Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Seventies Nostalgia: Forgotten Anniversary - A Sonnet

Forgotten Anniversary

Wet October calls forth a crippled Spring
Under the shaky ceiling of our skies,
The lame season saddens everything
Retelling all the worst of Winter’s lies.
Explosive joys lie dormant in the blood
Wrapped like the leaves in crampt uncertainty,
Fires that would heat the heart, bestir the bud
Are banked and smoulder with a cold pallidity.

Our faltering love echoes the Spring’s excuse
Pleading ignorance of the New Year’s birth;
Our souls uncertain, wilfully obtuse
Stare wonderingly at Life and Passion’s dearth.

There’s nothing new in losing something old,
Though Winter’s past the days may yet grow cold.

Chris Trotter

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Nine Years Ago - Election '02: Green Is The New Red

Full House: With the polls showing Labour plummeting to record lows, the 2011 Election is shaping up to become the 2002 Election - in reverse. Another thing '11 has in common with '02 is the notion that, come election day, Green may become the new Red.

THERE ARE TIMES when individuals choose the moment and the place for spectacular events, and times when the moments and the places choose them. Last Sunday, in Auckland’s Beresford Street, it was very much a case of the latter.

The building known as Hopetoun Alpha began life as a Congregationalist Church. It is a beautiful structure, designed in the classical style and featuring graceful columns and tall arched windows. The interior is full of light and the acoustics are sensational.

The Congregationalists themselves were one of those dissenting Protestant sects that sprang out of the intellectual and political ferment of the 17th Century. Like the Quakers, they eschew hierarchy and arrive at decisions by consensus. In New Zealand, they were among the first to admit women to a full and equal role in the life of the church, and the Auckland community was particularly active in the struggle for women’s suffrage and the agitation against militarism.

If the Green Party had spent a year in the search they could not have found a better place to launch their 2002 election campaign. Even so, Green campaign-worker Lynne Serpe had to fight off suggestions that the opening be held on Auckland’s fashionable waterfront. Coming from New York, and having worked on the Nader Campaign in 2000, Ms Serpe has an impresario’s eye for exactly the right kind of venue, and something told her that the waterfront was all wrong.

Knowing that the New Zealand Greens weren’t going to be able to equal Ralph Nader’s 30,000 strong rally at the Madison Square Garden, she was looking for a place that had just the right mixture of formality and intimacy, solemnity and gaiety. When she stepped into Hopetoun Alpha she knew the search was over.

I don’t know if it was the democratic spirit of the men and women who had worshipped there for over a hundred years: their witnessing against war and oppression; or their mystical quest for oneness in the body of believers - but by the time Hopetoun Alpha had filled up with Green Party members and supporters the atmosphere within fairly crackled with energy.

I took my seat upstairs in the steep wooden gallery that runs round the sides of the auditorium and studied the 400 strong crowd. There were plenty of representatives of what has become the Green Party stereotype: willowy women with long skirts and braided hair; men with bright waistcoats and bristling beards – but they were in the minority. Most of the audience were perfectly ordinary Kiwis. I noted family groups, and several clutches of university students. A small group of young Maori took their seats, I wondered if this was their first political rally.

It certainly wasn’t mine. Over the past fortnight I had attended three campaign launches. Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition’s - somewhere in the suburban wilderness of the North Shore; Laila Harré’s Alliance’s - in the proletarian heartland of Waitakere; and Helen Clark’s Labour Party’s - amidst the swank sophistication of Auckland’s Aotea Centre. Jim’s had been an embarrassingly amateurish affair, Laila’s had an elegiac feel about it, and, once Stella had finished playing, Helen’s was so bland that I nearly fell asleep. But this gathering at Hopetoun Alpha was different. This crowd was generating a force field that was almost palpable.

Jeanette Fitzsimons spoke first. Standing between two massive pillars (I couldn’t get the image of the second card of the Tarot out of my mind – the image of the High Priestess) she began her speech by reminding us “that every great truth is first ridiculed, then violently opposed, then accepted as self-evident.”

“Aha!” I thought, “Gandhi!” Except he said it slightly differently: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” Of course, he was talking about an independent India, and Jeanette is predicting a GE-Free New Zealand, but the principle remains constant – an idea whose time has come cannot be stopped.

As the rest of the programme unfolded, that sense of ideological certainty grew stronger and stronger - and when Keith Locke, afire with moral outrage at “America’s dirty little war in Afghanistan” declared the Greens to be “the only peace party” the whole place erupted. People began cheering wildly and stamping their feet. High up in the gallery I felt the whole building shake.

“What did you make of that?” a friend of mine asked as we stepped out into a wet and windy Auckland afternoon.

“Isn’t it obvious”, I replied. “Green’s the new Red.”

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 12 July 2002.

Nineties Nostalgia: Candidate's Speech

Oh, But I Was So Much Older Then: NewLabour's Dunedin North candidate in 1990 - Chris Trotter.

IN 1990 I was selected as the NewLabour Party’s Dunedin North candidate. On the evening of 14 October I spoke to an election forum organised by the congregation of  Knox Presbyterian Church in Dunedin. The moot was: “What do you and your party have to offer the Christian voter?”

This is what I told them.

WHAT DOES Chris Trotter and the NewLabour Party have to offer the Christian Voter?

A challenging question. A question that resonates with a host of subsidiary questions.

Who is the Christian Voter? What claim does the Christian religion have on the conduct of government in the 1990s? By what set of criteria does the Christian assess the worth of political aspirants?

These are the questions I will attempt to answer in the brief period allowed for my address.

Let me begin with an assertion.

I assert that the number of genuine Christian voters is very small.

That a very large number of New Zealanders participate in the generalised consensus of moral values founded upon the traditional tenets of the Christian faith, I have no doubt. If these be Christian voters, then they constitute nearly two-thirds of the electorate. But, if a vague and somewhat sentimental attachment to Christian ritual constitutes Christianity in the 1990s – then the Church is in deep trouble.

Jim Bolger and Mike Moore have more than enough public relations consultants to satisfy the rhetorical expectations of these nominal Christians. Tonight, I address my remarks to those who demonstrate an active faith – to those who seek to give practical expression to the rigorous demands of Jesus of Nazareth.

To these people I would bear witness concerning the moral emptiness of this age and the difficulties of projecting a moral dimension upon the world of political action.

It seems to me that New Zealand society – indeed the whole of what we call Western culture – has reached a point of spiritual entropy.

We are exhausted, played out, inert. We are indifferent to the future and ignorant of the past. We exist in an eternal televised present – lulled by the sweetened rhythms of a global marketplace which offers an endless stream of commodities to distract us from the emptiness of our existence.

Did I say “We”? Then I misspoke. Because not everyone lives inside the bubble. Beyond the boundaries of a comfortable, a respectable, middle-class existence there lie the borderlands of poverty and alienation. An expanding empire of despair which encroaches, daily, upon the world of consumption and complacent ease.

It is into these regions of distress that the Christian must venture forth.

James K. Baxter expresses the perilous nature of this quest in his poem Crossing Cook Strait. He wrote:

I walked forth gladly to find the angry poor
Who are my nation: discovered instead
The glutton seagulls squabbling over crusts
And policies made and broken behind locked doors.

The Christian mission is to redeem this squalid spectacle. The claim upon political action which the Christian makes is one of transformation. The vocation embraced by the follower of Jesus is one of upending and overturning. Of scourging the moneylenders and confounding the Pharisees.

I come not to bring peace but the sword.

And so we come again to the original question: “What does Chris Trotter and the NewLabour Party offer the Christian Voter?”

The answer is uncomfortable.

We offer complicity in a conspiracy of hope. We offer a berth on a voyage of dissent. We offer a shout of protest at the moral and material inertia of New Zealand life.

Our policies offer no compromises to the centre ground. The road that leadeth to destruction is broad enough to accommodate both Labour and National.

We offer justice, equality, and that sense of mutual responsibility that Christ and all the prophets counterposed against the realpolitik of their time.

In essence we offer action, involvement – dare I say it? – intervention! We offer a determination to smash the bubble that insulates affluence from poverty, indifference from desperation.

The crisis that faces New Zealanders in the 1990s is more than a material crisis – although the scale of economic disaster that looms ahead is ominous indeed. It is a spiritual crisis: an unwillingness to affirm that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; that truly cripples us.

NewLabour, by daring to reject the politics of “I” and embrace the politics of “We”, lays claim to the Christian voters’ support.

It will be interesting to count their number on Election Day.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Massive Failures

More & Better: Only Christchurch's Mayor and Council have demonstrated a willingness to dream dreams and see visions about their city's future. But, when it comes to the Government's handling of the insurance industry, streamlining the recovery bureaucracies, and delivering decisive and inspiring leadership; all the rest of New Zealand has seen is a series of massive failures.

ONLY THOSE WHO have lived through the Canterbury earthquakes really know what the last 12 months have been about. Non-Cantabrians have watched the tragedy unfold from the comfort of solid houses standing on solid ground. In the fortunate country known as “The Rest of New Zealand” electricity flows at the flick of a switch, water at the twist of a tap, and calls of nature are answered indoors, in private, and without a second thought. For thousands of Christchurch residents, however, second thoughts have become second nature.

In one vital respect, being a citizen of “The Rest of New Zealand” is of real assistance to Cantabrians. By affording much broader perspectives on the processes of recovery and reconstruction it allows us to see from far away trends and issues which may be difficult to recognise up-close.

Three massive failures stand out among the recovery efforts visible from afar. The first is the massive failure of the Government to assert the rights of Cantabrians (and, indeed, of New Zealand as a whole) over the commercial interests of the insurance industry. The second is the massive failure of the city’s multiple bureaucracies to provide Cantabrians with the swift, efficient and effective remedies they so desperately need. And the third is the massive failure of Christchurch’s leaders to infuse the city’s reconstruction and rebirth with vital and visionary energy.

ONLY A SOVEREIGN STATE possesses the power and resources to force corporate entities as large as New Zealand’s domestic and international insurers and reinsurers to hasten and facilitate, rather than delay and frustrate, the full recognition and payment of claims. The state, alone, has the power to tax; the power to regulate; and, ultimately, the power to create its own insurance companies. Armed with such powers, and the clear willingness to use them, the New Zealand state – like the similarly disaster-plagued state of Queensland – should have been able to bend the insurers to its will.

What is now evident, however, is that our government somehow signalled to the insurance industry that the New Zealand state was not of a mind to play hard-ball when it came to ensuring Cantabrians’ expectations of receiving the full replacement value of their ruined homes would be fulfilled. In turn, this failure led to the deeply flawed scheme for relocating those luckless residents whose properties lie in the irremediable “Red Zones” of Christchurch.

The Government’s scheme is unaccountably (but conveniently) blind to the many and significant class differences embedded in Christchurch’s social geography – and their all-too-real reflection in property prices. Movement from east to west across the city will inevitably leave residents of the eastern Red Zones many thousands of dollars out of pocket. Their only alternative to accepting this dispossession by government decree is to “argue it out” with their insurance company. Advice tantamount to suggesting that a mouse “argue it out” with a lion!

THE GOVERNMENT’S FAILURE to tame these insurance lions has led ineluctably to the other massive failures.

A state sufficiently confident of its own power to address and resolve the insurance obstacle wouldn’t have hesitated to take the measures necessary to bring into close alignment – or even merge – the bureaucratic structures Christchurch citizens have been obliged to supplicate.

But instead of an Alexander the Great or a Napoleon: someone with the force of personality and vision to cut through the bureaucratic knots and introduce a new and efficient system of meeting Cantabrians’ needs; the people of Christchurch have been forced to negotiate a bureaucratic labyrinth worthy of Franz Kafka. Instead of the smooth hum of public agencies working together, we hear the loud metallic groans of bureaucratic cogs and wheels grinding against one another.

And the only visible remedy to the sloth and inefficiency of the Earthquake Commission, Environment Canterbury, the Christchurch City Council, CERA and the numerous government authorities, agencies, ministries and departments, has been to take one’s grievance to The Press or Campbell Live.

“The Rest of New Zealand” has not been impressed. 

AND SO WE COME to the third massive failure: the failure of leadership. Viewed from afar, Christchurch appears to have at least three bosses: one elected, one appointed and one imposed. But who of these three: the Mayor of Christchurch, Bob Parker; the CEO of CERA, Roger Sutton; or, the Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee – is really in charge?

That the question can even be posed reveals the scale of the problem.

From afar, only Mayor Parker seems seized of a vision for his city’s re-birth, and his council’s visionary “Share an Idea” campaign about the shape of Christchurch’s new heart the only truly inspirational effort “The Rest of New Zealand” has witnessed – apart, of course, from the sheer, day-to-day heroism of ordinary Cantabrians themselves.

Over the next twelve months the people of Christchurch deserve more – and better.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 August 2011.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Clare's Cri De Coeur

A Cry From The Heart: Wrong-headed and ham-fisted though Clare's postings on the Red Alert blog undoubtedly were, they at least attested to the fact that this Labour MP, unlike so many of her colleagues, still possesses a pulse.

CLARE CURRAN has done what no modern politician is supposed to do: she has spoken from her heart.

In a series of angry and transparently honest postings on the Labour Party’s “Red Alert” blogsite, the Dunedin South MP has given us just a sip of the gall Labour’s caucus is daily required to swallow. Laid bare is the hurt and shame of Labour’s unremitting political failure. Clare and her party feel scorned and abandoned. Defeat looms. No wonder she’s lashing out.

In the first of her postings, Clare tells us she’s “had a gutsful of the white-anting of Labour from both the right and the left of politics”. It’s not exactly clear what she means by this, or to whom, exactly, she’s referring. (Although, by the second posting, it’s pretty obvious she has the Greens in her sights.) Coming through loud and clear, however, is Clare’s immense frustration with what she obviously regards as the puerile quality of contemporary political discourse in New Zealand.

Why is it impossible to have a serious political discussion about the social and economic problems bearing down on Australia and New Zealand, or the major parties’ policies for dealing with them? Why are there so few forums for such discussions? Why is the news media so obsessed with trivia?

As an accomplished public relations practitioner, Clare should know the answers to all these questions. But then, Clare has always demonstrated a somewhat Pollyannaish understanding of PR. Seeing it, rather naively, as a suite of techniques for enhancing public understanding. That PR might, more realistically, be understood as the techniques employed by those with power to confuse and/or misdirect the public’s comprehension of important events and issues never seems to have registered.

Which is a pity. Because a little more familiarity with the dark arts of politics would do Clare and Labour the world of good.

Instead of calling dibs on that ever-decreasing pool of well-educated, middle-class New Zealanders interested in “politics”, and snarling at the Greens for dropping a line into what used to be Labour’s favourite political fishing-hole, Clare and her comrades should strike out for an altogether larger pond, bearing much more effective tackle.

Do that, and the feelings of impotent rage will quickly disappear.

In her third posting, Clare describes a man who turned up at her electorate office weighed down by burdens no single human-being should ever be expected to carry alone.

“This man was a valuable contributing member of our society. He paid taxes. His skills were worth something to our economy. As a direct result of this government’s policies, he, and others like him, do not have jobs.”

But then Clare says: “What are his options?”

And right there you have it – the reason why Labour is performing so badly. Less than 100 days to go before the General Election and Clare still cannot tell her constituent in unequivocal, easily understood language what his options, under Labour, would be.

Her constituent used to work at the Hillside Railway Workshops. Has Labour guaranteed to expand them? Will Labour, upon winning office, tell the world that henceforth all of Kiwi Rail’s rolling-stock will be manufactured in New Zealand?

Will they change this country’s industrial relations laws so that trade unionists employed in other Dunedin industries are free to stage solidarity strikes in defence of worksites like Hillside? Or make it possible for the Maritime Union of New Zealand to prevent the unloading of foreign-built machinery on the nation’s wharves?

Will Labour, in short, undertake to bring working-class New Zealanders back to the centre of the political stage (from which the Labour Party of the 1980s ruthlessly expelled them). Will it arm them with the same weapons the First Labour Government placed in their hands?

Or won’t it?

Has Labour got a story to tell the desperate working man on Clare’s doorstep?

Or hasn’t it?

Clare knows that Labour will not, and that Labour has not. And that is why she is so angry and so ready to lash out at others.

The Maori have a proverb: Ka pu te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi. The old net is cast aside, the new net goes fishing.

Labour must weave a new net, Clare, if it is to land the catch it is seeking.

If it is to become a fisher of men.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 August 2011.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011


Dumbstruck: What the progressives forgot, and the reactionaries remembered, is that while the human bell curve is, indeed, moveable; it can be moved in both directions.

AT THE HEART of the progressive vision is a single, very powerful idea: that the human bell curve is moveable. Humanity can become healthier, smarter, more cultured and more caring – by its own efforts.

The average height of the Roman legionary was just 165 cms. Fifteen hundred years later, the soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armeé weren’t much taller. From the middle of the 19th Century, however, Europeans enjoyed a century-and-a-half of “betters”: better sanitation, better medicine, better education, better housing and, of course, better diet. As a result, the average height of the European male rose steadily from 165 to 180 cms – roughly one centimetre every ten years.

No wonder they called it “The Age of Progress”.

For much of the 20th Century New Zealand was the international exemplar of Progress. In World War I the Kiwi “diggers”  towered above the English “Tommies”. Denied the ordinary New Zealander’s protein-rich diet, the English troops stood half-a-head shorter than their colonial cousins.

Our famed Plunket Society turned out healthy mothers and healthy babies. Fluoridated water supplies and free school-milk gave Kiwi kids bright white smiles and big strong bones.

Big strong morals, too, were no less a feature of the progressive society bequeathed to posterity by Seddon and Savage – the fathers of New Zealand’s welfare state.

We were a nation of joiners and helpers. New Zealanders were renowned the world over as people who could get along with just about anybody, and who were never afraid to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. They could not, however, abide the “stuck up”. People who gave themselves airs and believed they were a cut above everyone else offended the ordinary New Zealanders’ egalitarian instincts.

It was our greatest strength, but also our greatest weakness.

BECAUSE WHAT HAPPENS when the only bell curve left to shift is the bell-curve of knowledge and culture? In an egalitarian society, how do the aristocrats of talent in the arts and sciences, win themselves an audience? How is the nation’s cultural wealth, formerly the preserve of the ruling elites, to be equitably redistributed across the whole of society?

The answer, both here in New Zealand and across the world, has been for the state to create and maintain a broad range of publicly-owned media dedicated to making the sort of cultural experiences hitherto restricted to a wealthy few available to the whole nation. Public libraries and public broadcasting, a state-funded orchestra and ballet company, generous state support for scientists and artists of all kinds: these were the starting-points for the progressive democratisation of knowledge and culture.

They were also the starting point for all those reactionary forces whose steady retreat before the forces of progress had left them with nowhere to look but down. A society which had already given its entire population access to health, housing, education and employment really had nothing left to seize from their reactionary masters except the crucial cultural tools required for transforming a comfortable subaltern existence into a full, free, self-actualising life.

FACED WITH THIS last great surge of progressive social action, the forces of reaction made a fateful decision. Rather than surrender, and let the people come up, they would come down. What had been the prized tools of individual growth and liberation would now be derided as the ultimate symbols of elite domination.

Knowledge and culture, the reactionaries told a New Zealand public already highly suspicious of intellectuals and artists, are the weapons your enemies use to oppress you. Who are these so-called “experts” to tell you the earth is getting warmer? These elitists who pour scorn on the TV programmes you watch and the music you enjoy? Why are all these novelists and artists so determined to undermine your values. Why should taxpayers fund institutions that belittle their way of life?

The right to rule, which had for centuries been associated not merely with brute force, but with the accomplishments of civilisation – with virtue – would henceforth be associated with the rulers’ promise to protect the people from those very same accomplishments. All that will separate the rulers from the ruled in the reactionaries’ dystopic future is the width of their wallets.

SO, WELCOME to “The Age of Stupid”; to the great “dumbing down” of New Zealand. The place where educational standards are being reduced to readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic. Where the universities are already very close to becoming public-private investment partnerships for turning out the officer corps of global capitalism. Where “public television” turns out to mean installing a couple of cheap video cameras in Radio New Zealand’s studios.

Let no one try to convince you there isn’t method to this madness. Because what the progressives forgot, and the reactionaries, facing extinction, finally remembered, is that the human bell-curve may, indeed, be moveable, but that its movement is in both directions.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 August 2011.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Social Cohesion In A Second Term?

The Road Not Taken: Simply for bringing the Maori Party into his government, and sparing us the complete breakdown of social cohesion that would undoubtedly have followed if National's promise to abolish of the Maori Seats had been kept, John Key deserves a second term. The question is: will he be able to keep the peace for another three years?

NEARLY THREE YEARS AGO, Rob Campbell, who (by processes we haven’t the space to go into here) had undergone the remarkable transformation from Trades Hall brawler to capitalist investor, told me something I have not forgotten.

We were seated, very comfortably, at Auckland’s Cin-Cin restaurant, discussing what was already quite clearly a financial crisis of global significance. As I recall, the proportion of the world’s wealth which finance capital’s croupiers had just raked off the table amounted to about one-third.

Rob’s diagnosis of the situation was brutally clear. It would take upwards of a generation for the global economy to make good such colossal losses. The world, he said, was about to go through some very hard times.

I asked him what that meant in political terms.

“The greatest challenge we face,” said Rob, “as we go through this, will be maintaining social cohesion.”

IT IS, PERHAPS, the greatest achievement of John Key’s first term in government that the breakdown in social cohesion which Rob Campbell feared – and which we have just witnessed on the streets of the United Kingdom – has not taken place on our own.

For this the Prime Minister merits high praise.

What kept us together was his inspired decision to bring the Maori Party into his government. Had he not done so: had he simply relied upon National’s natural allies in Act; things could have been very different.

The Maori Seats, for example, would’ve been slated for abolition. This move, alone, threatening as it did the very existence of the Maori Party (and leaving them with dangerously little to lose) would have tested New Zealand’s social cohesion to breaking-point. Serious political disturbances – up to and including terrorist violence – could very easily have torn this country apart.

Simply for sparing us that terrible scenario, John Key deserves a second term.

THE BIG QUESTION,  I guess, is whether – having won a second term – John Key will be able to preserve this country’s social cohesion for another three years? Will the Prime Minister be strong enough to stare down the far-right of his own caucus (along with their clones in the Act Party) and pursue a policy agenda which, rather than driving New Zealanders apart, is designed to bring them together?

I have to say that, as things now stand, I am far from confident that the Prime Minister will be able to hold the line against a full-scale onslaught by the Right.

After three years of holding their noses against the cologne of compromise, they are ready to throw open the doors and let the winds of change blow through the House.

Mr Key, to his credit, is doing his best to win a comprehensive electoral mandate for the changes his colleagues are so desperate to make. In pursuing this objective, however, the Prime Minister is presupposing that the opinion polls are correct, and that National, for the first time since 1951, will secure more than half the votes cast on 26 November.

My gut tells me that, barring an extremely low turnout, such an outcome is highly unlikely. And, if the turnout is low, then National’s mandate will be next to useless. Dramatically falling levels of electoral participation is one of the surest signs that social cohesion is weak – and getting weaker.

THE OTHER FACTOR militating against Mr Key joining the great “coherers” of the past: men like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Michael Joseph Savage; is that in 2011 – unlike the 1930s – global capitalism is not threatened by either a communist Russia or a fascist Germany.

Hedged-in by such existential threats, the intelligent capitalists of the Great Depression threw their support behind the “stimulus packages” of their day.

In 2011, however, unconstrained by the prospect of being supplanted by either the far-left or the far-right, global capitalism is demanding austerity measures of the most socially-destructive kind.

If National, in a second term, bows to those demands, then my old comrade’s, Rob Campbell’s, worst fears will be realised.

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, 19 August 2011.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Doing The Devil's Work

The Work Of Idle Hands: It's "jobs, jobs, jobs - and the taxes needed to pay for them - that we must have if we really do want to "keep the Devil down in the hole".

THE DEVIL, it is said, makes work for idle hands. And what hot work it can be! This past week, in London, Birmingham and Manchester, his handiwork has been prime-time viewing. In the baleful light of burning shops and offices, hundreds of hooded imps have auditioned for their roles in the fires below. A sort of Britain’s Got Talent … for Arson, Looting and Riotous Affray – with Lucifer sitting-in for Simon Cowell.

His Infernal Majesty, you see, takes many forms as he makes his way to-and-fro upon the earth. Sometimes he travels in the guise of a wizened media magnate; on other occasions he stretches out in the scented garden of a Tuscan villa; but always, your best chance of encountering the diabolical is on those well-worn paths between the world’s banks and the world’s treasuries.

Money, you see, or, more accurately, the excessive love of money, lies at the root of all evil. So when the Devil speaks it’s almost always in the language of transfer payments, fiscal deficits, debt ceilings, quantitative easing and … moral hazard.

Who else but the Devil would design a system which regularly swings a mighty scythe through the job market and then, having cast all those cut off from their livelihoods into a pitiless bureaucratic labyrinth dubbed (with Orwellian malevolence) “Welfare”, left them with a sum carefully calculated to keep them in a state of acute and unrelenting fiscal anxiety?

And, since torture ceases to be torture the moment it becomes bearable, only a truly diabolical agency would then demand that the people it has just confirmed as unemployed immediately embark on an endless quest for jobs that either do not exist, or will only be filled by those already in employment. Failure to participate in this cruel and confidence-destroying process will, of course, result in the “job-seekers’” vicious bureaucratic harassment, up to and including the arbitrary cessation of their meagre dole and threats of legal action.

Not that the Devil lacks humour. Taking the likeness of middle-aged public servant, he recently proposed that the refined tortures already tested on the unemployed be now applied to the physically and/or mentally ill, the disabled, and those attempting, single-handedly, to raise a young family on the Domestic Purposes Benefit.

THE NATIONAL PARTY is, of course, an old hand when it comes to translating the best of the Devil’s jokes into government policy. And what makes Lucifer laugh the loudest is how very few political conservatives understand that this is what they are doing.

How he must have chortled to hear New Zealand’s prime minister earnestly inform National’s annual conference that his government was going to teach young people self-reliance by paying their bills for them. Or that the key to solving unemployment lies in training 16-18-year-olds (who have just spend 10-13 years in the education system) for jobs that do not exist. And what a belly-laugh the Devil must have enjoyed to hear Mr Key and his Minister of Social Development, Paula Bennet, confirm that in order to foster adult responsibility, 18-25-year-olds would henceforth be regarded as children.

WHAT THE DEVIL would not find the least bit funny, however, is the work of Dale Williams, the Mayor of Otorohanga.

Mr Williams has grasped the simple truth that the way to teach young people responsibility, integrate them successfully into their communities, and give them a sense of personal pride in their achievements, is to make sure that their communities put them to work on a decent wage.

Otorohanga boasts zero youth unemployment, and all the other indices of social dysfunction among its youthful citizens have plummeted. The secret to Otorohanga’s success lies not only in its understanding that young hands must not be left idle, but also in knowing the critical importance of putting them to work in their own community – the place they call home.

NONE OF THIS IS NEW.  In 1977, two US politicians, former Vice-President, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and a Black American congressman from Los Angeles, Augustus Hawkins, jointly introduced the Full Employment Bill. Not only did “Humphrey-Hawkins” enshrine the right of every American to gainful employment, but it also provided that if the private sector, alone, couldn’t sustain full-employment, the federal government would intervene to fill the gap.

As originally drafted, the Full Employment Bill required a radical enhancement of the Federal Government’s revenue base – which, presumably, is why President Jimmy Carter’s soulless administration watered it down to a pale shadow of its sponsors’ original intent. In the new era of right-wing economics ushered in by Ronald Reagan, “Humphrey-Hawkins” became even less than that – a shadow of a shadow.

But, they were right. It’s “jobs, jobs, jobs” – and the taxes needed to pay for them – that we must have if we really do want to “keep the Devil down in the hole”.

This essay way originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 August 2011.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Gangsters' Ball

Fedoras, Pin-Stripes, Wide Lapels: Sid Holland, National's second leader (and former member of the proto-fascist New Zealand Legion) was responsible for the darkest chapter in New Zealand's democratic history - the 1951 Emergency Regulations. From its inception, in May 1936, National has been a party of negation. Gangsters with a Kiwi accent.

THIS WEEKEND, in Wellington, the National Party is holding its 75th annual conference. With intriguing prescience, the party is hosting an anniversary ball with a 1930s theme. [Author's Note: In the original version of this posting I wrongly identified the Young Nats as the hosts of this weekend's big anniversary bash. National's youth wing did, indeed, celebrate their party's 75th birthday with a ball ... but that was in April, not August. Hat-tip to Cam Slater and apologies all round.]

With global markets in the midst of yet another precipitous dive, it is fitting that the Nats’ celebration is an homàge to the bleak decade that witnessed their party’s birth.

I’d be dismayed, however, if any of the guests turn up wearing sugar-bag smocks or shoes stuffed with newspaper. Such attire is more correctly associated with those who found themselves on the receiving-end of National’s forebears’ austerity measures.

The sugar-bags – from which these grim years draw their sobriquet – were worn by “relief workers” to protect their threadbare clothing from the mud and clay laid bare by their shovels. Re-located by the United-Reform coalition government of 1931-35 as far away as possible from the riot-prone cities, the unemployed inmates of the Coalition’s “hunger camps” worked long hours in all weathers for the pittance that was the “dole”.

It was the votes of these men, along with those cast by thousands of other economically and socially brutalised New Zealanders, that finally overcame the chilling “charity” of the United-Reform Government.

Not even the decision of Post & Telegraph Minister, Adam Hamilton, to jam the election-eve broadcast of the worker-friendly Methodist, Colin Scrimgeour, could save the government that had made men “cheaper than horses”. (The infamous jamming of “Uncle Scrim” was not, however, enough to prevent Mr Hamilton from becoming the new National Party’s first elected leader.)

Indeed, Mr Hamilton’s jamming was by no means the worst affront to democratic principles to be laid, over the next 75 years, at National’s door. From the outset, the project commencing in the immediate aftermath of Labour’s victory in November 1935, and culminating in the conference which gave birth to the National Party six months later, in May 1936, was conceived in negation.

The new organisation was driven forward not by the ideals and policies it purported to stand for: God, King, Empire, Private Enterprise (although not necessarily in that order) but by what it unequivocally stood against: “subversive and other doctrines”. A deep-seated hostility towards the institutions and processes that had made it possible for a government dominated by former members of the “Red Feds” to be elected, lay at the heart of the effort to unite the entire anti-socialist, anti-union Right in a single political party.

Nor were all those involved in the creation of the National Party necessarily imbued with the parliamentary spirit of moderation and compromise. Many of those who attended the party’s foundation conference had been, like National’s second leader, Sid Holland, members of the proto-fascist New Zealand Legion.

Presumably even less familiar with the democratic process was a clutch of former senior army officers: Colonel H.G. Livingstone, Colonel James Hargest and Colonel S.C.P. Nichols. They, too, played a prominent role during the National Party’s formative stages.

Viewed in the light of so many of its founders’ deep reservations about the democratic process, the National Party’s subsequent record of over-riding basic human rights is readily explicable. It was, to no one’s surprise, Sid Holland, the ex- New Zealand Legionnaire, who imposed the fascistic 1951 Emergency Regulations. This, the darkest chapter in New Zealand’s democratic history, speaks volumes about the true extent of National’s commitment to constitutional probity.

Mr Holland’s ruthlessness and fondness for rule by decree found an apt pupil in National’s fifth leader, Sir Robert Muldoon. It was during Sir Robert’s time in office that the National Party’s enduring historical association with massive shows of police force on the streets of New Zealand reached its crescendo – in the 1981 Springbok Tour.

But the police violence unleashed against the anti-apartheid protesters of 1981 was as nothing compared to the crushing economic and social violence unleashed against trade unionists and beneficiaries by the National Government of Jim Bolger, Bill Birch, Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley. The inmates of New Zealand’s burgeoning prison system constitute a living testament to National’s long-running hate-affair with organised labour and the poor.

I trust, therefore, that those attending the Nats’ 75th anniversary ball will not trifle with history’s costume directions. Fedoras, pin-stripes and wide-lapels – not sugar-bags and broken shoes – are the accessories of reaction.

Go, dressed as the gangsters you have always been.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 August 2011.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Will History Repeat Itself?

"You'll fit in nicely, Russel, just over here - on the left." Could the New Zealand electorate be about to do to John Key in 2011 what it did to Helen Clark in 2002? Apply an ideological check on otherwise unbridled power?

WILL THE GENERAL ELECTION of 2011 be a repeat of 2002? That contest also began with the governing party coasting along smugly in the stratosphere of popular esteem. It, too, was burdened with a bitterly divided coalition partner which had ceased to exist as an effective political force. Its principal political opposition, under a new leader, also seemed incapable of putting a foot right and was plumbing new depths of unpopularity.

If the polls were accurate, said the pundits, the election looked set to deliver the impossible: a governing party with more than half the popular vote, ready to govern alone.

In the end, the political scientists who warned that, under a system of proportional representation, it was next to impossible for a single political party to secure more than half the popular vote, were proved right.

Over a period of six weeks, Helen Clark’s Labour Government shed 14 percentage points. It may have begun the campaign in the low-50s, but the final election tally was just 41 percent. That was a creditable increase of 3 percentage points on its 1999 share of the Party Vote, but still well short of half the votes cast.

There were many reasons for Labour’s rapid shedding of support in 2002 (not the least of which was the utterly unforeseen “Corngate” scandal). The most plausible explanation, however, is that the New Zealand electorate was unwilling to see one political party wielding “unbridled power”.

That unwillingness put a large number of voters in the market for a party ready to act as a political brake on Helen Clark and her Labour Government.

Enter Peter Dunne and his pledge to bring a much-needed measure of “common sense” to the business of government. Overnight, Mr Dunne’s United Future NZ Party was catapulted from margin-of-error territory to a balance-of-power wielding 6.7 percent of the Party Vote.

BUT WHICH PARTY, if any, is in a position to act as a brake on John Key’s National Party in 2011?

If it was to follow the 2002 precedent exactly, the electorate would saddle Mr Key with a coalition partner as far to the left of National as Mr Dunne was to the right of Labour.

The only party which fits that description is the Greens.

This rather startling prospect is clearly one that has already passed through the minds of the Green’s own strategists. It would certainly explain the Party’s steady, three-year shuffle towards the political centre, and the decision of its conference to leave the door to some sort of accommodation with the National Party just ever-so-slightly ajar.

It is certainly a prospect that would appeal to the Kiwi sense of fair play (not to mention our rather quirky sense of humour).

The Labour Party is obviously not ready to govern again and a painful kick up the bum from the voters would probably do it the world of good. By the same token, the Act Party and its pale neoliberal rider should not, under any circumstances, be allowed within spitting distance of the levers of power. The Maori and Mana parties can, reasonably safely, be allowed to slug it out in the Maori seats (where, if God has a sense of humour, the voters will return en masse to Labour). Mr Dunne would, of course, love to be the soufflé that rose twice, but even the voters of Ohariu aren’t that generous.

No, if a brake is to be applied to National’s plans to sell-off state assets and gut welfare, the Greens are the only party that can do it.

And just imagine the Right’s consternation on election night. Even with the support of Act, United Future and what remains of the Maori Party, Mr Key simply doesn’t have the votes to govern. But, with the 15 votes of the Greens, a stable, centrist government beckons.

While a solid majority of New Zealanders chuckle wickedly behind their hands, Mr Key reluctantly picks up the phone.

“Russel, maaate, let’s talk.”

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, 5 August 2011.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Winners And Losers

A Winning Attitude: The laboriously assembled inventory of our personal possessions may not be what life should be about, but for most New Zealanders it's the only measure of whether or not they're holding their own in the rigged game that is life under modern capitalism. For these Kiwis the only thing more despicable than the game itself - are those who refuse to play.

EVERYBODY LOVES A WINNER. Even those who by no reasonable measure could be assessed as “winning” insist that success is just around the corner, and that any evidence to the contrary is only temporary.

Such people simply refuse to be labelled a “loser”. Why? Because they suspect that New Zealand is about to become an extremely dangerous place for “losers”. Indeed, if (or is it ‘when’) National wins the November election, they’re pretty sure it will be “open season” on “losers” of every kind.

This will happen for the very simple reason that more and more ordinary New Zealanders are no longer prepared to see their taxes given to people who’ve stopped trying to win.

They know, of course, that we can’t all be Rich Listers. But “winning”, in their eyes, is not about having the biggest bank balance or the biggest house or the biggest car: it’s about having a “winning attitude”.

The “winners” they’re talking about are people who try hard, and keep on trying, even when success is elusive and the deck seems to be stacked against them. Ordinary people, like themselves, who simply refuse to be beaten by misfortune: who never give in – or up – and who come through the other side of hardship because, no matter what life throws at them, their “winning attitude” never falters.

As far as they’re concerned, it’s the loss of this “winning attitude” that turns people into “losers”.

PEOPLE ON “THE LEFT” are scornful of such attitudes – dismissing those who hold them as either dismally materialistic, woefully ignorant – or both.

A lifetime of struggle against a deck that is indeed stacked, say the socialists, cannot possibly be the definition of “winning”. Men and women deserve a better memorial to their time on earth than a laboriously assembled inventory of personal possessions.

“Winning” on your own, the socialists argue, is a myth. Society’s wealth is created collectively – not individually. And the only reason some people are able to amass more property than others is because our legal system makes it possible for single individuals and corporations to transmute the collective efforts of the many into the private profits of a few.

According to the socialists, the only way to become a true “winner” is to devote one’s energies to building a society in which individuals enjoy equal access to the social wealth their combined labour and skill has created.

This is why socialists favour progressive taxation and economic policies designed to generate full employment. It’s the rationale behind the maintenance of public schools and hospitals; the provision of public housing; the public ownership of essential utilities and services; and the wide array of benefits and pensions available to citizens who are sick, disabled, unemployed or retired.

To a socialist, “winning” is defined as the extent to which these, the core elements of the socially protective state, are preserved and enhanced.

“FINE IN THEORY”, say the battlers of 'Struggle Street', “but not so clear in practice.”

The essential collectivism of the human enterprise may have been self-evident to the tiny bands of hunter-gatherers that roamed the earth 100,000 years ago. But, in the teeming cities of the 21st Century, where each individual’s contribution to the whole is so small as to be practically invisible, most people’s acronym for the human enterprise is YOYO – You’re On Your Own.

The pressures and demands of contemporary New Zealand society require most Kiwis to embrace a sort of involuntary existentialism.

With no control over the hand they are dealt, the best they can do is resolve to play it through to the bitter end, relying on luck, a bit of bluffing, and at least one of the other players making a mistake, to finish the game all square.

In a rigged game, with a stacked deck, they learn to treasure those few decision that are theirs alone to make: the choice of their partners and friends; the way they raise their children; whether or not they behave decently and honestly towards their neighbours and workmates.

Perhaps more of them would embrace socialism if those who preached it were to be found in and around Struggle Street, instead of in university common rooms, or on lifestyle blocks at the edge of their angry cities.

But until that day, they’ll go on playing as if winning was still a possibility, and they’ll go on despising those who give the game away.

Because that’s the one thing a “winner” does not do. It’s the one thing he will not become: a “loser”.

It’s what John Key learned in Burnside, and Phil Goff has forgotten in Mt Roskill: the grim, uncompromising existentialism of ordinary New Zealanders; their life-long battle against the odds; their final triumph – painfully acquired after a lifetime of effort.

To be laid in their graves with their “winning attitude” undiminished.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Wednesday, 3 August 2011.