Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Is "Social Investment" Bill English's "Think Big"?

Think Big Data: In many ways Muldoon’s Think Big and Bill English’s Social Investment policies are alike. Both feature ideas more associated with the left than the right, and both, if sensibly implemented, could be of immense benefit to New Zealand. Unfortunately for Muldoon and, almost certainly, for English, the essentially left-wing character of the programmes they are advocating makes it practically impossible for the National Party to implement them in a sensible fashion.
 
“SOCIAL INVESTMENT”, as promoted by Prime Minister, Bill English, is one of those policies that can make or break political parties. “Social Security”, for example, was the policy principally responsible for lifting the Labour Party’s share of the popular vote from 46.1 percent in 1935 to 55.8 percent in 1938. The “Cradle to Grave” welfare state it established kept Labour in office until 1949 and remained the foundation of New Zealand social policy for the next 50 years.
 
By contrast, National’s “Think Big” economic development programme of the late-1970s and early-1980s, very rapidly turned into an albatross around the neck of Rob Muldoon’s government. By the mid-1980s, the very expression, “Think Big”, had become political shorthand for the unwisdom of large-scale state intervention.
 
It was in the context of Muldoon’s increasingly costly and strike-plagued Think Big projects that the Leader of the Labour Opposition, David Lange, delivered his devastating put-down: “You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard!”
 
With the benefit of hindsight, however, Muldoon’s alleged political folly looks more and more like economic and environmental prescience. Conceived as a means of escaping New Zealand’s dependence on foreign oil (which had skyrocketed in price during the 1970s) and of substituting domestically produced agricultural and industrial inputs (such as electricity, fertiliser and steel) to improve New Zealand’s precarious balance of payments, Think Big bore a startling resemblance to the industrial development programme pitched to Walter Nash’s Labour Party in the late-1950s by the left-wing New Zealand economist, W.B. Sutch.
 
The electrification of the North Island main trunk railway line, for example, was one of Muldoon’s Think Big projects. Had it been completed we would not now be witnessing the environmentally retrograde replacement of KiwiRail’s fleet of electric locomotives with carbon-dioxide-belching diesels. Indeed, a mischievous commentator might predict that if the Greens ever come up with a comprehensive industrial development programme, it will look more than a little like Think Big!
 
In many ways Muldoon’s Think Big and Bill English’s Social Investment policies are alike. Both feature ideas more associated with the left than the right, and both, if sensibly implemented, could be of immense benefit to New Zealand. Unfortunately for Muldoon and, almost certainly, for English, the essentially left-wing character of the programmes they are advocating makes it practically impossible for the National Party to implement them in a sensible fashion.
 
One of the reasons Think Big became such a gift to National’s opponents was the Economic Development Minister, Bill Birch’s, unwillingness to assign the job of building the energy and industrial projects solely to the New Zealand State. Rather than expand the public sector’s capacity, Birch entered into a succession of largely secret contract negotiations with an assortment of multinational construction firms. Not only did this substantially increase the projects’ costs, but it supplied the Government’s opponents with a smorgasbord of extremely tasty political meals.
 
English’s Social Investment policy will very likely suffer the same fate as Think Big.
 
On its face, the idea of using the government’s dramatically improved capacity to gather and cross-match critical data streams from the Social Development, Vulnerable Children, Justice, Corrections, Health and Education ministries, in order to improve the targeting of public services to those individuals and families most in need, is a good one. If additional resources and assistance can be channelled to these vulnerable citizens before they become the state’s permanent, eye-wateringly expensive and essentially intractable “clients”, then Bill English’s claim that Social Investment, introduced now, will save the taxpayers billions of dollars, later, is entirely justified.
 
English’s problem is that the implementation of Social Investment policies will require a substantial increase in spending on the people National most loves to hate: the poor, the brown, and the “welfare-dependent” working-class. The only way English will be able to “sell” his Social Investment policy to the National caucus, therefore, is by showering resources on the tiny number of people fingered by the State’s data-crunching algorithms, while simultaneously reducing assistance to all the other beneficiaries on its books.
 
English’s problem is Labour’s problem, too. Ever since David Shearer waxed eloquent about his (apparently apocryphal) “beneficiary on the roof”, it’s been clear that most Labour MPs are extremely wary of identifying their party too closely with the despised “underclass”. So, rather than embracing the principles of Social Investment, Andrew Little and his colleagues, like the Lange-led Labour Party, will focus public attention on the inevitable stuff-ups associated with the application of the prime minister’s pet project.
 
Social Investment: a policy offering potentially huge improvements in the delivery and effectiveness of social services; will thus go the way of Think Big. A good idea undermined by the ideological hostility of those responsible for its implementation and politically demonised by a Labour Opposition much more interested in breaking the right than in making its policies work.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 January 2017.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Don't Riot For A Better Society - Vote For One!

More Effective Than A Molotov Cocktail: Elderly New Zealanders have used their votes to keep NZ Superannuation safe from the neoliberals who would destroy it. Rather than castigating them for preserving this last great remnant of universal welfare provision, young New Zealanders should learn from their example.
 
IT WAS THE LARGEST STUDENT DEMONSTRATION Dunedin had ever seen. Close to 10,000 students had marched the length of George Street and half of Princes Street to completely fill the Exchange. I was just one of many speakers on that overcast day in the winter of 1989. Most of these chose to declare their opposition to the fourth Labour Government’s imposition of student fees in as few words as possible – but not me.
 
Speaking on behalf of the NewLabour Party, I felt obliged to spell out the realities of tertiary education funding. I told them that they could have free education or low taxes – but they could not have both. If the wealthy refused to pay higher taxes, then students would have to pay higher fees. If the middle class (i.e. their family) was serious about keeping young people (i.e. themselves) out of debt, then they would have to vote for a party that was willing to restore a genuinely progressive taxation system.
 
They booed.
 
My party comrades were less than impressed. But, the experience taught me something even more important than “never try to reason with a crowd”, I learned that Rogernomics had unlocked something ugly and selfish in older and younger middle class New Zealanders alike. In the minds of those 10,000 students – the people we would come to know as “Generation X” – a free tertiary education was simply their entitlement. The notion that, by accepting this entitlement, they had enmeshed themselves in a complex system of reciprocal rights and obligations made them very angry indeed.
 
For the fifty years that followed the Great Depression and World War II the idea that older New Zealanders could somehow be absolved of their responsibilities toward younger New Zealanders, and vice versa, would have been regarded as absurd. People simply accepted that living through periods of paying taxes to support others, as well as periods when the taxes of others would support them, was what made a fair and decent society possible. Society benefited enormously from a well-educated and culturally enlivened citizenry. It also benefited enormously by making sure that every older citizen could live in security and dignity.
 
Through a process of trial and error, spanning many decades, New Zealand discovered that the best way to preserve the security and dignity of its older citizens was to pay them what amounted to a universal basic income. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or social class, every New Zealander over the age of 65 is guaranteed a modest income from the state. NZ Superannuation has played a huge role in reducing the incidence of poverty among elderly New Zealanders. Its universality makes it both cost effective and sustainable. Providing the progressivity of this country’s tax system is restored, it is also entirely affordable.
 
Not surprisingly, those already in receipt of, or about to receive, NZ Superannuation are determined to preserve it. Politicians have been taught, over successive elections, that messing around (or even threatening to mess around) with “Super” is a sure-fire way to lose, or be kept out of, office. Elderly New Zealanders have used their votes to great effect in this regard. Rather than castigating them for doing so, young New Zealanders should learn from their example.
 
Because it’s simply not the case that older New Zealanders have devised something special for their own benefit at the expense of younger, more deserving, Kiwis. On the contrary, NZ Superannuation is the sole surviving significant remnant of the universal social welfare system that successive New Zealand governments have been attempting to destroy ever since Roger Douglas kicked off the neoliberal “revolution” in 1984. The only reason “Super” has survived is because , election after election, hundreds-of-thousands of its supporters have made their way to the ballot-box and voted to keep it.
 
Rather than urging young people to riot against the cost of the NZ Superannuation system (and thereby achieve the neoliberals’ objectives for them) those in search of a more just society should be spelling out to their contemporaries the clearest political lesson of the past 30 years: that if you want a fair and decent society, then don’t boo those who advocate for a system of reciprocal rights and obligations – vote for them.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 16 January 2017.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

From Langley, With Love.

Inside The Magic Circle: Making America great has never, ever, been the President's job.
 
NEVER BEFORE have the puppet-masters’ strings been more exposed. Clearly, something very close to a full-scale civil war is raging across the dark institutions of the American Deep State.
 
In the days immediately preceding the 8 November presidential election we witnessed the critical intervention of the New York Office of the FBI. Faced with the near certainty of “strategic leaking” by his own agents should he refuse, the hapless FBI Director, James Comey, agreed to inform Congress (and the world) that the Bureau was re-opening the investigation into the Clinton E-mail Scandal.
 
At the time it seemed reasonable to speculate that the FBI’s New York Office was a hot-bed of Trump supporters gone “rogue”. But, as Glenn Greenwald’s recent posting on The Intercept makes clear, the true motivation for the New York Office’s political intercession was very probably the CIA’s own political interventions on behalf of the Clinton campaign.
 
The FBI’s disdain for the CIA’s legally questionable (to say the least!) rules of engagement is well known in US national security circles. In the lurid light of the strategically leaked “Russian Dossier”, the re-ignition of the Clinton E-Mail Scandal is beginning to look more and more like a pre-emptive FBI strike.
 
That such a politically compromising document – unsourced and unverified – has been injected into the bloodstream of the American body politic just eight days before Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States is as unprecedented as it is alarming. As Greenwald rightly states: “The threat of being ruled by unaccountable and unelected entities is self-evident and grave. That’s especially true when the entity behind which so many [Trump opponents] are rallying is one with a long and deliberate history of lying, propaganda, war crimes, torture, and the worst atrocities imaginable.”
 
Just how this overt effort to undermine the duly-elected President-Elect of the USA plays out will depend largely on how most Americans view the role and conduct of the CIA. On the one hand, there is what might be called the “Jason Bourne” view of the agency, and, on the other, the view inspired by the television series “Homeland”.
 
The Jason Bourne CIA is presented as a murderous law unto itself. Unrestrained and unaccountable, this version of the Agency would not hesitate to cobble together a damning dossier and use it to weaken, perhaps fatally, the administration of a president deemed (by itself) to be a person inimical to the USA’s long-term strategic interests.
 
The Homeland CIA offers a much more nuanced view of America’s national intelligence agency. Above all else, the Agency’s operatives are portrayed as patriots. Their contradictory obligations: to remain loyal to the US Constitution; and to take whatever steps are necessary to protect America’s interests; repeatedly reduce characters like Carrie Mathison, Peter Quinn and Saul Berenson to guilt-ridden wrecks.
 
Of the two views, the Homeland CIA is by far the more dangerous. By painting over the blood-red crimes of the Agency with reassuring coats of ambivalent grey, the series’ writers encourage the view that although it is often necessary to uphold the Constitution by subverting it, and to preserve America’s international reputation by tarnishing it, the agents responsible never, ever, stop loving the United States.
 
One could almost say that the Jason Bourne CIA is how American liberals view the Agency when the evil Republicans are in power; while the Homeland version provides them with the excuses they need when the CIA’s misdeeds are authorised by a Democrat. So, if the Russian Dossier really is a CIA concoction, then, as far as Trump’s liberal opponents are concerned, it’s from Langley, with love.
 
Greenwald rails against this anything-to-rid-America-of-Trump  double standard: “There are solutions to Trump. They involve reasoned strategizing and patient focus on issues people actually care about. Whatever those solutions are, venerating the intelligence community, begging for its intervention, and equating their dark and dirty assertions as Truth are most certainly not among them. Doing that cannot possibly achieve any good, and is already doing much harm.”
 
Greenwald’s sterling defence of the US Constitution, notwithstanding, the situation in Washington may already have moved beyond the power of the most conscientious journalist to remedy. Regardless of Trump’s ultimate fate, the men he has nominated to defend US interests are quietly reassuring their Senate interlocutors that the continuity of America’s military, foreign relations and national security policy is not about to be upended by 3:00am tweets from the White House.
 
The unchanging priorities of the American Deep State crowd around Trump like ancestral ghosts: hemming him in; whispering in his ear; by turn inflaming and freezing his untutored political heart. His supporters should not be surprised. Though they may not know it, making America great has never, ever, been the President’s job.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 13 January 2017.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Status Quo In No Danger From The "Left".

True Colours? The transgressive, system-challenging Green Party that marched into Parliament in 1999 has gone. In its place we find a slick, professionalised operation that has stood down the uncompromising passions of Rod Donald in favour of the sleek corporate reassurances of James Shaw.
 
IT’S THE LIES we allow ourselves to believe that cause the most harm. If the year just past has taught us anything at all, then surely it has taught us that. Never has the ability to separate objective facts from unabashed appeals to our emotions been more important. The alternative is to embrace “post-truth” (the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 international word of the year) as the norm – and that way lies madness.

This ability to separate truth from falsehood is much more important to those on the left of politics than it is to those on the right. Preserving and strengthening the status quo has always been the right’s prime objective. And since recognising things as they are is a lot easier than imagining things that could be, the right’s political road is the easier to travel.

The left’s considerably more daunting challenge is persuading people to embrace change. This requires creativity, organisation and raw political courage on a scale the right is only rarely called upon to provide. The first priority for left-wing voters, therefore, is to correctly distinguish political parties committed to defending the status quo from parties committed to its demise.
 
Accordingly, the critical question for left-wing voters in 2017 is a simple one: “Are Labour and the Greens parties of change, or parties of the status quo?”
 
The answer, sadly, is that both parties are committed to very few policies that involve more than marginal changes to the status quo. And even these minimal reforms are best characterised as policies designed to repair and strengthen New Zealand’s existing economic and social institutions – not replace them.
 
The Housing Crisis, for example, is resolvable only by a massive shift of resources in the residential construction sector from private to public. The scale of state intervention required to meet the needs of those currently denied access to safe and affordable accommodation would, however, have far-reaching effects on the wealth and status of middle-class New Zealanders. A private construction sector starved of resources would produce swift and serious knock-on effects for speculators, developers, landlords and, ultimately, home-owners.
 
Given the level of both the Labour Party’s and the Greens’ electoral dependence on important groups within the middle class (salaried professionals, small and medium-sized enterprises) and acknowledging the enormous difficulties associated with mobilising the marginalised communities most likely to benefit from a state-led solution to the housing crisis, the modest (and wholly inadequate) housing policies of both “left-wing” parties make perfect sense.
 
This same, class-based, reticence is evident across the whole of Labour and Green policy-making. In the case of the former, it is observable in the party’s labour relations policies. The reconstitution of working-class power by restoring universal union membership is simply off the agenda. Similarly, the tax increases required to substantially increase the level of government support for working families, beneficiaries and tertiary students forms no part of Labour’s fiscal policy.
 
Such policy initiatives as have been announced, the Future of Work exercise particularly, present an “adapt or perish” approach to the demands of twenty-first century capitalism. John Harris, writing in The Guardian, illustrates the cultural gap between contemporary Labour’s professionalised politicians and its increasingly marginalised core voters with the following, chilling, quotation from Tony Blair adviser, Charles Leadbeater:
 
“Strong communities can be pockets of intolerance and prejudice […] Settled, stable communities are the enemies of innovation, talent, creativity, diversity and experimentation. They are often hostile to outsiders, dissenters, young upstarts and immigrants. Community can too quickly become a rallying cry for nostalgia; that kind of community is the enemy of knowledge creation, which is the wellspring of economic growth.”
 
How long will it be before the Greens in New Zealand begin nodding their heads in agreement with such paeans to entrepreneurship and innovation?
 
Not long. Because the transgressive, system-challenging Green Party that marched into Parliament in 1999 has gone. In its place we find a slick, professionalised operation that has stood down the uncompromising passions of Rod Donald in favour of the sleek corporate reassurances of James Shaw. Worried about the looming apocalypse of runaway climate change? Then worry no more. The Greens will ride to our rescue with the mother of all technical fixes!
 
The status quo is under no threat in 2017 – not with New Zealand’s three largest political parties committed to its continuing renovation and repair.
 
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, 13 January 2017.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Leading Labour's "Broad Church".

The Red Dawn: The labour movement conceives political power as a force residing not in charismatic leaders, but in the democratic electorate itself. If you're a member of the Labour Party, the only future worth having is a future fashioned by the people, for the people.
 
THE SOLUTION, if there is one, to Labour’s political woes is unlikely to involve the wholesale adoption of the f├╝hrerprinzip. The notion that all Labour has to do to reclaim the Treasury Benches is find a leader capable of being admired, trusted and liked by the voters has found an enthusiastic advocate in The Spinoff's Simon Wilson. Unfortunately, enthusiasm is no substitute for political understanding.
 
“I’d have voted for Helen Kelly for prime minister”, gushes Wilson. “I’d have voted for David Shearer, too. I dearly wish I’d been given the chance to do both.” Never mind that a vote for David Shearer would have been a vote for the resumption of Rogernomics, and a vote for Kelly would have been a vote for its long-delayed repudiation. For Wilson, a party’s principles, and the content of its manifesto, mean nothing. The sole criterion by which its fitness to rule should be judged is whether or not its leader gets the electorate’s juices flowing.
 
That this approach to politics amounts to an open invitation to the Donald Trumps and Adolf Hitlers of this world to traduce our democratic institutions in no way slows Wilson down. Indeed, having proudly declared that he would have voted for Helen Kelly, Wilson proceeds to rubbish her final political testament that politics should be “about values” and that there is “far too much attention on leadership”.
 
“It sounds sensible”, says Wilson, “but sadly it’s not. It’s the idea that has done more damage to the Labour Party than any other since Rogernomics. Why? Because it keeps them out of power.”
 
Quite how Wilson is able to reconcile identifying Rogernomics as one of the main reasons Labour finds it difficult to attract electoral support with his earlier contention that he would have happily voted for David Shearer, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps he doesn’t know that Shearer became active in the Labour Party because of Rogernomics – not in spite of it. Or that shortly after becoming Labour’s leader, Shearer informed New Zealanders that he was an ardent admirer of Esko Aho, Finland’s neoliberal shock-therapist prime minister. I guess it all comes back to Wilson’s contention that ideas and policies are less important than whether the voters are ready to give their f├╝hrer what really counts – power.
 
That one of the reasons political leaders are admired, trusted and liked is because their party’s ideas and policies correspond closely to broad swathes of the electorate’s own hopes and dreams, does not appear to have occurred to Wilson. We should not, however, be surprised at his failure of imagination. Wilson’s political vantage point is that of the elite observer; the technocratic fixer; the well-connected insider looking out – and down. Viewed from this perspective, voters are clay to be shaped and moulded, not citizens to be heeded.
 
If power is something that can only be bestowed from above, not seized from below, then Wilson’s support for the idea that Labour should be a “broad church” makes perfect sense. If one’s choice of political party is dictated solely by considerations of personal taste – like the choice between Coke and Pepsi – then the political ideas of its membership are irrelevant. Except, of course, membership of a political party is not determined by personal taste but by personal conviction. Once again, Wilson is guilty of a profound political misunderstanding.
 
The idea of Labour as a “broad church” harks back, as the metaphor suggests, to matters of individual conscience – not political economy. In the days when it really was a working-class party, Labour had to be able to accommodate both teetotal Methodists and Salvationists as well as hard-drinking Catholics. Staunch educational secularists had to be willing to get along with the supporters of parochial schools. Arguments for and against capital punishment raged alongside debates pitting pacifists against the supporters of king and country.
 
On questions such as the state’s dominant role in the New Zealand economy, and the centrality of the trade union movement to the working-class’ economic and political power, however, Labour was – until Rogernomics – a very narrow church indeed.
 
It is doubtful whether any party could have survived the sort of breakneck ideological expansion that Roger Douglas and his allies imposed upon the New Zealand Labour Party in 1984. Indeed, the only truly surprising aspect of the internal reaction to Rogernomics was how long Labour’s left-wing waited before splitting away in 1989. The latter’s departure did not, however, make Labour a broader church ideologically. On the core issues of political economy, Labour remained as narrow as ever: neoliberalism taking the place of democratic socialism.
 
More surprising, perhaps, was the party’s failure to remain a broad church on matters of conscience. As the party’s socialist credentials faded, the rainbow colours of the new social movements of feminism, anti-racism, gay rights and environmentalism intensified. So brightly did “identity politics” shine that Labour’s long-standing tradition of agreeing to disagree on issues of personal morality retreated into the shadows. In 2017, it is still possible for a member of the Labour Party to be “misogynistic”, “racist” and “homophobic” – but not openly.
 
The present-day party’s vigilant intolerance of socially conservative views is only possible because the ideological upheaval of Rogernomics reduced Labour’s membership from a staggering 85,000 in 1984 to around 8,500 in 2017. The militant “political correctness” of which Labour currently stands accused would have been unenforceable in its days as a mass party and remains a significant barrier to it ever again becoming one.
 
This is a problem, because although the purposes of politically correct party cadres may be served by ensuring that Labour’s membership remains “fewer but better”, the business of winning elections is all about “the more the merrier”. If all that Labour is prepared to offer the electorate is an unpalatable combination of watered-down neoliberalism and beefed-up identity politics, then winning elections is not going to be easy.
 
Wilson argues that Labour must learn from Michael Wood’s emphatic by-election victory in Mt Roskill: “Wood joined the dots. A party committed to raising wages must also be committed to better parental leave, childcare support and equal pay for women. A party determined to resolve the housing needs of the destitute and the working poor must confront the complex issues involved on the basis of class and race.”
 
But isn’t this precisely the sort of values-based and ideas-driven politics that Helen Kelly championed, and Wilson decries? And wasn’t Wood admired, trusted and liked because the people of Mt Roskill knew him to be a politician whose hopes and aspirations matched their own? And didn’t his campaign succeed because, rather than highlighting the characteristics that set the multi-ethnic communities of his electorate apart, he focussed on the issues that drew them together?
 
And isn’t that what being the leader of Labour’s “broad church” is really all about?
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 12 January 2017.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Purity Of Arms.

The Face Of A Killer - Or A Hero? Most Israelis would crown Elor Azaria (above) with the garlands of a national hero. The Israeli Defence Force, however, upholding its "Purity of Arms" doctrine, found him guilty of manslaughter for shooting a wounded and unarmed Palestinian terrorist in the head.
 
ELOR AZARIA entered the courtroom with a boyish, almost bashful, smile on his face. If you did not know that he was there to discover whether he had been found guilty or not guilty of manslaughter, you might think he was there to receive some sort of prize or award. Certainly, the crowd outside the military courtroom would gladly have awarded Azaria the garlands of a hero. He had shot dead a Palestinian terrorist – what more needed to be said?
 
Much, according to Sergeant Azaria’s superior officers. They found him guilty of manslaughter and of violating the ethical code of the Israeli Defence Force. The soldiers of Israel, the court reminded Azaria, are required, at all times, to demonstrate the “Purity of Arms”.
 
According to this extraordinary doctrine: “The soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfilment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honour and property.”
 
The Purity of Arms doctrine speaks to the time when Israel was young, socialist, and determined to build a new and very different kind of society. The Israel of soldier-scholars; of kibbutzim, trade unions and co-operatives. The Israel that is no more. The Israel swallowed up by the intolerance, hatred and fanaticism which, like a mighty sandstorm, has enshrouded all the nations of the Middle East.
 
The idealism of the young Israel; it’s determination to be better than the circumstances which made its declaration of statehood so urgent and unavoidable; was by no means universal within the ranks of the Jewish nationalist community. Those who had fought the Nazis face-to-face in the forests of Eastern Europe arrived in Palestine with an altogether darker view of human nature.
 
In the places they had left whole peoples were in motion. Ethnic groups which had lived for centuries in the towns and cities of Eastern Europe were being driven from their homes, packed into railway-cars, trucks and buses and ferried hundreds of miles to the west. Today, we would call it “ethnic cleansing”. In the years immediately following World War II it was called “repatriation”. There were to be no more Sudetenlands, the victors insisted. No more ethnic enclaves out of which grievances could be fanned into resentment, rebellion and war.
 
In the civil war that followed the 1948 declaration of Israeli statehood, these darker Zionists were determined to “repatriate” the Palestinian people by force and terror: north, into Lebanon and Syria; south, into Egypt; east into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. They wanted Israel for the Jewish people – and only the Jewish people.
 
On 9 April 1948, in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, two Jewish militia groups, Irgun and Lehi, massacred around 120 people, many of them women and children, pour encourager les autres. Thousands of terrified Palestinians responded by fleeing towards the borders. Five weeks later the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan attacked the fledgling Israeli state.
 
Twenty-five years earlier, the radical Zionist, Vladimir Jabotinsky, had warned: “Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through.”
 
An ever-advancing wall of concrete: The growth of one Israeli settlement on the West Bank.
 
For decades, the idealistic Israel resisted the steely logic of Jabotinsky’s “iron wall”. Their doomed mission: to preserve the ideal of an independent Jewish state whilst constructing a free and equal secular society inside it. As if trusting in the purity of Israeli arms could somehow transform the task of protecting the borders and institutions of the Zionist homeland into something other than the brutal and bloody exercise it was always destined to become.
 
The Israeli military court’s verdict – a fading echo of the nation’s founding principles – has called forth a cacophony of angry voices demanding Azaria’s instant pardon. Polling indicates that a clear majority of the Israeli population would rather have a dead Palestinian terrorist than an pure Israeli soldier. The dark Zionism of Irgun and Lehi; the ruthless Zionism of Jabotinsky: between them these two powerful ideological currents have swept away and extinguished the idealism of Israel’s founders.
 
The walls of the settlements that are advancing relentlessly into what remains of Palestinian territory may be made of concrete, rather than iron, but the “colonization” of the territory of the “native population” that they make possible will not stop. And the Israeli soldiers that walk those walls; men like Sergeant Elor Azaria, will laugh to scorn the notion that the imposition of military force can ever be pure.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 January 2017.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Plugging Away.


FROM:           Extortium Public Relations Ltd
TO:                 The Right Hon. Bill English, Prime Minister.
RE:                 Getting Through 2017 

THINK OF YOUR GOVERNMENT, Prime Minister, as a rubber ducky floating in a bath from which someone (and we all know who) has just removed the plug. The bath is very full, so it will take some time to empty. But, high and dry your rubber ducky will be, Prime Minister, if you do not find some means of either replacing the plug, or refilling the bath.
 
Replacing the plug will be tricky – but not impossible. Essentially, Prime Minister, you need to come up with a political persona packing the same stopping power as your predecessor’s “cheerful chappy with $60 million in the bank and happy to leave it at that” routine. We’re not about to suggest that you march around the Beehive balcony blowing your own trumpet like poor old Geoffrey Palmer, but we’d be failing in our duty if we let you go on thinking that National’s rubber ducky is going to be saved by all that “Southern Man” shtick.
 
A quick stocktake of your political assets shows you to be intelligent (your enemies even accuse you of being an intellectual!) hard-working, effective, and capable of projecting a steely determination to achieve your stated goals. These are all essential qualities in a leader, so it’s good that you’ve got them. The $64,000 question (which is, by the way, the exact total of Extortium’s latest invoice) is how to turn these assets into a plug.
 
You said something a while back about the size of New Zealand’s prison roll being both a “moral and fiscal failure”. That was good – very good. Not quite up there with Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” soundbite – but close. We can work with that.
 
One of the problems with your predecessor’s persona was that it was a little light in the moral weight department. How did you put it in that North & South article? Something about John “skipping from cloud to cloud”? Coming after the rather dour and schoolmarm-ish Helen Clark, this lack of gravitas didn’t really matter (in fact it was an advantage) but after eight years, John’s “What, me worry?” act, was wearing a little thin.
 
We’re entering the Age of Trump, Prime Minister, when leaders who know the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, wisdom and foolishness are about to go over extra bigly (as the new president might say) with the voters.
 
That’s the beauty of your “moral and fiscal failure” line. It’s such a canny mixture of heart and head. What’s more, it also plays, in a very positive way, to your strong Catholic faith. Plenty of people will have told you that this is a political negative that should be played down as much as possible. But, we at Extortium don’t see it like that at all. We look at the global response to the ministry of Pope Francis I; at his enormous cross-over appeal; and cannot see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to get some of that love, mercy and humility vibe working in your favour.
 
Heart and head, Prime Minister, heart and head. Don’t be afraid to quote scripture (or poetry) in relation to the dreadful condition of the poor. But, at the same time, don’t let your opponents get away with making all kinds of promises that they can’t possibly keep. Play up this “social investment” idea of yours for all its worth. National Party voters generally resent seeing their taxes spent on people they regard as wastrels and crooks, so the idea of spotting “vulnerable children” early and steering them towards a more taxpayer-friendly future is pure electoral gold.
 
It’s the same with prisons, Prime Minister. Portray comprehensive rehabilitation of prisoners as both the right thing to do, and a way of saving money – lots of money – and you’ll not only keep the conservatives on board, but also the liberals. Voters like their politicians to be both caring and cautious. They want a leader whose a spendthrift with love and kindness, and a tightwad with their taxes.
 
Pull that off, Prime Minister, and National’s rubber ducky will never hit the bottom.
 
Alternatively, you could keep her bobbing happily about by lavishing generous tax-cuts on us all.
 
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, 30 December 2016.