Friday, 31 December 2010

Stupid Silence (Farewell to 2010)

Perfectly Calm: 2010 was year characterised by the politics of denial.

‘WE HAVE MAINTAINED a silence closely resembling stupidity." Do you remember who said that – and when?

The words belong to Neil Roberts, New Zealand’s only suicide bomber. He spray painted them on a toilet wall shortly before blowing himself to pieces outside the Wanganui Computer Centre on 18 November 1982.

Thirty years ago, when personal computers and cell-phones were still in their infancy, the Wanganui Computer Centre loomed large in New Zealanders’ imagination as the ultimate symbol of the "Big Brother" state.

Fourteen months after the massive upheavals of the Springbok Tour, and just 9 days shy of the first anniversary of Rob Muldoon’s re-election, the 22-year-old anarchist and punk rocker, despairing of his fellow citizens’ commitment to freedom and democracy, detonated a carry-bag-full of high explosive directly outside the Wanganui Computer Centre’s front doors.

While Neil Robert’s acute depression found an extreme form of self-expression, he was by no means the only person alienated from New Zealand society under Rob Muldoon.

Paradoxically, the supreme effort of the preceding year, when tens of thousands of Kiwis rose up against the suffocating conservatism of the Muldoonist regime, had only made things worse. For young idealists like Roberts it seemed as though the country had turned a corner. But, almost as soon as the Springboks boarded their flight to Johannesburg, the great tide of anger and frustration which their visit had occasioned began receding. Far from wanting to carry the revolt against Muldoonism to new heights, most of the anti-tour protesters could not escape fast enough into normalcy.

By November 1982, the National Party’s grip on New Zealand had regained its full strength. A wage and price freeze had reduced the economy’s machinery to a slow grind. Unemployment was rising rapidly. And Labour’s new leader, David Lange, had yet to hit his stride as Opposition leader. The whole country seemed to have retreated into itself.

For thousands of young people the words of Blam Blam Blam’s "There is No Depression in New Zealand" had taken on the ring of prophecy.

But we’re as safe as safe can be,
there’s no unrest in this country
We have no dole queues,
we have no drug addicts,
we have no racism,
we have no sexism, sexism, no, no

It was this: New Zealanders’ wilful political denial; their sullen, self-defeating silence; that Neil Robert’s bomb was intended to shatter.

Today, nearly three decades later, both Neil Robert’s name and the final devastating act of his tragically short life have fallen victim to the collective historical amnesia that allows New Zealanders to repeat their political, economic and social mistakes over and over and over again.

Reviewing 2010, I cannot escape a feeling of déjà vu. The route John Key has chosen may differ markedly from Rob Muldoon’s, but he has led New Zealand back to all the old familiar places.

We are gripped by the same collective urge to deny the evidence of our eyes and ears. As if the dismissal of the Canterbury Regional Council; the creation of Auckland’s "democracy-proof" CCOs; the Canterbury Earthquake Reconstruction and Recovery Act; Simon Power’s and Kate Wilkinson’s relentless stripping away of our civil and workplace rights; and the extraordinary expansion of the State’s search and surveillance powers; are happening in some other country – to some other people.

There’s that same sullen refusal to be moved by the plight of our fellow citizens. Paula Bennett’s hand-picked razor-gang terrorises the sick, the disabled, and the solo mums. Judith Collins privatises the administration of misery. Nick Smith dismantles the world’s most successful no-fault accident compensation system. Sir Peter Jackson (to the frenzied cheers of the news media) pummels Actors Equity to a bloody pulp.

And what do we do? Sod all.

New Zealanders appear to have forgotten how to resist their government. That glorious anti-mining march aside, there’s the same "What’s the point?" fatalism that seized the country following the Springbok Tour and Muldoon’s subsequent, demoralising, success at the polls.

Neil Roberts never got to see what happened after his bomb went off. We are luckier. Looking back, it’s clear that New Zealand’s "silence closely resembling stupidity" was not maintained. In less that two years, change came – and on a scale young Neil could scarcely have imagined.

For me, at least, that’s an encouraging thought to take into 2011.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 December 2010.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Incredible Lightness of Being John Key

A Gift for Levitation: Asked to explain the difference between himself and the Prime Minister in an interview for North & South magazine, Bill English famously responded: "I’m a stayer, he’s a sprinter. I grind away, John just bounces from one cloud to another".

JOHN KEY’S greatest political gift is his levity. Which is not to say that the Prime Minister is inappropriately frivolous or comical – although he does have a politically endearing talent for self-deprecating humour. The word’s original meaning was "lightness", and it is in this sense that I am using it.

This quality of lightness has not gone unnoticed by Mr Key’s colleagues. His Deputy, Bill English, famously explained the difference between himself and his boss in an interview published in North & South magazine: "I’m a stayer, he’s a sprinter. I grind away, John just bounces from one cloud to another".

In many countries Mr Key’s light touch would not be regarded as an asset. When politicians become prime ministers or presidents in these much older societies they are expected to put on political weight, and to evince at all times a judicious seriousness. In short, they are expected to display gravitas not levitas.

New Zealanders are more than a little ambivalent on the subject of levitas versus gravitas. On the one hand, we do not expect our leaders to embarrass us on the world stage. On the other, we don’t like leaders who put on too many airs and graces or talk down to us.

Like so many other populations descended from pioneering stock, New Zealanders place a much higher value on practical achievement than they do on artistic talent or intellectual accomplishment. Artists and intellectuals tend to make most Kiwis nervous. As voters, we regard a surfeit of intelligence and/or creativity in our leaders as an implied reproach for our own (meagre?) abilities and tastes. In politics it is never wise to let the public think you think you’re better than they are.

Strangely, we don’t seem to mind if our leaders are richer than we are. Money, after all, is a wonderfully democratic thing. With sufficient hard work (and just a little bit of luck) just about anybody can become rich.

By contrast, great intellectual acuity and creative power are innate qualities. No amount of hard work can increase our native stock of intelligence and creativity (although it will certainly sharpen the skills we do possess). It’s an inconvenient truth which gives the lie to, and undermines, New Zealanders’ cherished egalitarian faith. That’s why so many Kiwis are suspicious of individuals with too much talent. It smacks of unfairness, privilege and elitism. Such people are not to be trusted.

Mr Key is certainly a very wealthy man, but that fact alone does not condemn him in the eyes of most New Zealanders. After all, he did not inherit his money – he made it, himself, by deploying the skills he was born with to their best effect. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s humble background; the fact that he and his sisters were raised in a state house by their widowed mother; only serves to reinforce his fellow citizen’s confidence in the universal attainability of the New Zealand dream.

A large pile of cash in the bank does, of course, possess the power to levitate just about anyone up, up and away from the daily drudgery of earning a living. For many people, however, the levity money confers can be personally devastating. It either breeds a sneering sense of superiority, or crippling feelings of guilt and/or obligation.

But, Mr Key’s public conduct reflects neither of these classic responses. His wealth does not appear to have had any malign effect upon him. Miraculously, he has risen above even this.

What it has done is allow him to deploy the otherwise quite ordinary aspects of his life and personality as a devastating political weapon.

The Prime Minister is not a connoisseur of fine art. He doesn’t attend the opera. He has penned no books, made no scientific breakthroughs, climbed no mountains, written no songs. He does not mix with artists or intellectuals, nor does he espouse with any noticeable fervour the grand, all-encompassing ideologies and religions of mankind.

He is, however, a husband and a dad with two teenage kids. He does like to watch the Rugby. He turns a mean steak on the family barbecue, and he drinks his beer straight from the bottle – just like hundreds of thousands of ordinary Kiwi blokes.

John Key’s political balloon is inflated not simply by the fortune he made as a currency trader, but by the paradoxical pressures of New Zealand’s thwarted egalitarianism. Ordinariness is his helium. We push him up to prove that we, too, can rise.

The Prime Minister is said to practice "the politics of aspiration". To aspire is to breath out, to reach up, to soar. John Key bounces from cloud to cloud on the warm updrafts of his nation’s confidence. On New Zealanders’ desperate conviction that politics can be, and should be, the province of ordinary men and women.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 December 2010.

Friday, 24 December 2010

No Vacancy (A Christmas Story)

"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." - The Gospel of St. Luke. The painting is: The Arrival at Bethlehem (1897) by Luc-Olivier Merson.

"WHO WAS THAT?" Martha set down her laundry basket with a thud and cast a practised eye over her husband’s face. She’d always been able to tell when he was troubled, and forty years of marriage hadn’t made it any easier for him to hide his feelings.

"Just a young couple looking for a bed. I told them we were full and sent them on their way."


"And what?"

"Don’t you ‘and what’ me, Joel Benjamin. Something’s troubling you – out with it!"

"Oh, I don’t know, it just didn’t feel right sending them away. The girl was so very, very young, and so very, very pregnant. And the young fellow she’s travelling with – the baby’s father, I suppose – he wasn’t much older. Seemed like a steady sort of fellow though: a carpenter by trade. Both of them from some tiny place up north. They’re down here for the Census."

Martha snorted. "Him and everybody else. Town’s full of people waiting to be registered."

"That’s what I said. I told him he’d be lucky to find accommodation anywhere. Said he knew that already, that ours was the seventh place they’d tried. I tell you, Martha, the poor lad sounded desperate. And the girl seemed ready to have her baby at any moment."

"And you sent them away."

"What else could I have done – we’re full up. There’s not a spare bed in the house."

"May the Good Lord forgive you, Joel Benjamin! How could you send that poor girl out into the night to give birth in some ditch under the stars, with no help near except a frightened boy. Have you forgotten what can happen to a woman in those circumstances? What can happen to her baby!"

"I haven’t forgotten."

The old man takes his wife in his arms, presses her head against his shoulder, feels the gentle shudder of her sobs.

"I haven’t forgotten."

Martha pushes herself free from his embrace, furiously wiping away her tears.

"Go after them, you fool! Fetch them back! In the name of the son you could not save, Joel Benjamin, fetch them back!"

The old man hurries toward the gate, pushing past his startled guests, calling the gatekeeper to him.

"Amos! Amos!"


"That young couple. The pregnant girl. Tall fellow, strongly built. Did you seen them?"

They passed through a little while ago – they’ll be lost in the crowd by now."

The inn-keeper steps out into the crowded street, turning his head to right and left, trying to locate the pair in the gathering darkness.

"Mary said you would come."

The old man swings ‘round to find himself face to face with the young carpenter.

"I wanted to look for another inn, but she told me to wait here – that this was the place."

"I wasn’t lying to you about the rooms, you know. There’s not a spare bed to be had. But my wife would not hear of you being turned out into the winter chill – not with your good lady so close to her time."

Martha holds out her arms to the young woman.

"Come in my dear. This is no season to be giving birth alone. And there are skilled hands here tonight. Three Parthian priests, great healers it is said, arrived at sundown from Jerusalem. They were asking after a child.

"Dozens of children here, I told them. Take your pick! But they shook their long oiled beards at me and said it was a new-born child they were seeking. Well then, I said, I don’t like your chances, because there are no …."

Martha’s eyes widened in sudden understanding.

"Mine is the child they seek", the young woman said softly, "and it is here your wise men will find him. The Magi left a prince in his palace to see a king born in your stable."

"It is not worthy, lady."

"It is holy ground. You lost a son once, Martha. Tonight, God gives you another."

This short story was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 December 2010.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Sing Choirs of Angels (For Julian Assange)

Guardian Angels: Julian Assange, like the prophets of the Old Testament, has called the powerful to account. It is to be hoped that he is afforded the same divine protection.

"HE’S NOT at all like him. How can you even think that?" Gabriel’s pinions flutter with indignation, casting off tiny splinters of golden light into the frigid evening air.

"Oh, I don’t know," replies Raphael, brushing Gabriel’s still glowing sparks from his robes. "If you cast your mind back, you’ll recall that He wasn’t everybody’s favourite activist either. In fact, didn’t just about everyone in high places call him a trouble-maker? A terrorist even?"

"Not the same thing at all – He was a prophet."

"Oh, come on, Gabriel. You know as well as I do that ‘prophet’ is just another name for troublemaker. How do you think the kings of Israel responded to being called to account by the likes of Isaiah and Amos? Do you think they liked having their misdeeds discussed openly in the marketplace? Do you think they appreciated those bearded vagabonds striding into their palaces, pointing their fingers, laying bare their sins? I don’t think so!"

"They were speaking for God, Raphael – that’s what makes the difference. They were His mouthpieces. Their mission was divine."

Gabriel spreads his wings, and with an upward beat brings himself to a position just above a pair of forbidding wrought-iron gates. Gathered in a noisy semicircle around the gateway are the outside-broadcast vehicles and satellite dishes of the world’s media. He counts at least a hundred journalists stamping their frozen feet in the snow-shrouded Suffolk countryside.

"Do they look like God’s mouthpieces to you, Raphael?"

"As individuals? No, not really. But then they are mortals, Gabriel. Sinners, every one. Just like Isaiah. Just like Amos. Just like all the human bearers of God’s word. He fashioned them, Gabriel. Endowing them with the wit and skill to subdue the whole earth: root and branch; fish and fowl. This is how they speak to one another nowadays – twittering and tweeting. Voices in the air, Gabriel. Hasn’t God always spoken thus?"

"And the man they seek, Raphael? He’s no stranger to the sins of the flesh. Does it seem likely that God would place his word in so flawed a vessel?"

Now it was Raphael’s turn to send indignant sparks into the wintry air.

"But isn’t that the point!" With a mighty beat of his wings he propels himself several thousand feet higher into the darkening sky. "Look about you! Look at what they have done to the garden we made for them to dwell in! They are fallen, Gabriel! Fallen! They should be left to freeze – or to burn. And yet here we are – just as we were that night on the hillside above Bethlehem, when we spoke to the shepherds, and just for a moment let them see the splendour of our wings. Because he loves them Gabriel – he loves them. Flawed though they be. Sinners though they are. He would not have them fall."

"But where were the signs? The wonders? Where was the gold, the frankincense, the myrrh? Where were we thirty-nine years ago when this fellow came into the world? I have no memory of a maternity ward in Townsville."

"I don’t think it works like that any more, Gabriel. That first time, remember, they called him Emanuel – "God is with us". And I don’t think he ever left. He remains with them, don’t you see? To be born again in every generation. The same story, Gabriel, told over and over and over again. What was it that Paul said: ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’."

"That certainly sounds like our friends in Washington", chuckled Gabriel, as the two archangels descended slowly towards the English country house.

I think I understand you now, Raphael", Gabriel smiles, "We’re here to bear witness. From the first betrayal to the final crucifixion. To the whole tragic passion play which, for twenty centuries, these doomed mortals have prepared for anyone who dares bid them be free."

"But we’re not the only witnesses," Raphael replies, spreading his wings protectively around half the house. "For each time the drama is played out there are always more who grasp its meaning. Who hear, as if for the first time, the words we heard Him speak to Pontius Pilate all those centuries ago: "For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice."

"And is set free!", Gabriel laughs, wrapping his own wings around the other half.

A great rush of air sends snow flurries whirling among the waiting journalists.

"Christ!", mutters a reporter from The Sun. "Freezing me effing bollocks off for Julian bloody Assange. What a way to spend Christmas!"

This short story was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 December 2010.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Price of Privatising Prisons

The Biggest Company You've Never Heard Of: Serco plc sits at the centre of a vast international web of business operations, including prisons, immigration detention centres, nuclear facilities, services to the US National Security Agency, air traffic control systems, railways, hospitals and schools.

ADAM RICKWOOD was just 14 years old when he died. His "carers" at Hassockfield secure training centre in County Durham found him hanging in his cell. Adam’s suicide, in August 2004, remains the United Kingdom’s youngest-ever "death in custody" case.

But it was much more than that.

The following year a judge ruled that, shortly before his death, Adam had been subjected to "unlawful force" by his so-called "carers".

The incident that led to Adam’s suicide began when he resisted being placed in solitary confinement. Employing one of the "pain compliance techniques" secretly recommended to Britain’s privatised secure training centres by the UK Ministry of Justice, Adam’s "carers" struck him violently on the side of his nose, causing it to bleed profusely.

Having administered their state-sanctioned "nose distraction technique", Adam’s "carers" then confined their sobbing, blood-covered "client" to his cell, where he lay, without medical treatment, for several hours. Alone, in pain, fearing further assaults and convinced that he would never again be free, the traumatised teenager took his own life.

The private-sector organisation contracted by the British Government to run the Hassockfield secure training centre is called Serco plc.

Earlier this week, our own Minister of Corrections, Judith Collins, announced that this vast transnational conglomerate, memorably described by Guardian journalist Jane Martinson as "the biggest company you’ve never hear of"; the same company in whose "care" 14 year-old Adam Rickwood was driven to suicide; would soon be running the Mt Eden/Auckland Central Remand Prison.

In a press-release announcing the contract, Ms Collins explained: "Serco has a strong track record in managing prisons. I’m confident that the company will bring the high standards of professionalism, safety, rehabilitation and security expected by the Government to Mt Eden/ACRP."

One wonders exactly how Ms Collins and her Department of Corrections define "high standards of professionalism" when the fatal brutalisation of a 14 year-old boy – but one of many cases of prisoner and detainee ill-treatment uncovered at Serco-run facilities in both the UK and Australia – is part of the corporation’s "strong track record in managing prisons".

One certainly hopes that the ex-police, ex-military, security guards employed by Serco to keep order in the "Aussie Archipelago" of Immigration Detention Centres (security guards who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Blackwater Corporation’s notorious "contractors" in US-occupied Iraq) are not what Minister Collins has in mind when she talks about Serco bringing in "new ideas and international best practice".

Serco will certainly bring a wealth of experience in the business of privatisation. Three-quarters of the 50,000 people employed by Serco across the planet are former civil-servants. Not that there’s anything like a one-to-one correlation between the state-sector employees Serco replaces and the people who end up on its permanent payroll.

As Bevan Hanlon from the Correction Officers’ union noted in his response to Ms Collins’ announcement., Serco take-overs usually result in about 30 percent of the workers formerly employed by the State failing to secure re-employment in the new, privately-run entity.

This is hardly surprising, since Serco’s ability to turn a profit on the "business" of incarceration is almost wholly dependent upon its ability to provide the State with an equivalent level of "service" with fewer resources and far fewer staff.

It’s a Devil’s bargain. Ms Collins must know that Serco’s loss-leading tender can only be recouped at the expense of the prisoners in its "care". When fewer corrections staff are available to perform their highly demanding and often dangerous duties, the international literature all points to inmates spending more time in dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary cells, receiving reduced rations of inferior quality, having fewer exercise and rehabilitative opportunities, and being afforded considerably less dignity than when they were the responsibility of the State.

And, of course, these cut-backs come at a price. For individuals suffering from mental illnesses and/or drug and alcohol problems – prisoners without the intellectual or physical resources to withstand the constantly degraded living conditions – the stress will quickly become unbearable. Violence – against staff, other prisoners and, most tragically, against themselves – will increase.

In recommending Serco to her cabinet colleagues, Ms Collins has – wittingly or unwittingly – injected a deadly toxin into our correctional facilities. The outcome is horribly predictable: "deaths in custody" will rise dramatically.

Sooner than she would wish, Minister Collins will be presented with an Adam Rickwood of her own.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 December 2010.

In Memory of Tom Newnham (1926 - 2010)

A Great New Zealander: Tom Newnham, founder of the Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE), author of By Batons & Barbed Wire: A Response to the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand, and a ceaseless fighter for the rights of oppressed people everywhere, died on Wednesday, 15 December 2010, aged 84.

You were thirty-seven, Tom,
When Peter, Paul and Mary
Made If I Had a Hammer a hit.
Old enough to know, in 1963,
How brave it was to sing
So fervently about
Justice, Freedom, Love.

What an incitement it was:
All that youth and reckless hope;
With Mary Travers’ hair
A silver banner in the spotlight,
And Peter’s and Paul’s guitars
Brandished like swords
Above the Newport crowd.

At eighteen, watching the newsreels,
You’d seen the worst that men can do.
The bodies stacked like cordwood,
Racism’s obscene legacy
Luminous in the survivor’s eyes.
Was it then, in the darkness,
You made your lifetime vow?

Watching the post-war babies grow.
Seeing them reach for the bright promises
Their parents forgot to keep.
Refusing the hemlock of comfortable silence.
Moving like a partisan through the Cold War sentries.
Distributing your weapons of resistance –
Hammers, bells and songs.

Showing us how much was lost
In the translation of waiata to song.
How much had been stolen
Beneath the auctioneer’s hammer.
How a whole people was dispossessed
To the accompaniment of church bells –
And the cheering of Rugby crowds.

Until, standing there, Tom,
The air throbbing with the
primal violence of thwarted sport,
You linked arms with history.
And while the whole world watched,
Swung the hammer, tolled the bell,
Sang freedom’s song.

Chris Trotter
17 December 2010

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Politics Is About Choices - Not Tricks.

The Squeezed Middle: Employing the political tactics perfected by the American strategists Mark Penn and Dick Morris, Phil Goff is attempting to play both sides against "the squeezed middle" - a phrase which, along with "Soccer Moms" and "Reagan Democrats" has more to do with polling than principle.
MARK PENN and Dick Morris have a lot to answer for. Between them they have managed to change the practice of politics in the modern world fundamentally. If you’ve ever wondered why today’s politicians never seem to do anything large or inspiring; or why modern politics appears to revolve around the petty and the paltry; then look no further than Penn & Morris.

It was Mark Penn who invented "Soccer Moms". This wonderfully evocative term was his shorthand way of describing middle-income mothers of young families more-or-less uninterested in political and economic issues – but absolutely committed to the moral and physical welfare of their families. The way to come at these voters, Mr Penn told his client, President Bill Clinton, was not via their back pockets, but through their values. Convince them that you care about the same things they care about, and they are much more likely to vote for you.

This is where Dick Morris enters the picture. His main claim to fame is as the inventor of the political technique known as "triangulation". His advice to President Clinton, as he contemplated his campaign for a second term, was brutally simple. Abandon fixed ideological positions and re-fashion your political message so that it incorporates elements of both the Left and the Right. In other words, if the liberal and conservative ideologies represent the base, your new position should be "above and between them" at the apex of a new "triangular" political configuration.

President Clinton’s ringing declaration that "the era of big government is over" and his support for Republican Party-inspired "welfare reforms" are two of the best known examples of "Clintonian Triangulation".

Political observers in the United States point to President Barack Obama’s latest White House-brokered compromise over bitterly contested tax and benefit legislation as evidence that he has embraced his Democratic Party predecessor’s "triangulation" technique. That President Obama recently played host to President Clinton at the White House has done little to dampen this speculation.

The Penn-Morris combination: intensive and continuous "neuro-personality" polling of the electorate; combined with the constant re-positioning of political parties – to keep them "above and between" the extremes of Left and Right. In the 21st Century, this is simply the way politics is done.

Our own prime minister, John Key, is a master of the Penn-Morris style of politics.

The National Party polls the electorate continuously, accurately tracking the smallest shifts in public opinion and building up "psychographic" profiles of the many (and often quite contradictory) components of the Government’s electoral base. Mr Key follows the results of his party’s polling assiduously – borrowing freely from the policies of both his right- and left-wing competitors to preserve the public’s perception of him as a leader refreshingly unencumbered by ideological baggage.

Labour’s leader, Phil Goff, attempted a little triangulation of his own last Monday with a speech to a gathering of well-heeled Auckland lawyers and businessmen entitled "The Squeezed Middle".

Promising a future Labour Government would "operate within tight fiscal restraints"(a clearly conservative commitment) he also pledged his party to growing "better jobs and higher incomes" (a traditional left-wing objective).

The subject of his speech – "The Squeezed Middle" – is clearly born of the same mixture of demographic and psychographic profiling that gave birth to Clinton’s "Soccer Moms" in the 1990s, and to "Reagan Democrats" back in the 1980s.

The picture it conjures up is one of deep social anxiety and economic insecurity. At its heart is the sort of middle-income family which did well in the boom years, but which now finds itself just a paycheque away from disaster. These are the folk who borrowed heavily – maybe to buy a better house or to set up a small business – and who now find themselves shivering in the bitter recessionary winds.

The "squeeze" they feel comes, on one side, from their fear of falling back into the poverty from which their family only recently escaped, and, on the other, from the pressure of a pitiless economic system that will crush their hopes without the slightest hesitation.

Mr Goff must know that such people are deeply conflicted. Strong believers in free enterprise, their values cast the poor as lazy "bludgers" – undeserving of the vast quantities of taxpayers’ money spent annually on their relief. But, they also know that if the worst happens, and they lose everything, it will not be for lack of hard work. Why doesn’t that count? They ask themselves. Why, when the chips are down, is the banker never your friend?

That’s the weakness of Penn-Morris politics. Power isn’t something that can be triangulated, and polling merely describes the voters’ predicament. Real politics is about making choices.

New Zealand’s problems need solutions: whether they be left-wing or right-wing solutions matters much less than locating a politician with the guts to give them a try.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 December 2010.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Injured Majesty

Ruler by Divine Right?: The Maori King, Tuheitia, has unilaterally dismissed the Chair of the Tainui Parliament, Tania Martin. The King's advisors argue that Tuheitia's status as paramount chief of his people over-rides the democratic elements of the Iwi's constitution. The English King, Charles I, asserted something similar in 1641 and sparked a civil war.

IT WILL BE an interesting test.

Over-riding the tribe’s constitution, the Maori King, and Paramount Chief of the Tainui Iwi, Tuheitia, has dismissed Tania Martin, the democratically elected Chairwoman of Te Kauhanganui – the Tainui parliament. Her offence? Issuing a report sharply critical of the way the King and Te Arataura – his advisory board – have been managing the tribe’s resources. Her report has been interpreted as a direct thrust against the King’s mana – his authority and prestige. The equivalent in European law is lèse majesté – "injured majesty".

The test can be broken into three questions:

The first is whether or not the Tainui people, acting through their marae representatives, will challenge the King’s actions.

The second is whether or not the King and his advisors will allow themselves to be over-ruled by their own people.

And the third is whether or not the political leaders of Pakeha New Zealand will have anything to say about the political drama unfolding in the Waikato.

They should. Because Tainui’s drama is practically identical to the drama our own ancestors lived through more than 300 years ago. The rights and privileges which Members of Parliament still enjoy, and which we, as free citizens, hold dear, are all directly traceable to the bloody drama known as the English Civil War.

King Charles I found it intolerable that he was fiscally accountable to his own people through their Parliament. Believing that his political authority came directly from God, he refused to accept that his powers could be circumscribed in any way by the will of his subjects. When Parliament refused his demands for money, and declared his closest advisors traitors, the King, with 400 soldiers, tried to arrest the five politicians responsible. Forewarned, the parliamentary leaders escaped. London erupted in fury. Charles and his family fled, first to Oxford, then to Nottingham, where, on August 22nd 1642, he "raised his standard" – effectively declaring war upon his own subjects.

To date, King Tuheitia’s coup has been considerably more successful than King Charles’s. His dismissal and replacement of Te Kauhanganui Chairwoman, Ms Martin, is a fait accompli. It’s as if Charles had succeeded in arresting those five members of the House of Commons – leaving their stunned colleagues to debate their next move under the watchful eyes of the King’s musketeers.

That’s where the Tainui parliamentarians are now. They must either convene Te Kauhanganui in defiance of the King and reconfirm Ms Martin in the Chair, or accept that Tuheitia and Te Arataura have successfully asserted their right to manage Tainui’s affairs independently of, and without reference to either the local marae – or Te Kauhanganui.

What will Te Arataura’s next move be if Te Kauhanganui defies the King’s fait accompli and reinstates its discarded Chairwoman? If past practice is any guide, the Advisory Board will ask for a court injunction to enforce its executive authority.

Right there is where Tainui’s drama starts spilling out of the realm of Tuheitia and into the realm of Elizabeth II. So, right now, the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Attorney General, and every other New Zealand MP, need to start thinking about what their next move will be if the worst happens, and a Pakeha judge, by sanctioning the subversion of Tainui democracy, shreds Article Three of the Treaty of Waitangi.

If our political leaders do not step in and prevent Tuheitia from succeeding where Charles I failed, then more than the whanau and hapu of Tainui have reason to feel afraid. Because, at that moment, all of us – Maori and Pakeha alike – will know that John Key’s deal with the Maori Party, has solidified into a dangerously intimate and profoundly undemocratic alliance between the executive arm of the Pakeha state, and a small, legally protected clique of aristocratic Maori politicians and businessmen.

The very same combination of unaccountable political and economic power which our ancestors, for nine bloody years, fought a vicious civil war to break up and bring under their control.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 December 2010. 

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Out of the Line of Sight (Some Questions For Pike River Coal)

Reluctant Witness: In every thriller there's always someone who doesn't want the detective to see what lies just beyond his line of sight. Why is Pike River Coal sending its lawyers to sit in on the Department of Labour's interviews with its employees?

IN JUST ABOUT every movie thriller there’s a blocking scene. Some thing or some body which gets in the way of the hero’s investigation.

You know the sort of incident I’m talking about.

At the door to the key witness’s apartment, the detective’s confronted by someone who very obviously doesn’t want to let him in. When he gives the witness’s name, the doorkeeper shakes his head:

"Sorry, buddy, never heard of her."

But the detective (and, of course, the audience) can tell he’s prevaricating. There’s something "off" about the guy’s entire behaviour. His gaze keeps shifting to something standing just out of the detective’s line of sight. When the hero attempts to get a better view of the apartment, the doorkeeper becomes even more agitated:

"I told you – she’s not here!"

The door slams in the detective’s face.

NOW, THE PIKE RIVER mine disaster isn’t a movie thriller – it’s a real-life human tragedy. But, it’s also a mystery. So, I’m wondering – am I the only person in New Zealand who’s asking himself whether Pike River Coal knows something we don’t?

And, if they don’t, then I’ve got to ask its top guys another question: Why is the Company insisting that its lawyers sit in on the interviews Department of Labour officials are conducting with mine workers?

The Company says it’s only concerned about safeguarding its employees’ – the mine workers’ – rights. But, if that’s the case, then wouldn’t they be talking to their union representatives? After all, that’s what the union’s there for – to protect the rights of its members.

And, in the case of Pike River Coal, that protection is provided by one of the country’s largest and best resourced trade unions – the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) led by Andrew Little.

If Pike River Coal was only interested in making sure that the rights of its employees were being safeguarded, then wouldn’t the presence of the EPMU have reassured them that all was well?

So, why didn’t the involvement of the EPMU reassure Pike River Coal at all? What made it so touchy? Why, when Mr Little and his officials questioned the propriety of the Company’s lawyers being present at what are, in essence, evidence-gathering interviews by the Department of Labour, did everything become so heated?

Think back to those movie thrillers.

When the prime suspect is being questioned by the Police it’s quite usual for him to have his lawyer present. Legal representation ensures that the suspect is not pressured into saying something that may later be used against him in court, should the matter ever come to trial. Suspects (especially in American thrillers) enjoy full constitutional protection against self-incrimination.

But have you ever seen a thriller where the suspect’s lawyer sits in on witness interviews? Just imagine how intimidating that would be. The detectives are asking an eye-witness to a shooting if he can identify the gunman – and the prime suspect’s lawyer is sitting there taking notes! How much co-operation do you think the Police’s key witnesses are going to provide under those conditions?

Pike River Coal is also, unbelievably, demanding that the Department of Labour inquiry team hand over any audio or video recordings they have already made, or make in the future, of evidence-gathering interviews with Company employees and/or sub-contractors.

I fervently hope that the Department’s officials to do not comply with Pike River Coal’s demand. Like the Company’s insistence that its lawyers be present during the gathering of evidence, it runs the risk of sowing very worrying seeds of doubt in the public’s mind as to whether the Department of Labour’s statutory inquiry into the Pike River mining disaster is being undertaken "without fear or favour".

Charging in with lawyers like this isn’t the only aspect of Pike River Coal’s behaviour which has struck a number of observers as being a little "off".

What, for example, lay behind its decision to hold on to the CCTV record of the original explosion for so long? Was no one monitoring the live feed from the mine’s mouth? Had someone been physically present outside the mine’s entrance to see and feel the blast, how long would it have taken to raise the alarm and activate the rescue procedures?

And why, if Pike River Coal is genuine about putting the interests of its employees first, did the Company not insist that union representatives be seated among the dignitaries at last week’s memorial service? The West Coast has long been a bastion of trade unionism in New Zealand. Am I the only one who found it strange that the 29 miners’ union and the CTU weren’t allowed to speak at their funeral?

Was somebody frightened of what they might say?

Is there something – just out of their line of sight – that someone is desperate the detectives don’t see?

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 December 2010.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Unlucky Generations

Second Time Farce: The unlucky generation born between 1929-39 had Roosevelt and Churchill, Hitler and Stalin, heroes and villains to match the epic scale of world-wide depression and war. The unluckier generation born between 1968-78 had to make do with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

NEW ZEALANDERS born in the decade between the Wall Street Crash and the outbreak of World War II were dealt a truly unlucky hand. Their formative years were lived in the shadow of the Great Depression. War scarred their teens. And whatever hopefulness and idealism they carried into early adulthood was snuffed out by McCarthyism and the onset of the Cold War. Even the rising affluence the 1950s and early 1960s proved conditional. Yes, their new-found prosperity could be celebrated and enjoyed – but only soberly and responsibly, in ways that didn’t rock the boat.

I’m pretty sure the tightly constrained circumstances of this unlucky generation explains the baffled rage they visited upon their gloriously unconstrained off-spring. The cultural revolution of the late-1960s and 70s not only exploded the tight cocoon in which New Zealand was wrapped, but also revealed how very flimsy it was. Like the citizens of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, when Kiwis peered behind the curtain of post-war conformity, they discovered they’d been living in awe of some very little men with very loud voices.

Kiwis born between 1929 and 1939 are not the only unlucky generation, however.

No sooner had the conservative post-war cocoon been destroyed than its makers began spinning another. This new restraint would be much more sophisticated than its predecessor. Within the second cocoon there would be more room to move, but it would be constructed of material far stronger than the first. This time there would be no breaking of the ties that bind.

Because, if 1929 was one of History’s sign-post years, then so was 1968. New Zealanders born in the ten year period between the high-tide of the 60s youth rebellion, and the final years of post-war affluence became a second unlucky generation.

The formative years of New Zealanders born in 1968 were years of unprecedented prosperity. But, by the time they entered primary school the country was already reeling from Britain’s entry into the EEC and the first oil shock. Dominating their childhood were the divisive politics of Sir Robert Muldoon. Their teenage years opened with the 1981 Springbok Tour and closed with the 1987 Stockmarket Crash. Most could not remember a time when the New Zealand economy was not in crisis. Their early adult years were disfigured by the economic "fixes" of Rogernomics, Ruthanasia and Jennycide.

This second unlucky generation could not even console themselves with the thought that they were living through an era of existential danger. The Neoliberal Counter-Revolution which got underway as these unfortunate kids were entering secondary school in the early 1980s was a distinctly tawdry affair. Where the first unlucky generation had Roosevelt and Churchill, Stalin and Hitler – heroes and villains to match the epic scale of world-wide depression and war – the second had to make do with Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan.

They were the prisoners of a fetishised economics: cocooned not in the morals of a long departed Victorian Age, or the paranoid fantasies of anti-communist America, but in a notion much more dangerous and difficult to overcome: that the world we inhabit is as good as it gets; that there are no longer any viable economic or political alternatives to the free market and the self-commodification it requires.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this difference between the two unlucky generations. In the 1930s and 40s politics dominated economics absolutely, so the priority was clearly to prevent the twenty-somethings of the 1950s from considering either of the contemporary alternatives to capitalism – social-democracy or communism. It’s why the post-war social order had to be couched in terms of the citizen embracing a strict social and political conformity in return for affluent security.

For the "Rogernomics Generation" no such Faustian bargain’s been on offer. By successfully subordinating politics to economics, Neoliberalism has deprived them of the only possible means of escaping their cocoon.

This generation’s curious passivity has opened a yawning gap between the rapidly ageing rebels of the 60s and 70s and the generation of young New Zealanders only now entering their 20s. Not even the threat of global warming or the biggest financial disaster since 1929 have been able to shake the Rogernomics Generation's conviction that all intervention is futile.

But, if the dangerous fatalism of this zombie generation isn’t overcome, then very soon the luck will run out for all of us.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 December 2010.

The Case Manager

Gearing Down: To preserve the machinery of capitalism sacrifices will be made - but not by those who own it.

"A MENACING and Punitive Environment". As I watched the YouTube clip of mounted policemen charging student protesters in the streets of London, I couldn’t help thinking how accurately these words describe our present predicament.

From Athens to Dublin; from Lisbon to London; from Washington to Wellington; everywhere; you can hear the sound of political gears shifting down. For the first time in eighty years, the largest, slowest cogs of the state apparatus, its prime drivers, are being engaged.

At this, their most basic level, the relentless and implacable processes of government have only one purpose: keep the state machinery functioning. By any means necessary and without reckoning the human cost, keep the wheels turning. Under no circumstances should the machine be permitted to stop.

Those at the bottom of our society feel the downward shift first. "In all our public meetings, and in many of the written submissions," writes the Alternative Welfare Working Group, "there was a consistent message that Work & Income as an institution has become more intimidating."

The policy has yet be openly acknowledged, but it is already in effect: Get as many people as possible off the Invalids and onto the Sickness Benefit. Get them "work ready". Get them off the books.

What does that mean in practice? One of the beneficiaries who made a submission to the Alternative Welfare Working Group explains: "I have to explain my medical conditions to a different case manager every three months, who is a complete stranger. It is totally humiliating."

But its not only those at the bottom of society who are feeling the effects of the downward shift.

Last Saturday evening, the former leader of the National Party, Dr Don Brash, returned to the popular seaside resort of Orewa, north of Auckland, to deliver a speech. (Orewa was, of course, the scene of Dr Brash’s extraordinary "Nationhood" speech – the message which caused National’s poll-rating to surge an unprecedented 17 points in January 2004.)

On this occasion, however, it wasn’t Maori "privilege" in Dr Brash’s gunsights. This time his target was the National Party’s present leader and Prime Minister, John Key. The lanky economist’s natural civility precluded a direct assault upon his former colleague, but no one in the Orewa Branch of the National Party could’ve been in any doubt as to whom the following sentences were addressed:

"New Zealand is a great country, and we in the National Party are proud and passionate New Zealanders. But our great country is perhaps more at risk today than at any time since the Second World War. I believe it’s safe to say that our relative decline – both in terms of our economy and in terms of racial harmony – will never be reversed if our political leaders allow themselves to be driven entirely by political polls."

As the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, Dr Brash is, naturally, familiar with this country’s precarious financial situation. He knows, too, that the global capitalist system will require a whole generation – maybe two – to absorb the economic, social and political consequences of the catastrophic financial collapse of 2008.

New Zealand’s experience of the Global Financial Crisis has, so far, been considerably less harrowing than that of Iceland, Greece or Ireland. But, as any economic historian will tell you, this country was also slow to feel the full effects of the Great Depression. Dr Brash must know that, in spite of one or two encouraging swallows, the summer of economic recovery is still a very long way off.

Indeed, it is probable that the winter of New Zealand’s fiscal discontent is only just beginning. When it finally takes hold, the political downshift will begin in earnest.

Stripped of their flummery, societies like ours stand revealed as the private property of a tiny elite. To protect that property, and to preserve their access to the capital that makes it a going concern, they will not hesitate to make the lives of the rest of us considerably poorer and more precarious. That’s what has happened in the United States, That’s what is happening in the United Kingdom. And that is what Dr Brash is not-so-subtly telling Mr Key must soon happen here.

A capitalist society in low gear is never a happy place. Governments struggle to retain office and individual politicians become extremely unpopular – as the Irish Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, has discovered. It is precisely at such critical historical junctures, however, that the ability to make unpopular (meaning undemocratic) decisions becomes all-important. Indeed, it is probably the most important duty in a Prime Minister’s job description.

With Dr Brash playing the role of Mr Key’s Work & Income case manager, the Prime Minister may soon discover that he has more in common with invalid and sickness beneficiaries than he could possibly have imagined.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 November 2010.