Friday, 29 January 2010

The Power of One

Power to the People: There will always be situations in which the collective needs of society must over-rule the personal preferences of the individual.

SO, IT HAS come to this? Seventy thousand people can be seriously inconvenienced because one individual is determined to assert his "rights".

The National Grid Emergency which Transpower was forced to declare on Tuesday evening would never have happened had Mr Steve Meier behaved like any other reasonable citizen over whose property power-cables carrying vital electrical energy to New Zealand’s largest city are strung.

For months now, Transpower has been attempting to gain access to Mr Meier’s land. According to Chief Executive, Patrick Strange, numerous letters seeking his co-operation in keeping the crucial power-cables clear of foliage have been sent to his Waikato address – without success.

And even when Transpower’s worst fears were realised – an electrical arc igniting a stand of trees located directly beneath the cables – it required the intervention of armed police to get Transpower’s linesmen up to the site.

Thirty years ago, the behaviour of Mr Meier would have been universally condemned. In 1980 New Zealanders understood that citizenship confers not only rights, but also responsibilities, and that there will always be situations in which the collective needs of society must over-rule the personal preferences of the individual.

Thirty years ago, anyone who deliberately obstructed the necessary maintenance of the country’s National Grid would have attracted a mixture of anger and derision. And someone who’d refused to help the authorities put an end to a National Grid Emergency? Well, they’d have been dismissed as either very bad, very mad, or both.

How things have changed. On Wednesday morning I awoke to hear Radio New Zealand – National’s Sean Plunket repeating Mr Meier’s angry denunciation of Transpower as though it was – to quote the Minister of Energy, Gerry Brownlee – "the Gospel truth". To my utter astonishment, Mr Plunket was framing the story as a David and Goliath struggle between a bullying, state-owned behemoth (Transpower) and a plucky – if somewhat "grumpy" – Waikato cockey (Mr Meier).

The use of the word "grumpy" I found particularly galling. In using it do describe the behaviour of a man against whom Transpower’s linesmen were unwilling to proceed without armed Police protection, Mr Plunket must have known he was affording Mr Meier priceless rhetorical protection. The word "grumpy", unlike its synonyms – sullen, testy, irritable – has an almost affectionate quality to it. Just think of the "Grumpy" character in Walt Disney’s Snow White: sure, he’s acerbic and irascible, but underneath that bluff exterior beats a heart of pure gold.

But, experienced linesmen: workers who dangle tens-of-metres above the ground; men who regularly repair machinery capable of reducing them to a blackened corpse in a split-second; are not afraid of "grumpy" farmers.

In using the word "grumpy" Mr Plunket was deliberately minimising the threat – real or imagined – which Mr Meier clearly represented to those who were required to deal with him face-to-face.

But Mr Plunket wasn’t the only public figure taking Mr Meier’s side against Transpower and its CEO. The Mayor of Auckland, John Banks, unleashed a long (and mostly erroneous) catalogue of accusations against Mr Strange and the SOE.

One can only suppose that, with the Auckland "super-city" elections looming, Mr Banks saw considerable political capital to be made by charging-off down the populist road.

As one of his potential electors, however, I have to say that I was unconvinced – especially when he appeared to suggest that Transpower was at fault for not using its vast wealth and top-flight lawyers to simply make Mr Meier and his legal claims "go away".

Are we to take from this remark that an Auckland led by Mr Bank’s will willingly pay-off anyone lucky enough to have his city over a strategic barrel – and ruthless enough to demand a ransom for allowing it to go about its lawful business? I hope not.

That such a question can even be posed, however, shows how very far we have sunk as a society. Where the whole concept of the Common Good can be heedlessly cast as some sort of overbearing ogre; and where the individual – regardless of his or her behaviour – is always the hero; we are perilously close to passing the point-of-no-return.

Beyond that point lies Margaret Thatcher’s world. The world to which our neoliberal political class has been driving us for the past thirty years. A world, where "there’s no such thing as society – only individuals and families".

And darkness.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 29 January 2010.

Getting the Inside Out

Time to turn Labour Inside Out: In a challenging blog-post, Labour Policy Councillor, Jordan Carter (above) offers a way out of the party’s ideological stalemate.

"WHAT LABOUR MUST DO", says Labour’s influential Policy Council member, Jordan Carter, in a 17 January posting on the blogsite Just Left, is "turn itself inside out."

"For better or worse," says Carter, "the fifth Labour government was a baby boomer government. The political methods of the 70s and 80s were those which ran it: it was tightly managed and focused. I get the sense though that people are looking now for something a little different. Some in Labour look at Key’s hands-off approach and see a weakness. I see a strength. The rise of ICT, the end of ‘deference’ towards authority, and growing generations of people who are as comfortable online as offline mean that a political party that is centralised and top down cannot really capture the public imagination."

This is a challenge of no mean measure – not only to the Labour leader, Phil Goff (a classic representative of the "baby boomer" generation) but also to the top-down style of governance perfected by and inherited from Helen Clark. It follows, and provides a measure of ideological cover to the open Caucus rebuke which Wellington Central MP, Grant Robertson, and Party President, Andrew Little, delivered to Goff following his controversial "Nationhood" speech to Grey Power Palmerston North on 26 November 2009.

Robertson’s and Little’s warning shots across Goff’s bow were generally interpreted as proof that any serious attempt to divert Labour down the path of social conservatism will be strenuously resisted. In reality, all that the knee-jerk reaction of the party’s social-liberal wing confirmed was that the debilitating intellectual lock-down of the Clark years has yet to be lifted.

Like that eerie rock video from the mid-90s, in which an ethereal young woman moves through city streets holding high a placard saying: "Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt", the social-liberals’ hair-trigger sensitivity to the slightest philosophical challenge reveals a political party that is not only fresh out of ideas, but frightened of finding new ones.

It is this debilitating ideological stalemate that Carter’s gutsy posting seeks to address:

"What Labour must do is turn itself inside out … we also have to invite people in to join with us and help shape what we are doing next … We need to be the party that people see as grassroots based, and where they know that if they want to raise an issue or a concern, it will filter through to what our policy is …We have to do this if we are to be relevant, and if we want to win there is nothing more important than being relevant."

But, is Carter’s call for Labour to radically democratise itself a serious one? Because, historically-speaking, it was the ten years of democratic radicalisation between the election of Jim Anderton as Labour Party President in 1979 and the split which gave birth to his New Labour Party in 1989 that led to the "centralised and top-down" political machine Carter is now urging his party to move beyond?

There is no disputing the sense of openness and excitement which Anderton’s five-year tenure in the presidency brought to the party. Membership swelled, conferences grew livelier and more assertive, and the policies which "filtered through" to Labour’s Policy Council demanded increasingly radical social and economic changes.

The irony, of course, was that as Labour’s rank-and-file were moving steadily to the Left, the Parliamentary Labour Party was moving steadily to the Right. The unleashing of "Rogernomics" in 1984 ignited a firestorm of opposition within Labour’s organisational wing that engulfed – and eventually divided – the whole party.

Carter is too young to remember what a radically democratised Labour Party looks like: the regional conferences where hundreds of delegates passionately argued their case as the media waited outside; the annual conferences where long queues of speakers lined up behind the microphones to debate contentious remits in the full glare of the television lights; and where non-MPs like Margaret Wilson, Rob Campbell, Rex Jones and Pat Kelly became household names.

To rebuild such a party, Carter and his comrades would first have to re-draft Labour’s current constitution: a product not of the 70s and 80s but of the "new managerialist" 90s; and purpose-built to de-fang and demobilise the party’s rank-and-file. The committee- and workshop-based structures, in which the MPs and their hand-picked "voices of moderation" hold sway, would need to make way for the raucous plenary democracy of the conference floor, and the ability of Policy Councillors (like Carter himself) to rip the radical guts out of rank-and-file remits long before they reach that conference floor, curtailed.

And, as if these changes aren’t dangerous enough, Labour would also need to increase its membership by a factor of at least five: actively recruiting a new generation of young New Zealanders every bit as bolshie as their parents and grandparents, but armed, in the 21st Century, with all the anarchic potential of the Internet – from organising websites and personal blogs, to Facebook and Twitter.

Such an influx of new members – most of them gloriously unaltered by the neutering experience of the party’s university branches – would instantly put a great many of Labour’s existing members’ noses out of joint. As would any attempt to reassert the rights of the Party over those of its parliamentary wing.

That said, Carter’s formula for reinvigorating Labour’s "brand" would definitely "work". And, pretty soon, "relevancy" would be the least of his problems!

The full-scale democratisation of a mainstream political organisation in the age of the Internet has the potential to revolutionise the practice of democracy – as Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the White House, and the Republican "Tea-Baggers" counter-attack – have so dramatically illustrated. For the first time in 70 years, ordinary citizens possess the means to stage a successful end-run around the traditional gate-keepers of national politics: party bosses and the news media.

If that’s the sort of change Labour’s up-and-comers really are looking for, then here’s a test. Throw all the party’s organisational resources behind the Unite trade union’s petition for a Citizen’s Initiated Referendum to lift the Minimum Wage to $15.00 per hour – and shame Labour’s MPs into leading the charge.

The Unite campaign offers vast potential for Goff and his caucus to demonstrate "the statecraft of the party". It might not turn Labour "inside out" – but it would at least get the insiders out on the street.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of 28 January 2010.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Justifying Progressive Taxation

About time Atlas shrugged? The creator of this 19th Century political cartoon had no difficulty in identifying who carries who in capitalist society. Ayn Rand notwithstanding, it is the countless millions of proletarian Atlases who prevent Capitalism's world from sinking. Progressive taxation is the price the capitalists' pay for keeping their feet dry.

IT’S ALREADY BEGUN – the wealthiest New Zealanders and their hired guns are already laying down a curtain of covering fire for what looks like being the most inequitable Budget since 1991. The report of the hand-picked Tax Working Group has already (and very predictably) recommended a reduction in the top marginal tax rate from 38 to 30 percent – to be paid for by an increase in the rate of GST from 12.5 to 15 percent. And to head-off the inevitable protests from the Left, the editors, journalists and columnists of the Right are already casting (here and here) the objections of the nation’s "progressives" as manifestations of "the politics of envy" and plain, old-fashioned class hostility.

And they’re winning.

Most left-wingers simply assume that "progressive taxation" – the more income you receive, the more tax you must pay – requires little or nothing in the way of economic or philosophical justification. It is simply presented as "a good thing" – like Motherhood and Apple Pie. If its defenders feel at all obliged to justify the fact that 44 percent of income tax receipts are extracted from just 10 percent of the tax-paying population, they do so by pointing out that this same group of taxpayers controls more than half the nation’s wealth. If their incomes weren’t redistributed by means of progressive taxation, the say, our society would rapidly become even more unequal than it is at present.

But, once again, the Left is assuming that everybody, like themselves, looks upon inequality as "a bad thing" – something which, if it can’t be entirely eliminated, must be ameliorated to the maximum extent possible.

But is this true? Do the wealthiest layers of our society, and those who aspire to join their ranks, really believe all human-beings are equal? Or that our society should be organised to give every one in it "a fair go"?

In my opinion, the answer to that question is: "No – they don’t." Reading the columns and blogs of the Right’s leading apologists, I get the distinct impression that the doctrines of Social Darwinism command a considerable following in this country. Just consider the reaction elicited by Social Welfare Minister, Paula Bennett, whenever she exposes the worst excesses of the beneficiary class. Think about the widespread support for Anne Tolley’s campaign to impose a test-based "standards" regime on our educational system – a policy which the upper and middle classes instinctively recognise as likely to rebound to their social and economic advantage.

No. I don’t think all New Zealanders view inequality as "a bad thing". Not at all. Not by a long shot.

The Left needs to ask itself how the notion of "the more you earn, the more you pay" ever got established. How were the upper and middle classes of modern capitalist societies ever persuaded to go along with fiscal policies so manifestly designed to limit both their wealth and their power?

The answers might surprise them.

For a start there was the enormous moral and social force of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religious traditions. The Jewish prophets reserved their most devastating condemnations for those who refused to share their wealth with the poor; who "ground the faces of the widows and orphans". Jesus famously declared that it was "easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven". Philanthropy was similarly mandated by the Prophet Mohammed – all Muslims are required to contribute to the maintenance of the poor.

In an irreligious age, and in a nation as secularised as New Zealand, it is easy to forget that, in the past, conformity with these moral precepts was a condition for the salvation of one’s immortal soul. Jewish, Christian and Islamic culture expected people to turn over a significant portion of their wealth to their less fortunate brethren. After all, to see oneself as a child of God more or less mandates a belief in equality and fraternity: if God is our father, then we are all brothers and sisters.

These fundamentally religious precepts flowed naturally into the secular faiths of democracy and socialism.

The French Revolution struck down the notion that inherited privilege had any legitimate role to play in the modern age. The new capitalist wealth, however, was earned. In stark contrast to the wealth of the aristocracy, argued the bourgeois revolutionaries, the capitalist’s profits were the product of individual wit and energy and, therefore, manifestations of democracy.

Classical Marxism dispelled this notion with a vengeance, imbuing wealth with the same moral taint as the teachings of Jesus, Mohammed and the Old Testament prophets. According to Das Kapital, the capitalists appropriated the "surplus value" of their worker’s labour in the form of profit – exploiting the new industrial proletariat no less ruthlessly than their predecessors, the feudal landlords, had exploited their serfs.

The progressive income tax was simply "social democracy’s" means of clawing back the proletariat’s pilfered sweat and talent. Not for nothing was the second of Marx & Engels’ ten demands in The Communist Manifesto: "A heavy progressive or graduated income tax".

The Right, at least, recognises the revolutionary political, social and economic objectives behind the institution of progressive taxation, even as it rejects and denies the religious and/or ethical justifications for its imposition.

In the months ahead, New Zealand’s left-wingers will have to learn once again what their parents and grandparents came to grasp only after long struggle and bitter experience: that equality and social justice are never simply given; they must be fought for – and won. 

Friday, 22 January 2010

Bonnie King Billy

Sucession Planning: Skipping a generation and proclaiming Prince William the next King of New Zealand is the Kiwi monarchists' best bet when it comes to preserving the institution in this country. Can't be done? Of course it can! Just take a look at English history.

WHY NOT KING BILLY? Seriously. It would make the monarchy interesting again – and God knows it needs it!

The alternative is Keith Locke’s worthy (but dull) Head-of-State Referenda Bill, which, if it becomes law, will almost certainly deliver some worthy (but dull) former judge or prime minister (Dame Sylvia Cartwright. Jim Bolger? Helen Clark!) as New Zealand’s first president.

No, if the monarchists are serious about preserving our current constitutional monarchy, HRH Prince William is their best bet.

Now before you all object that we have to endure King Charles III before we can enjoy King William V, let me just say this: Bollocks!

Strict succession has never been the English way. In fact it’s probably not drawing too long a bow (as the popular British historian, David Starkey, has done already) to suggest that the kings and queens of England have always governed by the consent of the English people.

It is certainly true that those who have attempted to rule the English without first obtaining their assent have not had an easy time of it. Duke William of Normandy (not unreasonably known as "The Bastard") was shrewd enough to realise that, his victory over King Harold at Hastings notwithstanding, he wouldn’t be able to govern England effectively without first getting the thumbs up from the English themselves. This they duly gave (no doubt with one eye on those sharp Norman spears).

King William I’s grand-daughter, Matilda, on the other hand, tried to assume the throne without the people’s assent, and learned the hard way that it’s always polite to ask first. Her cousin, Stephen, did just that – and became King.

England’s disdain for the strict rules of succession were again on display with the accession of King William III – who was a Dutchman. The "rightful" monarch of England was the Scotsman, James Stuart – younger brother of the late King Charles II.

Now, given the fate of James’s dad (whose failure to properly grasp this popular consent business left him shorter by a head) and the political caution of his brother, one might have expected James to pull his head in a bit. When he failed to do so, the English staged what they called "The Glorious Revolution of 1688" and called in James’s sister Mary, and her husband, William of Orange – the original King Billy, saviour of Protestant Ireland – to fill the vacancy.

The truth of the matter is that the English have never been content to suffer bad kings either gracefully, or for long. King Edward II, for example, who struck both the nobility of England (and his randy French wife, Isabella) as having a personality that was (how to put this delicately?) a little too – artistic – was forced (mostly by Isabella’s ambitious boyfriend, Mortimer) to abdicate in favour of his son.

Poor old Richard II (another "artistic" king) was deposed by his cousin, the rip-snorting Henry Bolingbroke. A similar fate overtook Henry VI, Edward V and, of course, the horse-less Richard III.

The last king called William (known by one and all as "Silly Billy") very nearly brought the English monarchy to an end. Had it not been for the star quality of his niece , Victoria, and the political savvy of her German husband, Albert, Great Britain might well have become a republic about the same time New Zealand became a colony.

So, you see, there is really no reason why, in the Realm of New Zealand, we shouldn’t take a leaf out of the Realm of England’s historical play-book and simply inform Prince Charles that his services here, as King, will not be required, and that, upon the death of his dear old Mum, he must relinquish his New Zealand throne in favour of his son, William. In fact, if the English themselves have got any sense (and we’ve seen that they do) that’s exactly what they will demand.

Flipping steaks on the barbie, and sucking down a few cool ones under Godzone’s searing summer skies, sounds lots more fun than enduring forty more dreary English winters waiting for Daddy to pop his clogs.

So come on Prime Minister, introduce your own "Royal Succession Bill" and turn HRH Prince William into our very own "King Billy".

If he refuses his antipodean subjects, he’ll be effectively declaring the New Zealand Republic.

President Helen Clark – anyone?

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, 22 January 2010.

Keeping the Peace

The Perfect Protest Recipe: Multiple arrests outside the ASB Classic Tournament, where Israeli tennis professional, Shahar Peer, was playing, guaranteed maximum publicity for the Palestinian cause. But surely, when a protest's entire political effectiveness turns on breaching the Queen’s Peace, one can hardly complain when her officers move in to restore it?

THE ARREST in early January of eight citizens protesting against the participation of Shahar Peer, an Israeli tennis professional, in the ASB Classic Tournament raises some interesting questions about both the legal and moral obligations of protesters and police.

Video clips taken at the scene confirm that the arrests were made under Section 42 of the Crimes Act – which mandates both ordinary citizens and police officers to restrain anyone in the commission of – or about to commit – a "breach of the peace". (The eight arrested were later charged with disorderly behaviour and obstruction.)

Putting to one side these eight cases, now sub judice, the legal interface between a citizen’s right to engage in political protest and his or her duty to "keep the peace" warrants closer scrutiny.

Historically, a breach of the peace "can arise from virtually any conduct which caused or (can generally be regarded as likely to cause) either alarm, annoyance, upset or embarrassment to another person or persons." Rather alarmingly, the British legal commentator, L.J.G. Emslie observes that: "There is no limit to the kind of conduct which may give rise to a charge of breach of the peace."

This almost unlimited discretion is explained by the fact that the charge is neither a criminal nor a civil offence but a "legal oddity created by the Royal Prerogative". It’s a concept whose origins go all the way back to the reigns of King Henry II and King Edward I – both of whom assumed power following a civil war.

The "King’s Peace" stood in vivid contrast to the violence, disorder and general lawlessness prevailing in those parts of 12th Century England where the royal writ did not run. Where ordinary people could be assaulted, abducted, raped, robbed, enslaved and even murdered without hope of rescue or redress, there was, understandably, a strong desire for someone – anyone – to impose order.

Unfortunately, the "order" imposed was all-too-often that of the local feudal lord. (A bit like having Tony Soprano as your local police chief!) What made the "King’s Peace" so important was that, theoretically, it applied to all his subjects – the high and mighty, as well as the poor and lowly.

The King’s Peace was thus akin to a peace treaty ending a war. The former belligerents all agreed to end hostilities, and their rights and duties in the new order were clearly spelled out. Most importantly, having agreed to the "treaty" and accepted its protocols, every subject was expected to honour it.

To make certain that hostilities were not recommenced in his absence, the King appointed "Knights of the Peace" – later renamed "Justices of the Peace". From the perspective of these peace-keepers (the medieval equivalent of our modern day police force) any group of subjects attempting unilaterally to infringe the rights of another group of subjects was guilty of breaking the "treaty" – or, "breaching the peace".

As agents of the Crown, the King’s peace-keepers were institutionally predisposed to regard any form of political activity as a direct challenge to the Royal Prerogative. Modern police forces tend to react in exactly the same way – regarding all but the most inoffensive manifestations of political behaviour as breaches of the social contract which allows citizens to go about their lawful business without let or hindrance.

This explains why the Police react so forcefully to protests, such as the series of demonstrations outside the ASB Tennis Centre, which are intended to impede the lawful pursuits of other New Zealanders (in this case by diminishing their enjoyment of an international tennis tournament). In the eyes of the Police, such demonstrations are inimical to everything the "Queen’s Peace" is intended to preserve.

Few aspects of human behaviour are as likely to arouse powerful emotions as politics, which is why the Police must be especially careful to prevent situations developing where people become angry enough to initiate violence against their political opponents. The incident in 1981, when protesters effectively halted the rugby match between the Springboks and Waikato, offers a sobering example. In the hours following the game’s cancellation ugly scenes of violence erupted all over Hamilton.

Nor is this a purely ethical consideration. Since one of the fundamental duties of the Crown is to preserve the peace, any failure to do so renders it not only morally but legally liable for any and all damages arising from its breach. It is this consideration which explains the powerful historical association between "breach of the peace" actions and instances of "riot and affray".

So, where does this leave those citizens who feel so strongly about an issue that they are willing to abrogate the "social contract" which allows us all to get along with one another without resorting to violence and/or intimidation? The classic answer is very clear. Those who engage in "civil disobedience" by intentionally breaking the law and/or negating the rights of their fellow citizens must be willing to bear the consequences.

In the case of the Shahar Peer protests, the demonstrators were deliberately interfering with both the player’s and the spectators’ right to participate in and enjoy a tennis tournament. Their purpose in doing so was to draw public attention to the manifest injustices suffered by the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli State. The moral right of an oppressed people to be given justice, they argued, superseded the legal right of New Zealanders to enjoy a tennis match without interruption.

But the Police, if they are to be fair to all those New Zealanders who have (metaphorically) signed the "treaty" requiring the universal and unequivocal observance of Statute Law, cannot accept this. No group (however loftily motivated) can be permitted to arbitrarily limit the rights of their fellow citizens with impunity. If they were, what reason would other groups have for keeping the peace?

The only way disruptive protesters can escape the charge of having "double standards" is by willingly accepting the consequences of their actions. The anti-Peer protesters rejected the option of using exclusively visual means to make their point, insisting that their protest had to be loud enough to put the case for the young Israeli’s non-participation before the spectators.

But surely, if the entire political effectiveness of your protest turns on successfully breaching the Queen’s Peace, then it ill-behooves you to complain when her officers move in to restore it?

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 21 January 2010.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Epic Fail

The sharp end of Japanese Foreign Policy: The Japanese whaling fleet's security ship Shonan Maru No. 2 deliberately rams the New Zealand boat Ady Gil in the waters off Antarctica. New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully's response? He accuses the protesters of wanting to kill people!

JAMMER looks like he should stink to high heaven – but he doesn’t. At least, not in a bad way. Those brown dreadlocks piled high behind his head, like he’s carrying a furry octopus up there, exude a resinous, piney-wood scent (special oils, apparently) which is actually rather pleasant. And his gypsy wardrobe, which looks like it’s been assembled at random in the nearest Salvation Army store, carries the reassuring aroma of Sunlight soap and Janola.

With Jammer, appearances can be deceptive.

"’S’up?" He asks as he slumps down at my table.

"Not a lot", I reply. "How about you? Keeping out of trouble?"


Jammer lifts a squat bottle of Australian ginger-beer in mock salute to "trouble".

"Let me guess," I say, raising my own glass of pinot in reply, "Stanley Street? Shahar Peer?"

"Nope. Palestine was last week. I’ve just come from the Japanese Consulate."

"Ah", I shake my head in what I hope is an appropriately sympathetic fashion. "Bad business."

"Business is right", says Jammer. "And what’s with this dude McCully? A New Zealand boat is rammed by the Japanese whalers’ attack-ship, a bunch of people are nearly drowned, and our Foreign Affairs Minister goes on National Radio and accuses the anti-whaling protesters of sailing down to Antarctica to kill people. I mean, that is just so fucked-up. So wrong. You know all these politicians, Chris. What’s the guy into?"

The emphasis which Jammer lays on "into" communicates a world of youthful disdain.

"You’ve got to understand where McCully and his colleagues are coming from, Jammer. What they’re trying to achieve."

"What? Earn a few brownie-points with the Japanese? Keep our trading partners happy? That sort of thing?"

"Actually, no, I don’t think that’s what’s driving McCully at all. From a short-term political perspective, his indifference to what is taking place in the waters off Antarctica is doing the National-led Government a lot of damage. And he’s far too well-versed in the dark arts of public relations not to know it. Sure, Japan’s an important trading partner of New Zealand – but with the rest of the world as pissed-off with the Japanese as we are, there was nothing to be gained, and a lot of public support to be lost, by down-playing this country’s opposition to ‘scientific’ whaling."

"So why all the aggro towards the Sea Shepherds? Why the refusal to speak out against the sinking of the Ady Gil?"

"Well, partly it’s just McCully’s Tory reflexes kicking-in. As you and John Minto discovered last week, conservative New Zealand still has no great love for protesters."

"Yeah! Did you see all those comments on John’s blog? Five hundred of them! People just don’t get it, do they?"

"Nope, they don’t. And believe me, Jammer, they were just the same at the beginning of the anti-apartheid movement fifty years ago. And that, really, is the point. It’s that very Kiwi impulse to come out in support of the under-dog; to stand up and be counted in the face of injustice – even if it pisses-off the French and the Rugby Union, like Norman Kirk did; or the Americans, like David Lange and Helen Clark did – that McCully’s out to eradicate."

"No way!"

"Yep, I’m afraid so. National has always hated the way progressive and idealistic New Zealanders have hauled this country kicking and screaming onto the moral high-ground. It’s always detested, and done its best to douse, the beacon fires of principle we’ve lit there for all the world to see. As Foreign Minister, McCully wants New Zealand to become a follower – not a leader. He wants to show the big powers, America and China in particular, that we’ve finally abandoned our troublesome predilections for standing-up and being counted. He means to show the world that, henceforth, New Zealand will be only too happy to take things lying-down – and count for nothing.

"So that’s why, for the first time in 10 years, this country wasn’t represented at the International Whaling Commission by a Cabinet Minister?"

"Yep. And it also explains why we’ve got the SAS in Afghanistan, and why we hardly said boo to a greenhouse-gas-emitting goose at Copenhagen."

"And why the cops were so bloody heavy-handed with us outside the tennis?"

I nod. Jammer puts down his ginger-beer, shaking his dreadlocks sadly.

"Epic fail, dude" he sighs. "Epic fail."

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 15 January 2010. 

Friday, 8 January 2010

Holiday Message

Ideological Statement: Imposing a "public holiday" surcharge on cafe customers is a political - not a commercial - decision.

IT’S the little things that tell the larger stories; the details which make up the big picture.

How many times over the holiday period have you seen those irritating notices posted on the doors and windows of restaurants and cafes, informing you that a 15-20 percent "surcharge" will be added to your purchases because of the Holidays Act?

I don’t know about you, but whenever I see such a notice, I turn on my heel and go in search of an alternative eatery. According to the vast majority of restaurateurs and cafe-owners who don’t impose these surcharges, it’s what most people do.

So, what’s the point? Why post these notices; why go to the trouble and expense of printing up a special menu; if, as likely as not, all it does is drive potential customers out of your establishment and into one of your competitors? Does the surcharge cover the cost of your lost trade? Probably not. Does it contribute to your enterprise’s store of goodwill? Definitely not. So, why do it?

The answer, of course, is ideological. It’s all about politics.

The intelligent - and economically rational - course of action for any proprietor operating in the hospitality industry is obvious. The entirely predictable cost of hiring workers to operate a business on statutory holidays can be very simply factored into its overall cost structure, and recovered over the course of the financial year.

But, if one’s principal objective is to make an ideological statement, then absorbing the extra cost of operating during the holiday season is entirely the wrong way to go.

You want people to think about the payment of time-and-a-half to your employees. You want people to question the necessity of giving them a day-in-lieu for working on a public holiday. Making them pay an extra 15-20 percent for their Eggs Benedict and Flat White is your way of making them share your anger. You want them to fuss and grumble while they’re waiting for their order - and scowl at the waitress when she delivers it.

But to what purpose?

Simple. You wish to make it clear to your customers that, as far as you’re concerned, how much your employees are paid, their conditions of employment, and the number of hours they’re contracted to work are matters to be negotiated between you and them - and nobody else.

You want your customers to know exactly how you feel about the state sticking its nose into what, for you, is a private business relationship. The cost of labour, and the terms and conditions under which it is bought and sold is something for market participants to decide - not politicians.

And that’s what the surcharge achieves: it registers how deeply the hospitality industry resents this sort of heavy-handed government intervention in the operation of private business enterprises. If it requires a little lost trade to make the point - then so be it.

There are, of course, two things very wrong with this picture.

The first is that, in spite of all the protestations to the contrary by laissez-faire capitalist economists, the employment relationship is not an equal one.

People do not sell their labour unless they have to. Most of the things we do - from cooking the evening meal to reading our children a bedtime story - are done without thought of payment. We engage in paid labour only in order to live. Which is why those with the power to offer or withhold paid employment always enjoy an advantage over those who come asking for a wage.

The second thing is that, in the hospitality industry’s picture, human-beings become means to an end - mere instruments of its will. People are torn from their social context and stripped of every human attribute not immediately useful to their employer. They’re no longer members of families. The lives they lead outside working-hours count for nothing. They’re just units of labour: expendable, interchangeable, and worth only what the market dictates.

A world in which people become means, rather than ends, is a world become suddenly unsafe for everything that contributes to a truly human civilisation.

Those who give notice of a holiday surcharge might as well hoist the plague-flag above their business. Their greed has become a sickness.

Take care not to become infected - stay away.

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, 8 January 2010.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Reality Check

Saving Capitalism from itself: The global economy was rescued not by the actions of private individuals and corporations, but by the collective wealth of the planet's peoples.

SO, THAT WAS 2009? A peculiar year – both here in New Zealand and around the world. A year in which the economic and social theories which have governed our lives for the past quarter-century continued to hold sway, even though their fundamental premises were daily contradicted by reality.

A year of denial, then, for local and global elites. And, because elite opinion – undivided and unchallenged – is transferred to us by an increasingly under-resourced news media, a year in which the ordinary person’s grasp of what is actually happening "out there" has become correspondingly tenuous.

For the world’s neoliberals 2009 has also been a very confusing year. Why? Because politicians in the world’s leading financial and industrial powers – the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France and Britain – only succeeded in rescuing the capitalist system by adopting precisely those economic strategies which neoliberalism has consistently denounced: massive state intervention; printing money; and running-up colossal deficits.

It was precisely the failure of 1930s politicians to adopt such remedies that plunged the world into the Great Depression. Neoliberals, however, have long argued that it was President Franklin Roosevelt’s economic interventions and his administration’s deficit-spending that turned a momentary market "correction" into a world-wide slump.

Reviewing the events of 2007-2009, however, it’s crystal clear that only the timely and virtually unlimited underwriting of the international financial system by the world’s most powerful nation-states prevented its utter collapse; and only the unstinting expenditure of trillions of Dollars, Yuan, Euros and Yen has averted another Great Depression.

In other words: we have been saved not by the actions of private individuals and corporations, but by the collective wealth of the planet’s peoples; and that, when it comes to making intelligent economic decisions, the performance of the world’s politicians and bureaucrats has proved to be far superior to that of its business leaders.

These brute facts should be transforming the way the world is run – but they’re not. In spite of the crisis of the past two years being almost entirely attributable to the greed and recklessness of capitalism’s "best and brightest", the message promulgated by the world’s elites is unequivocal: this is the best of all possible worlds; no change is necessary; business as usual.

It’s the unceasing reiteration of these extraordinarily dangerous – because utterly false – reassurances that explains the unprecedented popularity of John Key’s Government.

It can’t last, of course.

The world’s leading nation states must rebuild their revenues, and quickly, or their own financial situation will become as untenable as Lehman Brothers’.

In the past (to underwrite the extraordinary expenditures required during World War II, for example) this was accomplished by imposing higher taxes on the nation’s wealthiest individuals and corporations and by encouraging ordinary citizens to save more.

In the current climate, however, such a solution is unlikely. After all, it was the roll-back and ultimate elimination of precisely these kinds of social-democratic interventions that neoliberalism was devised to accomplish.

The alternative approach involves governments restoring their financial stability by imposing swingeing cuts in public spending, reducing the wages of public employees, and making the whole population pay higher taxes.

This is exactly the solution which the leading credit-rating agencies (yes, the very same agencies whose triple-A rating of manifestly deficient credit instruments fuelled the global financial crisis) are asking the world’s politicians to impose upon their peoples. It’s the "solution" America’s ruling elites expect President Barack Obama to impose on the American people, and it’s almost certainly what Mr Key and Finance Minister, Bill English, have planned for New Zealanders in 2010.

Worse still, it looks increasingly likely that the National-led Government will be prevailed upon to slash the top marginal income-tax rate from 38 to 30 percent – even as it raises the rate of GST from 12.5 to 15 percent. This will, of course, confer a huge windfall upon the country’s wealthiest citizens, while lowering still further the already declining incomes of its poorest.

The result will be another, much sharper, economic contraction: higher unemployment; rising poverty; and decreasing social cohesion. And, even though they’ve just persuaded the Government to intervene decisively on behalf the wealthy, the neoliberals will insist that the poor be left to fend for themselves.

Amazingly, as 2009 draws to its close, most New Zealanders are anticipating none of this.

"Happy New Year!" we cry.

It won’t be.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 1 January 2010.