Thursday, 24 December 2009

Journey to the West

I WAS ALWAYS the odd one out. The one they stared at. It was my colour, you see, the gift of my seafaring father. Black as the sluggish rivers of his homeland is my skin. Dark as its endless forests. He’d sailed the spice boats, riding the azure waters of the Gulf, exchanging their precious frankincense and myrrh for Persian gold at the white-walled city ports. That’s where I was begotten, and where my mother raised me, calling me by my father’s name: Balthasar.

She was a priestess of Astarte, worshipping the Goddess in the cool cloisters of the Temple, making an altar of her own lithe body. She and her sisters raised me as a son of the Temple. Quick to learn, they said, and wise beyond my years, I was the High Priestess’s choice to travel to the wizard’s city of Saba, where the sky-watchers would make of me a magus.

IT WAS IN SABA that I witnessed the birth. Shivering atop the narrow stone staircase, alone on the wide platform beneath the twinkling ceiling of the world, I saw it come into being. Light out of darkness – just as my masters had taught. A shimmering star, low in the sky, where only seconds before there had been no star at all.

I called Melchior, my master. He was loathe to rise from his bed, but when I described what I’d seen, he threw a cloak over his robe and followed me up the stairs. And there we stood, high above the sleeping city, staring in wonder at this new thing in the heavens.

"What is it?" I asked. "Where did it come from? And what does it portend?"

My master did not answer. For a long while Melchior remained silent, long fingers pulling fitfully at his beard, dark eyes drinking in the new star’s light.

"Go, boy", he whispered. "Rouse Gaspar. Bid him join us here."

When I returned with the High Priest of the Order, Melchior did not appear to have moved. Gaspar joined him. His long ebony staff scattering echoes off the smooth stones of the observation platform.

When he saw the star he sighed. I could not tell whether it was a sigh of joy, or of sorrow. He turned to me and smiled.

"Few indeed are privileged to witness the moment of a new star’s birth, Balthasar. Although, some among our order say that what we have witnessed tonight marks not the birth, but the death of stars."

"What does it mean, Master?"

"That something new has come into the world. That something old is passing away. That far to the West matters are coming to a head. For as you know, young Balthasar, the Age of the Ram is dying, and the Age of the Fishes about to be born."

"Or, is being born as we speak", muttered Melchior, his eyes still fixed on the star. "I would give much to witness the birth of an age that will last for two thousand years."

AND THAT IS how our journey began. And what a journey it has been. Riding off into the teeth of winter. Climbing the high passes. Traversing the empty deserts. And in every village, every city, the suspicious eyes of men who recognised us for what we were – the Magi.

"Wise Men"; "Priests of Zarathustra"; "Sky-watchers"; "The Reckoners of Darkness and Light": thus were we called by those whose minds were still open. "Wizards and Sorcerers": by those whose minds were closed.

And on me, especially, their gaze lingered; whose eyes are as dark as my skin.

And every night of our journey, burning brighter and brighter – till its rays pointed a path across the heavens like Gaspar’s upraised staff – blazed the star.

I listened as Gaspar and my master debated its meaning. At day’s end, seated on rugs before the fire, they pored over the scrolls they had brought with them. One in particular – the writings of a stiff-necked people locked into a narrow land between the desert and the sea.

"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."

"Immanuel, Masters? What does the word mean?"

Gaspar and Melchior, turned towards me, smiling.

"It’s Hebrew, Balthasar."

"It means: ‘God is with us’."

The short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times on Christmas Eve 2009. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Shadows of the Past

Troubled Waters: Comfortably oblivious to their history, New Zealanders continue to believe in the moral superiority of their country's race record. The painting is by Paula Novak.

IRON DOORS still guard the rough-hewn cells in which the secrets of our past lie hidden. There is little to be seen through the grills, the dark air is chill and dank. The sound of falling water – drip, drip, drip – keeps the rhythm of the passing years. No plaque explains their purpose, no tourist buses stop to mark their contribution to the city’s history. The official record barely mentions them: "it has been said that a cave was sometimes their night’s shelter when they were out at work by the harbour". Who were "they"? What was their "work"? And why were they herded like animals into filthy holes in the ground?

In the history of Aotearoa-New Zealand there are so many pressing questions; so many frightening answers.

We prefer not to ask the questions. War crimes, the incarceration of political prisoners; these things happen somewhere else – not here – not in New Zealand.

"Wretchedly housed and fed, constantly harassed and mistreated, brutally punished for real or imaginary offences, the slave workers were omnipresent in wartime Germany."

Ah, yes, in Germany such things have happened. It is true that the Germans "watched columns of ill-fed and poorly clothed workers in the streets of their cities". It is well known that they turned their heads away – passed by on the other side. But such things did not happen here; not in "God’s own country".

But they did happen here.

Seventy-four prisoners-of-war arrived at Dunedin wharf on 6 November 1869. They were warriors of the Pakakohe hapu of the Ngatiruanui iwi under their chief, Taurua (ally of the formidable war-leader Titokowaru). They had resisted the invasion of Taranaki by General Cameron and his imperial troops. They had lost. For three years they were held in detention in Dunedin Gaol (when they were not being locked away in caves) and by the time of their release, in 1872, twenty-five percent of them were dead.

That is who "they" were. Their "work by the harbour" was the construction of the Anderson’s Bay causeway.

One hundred and twenty-four years later that causeway is still there. Thousands of cars pass over it every day. The drivers of those cars, comfortably oblivious of its history, continue to believe in the moral superiority of their country’s race record when compared with that of the Germans, Afrikaners and Americans. But how many notice the modest monument set back from the road that leads off the causeway and into the city? Erected by the Maori people of Taranaki, the memorial features a single, grey river stone. "The stone above, named ‘Rongo’", reads the inscription, "is a memorial of remembrance for the many who sacrificed life and death for God, land and people."

Just eight years after the departure of the defeated Pakakohe warriors, Dunedin Gaol received forty-six additional captives from Taranaki. This time "they" were political prisoners.

Denied legal representation, denied medical treatment, denied the most elementary human rights, they had been shipped to Port Chalmers under the provisions of the Maori Prisoners Act (1879) in order to spare the colonial government the embarrassment of putting them on trial. In the course of their journey to Dunedin they had been beaten and abused by land-hungry settlers, rounded up by an armed constabulary, and stripped of the legal protection guaranteed to them by Article Three of the Treaty of Waitangi. Through it all these followers of the prophet, Te Whiti O Rongomai (The Peacemaker) had not raised a single hand in anger. Forty years before Ghandi, Te Whiti had perfected the political tactics of civil disobedience and passive resistance.

All this is commemorated on a simple memorial erected under the looming cliffs of Otago Peninsula.

Many Dunedinites pride themselves on living in a city far away from the fierce confrontations of Bastion Point, Waitangi and Moutoa Gardens. In this southern city you can walk the length of the main street without seeing a single brown face.

But it is all a lie.

Even here, even in lily-white Dunedin, the stones themselves cry out for justice. In the dark interior of those awful caves the drops of water fall like tears – drip, drip, drip – upon the conscience of the victors, the hearts of the vanquished.

Chris Trotter
May, 1995

Friday, 18 December 2009

Distress Signal

A nation in distress: The anti-war film In The Valley of Elah ends with the hero running the US flag up the flagpole upside down - the international signal of distress. John Key's decision to fly the Tino Rangatiratanga flag alongside the New Zealand ensign has caused many New Zealanders to wonder whether their own nation might soon be in need of rescue.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH is one of the best anti-war films to come out of Hollywood since America declared war on terror in 2002. In the film, Tommy Lee Jones plays the role of Hank Deerfield, a retired army investigator, who sets out to discover the fate of his missing soldier son.

As he heads out of town at the beginning of his quest, he notices the Stars and Stripes has been raised upside down outside the local high school. In a sharp exchange with the school’s indifferent Hispanic janitor, the ex-Marine asks:

"Do you know what it means when a flag flies upside down?"


"It’s an international distress signal."

"No shit?"

"No shit! It means we’re in a whole lot of trouble so come and save our asses ‘cause we ain’t got a prayer in hell of saving it ourselves."

"It says a lot …" murmurs the janitor.

"Yes, it does …" says Hank Deerfield.

I COULDN’T HELP RECALLING that scene when, last Monday afternoon, the Prime Minister, John Key, announced that the Cabinet had given its official sanction to the flying of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag over government buildings on Waitangi Day.

We are asked to interpret this decision as a gesture of reaffirmation toward the bi-cultural partnership enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi.

I am extremely doubtful, however, whether a majority of New Zealanders will see it that way.

Sadly, their views will get short shrift from "Official" New Zealand.

The politicians and public officials whose business it is to align public opinion with state policy have already framed this issue in such a way that any criticism of the Government’s decision will be dismissed as "immature", or, should that label prove ineffective, be decried as "racist".

Whatever the critics are branded, the ultimate effect will be the same: the suppression of genuine public debate and the marginalisation of the Government’s opponents. All those individuals and groups in some measure dependent on the grace and favour of the state will lower their heads and shut their mouths.

The resulting silence will then be interpreted as assent.

Thus will Official New Zealand lay yet another carefully-fashioned stone in the edifice of our distress.

Thus will ordinary New Zealanders’ anger: their sense of being ignored, belittled and despised; grow and fester.

A government that plays fast and loose with the core symbols of its citizens’ national identity does so only at the gravest risk to its own survival. Mr Key’s apparent ignorance of just how important these core symbols are – especially to the people who elected him – is, therefore, deeply troubling. Like the immigrant janitor in the scene I have quoted from In The Valley of Elah, our Prime Minister does not appear to know what his country’s flag means, nor that how it is flown can send a powerful message.

The Tino Rangatiratanga flag is not a symbol of bi-cultural harmony – but its opposite.

No matter how much oil the Minister of Maori Affairs, Dr Pita Sharples, attempts to pour over the troubled waters of its history, the flag which Mr Key’s Cabinet has just authorised to be flown alongside New Zealand’s flag – "says a lot."

It declares Maori nationalism’s fervent desire to reverse the verdict of history: to re-constitute the "absolute power of the tribal chieftains" (the literal meaning of tino rangatiratanga) and to re-establish the same conditions of dual sovereignty that prevailed immediately prior to the land wars of the Nineteenth Century.

That was the last time two flags – one representing the tangata whenua, the other the tangata tiriti – flew side-by-side. And no one back then was in the slightest doubt about what those flags meant.

The two flags stood for two sovereignties. And where two sovereignties are asserted, there also will be two states. And where there are two states there will be two economies; two bureaucracies; two codes of justice; two systems of health, education and welfare; two parliaments – and two armies.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Mr Key’s Government has struck a blow against the safety of the New Zealand realm. They have signalled to the Maori Party that their cherished dream of making two states out of one will not be thwarted.

At least, not by them.

If New Zealand’s flag must fly alongside Dr Sharples’ banner – then fly it upside down.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 18 December 2009.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Defending the Middle

2009's Politicians of the Year: Both John Key and Phil Goff deserve our thanks for keeping New Zealand safe for democratic moderation.

IT’S BEEN a bad year for extremists – of every stripe – and New Zealanders are happy about that. As a people, we are wary of politicians who turn up on our doorstep (or, more likely these days, on our TV screens) peddling radical nostrums. The politicians who do best in this country are those who reassure us that everything’s under control, and that, both individually and collectively, we’re doing just fine.

It’s almost certainly untrue. But it’s what we want to hear. So even when a party is submitting a genuinely radical programme to the electorate, the exercise is almost always couched in terms that insist the measures on offer amount to nothing more than sound, common sense.

Michael Joseph Savage’s ground-breaking Social Security Act, denounced by the National Party as "applied lunacy", was defended by the diminutive Labour leader as "applied Christianity". And, surely, ran Labour’s (sub-textural) argument in the 1938 election campaign: if Social Security is good enough for Gentle Jesus, and little Mickey Savage, it’s got to be good for you!

And Roger Douglas, when he was busy dismantling Savage’s welfare state, appealed to the electorate not in the flinty language of his neoliberal hero, Frederich von Hayek, but in the language of the Left. The free-market would help the poor much more than it would help the rich. There would be long-term gain for the whole country – if only we were willing, for the common good, to endure a little short-term pain. And besides, as everybody who’s just lived through nine years of Muldoonism surely realises: "there is no alternative".

It’s the country’s strong feelings of gratitude at being so winningly reassured in the midst of a global recession, coupled with his pledge to eschew the sort of radicalism represented by Dr Don Brash’s 2025 Taskforce Report, that has kept John Key at the top of the electorate’s hit-parade for more than a year.

It can’t have been easy.

The Auckland Right: that shadowy group in which the independently wealthy, corporate bosses, PR gurus, local-body big-wigs, academics, school principals, publishers and journalists mix, mingle and plot; has never been content to leave politics to the politicians. They came after Bolger in 1997. They came after Clark and Cullen in 2000. They came after English in 2003. And not even the stratospheric poll-ratings which he continues to post, month after month, may be enough to stop them from coming for Key in 2010.

Indeed, Key’s extraordinary popularity has only made them more clamorous for "strong leadership" and "decisive action". It’s as if they really do see political support as a store of capital: a political bank balance from which a leader can make withdrawals in carefully calculated tranches.

Privatise ACC? That will cost you 7.5 percentage points in the One News/Colmar-Brunton opinion poll ratings – cheap at half the price!

It’s this failure to understand politics as a dynamic – rather than a static – system which makes the Auckland Right so very dangerous to the conservative cause in general, and National in particular.

Perhaps it’s because, as an independently wealthy man, Key owes nothing to, and needs nothing from the Auckland Right, that makes him so unusually successful at resisting its demands.

Neither Bolger, Shipley, English nor Brash possessed this crucial advantage. To secure the funding he required for the 1990 election campaign, Bolger was forced to accept Richardson as his Finance Minister (an appointment that came within a whisker of costing National the 1993 election, and which contributed mightily to the introduction of MMP). The party was bounced into dumping English under similar threats of "No Brash – no money" in 2003.

But Key has enough cash to fund National’s next election campaign single-handed. He can snap his fingers at the Auckland Right (and their threats) with impunity. And so far, and much to his credit, that’s exactly what he’s done.

But Key’s freedom isn’t limitless. The New Zealand state continues to spend much more than it takes in, and is currently funding the difference at the rate of $250 million a week. Rich though he undoubtedly is, the Prime Minister can’t fund the entire national debt out of his own pocket!

He and his Finance Minister have a Budget to present in the first half of 2010. If it’s not going to be a Budget written to the specifications of the Auckland Right, what sort of document is it going to be? If he’s not going to heed the extremists, who is he going to listen to?

THE OTHER BLOW struck against ideological extremism this year came from the fist of Phil Goff. It was a great deal riskier than any blow Key has yet struck (with the possible exception of his refusal to bow to the pro-smacking brigade) because Goff had neither the tremendous power of the prime-ministership, nor a seemingly never-ending run of fabulous poll-ratings to protect him.

Goff’s blow was against the "Komissariat" – that political sub-set of Labour’s broader constituency notorious for the strident hostility it ritually unleashes against even the slightest criticism of its identity-driven, social-liberal ideology.

Though small in number, the Komissariat is largely responsible for what might be called the "John Tamihere" view of Labour – i.e. as the natural home of "front-bums", poofters, grievance-mode Maori and every other variety of politically-correct wanker the boys in the Waitakere pubs can think of.

Before Goff can hope to win back these "Waitakere Men" (not to mention their wives, mothers and sisters) he has to be seen to have "dealt" to the Komissariat - in both his own caucus and across the wider party.

His "Nationhood" speech to Palmerston North Greypower did just that. Not only did it break the sacred rule forbidding criticism of the tangata whenua, but, when the Labour Komissariat bit back, Goff was able to force them to publicly recant their opposition.

It was a small, but vital victory for Goff. He goes now into the Christmas break feeling confident that his broader strategy of sharply refocussing Labour’s message around the material needs of low and middle income earners (as opposed to ticking off the remaining items on the Komissariat’s reform agenda) can be rolled out unhindered.

FOR THEIR STIRLING JOINT DEFENCE of "democratic moderation", it seems only fair to jointly award John Key and Phil Goff the title of 2009’s "Politician of the Year".

This essay was originally published in The Independent of 17 December 2009.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Banners in the Bush

This article, originally published in The Independent of 7 May 2003, anticipates the intense debate which John Key’s recognition of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag has set off. Written before the Court of Appeal’s decision on the foreshore and seabed; before Orewa; before the Hikoi; before the Maori Party (and the emergence of the latter’s fundamentally right-wing political identity) the article reveals both my own, and I believe the rest of progressive New Zealand’s, willingness to at least engage with the Maori sovereignty project. I read the article today with a great sense of sadness. What had seemed plausible in 2003 comes across as much less so in 2009. And, how very glad I am that it is National, rather than Labour, which has ended up aligning itself with neo-tribal capitalism – and all it entails.

TRAVELLING east on Highway 25A a few weeks ago, I was momentarily distracted by a tall flagstaff rising out of the dense Coromandel bush. Fluttering proudly in the late afternoon sunlight was an enormous Maori sovereignty flag. Curious as to why this emblem was flying in the middle of nowhere, I slowed the car and peered up a long gravel driveway into what appeared to be some sort of compound. A roughly painted sign at the gate proclaimed "Tino Rangatiratanga" and declared the owners’ solidarity with tangata whenua in a local land dispute. As I drove away, I pondered the significance of what I had just seen, recalling as I did so a very similar compound – complete with sovereignty flag - that I had passed while on holiday in Northland.

In the weeks since, I seem to have seen that same "Tino Rangatiratanga" emblem everywhere. On the T-shirts of a Maori youth group featured on the Marae programme, at the top of Internet websites, on bumper stickers, and fluttering above peace marchers in Queen Street and Lambton Quay.

Its apparent ubiquity speaks to me of a slow, but irreversible, process of political metamorphosis which is working its way through New Zealand. Beneath the institutional husk of the colonial state, a new political order is taking shape; an order based on the triple pillars of Maori economic self-sufficiency, Maori demography and Pakeha electoral dependency on Maori votes. Young Maori fly the Tino Rangatiratanga flag not simply as a gesture of ethnic pride, but in the confident expectation that within fifty years it will have replaced the New Zealand ensign as this country’s national flag.

The political sophistication with which this process of metamorphosis is being managed puts to shame the clumsy manoeuvrings of Pakeha interest groups. Whether it be in the fields of economic development, education, health, social welfare or media communications, the steady advance of Maori "self-management" speaks volumes about the extraordinary dexterity of Maori politicians – both in and out of Parliament.

Take, for example, the Ngai Tahu corporate empire. The original $170 million settlement with the Crown has grown in the space of just a few years to a capital base of nearly half-a-billion dollars. The Iwi has a controlling interest in firms specialising in fishing, forestry, farming and tourism. It also possesses pre-emptive rights on any Crown lands which come up for sale – a legal privilege of enormous financial value. Through the astute use of tertiary scholarships the Iwi is rapidly equipping itself with a cadre of highly educated professionals – skilled men and women who can advance Ngai Tahu’s interests in every field, from the law and medicine to media and publishing. Expanding at their present rate the Iwi’s corporate interests will soon pass the billion-dollar mark and by the middle of the 21st Century this one Maori tribe will rival the largest of New Zealand’s Pakeha-owned businesses.

As more and more settlements with the Crown are negotiated and the Ngai Tahu model of economic development is embraced by an increasing number of Maori tribes, the commercial power of Maori corporations will expand commensurately. Barring a major shift in official policies, it can only be a matter of decades before both the fisheries and the forests guaranteed to iwi and hapu in Article II of the Treaty of Waitangi are once again safe in Maori hands. As Fletcher Forests CEO, Ian Boyd, noted in a speech last week, "Maori interests are our natural partners".

The steady growth of Maori economic – and hence political - power arising out of the Treaty settlement process must surely give rise to some to wry amusement among Maori politicians. For a great many Pakeha the idea of making restitution for past wrongs has long possessed a comfortingly distant quality. The Treaty, with all its unsettling implications for the present relationships of power and status among New Zealand’s ethnic communities, could, according to this principle, be safely quarantined in the realms of historical time - where its contagious political fevers could do little harm.

But, as Maori understand only too well, past and present cannot be so easily separated. At the time of the Treaty’s signing Maori held the upper hand in New Zealand – militarily, economically and culturally. Logically, therefore, all compensation for the colonial state’s illegal appropriation of Maori resources in the past – especially when it takes the form of large capital grants or the wholesale cession of valuable natural resources to Maori tribes – can only lead, as we have seen with Ngai Tahu, to the enhancement of Maori influence in the present. Paradoxically, those who try to evade the contemporary ramifications of Tino Rangatiratanga, by limiting the Treaty’s role to the settling of past grievances, are only bringing the reality of Maori sovereignty closer.

The truly radical response to this political paradox lies in the "single standard of citizenship" policy of the National Party. Bill English has recognised, in a way that NZ First and ACT have not, that attempting to put the genie of Tino Rangatiratanga back into the bottle - by settling all the outstanding Waitangi Tribunal claims in double-quick time - will only speed-up the developing crisis in New Zealand race relations.

Anyone who doubts this need only cast their mind back to early 1995 and the response of Maoridom to the then National Government’s "fiscal envelope" proposal. The symbolic aggression at Waitangi and the occupation of Moutoa Gardens – both of which were fuelled by the Crown’s unilateral assertion of political sovereignty - showed how quickly the relationship between Maori and Pakeha can descend into angry confrontation and violence.

The crucial issue facing the politicians of 21st Century New Zealand is the nature of relationship between Maori and Pakeha. Are we to be competitors or collaborators? The idea of sovereignty will only cease to be a "zero-sum game" when both communities are encouraged to view the future as a place where ethnic identity is no longer a key determinant of one’s life chances.

Sadly, Labour’s approach to the Treaty is very different from that of Bill English. Just how different was spelled out by Dr Michael Cullen in his controversial speech to the Central North Island Labour Party Conference on 27 April. The key problem with the speech was not with its author’s interpretation of the Treaty’s meaning – which accords pretty closely with that of most New Zealand historians – but with his implied characterisation of the document as a de facto New Zealand constitution.

According to Dr Cullen, the open-ended nature of the guarantee offered to Maori by the inclusion of the word "taonga" – or "treasures" – in the definitive Maori text "genuinely makes the Treaty a living document where new applications or implications may arise as circumstances change".

Instead of developing a constitution which recognises the fact of 200 years of Maori and Pakeha cohabitation in New Zealand, Labour clearly prefers to spend the 21st Century defining and re-defining the present meaning of an 1840 agreement originally intended to do no more than ameliorate the worst immediate side-effects of two mutually incomprehensible cultures in collision.

Labour’s motives for so elevating the Treaty are relatively straight-forward: it locks in the electoral support of voters who identify themselves as Maori first and New Zealanders second. The political benefits are mutual. On their long march toward Tino Rangatiratanga, Maori politicians have worked tirelessly to secure a plentiful supply of sympathetic allies at the highest levels of the state. Labour, both as a political party, and as the driver of bureaucratic reform in the 1980s, has been crucial to the radical re-orientation of official policy in the direction of Maori self-management.

It is an arrangement which both sides are determined to preserve. Both Labour and Maori politicians know that New Zealanders claiming Maori descent represent an expanding electoral bloc whose votes will one day be crucial to deciding who will govern New Zealand. But that bloc can only function effectively if issues of ethnicity and identity retain their political salience. Bill English’s dream of subsuming racial distinctions in "a single standard of citizenship" is, therefore, anathema to both Labour and Maori. Labour needs Maori as its political clients; Maori need Labour as their political accomplices.

In the end, it may simply come down to a question of patience and resolve. Maori have inhabited these islands for more than a thousand years, Pakeha for barely two hundred. Michael Cullen is wrong when he asserts that the British Crown’s sovereignty has been exercised, "unbroken and largely unchallenged" since 1840. What does he think the Land Wars were all about? What does he think Te Whiti O Rongomai was trying to do? From the moment they understood that the Europeans were too strong to defeat militarily, the political leadership of Maoridom wisely adopted a long-term view of how "whenua" should be reunited with "tangata". They may have given in, but they have never given up.

Like the slowly regenerating bush on the Coromandel hillsides, iwi and hapu are steadily reclaiming both the ground – and the sovereignty – that was taken from them. And that puts the onus upon the rest of us to determine how best we should come to terms with the undeniable fact of expanding Maori power. In the not too distant future, it may prove necessary for Pakeha New Zealanders to remove the old colonial symbols from their national emblems and embrace a new definition of citizenship in Aotearoa.

A change of flag will not seem so disconcerting if it is preceded by a change of heart.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Who's Left?

Who's Left? Phil Goff poses before the biker rally against ACC levy increases. Over the past fortnight, the identity and efficacy of the New Zealand Left has become the subject of a fruitful on-line debate.

PHIL GOFF will head-off this week for a well-earned summer-break. He departs for his Clevedon life-style block with the mixed messages of the 3 News Poll ringing in his ears, and the burden of composing January’s "State of the Nation" speech weighing heavily on his mind.

As he contemplates the best possible theme for that scene-setting New Year address, Phil will be turning over in his mind the same questions that every thoughtful person to the left of the National Party has been asking themselves this past fortnight:

What is "The Left" in 2010? And: How can "The Left" become more effective?

Kiwipolitico’s "Pablo" has posted an interesting response to these questions. Having dismissed the Labour Party as "no longer a genuine Left party", he constructs a rough template for how those parties and movements to the left of Labour might operate as an effective political bloc. In essence, his template calls for the Left to divide itself into a "political" branch and a "social movement" branch, and that these two branches should further separate themselves into "moderate" and "militant" wings.

"The political branch would encompass Left/progressive political parties such as the Greens and the Alliance as well as fringe parties willing to cooperate in a common venture such as the Communists, Socialist Workers and the like."

I do not believe we need go any further than this suggestion to recognise the sheer impracticality of Pablo’s suggestions. For a start, the Greens would want no part of such an unwieldy alliance. (Once bitten, twice shy!) And besides, the whole political thrust of the Greens since the 2008 General Election has been towards the political centre. A party that rejected Sue Bradford is hardly likely to tie itself to "the Communists, Socialist Workers and the like".

The other problem with Pablo’s proffered solution to the Left’s palpable weakness is that none of the Marxist parties, and hardly any of the now not-so-new social movements carry very much in the way of political "heft".

Back in the days of the USSR, the Socialist Unity Party’s 500+ membership (most of it strategically located in the trade union movement) carried with it the unmistakable chill of Moscow. As such, it was a force to be reckoned with. Moscow funded the party newspaper. Moscow trained and indoctrinated the SUP’s leading cadres. And Moscow’s international propaganda apparatus supplied the party with its talking points and kept it resolutely "on message". Mutatis mutandis, the same could be said for those parties drawing their inspiration from the Chinese, the Cubans, the Albanians, and whatever faction of the Trotskyist "Fourth International" was currently in vogue in these shaky isles.

The sudden collapse of "actually existing socialism" in Russia and Eastern Europe cast its New Zealand representatives adrift without a compass. Deprived of their international sponsors, the various parties’ tiny membership bases were incapable of supporting an organisational infrastructure sophisticated enough to confer political relevance. Nor were the Marxist groups capable of furnishing the wider Left with a figure of sufficient ideological skill or political charisma to carry the Marxist message into the political mainstream. In the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall this situation has only gotten worse. The parties and organisations of the Marxist Left have become a row of empty seed-pods, mournfully rattling in the dry neoliberal wind.

The so-called "New Social Movements" have fared little better. Essentially, the movements promoting Feminism, Gay Rights and Environmentalism represented the "unfinished business" of modern bourgeois reformism – which, in the guise of "Progressivism" (and in order to forestall a bloody revolution) had interposed itself between the capitalist "Robber Barons" and the rapidly-growing socialist movements of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries.

Unfortunately, like all reform movements, the mass campaigns for the emancipation of women, gays and lesbians did not long survive the moments when their legislative shackles were struck off. And, in the years that followed, those bold enough to look couldn’t help but notice that the people who had won the most out of these last, great reforms of bourgeois liberalism were – surprise, surprise – the liberal bourgeoisie.

Environmentalism has always drawn its political power from the cultural legacy of the Romantic Movement of the early-19th Century. The transformation of Nature: from something to be feared and conquered, to the moral and spiritual regenerator of a human species marooned among the "dark satanic mills" of capitalism and scientific rationality; is what lies at the heart of nearly all First World social movements to conserve the natural environment. Even today, when science has turned upon its capitalist master, its is the redemptive aspects of environmentalism which generate the largest part of its political energy.

The quest for redemption remains a constant feature of bourgeois radical reform movements. Once a revolutionary social force, the bourgeoisie abandoned the poor and the dispossessed the moment its own political ambitions were fulfilled. Worse still, when the lower orders – taking as their text the bourgeois gospel of liberty, equality, fraternity – attempted to extend the blessings of democracy downwards, the bourgeoisie slaughtered them in their thousands. It is this terrible legacy of bad faith and betrayal that bourgeois radical reformers have striven to expunge. From the Romantic Poets to the reformist Greens, the demand has always been for the bourgeoisie to live up to its own ideals.

In no other aspect of modern New Zealand life is the radical bourgeois quest for redemption made more manifest than in its embrace of the Maori nationalist struggle for tino rangatiratanga.

The Treaty of Waitangi, in which Christian abolitionism, with its slogan "Am I not a man and a brother?" combined with romantic notions of "the noble savage" to produce the politically explosive concept of "Maori sovereignty", has become the key talisman of this redemptive project. It has fatally masked the true character of New Zealand’s colonial history, which is unique only to the extent of its indigenous people’s recovery from the "fatal impact" of European settlement. Not surprisingly, elite Maori have seized upon this politically privileged need of Pakeha middle-class radicals to be forgiven for the sins of their colonial fathers, to reclaim as much of their patrimony as possible. But, it is a dangerous game they play. The New Zealand State was founded, first and foremost, on the strength of the colonists’ racial solidarity. If left with no other choices, it will be defended by the same.

Pablo’s "Left" turns out, therefore, to be a will-o-the-wisp. The rattling husks of the old Marxist parties offer no way forward, while the ageing social movements, the Greens, and the supporters of tino rangatiratanga stand revealed as the rebellious offspring of a bourgeois liberal project mired in bad faith, betrayal and greedy self-interest.

Poor material out of which to fashion a revolution, if I may make so bold.

Which brings us to that other party – the one Pablo condemns for no longer being a "genuine Left party".

In Labour, all of the above tendencies have found a political refuge (not least bourgeois bad-faith and betrayal). But these tendencies do not have the party all to themselves. Alongside the bourgeois radical reformers, the environmentalists and the Maori Sovereigntists are a substantial – indeed still a majority – of solid working-class Maori and Pakeha New Zealanders. And Labour is the only mass political party in this country that can still make such a boast.

Which is why, on this occasion, I must concur with Kiwipolitico "Lew’s" response to Pablo’s posting: "I think the major thrust of activity should be toward reforming the Labour Party as the core of the moderate political wing of the movement. How possible that may be is a very open question."

And the subject of a future posting.

Friday, 11 December 2009

The Moral Equivalent of War

A World to Win: Containing CO2 emissions must become the moral equivalent of war.

AS THE WORLD’S LEADERS gather in Copenhagen, the world’s peoples wonder whether anything good will come from their going.

It is, after all, barely a week since President Barack Obama stood before the grey-clad cadets of the West Point military academy and pledged a further 30,000 young men and women (and an estimated $1 trillion) to the conflict in Afghanistan.

War, it seems, can still lay claim to the best part of our blood and the most part of our treasure. If only the battle to save our planet could inspire such generosity.

The question of why war, alone of all our endeavours, possesses the power to inspire such tremendous collective exertions and unstinting sacrifices by human communities, is not a new one. Ninety-three years ago, the American scholar William James, addressed precisely the same question in his famous essay entitled: ‘The Moral Equivalent of War".

Humanity, he argued, must find another way to mobilise all that is brave and noble in the human soul, or the warriors of our species will never want for either willing volunteers nor eager financiers. James’s solution, richly ironic in the context of the events now unfolding in Copenhagen, was to enlist the nation’s youth in a "War against Nature".

"If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature … To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas."

James’s idea of conscripting the nation’s youth to wage the moral equivalent of war struck a deep chord in the American psyche. It informed the thinking behind President Franklin Roosevelt’s Conservation Corps, and President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps.

There was, of course, a strongly progressive edge to his proposal. It was wrong he said that some human-beings should struggle all their lives for the bare necessities, while others enjoyed a leisured existence as unproductive as it was ignoble. To have young people of all classes, struggling together: not for a lifetime, but as a part of the process of becoming full citizens of the "co-operative commonwealth"; such was James’s vision.

Ninety-three years on, and James’s ideas seem even more relevant than when he first explained them in 1906 – just eight summers before the cataclysmic horrors of World War I.

Today, however, it is not a "War Against Nature" that our generation is called to fight, but a war in Nature’s defence. And it is not merely the youth of the world who must be summoned to battle (though, as always, they will lead the charge) but whole populations.

If the battle against Climate Change does not become the moral equivalent of war for all the peoples of the Earth, then not only the battle, but the Earth itself, as a planet hospitable to human civilisation, will be lost.

Our government – every government – must be willing to mobilise the population as it was mobilised during World War II. Our generation must plant its own "Victory Gardens" and run its own "Salvage Programmes". We must learn, as our parents and grandparents did, to ration scarce resources, pay special taxes, and buy as may "War Bonds" as we can afford.

There will, of course, be people who whisper that the enemy isn’t really our enemy. That all of our individual and collective sacrifices are quite unnecessary. And that, if only we would stop listening to the "alarmists" and "extremists", then this needless and terribly costly campaign could be brought to a happy conclusion.

In 1940, England was full of such whisperers. The British ruling-class, in particular, was riddled with defeatists, Nazi sympathisers and traitors. Back then people called them "Quislings" and "Fifth Columnists".

If, therefore, the battle against Climate Change has to become the moral equivalent of war, with all the sacrifice that war entails, then Climate Change Denial must become the moral equivalent of treason.

Over the top?


The stakes really are that high.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 11 December 2009.

With Friends Like These ...

Think Little: David Farrar's preferred Leader of the Opposition. Is the current Labour President preparing to play Jim Anderton to Phil Goff's David Lange?

IT WOULD SEEM that David Farrar took exactly the same message from Andrew Little’s conduct vis-à-vis Phil Goff, at this week’s Labour Caucus meeting as I did.

Karl Rove was always reminding President George W. Bush that most Americans watch the news with the sound turned down – so image is all-important. And, as Farrar writes in the latest NBR, the key visual image of that Labour Caucus meeting was of Little and Goff "walking side-by-side as equals and co-leaders".

But as David Lange discovered after deposing Bill Rowling in 1982, having a party president (in Lange’s case it was Jim Anderton) who is hostile both to yourself and to the faction which elected you, is a sure-fire recipe for disunity and conflict.

Now, if Andrew Little was cut from the same cloth as Jim Anderton, I might not find the prospect of a little disunity and conflict all that unsettling. Anderton was a staunch defender of core Labour values, and not at all afraid to promote new and often unorthodox ideas.

Andrew Little, on the other hand, gives every impression of being born old, and as orthodox as the Patriarch of Moscow. Farrar commends him for transforming NZUSA from a hotbed of student radicalism into a bloodless, no-frills lobbying organisation. He also notes approvingly how willing Little – as the leader of the EPMU – has been to work with employers (instead of trying to "destroy" them).

Naturally, these are precisely the aspects of Little’s career that give me such pause. It is hard to view the man as anything other than a rather dour and colourless technocrat – as bereft of personal passion as he is over-burdened with conventional political wisdom.

Farrar hails the speech Little delivered to this year’s Labour Conference as "the sort of wide ranging policy and political speech you normally get from the leader". He's half right. Little’s speech – on paper – was impressive. Unfortunately, its delivery was woeful. And it’s this inability to infuse the words on a page with the motivational energy of unmistakable personal conviction that encapsulates the problems I have with Little.

He is, in short, a man the National Party would feel extremely comfortable with as Leader of the Opposition – in fact, the sooner the better. Like the unfortunate ALP leader Simon Crean (another union technocrat) the current Labour President is regarded by the Right as essentially unelectable.

Not surprisingly they are singing his praises to the skies.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

In Praise of Radicalism

Beyond Pragmatism: "A Man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" New Zealand needs radical economic thinking if it is to preserve social peace.

GARETH MORGAN – radical. A few years ago that description would’ve been laughed off as oxymoronic. After his performance on Campbell Live, however, "radical" is exactly the right word.

His advocacy of a tax-free Universal Basic Income of $10,000 for all citizens, with a flat tax of 25 percent on every dollar earned in excess of that sum, certainly qualifies as "far-reaching, thorough, going to the root". And, when combined with his proposed 1.5 percent tax on capital, Morgan presents a truly radical challenge to the prevailing fiscal orthodoxy.

Morgan’s response to Campbell’s objection that his ideas would fail Finance Minister, Bill English’s "political practicality" test was similarly unorthodox. Unlike the 2025 Taskforce, whose ideologically-driven membership loftily eschewed such plebeian notions as popular consent, Morgan advanced the radically democratic notion that once you’d won the voters’ hearts and minds – the politicians would be sure to follow.

Morgan’s heterodox and iconoclastic turn of mind is exactly what New Zealand needs right now. With the obvious exceptions of Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee, caution reigns supreme in the National Cabinet. And in spite of some welcome signs that the Leader of the Opposition, Phil Goff, is willing to dip his little toe in the bracing waters of unorthodoxy, the overall political scene is distressingly bereft of new – let alone radical – ideas.

That’s what was so very, very depressing about the first report of the 2025 Taskforce. It was the economic equivalent of gathering together half-a-dozen ageing generals and asking them to come up with a daring strategic plan for winning the economic war. We got one, of course, but it was a daring plan for fighting the last economic war – not the one we’re losing today.

And Dr Brash and his colleagues weren’t even all that daring. To get some idea of what genuinely radical right-wing thinking looks like, they should pay a visit to "Cactus Kate" – the outrageously right-wing blogsite of the equally outrageous, Hong Kong-based tax-lawyer, Cathy Odgers.

In a posting entitled "2025 – Be Cashed Up By Then", Odgers vouchsafes us a rare glimpse into an uninhibited neoliberal imagination utterly unencumbered by anything so economically unproductive as ethical qualms.

A sample:

"Emerging Nations have no minimum wage. Don Brash’s report at page 128 and 129 failed to mention what New Zealand should be lowering the minimum wage for - so 400,000 Filipino male and female workers could be imported to do jobs that New Zealanders will not do, such as domestic servants, farm labourers and cleaners. There is no reason for a New Zealand woman in the year 2025 to be doing housework when a Filipina can do it better and for next to nothing."

Whooah! They really should call the next big cyclone howling out of the South China Sea – "Hurricane Kate".

It makes one wonder where the equally outrageous, and equally radical, thinking of the Left has got to.

Ideally, radical ideas should make us raise our eyebrows, and gasp. Morgan’s plan for a Universal Basic Income, funded by a comprehensive Capital Tax, does all of that. And so does Odgers’ fantasy of Filipina maids slaving the kitchen, while the destitute sleep under flattened cardboard boxes in the street.

By giving us their visions of an economically and politically transformed New Zealand, Morgan and Odgers challenge our definition of what is possible. For minds locked into orthodox thinking this can produce the same effect as the interior designers of the BBC’s Changing Rooms: Yes, it’s the same roof. Yes, the space is enclosed by the same four walls. But, thanks to their radical imaginations – everything else is different.

That’s why Bill English’s dour counsels of caution are so profoundly disappointing. New Zealand needs to recover that intrepid willingness to experiment which, from the first Liberal Government of the 1890s, to Rogernomics in the 1980s, made this country the toast of the world.

Which is not to suggest that commentators like Fran O’Sullivan are right, and that John Key should simply consume his political capital in a firestorm of top-down reform – and the Devil take the hindmost. That’s not how Roger Douglas transformed New Zealand.

Rogernomics was sold to a New Zealand electorate already yearning for a fresh start, and a new direction, by infusing the Treasury’s neoliberal programme with just a small fraction of the faith Douglas himself possessed in its efficacy. In 1984, an intensification of Muldoon’s massive state intervention in the New Zealand economy was a political and economic non-starter. There had to be a better way.

In 2010, a return to the policies of 1984-1993 is similarly un-doable. Once again, the country is seeking a new direction.

It’s unlikely that very many New Zealanders would opt for Odgers’ vision of a New Zealand made-over in the image of Singapore, Hong Kong and the Peoples Republic of China. But Morgan’s ideas have already sparked considerable interest and enthusiasm across the political spectrum.

There’s an emerging public consensus that New Zealand’s existing fiscal machinery is indeed, as the Tax Working Group repeatedly insists, broken beyond repair. The political opportunity to respond to that consensus with a radical programme of fiscal reform is, therefore, just lying there waiting for whichever party leader possesses (if I may borrow O’Sullivan’s favourite expression) the cajones to seize it.

But in seizing this opportunity, the political parties must be careful to offer the voters a picture of New Zealand’s future in which they can see themselves forging ahead.

So, which vision is more likely to inspire the entrepreneurial instincts of all those Kiwi’s currently dependent on the State for their existence? Odgers’ vision of unemployed Kiwis competing with 400,000 Filipino immigrants in a labour market unprotected by even a minimum wage? Or, the vision of currently unemployed Kiwi workers banking their tax-free UBI – and then keeping 75 cents of every dollar they manage to scare-up on top?

Will the electorate go on voting for a system that inexorably nudges wage and salary earners into the top tax-bracket? Or, will they cast their votes in favour of a new fiscal deal based on taxing (at a very low rate) the value of their capital assets?

When I was a boy, growing up in North Otago, the countryside of was brown, and it carried sheep. Now it’s green, and full of cows.

The world can be changed - radically.

Ideas matter.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 10 December 2009.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Two Deletions and an Apology

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

FOR THE SECOND TIME, since I began this blog, I have deleted material which, upon reflection, I decided should never have been published. On both occasions the deleted postings have targeted Lew at Kiwipolitico.

Clearly, both of us push buttons in the other that should probably remain unpushed.

The blogosphere, sadly, lends itself to intemperate and angry exchanges. The sheer ease with which material can be composed and published – without the intervention of sub-editors or editors, whose experience and sagacity would otherwise prevent the inevitable heartache and embarrassment that follows the unrestrained expression of an outsized ego – is one of the new medium’s greatest perils.

Lew is, of course, free to do as he wishes, but for my part I truly regret my actions in crudely personalising issues which should have been discussed dispassionately, and without rancor.

I offer to Lew my sincere apologies for any and all hurtful aspersions which I have cast upon his character over the past few days, and have, as I say, removed the offending material as a gesture both of atonement and goodwill.

There are few enough intelligent men and women willing to engage in the important debates of our time, without reducing their number through vituperation and abuse.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Ten Years Ago This Week: "National Capitalism"

National Capitalism: This British Conservative Party poster from 1909 criticises the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, for failing to protect British jobs by imposing tariffs on imported goods.

MRS SHIPLEY’S reconfiguration of the National Party’s front bench notwithstanding, the Centre-Right faces some daunting challenges over the next three years.

What sort of party does it wish to be? A mass party, with deep roots in the community and a membership broadly representative of the New Zealand population? Or, a cadre party, tightly organised around an ideologically coherent set of policies and staffed by highly motivated individuals drawn from a narrow segment of society?

If National wishes to reconstruct its mass base it will need to reconsider a great many of its present policy positions. More significantly, it will have to abandon the laissez-faire paradigm in favour of either a genuinely liberal, or a recognisably conservative, political philosophy.

The laissez-faire doctrine is simply too destructive a creed for any political party to pursue for more than a few years. Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto identified the all-consuming dynamism of unrestrained capitalism as long ago as 1848 – only a few years after the British Tory Party had been broken in half on the rock of "free trade". In the years that followed, the British Liberal Party also learned to fear the destructive side effects of laissez faire – especially its ability to mobilise the "lower orders".

By the end of the 19th Century both the Conservatives and the Liberals had moved towards a more durable set of political themes. Disraeli’s "One Nation" Conservatism sought to smooth over class antagonisms by enlisting the whole electorate in Britain’s imperial adventure, while Asquith’s "Social Liberalism" attempted to pre-empt the appeal of socialism through a series of radical social reforms.

Margaret Thatcher’s revival of laissez-faire economics in the final quarter of the 20th Century was a retrograde step for the Conservative Party – fatally undermining its mass appeal. Only the extraordinary weaknesses of Baroness Thatcher’s opponents permitted her party to rule for such an extended period. Today, it is a moot question whether the British Tories will ever again secure a parliamentary majority.

In the 21st Century, the chief dilemma confronting a party calling itself "National" will be whether to embrace "global" or "national" capitalism. A majority of the present leadership of the National Party appears to favour the former, a position which aligns it very closely with the ACT Party.

In practical terms this means that both National and ACT are bound to promote policies which facilitate the dominance of transnational – as opposed to local - capitalists. New Zealand under National/ACT leadership would become even more of a "branch office" of the Australian economy than it is now - with a corresponding intensification of the already quite strong push in right-wing circles for New Zealand to "merge" with Australia.

This is hardly the sort of programme a "national" party could hope to adopt with any realistic prospect of electoral success.

By embracing "national capitalism", however, the Centre-Right could once again carve out a political position with genuine mass appeal. A "New Zealand Incorporated" approach, encompassing a judicious measure of state intervention and exhortation – along the lines of Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – has the potential for building a political constituency of election-winning dimensions. At present only Simon Upton and Bill English appear to have grasped this possibility.

The irony, of course, is that "national capitalism" is precisely what Winston Peters has been advocating for the past decade. By banishing Peters, National lost the only charismatic politician it possessed with a compelling vision of the future. Even more astonishingly, by breaking up the National/NZ First Coalition Government, Mrs Shipley not only guaranteed National’s defeat, but also handed Labour and the Alliance the opportunity to make "national capitalism" the Centre-Left’s winning electoral formula well into the next century.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion of Friday, 17 December 1999.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Komissariat Strikes Back

A stab in the back? What better way of ensuring that Phil Goff loses the 2011 General Election than by publicly challenging his policies and fostering the fatal perception of internal division and dissent within Labour's ranks?

WELL, the first thing we can say about the furore which has blown up in the Labour Party over Phil Goff’s "Nationhood" speech is that his strategy must be working.

Why else would Labour fellow-travellers among the Komissariat be willing to risk the odium that inevitably attaches itself to political parties which openly engage in internecine blood-letting?

What do Wellington central MP, Grant Robertson and Labour Party President, Andrew Little – the two individuals identified as leading the charge against Goff – fear the most?

That’s easy.

They fear that Goff’s strategy of putting pressure on the Maori Party by alerting Pakeha and Maori workers to the dangers posed by neo-tribal capitalism will prove successful.

And if Goff’s Maori Party strategy is successful, then there is every prospect that his broader strategy of sharply refocusing Labour’s message around the material needs of low and middle income earners (as opposed to ticking off the remaining items on the social-liberals’ legislative agenda) will also prove successful.

This is why I believe Robertson and Little (both spoken of as future leaders of the Labour Party) are speaking out against Goff.

Let’s take a look at where they come from.

Robertson’s power-base in the Labour Party, until his election to the seat of Wellington Central in 2008, was the Rainbow Sector Council. (Although it’s probably safe to say that his years on the 9th Floor of the Beehive didn’t exactly hurt his political career.)

Little’s power-base is in Labour’s trade union affiliates.

Though nowhere near as powerful as they were in the 1980s (when the Affiliates Council commanded nearly half the card votes on the floor of Labour’s annual conference) the unions (dominated by Little’s own EPMU) are able to exert a powerful influence over who sits on the Party’s ruling bodies, as well as who gets what position on the all-important Party List – especially when allied with the Women’s and Rainbow councils.

A powerful Labour leader with ambitions to construct a stronger, more "organic" (in the Gramscian sense) relationship with the economically radical, but socially-conservative New Zealand working-class, would pose a deadly threat to the power-bases of both Robertson and Little.

If concentrated in a rejuvenated branch structure, the social conservatism of ordinary working-class Labour members would make it much harder for the Rainbow Council to secure the electorate selection and List placement of additional gay and lesbian candidates – thereby weakening the long-term position of Labour's gay and lesbian MPs.

A shift to the Left, in terms of demanding a rise in the living standards of ordinary working-class Kiwis would, similarly, compromise trade union officialdom by making it much harder for them to engage in the kind of concession bargaining that has become the norm among New Zealand trade unions (particularly the EPMU) since the passage of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991.

The rapturous response to Phil Goff’s address to the Auckland rally of striking Service and Food Workers Union members on Friday, 27 November, during which he urged them to "use their union to fight for a decent wage increase" demonstrated how effective this direct approach might be in reconnecting with Labour’s working-class base – and how much pressure it could end up placing on "moderate" unions, like Little’s EPMU, to "deliver".

If you were a potential future leader of the Labour Party, and your power-base was located in the Rainbow and/or Affiliate sector groups, all of the above might be considered a powerful argument for derailing Goff’s electoral strategy. Indeed, you might well think that your chances of getting to the top of the greasy pole would be considerably enhanced if Goff and his supporters were to fail dismally in 2011.

And, what better way to ensure that failure, than by publicly dissenting from your own leader’s policies and fostering a perception of internal division?

Can you think of any course of action more likely to guarantee Goff’s electoral defeat in 2011?

Friday, 4 December 2009

Grant Robertson: From "Reluctant Radical" to MP for the Komissariat

Change of heart? What has prompted Grant Robertson, the "reluctant radical" of the 1990s, to suddenly become the MP for the Commissariat?

IT’S A FUNNY OLD WORLD. There was a time when I would have given a great deal to hear Grant Robertson make a forceful, take-no-prisoners, stand against injustice.

Like the day after the Police had battoned, kicked and punched Otago students protesting outside the University Registry against tuition-fee increases. On that day, 29 September 1993, he had a crowd of 1,000+ angry students standing before him in the Union Hall; students who, just minutes before, had forced two plain-clothes cops to creep, shame-faced out of the building.

How hard would it have been to persuade those students to return to the Registry to demonstrate their disgust at the University of Otago Council’s complicity in the Police assault on the young OUSA members who, just 12 months earlier, had elected him their President?

Not very.

What did he do?

He introduced Winston Peters.

It was after that performance that I dubbed Grant the "reluctant radical". Well, it would seem that Grant ain’t reluctant anymore. Now, we are told, he is leading the charge against Phil Goff, his own party leader, for daring to call the Maori Party to account over Hone Harawira and the ETS legislation, and for questioning the wisdom of repealing the Foreshore & Seabed Act.

It seems I was wrong when I said that the "Liberal Left" lacked influence. For reasons I have my strong suspicions about (but will reserve judgment on for the time-being) it would seem that the "Commissariat" (a much better description DYT?) has found itself a champion.

Way-to-go Grant! Introduce all the viciousness of the culture-wars that tore the Left apart in the 1980s to your own caucus. Undermine the only Labour leader with the remotest chance of winning back the 150,000–200,000 voters John Key wooed away in 2008. Display for all the world to see the one thing guaranteed to turn voters off in their thousands – disunity.

Yeah, Grant, that’s truly "radical". That’ll help.

Only Radicals Need Apply

Right Dish. Wrong Recipe: But Don Brash and his 2025 Taskforce were on the money when they warned that only a radical re-direction of this country's economic policies will allow New Zealanders to enjoy a prosperous future.

DON BRASH and the 2025 Taskforce he chairs, is right about one thing. New Zealand does need to do something dramatic about lifting the per capita income of its citizens – all its citizens.

He’s right, too, that the only solutions to the problem of our relatively poor economic performance vis-à-vis Australia are radical solutions.

Unfortunately for New Zealand, the 2025 Taskforce – having being stacked by the Act leader, Rodney Hide, with convinced adherents of the neoliberal school of economic theory – was always bound to recommend radically right-wing solutions.

John Key has, very sensibly, rejected their unhelpful advice. His own political instincts – not to mention those of his closest political advisers – tell him that unleashing Rogernomics Mark II on the long-suffering New Zealand public would be political suicide.

But, in rejecting the Taskforce’s right-wing radicalism, the Prime Minister is left with nowhere to turn. Or, more correctly, nowhere to turn but left.

It’s exactly the same problem which confronted Sir Robert Muldoon in the late-1970s. He also knew that any embrace of the monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman, or the radical neoliberal programmes pouring out of the "New Right" British and American think tanks, or, closer to home, the measures being urged upon him by his own Treasury advisers, would amount to political suicide.

His response was to tack to port. Using the immense powers available to him as Finance Minister under the Economic Stabilisation Act, he imposed wage and price freezes, reined-in the unions, cracked down on property speculators, subsidised the farmers and generally set about running the country, in David Lange’s immortal phrase, "like a Polish shipyard".

By 1984, with Sir Robert having tested the command economy option more-or-less to destruction, it was left to the Labour Party to implement the only viable option remaining on the table.

The Treasury’s blueprint for change, Economic Management, written by 2025 Taskforce member, Dr Bryce Wilkinson, became Labour’s de facto manifesto.

As Phil Goff told a rather sceptical left-wing audience in Auckland last week, Labour "saved capitalism".

And that is something Labour will have to do again – for the very simple reason that Mr Key can’t. This time around, New Zealand Capitalism can only be saved by the same sort of radical left-wing programme that rescued it in the 1930s. In other words, by rejecting – rather than following – Dr Wilkinson’s prescription.

In this regard, Mr Key resembles the unfortunate Gordon Coates. He, too, was a moderate and compassionate conservative who saw what his right-wing coalition government needed to do to haul New Zealand out of economic depression. His tragedy was, as I suspect Mr Key’s is likely to be, that he could not persuade his ill-informed, laissez-faire political colleagues to do it. Such measures as Finance Minister Coates was able to implement merely served to ease the passage of Labour’s more radical reform programme.

What is to be done? First and foremost the New Zealand state must regain some semblance of control over its own financial system: only then will it be in a position to facilitate the expansion of the country’s export sector and increase its productivity.

Crucial to this process will be the rapid accumulation of a large fund of domestic investment capital – primarily by creating a compulsory superannuation scheme.

(It is, after all, the degree of control which the Australians are still able to exert over their financial system, allied with their vast pool of domestic savings, that affords them the freedom to develop policies in their national, as opposed to their creditors’, interest.)

Of equal importance will be the State’s role in creating and maintaining a highly-skilled and productive workforce. In addition to an intelligent reconfiguration and co-ordination of the education and health sectors, this will also necessitate a permanent engagement with organised labour at every level of the economy.

Fiscally, it will demand a considerably increased contribution from high income-earners, complemented by a well-designed suite of land, wealth and capital gains taxes.

As New Zealand’s economic history makes clear – it is he who pays the piper that calls the tune. Dr Brash’s Taskforce 2025 would have that economic "paymaster" role go to New Zealanders international creditors. But it’s hard to get rich when most of your domestically-generated profits are sucked offshore.

My preference is for an economic tune the whole nation can sing.

One we write ourselves.

This essay was originally published by The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 4 December 2009.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

New Zealand Inc.

United in a common cause: If ever there was a need to adopt a NZ Inc. approach to governing the nation it was over the vexed question of climate change. The only equitable way to address the need to dramatically reduce New Zealand’s CO2 emissions was by declaring the issue to be the moral equivalent of war – and demanding commensurate sacrifices from every sector of the economy.

NEW ZEALAND INCORPORATED: it’s one of the Right’s most effective rhetorical devices, proclaiming as it does the speaker’s belief that the entire nation should be treated as a single economic unit: one vast corporation, run along business lines.

From a left-wing perspective, however, the phrase "NZ Inc." has some extremely worrying connotations. It was, after all, Benito Mussolini who said: "Fascism should rightly be called corporatism, as it is the merger of corporate and government power."

These origins notwithstanding, the corporatist ideology still commands a surprising amount of support among right-wing Labourites and ambitious trade union bureaucrats (all-too-often the same people). It’s their view that a corporate state can only function effectively if the trade unions are also seated at the top table – alongside the employers and the state.

Unsurprisingly, the neoliberal Right takes a radically different view. In their eyes, neither trade unionists, nor civil servants, have any useful role to play in the process of constructing NZ Inc. In fact, the whole point of running the country as a business, is to eliminate the disruptive influence of unions, bureaucrats – and politicians.

As President Ronald Reagan put it: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem – government is the problem."

It is this radical variant of neoliberalism that drives so many Auckland business-people to loudly lament the probability that the first mayor of the new "supercity" will be drawn from the world of politics – rather than business. Their goal is to create an "Auckland Incorporated" – entirely impervious to the demands of democratic busybodies.

IDEOLOGICAL MUSINGS ASIDE, the concept of NZ Inc. is certain to feature prominently in the second year of John Key’s government. The deepening fiscal crisis gripping the country makes an appeal to national unity and self-sacrifice practically obligatory.

From the National Party’s perspective, it is essential that the necessary reduction in government expenditure be presented not as a calculated act of class violence, but as a full-scale, nationally co-ordinated effort to bring the ballooning government deficit under control.

This won’t be an easy sell for a government politically beholden to the corporate sector. The latter is not about to assume its fair share of the national economic burden voluntarily. But, unless the electorate can be convinced that the corporate sector is willing to suck up as much economic pain as the rest of the community, the idea of NZ Inc. is likely to prove unsaleable.

One solution to this problem might be to raise the rate at which GST is levied, while simultaneously imposing some form of Capital Gains or Land Tax on the wealthy. The increased contribution from the nation’s richest citizens could then be used to offset the disproportionate impact of any increase in indirect taxation on the poorest.

Another gesture toward NZ Inc. might be to replace the current KiwiSaver scheme with a system of compulsory universal superannuation modelled on the scheme controlled by the Government of Singapore.

Similarly, any attempt to freeze the wages of public servants should be accompanied by a compulsory moratorium on executive bonuses and/or the imposition of a special surtax on personal incomes in excess of $250,000 per anum.

Cuts in Vote Health could be imposed alongside a massive nationwide campaign to improve New Zealander’s fitness and diet. Measures limiting the numbers in tertiary education could be timed to coincide with the restoration of heavily subsidised night classes.

Young unemployed people could be mobilised into "Climate Change Combat Corps" and sent to plant native, Carbon Credit-earning forests on Crown-owned marginal land all over the country.
However it is structured, any attempt to create New Zealand Incorporated can only succeed if it is seen to incorporate all New Zealanders.

DOES JOHN KEY possess the political skills necessary to persuade the electorate to buy into this sort of full-on corporatism? Would his own caucus stand behind him if he did? Would Rodney Hide and Act support policies requiring so much state intervention in the economy? Would Peter Dunne? Would the Maori Party?

The answer to these questions is the same as the answer the Irish farmer gave to the lost American tourist who asked him how to get to Dublin: "Ah Sir, if I wanted to be going there, I’d never be starting from here."

The time to start constructing NZ Inc. was in the first few weeks of his administration. And, to be fair to John Key, the Jobs Summit did give every appearance of corporatist intent. True to form, the Council of Trade Unions pitched-in to help. Business NZ, too, made conciliatory noises. It all looked very promising.

Unfortunately, the follow-through just wasn’t there. As the months went by it became increasingly clear that, judging by its deeds, if not by its words, Key’s was just another National Party Government. Tax cuts which overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy; slash and burn tactics in the public service; the imposition of de facto wage freezes; reductions in spending, attacks on welfare-state icons like ACC and subsidised adult education: none of these decisions looked very much like a fair suck of the saveloy.

And then there was the ETS.

If ever there was a need to adopt a NZ Inc. approach to governing the nation it was over the vexed question of climate change. The only equitable way to address the need to dramatically reduce New Zealand’s CO2 emissions was by declaring the issue to be the moral equivalent of war – and demanding commensurate sacrifices from every sector of the economy.

This is not what happened.

The sordid spectacle of the past few weeks: the unconscionable transfer of the cost of fighting climate change from the polluter to the taxpayer; the disgusting horse-trading and pork-barrelling with the now irretrievably compromised Maori Party; the refusal to be guided by the professional opinion of scientists, economists, lawyers and civil servants; and the reckless disregard for intergenerational equity. All have contrived to brand Key’s Government as just another corporate-bailer-outer: just one more neoliberal regime committed to placing the interests of National’s friends ahead of the national interest.

Mussolini’s judgement of classical liberalism could hardly be more apt: "The liberal state is a mask, behind which there is no face; it is a scaffolding, behind which there is no building."

Incorporating all New Zealanders in New Zealand Incorporated is now Labour’s political service – by default.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of 3 December 2009.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Slugfest: Being a fellow traveller of Maori nationalism is no bed of roses - just ask Scott Hamilton.

SERENDIPITY on stilts! If any of Bowalley Road's readers would like to get a taste of the rancour and bitterness that plagued the Left in the early 1980s, I would urge them to check out the commentary thread to Scott Hamilton's posting on Reading the Maps entitled "What Jose Aylwin could teach Chris Trotter". Imagine the bitter exchanges between Scott, "Skyler" and the veteran Maori nationalist, Mike Smith, multiplied a hundred or a thousand times in scores of progressive organisations, and you will get some idea of what those awful years were like.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

What Ariel Dorfman could teach Scott Hamilton

Ariel Dorfman.

ARIEL DORFMAN has long been one of my literary and political heroes. Born in Argentina in 1942, but raised in the United States and Chile, he won an international reputation in the 1960s and 70s for his seminal investigations into popular culture and cultural imperialism. His How to Read Donald Duck and The Empire’s Old Clothes are classics of their kind.

Between 1970 and 1973, Dorfman was cultural adviser to the Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, and only narrowly escaped capture (and almost certain death) at the hands of General Augusto Pinochet’s soldiers in the hours and days immediately following the US-backed coup d’etat against Allende’s Popular Unity government on September 11 1973.

In 1998 Dorfman published his autobiography Heading South, Looking North. A reflection on the fraught relationship between the North and South American continents – and how it has impinged upon his own experience as a man of both hemispheres – Dorfman’s book has much to offer the dedicated student of human affairs, and of revolutionary politics in particular.

Having been thoroughly admonished on the blog Reading the Maps for my moral failure to grasp the historical and cultural centrality of tino rangatiratanga by just such a student, I was further urged to familiarise myself with the work of Professor Jose Aylwin – coincidentally the son of one of the bourgeois Chilean politicians who'd connived in Allende’s bloody overthrow.

Aylwin Jnr. was in New Zealand recently lecturing on the expansion of indigenous peoples’ rights throughout Latin America. Scott Hamilton, my admonisher, clearly thinks Professor Aylwin has much to teach me.

Perhaps. But there was something in the tone of Scott’s critique that put me in mind of something Dorfman writes about in his autobiography.

It is easy, he says, to criticise those who do not share your revolutionary vision of the future; to expose their political vacuity and condemn their moral cowardice; but:

It was difficult, it would take years to understand that what was so exhilarating to us was menacing to those who felt excluded from our vision of paradise. We evaporated them from meaning, we imagined them away in the future, we offered them no alternative but to join us in our pilgrimage or disappear forever, and that vision fuelled, I believe, the primal fear of the men and women who opposed us … [T]he people we called momios, mummies, because they were so conservative, prehistoric, bygone, passé … [W]e ended up including in that definition millions of Chileans who … were on our side, who should have been with us on our journey to the new land and who, instead, came to fear for their safety and their future.

For a great many Pakeha the polemical writings of the Maori nationalists give rise to just such "primal fear". They too feel "evaporated from meaning" and "imagined away in the future" and it kindles within them a deep and dangerous rage at those who would ask them – "tauiwi" – to "disappear forever" from their own land.

And, with all due respect to my admonisher, it is simply facetious to compare the indigenous politics of Morales’ Bolivia with Maori/Pakeha politics in New Zealand. What fuelled the Bolivian revolution were the decades – centuries – of indifference and repression visited upon the indigenous majority by the descendants of the Spanish conquistadors.

The liberation of the Bolivian peoples represents the final triumph of democracy – not indigeneity. Without the unity forged in democratic struggle, the confidence to recognise diversity could not exist. And what is true of Bolivia is also true of Venezuela. Without the emanicipatory consciousness spawned by Chavez’s radical democratic programme, Venezuela’s indigenous minorities would never have been invited to join the revolution.

"Pluri-national" states may or may not prove to be durable artefacts of the revolutionary upheavals currently sweeping Latin America (history suggests that the drive toward the creation of unitary states is extremely difficult to reverse) but I foresee nothing but disaster if such a solution is ever seriously attempted in New Zealand.

Pakeha New Zealanders have not yet become the hollowed-out momios that Dorfman and his comrades took such delight in mocking forty years ago. New Zealand nationhood has substance.

Scott and his friends should take to heart the terrible lesson in blood and suffering that Ariel Dorfman and all the other revolutionaries who attempted to imagine the Chilean bourgeoisie out of their country’s future were forced to learn back in 1973.

We either enter paradise together – or we do not get there at all.