Tuesday, 29 March 2011

By Reason of Necessity

"Shhh! It's for the sake of the party!": Sometimes the active choice to endure something bad is preferable to the passive choice of allowing something worse. If the public perception grows (fairly or unfairly) that Labour is morally compromised, then its electoral fortunes are bleak.

DEPOSING A LEADER is probably the most thankless task in politics. At the very least it calls into question the collective wisdom of those who gave the leader his (or her) job in the first place. Also, it just looks bad. A political party that’s forever chopping and changing its leaders very soon attracts comparisons with a bunch of Mafioso chieftains rubbing out their rivals.

These inherent dangers of change explain why there are so many more mediocre leaders than inspiring statesmen. There’s safety in mediocrity. Inspiration equals risk.

If there’s ever a good time to remove a leader, then it's probably immediately following an election. A party looks a lot less shambolic when it's seen to be responding to the electorate’s decision not to make its leader the prime minister. Changing leaders after an election also gives the new broom plenty of time to sweep his party clean and rearrange its ideological furnishing in line with the latest electoral fashions.

The very worst time to organise a leadership spill is when a general election is just months or weeks away. It smacks of desperation and panic – neither of which speak well of a party’s readiness to govern. The only justification for such self-destructive political behaviour is the reason of necessity. Making an active choice to do something bad, rather than allowing a passive choice to permit something much, much worse to happen.

This was the choice the Labour Party made eight weeks out from the 1990 general election when the caucus allowed Helen Clark to persuade it to abandon Geoffrey Palmer in favour of Mike Moore. It wasn’t that Ms Clark believed Mr Moore could win the election, merely that the polling data suggested that Mr Palmer was likely to lose it much more comprehensively. Giving Mr Moore eight weeks to weave his working-class battler magic on Labour’s deeply disillusioned voters simply made more sense than allowing Mr Palmer to drag his party into an electoral abyss from which it might never emerge.

With great reluctance I have come to the conclusion that Labour faces a similar choice in 2011. The scandal surrounding Darren Hughes (which shows every sign of getting a lot worse before it gets any better) has, I believe, fatally infected the leadership of Phil Goff and Annette King. While they remain at the head of Labour’s parliamentary team, controversy of a particularly distasteful nature will continue to, in Helen Clark’s memorable phrase, “swirl around them”. Questions relating to the soundness of their judgement will, fairly or unfairly, give way to questions relating to the quality of their ethics. New Zealanders will forgive a great deal in their politicians, but they will not vote for a party they believe to be morally compromised.

The Labour MP for Dunedin South, Clare Curran, has written on the parliamentary party’s blog “Red Alert” that she and her colleagues are feeling “gutted” by what happened to their friend and colleague.

“Darren was a valued member of caucus, our Whip. A very talented and witty man. Popular. Dedicated to Labour.

Grieving is what we’re doing right now. So give us a bit of latitude. We’ll be back, strong and focused.”

But, with all due respect to Clare and her colleagues, the grieving will have to wait. And if they need to focus on something – focus on this.

Labour’s parliamentary wing as a team of mountaineers in the split second following the fall of one of their lead climbers. Unaccountably, the first three mountaineers have roped themselves together in such a manner that if one falls the other two fall with him. The remaining climbers have only one course of action available to them if they wish to save the expedition: they must slash the rope that binds them to the doomed trio. If they don’t do this – and do it very quickly – they will all be dragged to certain destruction.

But who should replace Phil Goff as leader of the Labour Party? In any other circumstances, I would have nominated Labour’s finance spokesman, David Cunliffe. As I wrote in this column only last year:

“Articulate, good-humoured, open to new ideas and smart enough to turn them into credible policy, Cunliffe [looks] every inch the leader Labour needs to win.”

In this current set of circumstances, however, Labour needs a leader who has already demonstrated his commitment to the high moral standards expected of politicians in the Westminster tradition. David Parker’s instant and unforced decision to step away from his Attorney-General role in the wake of 2006 allegations of commercial impropriety (later judged to be without substance) stands in stark reproof of Mr Goff’s recent prevarications.

David Parker possesses a sharp and innovative political intellect, a fresh face, and most importantly, a clean pair of hands.

The choice, not of sentiment, but of necessity.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 March 2011.

Monday, 28 March 2011

No Mandate For Cynicism

A Caucus of Courtiers?: If Labour is not to degenerate into an electoral mechanism dedicated solely to the identification and elevation of alternative political (but not ideological) leaders, then the cynical algebra of personal ambition must not be allowed to replace the party's traditional commitment to New Zealand's poorest and most vulnerable citizens. (The painting, Courtiers, is by Michael Kutsche)

IT'S STAGGERING, the unabashed cynicism of so many of Labour's defenders. As rumour builds on rumour and the indefatigable ferrets of the blogosphere burrow deeper into the political laundry basket, Labour's apologists dismiss the political ramifications of the Hughes Affair with a courtier's shrug.

"Goff's perfectly safe", they say with world-weary certitude, "because who the hell would want to take over the job now? Far better to let Goff lose the election and pick things up from there."

It's only when you begin to decode this statement that the true extent of these apologists' cynical indifference to the fate of Labour's supporters becomes apparent.

All that appears to matter to these Labour courtiers is who gets what in the aftermath of what they clearly assume will be John Key's crushing victory in November.

Such a victory would, however, be a victory by default. Key will win: not because he has the best policies (or, indeed, any coherent policies at all); not because he's got the best team (between them the parties of the Centre-Left could bring together a cabinet of outstanding quality); not because he's in some mystic communion with the zeitgeist (Key and his colleagues represent a view of reality which is fast disappearing everywhere except among the rump rightists of the Anglo-Saxon world); he will win because, bluntly, his principal opponents in the Labour Party are too tired, too timid, too inexperienced or simply too selfish to defeat him.

It is this latter group who deserve the sharpest rebuke. The ones focusing their attention on the most likely intra-party consequences of an election loss for which Goff will inevitably be blamed. Can they realistically hope to have a shot at the top spot themselves? And if they can't - who can? And where should they position themselves - both personally and politically - vis-a-vis the next likely leader? In short, what should they be doing now to give them the best prospects of advancement then?

Nowhere in these calculations does the fate of the people Labour was originally established to defend rate a mention. The fate of solo mums and their kids; the fate of the tens-of-thousands of sickness and invalid beneficiaries; the fate of young Maori and Pasifika school-leavers languishing on the dole; the fate of state house tenants facing eviction: all count for nothing in the cynical algebra of personal ambition. They are a useful source of rhetorical fuel - nothing more.

Those Labour politicians with both the capability and the will to lead should recoil from any suggestion that their best response to the Hughes Affair is to simply bide their time. As social-democrats, as promoters of democratic socialism (which is still Labour's official political mission) they should assess dispassionately the full ramifications of Goff's handling of the Hughes Affair on Labour's election prospects. And if they come to the conclusion that it was inept, and that keeping him on as leader will significantly reduce Labour's chances of success, then they should start counting heads.

Because, even in the most selfish and deeply cynical terms, allowing National to win by default is a disastrous strategy.

A Labour party which begins to be perceived (justifiably or unjustifiably) as morally compromised will attract the votes of fewer and fewer New Zealanders. And a caucus driven by nothing more than personal ambition is bound to become increasingly reckless in its internal jockeying for power.

If all that matters is climbing to the top of the greasy pole, then increasingly the only skill that ambitious Labour politicians will seek to master is how to ascend. New Zealand Labour will become more and more like Australian Labor: a mechanism for the identification and elevation of alternative political (but not ideological) leaders. Its days as the people's first choice for securing social and economic justice will be over.

If David Cunliffe, David Parker, Shane Jones and Maryan Street genuinely believe that by persisting with Phil's leadership they are dooming Labour to an ignominious defeat, and thereby exposing New Zealand's poorest and most vulnerable citizens to social and economic assault, then it is their moral duty to replace him.

Replace him - and make a real contest of this year's general election. The working people of New Zealand will forgive Labour for losing a battle in which every soldier gave his or her all. What they will not forgive is a party whose best captains and bravest warriors, for reasons of personal ambition and private advantage, refused to draw their swords.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Casey Heyne's Justice

Tangible Justice: Casey Heyne's lifts his assailant into the air prior to bringing him down to earth - hard. All over the world people thrilled to this simple demonstration of the biblical injunction: "as ye sow, so shall ye reap". Sometimes (with all due respect to the Carpenter of Nazareth) "turning the other cheek" only makes things worse - just ask the Libyans.

GOOD ON YOU Casey Heynes! The video recording of this young Australian lifting up the school-yard bully who attacked him and body-slamming him hard into the concrete has gone viral. Few would dispute that the global affirmation flowing Casey’s way is well-deserved. To most people, the kid’s a bloody hero.

But not to the principal of Casey’s high school. His response was to suspend not only the perpetrator who started the fight, but the victim who finished it.

Would New Zealand’s school principals have done the same? Well, yes, they probably would.

When confronted with the YouTube clip of Casey’s body-slam the profession emitted a confused murmur of “yes, buts” and “tut-tuts”.

The equivocation of Kelston Boys High School’s assistant principal, Robert Solomone, was, sadly, typical. First he applauded Casey for fighting back: “as a parent as well, I’d want my boy to stand up to any kind of bullying”. Then he back-tracked: “but it’s still unacceptable”. Kelston’s policy is one of zero tolerance for any violence.

“Nine times out of ten”, Mr Solomone told The NZ Herald, “we tend to suspend as well.”

No doubt our principals have good reasons for responding to the emotional and/or physical abuse of their pupils by punishing both perpetrators and victims – but I’m buggered if I can fathom them.

Well before I introduced a policy of zero tolerance for any violence at my school, I’d like to think I would introduce a policy of zero tolerance for injustice; zero tolerance for oppression of the weak by the strong; zero tolerance not just for the act of bullying – but for the bullies themselves.

I’d also like to think that any school I led would also have a policy of affirming and celebrating those who resist injustice; who fight oppression; who stand up for their classmates and take on the bullies.

What would the likes of Mr Solomone say to the students of New Zealand’s secondary schools about what’s going on right now in Libya?

Would he be telling them that what the United States, France and the United Kingdom are currently doing to give effect to the United Nations’ Security Council Resolution on Libya is wrong? Or, worse still, would he saying: “If I was a Libyan democrat right now I’d be urging on those American cruise missiles. I’d be cheering the arrival of those French Mirage jet fighters. I’d be so thrilled that the world was willing to stand up to the tyranny of Muhamar Kadafi. Oh, but don’t forget kids, violence is still unacceptable.”

Personally, I can’t think of any strategy less likely to build trust and confidence in authority among young New Zealanders. How much respect can these kids be expected to show for a system which speaks out of both sides of its mouth at the same time?

And it’s not even as if what they’re telling our children is correct. The law of the land makes it very clear that the use of “reasonable force” in defence of your own person, or to prevent others being harmed, is perfectly acceptable.

What is reasonable force? Well, what a jury considers reasonable is usually determined by the circumstances.

Casey was the victim of an unprovoked physical assault. Believing his prey to be incapable of retaliation the bully came up to Casey and punched him hard in the face. He continued the assault until Casey simply picked him up and threw him down – hard – on the concrete.

I defy any jury in either Australia or New Zealand to find that Casey’s use of force against his assailant was unreasonable. Like the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve watched the incident on YouTube, I’m absolutely sure that the ladies and gentlemen of that jury would be equally thrilled by the sudden reversal of the bully’s fortunes.

If justice is a phenomenon that can be experienced as a physical sensation, then it’s justice that we feel as Casey puts his assailant down.

Neither the students they teach, nor the society in which they live, are well-served by principals and teachers who deny the raw experience of natural justice to the young people in their care.

Justice isn’t something you can accomplish with words – bullies don’t heed words.

Justice cries out for deeds.

If you doubt that – then go ask the Libyans.

Go ask Casey.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 March 2011.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Reforming The Abortion Laws: A Simple Guide

I don't know how she feels
And I can't know how she feels.
But I want her to know
That I feel for her, oh
I want her to know that I feel.

And I feel so ashamed,
That her life should have been so maimed
By the blindness
That drove her to this, oh
I feel so ashamed.

But his face just curled in contempt.
"Don't sing me your sad lament!"
When she said "I can't cope",
The old man with the stethoscope
Just curled his face in contempt.

And the cold rain fell
On that back street hell.
On the hard table-top
Would the pain never stop
As the cold rain fell.

On a grey afternoon,
In an old waiting-room
He said: "In this circumstance
She's a fifty-fifty chance."
On a grey afternoon.

And I don't know how she feels.
And I can't know how she feels.
But I want her to know
That I feel for her, oh
I want her to know that I feel.

Chris Trotter

(Lyrics to the song performed by Chris Trotter at a pro-choice rally addressed by US feminist, Jessica Starr, Victoria University Student Union, 1974.)

REFORMING CONTROVERSIAL LEGISLATION is a daunting political project. Just how daunting is signalled by the adjective we place before the noun. The presence of the word controversy – literally, “to turn against” – should warn us that what we are dealing with is conflict. And therein lies the reformer’s greatest challenge. Legislating from the starting point of ideological consensus is easy. Passing laws in circumstances of ideological conflict is not only difficult, it's hazardous.

Thirty-five years ago the abortion issue lay at the heart of an ideological conflict that encompassed much more than a woman’s right to determine when and with whom she would bear children. It was the touchstone of second wave feminism. For many active feminists, how far New Zealand was prepared to go in recognising a woman’s right to choose, would be the measure of how far it was prepared to go in recognising women’s rights – full stop.

The legislation which eventually emerged from this conflict, the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act (1977), fell well short of feminist demands. New Zealand’s legislators were unwilling to concede that the termination of a pregnancy was a choice to be made by the woman involved – and by her alone. The CS&A Act did, however, legalise abortion – but only in circumstances where, in the opinion of medical professionals, the continuation of a woman’s pregnancy would endanger her physical and/or mental health.

Even this very limited concession would not have occurred without the mass organisation of pro-choice opinion undertaken by the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) and the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC). These pressure groups, combined with the accumulating moral force of the Working Women’s Charter – then making its torturous way through the trade union movement and the Labour Party – forced the issue of abortion onto the political agenda in a way that made some form of legislative response unavoidable.

The reformers’ successful mass mobilisation of pro-choice sentiment had followed, with Newtonian precision, the emergence in New Zealand of a well organised anti-abortion lobby. The catalyst for this so-called "pro-life" movement had been the successful liberalisation of abortion laws in the UK (1967) and Australia (1969).

Arrayed against the forces of change were a formidable combination of religious and secular opponents. The Catholic Church, in particular, waged an uncompromising struggle against any form of legislative reform. The anti-abortion lobby’s secular wing was the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) established in 1970. Significantly, it drew a large measure of its support from those socially conservative New Zealand women who rejected the feminist project as a direct challenge to their more traditional definitions of womanhood.

In purely electoral terms, it was this latter group which exercised the decisive political influence. The findings of the Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion, whose conservative report provided the blueprint for the CS&A Act, reflected the fact that in the 1970s, outside the socially liberal milieus of the universities and the leafier suburbs of the larger cities, New Zealand remained a very conservative country.

The liberal/conservative balance on abortion did gradually begin to shift, however, as fresh cohorts of younger New Zealanders joined the electorate. But even in the mid-1980s the forces of conservatism remained a formidable obstacle.

Those who wonder why Labour feminists like Anne Hercus, Fran Wilde and Helen Clark failed to introduce a more liberal abortion regime between 1984 and 1990 need look no further than the series of “Women’s Forums” that the new Women’s Affairs Minister, Anne Hercus, organised in the first few months of the Fourth Labour Government. These were open to all women and were (at least in part) intended to demonstrate to the wider electorate how much support already existed for a substantial advance in the rights of New Zealand women.

What the forums actually showed was how effortlessly conservative women were able to out-organise their liberal sisters. Within weeks of their initiation the forums had degenerated into angry battlegrounds, where reformers and traditionalists traded verbal, and on at least one occasion, physical, blows. When it became clear that the conservative women’s groups had mastered the art of “stacking” the forums with their own supporters, Hercus’s brave experiment in participatory democracy was brought to an ignominious, and for Labour’s feminist MPs, salutary, end.

On the matter of access to abortion services, however, the reformers had the last laugh. While the black letter of the CS&A Act continued to criminalise abortion except in extremis, in practice New Zealand women found obtaining a termination to be a relatively straight-forward exercise. Judged solely by the number of terminations per capita, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish New Zealand from those jurisdictions in which abortion-on-demand is already legislatively entrenched.

Both sides of the argument now face a dilemma. If the pro-choice advocates attempt to completely decriminalise abortion and make it entirely a matter of maternal choice they risk a full-scale mobilisation of the religious and political Right. But, if the pro-life advocates persist in seeking a judicial reversal of the de facto abortion-on-request status-quo, they risk igniting the furious indignation of hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealand women.

Breaking this impasse will be extremely difficult.

As a first step, pro-choice reformers should make a serious effort to ascertain the current balance of pro- and anti-abortion opinion in New Zealand. By serious, I mean offering respondents a plausible set of choices ranging all the way from outright prohibition to abortion-on-demand. They should also be asked how far they’re prepared to go to see their choice enacted. Additional focus-group study of the issue would be helpful in terms of identifying those philosophical arguments and rhetorical tropes which attract, and those which repel, popular support for abortion rights.

Armed with this basic data, the reformers could begin designing an effective pro-choice campaign. (If the polling data reveals overwhelming support for changing the existing legislation in a more liberal direction, then an important component of the organising effort might be a nationwide petition.)

Running parallel to the market research exercise, the reformers should embark on an effort to accurately identify where every Member (and potential Member) of Parliament stands on the abortion issue. Careful note should be taken of the arguments they use to justify their For/Against/Undecided/Won’t Say positions. This sort of research formed an important part of earlier pro-choice campaigns (Ref: Erich Geiringer's SPUC 'Em All! Abortion Politics 1978, Alister Taylor Publishers, 1978).

The best possible time to begin such a campaign would be about two years out from the next scheduled general election. If the reform campaign was designed to reach its crescendo about a year from polling-day the political parties would have both the incentive and the time to develop clear policy on the issue. The reformers could then endorse the party (or parties) whose policies most closely resemble their preferred outcome.

If the reformers’ endorsed party (or parties) won sufficient seats to take office after the election, then the passage of more liberal legislation could proceed smoothly and swiftly within the first six months of the new Government’s three year term.

Just in time for the conservatives to start planning the launch of their own “REPEAL” campaign about six months later.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Reflections On The Christchurch Earthquake: Not A Tame Lion

The Jehovan Deity: For the benefit of his younger readers the Christian novelist, C.S. Lewis, re-cast Jehovah as Aslan, the Lion Lord of Narnia. He was careful, however, to retain the Judeo-Christian deity's dangerously unpredictable omnipotence. As he has one of his Narnian characters say of Aslan: "He's not a tame lion!"

WAS GOD PRESENT in Christchurch on 22 February 2011? It’s a question many New Zealanders have wrestled with over the past month, and the tragedy which engulfed Japan on 11 March has given it added urgency.

Officially, we’re a secular nation, yet Census data confirms that more than half of New Zealanders retain a belief in God. That belief is sorely tested by natural disasters. If God was present in Christchurch on 22 February, why didn’t He prevent the earthquake?

But, in posing this question aren’t we separating God from the natural world? Seating Him on a divine throne beyond this earthly realm? Requiring Him to demonstrate his mastery over his own creation by, in this case, countermanding the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates?

Yes, we are. But we can hardly be blamed for doing so. Because, when all is said and done, this is the view of God we have inherited from the Bible. He is the maker of heaven and earth and if it pleases him to command the sun to stand still, or the oceans to o’ertop the world, then it will be so. He is Jehovah, “I am that I am”, the God Charlton Heston (in the role of Moses) invokes when Pharaoh’s army traps the Israelites against the margins of the Red Sea.

“Behold His mighty hand!”, Charlton cries, and low, the waters of the sea are parted.

There are, of course, plusses and minuses to the Jehovan conception of divinity, as the celebrated author, C.S. Lewis, well understood.

In The Horse and His Boy, one of his Chronicles of Narnia, he makes it clear that his own rendering of the Jehovan God – the golden lion Aslan – is not a pet to be called for and dismissed at our convenience. On the contrary, he is an altogether dangerous being. As one of Lewis’s characters indignantly observes: “He’s not a tame lion!”

And, yet, it was to a rather tame deity that the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral, Peter Beck, appeared to be appealing in the aftermath of the earthquake. In answer to the question: “Where was God on 22 February?” he responded:

“God is in all these people. God is in the midst of all this. God is weeping with those who weep. God is alongside those who are finding the energy to just keep going. God is in the people who are reaching out and seeking to sustain one another. God is about building community, about empowering people.”

And, when a journalist demanded: ‘Yes, but where was God was when offices pancaked and burned and hundreds died?’

He replied:

“Well, we live on a dynamic, creating planet that’s doing its thing. For whatever reason, our forebears chose to build this city on this place. They didn’t know we were on this fault line. God doesn’t make bad things happen to good people. We make our own choices about what we do.”

Doing its thing?! What exactly is the Dean trying to say? That the natural world is a conscious entity? That it has its own volition and (God save us!) its own agenda? And did Cantabrians, thanks to the poor choices of their “forebears” simply find themselves in this “dynamic, creating planet’s” way? And was Jehovah, in fulfilment of some hitherto undisclosed self-denying ordinance, required to turn his face from the imminent suffering of Cantabrians and keep his mighty hands in his pockets?

If so, then God has a rival – a divine competitor in the omnipotence business. And the Dean is in flagrant breach of the Nicene Creed, the first article of which states, unequivocally: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”.

Perhaps the Dean should return to his Bible and ponder the God that spoke to Moses from the burning bush. The God that gave man counsel from the whirlwind, and moved before the Children of Israel in a pillar of fire. Perhaps he should consider the God that laid Jericho low and sent fire from heaven to consume Sodom and Gomorrah. A red God, a wrathful God, a jealous God. The God that was ready to drown the whole world. The God who, when his son, nailed to a cross, cried out “Father, why have you forsaken me?”, remained silent.

Shock and awe. These words have been sullied by the Pentagon’s bloody hands. Yet it is only in those moments when all our human conceits are battered down and laid to waste that we, shocked and awestruck, come close to understanding Jehovah as the authors of both the Old and New Testaments understood Him.

Was God present in Christchurch on 22 February? Oh yes, He was there. And He is with us always. Beyond our questions; beyond our understanding; beyond our judgement.

Not a tame lion.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Monday, 21 March 2011

Harping On About The Abortion Issue

No Compromise!: But radical Pro-Choice feminist blogger The Queen of Thorns should remember that political activists who demand "All or Nothing!" almost always end up with nothing at all.

THE “QUEEN OF THORNS” described it as “Chris Trotter’s worst nightmare”. A gathering of approximately 70 “liberal lefties” who, by daring to raise the divisive issue of abortion were, to use QoT’s provocative language: “going to just ruin Labour’s chances of winning the 2011 election”.

It was a curious way of describing the participant’s objectives. A reference, I suppose, to this posting from July 2010 in which I questioned the political wisdom of Labour List MP Steve Chadwick promoting a private member’s bill legalizing abortion at the woman’s request up until the 24th week of her pregnancy.

What QoT and a host of other feminist bloggers objected to so strongly back then, and are even more vociferously opposed to now, is the notion that reforming the abortion laws might take second (or even third) place to other political considerations. I don’t believe I’m in any way misrepresenting their position when I say they consider anyone who counsels letting sleeping dogs lie on this issue as “objectively” (if I may resurrect that fine example of Leninist jargon) locating themselves in the anti-abortionist camp.

There’s a bullying aspect to this style of politics which takes me all the way back to the late 1970s – when the only acceptable position for a man to adopt in relation to feminist political priorities was one of enthusiastic and unquestioning support. (As I scrolled down the hundreds of passionate comments elicited by QoT’s posting, I must confess to experiencing a wave of nostalgia for those ideologically invigorating times.) But nostalgia is no substitute for hard-headed political analysis. Abject surrender to ideological extremism and political solipsism is no more intelligent now than it was 40 years ago.

It is worth re-stating, therefore, that the heedless pursuit of abortion on demand could very easily prove counter-productive. There was – and is – absolutely no guarantee that kicking these sleeping dogs into angry wakefulness will result in them sinking their teeth into the forces of conservatism. As the recent, extraordinary, Section 59 acquittal made depressingly clear, social liberalism is on the retreat in New Zealand. If QoT and her comrades put their boots into the Rottweilers of Reaction they may very soon find these no-longer-sleeping canines at their throats.

As usual, the United States points the way when it comes to reactionary political trends. Before embarking on their crusade for abortion law reform in New Zealand, QoT and her friends should first consider the implications of the sudden and dramatic collapse of support for the “Pro-Choice” position in the USA.

As recently as May 2006 the Gallup Poll showed that 51 percent of Americans considered themselves to be Pro-Choice, with only 41 percent declaring themselves to be “Pro-Life”. By May 2009 the position had been almost exactly reversed with the Pro-Lifers on 51 percent and the Pro-Choicers on 42 percent. The Gallup pollsters also asked respondents to tell them whether they personally believed abortion to be morally acceptable or morally wrong. In 2006 43 percent believed abortion to be morally acceptable and 44 percent said it was morally wrong. By 2009, abortion’s moral acceptability had fallen to 36 percent, with those believing it to be morally wrong rising to 56 percent of the Gallup sample.

More recent polling (January 2011) by the Pew Research Centre shows the overwhelming majority of Americans positioning themselves in the middle of this issue. Only 18 percent of respondents believed abortion should be “legal in all cases”, with just 16 percent willing to declare it “illegal in all cases”.

New Zealand is not the USA and I must be cautious about extrapolating too freely from the opinions of Americans. What I can say, however, is that the political strategists of the Right, both in the United States and New Zealand, have demonstrated a far greater talent for the prosecution of “wedge politics” than the Left. The latter could once rely upon the so-called “liberal media” to carry its arguments to the public. But is that still the case today? Whose arguments do we hear most clearly in the 21st Century? Something tells me that in the age of Fox News – it ain’t the Left’s.

It’s all too easy for QoT to come out swinging at the liberal and left-wing contributors to The Standard (and Bowalley Road). Let’s see how far her expletives-included, take-no-prisoners tactics get her in the mainstream media.

The brute political fact remains that if New Zealand is not to experience another blitzkrieg of neoliberal “reform” in 2012, a combination of centrist and left-wing parties will have to secure more seats in the House of Representatives than the parties of the Right in 2011. Perhaps, if Labour and the Greens between them were in a position to form a government, abortion law reform could form part of either, or both, parties’ manifestoes. Unfortunately, a Centre-Left victory is almost certain to depend on NZ First crossing the 5 percent threshold. The socially conservative supporters of Winston Peters seem unlikely partners in any abortion law reform initiative.

Is QoT really so willing to abandon solo mums and their kids to the tender mercies of the two Paulas? Is she really so impervious to the argument that the consequences of unemployment and poverty will fall most heavily on women and children? If politics is about priorities, is she really so sure that abortion law reform comes ahead of protecting what’s left of the New Zealand welfare state?

Even some of her own supporters don’t think so. I’m thinking of a prominent feminist blogger who was recently elected to public office. In her election propaganda she described herself as a “mother” and declared her commitment to building “strong communities”. Nowhere in any of the material distributed to the electors did she inform them that she was an active left-wing trade unionist and a vehement supporter of abortion on demand.

In the deeply conservative part of New Zealand in which she was standing, keeping these facts from the voting public made perfect political sense. Had she been completely honest with the electors they almost certainly would have rejected her.

But that’s politics QoT. To get some things you have to give others away. Political activists who demand “All or Nothing!” almost always end up with nothing at all.

Your sister-in-arms understood that, QoT.

It’s time you learned.

Friday, 18 March 2011

The Rise & Fall of Anglophonia

The Good Old Firm: Anglophonia, led by the USA, dominates the planet. But the reckless greed of its elites and the moral bankruptcy of its neoliberal creed offer little hope of its longevity as a global hegemon.

THERE WAS A TIME when membership of the Anglo-Saxon Club was a good thing. The powerful ties binding the United States of America to the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were the envy of other states. No matter how strategically important these nations might be to the security of Anglophonia, they could never hope to enjoy the familial intimacy of its member states.

The linguistic, cultural, historical and economic affinities animating the Anglo-Saxon powers ultimately cohered into a global hegemony of unprecedented reach and power. With the eventual collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989-91, Anglophonia found itself bereft of serious ideological rivals. The New World Order spoke English – with an American accent.

But Anglophonia’s triumph – codified in the neoliberal economic prescriptions of the so-called “Washington Consensus” – turned out to be rather hollow.

The Cold War had disciplined Anglophonia’s ruling-class in much the same way as the long struggle against the rival city-state of Carthage had disciplined the wealthy Patricians of Ancient Rome. Without a common foe to enforce a high level of social cohesion and equity, the elites of both world empires felt free to loot their national treasuries and vitiate the political and economic rights of their – now burdensome – lower orders.

In the case of Anglophonia, this “revolt of the elites” (to borrow Christopher Lasch’s striking terminology) is readily tracked by calculating the share of pre-tax household income received by the top 1 percent of Americans between 1917 and 2011.

Immediately prior to America’s entry to World War I, the top 1 percent commanded just under 18 percent of pre-tax household income. Their share fell about 3 percentage points during the war, but by 1929 it had soared to an astonishing 20 percent.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, however, the fortunes of the top 1 percent changed dramatically as the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, World War II and the fiscal exigencies of the Cold War relentlessly reduced their share of America’s wealth. The nadir was reached in 1972 when the top 1 percent’s share fell to just 7 percent of pre-tax household income.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 the revolt of the elites began in earnest. Between 1985 and 1989 (the year the Cold War ended) the wealthiest American’s share of pre-tax household income leapt from 9 percent to just under 13 percent. By 1999 it stood at 16 percent and by 2005 it had reached 18 percent. Today, the top 1 percent of American households commands the same 20 percent share of pre-tax income as 1929.

These bare and brutal statistics chronicle the steady growth and sudden collapse of social equity in the United States. But the whole sorry saga of union-busting, deregulation and privatisation has, from the late-1970s to the present, facilitated the elites’ reclamation of economic and social pre-eminence throughout Anglophonia.

To preserve at least the façade of democracy while they re-construct the plutocratic order of the 1920s the elites have been forced to hollow out the core institutions of the social-democratic culture that did them so much damage. The trade unions were the first to go, closely followed by the universities (at least in their guise as critic and conscience of society). Their most important conquest, however, has been the news media. Like the circuses of Ancient Rome, the Anglophonian news media is designed to inflame rather than inform.

If you would like to see the future – watch Fox News.

Not even science is exempt from the relentless partisanship of Anglophonia’s plutocrats.

As recently as 2007 just over 70 percent of Americans told pollsters that they accepted anthropogenic global warming as a scientific fact. Canadian social critic, Naomi Klein, found that by 2009 only half America held that view.

The same phenomenon is visible in Australia, where the most recent surveys show less than half the population believing in global warming. Ask these climate-change sceptics why, and they reply: “Because global warming is a socialist plot to redistribute wealth”.

This is the price plutocracy is forced to extract from the societies it feeds on. Neoliberal dogma is to Anglophonia what Christian dogma was to Rome: the ideological vector of its intellectual and cultural disintegration.

English will probably remain the lingua franca of the Twenty-First Century, but increasingly it will be spoken with a Chinese or Brazilian accent.

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, 18 February 2011.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Reflections On The Christchurch Earthquake: Give Us The Tools

Give Us The Tools: Had the Christchurch Earthquake struck in the years before the dismantling of the social-democratic state, New Zealand would have been much better prepared to deal with the catastrophe. In the Age of Neoliberalism is our anorexic state equal to the challenge of reconstruction?

IT’S IN ALL of us now, a deep sense of foreboding. The nagging feeling that this disaster may be too big for us. Or, worse, that the people whose job it is to fix it may be too small. And the feeling is growing.

For many Cantabrians last Friday’s images from Japan were the final straw. A cosmic punchline without a preceding joke. As if God was determined to prove his point:

"See, I told you things could be worse."

Meanwhile, the political Punch & Judy Show rolls on. The Prime-Ministerial motorcade continues to pick its way through shattered streets to yet another rendezvous with the television cameras. The Mayor demonstrates the use of chemical toilets.

Only reluctantly has the news media been persuaded to turn around and take a closer look at Punch and Judy’s audience. "Refugee City" (as web-designer Peter Hyde memorably described the Christchurch without power, water or sewerage) is grimy, unwashed, smells to high-heaven – and is running on empty.

The adrenaline-fuelled exertions of the first three weeks of the crisis are behind them. They’ve survived. The challenge facing Refugee Christchurch now is how to put the broken pieces of their lives back together. Many have simply no idea. And finding someone – anyone – capable of giving a straight answer to their straight questions requires more energy than many now possess.

For this audience, the Punch & Judy Show is starting to wear a little thin.

Specialists in disaster relief talk about the moment when stoicism and altruism run out. When blaming God or Mother Nature is no longer enough. When those in charge cease to be given the benefit of the doubt. When people stop watching Punch and Judy and start blaming them.

The authorities seldom have more than three months to get ahead of the Blame Game. If the disaster remediation process is not in full-swing by then, things can turn very ugly, very quickly.

Even before the second, killer, earthquake struck on 22 February, there was evidence of rising dissatisfaction with the way the Government and the City Council were dealing with the damage and disruption caused by the first, non-lethal, quake of 4 September. The double-blow delivered to Christchurch almost certainly means that the time available to politicians to produce a road-map to recovery is a lot less than three months.

Hence the sense of foreboding. Hence the sinking feeling that those charged with mastering this crisis may not have what it takes.

If this disaster had struck New Zealand in 1961, 1971, or even in 1981, then the government of the day would have been much better equipped to deal with it. In the Ministry of Works it would’ve possessed not only a team of world-class engineers, architects and urban planners, but a seasoned, highly-skilled and extremely efficient construction force.

Prior to the Rogernomics revolution of the 1980s, Government’s were also able to avail themselves of powerful war-time legislation – such as the Economic Stabilisation Act – to regulate and co-ordinate the economic life of the nation. Prices, wages, rents and dividends could all be controlled with the flourish of a ministerial pen.

Much more important than these advantages, however, was the social-democratic political culture of the pre-Rogernomics era. Back then most New Zealanders looked upon the state as their friend and ally. No sensible person would have questioned it’s central role in the reconstruction of a quake-struck Christchurch. The State’s ownership of banks and insurance companies, telecommunications, broadcasting services, road, rail, air and maritime transport networks would have materially hastened the planning and initiation of the recovery process. Calculating the private sector’s profit margin would not have been permitted to slow it down.

Since 1985, however, New Zealanders have witnessed the wholesale transfer of economic power from the state to the private sector. Our ability to act decisively in our own interest – through publicly owned institutions – has been decisively diminished.

In place of the conscious public activity which gave us the economic and social infrastructure of a modern nation, we have substituted the unconscious co-ordination of the Market.

That’s fine, if all you’re after is a better cup of coffee, or a cheaper television set. It’s not so fine, however, if there are homeless and jobless citizen’s to care for, and a stricken community to rebuild.

We know this – and it worries us. Because we’re not confident that the people who convinced us that a better cup of coffee and a cheaper television set were a fair swap for the public institutions and collective effort which built this nation will ever be big enough to acknowledge their mistake.

Damaged city and damaged nation can only be restored by using the same tools that created them. If we can’t find someone big enough to wield those tools, Refugee Christchurch will soon become Refugee New Zealand.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 March 2011.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Hitler's Fashionable Lover (Or, What's Eating John Galliano?)

"Beware of the man in the Black Hat/He's fitting you out for much more than that." - Sam Hunt. "Fashion is FasCISM" - Malcolm McLaren. "I love Hitler!" - John Galliano.

THE ANTI-SEMITIC OUTBURSTS of John "I love Hitler" Galliano sent a wobble down the axis of Planet Celebrity.

Dior’s enormously talented fashion designer, who deserves much of the credit for setting the style of the 21st Century’s first decade, will be hard to replace. Indeed, it’s difficult to see Dior sacking Galliano if he’d given them any other choice. But, he did not. In a moment of drunken recklessness, the pencil moustachioed maestro let the mask of celebrity slip – and we couldn’t look away.

Should we be surprised at Galliano’s Hitlerian sympathies? Not at all. Fascism and high-society have always been half in love with each other.

In many vital respects Hitler was himself the creation of Germany’s upper echelons. From his very earliest incarnation as an uncouth Munich street orator, Hitler had friends in high places.

Among his first patrons were members of the aristocratic Thule Society. Seared by Bavaria’s brief flirtation with radical socialism at the end of the First World War, these fanatical anti-communists and racists were organising in secret anticipation of "The Drummer": a saviour chosen by destiny to rescue Germany from Bolshevik levelling and Jewish cosmopolitanism.

If you think that all sounds just a bit mystical and magical, you’re not mistaken. Aristocrats, be they creatures born of inheritance, money, or fleeting fame, have always looked to the supernatural for vindication.

How could it be otherwise? To believe – as just about every blue-blooded aristocrat, fabulously wealthy business tycoon or wildly successful artist believes – that one’s elite status is entirely attributable to one’s own unique and superior talents, makes solidarity with the rest of humanity all but impossible.

The rest of humankind: the "little people", are not like the elite. They are talentless drudges, fit only to serve those whom God, Destiny or the Devil has gilded with greatness. Even worse, the drudges are envious of them - enjoying nothing more than seeing them dragged down to their level – the gutter.

Hitler appeals to the John Gallianos of this world because they recognise in him a kindred spirit. From his early teenage years young Adolf knew himself to be an artist. He just didn’t know what kind. It required the Mephistophelean urgings of Thule occultist, Dietrich Eckart, to convince him that history alone could be his canvass, and that his paints and brushes must be made of flesh and blood.

Galliano may affect the style of a fop and a dilettante, but he shares his hero’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist and his same insatiable hunger for recognition. He too works with a human palette – shaping men’s and women’s bodies to his Procrustean designs. The Nuremberg rallies and the shows of international fashion designers have more than just bright lights and pounding rhythms in common.

It is through their conception of men and women as tools in the hands of superior beings: as mere instruments of their will; that the global elites enter into communion with the principles of fascism. At their very heart (and this is especially true of the fashion elites, who are notorious for their worship of thinness and whiteness) lies a cruel and isolating aesthetic.

It is an aesthetic of perfection and distance.

Nothing worth having should be easily accessible to the masses. On the contrary, the finer things of life must be like the inhabitants of Olympus: impossibly perfect and impossibly remote.

It’s an aesthetic ideally suited to the thin sliver of humanity which has seized control of such an obscenely large proportion of the world’s wealth – and John Galliano was its tailor.

So, what drove him to such self-revelatory and ultimately self-destructive public outbursts?

Could it have been the self-evident falsity of his elite aesthetic?

The finer things of life are not perfect, nor are they remote. The warmth of friendship. The taste of food. The raw confusion of our daily lives. That’s what makes life worth living – and it’s available to everyone. Young and old. Fat and skinny. Rich and poor.

To not be perfect – and yet be capable of joy. Lurching from his restaurant table to confront the subversive reality of human imperfection just metres from his own – that’s what undid John Galliano.

Had Hitler succeeded, he raved, "people like you would be dead!"

Never understanding that the life Hitler’s inhuman model had already taken – was his own.

This essay was published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 March 2011.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

A Reluctant Jeremiad (Thoughts On The Latest Vice-Regal Appointment)

A Career of Blameless Excellence?: We must all hope that Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae is, indeed, that rarest of beings: a senior military officer who has never failed to do what was right - in a shooting war. It's certainly not something that can be said of the last Governor-General with a military background - Sir Bernard Fergusson. Not unless you consider torture and murder to be accepatble instruments of military policy.

THE APPOINTMENT of Lieutenant-General Jeremiah "Jerry" Mateparae as New Zealand’s next Governor-General has puzzled many New Zealanders. Hardly surprising, given that the last vice-regal appointee from a military background was British-born Sir Bernard Fergusson, way back in 1962.

Since Fergusson’s term came to an end in 1967, all those appointed to the position have been native-born New Zealanders – and none have been soldiers.

Sir Arthur Porritt was a distinguished doctor. Sir Keith Holyoake and Dame Catherine Tizard were politicians. Sir Paul Reeves was an Anglican Archbishop. All the others: Sir Dennis Blundell, Sir David Beattie, Sir Michael Hardy Boys, Dame Silvia Cartwright and the present Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand, were judges.

There’s a very good reason why Fergusson was the last Governor-General with a military background. How many senior military officers are there who, at some point in their careers, have not found themselves involved in matters that really couldn’t stand the light of day? When the application of deadly force is the essence of one’s profession, moral failure is practically inevitable.

Fergusson was no exception to this rule. Had he been forced to withstand the same degree of scrutiny to which Presidential nominees to the United States Cabinet are subjected, Fergusson would never have made it to Government House.

It is highly unlikely that Keith Holyoake, New Zealand’s Prime Minister at the time of Fergusson’s appointment, was unaware of the very large skeleton rattling around in his new Governor-General’s closet. That it was not deemed sufficiently important to block Fergusson’s nomination merely confirms how subservient to the "Mother Country" New Zealand’s politicians still were in the early-1960s.

Their reticence is understandable. It was a time when the United Kingdom absorbed more than three-fourths of New Zealand’s primary exports. "God Save the Queen" kicked off the programme in every movie theatre. And royal visits sent normally undemonstrative New Zealanders into paroxysms of royalist fervour.

If Downing Street and the Palace considered Brigadier Fergusson the right man to take up the same vice-regal duties as his father and grandfathers, then not even his role in the torture and murder of an 16-year-old Jewish boy was going to persuade the New Zealand Government to disagree.

The tortured teenager’s name was Alexander Rubowitz, and he’d been murdered 15 years earlier in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine.

Members of a Special Police Unit had arrested Rubowitz as he was pasting up posters on behalf of Lehi – a Zionist resistance organisation. He was bundled into an unmarked car and driven several miles down the Jericho Road. There he was tortured by the counter-terrorist unit’s leader, Captain Roy Farran. When Rubowitz refused to reveal the names of his comrades, Farran repeatedly struck him on the head with a stone, killing him. Farran then ordered the boy’s body stripped and disposed of in a roadside ditch.

The counter-terrorist unit responsible for Rubowitz’s death was the brainchild of Palestine’s Assistant Inspector-General of Police, Colonel Bernard Fergusson. He had persuaded his superiors to set it up in February 1947 to seek out and destroy the Zionist terrorist cells against which the British army of was fighting a vicious guerrilla war. The unit itself was made up of former SAS soldiers and modelled on the "Special Night Squads" established by Orde Wyngate (with whom Fergusson had served in Burma during World War II). Wyngate’s units – which were little more than death squads – had been highly effective in quelling the Palestinian Arab Revolt of the 1920s and 30s.

It was to Fergusson that Farran confessed the murder of Rubowitz on 7 May 1947. The record shows that the British authorities first instinct was to cover the whole thing up. Indeed, had it not been for the dogged efforts of a British CID officer the disappearance of Rubowitz (whose body was never found) would have remained a mystery. Even so, Farran escaped any punishment for the boy’s murder. At the trial, Fergusson’s refusal to testify – on the grounds that any answers would constitute self-incrimination – caused the prosecution’s case against Farran to collapse.

Fergusson, himself, was packed-off back to the United Kingdom where his staunch defence of a self-confessed murderer, and involvement in the cover-up of a war-crime, did not appear to do his career the slightest harm. He retired from active duty with the rank of Brigadier in 1958.

That Holyoake and his advisers were aware of Fergusson’s record in Palestine seems highly likely. The rumour-mills of the armed services grind away with no less energy than those of other large institutions. In the early 1960s, however, Fergusson’s moral failure would never have surfaced in the New Zealand press. Nevertheless, the fact that the New Zealand Government never again allowed Downing Street and the Palace to choose our Governors-General, and that no military person has been appointed to the position for 44 years, strongly suggests that Fergusson’s role in the "Farran Affair" made a strong impression.

Which is why the appointment of Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae is such a puzzle. Our news media has come a long way since 1962. In today’s much more transparent political environment, the slightest hint of a skeleton lurking in the closet of a Governor-General Designate is certain to be revealed.

Did no one in authority pause to consider the sheer unlikelihood of a senior military officer, in command of military forces engaged in the subjugation of a guerrilla army, in a theatre of war rife with reports of "terrorist suspects" being tortured and murdered, emerging from the process entirely innocent of even one serious moral failure?

It is surely a critical weakness of our current constitutional practice that the proper scrutiny of those chosen to fill the role (in the Queen’s absence) of New Zealand’s Head of State cannot be undertaken until after their appointment has been announced.

We must all hope that Jerry Mateparae is, indeed, that rarest of beings: a senior military officer who has never failed to do what was right – in a shooting war.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Reflections On The Christchurch Earthquake: Starting Over

What Sort Of Future?: Cantabrians must decide whether they want to reproduce an architechtural past that was itself a kind of lie, or construct a new city that is less a copy of Mother England and more a statement about 21st Century New Zealand.

IS GERRY BROWLEE RIGHT? Should we bulldoze the slate clean? Should Christchurch start over with architectural blueprints more akin to the aspirations and values of 21st Century New Zealanders?

These are reasonable questions: and I take my hat off to Mr Brownlee for having the political courage to raise them. He also deserves our praise for the gruff honesty with which he so firmly declared his preference for the bulldozer.

Whether Mr Brownlee was simply displaying the instincts of a practical politician when he called for all but the two great cathedrals, the Provincial Chambers and the Arts Centre to be cleared away; or voicing his support for a new architectural vision of Christchurch, I cannot say.

My suspicion is that, like so many Cantabrians, his eyes and his heart have grown weary of the rubble and the ruins. A dusty vacant lot pregnant with the hope of something new would please him more, I think, than being reminded constantly of the old. The longer these tombstones to the Christchurch that was remain standing, the harder it is to imagine the Christchurch that will be.

But simply bulldozing flat the heartbreaking remnants of 19th and early-20th Century Christchurch is not a sufficient answer to the painful sense of loss which they inspire. If there is no clear commitment from local and central government to a creative, generous, and most importantly, a long-term plan for the reconstruction of Christchurch, then for the sake of all Cantabrians – let the ruins stand.

At least while the ruins remain in place, the sites they occupy cannot be filled with graceless, lowest-bidder structures dedicated to nothing more uplifting than the crass utilitarianism of bureaucratic administration. The last thing Cantabrians need is for their once beautiful Neo-Gothic city to be transformed into an antipodean version of Europe’s post-war urban landscape: an environment of rigid right-angles, reinforced concrete, stainless steel and glass.

This would add to the disaster that God made, a tragedy for which we alone are responsible.

It is easy to understand why the founders of Christchurch built their new city in the Neo-Gothic style. Not only was it the architectural fashion of the time, but the resulting structures replicated for the city’s emigrant population all the reassuring lines and forms of the towns and cities they’d left behind. Their civic buildings and places of worship were conceived in the same spirit as Christchurch’s spacious parks. They were the architectural equivalents of English oaks and elms.

Is that what we want the new Christchurch to be? A city (and a community) built in a quite conscious imitation of England? An exercise, it should be remembered, that extended well beyond mere architectural imitation. Canterbury was not only to boast the spires and towers, trees and flowers, of Mother England but also her rigid class system - and all the social deformities that came with it.

The Neo-Gothic architecture for which Christchurch is so rightly famous also has its disreputable side. For let us not forget that its great masterpieces – of which the Westminster parliamentary complex is undoubtedly the greatest – were constructed in the midst of industrial and political revolutions.

All architecture is political. The ideological impetus behind the Gothic revival reflected the nostalgia of a beleaguered ruling class for the political and religious certainties of the Middle Ages. Had history taken a slightly different course, the built environment of Nineteenth Century London (and Christchurch) could just as easily have been inspired by the democratic values and revolutionary construction techniques of the ultra-modern Crystal Palace – home of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This is why Cantabrians must quiz Mr Brownlee much more closely about his intentions. Because the future shape of Christchurch is, inescapably, a political question. If it is conceived in an atmosphere of crude austerity – where cheapness is the highest virtue – not only Cantabrians but all New Zealanders will be the losers.

This past dreadful fortnight Mayor Bob Parker has acquitted himself with real distinction. Now he must turn his attention to the all-important question of how the future shape of Christchurch will be decided.

If the process is not democratic: if the people (and that includes the people of Bexley and Aranui every bit as much as the people of Ilam and Fendalton) are not drawn into the process – and kept there – then Christchurch’s reconstruction will default to the blueprints of cash-strapped central and local government politicians and profit-driven private-sector developers.

The result will be a Christchurch configured not according to the imaginations and aspirations of its citizens, but to the cost-accounting imperatives of bureaucrats and businessmen.

If that is allowed to happen, Cantabrians will have no stake in their new city. The past they’ll recall with nostalgic affection. The future will happen somewhere else.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 March 2011. 

Monday, 7 March 2011

Whose Media?

The Journalist As Hero: News is what somebody, somewhere, doesn't want you to know. That's what freedom of the press used to be all about - at least in the eyes of 1930s Hollywood. But questioning authority and speaking truth to power has become passe. Now, apparently, the news media's role is to reflect the strong baseline of our common experience a.k.a The Lowest Common Denominator. The hero of this new endeavour is not the journalist but the propagandist.

AS THE MUCKRAKING American journalist, Upton Sinclair, wisely observed: "It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

I think of Sinclair every time I hear a bank economist pontificating on the state of the New Zealand economy. Why, oh why, I ask myself, does the news media persist in seeking credible economic information from people with such an obvious vested interest in presenting the privately-owned financial sector in the best possible light?

Why doesn’t the news media approach an academic economist for this sort of commentary? Someone whose salary depends upon the rigor of their critical thinking – not the profits of their employer? Someone, in short, without a dog in the fight?

Delving into the history of who the news media goes to for economic information (especially the public broadcasters, Radio New Zealand and TVNZ) offers some interesting insights into exactly what the media is and who it is for.

Prior to the political triumph of neoliberal dogma in the late-1980s and early-1990s, it was the long-established custom of public broadcasters to approach academic economists for commentary on all manner of financial, commercial and fiscal affairs. But shortly after the election of the Bolger-led National Government in 1990 this practice ceased.

A memo was circulated among Radio New Zealand’s news and current affairs staff indicating who was, and more importantly who was not an acceptable source of economic commentary. What was most notable about this list (apart from the inclusion of all the major banks’ official economists) was its obvious bias towards neoliberal economics. [Don’t bother trying to get your hands on this document because "officially" it doesn’t exist. I learned of its existence from broadcasters who’d seen it and read it but who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, supply me with a copy.]

In the early 1990s, many of the economic professors and associate professors in New Zealand’s universities were still followers of the Keynesian school of economics. When approached for commentary their responses were more often than not highly critical of the policies of both the National Government, and its ideological cheerleaders in the Treasury and the Business Roundtable.

By disseminating the views of these highly critical academic economists the public broadcasters were engaging in a high-risk game of poker with the whole neoliberal establishment.

Just how risky this game could get was demonstrated in 1990 when TVNZ found itself legally besieged by an outraged Labour Cabinet following the broadcast of For the Public Good – a current affairs documentary exposing the links between the politicians behind Rogernomics and Big Business. The producer and many of the staff who worked on For the Public Good soon found themselves not only unemployed but effectively blacklisted in New Zealand. The lesson was not lost on the public broadcasters who remained.

When the Bolger Government’s rising dissatisfaction with the public broadcasters’ coverage of economic affairs was translated into thinly-veiled threats of funding-cuts or even outright privatisation, the management staff at Radio New Zealand decided discretion was the better part of valour – and issued the infamous memo.

Stories like this one give the lie to the rather matter-of-fact description of the news media’s functions supplied last Monday (28/2/11) by Lew at Kiwipolitico.

"The media’s job is right there in the name:" says Lew, "to mediate events for a society which, by and large, will never experience them firsthand but which nevertheless relies on a strong baseline of common experience."

It’s precisely at that "strong baseline of common experience" that Lew and I part company over the news media’s role.

When journalists attempt to tailor their coverage to the requirements of the lowest common denominator (for isn’t that what the expression "baseline of common experience" really means?) they may well be serving the commercial and political needs of those who own, run and influence the news media, but they are certainly not serving the public.

Lew’s comments were made in the context of the Christchurch Earthquake, so let’s take an example from that tragedy to illustrate my point.

According to Lew: "It is incumbent upon the media to present more than a desiccated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake, for it is not a desiccated, dispassionate situation for those involved. As a matter of fairness to Cantabrians, if the events they cover speak to narratives of courage and tenacity, or loss or anguish or triumph or solidarity or whatever, then the media has a responsibility to convey those narratives more or less faithfully. And as a matter of national cohesion they need to convey a sense of the magnitude and intensity of it all to the rest of the nation."

Now, cast your mind back to the media coverage of the young man who was brought before a Christchurch court and charged with looting light-fittings. Anyone looking at the television footage could tell that the accused had been severely beaten. His eyes and mouth were badly swollen and his face covered with cuts and bruises. But to my knowledge not a single journalist commented on this obvious fact. Nor did I hear anyone make reference to the obvious collusion between the Police, the Court and the news media which transformed the accused’s appearance before the judge into a full-scale media event.

Presumably, the journalists present saw this carefully organised "perp walk" as a chance to build "national cohesion" around the most suitable means of deterring looting in Christchurch. Accordingly, each of them toed the "baseline of common experience" – in this case our common revulsion at looting in the midst of tragedy.

But the media was wrong about that young man. He turned out to be less of a looter than he was a mentally disabled human-being utterly unequal to the task of defending himself against either physical assault or the charges brought against him. It’s doubtful he was even capable of grasping the extreme seriousness of his situation.

Journalists less concerned with building "national cohesion" and keeping within the bounds of society’s "common experience" would have questioned the authorities, not colluded with them. They would have tried to find out who beat the boy. Was it the Police? The Army? Or was he left to the tender mercies of his cell-mates?

When they learned that the items he’d stolen were light-fittings, they would have immediately known that they weren’t dealing with a case of looting, but with something entirely different. (Who risks imprisonment for light-fittings?!)

But, because the journalists present at the court decided to act in our name, rather than in the name of what Lew dismisses as "a desiccated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake", we were all tainted by the cruelty and injustice meted out to a sad autistic boy.

In that makeshift courthouse, the assembled journalists’ "first rough draft of history" was a lie.

And only more lies will follow while the profession of journalism allows the prejudices of its fellow citizens; the political priorities of its leaders; the commercial imperatives of its employers – not to mention its own generous salary packages – to deflect its members from their fundamental duty to question authority and speak truth to power. 

Friday, 4 March 2011

Reflections On The Christchurch Earthquake: Getting Through

Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat: Winston Churchill's words to the people of Britain during its "finest hour" in 1940 were so magnificently inspiring precisely because they were so utterly uncompromising. The political force-field created by the Christchurch earthquake can be harnessed by our politicians, but only if they display the unflinching honesty and unshakeable resolve of Britain's wartime leader.

THE CHRISTCHURCH TRAGEDY has generated its own political force-field. Events of such gravity always do. When something as big and brutal as Christchurch’s devastating earthquake shatters the ordered symmetry of our daily lives, we expect our political leaders to respond with measures of equal force.

These measures don’t always have to be practical – although it’s on the ground that the authorities’ performance will always, ultimately, be judged. Often, in moments of crisis, the words of our leaders can be just as important as their deeds.

Recall Winston Churchill’s words, upon assuming the mantle of wartime leadership in 1940. "I have nothing to offer", he told a hushed House of Commons, "but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

That steely realism: so bereft of sentiment; so empty of comfort; stiffened the sinews of the British people. At such critical moments, citizens aren’t looking for soft words of pity and consolation. What they want is speech of unflinching honesty and unshakeable resolve.

"You ask, what is our aim?", Churchill went on. "I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, no matter how long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival."

New Zealand is about to be tested in ways only marginally less gruelling than the ultimate audit of war. We are faced with the abrupt cessation of more than a tenth of our national economy – for how long we cannot tell. If the rebuilding of the earthquake-devastated Japanese city of Kobe is any guide, Christchurch may require as much as a decade to fully recover.

The leader who successfully harnesses the political force-field of the Christchurch earthquake will be the leader who tells New Zealanders clearly and without prevarication exactly what he or she expects of them. Because any politician who suggests that Christchurch can be rebuilt or that the New Zealand economy can successfully weather this crisis without a supreme and united national effort, is insulting the intelligence of the electorate.

Not only that, they are insulting the thousands of ordinary Kiwis: farmers, workers, businessmen, students, beneficiaries and retirees; who have added their skills and energy to the unstinting efforts of tens-of-thousands of dedicated public servants.

The men and women who have rushed to bring practical assistance to their fellow New Zealanders are showing the way forward to any political leader with the wit to see it. We are not going to get Cantabrians through this crisis except by means of a co-ordinated and collective effort. And New Zealand will only find the money to rebuild and restore Christchurch if every New Zealander pays their fair share of the cost.

That means the top ten-percent of income earners will have to give up the generous tax windfalls of last year’s Budget – as well as pay a special levy on incomes in excess of $100,000 p.a. It will require the rest of us to pay higher EQC levies. And all of us will have to invest in Earthquake Recovery Bonds with the same sort of patriotic enthusiasm that our parents and grandparents once invested in War Bonds.

Getting through will also require New Zealanders to dispense with many of the economic articles-of-faith that have been drummed into them this past quarter-century. The notion that "Government isn’t the solution to the problem. Government is the problem" (to quote Ronald Reagan’s infamous formulation) must go.

The other lesson which the heroic altruism of ordinary Cantabrians should be teaching our political class is that New Zealanders feel much more like themselves when they’re helping – not hurting – their neighbours. Any political party that believes a national reconstruction effort can be successfully undertaken while unemployed Kiwis and solo mums are being stigmatised, or while the sick and disabled are being harassed and harried into non-existent jobs, is criminally deluded.

Rebuilding Christchurch, and its crucial contribution to New Zealand’s national life, requires, above all else, the same unity of purpose that allowed the Allies to overcome fascism in World War II.

The earthquake’s political force-field will simply annihilate any politician or party which, by unfairly distributing the burdens of recovery, sets New Zealander against New Zealander – in mutual ruin.

To paraphrase Churchill: At this time we are entitled to claim the aid of all, and say: "Come then, let us go forward together."

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, 4 March 2011.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Oh, For A Well Mannered Left

IN A RECENT POSTING, Cactus Kate fulminates against the Left’s presumption that only they know how to care about their fellow human-beings. Her caustic polemic reminded me of the editorial I wrote for the Autumn 2003 issue of N.Z. Political Review.

"Oh, For A Well-Mannered Left" drew attention to the curious fact that "the Right treats humanity like cattle and individual human-beings like princes, while the Left loves humanity with a passion but treats individuals like shit."

The whole editorial is reproduced below.

WHY IS IT that I can get a friendlier discussion about New Zealand politics out of an ACT regional conference than I can out of practically any gathering of New Zealand lefties? Come to think of it, why was a gathering of right-wing ACT party members confident enough to invite an avowed social-democrat like Chris Trotter to address them, when a gathering of socialists and communists were unwilling to grant him speaking rights at a post-9/11 rally?

Why is the Left so bloody unpleasant?

In the end, I think it comes down to the stark differences between conservative and radical political cultures.

Conservatives operate on the not unreasonable assumption that, since they already control most of the things that really matter in our society, their paramount political responsibility is to hold on to what they’ve got.

Having firmly settled upon their guiding strategy, conservatives feel free to debate its tactical ramifications without rancour. What’s more, like any good general taking up a defensive position, they possess an insatiable appetite for reliable intelligence about their political enemies’ intentions. If they’re going to be attacked, they would like to know when, by whom, and with what.

All of which contributes to a conservative culture of civility and curiosity. Historical memories of aristocratic honour and noblesse oblige mingle with more recent bourgeois values inherited from the Enlightenment – like the spirit of scientific inquiry – to produce the personal generosity, social ease, and intellectual flexibility so characteristic of conservative politicians the world over.

Radical political culture is altogether different.

For a start, there are long-standing and very sharp disagreements among radical leftists about "the movement’s" ultimate objectives. You can be a radical socialist, a radical Maori nationalist, a radical feminist or a radical ecologist and, depending on which camp you belong to, identify Capitalism, Pakeha Privilege, Patriarchy and/or Industrial Civilisation as the primary target of your political assault.

Worse still, because the radical’s default-mode (and here we are talking about radicals of both the Left and the Right) is opposition to the status quo, radical movements evince a praxis which encourages not only intellectual aggression, but all-too-often verbal and physical violence as well. Add to this volatile mixture the radical’s confusion over objectives (and the interminable tactical squabbles that it generates) and you have the perfect recipe for a culture of competition and intransigence.

Such cultures are highly intolerant of dissent. Indeed, intellectual subtlety of any kind tends to be frowned upon as proof of insufficient "staunchness". As a consequence radicals display all the attributes of (if I may continue to employ a military metaphor) the classical attacking force: an insistence on unity and unquestioning obedience; the strong validation of personal sacrifice and loyalty to the group; and a preoccupation with ends as opposed to means. Small wonder that so many radicals employ the language of combat – campaigns, rallies, marches, attacks – to describe political behaviour.

There is a paradox here. Conservative political culture, whose raison d’être is the preservation of social inequality and economic exploitation (not to mention the institutional violence these things create and upon which ruling class power rests) tends to produce individuals of considerable personal charm and genuine liberality. While radical political culture, which sets its face against the violence and injustice of entrenched privilege, all too often produces individuals who are aggressive, intolerant and utterly indifferent to the suffering which their relentless quest for justice causes.

In short, the Right treats humanity like cattle and individual human-beings like princes, while the Left loves humanity with a passion but treats individuals like shit.

I can’t help thinking that the revolution would come a lot sooner if the Left set about achieving its own radical objectives with its conservative opponents’ infinitely better manners.

As Gilbert Shelton’s wonderful 1970s poster put it: "Remember kids, when you’re out there smashing the State, to keep a smile on your lips and a song in your heart."

EIGHT YEARS ON, little appears to have changed. Perhaps all of us, Left and Right, should ponder the truth of the following line of dialogue from an old Hollywood movie I saw many, many years ago – but which I've never forgotten:

"It’s a whole lot harder to love just one person than all humanity – but it’s not one bit less noble."

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

In Remembrance: 12:51pm, Tuesday, 22nd February 2011

Two Minutes Silence: For the dead, the injured, the broken and bereaved of New Zealand's second city. Kia Kaha Christchurch!

Reflections on the Christchurch Earthquake: Acts of God and Acts of Man

Does Anyone Know Where The Love Of God Goes?: In the face of the earth's blind indifference to human suffering, it is only our species' instinct to reach out and offer assistance that offers the hope of recovery. When disaster has a human origin, however, our altruistic impulses are often deliberately thwarted. Why is that?

I WONDER if Paula Rebstock will be brave enough to tell the thousands of quake-struck Cantabrians who have just lost their livelihoods to get busy "job-seeking".

She wouldn’t dare.

The heartbreaking events of last Tuesday have disrupted the lives of thousands of Christchurch families. Looking east across the city’s devastated eastern suburbs one is daunted by the massive scale of this disaster.

Most New Zealanders have become uncomfortably familiar with the grim scenes of tragedy in Central Christchurch. But very few Kiwis yet grasp just how many Cantabrians are struggling to survive in ordinary suburban streets much like their own.

In these streets you will not find the wrenching drama of the collapsed CTV and Pyne Gould Group buildings, but do not believe for one moment that the after-effects of Tuesday’s killer quake will be any less crushing.

If someone is trapped in a building, the task is simple: get them out. But what do you do when the tasks looming ahead of you are too numerous and frightening to contemplate?

How do you cope when liquefaction has sunk and twisted the foundations of your home and filled the rooms with raw sewage? How do you keep track of Civil Defence advice when there is no electricity to power your radio – and the bathroom transistor lies in pieces on the floor? How do you keep up your family’s morale when the nearest drinkable water is twenty-minutes walk, and sixty-minutes wait, from your front gate? When the family toilet is a hole in the ground?

How can you plan ahead when your employer’s business lies in ruins on the other side of the police cordon? How is he supposed to even make up last week’s pay? And, if, as you suspect, your job has gone, is the company in any position to offer redundancy? How will you continue to pay the mortgage on a house you can no longer live in, from an income stream that no longer exists?

Multiply these questions a thousand-fold and you begin to get some idea of what lies ahead for the people of Christchurch.

And, naturally, their fellow New Zealanders are responding with generosity. There’s simply no question of WINZ employees grilling quake-afflicted mums and dads about their job-seeking efforts. No one’s going to threaten them with "sanctions" if they can’t produce evidence of positions applied for, and interviews attended. When people’s joblessness, homelessness, acute depression and deteriorating health are attributable to an Act of God, we do not blame them – we do everything within our power to help them.

So why is the Chair of the Welfare Working Group, Paula Rebstock, who wouldn’t dream of denying assistance to the victims of the Christchurch earthquake, so ready to harass and punish the victims of man-made disasters?

When a firm goes belly up. When a Board of Directors decides to shut down their uncompetitive New Zealand factories and relocate the manufacturing side of the business to Thailand. When a public-servant-hating Government throws scores of innocent, hard-working New Zealanders out of their jobs. It’s then that the people on the receiving end, through no fault of their own, are confronted with many of the same questions currently challenging the residents of Christchurch’s eastern suburbs.

They may not have experienced physical liquefaction, but the solid foundations upon which they believed their lives had been built have crumbled and sunk away just the same. The power and the water may still be on in their houses, but how do they keep these utilities flowing with no money coming in? How do they pay the mortgage? And, when in it comes to shame and embarrassment, telling family and friends that you’ve lost your job is right up there with having to squat over a hole in the backyard.

Help will come quickly to the people of the eastern suburbs. It must – or Cantabrian morale will collapse, psychological depression will set in, family violence will soar, and a calamitous natural disaster will be compounded by the effects of a social catastrophe.

Paula Rebstock tells us that the number of New Zealanders on benefits is already a social catastrophe, and her report proposes a series of harsh and uncompromising measures to shrink the welfare rolls. It seems to regard beneficiaries not as the victims of disasters they did not make, but must somehow endure: unemployment; spousal abuse or abandonment; mental illness; physical and/or intellectual disability: but as hopelessly dependent children.

Beneficiaries, according to Ms Rebstock, have become the prisoners of their own, and others’, low expectations – and only paid work can set them free.

I dare her to use that sort of exclusionary and condescending language to describe the struggling families of the eastern suburbs.

What the innocent victims of God’s acts, and Man’s, need most is our help – not our disdain.

This essay was sent for publication in The Press of Tuesday, 1 March 2011.

POSTSCRIPT: The Government’s assistance package, announced on Monday, 28 February, further highlights the curious distinction our political leaders continue to draw between Acts of God and Acts of Man. If you’ve lost your job because of the earthquake you’re immediately entitled to receive $500.00 per week (close to the minimum wage). But, if you’ve lost your job because your employer has just been bought out by a multinational company, you’re entitled (after a stand-down period of 12 weeks) to an unemployment benefit of just $294.00 per week (56 percent of the minimum wage). Nothing could better illustrate the punitive assumptions built into our welfare system.