Friday, 30 August 2013

Irresistible Forces Meet Immovable Objects

Something's Gotta Give: Labour's leadership contest has become an exercise in political tectonics: the slow build-up and sudden release of massive and competing political energies.
 
NEW ZEALAND’s MAIN POLITICAL FAULT LINE doesn’t run between National and Labour, it separates the Nominal Left from the Real Left. Only very occasionally does this struggle within the Left produce a genuine rift between the major parties. Most of the time, and on most of the important issues, Government and Opposition maintain a bipartisan consensus. Were this not the case, it is doubtful whether our democratic institutions could survive the resulting earthquakes.
 
But even the strongest consensus will be weakened by events large enough to undermine the public’s faith in its core assumptions. The Great Depression, for example, or, more recently, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), gave rise to widespread fears that the economic system, upon which we all depend, had been fatally compromised.
 
Inchoate and confused though they may be (just think of the “Tea Party” and “Occupy” movements in the USA) the popular demand that “something must be done” renders the consensus-based politics of more settled times untenable.
 
This is precisely what’s been happening in New Zealand since the onset of the GFC in 2008-09.
 
Between 1999–2008 the Labour-led Government of Helen Clark and her National Party Opposition were able to preserve a pretty broad consensus on the big economic and social issues. The market-led policies introduced by the Fourth Labour Government during the 1980s and entrenched by National in the 1990s remained firmly in place. Labour made no effort to restore Jenny Shipley’s swingeing benefit cuts.
 
Labour’s loss of the 2008 General Election and the departure of Helen Clark put an end to all that. Among the party’s rank-and-file and its trade union affiliates there was a growing clamour for Labour to acknowledge that the market-based policies of the past 25 years had failed and that it was time to return to the labour movement’s core principles for answers to the burgeoning economic and social crises of the Twenty-First Century’s second decade.
 
Within Labour’s caucus, however, there was a profound unwillingness to step outside the quarter-century consensus it had forged with National. So long as that consensus endured it was possible for Labour MPs to go on believing that modern politics, stripped of all its distracting rhetoric, was still mostly about the orderly rotation of political elites.
 
For politicians like Phil Goff and David Shearer, the job of a Labour leader was simply to assemble a credible alternative government: a group of competent, professional politicians ready to take over the efficient running of the country when the incumbents, exhausted by the demands of office, were no longer able to muster the required level of electoral support.
 
Theirs was a purely nominal leftism: rhetorical, formulaic and reliant on a faded symbolism which very few professional Labour politicians any longer took seriously. Like Helen Clark before them, Messer’s Goff and Shearer and their nominal leftist colleagues were alarmed by the party’s insistence on infusing Labour’s message with genuine left-wing ideas. The last time the party had done that was under the leadership of Norman Kirk – and that had not ended well.
 
People often wonder why David Cunliffe is so disliked by so many of his colleagues. The answer lies in Mr Cunliffe’s realisation that the GFC and its aftermath requires a comprehensive rethink of Labour’s entire approach to contemporary politics.
 
It’s a position that obliges Labour MPs to become genuine leftists. It’s why Mr Cunliffe’s colleagues have gone to such lengths to prevent him becoming the Leader of the Labour Party. It also explains the rank-and-file’s steely determination to change the rules governing the Leader’s election.
 
Labour’s “primary” election is, therefore, much more than a contest between three Labour MPs for leadership of the party. This is political tectonics: the slow build-up and sudden release of massive and competing political energies. Either Mr Cunliffe and the irresistible forces of Labour’s Real Left will be lifted up to victory and radical change. Or, he and his followers will be driven down deep by the Nominal Left’s immovable objects.
 
This essay was originally published  in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 August 2013.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Happy Warrior And The Consummate Courtier

Happy Warrior: At his campaign launch on Monday, 26 August, David Cunliffe gave a powerful display of the sort of political evangelism that has made him the first choice of the Labour Party's rank and file.
 
THE TWO MAIN CONTENDERS for the Labour leadership may display radically different political styles, but both pursue substantially similar political goals. David Cunliffe goes after his foes with a boisterous, swashbuckling glee. Grant Robertson is a much more cautious and conciliatory politician. When the chips are down, however, neither Cunliffe nor Robertson are afraid to do battle with the Powers That Be.
 
Their contrasting styles are clearly evident in the two controversial interventions that helped to define their respective political careers. In Robertson’s case it was his 2005 intervention to secure the removal of interest payments from student loans. In Cunliffe’s case, the 2008 dismissal of the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board.
 
The General Election of 2005 was one of the closest fought in New Zealand’s political history. As the weeks wound down to polling day, the advantage shifted, relentlessly, from Helen Clark’s Labour Government to National and its hard-line neoliberal leader, Dr Don Brash. Labour needed a circuit-breaker: a policy to generate a solid surge of support from right to left; something to slow the Opposition’s momentum.
 
It was Robertson, the former student president, who came up with the idea of suspending interest payments on student loans while the recipients were still engaged in tertiary study. As a former president of the New Zealand University Students Association, he understood that his proposed policy not only gave every tertiary student in the country a strong financial incentive for voting Labour, but, by diminishing the need for parental subsidy, it also gave their Mums and Dads a similarly compelling reason for sticking with the Government.
 
Robertson understood from bitter personal experience the burdens of genteel middle-class poverty. His father’s imprisonment for embezzlement had left deep scars on the young Grant Robertson and his family. He knew what it costs some parents to keep their children’s aspirational goals in sight.
 
To secure his proposed policy change, however, Robertson had to go into battle with Dr Michael Cullen and Treasury – both of whom were strongly opposed to the pressure it would place on the Government’s accounts. But, Robertson had the Prime Minister’s ear. He understood how alarmed she’d become at the prospect of a Brash-led National Government.
 
Ultimately, Robertson, the consummate courtier, prevailed. Cullen relented. Treasury was (for once!) over-ruled. Interest payments were suspended. And Labour was returned to office.
 
The Consummate Courtier: The Only other credible claimant for Labour's crown is the party's Deputy Leader, Grant Robertson.
 
But, if Robertson is the consummate courtier, then Cunliffe is Labour’s happy warrior. Raised in an Anglican manse where the traditions of Christian Socialism ran strong, he has never shied away from the challenge laid down in John Bunyan’s classic protestant hymn “To Be A Pilgrim”.
 
Who so beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound
His strength the more is
 
This sort of Labour politician does not hesitate to do battle with the allegorical “lions”, “giants”, “Hobgoblins” and “foul fiends” that regularly assail his party on the road to the Holy City.
 
Then fancies fly away
He’ll fear not what men say
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.
 
Newly appointed to the health portfolio in 2008, Mr Cunliffe was called upon to lance the pustulent boil that the Hawkes Bay District Health Board had, in the eyes of the Labour Government, become. Within weeks the entire Board had been sacked and a Commissioner installed. A subsequent official inquiry produced a damning report.
 
Speaking in the Urgent Parliamentary Debate occasioned by the Report’s release on 18 March 2008, Mr Cunliffe declared, with typical swashbuckling eloquence: “This report has lifted the lid on a nasty little nest of self-perpetuating, provincial elites”.
 
The Hawkes Bay “county” set were incoherent with rage. No one could remember when anyone, let alone some grubby little Labour Party oik, had spoken to them in such insulting language.
 
To those whose job it is to observe the hurly-burly of parliamentary debate, however, Cunliffe’s words marked him out as a politician with something different to offer. Something that Labour’s battered constituency has not been given for the best part of thirty years.
 
Cunliffe offers Labour’s core vote a voice. Not the voice of a party whose purpose it is to pacify or cajole the Powers That Be, but a voice that is willing to accuse and condemn them. A voice to hold the “nasty little nests of self-perpetuating elites” accountable for what they have made of New Zealand, and what they have done to her people.
 
It is the only voice that can rouse the Labour vote from its disillusionment and despair. The Happy Warrior’s call to begin again the task of building Jerusalem in New Zealand’s green and pleasant land.
 
Of course, a happy warrior, such as Cunliffe, will need a consummate courtier, such as Grant Robertson. If only to reassure the elites that though they may be mightily shaken, they will not be fatally stirred.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 August 2013.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Wind Shifts: Auckland Town Hall, Monday, 19 August 2013

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" - Bob Dylan.

A SYMBOLIC VICTORY might have been won by John Key on Campbell Live last Wednesday, but last night, in the Auckland Town Hall, the victory won was very real. Last night, for the first time in decades, one of New Zealand's stately civic buildings found itself full-to-bursting with angry citizens.

You don't need a weatherman to tell you there's been a shift in the wind.

If the organisers of last night's event allow themselves to be guided by the quiet wisdom of Nicky Hager, it will go down in New Zealand political history as being not the end of a campaign against the GCSB Amendment Bill, but the beginning of a nationwide movement against New Zealand's continuing participation in the UKUSA/Echelon/Five Eyes Agreement.

Only amputation can sever New Zealand from the other four murderous fingers of the Anglo-Saxon fist. That will not be accomplished without pain, but when it is done this country will at last be free of American tutelage. Not even our anti-nuclear legislation could achieve that. No matter how angrily the Americans scolded us for denying entry to their warships, Waihopai kept on sending the signals intelligence to NSA headquarters in Ford Meade, Maryland.

Only by dismantling Waihopai, abolishing the GCSB and withdrawing New Zealand from the "Five Eyes" intelligence sharing protocols can we finally proclaim ourselves to be a free and independent South Pacific nation.

The energy unleashed in last night's meeting in the Auckland Town Hall, if harnessed intelligently, can lead us to that long cherished objective.

We have 15 months to make it happen.

The New Zealand nationalist poet, Allen Curnow, looking forward to the day when his little country would finally cease bowing and scraping to its various imperial masters, wrote:

Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year
Will learn the trick of standing upright here.

Let that year be 2014.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

John Key Ducks And Weaves His Way To A Symbolic Victory

Smiling Assassin: In this televised clash of champions, it was the confident jut of the Prime Minister's jaw and his refusal to make even the slightest concession to the opponents of his GCSB Amendment Bill, that saw him emerge as the clear winner over TV3's John Campbell. Unfair, but indisputable.
 
IT’S SAD REALLY, this habit we have of treating politics as a contact sport. In other parts of the world the liveliest discussions and debates are generated by the ideas behind politics. Here in New Zealand there’s only ever one question: “Who won?”
 
We talk about our politics the way we talk about our Rugby. Which side got the most possession? Who had the better kickers? Which scrum proved the stronger? Who got up highest in the line-outs? We expect our leaders to outshine their opponents by running-in more tries and kicking more penalties. Ideally, the game of politics should produce a clear winner and a clear loser.
 
Last Wednesday’s noisy, but not particularly informative, interview between the Prime Minister, John Key, and TV3’s John Campbell, is a case in point.
 
Though the Government protested (some said too much) that the public cared more about the Snapper Catch than the GCSB Amendment Bill, the very fact that the Prime Minister more-or-less invited himself onto Campbell Live suggests a significant (and possibly rising?) level of public concern. Government supporters would, no doubt, respond that Campbell Live, by embarking on a journalistic road-trip to test whether Kiwis really did or did not care about the GCSB legislation, had itself become an major generator of that concern.
 
The scene was set for a lively encounter.
 
Much has been spoken and written about the stoush which ensued. The consensus seems to be that while the Prime Minister clearly got the better of Mr Campbell, his “win” owed a great deal more to the way he “handled” the interview than it did to any fair and dispassionate communication of the GCSB legislation’s content and consequences.
 
The word from Wellington (and it’s important to acknowledge here that all words from Wellington are best taken with a whole cellar-full of salt) is that with the screening of the first instalment of Campbell Live’s road-trip on Monday, 12 August, the men and women responsible for burnishing the Prime Minister’s image became seriously alarmed. The interviews recorded by TV3’s Rebecca Wright at the National Party’s annual conference in Nelson conveyed a disturbing message of Government arrogance, with the behaviour of the Prime Minister himself bordering on the downright contemptuous.
 
Not a good look.
 
By the screening of Tuesday’s instalment of the road-trip, the alarm of the Government’s spin doctors had grown considerably. Though the Prime Minister flatly denied the allegation when Mr Campbell put it to him on Wednesday night, other political observers have insisted that the National Party’s internal pollsters were already registering a shift in public sentiment against Mr Key’s ministry.
 
Something had to be done.
 
Getting Mr Key on to Campbell Live on Wednesday evening would, if nothing else, arrest the gathering momentum of the programme’s journalistic crusade. It might also lure Mr Campbell into an attempt to humiliate his guest, live, on nationwide television. The Prime Minister was thus given a chance to spring a trap on his adversary. If Mr Campbell could be the one humiliated, live, on nationwide television, then Mr Key could claim vindication – not only for himself, but for his government’s whole approach to national security in general and to the GCSB legislation in particular.
 
With so much now riding on the outcome of the Wednesday encounter, the two Johns had become, in effect, the champions of the opposing sides in the GCSB debate. “Champions”, that is, in the original and archaic sense of the word. Hardened warriors, the best either side has to offer, meeting to do battle, with the losing side vacating the field and acknowledging the victory of their enemy.
 
No pressure, then.
 
In France or Germany the clash would have been cerebral: a fascinating battle of intellects as the whys and wherefores, pros and cons, of the modern state’s growing need (desire?) for surveillance and security were teased out and debated.
 
But ours is not a nation that places much stock in virtuoso displays of intellectual prowess. What we admire is the confident tilt of a protagonist’s chin; the impudent glint in his eye; and the sheer, bare-faced cheek of his replies. The winner of such an encounter, at least in Kiwi eyes, is the player who ducks and weaves, who sells his opponent the dummy-pass and then slips through the floundering defence for yet another five points.
 
And that is what New Zealand saw on Wednesday night. When Mr Key was through with him, Mr Campbell resembled one of those panting, slump-shouldered, prop-forwards for whom the Ref’s final whistle brings nothing but blessed relief.
 
A symbolic defeat, then, for those opposing the growth of the surveillance state, but not, perhaps, for our democracy. Politics has always been a surrogate for organised violence. Better metaphorical blood on the TV studio floor, than real blood – in the streets.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 August 2013.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Kiwis Do Care About The GCSB

Inadequate Defence: Campbell Live's Rebecca Wright interviews Justice Minister, Judith Collins, on the GCSB Amendment Bill. Like so many of her colleagues, the Minister was unable to offer a cogent and/or accurate defence of her Government's legislation.
 
SOMETHING’S VERY WRONG when senior Cabinet Ministers cannot defend their own Government’s legislation. The spectacle of multiple National Party politicians struggling to justify the GCSB Amendment Bill to Campbell Live’s Rebecca Wright was more than a little disconcerting. Stuttering and stammering, none of them were able to draw together the rudiments of a convincing defence. Indeed, their uniformly uninspiring replies suggest a Cabinet characterised not so much by its intellectual acuity, as by its mental and moral vacuity.
 
Not that they care. From the Prime Minister to the lowliest back-bencher, the National Government appears to be driven by disdainful contempt, bordering on outright hatred, for practically every evidence-based and logically argued case submitted in opposition to its policies.
 
This has been especially evident in relation to the GCSB Amendment Bill.
 
In spite of the fact that he possesses no legal qualifications, the Prime Minister felt perfectly free to dismiss the New Zealand Law Society’s submission on the Bill to the Intelligence and Security Committee. The Society, he claimed, had simply misunderstood the legislation.
 
Unfortunately, Mr Key (unlike most reasonable people) did not feel obliged to demonstrate exactly how the Law Society got it all so badly wrong. The Prime Minister declaring its argument deficient was apparently all that was required for the submission to be set aside. Taking their cue from Mr Key’s response, the Prime Minister’s colleagues continue to treat the Law Society’s comprehensive deconstruction and condemnation of the Bill as if it were a C-minus undergraduate essay.
 
The same dismissive attitude is manifest in the Government’s response to the criticisms of Sir Geoffrey Palmer. In spite of the critic being a former Law Professor, Attorney-General, Law Commissioner and Prime Minister of New Zealand; and ignoring the fact that he, like Mr Key, at one time held ministerial responsibility for the country’s security services, Sir Geoffrey’s objections to the GCSB Amendment Bill are, apparently, as muddled and mistaken as the Law Society’s.
 
All the more puzzling, then, why the same National Party cabinet ministers and back-benchers who’ve been so quick to allege that all those who characterise the GCSB amending legislation as a vast, unwarranted and potentially dangerous expansion of the State’s ability to pry into the private affairs of its citizens have got it wrong, become so utterly incoherent and/or obfuscatory when asked to set us right.
 
And how reassuring it has been (at least to those of us who still believe in the virtues of democracy) to hear coherent arguments, both for and against the GCSB Amendment Bill, coming from the mouths of ordinary New Zealand citizens. Whether it be the young Maori man in Kaitaia’s main street, who had been following the issue closely on the Internet, and who was eloquent in his condemnation of the Government’s expansion of the security services’ powers. Or, the Four Square store proprietor who was pleased to know that the Government “had his back” when it came to the threat of international terrorism.
 
These responses, captured by the irrepressible John Campbell and his team, as part of a week-long, televised, opinion-gathering road-trip from Cape Reinga to the Bluff, are also rather puzzling. Because, according to the Prime Minister (and just about his entire caucus) nobody out there cares about the GCSB – or its amending legislation.
 
What they do care about, says the Prime Minister (and, again, the National caucus nods its collective head) is the recreational Snapper catch-limit. (As if Kiwis can only be concerned about one issue at a time!)
 
But as Campbell Live (demonstrating with considerable √©lan just how vital a free media is to the processes of democratic government) has shown us, emphatically and indisputably, the Prime Minister’s claim is untrue.
 
From Northland to Southland, ordinary Kiwis have been paying close attention to their Government’s plans to expand the GCSB’s powers. Most are uneasy. Some are frightened. Practically all of them do care – a lot – and, unlike Mr Key’s Cabinet, are perfectly capable of telling us why.
 
John Key vs John Campbell: Game, Set and Match to the Prime Minister. (And, unlike his interlocutor, he did it all without notes!)
 
POSTSCRIPT: Goaded into action by the power of Campbell Live’s reporting, the Prime Minister agreed to a live interview with John Campbell on Wednesday night. The latter gentleman discovered to his cost that while National’s Cabinet may have struggled to defend the GCSB Amendment Bill, the Prime Minister was made of considerably sterner stuff. Even opponents of the legislation, watching the exchange, agreed that it was Game, Set and Match to the Prime Minister.
 
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 August 2013.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The 100% Pure "Model Nation"

As We Would Like The World To See Us: But repeated contamination scandals and a growing international awareness that all is not well in the New Zealand environment is causing more and more people to doubt Tourism NZ's staggeringly successful slogan. New Zealanders must now decide whether they wish to live up to, or abandon, the promise that has, for better or for worse, branded their nation.
 
NEW ZEALAND was barely half-a-century old when it became a “Brand State”. Our first government elected under (nearly) universal male suffrage – the Liberal Government of 1891 – had, within just a few years of taking office, earned New Zealand an international reputation for being “the social laboratory of the world”.
 
The bitter struggles between Capital and Labour that were tearing the societies of the Old and New Worlds’ apart at the turn of the Nineteenth Century seemed to have been tamed in New Zealand by the passing of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. And, while the women of Great Britain and the United States were staging massive demonstrations in favour of women’s suffrage, New Zealand women were already marching to the polling booths.
 
The potency of New Zealand’s “progressive” brand was only enhanced by the radical reforms of the First Labour Government. So much so that, well into the 1950s, the publishers of encyclopaedias were still accepting introductions to the entry on New Zealand like this one, from the 1958 Edition of the Richards Topical Encyclopaedia:
 
“The World’s ‘Model Nation’: How Little New Zealand, Starting Her Career amid Wars and Many Money Problems, Built Up for Herself a Government So Sound and Humane that She Came to Be Called the Best-Governed Nation in the World.”
 
 
As The World Used To See Us: New Zealand in 1958 - A "Model Nation".
 
Between 1984 and 1999 there was a deeply cynical attempt on the part of the right-wing promoters of the neoliberal economic “reforms” responsible for dismantling the progressive achievements of earlier generations of New Zealanders, to appropriate that “model nation” brand.
 
To no avail. People from other lands looked at New Zealand and saw the same destructive economic forces at work – albeit in more extreme form – that had disfigured their own societies. From being the little nation that marched to the beat of a different, more “humane”, drummer, New Zealand had fallen into the same, sad, neoliberal lock-step as the rest of the world.
 
But then, miraculously, in 1999, New Zealand got a second chance.
 
Commissioned to come up with a new slogan for Tourism NZ, the Saatchi ad agency boss, Alan Morden, came up with “100% Pure New Zealand”. Everyone who heard it sensed they were on to a winner.
 
Two years later, just a fortnight before Christmas 2001, things got even better.
 
Into a world still reeling from the terrible events of 9/11 came the first of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and people saw a landscape of unbelievable beauty. In this, the most far-flung tourist destination on the planet, God seemed to have hidden the very last, most lovely jewel of his creation.
 
Overnight, “100% Pure New Zealand” ceased to be merely the advertising slogan of Tourism NZ and became the motto of a “Brand State”.
 
Almost accidentally, New Zealanders found themselves bound to meet the near impossible challenge of 100% purity. But they could not turn back, because already the magic of the motto was transforming the expectations of New Zealand’s customers.
 
The global consumer reads the name “New Zealand” on a label and, instantly, their minds are filled with the imagery of snow-capped peaks, sparkling rivers and streams, unspoiled beaches and endless vistas of deep green pastureland. Surely, they say, the food and beverages from such a land must be the purest, the safest, the very best in the whole world! It is difficult to imagine a perception more likely to clear the shelves of the world’s supermarkets for New Zealand’s agricultural exports.
 
But the magic works in other ways for New Zealand. Purity, if it is to go on selling our exports, must be more than a rhetorical flourish – it has to be real. Our rivers and streams must be clean all the way from the mountains to the sea. Our green pasturelands must leave no chemical residues in our food. The milk from our free-ranging, grass-chewing cows, and the products derived from their milk, must, just like the slogan, be 100% pure – not contaminated by botulism.
 
Fonterra’s latest scandal has revealed, in the most dramatic fashion, the double-edged nature of all magical incantations. We know now that our 100% Pure designation can just as easily prove a curse as a blessing.
 
We stand now at a fork in the road. One way leads us to a future of reduced expectations. To a New Zealand no longer described as 100% Pure: where open-cast mines disfigure our conservation lands; deep sea oil coats our coasts; and cow-shit pours into our poisoned rivers and streams.
 
The other way leads to a New Zealand that dares to live up to its promises. To a future where intelligence and creativity are enthroned as our culture’s sovereign lords. And where the purity of our environment is matched only by the purity of our purpose.
 
A “Model Nation” again.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 August 2013.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Removing The Blinkers Of Free-Market Devotion

The March Of Folly: The Chinese Communist Party, speaking through the Xinhua News Agency, has called time on New Zealand's slavish devotion to neoliberal economics. If we are serious about restoring New Zealand's reputation after the Fonterra contamination scandal, then our obsession with applying market-based solutions to every problem must end.

“ONE COULD ARGUE the country is hostage to a blinkered devotion to laissez-faire market ideology.”
 
That, at least, is how one anonymous Xinhua commentator views the New Zealand dairy industry’s latest contamination scandal.
 
I say “at least” because the Xinhua News Agency’s opinion pieces generally reflect the thinking of the Chinese Government. Its sharply-pointed political critique should, therefore, remind us that, all glib neoliberal references to “Chinese Capitalism” aside, it is still the Communist Party of China that rules in Beijing.
 
That Xinhua opinion piece should also dispel any notion that Beijing is indifferent to the politics of its tiny, South Pacific, trading partner. Having drawn attention to our blinkered devotion to laissez-faire capitalism, Xinhua’s writer helpfully provided his readers with a telling example of its effects:
 
“Many New Zealanders fell victim to this when the construction industry was deregulated two decades ago resulting in damp and leaky homes that quickly became uninhabitable.”
 
Sometimes it takes an outsider to correctly diagnose an affliction to which its sufferers – that’s us! – have become inured.
 
The People’s Republic of China survives and thrives today because, unlike the Soviet Union, it was able to set aside the dogmatic certainties of its revolutionary founders before the damage they were inflicting became irreparable. (Who knows what might have happened if a Mikhail Gorbachev had taken power in Russia at the same moment that Mao Zedong’s pragmatic successor, Deng Xiaoping, set China on its new path to a mixed economy?)
 
Some have summarised Deng’s economic position as: tolerating as much market as possible, while retaining as much state as necessary. It certainly marked a radical departure from Mao’s “iron rice bowl”, which attempted to impose a raw equality of outcomes upon the entire Chinese population.
 
But, in allowing the market to do what the market does best (which no Chinese leader has ever construed to mean everything!) Deng was not deviating one step from the Chinese Revolution’s three central objectives: to remove the burden of foreign domination; to allow the Chinese people to stand up; and to create the material conditions for their country’s future prosperity.
 
Whether that prosperity was unleashed by the market, or planned and executed by the state,  was, according to Deng, something to be dictated by the circumstances prevailing in each case – not by the inflexible dogma of the Communist Party in Beijing.
 
“It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white”, Deng was fond of saying, “so long as it catches mice.”
 
It is now a matter of some urgency that we all grasp the fact that New Zealand is one of the mice the Chinese cat has caught. It is what the sharp tone of the Xinhua opinion piece is reminding us.
 
China singled New Zealand out among all the Western nations by granting us the huge advantage of a Free Trade Agreement. This vast, and still rapidly expanding, economic power agreed to take everything we could send her. In doing so, the Chinese Communist Party effectively guaranteed New Zealand’s prosperity for the next hundred years.
 
We have been very quick to pat ourselves on the back for this achievement. Indeed, to hear our politicians talk, one could easily get the impression that the whole thing was their idea. But such small nation chauvinism is misguided; it’s fatuous; and very, very dangerous.
 
What has been true for the last 3,000 years, remains true: that China never confers a benefit without a guarantee of reciprocation. She has opened her markets to our agricultural exports, and she expects those exports to be safe. She has consented to let us feed her children, and she expects New Zealand’s infant formula to be free of botulism.
 
Since 1984, New Zealand politicians have trumpeted the notion that the market is all-wise and all-powerful. That regulation – especially “heavy-handed” regulation – is unnecessary. John Key, in particular, has consistently devalued the goal of “100% Pure New Zealand” by declaring it a mere aspiration: “It’s like saying ‘McDonald’s, I'm loving it’ – I’m not sure every moment that someone’s eating McDonald’s they're loving it ... it’s the same thing with 100 Percent Pure. It’s got to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt.”
 
Well, not any more, Prime Minister. Not if we want China’s doors to remain “a bit” open.
 
The era of “blinkered devotion” is over.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 August 2013.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Democracy versus The Majority

Those Ain't The Torches Of Liberty, Springfield! But is it even possible to argue for democracy against the will of the people? What if the majority just isn't that keen on liberty and justice for all?

IT’S EVERYWHERE: coming at you, confusingly, from both the Right and the Left. The former express their views emphatically, as fact: “Nobody gives a damn about the GCSB – or Andrea Vance. It’s a media beat-up!” The Liberal-Left convey their scepticism in question form: “Does the public really care about all this state surveillance and freedom of the press stuff? I mean, seriously? If they did, then surely National would be suffering in the polls? And they’re not.”
 
How should we respond to these responses? How does one argue against the expansion of the state’s surveillance powers, and the violation of a journalist’s privacy, when the reaction of the overwhelming majority of the population is either bland indifference, or (even more alarmingly) active support for the Government’s position?
 
Is it even possible to argue for democracy against the will of the people?
 
It’s a question of particular relevance to New Zealanders because, historically-speaking, we have never, as a people, been particularly interested in either recognising or upholding the civil and political rights of minorities. Majoritarianism is the strongest of our political traditions. Indeed, the idea that the shape and purposes of society can only be legitimately determined by a majority of its population has been the driving force behind the evolution of New Zealand’s informal constitution.
 
It is worth elaborating on this point a little.
 
Many, if not most, New Zealanders either do not know (or have forgotten) that their country once had two houses of Parliament. There was the House of Representatives, elected by universal suffrage, and the Legislative Council, whose members were appointed for seven years by the Governor-General on the advice of his ministers (i.e. by the government of the day). The “upper” chamber had the power to amend, review and delay legislation sent up to it from the House of Representatives. Its acknowledged purpose was to act as a check upon the majority derived and driven demands of the “lower” house.
 
The lower house did not care to be “checked”. In 1950, just three years short of its centenary, The Legislative Council was abolished by the First National Government.
 
Nothing now stands between the House of Representatives (and the governments drawn from its members) and the individual citizen. In New Zealand, a parliamentary majority cannot be gainsaid by anyone or anything. Lacking the “supreme law” of a written constitution, the legislative acts of Parliament cannot be challenged in the courts or struck down as “unconstitutional” by judicial fiat. About the only force capable of staying the hand of a government in possession of a solid parliamentary majority is the force of public opinion – and, even then, there are limits.
 
New Zealand parliamentarians – along with just about every other legislator in the world – are driven by one great desire: to be re-elected. This renders them particularly sensitive to shifts in public opinion – especially those shifts strong enough to make people change their electoral allegiances.
 
Think about the “anti-smacking bill”. The passage of this bill was sufficiently resented by Labour’s core voters to cause a significant number of them to either transfer their support to another party, or abstain. Labour’s failure to understand the mood of its supporters thus contributed materially to its 2008 defeat. National, by contrast, was confident that although a majority of its supporters (and, indeed, of all electors) were opposed to the anti-smacking legislation, they were not opposed enough to vote for National’s enemies.
 
And this is where I believe New Zealand public opinion currently stands in relation to the GCSB Amendment Bill, and the apparent, state-sanctioned, invasion of journalists Andrea Vance’s and Jon Stephenson’s professional and personal privacy.
 
If directly challenged on these issues, I suspect most Kiwis will come out unequivocally for the protection of their own personal privacy and, rather less enthusiastically, for the freedom of the press. What they remain to be convinced of, however, is that the GCSB Amendment Bill constitutes a serious threat, either to themselves or people like them.
 
So, a few political activists will have their “metadata” analysed and their e-mails intercepted. So what? It’s probably prudent to keep a watchful eye on such people. And, as for the rights of journalists? Well, for these exploiters of personal grief and political misadventure, the public has only one question: “How does it feel?”
 
Labour and the Greens have come out swinging on behalf of the public’s right to privacy and the freedom of the press because their MPs know that the people who vote for them care passionately about such things and expect them to take a strong stand in their defence.
 
National MPs, by contrast, are quietly confident that the Centre-Left’s concerns are minority concerns. Mr Key’s majority support is not about to abandon his government for left-wing activists, or journalists. At least, not any time soon.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 August 2013.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Nothing To The Story

Nothing To The Story? The same Defence Force, reinforced by the same ministerial authority, which denied the truth of Jon Stephenson's "Eyes Wide Shut", now denies the truth of Nicky Hager's revelation that the NZDF used American-gathered metadata to monitor the movements and contacts of Jon Stephenson in Afghanistan. Will Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman, and the former CDF, Lt-General Rhys Jones, (above) be forced to acknowledge, eventually, the accuracy of Hager's story - just as they were of Stephenson's?

GREG PALAST is one of the USA’s most ornery investigative journalists. His well-researched articles regularly achieve everything that good journalism should: comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Sometimes, the more than comfortable. With a good story, Palast and his keyboard can bring the full weight of justice crashing down on the heads of the mendacious, the deceitful, and the just plain dishonest.
 
But Palast only gets to beat the bad guys with the cooperation of the mainstream media.
 
It’s fashionable nowadays for bloggers and tweeters to pour scorn on what they sneeringly abbreviate to the “MSM”. But, the hard, cold truth of the matter is that a great story that finds no space on the pages of the major newspapers, or in the bulletins of the big television and radio networks, is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest.
 
If nobody reads it, or watches it, or hears it, then it makes no impact at all.
 
This what happened to Palast shortly after the US presidential election of 2000. That’s the one that came down to a few thousand votes cast (or not cast) and counted (or not counted) in the Sunshine State of Florida.
 
Palast’s research had revealed an alarming series of political connections between the state administration of George W. Bush’s little brother, Jeb, and the company commissioned to update the Florida electoral roll. The story raised the alarming possibility that the roll had been deliberately purged of the names of thousands of electors who were more likely than not to vote for the Democratic Party candidate, Al Gore.
 
Palast pitched his explosive story to one of the big US television networks – and, boy-oh-boy, were they interested! Confident of a nationwide scoop, he waited for the six o’clock news-editor’s call. And waited. And waited. And waited.
 
“What the hell!” Palast rang back his contact at the network: “Are you guys running this story or not!”
 
“Oh, sorry Greg,” came his contact’s reply, “but, no, we’ve decided to leave it.”
 
Palast could scarcely believe his ears. “What do you mean? Why the hell not!”
 
“Well, we put your allegations to the Governor’s Office, and they put them to the Governor, and he told us there was nothing to the story – so we’re not running it.”
 
 
I WAS REMINDED of Palast’s cautionary tale earlier this week.
 
Nicky Hager, one of New Zealand’s most tenacious investigative journalists, had, with the help of the country’s largest newspaper, broken a story claiming the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) had enlisted the support of United States intelligence-gathering agencies in Afghanistan to identify the contacts and sources of New Zealand’s leading war correspondent, Jon Stephenson.
 
At the same time, Hager also released the contents of an NZDF “security manual” in which “certain investigative journalists” were deemed to be a “subversive” threat to both the operational effectiveness and the good reputation of New Zealand’s armed forces.
 
Is it possible, asked Hager, that the latter might be related to the former?
 
It took the NZDF and its Minister, Dr Jonathan Coleman, roughly 24 hours to nut out their response. Having spent the weekend  “trawling through a decade’s worth of records from the Afghan war”, the military’s top brass blandly reassured the nation that they had  “found no evidence NZDF had ordered surveillance on the investigative journalist.”
 
The Defence Minister instantly firmed that statement up by flatly denying there was any evidence of such surveillance. The clear implication being that Hager had, at best, got the story badly wrong, or, at worst, made the whole thing up.
 
Depressingly, a number of newspapers and broadcasters, treated Coleman’s “no evidence” statement as definitive. Hager’s allegations, like Palast’s, had been put to the Powers-That-Be and been told there was nothing to them.
 
So, naturally, they immediately stopped believing them.
 
Did none of these “official sources say” journalists have a sufficiently capacious professional memory to recall that the NZDF had come up with a remarkably similar strategy in relation to an investigative article Stephenson himself had written in 2011?
 
Bland denials, based upon “evidence” which no one else can verify, should never be taken at face value. Simply asking the Governor’s Office, or the NZDF’s top-brass, isn’t good enough.
 
When dealing with Greg Palast, Nicky Hager or Jon Stephenson – the assumption should always be that there’s a case to answer.
 
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 August 2013.