Friday, 28 January 2011

Who Doesn't Dare - Loses

Close, but no cigar, Phil: Courage is the only currency that will purchase this election for Labour.

COURAGE is the most valuable political commodity. Without courage, you won’t offer the best policies. Without courage, you can’t attract the best candidates. Without courage, even the best organised political party is rapidly reduced to moral and intellectual bankruptcy.

Last Tuesday afternoon, in the Auckland suburb of New Lynn, the Labour Party leader, Phil Goff, had the opportunity to demonstrate not only the courage of his party, but his own willingness to risk everything for a Labour victory.

He failed on both counts.

What’s really infuriating about Mr Goff’s failure to be brave, is that the policy package he finally decided to offer the electorate was so very nearly enough.

With just a little more courage, the tax reforms Mr Goff announced could have been an electoral game-breaker. With just a little more courage, the moral crusade against greed, inequality and social injustice that waits only for a politician with the guts to lead it, could have been unleashed. With just a little more courage, the stark economic and social alternatives confronting New Zealand could have been thrown into sharp relief. With just a little more courage, Labour could have given us a choice.

Take, for example, Mr Goff’s announcement of a "Tax Free Zone" for low income earners. The policy’s very name – incorporating the language of the Fourth Labour Government’s high-risk anti-nuclear legislation – was clearly designed to raise the hopes and aspirations of the party’s hard-pressed supporters. And, had it encompassed the first $10,000 of income, Labour’s constituency would have stood up and cheered. Here at last would have been irrefutable evidence of Mr Goff’s determination to halt and roll-back the unrelenting transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

A Tax Free Zone of $10,000 would have required the wholesale reform of the way the wealth of New Zealanders is taxed. It would have mandated the re-introduction of gift and inheritance taxes; it would have required the increased taxation of repatriated profits; it would have necessitated substantially increased marginal tax rates for the highest income earners; and, most of all, it would have made sure that the gaping revenue hole, opened up by the refusal of successive governments to introduce a capital gains tax, could finally have been sealed.

The $5,000 Tax Free Zone which Mr Goff did announce is worse than nothing at all. The extra dollars it places in the hands of working people are far too few to significantly lift their living standards, and its $1.3 billion cost is simply left dangling in mid-air.

Oh sure, there are sly hints aplenty about New Zealand’s inadequate tax-gathering mechanisms – but absolutely no firm policy. This simply will not do.

In the current economic circumstances it is politically irresponsible to announce tax changes leading to a $1.3 billion decline in revenue without, at the same time, describing how it is to be made up. Labour’s opponents will, quite rightly, point out that, in the absence of corresponding tax increases, Mr Goff’s $5,000 Tax Free Zone can only be paid for by further increasing the deficit, or cutting back on government expenditure.

Mr Goff’s state of the nation speech was also silent about the crucial issue of Free Trade. While Labour clings, like a frightened child, to MFAT’s apron-strings and refuses to engage in the hard-headed analysis that would allow it to recognise the enormous economic damage this country’s fanatical adherence to Free Trade has inflicted upon its people; all the fine talk about "growing an economy that works for you" is just hot air.

For Labour to reject Free Trade and embrace Fair Trade would require enormous courage. But how brave do you have to be to announce that, upon taking office, a future Labour Government will immediately end the New Zealand State’s relationship with the Westpac Bank, and require every government department, crown-controlled entity and state-owned enterprise to source their financial services from Kiwibank?

Yet, even this tiny gesture was too much for Mr Goff.

It’s sad, because the opportunity to inflict an "Orewa" on John Key’s Government was definitely there on Tuesday. By setting the terms of the debate at this early stage, Mr Goff could have wrenched control of the political agenda from the Prime Minister’s inactive hands.

Had you dared more, Mr Goff, you would have failed less.

Courage is its own reward.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 January 2011.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Maximum Damage

Evidence? Why would I need evidence after accumulating 50 years of National Party prejudices? Education Minister, Anne Tolley, refuses to defend New Zealand's national curriculum or its national qualifications system. When confronted with Auckland Grammar's full-scale attack on the NCEA, her response was: "Where's the harm?"

HOW STUPID do they think we are? Do they really expect us to believe that the week in which tens of thousands of young New Zealanders received their NCEA certificates, the headmaster of Auckland Grammar just happened to announce that, in 2011, only his "weaker students" will be sitting the official New Zealand exam?

Come on! Doesn’t it make more sense that the announcement Auckland Grammar will be directing 90 percent of its pupils towards the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) – a decision the school’s Board of Trustees made several months ago – was deliberately timed to inflict the maximum damage to the NCEA?

But, to what purpose? Who are these mysterious "they"? And what is it they’re hoping to achieve? Well, let’s answer those questions by making it very clear who "they" are not.

They are not experts in the field of education. The overwhelming consensus of expert opinion both here and overseas is that the NCEA examination is a highly effective educational response to the cultural and vocational challenges confronting young New Zealanders in the 21st Century.

They are also very far from being representative of the overwhelming majority of school principals and teachers who have worked tirelessly, alongside the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, to correct the inevitable malfunctions and address the (surprisingly few) conceptual and/or procedural shortcomings exposed during the introduction of the new system.

No, the NCEA is not being attacked on educational grounds. The objections "they" have with our national secondary school qualifications are entirely political.

There’s a certain type of New Zealander who views this country’s young people in the same way that a farmer views a mob of ewes and lambs. For these New Zealanders, our school qualifications regime is supposed to operate like the farmer’s drafting race. The kids are funnelled-in, and, as they pass through, the examination system slams the drafting-gate to the left or to the right, sorting out the sheep (to be returned to green pastures) from the lambs (to be sent to the works).

Except this educational sorting system is nowhere near as objective as the farmer’s. At least the cockey divides his flock according to an objective test: is this a sheep, or a lamb? The opponents of NCEA, however, aren’t interested in a system which sorts young New Zealanders according to their abilities. What they're after is one which sorts students according to the socio-economic status of their parents.

And how better to signal to your children’s prospective employers that they have been educated at a private school, or at one of the elite state secondary schools (like Auckland Grammar) than by substituting the CIE for the NCEA? After all, it’s only the very wealthy who can afford to pay the fees of the most prestigious private institutions. Just as it’s only the very wealthy who can afford to own a house in the highly-prized "Grammar Zone".

The CIE is certainly no better, and arguably a marginally less effective predictor of academic success, than the NCEA. But, of course, that’s not it’s purpose. Like the star on the belly of Dr Seuss’s infamous "Sneetches", the CIE qualification is supposed to signal that the bearer is "One of Us": a superior form of life; someone to be preferred over all those unfortunate, plain Sneetches with "none upon thars".

Now, you don’t have to be a genius to see where New Zealand’s going to end up if the CIE becomes associated with high social status, and the NCEA is reserved for "weaker students". In no time flat, this country’s education system will be driven almost entirely by considerations of class (and in New Zealand that all-too-often comes down to issues of race and ethnicity).

Since the 1930s, New Zealand’s education system has been driven by the determination that: "every person, whatever the level of his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers."

The keepers of that promise: the guardians of educational equality in this country; have traditionally been New Zealand’s Ministers of Education. And that is why, when the headmaster of Auckland Grammar made his deeply offensive announcement, parents and teachers across New Zealand turned to National’s Anne Tolley. Surely, they reasoned, the Minister of Education will not stand back and watch the NCEA reduced to something only "weaker students" sit? Surely, she will instruct Auckland Grammar, as part of the state secondary system, to step back into line.

But that’s not what Anne Tolley did. The Minister of Education’s extraordinary response was: "Where’s the harm?"

Well, Minister, of one thing I’m certain. The harm unleashed by your unconscionable refusal to defend the NCEA will not be found in your neighbourhood.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 January 2011.

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Left's Favourite Warrior

Saviour of The Left?: If Hone Harawira secures control of the Maori Party, the National Party's policy intentions - hitherto blurred by its confusing relationship with the Maori Party - will snap into much sharper ideological focus. NOTE TO READERS: This essay was written prior to the Maori Party caucus laying its complaint against Mr Harawira. Push has indeed come to shove.

HONE HARAWIRA is fast becoming the "Great Brown Hope" of the New Zealand Left. And you don’t have to be a political scientist to see why. His extraordinary column in last Sunday’s Sunday Star-Times makes it brutally clear that the relationship between the National-led Government and the Maori Party will not survive the current parliamentary term.

Unless the National Party is able to do what hasn’t been done since 1951, and secure a majority of the votes cast, the Maori Party’s imminent left-turn places the Government’s re-election chances entirely in the hands of Act – and the Epsom voters. For his Government to endure, the Prime Minister, John Key, not only needs Act’s leader, Rodney Hide, to carry the Epsom seat – but also a fat swag of Act MPs on his coat-tails.

Forcing National into the arms of Act is clearly Mr Harawira’s key strategic objective. The Maori Party’s most important contribution to National (as Mr Harawira himself wryly admits) has been its ability to blur the sharper edges of the Right’s ideological agenda. Without the Maori Party, that agenda will snap into sharp focus. It will then be much harder for Mr Key to persuade voters they have nothing to fear from a second term National-led Government.

But what about the Maori Party’s leaders – Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples? Have they no say in this?

The short answer is: "No."

Since the Maori Party’s Hui a Tau (annual general meeting) at Hastings’ Omahu Marae last October, it has been very clear that the party’s rank-and-file are looking to Mr Harawira for the leadership Ms Turia and Mr Sharples have failed to deliver. His frank exposition of the Maori Party’s shortcomings in the Sunday Star-Times is proof of this. No politician would castigate his leaders in the way Mr Harawira has done unless he’s pretty sure that, should push comes to shove, a radicalised and rebellious majority will be shoving his way.

Besides, the political logic of abandoning National for an alternative, Centre-Left, coalition is as clear to Ms Turia and Mr Sharples as it is to Mr Harawira. National’s own rank-and-file are telling their MPs that the Marine & Coastal Areas Bill is a ‘beach too far’ for many Centre-Right voters to accept. The Maori Party membership also understands that National’s stock of symbolic gestures is fast running out.

Time to steer the waka in a new direction.

You would be quite mistaken, however, to believe that Mr Harawira is paddling towards Labour. His most compatible Pakeha allies (as his own daughter bluntly reminded him by announcing her intention to vote for them) are the Greens.

The Maori Party stands to win many more concessions from the Labour Party by negotiating alongside the Greens, as a bloc, than it does by negotiating separately. Between them, the two parties will control a minimum of 11 seats. Neither Labour, nor National, will be able to form a government without them.

The only complicating factors in Mr Harawira’s strategic calculations are Winston Peters and NZ First. If the electorate suspects a Green/Maori Party bloc would demand too much from Labour, it may decide to give NZ First sufficient support to provide Phil Goff with the same either/or, both/and options which the Act/Maori Party combination gave Mr Key in 2008.

This intriguing prospect supplies all the parties of the Centre-Left with a powerful incentive to mobilise the maximum number of eligible voters. And, as National learned to its cost in 2005: the higher the turnout, the lower the chances of a Centre-Right victory.

It will be interesting to observe how many of these considerations Mr Harawira explores in his forthcoming columns in the Sunday Star-Times. My suspicion is that these verbal sallies will reflect much of the strategic and tactical virtuosity displayed by his illustrious Ngapuhi forebears. There is more than a hint in Mr Harawira of that other great ‘Hone’ of the North – the warrior, Hone Heke.

No wonder the Left love him.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star on Friday, 21 January 2011.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A Small History Lesson For Federated Farmers

It Ain't Wellington, Don: Far from being the innovative national icon described by Federated Farmers boss, Don Nicolson, the milk powder manufacturing business founded in New Zealand by 19th Century entrepreneur, James Nathan, was built on imported capital, imported patents and imported technology. The profits, as usual, went offshore - in Glaxo's case, to London.

DON NICOLSON needs a history lesson. In fact the current president of Federated Farmers could usefully invest in an entire history course. A surer grasp of where New Zealand has come from would allow the current leader of this country’s most powerful pressure-group to speak with considerably more authority about where New Zealand is now – and where it should be going.

Mr Nicolson began a recent newspaper article by lauding the achievements of Joseph Nathan, creator of the Glaxo brand of infant formula. "Joseph Nathan leveraged off agriculture and built a leviathan", wrote Mr Nicolson, before going on to sing the praises of the vast multinational corporation, GlaxoSmithKline, which long ago gobbled up Joseph Nathan’s highly successful Manawatu-based business.

Had Mr Nicolson taken the time to research the history of the Nathan family more thoroughly, he would have discovered a record of achievement which remains, to say the least, equivocal. Far from being a great innovator, Joseph Nathan was representative of a class of shrewd colonial businessmen who came to New Zealand in the 19th Century to make their fortune and then, hopefully, return with it to England.

The best business decision James Nathan ever made was to acquire the rights to the newly developed process for turning milk into powder. The process, along with the technology required to give it effect, were all imported. New Zealand’s only significant contribution then – as now – was grass, and the cows to turn it into milk.

The Nathans were fortunate in owning quite a lot of grass. To a degree which had raised eyebrows among their contemporaries, the land required to grow it had been acquired from soldiers returning to civilian life after the Land Wars. For services rendered these men were granted a small share of the lands confiscated from the defeated Maori tribes. By offering the penurious soldiery cash, the Nathans had built up a substantial base for agricultural operations.

Glaxo’s other great claim to fame was its masterful utilisation of advertising. The claim that Glaxo’s infant formula "Builds Bonnie Babies" secured it a significant share of the UK market, and contributed hugely to the decline of breast-feeding in that country – and ours. The consequences of Glaxo’s intervention, in terms of infant health, are difficult to calculate – but they were by no means entirely beneficial.

The history of Glaxo – as Mr Nicolson might have anticipated – is inextricably bound up with the history of New Zealand. The Nathan family’s obvious entrepreneurial talents cannot be separated from the fact that the industry they helped to establish, like so many of our industries, was based on imported capital, imported patents and imported technology transforming local raw materials into repatriated profits. Glaxo also provides an early example of how vulnerable local businesses are to foreign acquisition.

A more thoughtful president of Federated Farmers might have pondered the lessons to be learned from the history of businesses like Glaxo. It points to the huge financial benefits that flow from publicly-funded research and development. It directs our thoughts to the importance of limiting the vulnerability of local firms to foreign takeover. It speaks of the massive returns to the nation from encouraging and funding the expansion of science and technology in our universities. And it also reminds us of how important the teaching of New Zealand history is to forming an intelligent view of our country’s forward path.

Sadly, these are not the conclusions Mr Nicolson draws from his superficial references to successful (albeit foreign-owned) companies associated with New Zealand agriculture. Instead, Mr Nicolson defaults to a series of political demands which are now more than a century old.

It was in the early years of the 20th Century that New Zealand’s farming community first began to conceive of itself as something separate and distinct from the rest of the population. They construed the dominant role of agriculture in generating the nation’s export wealth as proof not merely of farmers’ economic centrality, but of their moral superiority. Indeed, town and city-dwellers in general, and working people in particular, were regarded as the source of all the nation’s vices – and in urgent need of rural reproof.

This lust to punish urban profligacy is still clearly discernible in Mr Nicolson’s prose: "If government spending was at year 2000 levels, adjusted for inflation, $30 billion would be left in the economy each year."

Which is probably true, Mr Nicolson. But, what’s equally true is that $30 billion would not be left in our hospitals, our schools, or our universities. It would not be available to assist and support struggling Kiwi families – your fellow citizens.

It would, however, be there for the modern equivalents of James Nathan – the businessman who died in London, aged 77, with his substantial, New Zealand-made fortune safely tucked away in the vaults of a British bank.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 January and in The Waikato Times of Wednesday, 19 January 2008.

Dangerous Falsehoods

Who Governs? Every three years New Zealanders elect a new House of Representatives which, in turn, decides which party, or combination of parties, gets to form a government. All governments serve at Parliament's pleasure - and Parliament is regularly re-constituted by the people. That's how our representative democracy works - and don't let any politician, journalist or lawyer tell you otherwise!

I DON’T KNOW about you, but I tend to get quite annoyed when people accuse me of saying things I didn’t say. What makes me even more annoyed is when these accusations come from people who really should know better.

Since he goes under the sobriquet of "Legal Beagle", one has to assume that Graeme Edgeler is a qualified lawyer. As such, he should know how dangerous it can be – when commenting on controversial subjects – to put words in other people’s mouths. And yet, that is precisely what he has done in a posting on the Public Address website – and the mouth he put the word "treasonous" into is mine.

The context in which this misquotation occurs: a discussion about who has the right to govern; is of no small significance.

On Sunday, 26 October 2008, TVNZ ran a story (you can read it here) in which the network’s Political Editor, Guyon Espiner, reported the findings of a poll he’d commissioned from Colmar Brunton. The question asked was: "Should the party that wins the most votes get to lead the government?"

Having secured the entirely predictable response (77 percent said "Yes.") Mr Espiner took the opportunity of indulging in a little editorial speculation: "The latest ONE News Colmar Brunton poll suggests there will be a backlash if Labour comes a distant second to National but still forms a multi-party coalition."

It is important to bear in mind that this "news" item was broadcast less than a fortnight before the 2008 General Election – when it was still by no means certain that Winston Peters would fail to secure the 5 percent of the Party Vote required to win seats in Parliament. What was clear, however, was that if NZ First was returned there was a good chance Helen Clark and Labour would be able to secure enough support in the House of Representatives to go on governing.

By commissioning this poll, and then raising the possibility of a "backlash", Mr Espiner had effectively added his own – and TVNZ’s – support to the National Party Opposition’s campaign to delegitimize in advance any coalition government that did not include the party which commanded a simple plurality of the Party Votes cast. Outraged by this extraordinary display of overt partisanship, I penned "An Open Letter to TVNZ" which was published in The Dominion Post on Friday, 31 October.

Mr Edgeler states in his blog posting "Coalition of Losers" that: "At the time, Chris Trotter had called TVNZ 'treasonous' for running that poll." Well, Mr Edgeler, I have a copy of the open letter sitting in front of me on my desk, and nowhere does the word "treasonous" appear.

What I did say was: "For TVNZ to place the enormous power of the television medium behind this naked attempt to rule the governing party out of contention as a competitor for executive office is not only an egregious abrogation of its Charter, but also an open and extremely dangerous attack on democracy itself ….. I will not be part of any right-wing, media-driven attempt to have every Labour, Green, Maori Party, NZ First, and Progressive vote discounted."

I stand by every word.

The most depressing aspect of Mr Edgeler’s post, however, is not his failure to accurately report what I wrote, but his apparent endorsement of the position which the National Party (aided and abetted by Mr Espiner) adopted on the vital constitutional question: Who has the right to govern?

"There will be those", writes Mr Edgeler, "who will find any objection to a coalition of runners-up to be constitutionally offensive: We don’t elect a government, we elect a parliament, and whoever can command a majority of the House is properly the Prime Minister – whether from the largest party, or merely the largest group of parties. However, this ignores one of the salient points of the concern: the objection itself can be grounded in democracy."

No, Mr Edgeler, it can’t. If representative democracy means anything at all, it means government according to law: law enacted by a legislature which has been elected by the people.

Any attempt to lay aside that law: by claiming, for example, that the voters don’t really understand that what they’re doing in the polling booth every three years is electing a parliament (not a government); is a quite extraordinary stance for a lawyer to take. Ignorance of the law – as any responsible lawyer will tell his or her clients – is no defence.

It’s why I was so angered by Mr Espiner’s item back in 2008. By failing to use the resources of the public broadcaster to educate the electorate, and refusing to criticise the Opposition’s attempt to delegitimize in advance any coalition which did not include the party which had won more votes than any other single party, he allowed the National Party’s constitutional misrepresentations to pass unchallenged.

It makes me wonder what editorial stance Mr Espiner and TVNZ would have taken had National’s worst fears been realised. Would New Zealanders have been treated to the spectacle of the publicly-owned television network openly suggesting that a Labour-led coalition government lacked legitimacy?

If National and Act supporters – buoyed by TVNZ’s (and no doubt many other right-wing media outlets’) support – had taken to the streets, how would Mr Espiner and his colleagues have responded? Would Simon Dallow (as Wendy Petrie nodded in wide-eyed approval) have jutted out his noble chin on ONE News and spoken movingly of "people power" challenging "this coalition of losers"? Would the majority (i.e. 50 percent + 1) of New Zealanders who had voted for parties other than National and Act (parties now commanding a majority of the seats in Parliament) have had their political judgement over-ruled? Would the Constitution of New Zealand have been set aside?

And would Mr Edgeler have hailed such an outcome as "democracy" – or "treason"?

Monday, 17 January 2011

What's The Story Labour?

Tell it like it is, Phil: Labour's story is the story of everything New Zealanders love about their country: its egalitarianism; its determination to give every citizen a 'fair go'; its willingness to take risks for what's right. If Phil Goff can find the courage to stand up and tell us that story - he'll win.

THERE’S THE BEGINNING of an interesting – and much needed – discussion over on The Standard blogsite about what Labour should be telling us this election year. Political scientists call it "framing the narrative". A cynic might say it’s all about Labour getting it’s story straight.

Shortly after Labour’s defeat in the 2008 election I met with Phil Goff and his sidekick, Gordon Jon Thompson, and, over a very palatable lunch at my local cafĂ©, offered them the following political parable – by way of understanding where Labour was at that moment, and how it might find its way back into public favour.

I asked Phil Goff to think of John Key as the Flash Harry who turns up to a neighbourhood barbecue at the local reserve. He and his mates arrive in a shiny new SUV loaded down with all kinds of gourmet food and boutique beer. Not surprisingly, they make a pretty big splash and most of the guests are soon crowding around the grill, laughing at Flash Harry’s jokes and drinking his booze.

The night wears on. The gourmet food’s all eaten and the boutique beer’s been drunk. By now it’s becoming pretty clear that some of Flash Harry’s mates aren’t very nice. They’ve started helping themselves to other people’s stuff. One of them is harassing the Solo Mum who lives in the state house down the street. Another is pushing around the teacher who lives next to the school.

People from the neighbourhood are getting pretty pissed-off, but no one’s willing to do anything until this little bloke, who’s been sitting quietly with his friends at the far end of the reserve, steps forward. He challenges Flash Harry to get his mates under control, tells them they’re ruining the party for everyone else.

Flash Harry’s mates try to shut him up, but the little bloke stands his ground. One by one the other guests move in behind him – he’s saying exactly what they feel, and he’s not intimidated by the rich pricks’ threats.

"Hands up all those who think this man and his friends should leave", says the little bloke. He looks around at the forest of upraised hands and nods. Then he walks straight up to Flash Harry, looks him right in the eye, and says quietly: "Why don’t you and your mates just FUCK OFF!"

Okay, okay, I know this would require a degree of fearlessness that Labour (let alone Phil Goff) hasn’t demonstrated for a very long time, but what other choice does the Opposition have?

Phil’s big problem is that he thinks it is still possible for Labour to get its message out through the news media. Let’s not forget that after the Mt Roskill voters threw him out in 1990, he got a job lecturing journalism students at what was then called the Auckland Institute of Technology (now AUT).

Phil’s model of the news media is that of a rational, disinterested, purveyor of more-or-less accurate information to the public. He believes that, providing they're honest and forthright in the presentation of their policies, most journalists can be relied upon to give politicians a neutral write-up. If the news media fails to fairly represent a politician’s policies it isn’t because they’re biased, it’s because the policies are in some way deficient. In Phil’s view, only a bad politician blames the media for not giving him a fair shake of the stick.

The biggest problem with this model of the media (apart from it being plain wrong) is that it turns politicians into timid little mice who are terrified of being given a fatal mauling by the assorted dogs, cats, rats and ferrets of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Or, to put it more crudely, it transforms Phil Goff into the political hostage of Guyon Espiner and Duncan Garner.

What Phil has got to realise (if he wants to reclaim his local reserve from the toffs) is that victory belongs to the political leader who makes the news, not the poll-driven fruitcakes who try to second-guess what Gallery journalists will think is news.

In the context of my barbecue analogy, the little bloke would not have won the respect and backing of his neighbours if he’d sneaked around asking everyone how they would feel if he criticised Flash Harry and his mates. Or, whether they would support him if he openly challenged them to stop their bad behaviour.

That’s not what heroes do.

Heroes step up to the plate. Heroes tell it like it is. Heroes don’t care if what they’re demanding is popular or unpopular – they only care that it’s right.

Deep down, most New Zealanders understand that the good things about their country; the things that people overseas admire and envy; are the things that Labour put in place. Workers’ rights, the welfare state, affordable doctor’s and free hospital care, and an education system dedicated to the proposition that "every person, whatever the level of his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers."

They know that even when they are wrong (as the backers of Rogernomics most assuredly were wrong) it is only the Labour Party that has the courage to reform the New Zealand economy, address the historical injustices of colonisation, and take an independent and ethical position on the world stage.

Labour gives. Flash Harrys take.

If Phil Goff has the wisdom to grasp what New Zealanders value; the wit to determine what New Zealand needs; and the courage to offer those things to the voters, then he won’t only make the news this election year – he’ll dominate it.

And, by midnight on Saturday, 26 November, the local reserve will once again belong to the little bloke and his neighbours.

Friday, 14 January 2011

"This Mighty Scourge" - Reflections On The Tucson Shootings

As American As Apple Pie: Political violence is the inevitable consequence of so many Americans' refusal to accept the social and economic implications of political equality.

POLITICAL VIOLENCE is as American as apple pie. It has always been and remains the weapon of first resort in a nation dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal". By what other means could "the blessings of liberty", and the "general welfare" of the American people have been so consistently denied? Without political violence the United States, as we know it today, could not exist.

The tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, which left six people dead, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life, is by no means extraordinary. Such attacks occur whenever Americans attempt to use the political rights guaranteed in their Constitution to secure the economic and social rights so clearly implied by expressions like "a more perfect union" and "the general welfare". Concepts upon which the Founding Fathers preferred to remain uncharacteristically silent.

Silence was, of course, the price which the more radical American revolutionaries had to pay to secure any sort of union. Because the institution of slavery, which underpinned the new nation’s economy, cast a fatal veto over any further constitutional elaboration of the sentiments contained in the Declaration of Independence. It was this – the institutionalised violence of human trafficking and forced labour – that cursed the infant United States in its cradle.

The American Right cannot, however, acknowledge this fundamental historical truth without endorsing the liberal school of constitutional interpretation they have so vehemently sworn to oppose.

It’s why the Republican Party-dominated House of Representatives began its first sitting by reading the Constitution into the Congressional Record. Not the original Constitution, mind you, which states, in Article I Section 2:

"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States … according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons … three fifths of all other Persons."

Those "other persons" were, of course, the African slaves - reckoned by America’s founders to be only 60 percent human.

Such wilful historical blindness is necessary to avoid the one, great, inescapable conclusion of US history: that the American Republic was only preserved by subordinating the oppressive letter of the Constitution to its egalitarian and democratic spirit.

Abraham Lincoln understood this. It’s why he spoke, at Gettysburg, of America experiencing "a new birth of freedom". Had he lived, the world may have learned much earlier what government "of the people, by the people, for the people" actually looks like.

But the South didn’t want to know. Steeped in the violence of slavery and the perverted social relations it spawned, the defeated Confederacy struck back through the trigger-finger of John Wilkes Booth.

Though it had been defeated on the battlefield, it was the South’s twisted version of freedom that ultimately prevailed. The same witches brew which had poisoned the first 70 years of American history was, with only minimal changes, permitted to contaminate the rest. Overweening corporate and financial power may have supplanted the "sovereign" power of the states, but the iron injunction against federal (i.e. democratic) interference endured.

In today’s America, the historic promises of the Constitution remain as elusive as ever. The victory of Barack Obama, far from closing the book on the Civil War, merely reveals the extent to which the Union’s victory over the Confederacy has been compromised. Behind the hopeful painted scenery of 21st Century America’s political stage stride the same dark forces that stalked the corridors of the Ford Theatre that fateful night in April 1865.

Speaking to the American people on the evening of Gabrielle Giffords’ attempted assassination, President Obama stood at a podium placed squarely beneath a portrait of a brooding Abraham Lincoln. His appeal, like Lincoln’s was to America’s "better angels". But I wonder whether, in his heart, President Obama did not recall the grim prophecy of his predecessor’s second inaugural address:

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’."

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 January 2011.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011


The Magic of Proximity: Winston Peters' under-the-radar rallies are currently attracting hundreds, by November he'll be addressing thousands. News media, or no news media, it's showtime!

IS IT POSSIBLE to win an election without the support of the news media? Most political scientists would say: ‘No.’ They’d point out that contemporary society is so saturated with communications media of every kind that any attempt to escape its influence is doomed to fail. A politician can no more do without the news media than a fish can do without water.

I’m not so sure. Media saturation is not an unambiguously positive thing. If it were, our loved ones could leave us and not be missed.

Through the marvels of Facebook, Twitter and Skype; through instant phone-calls, texts and e-mails; and although thousands of kilometres may separate sender from receiver; personal contact need never be lost. Before you’ve so much as unpacked your suitcases, technology allows your family back in New Zealand to enjoy the view from your London hotel-room. Twitter lets your friends know what you’re having for breakfast long before you’ve finished that bowl of cereal.

But, it’s just not the same as being there.

And what is true of the new social media is also true of the news media. Concision – as every "Tweeter" understands – comes at a cost.

A ten-second television sound-bite cannot do justice to a forty-minute speech. And unless you’re Abraham Lincoln or Ernest Hemingway, it’s extremely difficult to do justice to a political experience in less than 350 words.

It’s one of the great paradoxes of the revolution in communications technology that even as it multiplies the means of individual expression, it reduces the editorial resources available for collective enlightenment. The concentrated advertising revenues of the past, which had made investigative journalism a viable economic proposition, are now spread much more thinly across a multitude of competing media "platforms". This makes it much harder for the news media to perform its crucial democratic duties.

Politicians are rapidly adapting themselves to these new realities – most significantly by shortening and simplifying their communications with the voters. But, as any student who’s ever relied on Cole’s Notes to get them through an English examination knows to their cost, reading the summary of a novel is no substitute for reading the novel itself. And while Twitter’s 140-character limitation enforces simple political messages, it can just as easily make a politician sound simple-minded.

I suspect the reason so many people turn away from modern politicians has a lot to do with their almost total reliance on the news media to convey their party’s political messages. This dependency on cash-strapped and understaffed newspapers and networks makes it virtually impossible to say anything requiring a generous allocation of either time or column-centimetres. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it doesn’t make for a very well-informed electorate.

Nor is it a substitute for the sort of face-to-face connection that makes close personal relationships so indispensable to our happiness. Catching brief glimpses of our politicians on the six o’clock news, or reading occasional snippets of policy in the morning papers, is no more satisfying than receiving e-mail or text-messages from an absent spouse. All that’s conveyed, emotionally, is the reality of our separation.

If, as Aristotle insisted, Man is a "political animal", the solution to energising the electorate is not to be found in the techniques of marketing. Political parties cannot be "re-branded" or "re-framed" into popularity. In politics – as in music – nothing beats the live performance.

It is only in the political meeting that the innate human desire to participate in the articulation and reaffirmation of social and cultural meaning can take place. Only in the visceral connection between the person on the stage and the people on the floor are lasting political allegiances forged.

The printed word cannot adequately convey this relationship, and even live radio and television broadcasts carry but a little of its extraordinary power. Indeed, the only reliable vessel for its communication is the eye-witness. It is in the face-to-face report, the passionate personal endorsement, that the seeds of conviction take root and grow. As any advertising guru will tell you: "Nothing beats word-of-mouth."

Rob Muldoon understood this, and so did Bob Jones. David Lange’s soaring rhetoric charmed even his enemies. Helen Clark and John Key, by no means great orators, nevertheless understood the critical importance of putting themselves in front of flesh-and-blood human-beings; making the all-important connections; and then allowing their converts to spread the word.

In this election year, however, it will be Winston Peters who makes the best use of the political meeting. His below-the-radar rallies already attract hundreds. By November he’ll be addressing thousands.

Pundits shake their heads at NZ First’s rising popularity – but they simply don’t understand the magic that’s unleashed when the electorate’s inchoate yearnings become emotionally connected to a politician capable of giving them voice.

At such moments – news media or no news media – it’s showtime!

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 January 2011.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Sean's Going To Need A Bigger Stake (To Destroy Winston Peters)

In the Role of Van Helsing: Like so many of his colleagues in the news media, broadcaster Sean Plunket would like to be the one who finally drives a stake into the heart of Winston Peters. But, in spite of the veteran journalist's best efforts in this month's Metro, the NZ First leader remains undead.

SEAN PLUNKET is a formidable broadcaster whose inquisitorial ferociousness is sorely missed by listeners to Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report. Predictably, state radio’s loss has been commercial broadcasting’s gain. Not only did Mr Plunket secure a berth at TV3’s The Nation, but he’s about to become the weekday-morning talk-back host at Newstalk-ZB Wellington.

It is not, however, in his guise as broadcaster that I take issue with the redoubtable Mr Plunket, but as author of the "Windy City Struggles" column in Metro magazine.

In an essay entitled "Dealing with Winnie" our Windy City Struggler argues forcefully that Winston Peters and the NZ First Party should not, under any circumstances, be permitted to ever again cross the parliamentary threshold.

To this end, Mr Plunket calls upon both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to very publicly rule out NZ First and its leader as potential coalition partners. Or, in his own colourful language:

"For a stake to be truly driven through the heart of this political vampire, Key must again deny Peters a seat at the post-election dealing table [and] Goff should do the same."

Vampire? That’s pretty strong stuff. On what evidence does Mr Plunket accuse Mr Peters of sucking the life-blood out of his country?

The answer, frankly, is – not a lot.

The first indictment against Mr Peters is rather peculiar. As best as I can judge, he is accused of seducing the Parliamentary Press Gallery (of which Mr Plunket was once a member).

"I became party to a general journalistic infatuation that lasted some years," writes Mr Plunket, "as Peters used his charm and guile to grab headlines and keep the scandal-hungry media desperate for his next revelation."

I’m sorry, Sean? You’re complaining that Winston got the measure of the Gallery and shamelessly exploited their willingness to be fed stories – rather than go out and find the stories themselves? Well, forgive me, but I can’t help thinking you’ve addressed the indictment to the wrong party!

The second indictment against the NZ First leader is that, on occasion, he has been guilty of rhetorical exaggeration.

Whoa there big fella!

If failing to present only the unembellished facts to the electorate is henceforth to be classed as a political crime, then I’m afraid every single Member of Parliament – from the Prime Minister to the lowliest back-bencher – will have to join Mr Peters in the dock.

The third, and by far the most serious, indictment against Mr Peters is that he "knowingly provided false or misleading information on a return of pecuniary interest". More precisely, that he failed to properly account for "a $100,000 donation from Owen Glen".

Mr Plunket states that this judgement was delivered against Mr Peters following "a marathon inquiry by Parliament’s privileges committee".

Had it been delivered by a Court of Law this would, indeed, have constituted a serious blow to Mr Peters’ reputation. But, it was not. Parliament’s privileges committee is a political tribunal and it’s findings are not always the fruit of dispassionate legal judgement. Indeed, there are occasions when its decisions appear to have been arrived at via the most ruthless Machiavellian calculation.

And isn’t it strange that Mr Plunket neglected to inform his readers that politically independent investigations by the Auditor-General and the Serious Fraud Office both found that Mr Peters had no case to answer?

Mr Plunket’s indictments should likewise be rejected.

The Court of Public Opinion might, however, care to consider a related charge:

That, in the interests of securing a National Party victory in the 2008 General Election, unscrupulous journalists did wilfully conspire with divers Members of Parliament to blacken the character of the Hon. Winston Peters and his NZ First Party. And that, to preserve the present Government in office, both groups are preparing to do so again.

What National, Act – and I’m sure Mr Plunket – understand is that the day Mr Peters re-enters the House of Representatives, is the day Mr Key departs the Beehive.

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, 7 January 2011.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Are The Polls Right?

Going Down? If the polls were a little black box, Labourites would be forever tapping it with their middle finger, giving it a none-too-gentle shake, and muttering: "There's something wrong with this bloody machine - because that can't be right!"

CAN THE GOVERNMENT really be so far ahead of Labour in the polls? Is it credible that voter support for the National Party is consistently calculated at more than 50 percent?

Labour supporters certainly don’t think so. If the polls were a little black box, Labourites would forever be tapping at it with their middle finger, or giving it a none-too-gentle shake. Re-reading the dial they’d mutter angrily: "There’s something wrong with this bloody machine – because that can’t be right", and throw it forcefully against the nearest wall.

But, this sort of denial only makes things worse. If there’s one thing in this world upon which it is still safe to rely – it’s mathematics. If three or four independent polling agencies, each one conducting its survey at different times and using its own idiosyncratic selection and weighting formulae have, for two years straight, produced results within a very few percentage points their rivals – then those results should be heeded.

Rather than insisting there’s something wrong with the polling agencies’ little black boxes, Labour should be devoting its energies to understanding the data. Phil Goff needs to understand why John Key’s government is so popular. Only then can the Labour Party begin making it unpopular.

A major obstacle to achieving such understanding is the historical record. Labour’s strategists look back over more than a century of election results and find only a handful of occasions where a single political party received more than 50 percent of the popular vote.

These were the elections of 1938, 1946, 1949 and 1951. All of those contests were classic First-Past-the-Post, two-party, elections in which 95 percent or more of the popular vote was shared between Labour and National. Since the election of 1954, when the Social Credit Political League debuted with an impressive 11.4 percent share of the votes cast, neither National nor Labour has ever won more than half of the electorate’s support.

It is highly improbable, Labour’s strategists insist, that the National Party, operating under a system of proportional representation and with six other parties holding seats in the House of Representatives, could take more than 50 percent of the Party Vote.

Improbable – but not impossible.

Deductive reasoning has its place, but it is not always true that simply because something has never happened in the past (or, at least, for a very long time) it cannot, therefore, happen in the future. Just ask Barack Obama.

If a set of conditions have come into existence between 2006 and 2011 – conditions that were not present when past general elections were conducted – then it is entirely reasonable to argue that this year’s general election will produce an outcome none of us have ever seen before.

What could those conditions be?

One of them might be an unwillingness, on the electorate’s part, to go on believing that governments can act outside the parameters of global capitalist norms without making a bad situation even worse. In a nation as small and economically vulnerable as New Zealand, such scepticism is likely to be well-founded. And, in circumstances where that nation is required to borrow $260 million per week, just to pay its bills, then scepticism is well on the way to becoming fact.

New Zealanders look abroad and witness the dire economic crises afflicting Greece and Ireland: they see the violent political consequences of the austerity measures forced upon those bankrupt countries’ governments; and they are hugely relieved that their Prime Minister made his millions negotiating the rapids of global finance.

In the absence of a Labour leader, and a Labour Party manifesto, sufficiently persuasive to negate John Key’s experiential advantages, why would New Zealanders vote for anybody else?

It will require a campaign of historic and heroic dynamism to jolt New Zealanders out of their fatalistic certitude that nothing can be done to protect their country from the ravages of a devastating global recession. And, since a period of economic austerity is now inevitable, who’s better placed to manage the whole painful process than our own, highly successful, former currency trader from Merrill Lynch?

Labour cannot count on the news media delivering, uncritically, any policy prescription fundamentally at odds with these dispiriting conclusions. Which leaves the Opposition Leader Goff with just two options.

If he’s unwilling to challenge the conventions of contemporary politics (in which the mainstream news media plays a crucial role) he’ll have to run what The Daily Show’s host, John Stewart, calls a "We suck the least" style of election campaign.

Or, if Mr Goff wishes to offer the voters something more than "A Kinder, Gentler Austerity Programme", he’s going to have to display a talent for radical-populist political mobilisation hitherto undetected in either himself or his caucus.

Accordingly, the chances of National’s stratospheric poll results proving anything other than prophetic seem rather slim.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 4 January 2011.