Saturday, 27 February 2010

Support Radio New Zealand Rally

Support Radio New Zealand!
Come to the Rally on Monday, 1st March
12:30pm - 1:30pm
Outside Radio New Zealand House
171 Hobson St, Auckland.

The Government appear hell bent on driving Radio NZ into the ground. This simply cannot be allowed to happen. Radio NZ is the last true provider of public service broadcasting in NZ. Show your support for RNZ by joining other Save Radio New Zealand fans for a protest outside RNZ House on Monday.

Generate as much publicity as you can, bring your friends, families, colleagues and acquaintances (especially if they work in the media!!!) Tell everybody you know between now and then. Share this invitation on your facebook page and invite all your friends.

The idea is to bring lots of little portable radios for tuning in to RNZ National.

Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman is already starting to feel the pressure from the public over his silly move to undermine Radio NZ. His caucus colleagues are fielding loads of emails from disgruntled constituents and the tough questions are starting to be asked over his handling of this issue.

To keep the pressure on Coleman we need a good turn out at Radio New Zealand House 171 Hobson St Auckland City on Monday. We hope we have timed this gathering to coincide with lunchtimes for most city workers.We do not want to alienate other members of the public so we want to see a polite and pleasant crowd turn up. We mustn't interfere with vehicular or foot traffic in Hobson Street. Bring placards, use some of the ideas on the Save Radio New Zealand fan page

If you can get hold of one of the elusive T-shirts, wear it!


Friday, 26 February 2010

Bad Bargains

A different kind of wealth: Aquatic ecologist, Zeb Hogan, thigh-deep in the pristine headwaters of Mongolia's Eg River, holds a juvenile specimen of the rare Taimen - the world's largest species of trout. Several hundred miles to the south, huge gold-mining dredges are extracting a fortune from - and laying waste to - Mongolia's wild rivers. Is New Zealand's National-led Government about to make the same bad bargain as its Mongolian counterpart - trading the environmental integrity of our pristine wilderness for the mineral wealth that it contains?

THE EXPRESSION on the face of aquatic ecologist, Zeb Hogan, said it all. The host of the National Geographic Channel’s television series, Monster Fish, had been chasing the elusive taimen – the world's largest species of trout – in the pristine headwaters of Mongolia’s Eg River, and now he was confronting a vast alluvial gold mining operation on the Urr River – many miles to the south.

A huge machine – three of four stories high – had dug its metallic snout into the earth along the river’s banks. Using its waters to wash the rock, shingle, sand and soil away from the precious gold, the colossal contraption then spewed the tailings back on to the ravaged countryside. Hectares of black sand and shingle marked the passage of this behemoth. Zeb surveyed the damage in grim silence – letting the images speak for themselves.

A fellow of the World Wildlife Fund, Zeb had been working with the Mongolian Government to protect the taimen. By charging wealthy US fisherman $US5000 for a chance to catch and release these extraordinary fish, eco-tourist entrepreneurs were offering Mongolians living along the Eg the opportunity to do well by doing good.

Can the Eg and its massive (up to 2 metres long) trout be saved?

It’s a slim hope.

As of 2005 there were 135 alluvial gold mines operating across Mongolia. Lured by the prospect of massive direct foreign investment (Mongolians sit upon vast deposits of coal and fluorite as well as gold) their Government, like so many of its counterparts in the Developing World, has been eager to profit from the industrialised countries’ insatiable demand for minerals.

Still, the mining of Mongolia’s pristine rivers, and the threat posed to rare species like the taimen, are both very remote from New Zealand. What has Zeb Hogan and his monster trout to do with us?

More than you might think.

Thanks to The Standard blogsite (whose contributors have been doing a little digging into our MPs’ Register of Pecuniary Interests) it’s been revealed that our Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully, owns shares in a company called Widespread Portfolios which, according to its website, has an investment in King Solomon Mines Ltd – a company exploring for gold in Chinese Inner Mongolia.

Widespread Portfolios – described as a "mining sector venture capital investor" – also has a stake in a number of New Zealand-based mineral prospecting operations.

All well and good. Providing such investments are properly registered by our representatives, there’s surely no reason to worry?

And yet, I cannot help but worry that New Zealand, deeply enmeshed in the global economy, and financially dependent upon the generosity of financiers and industrialists eager to lay their hands on what remains of our nation’s untapped natural resources, might feel as obliged to respond to "economic realities" as Mongolia.

As someone who’s had (and as far as we know retains) a financial stake in the quest for those resources, Mr McCully is well-placed to advise his Cabinet colleagues on the rewards that lie in store for countries which assist in the discovery and exploitation of mineral deposits. No less than the Mongolians, New Zealanders could benefit hugely by opening their wild and pristine environments to the world’s mining companies.

Maybe so. But wealth comes in many guises. Gold, oil and coal can make a nation rich, but so can wild, free-flowing rivers and forest-clad hills. The wonder inspired by megafish like the Mongolian taimen – or by birds believed to be extinct, but found again, like New Zealand’s takahe – these, too, are a kind of wealth.

We live in a part of the world as remote, in its way, as the headwaters of the Eg River in north-west Mongolia. And it is only in such far-flung places that the unblemished face of Planet Earth remains visible.

It would surely be a tragedy if one day, in the not-too-distant future, New Zealanders find themselves, like Zeb Hogan, standing in tight-lipped silence before the reeking wreckage of some mining company’s waste-spewing behemoth, and meditating upon the awful bargain that a Government desperate for overseas funds was willing to strike.

The ancient historian, Tacitus, famously observed that "Rome made a desert – and called it Peace." Will the historians of the future (if there are any) say of us: "Human-beings turned the wild places of the Earth into slag-heaps – and called it Wealth."

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 26 February 2010.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Know Thy Friends

Be careful what (and who) you allow through your gates: It is a truism of war and politics that one should "know thy enemy". In the case of National’s faltering relationship with the Maori Party, however, it’s more a case of "know thy friends".

IN BUSINESS and in politics, it always pays to know who – and what – you’re dealing with. All too often it is unfamiliarity (rather than its opposite) that breeds the contempt that leads to mistakes. Just look at the increasingly fractious relationship between the National and Maori parties. Government ministers’ lack of experience in dealing with Maori nationalism has made them easy marks. By the time they realise just how expertly they’ve been played – it may be too late to avert political disaster.

I’ve seen what can happen in this sort of situation.

When Jim Anderton was planning the Inaugural Conference of the NewLabour Party, his advisors (myself included) warned him against opening the occasion to all-comers.

"If you do that", we said, "every far-Left group in New Zealand will turn up and take it over."

But Jim, who’d been the President of the Labour Party for five years, was unmoved.

"They’ll be a tiny minority", he reassured us, "I’ll handle them."

But Jim didn’t know who he was dealing with. For many decades the Labour Party had rigorously excluded members of the Stalinist, Maoist and Trotskyite communist organisations from its ranks. The leftists Jim was used to "handling" were loyal social-democrats – a very different political animal from the sort of beast he was proposing to let into Wellington’s Overseas Terminal.

"But Jim", we pleaded, "communists are used to being in the minority. Their discipline and articulateness will more than make up for their lack of numbers. At the very least let us vet the membership applications!"

But Jim could not be budged. And, sure enough, on Queen’s Birthday Weekend, 1989, as the People’s Liberation Army’s tanks were rolling over students in Tiananmen Square, New Zealanders were treated to television images of earnest young men and women preaching revolutionary communism to Jim Anderton’s startled social-democrats. The NLP never recovered.

Watching the relationship between National and the Maori Party unravel, I’m forcefully reminded of the danger posed to any political organisation when its leader is unfamiliar with the beliefs, strategies and tactics of the people he has invited under its roof. And in John Key’s’s case he hasn’t even got a cadre of advisers with direct experience of how Maori nationalists work: no one to say "No John, don’t go there!"

Labour politicians, by contrast, are well aware of how ugly things can get when Maori nationalists move into Pakeha institutions. Phil Goff and his colleagues know families like the Harawiras from way back; they saw them in action in the 1980s; and more than once they were on the receiving-end of their "beliefs, strategies and tactics". Helen Clark’s infamous reference to "haters and wreckers" didn’t come out of thin air.

Pakeha are always at a disadvantage in the world of Maori politics. Its labyrinthine twists and turns confuse even the most seasoned political commentators.

Why, for example, did Hone Harawira use his speech in the Prime Minister’s Debate to thank the Iwi Leadership Forum’s for their contribution to the negotiations over the fate of the Foreshore & Seabed Act? Is their participation at an end? And should this almost casual dismissal of mainstream iwi leadership be read in conjunction with his earlier praise of Sir Tipene O’Reagan who "was there, and prominently so" on the day the 2004 protest hikoi marched into Parliament Grounds?

Was this Harawira’s way of acknowledging Ngai Tahu’s paramountcy on the issue? A heads-up to Maoridom that Sacha McMeeking (General Manager for Strategy and Influence with Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, and the guiding legal mind behind the highly secretive Iwi Leadership Group and its controversial deal with the Government over the ETS legislation) is now leading the negotiations over the Foreshore & Seabed Act?

Ms McMeeking (32) is certainly one of the most impressive Maori leaders to have emerged from the Treaty settlement process of the 1990s. Equally at ease on the barricades as she is in the courtroom and the boardroom, she brings a formidable array of intellectual and ideological weapons to the debate over customary rights.

One wonders what sort of reply Key and his Treaty Negotiations Minister, Chris Finlayson, might make to someone who quite happily informed the audience at this year’s Hillary Symposium that her remarks were going to be guided by "neo-colonial theory – which is a bit like neo-Marxist theory but with an indigenous twist".

Does either gentleman really know who, or what, he’s dealing with?

Harawira also made mention in his speech of the contribution made by the radical legal scholar, and arch Maori nationalist, Moana Jackson. In answering his own question: "So what exactly is it that the Maori Party want to see after the repeal?", Harawira informed the House that "the kaupapa I’ve been touting all ‘round the place over the past few months was approved by our caucus last week as the basis for a new deal on the Foreshore & Seabed.

"It’s based on a paper written for us by Moana Jackson which proposed the notion of tupuna title – which basically says that if the whole world already knows that Maori people were here first, then lets stop being ridiculous by making Maori go to court to prove it. Let’s simply accept it’s true and build on that."

The legal implications of tupuna title for the future of property relations in New Zealand are, of course, nothing short of revolutionary. And if, as Harawira insists, Jackson’s ideas now constitute the core of the Maori Party’s (i.e. McMeeking’s) negotiating position, then Key, Finlayson and the whole National-led Government are rapidly approaching a very deeply-drawn line in the sand.

Caught in a subtle pincer movement between Jackson’s attempt to wipe out 170 years of colonial history, and McMeeking’s negotiating brio, the National-led Government will either have to step over the line, to electoral ruin, or step away from it, and watch its agreement with the Maori Party dissolve.

What happens then? Nothing calculated to make Key, his Government, or the country feel any more at ease. Freed at last from the embarrassing embrace of the National Party, a Maori Party denied its victory over the Foreshore & Seabed is likely to run the war canoes out into deep water and start paddling.

Only then, perhaps, will National finally understand who, and what, it’s been dealing with.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 25 February 2010.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Is Blue the New Red?

The people's flag is deepest ... blue!? Radicalism, once associated with the Left, is now more commonly associated with the Right. In order to keep its social order the same, contemporary Capitalism has found it necessary to change everything else. In response, Socialism has become a conservative doctrine.

THE MOST STARTLING fact about John Key’s National-led Government is its enduring popularity. For more than fifteen months, the public opinion polls have recorded more than fifty percent of the electorate in support of the Government. Such consistent popularity is without precedent in the history of public opinion polling in New Zealand.

At some point in the four years since Key became Leader of the Opposition, New Zealanders’ political attitudes and expectations shifted decisively from the Centre Left to the Centre Right – reversing the political trend of the previous twenty years. If this repositioned electorate remains fundamentally undisturbed, it will gradually solidify into an unassailable political consensus, and National’s lease on the Treasury Benches will see out this decade and extend well into the next.

It is tempting for those on the Left to dismiss this emerging right-wing consensus as depressing proof of New Zealand’s irreversible descent into selfishness and ignorance. Twenty-five years of neoliberal propaganda – runs the argument – have produced a younger generation incapable of thinking critically about the "big issues" of society and economy. Add to the intellectual inertia of Generations "X" and "Y" the Baby-Boomers’ loss of faith in all of the 20th Century’s grand ideological systems, and the new right-wing ascendancy is readily explained. The victory, says the Left, is by default: the Right is, simply, "the last man standing".

"What can you expect," they say, "when TVNZ’s Close-Up bumps a discussion with the Prime-Minister about significant changes to the tax system in favour of the public humiliation of an errant former All Black?"

And they would have a point. An active democracy is generally supposed to be impossible in the absence of a well-informed electorate. In a country where The Apprentice screens in prime time and Q+A at 9:00am on Sunday morning, should we really be surprised at the enduring popularity of a millionaire prime-minister who dresses nicely and flashes us a friendly grin?

Inherent in this critique, however, are all the casual assumptions of cultural and intellectual superiority that render the Left so odious in the eyes of so many "ordinary" voters.

"How can these poor plebes possibly understand what’s going on", wails the Left, "if we are not permitted to tell them."

That the "plebes" might actually be perfectly capable of working out for themselves what’s going on; or that they might deeply resent the implication that they’re a bunch of clueless children in need of a lecture from a self-selected group of grown-ups; are thoughts that seldom, if ever, cross the Left’s collective mind.

The willingness of the National Government to entertain such apparently dangerous notions as mining in national parks, or raising the rate of GST, is based on the Right’s more up-to-date intelligence on how far the New Zealand electorate’s thinking has shifted. Attitudinal polling and in-depth focus-group research both show how impatient voters have become with the Left’s knee-jerk responses to serious issues.

For example: rather than simply throw up their hands in horror at the whole idea of mining on Department of Conservation land (which would certainly have been their reaction ten years ago) many voters are now saying:

"Present us with a case, Mr Brownlee. Tell us how much money is involved – and where it will go. Show us what’s in it for the average Kiwi, and how you propose to extract these minerals without leaving an excessively large developmental footprint on the natural landscape. We’re willing to be persuaded, Mr Brownlee. Convince us."

A similarly pragmatic approach is evident in the debate over National Standards. Parents are by no means "sold" on the idea, but they are prepared to listen to the arguments – of both sides – and will let the evidence (rather than Ms Tolley or the NZEI) decide the issue.

The voters’ new-found openness to previously taboo topics is often interpreted by the Left as yet more evidence of the "anti-PC" reflexes of a "dumbed-down" population. But they’re wrong.

"Political Correctness" mostly represents the Left’s attempt to preserve the hard-won victories of the 1960s and 70s by transforming them into a collection of self-evident truths. What the radicals and liberals have forgotten, however, is that all those original "wins" were not secured on the basis of bald assertion, but by the patient amassing of hard evidence, and by presenting a better case for change than the Right could muster for the status-quo. They were also the product of the Left’s consistent willingness to bear passionate witness for its ideals.

Far too many leftists have forgotten that today’s political orthodoxy was once regarded as the most dangerous heterodoxy. It’s just not good enough to insist that the Conservation Estate is sacrosanct: a new generation wants to know (and an older one perhaps needs to be reminded) why it is sacrosanct. As Jeanette Fitzsimons’ valedictory speech to Parliament last Wednesday made very clear, what looked like a radical – even revolutionary – programme in the 1970s, can seem pretty darn mainstream thirty-five years further on.

Even more sobering is the way the dreams of the Left have, as Joni Mitchell puts it "lost some grandeur coming true". Not all the programmes instituted by the reformers of the Vietnam Generation worked. Knee-jerk defence of ideas that turned out to be wrong (like stacking the working-class into high-rise housing complexes) does nothing for a political movement’s credibility.

The hard fact that the Left has somehow to get its head around is that, in the 21st Century, they have become the conservatives. It is their institutions: free and secular education; a publicly-funded health system; social welfare entitlements; that must be defended by sound arguments based on hard evidence.

Fortunately for the Left, New Zealanders are, by and large, a conservative people: we tend to require a lot of convincing before we give up our belief in, and support for, tried and true solutions. But our reluctance to embrace change is not absolute. If an individual, or a group, has the gumption to make the case for a new approach to an old problem, New Zealanders have repeatedly demonstrated a readiness to give it a go.

Is it possible that Key’s – and National’s – unparalleled run of popularity is due to their evident willingness to challenge the Left’s status-quo? And to their superior ability to make out a case for much-needed change?

Has blue become the new red?

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 18 February 2010.

Saturday, 20 February 2010


Painting William Adolphe Bouguereau

This poem, submitted to the commentary thread of the previous posting by "Victor", is of such high quality that I decided to give it a posting all its own.

My subject, ‘inhumanity’
Is, alas, as old as time
Our heritage is heinous
Awash in blood and crime
And who can tell who was the worse
Your ancestors or mine?

The lash flailed Roman galley slaves
And, similarly did scourge
The builders of Persepolis
And of Chaldean Ur,
Forced labour on the Yangzi Jiang
And on the Ganges Plain,
The remnants of the Aztecs
in the dawning of New Spain.

Millennia of feudal bonds,
With serfs tied to the land,
Whilst legally-entrenched parasites
Stole bread from calloused hands.
And when the worst seemed over,
With liberation gained,
Iosif Vissarionovich
Invented it all again.

John Bull waxed rich on slavery
In places far remote.
He prated about Liberty
And struck a righteous note.
But the ghosts of the Middle Passage
Silently ask why
You, our brother human,
Took so long to hear our cry.

A nation rich in learning
And reverent of the Law
Bowed cravenly to murderers
And tried hard to ignore
Neighbours transported eastwards,
To Auschwitz or Mjadenek,
To a choking death from Zyklon B
Or a bullet in the neck.

And do not think the East will rise
Without more blood and crime.
For things are yet, as they have been
Since the very dawn of time.
Nor can we know who will be worse,
Your progeny or mine.

February 2010.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Collision Course

Human, all too human: The course notes of the University of Auckland's new paper "Colonialism to Globalisation" notwithstanding, the West has not always led the pack when it comes to human barbarity. The first example of mass genocide in the 20th Century, for example, was provided by the Ottoman Empire. In 1915 more than a million ethnic Armenian Christians were systematically murdered by the Islamic Turkish authorities.

"AN INTERESTING COURSE" was how Kiwiblog’s, David Farrar, described Colonialism to Globalisation – an academic paper offered by the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Law.

Knowing Mr Farrar’s political leanings, it was with some trepidation that I activated the hyperlink embedded in his posting. My strong suspicion (instantly confirmed) was that my Kiwiblog host was not drawing his visitors’ attention to this course purely on account of its academic merits.

A swift perusal of the course description told me all I needed to know. Here, as I feared, was a particularly stark example of what I call "Self-loathing Leftism" – that self-critical mode of left-wing analysis which takes "the politics of victimhood" out of its more familiar context in the anti-racist, feminist and gay rights movements, and extends it to the whole world.

The result is as predictable as it’s banal: an Avatar world of Goodies versus Baddies and Nature versus Technology, in which the holistic philosophy of innocent and virtuous indigenes crashes into the murderously exploitative intentions of malignant and rapacious colonisers.

Just take a look at the opening sentences of Colonialism to Globalisation’s course description:

"In the late 15th century, imperialist Europe emerged intent on exploring and possessing the New World. Fast forward through five hundred years of colonialism, capitalism, slavery, industrialisation, genocide, and international law and greet the 21st century in all its paradoxical glory."

There’s so much wrong with this statement that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

For a start, there was no such thing as "imperialist Europe" in the late-15th century. The only entity worthy of such a description at that time was the empire of the Ottoman Turks – whose steady expansion into southern and central Europe was only halted at the gates of Vienna in 1529.

Indeed, it was the Ottomans’ interruption of the trade flows between Europe and Asia that prompted the monarchs of Portugal and Spain to sponsor voyages of exploration westward, into the Atlantic Ocean. Their hope was to access the silks and spices of the "Indies" from the sea. Nobody knew the "New World" was there!

As for Course Co-ordinator, Moshen Al Attar’s, "fast-forwarding" of the next five hundred years: what can one say?

Let’s start by listing the things he left out: the Renaissance; the Reformation; the Enlightenment; the American and French Revolutions; the exponential growth of scientific knowledge and technological expertise; the expansion of democracy; the abolition of slavery; the emancipation of women; the defeat of totalitarianism; the birth of the United Nations; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (And this list barely scratches the surface.)

We can only assume that Mr Attar’s justification for bracketing "capitalism" with "colonialism" and "slavery" is because he sees it as being emblematic of the Western World’s lust for conquest and its colonists’ pathological need to demonstrate racial and cultural superiority.

But, to hold up capitalism as a purely Western construct is to engage in precisely the same ethno-centrism his course condemns. For most of human history it was the manufacturers and merchants of East and South Asia who controlled the global economy. And they projected their reach and protected their profits no less ruthlessly than their Western counterparts.

For a brief historical era – a period spanning less than 250 years – the West’s weapons, and its more dynamic mode of economic organisation, permitted it to expand its influence across the globe. But the same could easily be said of those emphatically non-Western expansionists, the Mongols.

Europe’s "imperialists" were not the first to practice slavery and genocide.

They were, however, the first to make both practices illegal – not only in their own jurisdictions, but by the steady development and extension of international law, across the whole planet.

Mr Attar will be tasking his students with the "gripping" question: "is international law intended to challenge or preserve the divisions of wealth and power that pervade contemporary society?"

Given that his course content outline highlights the role of international law in "facilitating the subordination of native inhabitants in favour of European settlers", I suspect his students would be wise, to answer: "Preserve".

But I hope at least some of them will add (if only to please Mr Farrar): "But that’s only because those who frame unjust laws are human-beings – exactly the same reason why (ethnicity, culture and ideology notwithstanding) unjust laws will always be challenged."

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, 19 February 2010.

What Does A Worker Look Like?

(For Giovanni)

Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutamus.


No, I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you – it’s not allowed.
How long have I been standing? Well my last break was two hours ago.
Yes, it does get tiring – and the customers can be so rude and demanding.
But they’re always right – ha ha!
How much am I paid? $14.75 an hour.
Union? Shhh! You’ll get me fired!
No union here.


Do I look drained? Yeah, well, I suppose I am – it’s been a long shift.
You bet the callers can be rude and demanding!
And I’ll tell you something else; some of them are really stupid.
But you have to be nice – or they ask for your supervisor
And that’s something you don’t need.
Too much negative feedback and you’re gone.
And, of course, it’s all recorded.


Pretty? Are we? I suppose we are – it’s all part of the buzz.
Propositioned? Oh yes, all the time.
And they’ll cop a feel too – if they think they can get away with it.
What, these? You bet they’re heavy.
Yep, twice – and God, did I hear all about it.
The boss docked my wages. Seriously!
I haven’t dropped any since.


It’s the looks on their faces, mate.
Like we’re from another planet.
Sitting in their big, air-conditioned SUVs
While we’re out here melting the soles of our boots.
Breathing in benzene and bitumen.
Hot? Shit mate, you’ve no idea – 45-50 degrees!
But, you get used to it.


Tired? I’m always tired these days – it just never stops.
You want to go home at 5, have a family life,
But the looks you get – the sly little smiles – like they’re saying:
"That’s not going to look so good on your next performance review, is it?"
The team manager? He’s a real bastard – I hate him.
But, what can you do?
No one else is going to pay the mortgage.

Chris Trotter
February 2010

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Radio New Zealand - "National"

Tory eyes on the prize: Jonathan Coleman's blatant menacing of the Radio New Zealand Board threatens to destroy this country's last bastion of journalistic independence.

JONATHAN COLEMAN’S threat to sack the Radio NZ Board if it fails to demonstrate a "change of mindset" is the worst example of direct political interference in public broadcasting since the early 1990s. By deliberately withholding desperately needed funding, Coleman hopes to force the Board into a restructuring exercise so severe that the last bastion of public service broadcasting will be rendered incapable of fulfilling its charter.

That Charter is now the only thing staving-off a wholesale decline in the quality and scope of New Zealand journalism. While it remains, private sector broadcasters must at least pretend to compete with the public broadcaster’s large staff of well-trained and reasonably well-remunerated news and current affairs reporters.

From the point of view of the private radio networks this commitment to quality broadcast journalism is an unwarranted – and extremely costly – imposition. The need to maintain an effective news-gathering service cuts deeply into the networks’ profit margins – already squeezed by the recession. Private broadcasters would, therefore, like nothing more than to eliminate their own newrooms and purchase what meager news coverage they felt obliged to provide from the State – at heavily subsidised rates.

Hence Coleman’s demand for a change of mindset. What he hopes to pressure the Radio New Zealand Board into implementing is a restructuring of its news and current affairs operation along the lines outlined above. By shifting its reporters into a commercially-oriented, stand alone division, the public network will be able to sell its journalistic "products" to the private sector.

Those products would, of course, have to be tailored to the intellectual and cultural level of the average commercial radio listener. The more sophisticated – and critical – reporting currently on offer from Radio New Zealand-National and the Concert Programme is entirely unsuited to the private networks’ audiences.

Since the Government clearly has no intention of increasing the public broadcaster’s funding, the end result of such a restructuring exercise would be the diffusion across the whole country of a uniform news and current affairs product, pitched at a very low intellectual level and utterly devoid of challenging or critical content.

The potential for the creation of a near-totalitarian regime of political and cultural censorship is distressingly plain. The private sector – which would now be supplying a large chunk of Radio New Zealand’s revenue – would have no interest in purchasing journalistic product critical of either the Government or of the prevailing neoliberal order it serves.

If the beleaguered Board still believes in Radio New Zealand’s Charter and the public service values enshrined in it, then it will instruct its employees to make the ramifications of Coleman’s political interference crystal clear to its listeners. If that results in the Minister "moving them on" then so be it. At least the Government will be forced to pursue its political objectives in the bright sunlight of public scrutiny.

Forcing Coleman’s hand would also instantly delegitimise the sacked Board’s successors – who would never be regarded as anything other than political puppets, hand-picked to destroy New Zealand’s sole remaining chartered public broadcaster.

Will Radio New Zealand’s listeners feel sufficiently outraged by Coleman’s plans to mount the sort of public campaign that rescued the public broadcaster from an earlier National Government? I’d like to think so. Intelligent right-wingers – no less than intelligent leftists – draw immense benefit from intelligent independent reporting. A bland, dumbed-down, politically-uncritical news and current-affairs service is of no more use to National than it is to Labour.

All that will be achieved by modeling our news broadcasts on Fox-News is that when, inevitably, political and economic disaster strikes, it will do so without warning, and neither the politicians nor the public will have the slightest chance of taking evasive action.

If the King in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale had been informed not only by a private radio network, slavishly broadcasting the opinions it thought he wanted to hear, but also a public network, committed to telling him the truth, I wonder - would he have paraded himself butt-naked in front of his startled subjects?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Phil's got the message - now it's Paula's turn.

Labour Leader, Phil Goff, waxes eloquent on the virtues of a Minimum Wage of $15.00p/hr. Visit the SocialistAotearoa website for details of how the message that the National-led Government's 25 cent increase to the MW is nowhere near enough can be delivered to the Minister of Social Development, Paula Bennett, this weekend.

Making Haste Slowly

So many hands, so little time: John Key, unlike Bernard Hickey, understands that economics is not a science - it's politics - and our Prime Minister is getting very good at it.

BERNARD HICKEY is a very angry man. His bleak vision of New Zealand’s future doesn’t so much boil down to a "clash of civilisations" as a "clash of generations". He foresees a long and vicious political struggle in which the "young and poor" are pitted against the "old and rich". His advice to young New Zealanders? Book a ticket on the next flight to Australia – now.

Who’s responsible for Mr Hickey’s bad temper? Predictably, it’s the Prime Minister.

Mr Hickey was hoping against hope that Mr Key would use Tuesday’s much-hyped Prime-Ministerial Statement to Parliament to announce a series of decisive measures designed to shift New Zealand’s risk-averse investors out of the residential property market and into investments more productive of national wealth.

A Land Tax. A Capital Gains Tax. The closing-off of tax loopholes. Any or all of the recommendations of the Tax Working Group. Any measure that brings the cost of purchasing a home back to earth with a resounding thump. Any policy that offers Generations "X" and "Y" the slightest hope of owning their own home.

That’s what Mr Hickey was waiting to hear: something to prevent our best and brightest packing their bags; and when Mr Key failed to oblige, Mr Hickey saw red.

Well, no, that’s not quite right. Mr Hickey didn’t "see red". What he "saw" was a much deeper shade of blue than any Mr Key or his government are ready to wear.

Like so many ideologues of the Right, Mr Hickey has no patience for either politics or politicians. In Mr Hickey’s eyes economics is a "science" – like physics. And, just as we would laugh at the idea of passing a law against gravity, so we should deride any politician who raises political objections against self-evidently sensible economic measures – such as forcing investment out of unproductive sectors of the economy and into sectors more likely to boost productivity and competitiveness.

But economics is very far from being a science. At most it’s a useful set of tools. Originally known as "political economy" – a term which conveyed much more accurately the discipline’s true purpose – its prime objective is to identify the contributing causes and practical consequences of organised human activity.

If politicians don’t understand why things are organised the way they are, and what is likely to happen if they try to change them too drastically, then they’ll soon find themselves in a whole lot of trouble.

Unlike Mr Hickey, Mr Key’s most important objective is to secure both his own, and his party’s re-election at the next general election. Should he fail to be re-elected, all hopes of changing the way things are organised will be dashed. Even worse, electoral defeat may result in people with radically different ideas about the way things should be organised finding themselves in a position to do exactly that.

National’s aim is to reduce the tax burden of the nation’s wealthiest citizens. Mr Key would be rendering poor service to those citizens if he embarked upon a course of action which brought to power a party dedicated not to reducing, but increasing the tax burden of New Zealand’s "rich pricks".

Had Mr Key announced the introduction of the sort of property-investment-unfriendly measures demanded by Mr Hickey, the National Party’s chances of winning next year’s General Election would have plummeted. One hundred thousand rental property investors and their families, fearing huge financial losses, would have turned away from Mr Key and National in exactly the same way elderly New Zealanders turned away from Jim Bolger’s National Government when, in spite of his "no ifs, no buts, no maybes" promise to lift Labour’s hated Superannuation Surtax, it refused to do so.

Like Keith Holyoake, the National leader he most closely resembles, Mr Key seems determined to "make haste slowly" – keeping intact for as long as possible the coalition of socio-economic groups which carried him to power. He will lower the taxes of the wealthy – but only in conjunction with measures designed to preserve the living-standards of the rest of his electoral base.

That does not include the poor – but it does include the rich, the young and the old.

Mr Hickey may think that Generations X and Y versus the Baby-Boomers and their parents is the battle New Zealand has to have.

Mr Key (thank goodness) knows better.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 12 February 2010.

Professional Standards

The Meat in the Sandwich: The National Government's determination to impose its education policies over the near universal objections of teachers and scholars has more to do with ideology than pedagogy - and New Zealand's children will pay the price.

WHO WILL WIN the battle over National Standards – and at what cost?

History suggests that in any confrontation between blue-collar workers and the forces of the State, the State wins. The historical record is not so clear, however, when it comes to confrontations between the State and professionally trained white-collar workers.

The stunning success of former Alliance MP, Laila HarrĂ©’s, "Nurses Are Worth More" campaign highlights the huge risk John Key and his National-led Government are taking by casting the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) – the primary teachers’ professional organisation – as Public Enemy No. 1.

If the Government is eventually forced to back down, Key’s hitherto all-conquering reputation will be seriously damaged, and the political career of his Education Minister, Anne Tolley, will be over.

The use of the term "professional organisation" – as opposed to "union" – in this context is quite deliberate. White-collar workers with tertiary qualifications generally eschew the more proletarian designation "union" in favour of less inflammatory nouns like "organisation" (NZ Nurses Organisation), "association" (Public Service Association, Post-Primary Teachers Association, Association of Salaried Medical Specialists) or "institute".

The entirely voluntary nature of the membership of these professional bodies (which long pre-dates the Employment Contracts Act) is another pointer to their collegial status. Like the tradespeople of the so-called "craft" unions, the professionals’ primary goal is the preservation and refinement of the hard-won bundle of skills they have acquired. Proper recognition and remuneration for those skills is important – but it isn’t paramount. A carpenter’s identity derives from his craft – not his income. Teachers are no different.

So why on earth has John Key drawn the battle-lines over National Standards so crudely?

At a post-caucus press conference held in the Beehive Theatrette on 2 February the Prime Minister declared: "There will always be those that resist change, who fear increased accountability and who put their own vested interests ahead of New Zealand’s young people. We will not bow down to those critics."

Describing the NZEI as "a union protecting their [sic] members", Key went on to frame the issue as one of unaccountable teachers versus powerless parents and their ill-served children.
Parents, said Key, shouldn’t have to put up with "declining education standards, being kept in the dark about their children's progress or creeping political correctness in our schools."

This is an extraordinary statement – not only because all three of the charges levelled against the New Zealand education system and its teachers are false – but also because it sets forth in the most unabashed fashion the stridently ideological objectives of the Government’s National Standards policy.

An uncompromising commitment to "lifting education standards" – most typically by focusing on the "Three Rs" – has become a common feature of conservative party manifestos across the English-speaking world. That such policies have failed miserably wherever they’ve been introduced (most notably in the UK and the USA) has in no way lessened the enthusiasm of their right-wing promoters.

It’s this apparent indifference to the real-world harm inflicted by National Standards regimes upon the very children they’re intended to assist that betrays the conservatives’ true (albeit unacknowledged) objectives.

As the President of the NZ Principals Federation, Ernie Buutvelt, told Radio New Zealand on 3 February:

"Originally we were talking about standards for students and we were looking forward to what useful benchmarks we could make for that and suddenly its been turned into performance measures for teachers … Suddenly we’ve found where the Government’s original starting place was ... a tool to bash schools and blame teachers."

Modern conservatives’ obsession with disciplining teachers, and their profound dissatisfaction with the objectives and methodology of modern pedagogy, both stem from what they see as the profession’s deliberate failure to adequately prepare their children for the rigors of twenty-first century capitalist life.

Conservatism’s "tough love" approach to learning is neatly encapsulated in the "Why National Standards?" section of the party-political pamphlet currently being distributed (at the taxpayers’ expense) to the parents of New Zealand’s primary and intermediate schoolchildren:

"Many parents tell us", report the pamphlet’s National Party authors, "they’re not happy with the ‘politically correct’ and ‘sugar-coated’ school reports they receive."

Consider for a moment what’s being rejected here. These parents do not want the school to treat their children as unique, multi-faceted human-beings who will engage with the learning process in their own way and at their own speed. On the contrary, they want the school to treat their children purely as future components in the global economic machine. And all they want the school to tell them is how much bigger (or smaller) their little components are – compared to all the others.

This ruthless competitiveness gives the lie to the by-now-familiar conservative claim that all they want is for there to be "no child left behind", or, as Key puts it in the pamphlet:

"New Zealand deserves a future with more highly-skilled citizens, who have better job prospects, greater life choices and, in turn, who live in a society with less dysfunction, unemployment, welfare dependence and crime."

But such a future cannot be realised under a National Standards system which, by permitting the publication of "league tables" distinguishing "failing schools" from "succeeding schools", makes the elimination of the 20 percent "tail" of functionally illiterate and innumerate New Zealanders ever more unlikely.

The NZEI is more than equal to the task of explaining all this to the nation’s parents. Facts are stubborn things, and the more frequently and dramatically the NZEI places the facts before the communities in which its members live and work, the more untenable the Government’s position will become.

And if Key and Tolley remain unwilling to compromise with the NZEI (in stark contrast to their conciliatory approach to the Kura Kaupapa Schools) there is always the option of mass civil disobedience.

The Prime Minister may disavow any intention of seeking "a showdown in the courtroom", but the NZEI and the Principals Federation have the power to make him do just that.

Policemen carrying principals and primary school teachers out of their offices and classrooms and into waiting paddy wagons. How will that look on the Six O’clock News?

Boards of Trustees barring their school gates against the Education Ministry’s statutory managers? Is that the bitter legacy parents are seeking from the Government’s education policies?

Are those the "National" standards they’ll be voting for in 2011?

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 11 February 2010.

Who's Scared of Labour?

Something scary at your back: Labour needs to be able to frighten its enemies as well as encourage its friends - but first it has to make some!

ONCE AGAIN, the polls look bad for Labour and its leader, Phil Goff. And, once again, the punditocracy waxes eloquent on the Opposition’s seemingly insuperable electoral hurdles: the steady erosion of the Maori vote; a Green Party in decline; the enduring popularity of Mr Key and his National Party.

All true. But none of these so-called "hurdles" are insuperable. The real barriers confronting the Left aren’t to be found in the external world, but in the interior world of the left-wing mindset. Labour has become electorally implausible because it no longer projects itself as either psychologically, or morally, convincing.

Phil Goff in last week’s "State of the Nation" speech spoke of a Labour Party dedicated to serving the needs of "the many – not the few". He lambasted those who avoided paying their fair share of tax, and he vowed to cap the salaries of State Sector CEOs at the level of the Prime Minister’s annual income. A traditional Labour message, and by all accounts powerfully delivered.

But was it real?

No, not really. It took the redoubtable right-wing blogger, Cactus Kate, less than a day to uncover the fact that a significant number of Labour MPs belonged to one or more Family Trusts – the very same tax avoidance device that Mr Goff was railing against.

And what about all those State Sector CEOs on excessive salaries? Well, Mr Goff is to be congratulated for wanting to share the "pain" of economic recession more equitably. But, in order to restore a measure of equity to the pay-scales of the public service, surely Mr Goff would have to renounce his own, and Labour’s, continuing support for the State Sector Act?

After all, Mr Goff was a Cabinet Minister in the Fourth Labour Government which introduced the State Sector Act. It’s purpose? To bring the private sector’s market-driven discipline into the public service: to give the heads of government agencies the same powers and responsibilities as corporate CEOs – and pay them accordingly.

If Mr Goff is now acknowledging that the ideology underpinning the State Sector Act is flawed, then I, for one, will cheer him to the echo. But if he still adheres to the neoliberal ethos which gave it birth, then he should let the market in CEO salaries find its own level, and like the original author of the State Sector Act, Stan Rodger, remain steadfastly on the sidelines – and keep his mouth firmly shut.

To become the genuine champion of "the many – not the few", Mr Goff is going to have to do more than toss his core voters an occasional chunk of raw populist meat. To win back the love Labour’s lost, the Leader of the Opposition must learn how to channel not only the hopes and aspirations of Labour’s educated middle-class minority, but also the fear and antagonism of its sullen working-class majority.

A genuine political leader will gladly and gloriously reflect the idealistic light of his best followers, but, when pressed, he must also be capable of tapping into the darkest impulses of his worst. True leaders are feared as much as they are loved. Think of Helen Clark in the midst of the "Corngate" scandal: chilling. Think of Rob Muldoon ordering Tom Scott out of the Beehive Theatrette: terrifying.

Watching TVNZ’s Guyon Espiner interviewing Mr Goff on the Q+A programme, I was struck by how keen the Leader of the Opposition was to please. Where was the menace? Where was the sense that, like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, Mr Goff has at his back a phantom host – all those forgotten New Zealanders – just waiting to strike down his enemies?

Democracy, it is said, substitutes ballots for bullets. And that’s fine – so long as, like the metal projectiles they replace, ballots also have the capacity to inflict real damage.

Labour needs policies that not only help – but hurt. Out there in the electorate some groups need to understand that they will be paying for Mr Goff’s promises. Sweet reason and bi-partisanship, as President Obama has discovered, makes for poor politics. There’s nothing the voter enjoys more than the whiff of fear and panic – especially in high places.

No politician gets elected purely on the strength of being everyone’s friend. At least symbolically – and preferably in reality – a party leader must also be somebody’s enemy.

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, 5 February 2010.

Political Victims

"Crusher Collins": Trapped in her persona of the "tough" Corrections Minister, Judith Collins cannot now step back from the deeply flawed law and order policies of the National-led Government.

CAN JUDITH COLLINS be rehabilitated? Or is the Minister of Corrections an incorrigible ideological recidivist who should be locked away forever?

The questions are, of course, facetious. Collins is an intelligent and caring woman, whose private face bears scant resemblance to the fierce political mask of "Crusher Collins" – that steely-eyed, thin-lipped avatar of conservative New Zealand’s growing preoccupation with victims’ rights.

"The public expects the system – first and foremost – to punish those who have broken the law", writes Collins in a think-piece published last Wednesday in The New Zealand Herald. "Punishment for serious crime in the majority of cases should be harsh, because anything less fails to acknowledge that victims of crime are never truly released from their sentence."

Rhetorical red meat of this sort has become standard fare for Collins. Like the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar, and ACT’s David Garrett, she long ago mastered the art of lubricating the man-eating machinery of the New Zealand prison system with the tears of its inhabitants’ victims.

Her defence of the Government’s new "Three Strikes" policy, for example, relies for its impact not on solid research or sound reasoning, but on "a letter from a very courageous woman" whose 15-year-old daughter was murdered in "a brutal attack". The awful experiences of Collins’ correspondent, and the outrage and horror they evoke, effectively forestall any serious criticism of the Minister’s argument. Who would be insensitive enough to chop logic with someone acting on behalf of a mother whose daughter had been stabbed, strangled and sexually violated?

But, when did it become acceptable for a Minister of the Crown to use the victims of crime as human-shields against the critical scrutiny of government policy? And how did it become "okay" for politicians to render any dispassionate assessment of that policy impossible by admitting to the discussion all the overwhelming emotions associated with violent death and inconsolable human loss? What sort of politics is this?

The very worst kind. Because conservative politicians compound their cynical exploitation of human grief by directing the intense emotion it inevitably evokes against their ideological opponents.

"In this country we have many people who have made a thriving industry out of making excuses for criminals", writes Collins. "In the past decade these people have overwhelmed the debate on law and order with their views on the rights of offenders."

A thriving industry? To what and to whom is the Minister referring? The legal profession? The probation service? University departments conducting research into the causes and consequences of criminal offending? NGOs and religious organisations helping offenders make the transition from "inside" to "outside"? Who are these thriving industrialists?

And what is Collins suggesting? That citizens accused of a crime should not be entitled to legal representation? That no one should ever be encouraged (let alone funded) to ask why young men murder young women? Is she seriously suggesting that all attempts to ease offenders safely back into society are misguided?

Unfortunately, the Minister doesn’t say – so let us examine the one specific claim that she does make: that for the past ten years the advocates of "the rights of offenders" have "overwhelmed" the law and order debate.

Is this a true statement? No, it isn’t. In fact, the situation in New Zealand is the exact opposite of what the Minister is claiming. Over the course of the past ten years – no, let’s be honest, over the past thirty years – the trend in all the English-speaking countries has been towards harsher penalties, longer sentences and diminished legal protections for those accused of serious crimes.

This is particularly true of New Zealand, where, for most of the past decade, both of the major political parties have engaged in a bidding war to determine who could come up with the most draconian responses to violent crime. It began with Norm Withers’ "Law & Order" Citizens Initiated Referendum" – carried overwhelmingly at the General Election of 2002. Mr Withers’ success put paid to what little remained of the liberal Minister of Corrections, Matt Robson’s, doomed attempt to align New Zealand’s penal policies with international best practice.

And, on every dismal, descending step of this new law-and-order staircase our politicians were shadowed by the "if it bleeds it leads" news media. So potent (and profitable) has the depiction of serious criminal offending become, that our journalists see little merit in alerting their readers, listeners or viewers to the statistical facts of New Zealand’s declining crime-rate. Instead, reporters and politicians became inextricably entwined in a dangerously symbiotic double-act: the former whipping the voters into a vengeful frenzy; the latter doing their best to appease the resulting bloodlust.

The true flowering of liberal penology actually came in the 1960s and 70s when, at the height of the "historic compromise" between capital and labour, and the social revolution it precipitated, English-speaking politicians, inspired by the compassionate social-democracies of Northern Europe, attempted to shift the policy focus away from primitive retribution (the Old Testament’s "eye-for-an-eye") towards a more humane emphasis on offender rehabilitation and a getting-to-grips with the socio-economic and cultural generators of criminal behaviour.

Not surprisingly, Collins is unwilling to acknowledge any of this. To do so would be to place the artificially induced clamour for a more punitive corrections regime in the broader historical context of the New Right’s counter-offensive against the redistributive welfare state and all its works.

In this context, not even Tony Blair’s rhetorically brilliant "tough on crime – tough on the causes of crime" is acceptable. But, if the second part of Blair’s slogan must be jettisoned, conservative politicians must have something else to mask the unrelenting bleakness of their ultimate "solution": constantly rising levels of incarceration in a privatised prison system.

The answer, of course, is to shift the political focus from the perpetrators to the victims of crime. No matter that this policy effectively reverses the centuries-old tradition of treating crime as an act against the State. No matter that it makes the calm and impartial administration of justice increasingly problematic. The relentless focus on victims, by making rationality redundant, and turning evidence-driven humanitarians into criminal enablers, provides a perfect cover.

"Time and again," writes Collins, "victims of crime have told me they feel let down by a system that seems to put greater emphasis on the rights of offenders than victims."

Not any more.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 4 February 2010.