. They have had a very lucky escape.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 November 2017.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Democratic Engineers, Or Neoliberal Mechanics?

Storming The "Engine Room" of Government: As the product of a “top-down” economic and social revolution, New Zealand Neoliberalism – far from needing to rein-in the powers of the civil-service mandarinate – was determined to re-fashion the state bureaucracy in such a way that it would be able to resist any and all attempts by elected politicians – and their parties – to dismantle the neoliberal machinery of "governance".

“THEY’RE THE ENGINE ROOM where ministerial decisions are put through the mill by officials.” In that single sentence, the very worst aspects of neoliberalism are laid bare. It’s author, political journalist Stacey Kirk, like so many of her generation, have been taught to regard politicians as, at best, necessary evils. Accordingly, Cabinet Committees – the “engine rooms” of government – are held up as the necessary correctives to poorly conceived “ministerial decisions”. Places where the ideas of elected politicians get knocked into a shape acceptable to their unelected “officials” – New Zealand’s only trustworthy wielders of political power.

Kirk’s story, inspired by Opposition criticism of the new government’s apparent willingness to be guided by – and act on – its own advice, plays directly to the crucial neoliberal concept of “governance”. At its core, governance represents the idea that the policies of both local and national government, if they are to meet the fundamental test of effective and efficient public administration, must be professionally crafted and implemented. By this reckoning, the ill-informed amateurism of elected politicians poses a constant threat to the delivery of “good” governance. Which is why “officials” putting “ministerial decisions” through “the mill” is presented not as an affront to democracy, but a very good idea.

Essentially, Kirk ranges herself alongside the Sir Humphrey Appleby character from the celebrated British television series, Yes Minister. Sir Humphrey represents the haughty mandarinate of the Civil Service: the ones who regard themselves as the guardians of the State’s permanent interests. Ever on the alert against the obsessions and enthusiasms of reforming politicians, Sir Humphrey and his colleagues are constantly manoeuvring to thwart the pet projects of their ministers.

In its day, Yes Minister was conceived of – and certainly became – a primer for the “free market” reforms of Margaret Thatcher. The senior civil service of 1980s Britain was depicted as dangerously protective of the fast-decaying post-World War II Keynesian settlement. Yes Minister’s key message was, therefore, that the British people needed to elect ideologically-driven politicians who knew their own minds, and could not be swayed by the blandishments of Machiavellian bureaucrats like Sir Humphrey.

In the case of New Zealand, however, the neoliberal revolution was not carried through by ideologically-driven politicians (as happened in the UK and the USA) but by ideologically-driven bureaucrats in the New Zealand Treasury and, to a lesser extent, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. It was these civil servants who radicalised the political leadership of the Labour Party and placed in the hands of David Lange’s government the carefully prepared economic reform package that would later become known as “Rogernomics”. (The book-sized briefing document, dubbed ‘Economic Management’, can still be found on the shelves of your local public library.)

As the product of a “top-down” economic and social revolution, New Zealand Neoliberalism – far from needing to rein-in the powers of the civil-service mandarinate – was determined to re-fashion the state bureaucracy in such a way that it would be able to resist any and all attempts by elected politicians – and their parties – to dismantle the neoliberal system.

In this regard, the concept of “governance” was crucial. Policy had to become the more-or-less exclusive province of highly-trained professionals. Men and women, thoroughly schooled in the neoliberal ideology, who could intercept and demolish any attempt by politicians – especially those of the Left – to advance an alternative economic and social agenda.

In effect, the whole idea of a democratically-elected government, empowered by the electorate to implement its party’s – or parties’ – manifesto/s, is presented as a dangerous threat to the effective and efficient management of public affairs. Lip-service has to be paid to democratic principles, of course, but all governance-oriented politicians understand that Steve Maharey’s infamous formula: “That’s just the sort of thing you say in Opposition, and then forget about in Government”, continues to describe the true condition of our democracy.

None of which should be construed as an argument for doing away with the civil service. Highly-educated and experienced civil servants will always be needed to provide the policies of elected politicians with effective and efficient delivery mechanisms. Free and frank advice to ministers will always constitute a vital aspect of testing and refining policy ideas. What is most definitely not needed, however, is a civil service comprised of neoliberal cadres: bureaucrats who are, first and foremost, loyal to an ideological system which is absolutely antithetical to the whole notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” New Zealand urgently needs to get rid of this neoliberal priesthood.

Rather than question Jacinda Ardern’s government for spending too little time in the “engine rooms”, Stacey Kirk should, perhaps, cast a critical eye over the legislative mechanisms which preserve the neoliberal ascendancy in New Zealand’s civil service. The State Sector Act, the Public Finance Act and the Reserve Bank Act: all provide the statutory obstacles that render effective, politician-led change so exceedingly difficult in this country.

If our new Cabinet Ministers are working independently of their “officials”, then that is not, automatically, a bad thing. On the contrary, in a democracy: the spectacle of officials working for politicians, who are, in their turn, working for the people; offers welcome proof that the system is working exactly as it should!

Surely, the “engine room” of any government is the place where the policies promised to the people by their elected leaders are connected to the machinery of the state by its loyal civil servants – and set in motion.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 11 November 2017.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Chris Hipkins' Mistake.

First Rule Of Parliamentary Politics - Learn To Count! Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins (Centre) confers with Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, and Prime Minister Ardern. Hipkins' mistake - trusting the word of the National Party - is one he will be determined to avoid repeating.

IT WAS A MISTAKE: a serious mistake; a mistake born out of Labour’s naïve readiness to trust the National Opposition. It was, after all, the first sitting of the newly elected House of Representatives. Normally, an occasion for a little bit of pomp and circumstance, when Members of Parliament swear allegiance to the Sovereign, assume their seats, and elect one of their number Speaker of the House. Historically, a day of bi-partisan goodwill; a day for tradition; a day of calm before the House settles into its normal, adversarial, storms.

Not this day.

Clearly, when the Leader of the Opposition, Bill English, told a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery that “it’s not our job to make this place run for an incoming Government”, Labour’s new Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, refused to take him seriously. Not even English’s parting shot: “we have no obligation to smooth [Labour’s] path. None whatsoever”, was explicit enough for Labour to take precautions against an Opposition ambush.

Not on the first day.

Not even when Simon Bridges, National’s “Shadow” Leader of the House, accused Labour of attempting to perpetrate an “unprecedented” erosion of the Opposition’s democratic rights, did Hipkins smell a rat. Why should he, when all he was proposing to do was implement a number of unanimously agreed changes to the rules governing the conduct and membership of Parliament’s select committees?

After all, these same amendments to Parliament’s “Standing Orders” – one of which limited the number of Select Committee members to 96 – had been recommended to the previous House of Representatives by no less a person than the man now proclaiming them to be a democratic outrage – Simon Bridges!

Obviously, this was all about the Opposition giving voice to their frustration. Opposition is never easy and the temptation to rhetorical over-statement is always very strong. English was simply talking tough – that is his job now. And Bridges? Well! Taking his cue from Bill, he was simply pumping-up the rhetoric to bursting point. Hell! Hipkins had done it himself often enough when seated on the Opposition Benches! All this fire and brimstone was being laid on for the benefit of National’s aggrieved voters, still smarting over the election outcome. There was no need for him, or anyone else on the Government’s side of the House, to get excited.

Except, there was.

With the Foreign Affairs Minister, Winston Peters, and the Trade Minister, David Parker, both out of the country, and three more Government members absent from the Chamber, Hipkins was three votes shy of a majority on the Floor of the House. No matter, the only important business of the day was the election of Trevor Mallard as Speaker of the House, with National’s Anne Tolley as his deputy. All parties had been consulted, and all parties were agreed. The vote was a mere formality.

Until Bridges turned it into something else.

They say that the first and most important skill a politician is obliged to master is how to count. Bridges tallied-up the Government numbers and realised that the National Party had command of the Floor. Without a moment’s hesitation he pounced. If Labour wanted Mallard to be Speaker, then they would have to yield to the Opposition on the number of Select Committee members. Instead of 96, Bridges demanded 108. If Hipkins refused, then National would use its temporary command of the House to deny Mallard his heart’s desire – the Speaker’s Chair!

It was a scene of extraordinary drama. Bridges, his face contorted in a rictus of anthropoid belligerence, confronted the beseeching countenances of Hipkins and Finance Minister, Grant Robertson. The image will do him no harm – not among his caucus colleagues, anyway. With a single, ruthless stroke of parliamentary gamesmanship, Bridges has seized for himself the priceless mantle of National’s warrior knight.

But at what cost?

Hipkins made the mistake of believing that National would not stoop to turning the opening of Parliament into an ugly display of aggressive partisanship. It’s a mistake he will do everything in his power to avoid repeating.

Bridges, meanwhile, has signalled that National is ready to employ the tactics of the US Republican Party: obstruction without reason; obstruction without purpose; obstruction without end.

In the memorable words of Bette Davis in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 November 2017.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Settling The Stardust: The Grim Logic Behind National's Opposition Tactics.

Starting As They Mean To Finish: Simon Bridges' opening parliamentary gambit has made it more-or-less impossible for National’s period in opposition to be anything other than a bloody, no-holds-barred fight to the finish. Bill English had hinted that this might be the Opposition's game-plan when he told the NZ Herald that “it’s not our job to make this place run for an incoming Government […] we have no obligation to smooth [Labour’s] path. None whatsoever.”

WHAT WAS HE THINKING? When Simon Bridges pulled his little parliamentary stunt and extracted his procedural pound of flesh – what was he thinking? Was it no more than a spur-of-the-moment bluff? Did Labour’s Chris Hipkins give in too readily? What would have happened if the Government had been prepared to call his bluff? We’ll never know. We never do. History turns on such moments. The course our political leaders end up taking is always just one of an infinite number of alternatives they could have followed. But the courses chosen: the paths followed; they matter. You can put a ring around that, they matter a lot.

What Simon Bridges was thinking, probably, was that it was a risk worth taking. As the Shadow Leader of the House, he had given the Government his word that National would support Trevor Mallard’s bid to become Speaker, providing that, in return, his colleague, Anne Tolley, would be elected Deputy-Speaker. Labour had agreed. A deal had been struck. As an “honourable” Member of Parliament, Simon’s word should have been his bond. So, yes, his bold parliamentary gambit represented a huge breach of trust. It was risky. But the potential reward was worth it.

Welching on the Speaker deal. Slapping Labour’s face in front of the whole world. Making them look weak and incompetent by turning the first sitting of the House of Representative into a shambles and a farce – and coming out of it with a concession that promised many, many more opportunities to frustrate and humiliate the Government. These were all victories – his victories – and they would transform him into National’s warrior knight.

Bridges’ actions had achieved something else. Such an open and unconscionable breach of trust made it more-or-less impossible for National’s period in opposition to be anything other than a bloody, no-holds-barred fight to the finish. Bill English had hinted that this might, indeed, be National’s plan when he told the NZ Herald that “it’s not our job to make this place run for an incoming Government […] we have no obligation to smooth [Labour’s] path. None whatsoever.”

But like this? On the first day? Surely not.

Jacinda Ardern must now decide how her Labour-NZ First-Green government should respond to Bridges’ ambush. Like Barack Obama, she has come into office with an all-embracing programme of social, economic and cultural uplift. A programme in which she hoped the losing party would not only be willing to play the role of her government’s necessarily critical opposition, but also that of a patriotically constructive partner in the urgent task of national renewal. It is now very clear that this objective will only be achieved over the broken body of the National Party. With all hopes of collaboration and compromise dashed on the very first day, Jacinda’s new government is faced with the additional challenge of advancing its ambitious legislative programme in the face of the Opposition’s implacable and unrelenting resistance.

The most effective way for the National Opposition to resist Jacinda’s reforming government is by doing everything within its power to shatter its supporters’ faith in the political system’s capacity to deliver real change. The most terrifying sight the National Opposition has witnessed so far must surely have been the size and enthusiasm of the crowd of ordinary New Zealanders who gathered in Parliament Grounds to welcome the newly sworn-in Prime Minister and her Cabinet back from Government House. Bill English and his caucus would have observed all those expressions of hope and joy and realised that unless this new-found faith in politics – Jacinda’s “stardust” – was dispersed, and rapidly, then the new government’s lease on the Treasury Benches was likely to be a long one.

National is well aware that its own supporters’ understanding of politics is very different from that of Labour’s, the Greens’ and NZ First’s followers. National voters see politics as a purely instrumental activity: the means by which their interests and aspirations are secured and encouraged. Most of them are well aware of the fact that this can only be achieved at the expense of the less prosperous half of the New Zealand population – and most of them are quite okay with that. In their eyes, the poor and the marginalised have only themselves to blame for the multiple misfortunes which assail them. If you’re a loser in this society, it’s obviously because you haven’t tried hard enough to win!

It is this ruthlessly competitive approach to life and politics which allows them to respond to Simon Bridges parliamentary ambush with nothing but unalloyed admiration. Whatever it takes to win is fine by them. If their opponents label such tactics “dirty politics”, then they will simply shrug-off the accusation. “Dirty politics?”, they will chortle. “Is there any other kind?”

What was Simon Bridges thinking when he staged his parliamentary ambush? That it would not hurt his political career to be seen to be responding so unequivocally to the expectation of his party’s supporters that everything must be done to make politics appear tawdry and mean-spirited? That every stratagem which serves to make people despair of politics; and every act that causes them to turn away from politicians in disgust; will be heartily approved by National’s voters?

Those would certainly have been the thoughts of a young, ambitious leader-in-waiting, brashly confident that the National Opposition will retain the unwavering support of all those New Zealanders intent on recovering their lost social and economic ascendancy – no matter what it does.

Use any means necessary – just so long as that bloody stardust settles!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 9 November 2017.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Australia: Seeing What We Have To See.

"Here's looking at you, kid." But what does Jacinda Ardern see when she looks at the Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull? A friend and ally? The dissimulating representative of an arrogant and aggressive regional bully? Or, the ruthless commandant of a terrifying collection of fetid tropical concentration camps?

WHAT DOES IT MEAN when otherwise intelligent people look at something – and don’t see it? How do people train themselves to misperceive – and therefore misrepresent – the reality before their eyes?

Paul Simon’s song, ‘The Boxer’, explains it like this:

I have squandered my resistance 
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises. All lies and jest.
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.

Faced with the deepening humanitarian crisis on Manus Island, why is the New Zealand Government, like the boxer, only seeing what it wants to see, and disregarding the rest?

What should our new government be seeing?

First and foremost, it should see the Australian Government’s policy on illegal immigration by sea as an exercise in imposing immediate cruelty to achieve long-term kindness. Assailed by the victims of corrupt criminal enterprises: the desperate men, women and children being sent out in flimsy boats, foundering on the high seas and drowning; successive Australian Governments have embarked upon a programme of extreme deterrence.

Refugees and economic migrants attempting to circumvent Australia’s official immigration policies, by sailing there illegally, will be treated with the utmost harshness. Without the slightest regard for age or gender, they will be interned in fetid tropical concentration camps; brutally mistreated; and informed, coldly, that under no circumstances will the Australian Government ever permit them, or their offspring, to set foot on Australian soil.

And, it’s worked. The terrifying example presented to potential “boat people” by the inhabitants of the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres has had the desired effect. The criminal middle-men have found fewer and fewer individuals and families willing to pay them the huge sums of money they had previously been able to demand for a journey to Australian shores. People smuggling has become uneconomic. The leaky boats have stopped sailing and their passengers have stopped dying.

When criticised, the Australian Government simply points to the situation in the Mediterranean. The European Union’s “humanitarian” policy of rescuing and receiving boat people has resulted in a huge expansion of people-smuggling. Every week, thousands of refugees and illegal migrants set sail from North Africa for Spain and Italy. Of those thousands, many hundreds – men, women and children – drown at sea.

On 17 June 2017, the British e-newspaper, The Independent, reported that: “More than 2,000 migrants have died attempting treacherous boat crossings to Europe so far this year”. That number must now be approaching 4,000.

These are the numbers that the Australian Government points to as justification for the astonishing cruelty of its policies. The so-called “Pacific Solution” may not be pretty to look at, runs the official argument, but it saves lives. Mothers’ lives. Children’s lives. “If we gave in to the demands of our critics,” say the Australian authorities, “we wouldn’t just have detainees, we’d have blood, on our hands!”

In the authorities’ eyes, the actions of the Australian navy, in intercepting the people-smugglers’ vessels and towing them back to their departure points; and the harsh internment regimes subsidised by the Australian state; are not only the delivery mechanisms for effective policy, but they are also entirely morally defensible. By their reckoning, it is the “humanitarian” NGOs; the groups which insist on “saving” the boat people, that have thousands of drowned human-beings on their consciences – not the Australian Government. For every boatload of refugees and illegal migrants that are “saved”: ten, twenty, thirty more overloaded and leaking death-traps are encouraged to set sail.

Faced with an adamant Australian Government which is utterly convinced that it is doing the right thing vis-à-vis illegal immigration by sea, what should the New Zealand Government do?

If we engage the Aussies in a full-scale moral debate on this issue, can we even be sure of winning it? With the example of the EU’s policy before us; and with the Australians arguably blocking the people-smuggling routes to New Zealand as well as to their own country; might we not expose ourselves to the charge of allowing our kind hearts to get in the way of the higher moral good of breaking the people-smuggling trade?

Let’s assume, however, that we are capable of refuting the Australians’ moral arguments (their policies are, after all in breach of numerous international covenants to which New Zealand remains firmly committed) what, then, should be our course of action?

Some are arguing that we should negotiate directly with the government of Papua-New Guinea. But, that really would be evidence of our diplomatic blindness! The government of Papua-New Guinea is almost entirely in the thrall of the Australian Government – its former colonial master. Ostensibly a democracy, the country is, in fact, a corrupt kleptocracy whose senior ministers are pretty-much the bought-and-paid-for playthings of Canberra. Were we to ask Port Moresby if it was willing to allow New Zealand to take 150 detainees off their hands, its officials would simply pick up the phone and ask Canberra if that would be okay.  Canberra would say “No!” – and that would be that. The same applies to the supposedly independent state of Nauru – another Pacific regime morally and politically compromised by the Australians’ Pacific Solution.

All of which should tell us exactly what we are looking at when we fix our gaze on Australia.

Because it’s not just big Papua-New Guinea, and tiny Nauru, who find themselves in no position to do anything other than obey without question the dictates of Canberra. Australia may not have purchased our politicians, the way it has in other parts of the Pacific, but that’s only because they don’t need to. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is quite capable of assessing this country’s strategic economic, military and diplomatic interests without the need for Canberra to spell them out for us.

What Jacinda saw when she arrived at Kiribili House on Sunday was what she wanted to see. Our good friend and ally, the Australian prime minister. She comported herself accordingly: joshing and joking; and reporting (politely) on her Government’s response to Australia’s latest policy decisions.

Had she seen anything else: a nation able to break the New Zealand economy at will, for example, or, a regime prepared to be almost unbelievably ruthless and brutal in the pursuit of its national objectives. Had she registered a nation arming itself to the teeth in preparation for projecting “Five Eyes” power north, into the Indonesian archipelago, east, into the Pacific, and west, into the strategically vital Indian ocean, and which looks upon its “little mate”, New Zealand, as a lucrative source of economic tribute, a handy supplier of skilled labour, a cheap holiday destination, and, at need, an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” fortuitously positioned to defend Australia’s eastern flank; then what, realistically, could she have done?

Other than josh, and joke, and hope like hell that Australia never decides to treat Kiwis the way it treats the detainees on Manus Island and Nauru.

Oh, wait a minute …

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 7 November 2017.