Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Power To The People?

People Power: Radical photographer, John Miller, took this photograph of people gathering for an anti-Vietnam War protest march down Queen Street on Bastille Day 1972. Forty years later another, much smaller, crowd gathered to protest against the partial sale of state assets. One of the saddest themes of the politics of the past four decades has been the steady demobilisation of the citizenry. In 2012, the demonstrators' cries of "Power to the People!" have taken on an increasingly hollow ring.

JOHN MILLER has been taking photographs of demonstrations for more than forty years. On Saturday, as the numbers slowly built for Auckland’s “Aotearoa is NOT for Sale” protest march up Queen Street, we ran into each other in Queen Elizabeth Square. With a wry grin, John handed me a photograph he’d taken of demonstrators at the same assembly point, on the same date, exactly forty years ago – 14 July 1972.

The cause that day was, as so many causes were in the 1960s and 70s, someone else’s. Though American troops were being pulled out of Vietnam as fast as President Nixon dared, the war in Indo-China rumbled on, with New Zealand, at least nominally, a part of it. The thousands of young faces in John’s photograph reflected their generation’s willingness to stand up and be counted as opponents of the morally insupportable contest between a nation of rice farmers and the most destructive military machine the world had ever seen.

“That one was clearly a lot bigger than this one’s going to be”, I commented, looking around the little square and registering how empty it was. Others seemed to share my sense of embarrassment at the low turnout, self-consciously lining the sides of the square. The only people willing to occupy its empty space were a brave band of young Chinese Christians. They held placards saying “Jesus Loves You” and sang hymns to the demonstrators.

“We could certainly use a little divine support!” I thought to myself as John hurried off to share his historical treasure with the other grizzled veterans of protests-gone-by. The first of the “Aotearoa is NOT for Sale” protests, on 28 April, had attracted up to 8,000 people, but it was already clear that this one wasn’t going to be even half that size.

I had feared it would be so. The law enabling the partial sale of the state-owned energy generators has been passed (albeit by a single vote) and the Government’s $120 million promotional effort is about to begin. Many New Zealanders, though deeply opposed to the sale of Mighty River Power, must’ve heard about Saturday’s protests and asked themselves: “What’s the point?”

On the other hand, the country’s attention had been focused for a whole week on the Maori Council’s bid to convince the Waitangi Tribunal that the sale of the hydro-electricity SOEs should be postponed until the vexing question of who does, and who does not, hold a proprietary interest in the water that spins their humming turbines is resolved. It was just possible that people might reconsider their decision that partial asset sales are now a “done deal” – and re-join the protest movement.

It was a false hope. While Maori are obviously concerned to secure a seat at the table when it comes to dividing up the spoils of the partial privatisation process, it is by no means clear that Maoridom as a whole is opposed to the sale of state assets per se. There was encouraging testimony at the Waitangi Tribunal hearings from individual Maori hapu who promised to act as the kaitiaki – guardians – of New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and streams. But, representatives of the much more powerful Iwi Leaders Group spoke elsewhere (and approvingly) of “market mechanisms”, “reserved share-holdings” and “royalties”.

There are times when your enemy’s enemy is not your friend.

And so the drums started beating, the marchers chanted “Power to the People!”, and the ragged column of 2,500 to 3,000 souls began it’s slow trudge up Queen Street. I looked around me and saw the multi-coloured union and political party flags fluttering, and the hand-painted banners bobbing up and down. (The best I saw read: “New Zealand: 51 percent pure – 49 percent for sale.”). “Who’s got the power?” Someone bellowed. “We’ve got the power!” the marchers bellowed back.

I lifted up my eyes and the gleaming towers of the banks and finance houses seemed to lunge towards me: BNZ, AXA, Deloittes, ANZ, National Bank: giants of glass and steel standing like sentinels along the length of Queen Street. I wondered how impressive we looked from those top floors. Did the financiers, looking down, see a torrent of angry humanity pouring through that narrow canyon like a river in flood? Or did they see a line of scurrying ants: too tiny and remote to merit more than a dismissive sneer?

A Question Of Perspective: A raging human torrent - or scurrying ants?

At the end, as always, there were speeches and resolutions. Representatives from the Opposition parties spoke: Phil Twyford for Labour (last time it was David Shearer) Julie Anne Genter and Russel Norman for the Greens. I listened carefully, but only John Minto, speaking for the Mana Party, was willing to make the one political commitment capable of worrying the watchers in those glass towers:

“If elected,” said Mr Minto, “we will renationalise any asset that has been sold, and deduct any dividends paid from the purchasers’ compensation.”

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 July 2012.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Chris, I wonder whether many New Zealanders actually did hear about Saturday's protests beforehand. Is it possible that the means of advertising such events nowadays - through Facebook, forwarded emails and text messages - only speaks to a hermetic set of Auckland's left groupuscules?

Where are the street posters? The earnest students handing out flyers around the rushhour bus queues and suburban supermarkets? The local meetings focussing vague concern into a desire to act?

From talking with colleagues and neighbours I know there most certainly is anger about asset sales. But if people want a big set piece event on Queen Street on a Saturday, some of the old fashioned basic tactics of organising need to be remembered.

"Only connect", said EM Forster. The digital networking fans of Hardt and Negri are patently not connecting.

(And, yes, I appreciate the irony in making this point on a blog.)

Tiger Mountain said...

Yes it was the hardcore, but young people are getting engaged in increasing numbers. Every under 25 in a Mana t-shirt gives hope for the future. The Queen St march card cannot be played too often in any era, as 80s ‘tour’ and ‘no nukes’ numbers peaked and declined at various points, but there were reasonable “No Asset Steals” turnouts in other centres. Wellington, def hang your heads though!

You can recycle this article as often as you like Chris but until you include a more searching analysis on the general decline in NZ political participation it just presents as defeatism. The right have only had two “successful” marches in 3 decades, Tania Harris in Auckland and the shameful Cur Peter Jackson & Richard Taylor Hobbit rally on Labour Day in Wellington.

There is an interesting contest set up at the moment between the ideology of the neo-tribalist/brown table (albeit an archaic term) Iwi leaders group and the NZ Māori Council/Mana on water rights. Pākehā activists have to realise, and a number have, that the future line of class struggle in this country lies with uniting with Māori nationalists. Now, having dissed the Iwi Leaders forum, sometimes an apparent enemy can be a friend even if a short lived one. Sonny Tau and the ILF did a damn good job on Talleys.

Pete George said...

A big part of the problem is that these protests aren't 'Power to the People' (as some promote them), they are in the main organised by politicians trying to manipulate people with false hopes in a futile attempt to get some relevance that they failed to get in the last election.

Jigsaw said...

Incredible that someone can think that-'the future line of class struggle in this country lies with uniting with Maori nationalists.' I would suggest that Maori nationalists will regard those engaged in some sort of class struggle as the lowest of the low. In case you haven't noticed there is a very clearly defined class system in Maori society. The news media might choose to ignore it but it stil there and still powerful.

Anonymous said...

Maybe most people are pretty comfortable with the Mixed Ownership Model.

Cactus Kate said...

The banks are shut on Saturday Chris.

Chris Trotter said...

My God, Cactus Kate, does this mean that in addition to being paid zillions in salaries and gazillions in bonuses, bankers also get weekends off?!

Right, that's it, that's the last straw - I'm off to join the revolution!

fungible beetroot said...

NZ bankers get zillions in salaries, are you fucking mad try actually working in a bank sometime I can assure you that we don't get zillions.

V said...

And where is Minto going to get the money from Chris?

Grantavius Kennarius said...

Zillion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indefinite_and_fictitious_numbers

Anonymous said...

I'm seriously against these asset sales because they erode NZ's ability to contain its costs going forward. Selling its productive assets is akin to taking on debt simply because the same outflows will occur. In many cases 'new' private charging that occurs is in reality nothing more than a stealth tax.

Take the railways, when that was sold into private hands for $1, I said at the time that the assets would simply be sweated until the whole thing went belly up and the taxpayer would have to come back into the frame and buy the asset. And what happened? Exactly that. Taxpayers lose. Remember when the power went off in Auckland, same again, the private sector just end gaming the investment by scraping off the cash flows and not investing back into the infrastructural assets. Taxpayers lose. What about Air NZ, if it’s sold off I absolutely guarantee that Taxpayers will have to stump up again within a decade.

The fact is that ‘Tory Boy’ Key’s is akin to a safe cracker on the public purse, with his mates in the investment banking world chomping at the bits for all the fee’s they’ll make off these sales. Padding the nest for post politics comes to mind and it’s happened plenty in Britain so I’d call it out for happening in NZ. In NZ you seem to be starry eyed about these self made people now entering politics but you really do need to wise up to wolves in sheep’s clothing. Most publicly listed companies in NZ have basically been ransacked by woeful corporate governance and policing.. and you really want these types now asset stripping the taxpayer from both sides of the fence?

NZ Maori should challenge the asset sales on the basis of the Treaty of Waitangi and that as equal partners to NZ they have the right of refusal to allow the sale of rights in NZ publicly held assets. All political parties against the sales (I think only NZ First?) should declare that should they attain power then the assets sold would be seized at no recompense from anyone buying them. That way it would put more risk on the sales (and therefore low bid prices) and it might help actually scuttle the sales.

Chris Trotter said...

Fungible Beetroot you are clearly NOT a banker - who is, by definition, a fantastically wealthy person who can ruin a country's economy and then receive an eye-wateringly large bonus for his trouble.

I strongly suspect you are a teller, or a junior accountant, or one of those people who work in little cubicles with carpet-covered walls to stifle the sobs of the workers on either side.

Grantavius Kennarius - a zillion is equal to an amount of money so far in excess of its recipient's talents that the number is essentially uncomputable.

Anonymous said...

maybe for some the opportunity cost has got so much higher esp for those in tertiary study i.e. part-time jobs, assessment through out the year etc

KjT said...

Unfortunately politicians of all stripes secretly want to be dictators, even if only for a short time.
Which is why any movement for democracy, (people power) instead of Parliamentary dictatorship, will be ignored by both sides.