Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Investigating The Democratic Sausage: Ika Seafood Bar & Grill’s Table Talk No. 6 “One Year On From Dirty Politics – What Has Changed?”

The Journalist As Hero: “One Year On From Dirty Politics – What Has Changed?” Ika Seafood Restaurant & Bar’s Table Talk No. 6 featured Dirty Politics’ author, Nicky Hager; left-leaning columnist, Dita Di Boni; veteran business writer, Fran O’Sullivan; along with the evening’s emcee, the martyred and marvellous, John Campbell.
 
BOBBY KENNEDY often joked that democracy is like a good sausage: tastes great – but you really don’t want to know what goes into it. Otto von Bismarck said something very similar about the making of laws. Regardless of its provenance, the point being made is an important one. The stuff of which politics is made: self-interest, class prejudice, religious bigotry, economic and social necessity; is often ugly and disreputable. That the final product so often turns out to be publicly palatable, is proof of our politicians’ over-riding need to preserve the system’s legitimacy in the eyes of those who elect them.
 
The distinguishing characteristic of left-wing investigative journalism, however, is that its practitioners are never satisfied with just the taste of Democracy’s sausage. They will not rest until a full list of ingredients, how they were combined, and for how long they’ve been cooked, is prepared and presented to the public. As often as not this is done without the slightest public encouragement, and the results are frequently received with considerable animosity. That’s because Democratic Sausage is generally consumed by the voters in blissful (and often wilful) ignorance of its contents.
 
They really don’t want to know what goes into it.
 
The people attending the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill's Table Talk No. 6, “One Year On From Dirty Politics – What Has Changed?”, disagreed. That’s because the journalists on stage: Dirty Politics’ author, Nicky Hager; left-leaning columnist, Dita Di Boni; veteran business writer, Fran O’Sullivan; and the evening’s emcee, the martyred and marvellous, John Campbell – along with the people packing out the restaurant to hear them – all fervently believe that the voting public not only has the right, but also the duty, to understand how Democratic Sausage is made.
 
There’s no disputing that Hager’s Dirty Politics reveals an unprecedented amount of information about what was going on behind the scenes of New Zealand politics in 2014. The wealth of material contained in Hager’s book could not, however, have been acquired outside of the thoroughly digitalised society we’ve become. Thousands of hacked e-mail communications to and from Cameron Slater’s Whaleoil blogsite had been passed on to Hager, revealing a host of startling connections between Slater, the Prime Minister’s Office, Justice Minister Judith Collins, numerous journalists, and a strange coterie of behind-the-scenes movers and shakers calling themselves “The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy”.
 
That similar exercises in political character assassination, media manipulation, and influence-peddling went on in the past is equally indisputable. It was only very rarely, however, that evidence of such dirty deeds ever came to light. The shrewd operators of the pre-digital era took care to leave no paper trails for pesky journalists to follow. Granted, telephone landlines could be tapped, but not, in the usual course of events, by the Left. Nor was there an Official Information Act to trouble wayward civil servants and Cabinet Ministers. Dirty politics was easier to get away with in those days – and investigative journalism much harder!
 
The result, paradoxically, was that public trust and confidence in our political institutions was much higher in the past than it is today. What the journalistic eye could not see, the electorate didn’t grieve over.
 
Everything changed in the 1970s, however, when the whistle-blowing of Daniel Ellsberg, and the investigative efforts of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, forced the American people to confront the realities of Democratic Sausage-making in an unprecedented way. The Pentagon Papers exposed decades of dishonesty about the Vietnam War on the part of the US Government. And the Watergate Scandal revealed to the people of the United States that their President, Richard Nixon, was a crook. Overnight, investigative reporters became heroes, and the fearless Fourth Estate was hailed as a more effective guardian of the citizen’s rights and freedoms than any politician.
 
Heroic Journalism: The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting brought down all the President's men - and, in August 1974, the President himself.
 
Many Baby-Boomers convinced themselves that this was how it would be from now on – but they were wrong. The blossoming of media freedom in the 1970s was actually an aberration – not a new and beautiful thing. The owners of the news media, frightened by the effective deposition of a President by the news media, tightened-up their control of newsrooms and reined-in the efforts of investigative journalism worldwide. There would be no more Watergates.
 
Partly this was in defence of the beleaguered capitalist system, but it was also about giving the news media’s consumers what they wanted. And what the readers, listeners and viewers of the late 1970s wanted most was to get the hell out of the sausage factory. They had seen enough. The truth made them uncomfortable. They wanted to believe that all was well with their democracy. That Richard Nixon was an exception, not the rule. Accordingly, just six years after the villain of Watergate had been driven from the White House, a much more dangerous President, Ronald Reagan, was moving in.
 
Nicky Hager, Dita Di Boni and Fran O’Sullivan all spoke eloquently about the difficulties facing conscientious journalists in the digital era; about the proliferation of media platforms and the constant shrinkage of newsrooms everywhere. And John Campbell, just by being there, reminded the Ika audience of what can happen to a television current affairs show that strives too earnestly to reveal the composition of Democratic Sausage.
 
What they didn’t discuss, however, was the one, incontrovertible, fact about the publication of Dirty Politics. Namely, that as a political purgative, it didn’t work. Unlike Richard Nixon, John Key was not forced to resign, and his political party was not voted out of office. In fact, a year (and a bit) after the book’s release, Key’s National Government remains as popular as it ever was. The bitter truth is that an electorally decisive number of New Zealanders reacted to Dirty Politics by moving towards – not away from – the National incumbent. Outside the relatively small circle of New Zealanders who celebrated Nicky Hager’s investigative efforts on their behalf, a great many Kiwis responded to his attempt to show them what was happening behind the fa├žade of their democratic institutions with anger and resentment.
 
They liked the Democratic Sausages sizzling on John Key’s barbecue. They did not want to know how they were made. And they definitely didn’t want to be told what – or who – went into them.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 30 September 2015.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A Green Offer National Couldn't Refuse

"Fredo, You Broke My Heart!" Michael Corleone would not tolerate disloyalty - not even from his own brother. Will Labour forgive the Greens for doing a deal with National's 'Godfather', John Key, over the 'Red Peak' flag? Or will Labour's decades old strategy of "no enemies to the left" set in motion a 'hit' against their supposed Green brothers?
 
THERE ARE PEOPLE in the Labour Party who take an almost forensic interest in the Greens. They can discourse at length on the “fundi/realo split”; “Deep Green” versus “Red Green”; and whether the electorally perilous potential of “Blue Green” will ever be realised.
 
Labour’s ongoing surveillance of the Greens should not, however, be compared to the twitcher’s hobby of watching birds. Labour’s interest in the intricacies of green politics is much more akin to the FBI’s interest in the intricacies of the Mafia. Agents may be able to rattle off the names of the heads of the Five Families; which gangsters are on the way up; and where the gangsters who used to be on the way up are buried; but this does not mean that the FBI loves or admires the Mafia. Far from it! The FBI is interested in the Mafia only because it intends to destroy it.
 
A Labour Party that drew its electoral support, overwhelmingly, from the poorest and most marginalised members of society would have little to fear from green parties of any kind. If they thought about them at all, it would only be as an eccentric off-shoot of middle-class politics, whose electoral participation was as likely to damage the Right as the Left.
 
The fate of the Values Party (arguably the world’s first “green” party) demonstrates the point nicely. Though it made a big splash in the news media, the newly-formed Values Party attracted only 1.9 percent of the popular vote in the General Election of 1972. This was, of course, the election in which the Norman Kirk-led Labour Party romped home with 48.4 percent of the votes cast.
 
Values did better in the next election, but only because Labour’s popularity, over the course of the intervening three years, had plummeted. In 1975, Values’ share of the popular vote swelled to 5.1 percent. Labour’s share, by contrast, fell nearly 10 percentage points, to a dismal 39.5 percent.
 
Between 1975 and 1984, however, Values’ support collapsed. In 1978 it polled 2.4 percent. In 1982, 0.19 percent. And in 1984 0.20 percent.
 
In spite of the fact that New Zealand’s two-party system had largely broken down by 1984, Labour was still able to capture 42.9 percent of the popular vote – on a record turn-out of 93.7 percent of registered voters.
 
The General Election of 1984 would, however, be the last in which Labour entered the race as an unequivocally social-democratic party, and was swept to power with the support of the poorest and most marginalised voters. In future elections an increasing percentage of Labour’s support would come from middle-class electors. This demographic shift in Labour’s electoral base would, increasingly, bring it into head-to-head competition with the Greens.
 
Labour’s electoral base is, however, broader than the Greens’. Though middle-class voters now comprise an important chunk of Labour’s constituency, its residual support among Pakeha, Maori, Pasifica and immigrant industrial and service-sector workers is still high. These traditional loyalties usually ensure that Labour’s vote is two-to-three times that of the Greens – enough support to make it a major party, but not yet enough for it to form a government without first securing a voter-antagonising guarantee of Green Party support.
 
Labour’s problem may be summed up in two words: proportional representation. New Zealand’s MMP electoral system allows minor parties to thrive, thus removing the pressure on opposition supporters to transfer their allegiance to the party best placed to defeat the Government. By denying Labour the 5 to 10 percentage points it needs to become a credible competitor to the National Party, proportional representation and the Greens are encouraging the Right to contemplate permanent political ascendancy.
 
In these circumstances, it is hard to blame the Greens for engaging in a little contemplation of their own. If, by its very existence, and by positioning itself as Labour’s “natural” coalition partner, it is keeping the Left out of power permanently, then wouldn’t the Green Party’s chances of achieving at least some of its critical environmental objectives be improved by repositioning itself as the potential coalition partner of either Labour or National?  Certainly, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is exactly what the Green Party membership was contemplating when they elected the young, business-friendly, social entrepreneur, James Shaw, as their co-leader on 31 July 2015.
 
The same Mr Shaw’s adroit handling of the Red Peak flag issue in the House last week will not have lessened Labour’s forensic interest in the Greens’ ultimate intentions. His parliamentary “deal” with National, relatively insignificant though it may have been, was seen by Labour as an alarming portent of things to come.
 
If Labour operated like the Mafia it would know exactly what to do. Without seeking permission, Jimmy “The Business” Shaw, and his Green Gang, made approaches to a rival family.
 
Whack ‘em!
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 September 2015.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Rules For Radicals.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone? The counter-culture and anti-war movements of the 1960s put the US "Establishment" on the back foot. Saul Alinsky's Rules For Radicals was born out of the optimism and confidence of the period. But every action begets a reaction. Alinsky's rules proved  to be no match for the Establishment's 44 year fightback.
 
SAUL ALINSKY died in 1972, but his 1971 book, Rules For Radicals, has inspired thousands of activists – including Barack Obama. “Community Organisers”, from Chicago to Christchurch, have applied Alinsky’s ideas with considerable success – especially in low-income urban communities. Forty-four years on, however, the optimism and confidence that fueled the radical campaigns of the 1970s is much less in evidence, and the power of the government institutions and private corporations against which Alinsky preached his gospel of radical resistance has grown exponentially.
 
When Rules For Radicals was being written, progressivism, both in the USA and around the world, was on a roll. The “counter-culture” of the 1960s had shaken the confidence of the Establishment to the point where it had begun to question how long its ability to “manufacture consent” could endure. Mass movements from below were forcing the issues of racial and gender equality onto the political agenda. Likewise, the new environmental movement. The latter’s power was demonstrated in 1970 by the astonishing public response to the first “Earth Day”.
 
Environmentalism Surges: "Earth Day" 1970
 
Corporate America’s fears were not allayed when their Republican President, Richard Nixon, responded to the electorate’s concerns about industrial pollution by setting up the Environmental Protection Agency, and by shepherding a swag of bills designed to protect the environment through Congress.
 
By 1974, the situation was even worse. Progressive America had driven Nixon from office, and leading members of the Democratic Party were drafting a bill mandating massive federal intervention in the US economy to guarantee full employment. The year before, in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, beset by a nationwide miners’ strike, had appealed to the British electorate for an answer to the question: “Who Governs Britain?” The response he’d been hoping for was: “You do, Prime Minister!” What he got was much closer to “The unions – you Tory git!” Clearly, something had to be done.
 
In many ways The Crisis of Democracy: On the Governability of Democracies, a 1975 report, written by Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, for the Trilateral Commission, was Corporate America’s answer to Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals. According to the report, the lesson to be drawn from the 1960s is that the “impulse of democracy is to make government less powerful and more active, to increase its functions, and to decrease its authority”. The result was “governments overloaded with participants and demands”. What was needed, according to Crozier et al, was for the political stage to become much less crowded: “balance is to be restored between governmental activity and governmental authority”.
 
Lewis F Powell - Author of The Powell Memorandum and saviour of the 1 Percent.
 
Complementing The Crisis of Democracy is the document which has come to be known as The Powell Memorandum. Written in 1971 by Lewis F. Powell, a corporate lawyer and tobacco industry lobbyist (later to become a Justice of the US Supreme Court) to Eugene Syndor at the US Chamber of Commerce, the document (originally entitled The Attack on the American Free Enterprise System) is, essentially, a call-to-arms to the people who ran US capitalism in the 1970s. The Left, Powell argued, had stolen a whole series of marches on the Right, and were now poised to undermine the entire system. Powell was in no doubt as to the sources of this left-wing subversion: “The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism came from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.” If these voices couldn’t be silenced, Powell advised, then, at the very least, they should be drowned out.
 
The British geographer, anthropologist, and fierce critic of the culture of Late Capitalism, David Harvey, has argued that the advance of what we now call Neoliberalism can be traced back to The Powell Memorandum. Many of the think tanks still informing the global free market counter-revolution: the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, for example, were propelled into existence by Powell’s infamous missive.
 
 
Alinsky condensed the subject matter of his “pragmatic primer for realistic radicals” into 13 basic rules. These are listed below – accompanied by commentaries informed by the 44 intervening years of steadily expanding neoliberal hegemony:
 
 
1. “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood. 
 
Still true. But activists should never forget that one of the most important things that money buys is the expertise and technology to get inside the heads of the “Have-Nots”. The “enemy” you see may not be the enemy they see.
 
2. “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.
 
Forty-four years of “dumbing down” has emptied the well of popular expertise to an alarming degree. People’s security in their own knowledge – and hence their backbone – may be harder to locate than you think.
 
3. “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.
 
One of the results of The Powell Memorandum has been a burgeoning of the expertise available to the “enemy”. That’s what think tanks are for: to increase the security, confidence and certainty of the powers-that-be.
 
4. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.
 
Rules? What are they?
 
5. “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.
 
But ridicule is a two-edged sword – a weapon the “enemy” mastered long ago. Just think of the front-page headlines of The Sun, or Paddy Gower. On the other hand, you could think of John Stewart and be reassured that, in the right hands, ridicule can still be a very powerful force for Good.
 
6. “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones.
 
Except that, these days, the thing people enjoy doing most is clicking “Like” on Facebook and taking selfies!
 
7. “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Don’t become old news.
 
Even more true today than it was in 1971. With a 24-hour news cycle, “dragging on” can be measured in minutes.
 
8. “Keep the pressure on. Never let up.” Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.
 
Absolutely sound advice. Now, if we could just come up with a tactic nobody’s used before!
 
9. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.
 
And Crown Law can dream up consequences that activists would rather not think about.
 
10. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.” It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.
 
The problem today is that any group of activists involved in the “development of operations” will almost certainly be placed under intense surveillance by the SIS, the GCSB, ODESC and Police Intelligence. Eliciting the reaction that you want from the “opposition” is much harder when they know exactly what you’re planning.
 
11. “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.
 
Alinsky was wrong about this even in 1971. Police violence against demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago led to an outpouring of public support for – not against – the Chicago Police. The “Great Silent Majority” is an evil beast.
 
12. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem.
 
This was what let down the Occupy movement. They gave us the symbol of the “1 Percent”, but they didn’t give us a solution to the psychopathology of Finance Capitalism.
 
13. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.
 
Read Rule 13 again, and ask yourself if this hasn’t been the exact tactic employed against us by the political representatives of Neoliberalism since the late 1970s. Except that Alinsky was wrong about institutions – they’re every bit as easy to hurt as people.
 
The hardest thing for those of us who can still remember when Rules For Radicals was new, is coming to terms with the fact that the bastards beat us with our own weapons.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 28 September 2015.

Corbyn’s Choice: God Save the Queen, Or, A Fascist Regime?

Not Smart: Corbyn's situational awareness as a politician is woeful. Unless he makes the transition from Backbencher to Leader of the Opposition, especially in terms of handling the news media, he will not survive 18 months. If the protestant claimant to the French throne, Henry of Navarre, could see that "Paris is worth a mass", then surely Corbyn can see that Westminster is worth an anthem?

HARRY PERKINS, the hero of A Very British Coup, would have sung ‘God Save the Queen’ – lustily, and standing ramrod straight. Why? Because, his own republican sympathies notwithstanding, he would have understood that the majority of his fellow countrymen both love and believe in Elizabeth II. Refusing to sing – especially at a memorial service to “The Few” who saved Britain from Hitler’s Luftwaffe in 1940 – would have upset them. Not only that, it would have lent credence to the uniformly negative things the Tory press was saying about him. Chris Mullins, the Labour MP who wrote A Very British Coup, knew that to be at all believable, his left-wing, working-class hero would have to be preternaturally media savvy.
 
Unless Jeremy Corbyn becomes preternaturally media savvy very quickly there will be no need for a very British coup. The general who told The Daily Mirror that a Corbyn-led Labour Government committed to taking the UK out of Nato and scrapping the Trident nuclear deterrent would be removed “by fair means of foul” will no doubt be disappointed to hear it, but it’s true. The anthem incident marked Corbyn as a man almost entirely lacking in the situational awareness so essential to the practice of politics in our media saturated twenty-first century. Without that awareness Corbyn cannot possibly succeed as a radical Labour leader. He will be replaced – and sooner, rather than later.
 
Corbyn’s mute performance in Westminster Abbey sent commentators from both the Left and the Right scurrying for their George Orwell. And rightly so, because in his 1941 pamphlet, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, there is a passage that could have been written especially for Corbyn.
 
England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.”
 
That was why, when Mullin created Harry Perkins, way back in 1982, he made him the antithesis of Orwell’s “English intellectual”. He knew that there could never be a radical left-wing British prime minister who sniggered at horse-racing or suet-pudding – because the British people would never vote for such a person.
 
The Fictional Labour Leader, Harry Perkins: "The whiff of treachery."
 
The other thing Mullin built into his hero was a rock-solid understanding of how crucial the news media has become to the conduct of modern politics. That’s why, when he becomes Prime Minister, Perkins revolutionises the way No. 10 Downing Street interacts with the news media. Rather than, like Corbyn, keeping them at arm’s length and refusing to give them sound-bites for their six o’clock news bulletins, Perkins turns his administration into a more-or-less permanent press conference. He offers political journalists unparalleled access to all his ministers and deluges them with official information. As he suspected, this “love bombing” of the media leaves them feeling uncertain and confused. How do you play “gotcha!” journalism when you’ve already “got” everything you need to write great stories?
 
Corbyn’s weaknesses as a communicator with the news media were not immediately apparent during the campaign for the Labour leadership. As an essentially internal party process, the political dynamics of that very narrow contest were quite different from those that dominate the politics of Westminster. Those who followed his astonishing rise, and who celebrated his even more astonishing victory, simply assumed that he was equal to the challenge of reformulating his message in a way that rendered it receivable by the Great British Public. To date, it is by no means clear that Corbyn is equal to the challenge.
 
Indeed, as the weeks pass, it becomes clearer and clearer that the true hero of the Labour leadership contest wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn, but the Labour membership which elected him – ably assisted by the tens-of-thousands who paid Labour three quid to see “a new kind of politics” triumph over business as usual. Looking back over these extraordinary weeks, political and social historians will likely conclude that, far from creating his own following, Corbyn was actually created by it. The MP for Islington North was pressed into the service of a labour movement grown weary of “leaders” who arrived amongst them still shrink-wrapped from the same Blairite factory. Corbyn wasn’t a robot – so Corbyn had to win.
 
But if Corbyn is not a robot, neither is he a Harry Perkins. Mullins’ hero was strong from the start and only too aware of what lay in wait for him. As he climbs the stairs to the living quarters of No. 10, he quips to the following pack of journalists that there’s a smell of history about the place – “and just the whiff of betrayal”.
 
Except, in Corbyn’s case, it’s not so much a whiff, as a sickening stench, of betrayal. Knowing that the parliamentary party was bitterly opposed to just about everything he believed in, the only viable course of action available to Corbyn was to establish a powerful emotional connection with the British people – one that allowed him to speak to them directly, over the heads of his parliamentary colleagues. But, as Mullins understood, that can only be done through the news media.
 
So, rather than shunning the major television platforms, Corbyn should have pitched a tent on them; telling anyone and everyone who asked what they wanted to know. Everything from his favourite brand of breakfast cereal to the alternative purposes to which the billions of pounds currently spent on Trident could be applied. When, inevitably, his colleagues cried foul (and anonymous generals threatened wholesale military revolt) Corbyn should have doubled down: intimating that he would be seeking the party’s endorsement for the policies he was promoting. If they wanted the policies; if they wanted him; then they would have to show the parliamentary wing of the party (and the UK armed forces!) who was boss.
 
Is there still hope for Jeremy Corbyn? Yes, but it is fast running out. From the moment the results of the leadership election were announced, Corbyn’s allies in the trade unions made it clear that his political survival would depend on replicating in the wider electorate the same radical democratic movement that had carried him to victory within the Labour Party. That could not be done by selecting a shadow cabinet that was three fifths parliamentary enemies and two fifths political crackpots. (Like his Environment Secretary, Kerry McCarthy, who is on record as wanting to mount a campaign against the consumption of meat along the lines of the current campaign against smoking!)
 
If Corbyn fails to build that radical democratic movement, upon which the success of his leadership depends, he will be gone in 18 months. If he would survive, he needs to re-read Mullins novel and absorb its political lessons. Most crucially, he needs to begin again with the British news media – without whose assistance his messages to the British people cannot be delivered.
 
One of the most moving moments in the television version of A Very British Coup takes place in a little news-agent’s shop. Harry Perkins ducks in for a box of matches. From the shop counter the right-wing tabloids bellow out the message that Perkins and his government are “Red Scum!” The news-agent hands over the matches, but then, locking eyes with the beleaguered PM, he whispers hoarsely: “You are not red scum!” In spite of the tabloids, Harry’s message has got through. It is the moment when a very British revolution, and its inevitable corollary, a very British coup, both become inevitable.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 27 September 2015.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Governing For The Boardroom – From The Barroom.

Cheers, Tony! As an opposition leader, Abbott made the Barroom his own, championing its prejudices and magnifying its fears. Upon becoming prime minister, however, he attempted to ram the Boardroom’s agenda down the Barroom’s throat. As a strategy it proved fatal. The Barroom turned decisively against him, driving his government underwater in the polls. It’s hard to help the Boardroom when you’re drowning.
 
THE ROLLING of Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, offers some interesting lessons in the conduct of right-wing politics. The multi-millionaire businessman and lawyer, Malcolm Turnbull, who instigated the “spill”, is generally identified as the candidate of Australia’s boardrooms – someone to finally make good on his predecessor’s promise that “Australia is open for business!” Abbott, on the other hand, might best be described as the candidate of the Australian barroom. A politician with whom the “little Aussie Battler”, and his mates, were more than happy to have a beer with.
 
Turnbull caught many Kiwis off-guard by holding up their own prime minister, John Key, as the very model of a modern conservative leader. Was Turnbull’s fulsome accolade inspired by the fact that Key (also a multi-millionaire) seemed to be as comfortable in the barrooms of New Zealand as he was in its boardrooms – maybe even more so? Acutely aware that in the Party Room he had just left, Boardroom and Barroom were at daggers drawn, and that he faced a Herculean task in drawing the patrician and plebeian Liberals back together, Turnbull can be forgiven for envying Key’s ability to keep a foot in both camps.
 
The prime minister John Key defeated, Helen Clark, had tried to do the same, but with only limited success. No matter how many times she speeded to an All Black test-match, or waved at the Warriors’ Rugby League fans, very few (if any) New Zealanders were fooled. Everyone knew that Clark was more comfortable at the Opera than the footy. And the blokes who drank beer never really saw themselves sipping Chardonnay with “Helen”.
 
On the face of it, this shouldn’t have mattered. Clark was, after all, a Labour Party leader. The loyalty of the blokes in the barroom was, supposedly, a political given. And, for a little while, it held. Clark’s gender, which, normally, would have counted against her in many barrooms, was neutralised by the fact that the Nats had also chosen a woman to lead them – and a pretty scary one at that! It did not take long, however, for the Barroom’s welcome to wear out.
 
No matter how hard she tried to signal her endorsement of the plebs’ pleasures, the conviction grew that it was all a little disingenuous. To the blokes in the barroom, Clark came across as someone who inhabited a different world. Not the boardroom, exactly, although she was doing everything she could to be accepted there, but another sort of room. They might have struggled to recall its proper name, but they knew exactly what sort of room Clark would feel most comfortable sitting in – a university common-room.
 
Key observed the steady alienation of Clark’s barroom allies and drew the appropriate lesson. Whatever else he did as New Zealand’s prime minister, he must never allow the blokes in the barroom to form even the faintest outline of a notion that he thought he was better than they were, or that he considered their views to be bigoted and ill-informed. If the Barroom listened to Newstalk-ZB, or Radio Sport, or The Edge – then he would talk to them from there. The listeners to Radio New Zealand’s “Morning Report” would just have to suck it up. The ones who voted National would forgive his nonappearances. The others didn’t matter.
 
John Key: Just one of the guys.
 
The Boardroom might have sniffed at this sort of pandering to the hoi-polloi, but Key knew better than to worry too much about the prejudices of the “1 Percent”. They may control an obscene percentage of the nation’s wealth, but their share of the nation’s votes would always and only be – 1 percent. Not that as a One-Percenter, himself, Key was in any way unsympathetic to the Boardroom’s needs – far from it. What he’d learned from Clark, however, is that, in a democracy, it pays to make haste slowly – always allowing time for the doubters to be persuaded.
 
As an opposition leader, Abbott made the Barroom his own, championing its prejudices and magnifying its fears. Upon becoming prime minister, however, he attempted to ram the Boardroom’s agenda down the Barroom’s throat. As a strategy it proved fatal. The Barroom turned decisively against him, driving his government underwater in the polls. It’s hard to help the Boardroom when you’re drowning.
 
If Malcolm Turnbull’s wise, he’ll cultivate John Key’s taste for beer.
 
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, 25 September 2015.

Moving On: Paula Bennett Releases Her “Loopy Rules Report”.

Just Let Our Businesses Be! Local Government Minister, Paula Bennett, never saw a rule or regulation that didn't look better for being watered-down, unenforced or just plain eliminated. Leaky homes? Pshaw! Don't you know that the country has moved on since then?
 
THE LOOPY RULES REPORT– the name given to the report of the Government’s Rules Reduction Taskforce says it all. To the current breed of National Party MP all rules are “loopy”. In the eyes of your average Nat, government regulation only imposes stifling and quite unnecessary restraints on the animal spirits of society’s wealth creators. All these heroes crave and require is to be left alone. Which is precisely what governments should try to do,  according to National, because entrepreneurial freedom is the elixir that makes capitalism so powerful and creative.
 
Not everyone agrees, of course, and that tells the National Party something. Namely that the advocates of heavy-handed regulation are either crazy or evil. Only very crazy, or very evil, people, National reasons, would deliberately reduce the freedom, creativity, power and wealth of society by entangling its capitalists in endless coils of red tape. Regulators, by limiting the freedom of society’s wealth creators, make themselves the enemies of all right-thinking people. They must be stopped – and their red tape cast aside.
 
You think I’m guilty of exaggeration? You think this some sort of parody of the neoliberal’s attitude towards regulation? Think again. The Rules Reduction Taskforce was itself taken aback by the many bizarre urban (and rural) myths directed against New Zealand’s supposedly over-regulated society. So much so that they felt obliged to list the worst of them in their media release.
 
Myth: Lolly scrambles are banned because they’re unsafe for kids.
 
Reality: Not true. There are no Government health and safety rules against lolly scrambles at things like Santa Parades. There has been some concern that children could be injured running in front of floats, and while this is a valid concern, the most important thing is for event organisers, parents and caregivers to use common sense to keep kids safe.
 
Myth: It’s illegal to use step-ladders and saw horses.
 
Reality: There are no Government rules banning their use. There are also no rules requiring harnesses or scaffolding to complete work at small heights. What is absolutely important is that people are careful when they use step-ladders or saw horses.
 
However, The Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 requires that they be used in the way the manufacturer intended them and that employers take steps to eliminate the risk of a person falling and injuring themselves.
 
Myth: People living in retirement villages can’t serve alcohol to their friends.
 
Reality: It is fine for residents in retirement villages to have other residents around to their rooms for a drink.

If the retirement village itself wants to run a ‘happy hour’ or provide alcohol to residents (whether selling it or as part of the rest home fee), they will have to obtain an alcohol licence. In most cases, they would be able to get a club license, and would likely pay the lowest possible fee (depending on the number of residents).
 
Myth: Farmers are liable if a visitor to their property trips over a tree root.
 
Reality: Not true. Farmers only have a duty to warn visitors about out-of-the-ordinary work-related hazards on the farm, and to ensure that no action or inaction of any employee harms another person.
 
Myth: Kiwis can no longer complete DIY work on their own properties.
 
Reality: Home owners can continue to do most DIY work as has always been the case.
 
All very amusing in a – “Holy Moly! But the animal spirits of these wealth creators sure are a lively lot!” – kind of way. But the laughter stopped abruptly when the Cabinet Minister responsible for commissioning The Loopy Rules Report, Local Government Minister, Paula Bennett, backed the taskforce’s astonishing suggestion that Qualified Master Builders should be allowed to sign-off their own work:
 
“[W]e put people through a whole lot of unnecessary compliance and don’t concentrate on the areas that really are important”, said Bennett, “and we understand why, a lot of it is risk, a lot of it from the leaky homes. But products have moved on since then, the country has moved on from then, and we have to make sure we are getting sensible rules.”
 
Labour’s Phil Twyford summed up the feelings of many – including most building industry players – in his media release responding to Bennett’s remarks:
 
“This is just another example of National’s mindless ideological love of deregulation. Back in the 1990s they cursed thousands of good hardworking Kiwi homeowners with the leaky homes catastrophe. Paula Bennett says the country has moved on from the leaky homes catastrophe but it’s clear she hasn’t learned from previous mistakes. Ms Bennett’s rules reduction taskforce is nothing more than a political stunt. Back in May she was justifying the taskforce by pointing out how ridiculous red tape that banned lolly scrambles and required people to wear a harness when using a step ladder was. Four months later she is back saying the taskforce found out those supposed ‘loopy rules’ were just misconceptions that had become myths. Now that really is ridiculous!”
 
Indeed it is. But Bennett’s “misconceptions” are just one more manifestation of the ideological cancer that is eating out the heart of the National Party.
 
The conservatives who founded the National Party held a religious and philosophical view of humanity that openly acknowledged its propensity to behave selfishly and corruptly. Rules and regulations – laws – are the price decent individuals willingly pay to protect themselves from the corruption and selfishness of their anti-social neighbours. Conservatism is also alert to the tendency of capitalism to break down and destroy those traditional restraints that keep societies functioning. Indeed many conservatives would probably agree with the description of capitalism’s corrosive effects contained in Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto:
 
“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”.
 
To a neoliberal like Paula Bennett, none of the above should be regarded as bad things. She is adamant that the “animal spirits” of capitalism be given free rein. If “loopy rules” get in their way, then they must be swept away. Collateral social damage (Leaky Homes Scandal, Cave Creek, Pike River) is simply the cost of doing business. If that sounds like profaning the holy, well, tough. Time, tide, and capitalism, wait for no man. Not when the country is moving on.
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 23 September 2015.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

National's Love-Affair Is With The Right - Not The Centre.

Speaking For The Nation - Acting For The Right: John Key at the Pike River Memorial Service. Promises that the 29 entombed miners would not have died in vain could not survive the recklessly self-interested lobbying of National's Far-Right electoral base - farmers and small business.
 
JOHN KEY IS PROUD of his government’s performance. Twelve months on from the 2014 General Election his message to the people of New Zealand is characteristically upbeat:
 
“Families are also being helped by an economy which is continuing to grow”, the Prime Minister enthuses in his anniversary media release. “There were over 49,000 new jobs created in the nine months to June 2015 and the average wage is up $1500.  The services sector – which includes tourism – has seen 35 months of straight growth.”
 
Fulminate as they might against his government’s deficiencies, Mr Key’s opponents have no effective answer to the argument advanced by the opinion polls. After seven years in office, the Key-led Government is still racking up percentages in the high 40s/low 50s – popularity scores without precedent in New Zealand’s political history. Small wonder, then, that conservative leaders from the other Anglophone countries (most notably the new Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull) sing his praises!
 
A journalistic consensus has grown up around the indisputable success of Mr Key’s ministry. The Prime Minister, it is argued, has forged a bond with “Middle New Zealand” which, to date, has proved indissoluble. Pundits talk about “John Key’s enduring love affair with Centrist New Zealand”. These are good lines – but is the Fourth Estate telling us the truth?
 
The proposition that the New Zealand National Party is a “centrist” political institution is hard to stand up. Certainly, it has suited some National Party prime ministers (Sir Keith Holyoake and John Key among them) to steer their political vessel into the sheltered waters of bi-partisan agreement. At its ideological core, however, National remains a party of the Right. Without the reliable support of that part of the New Zealand electorate which identifies itself as “right-wing”, National would not be able to form any sort of stable government.
 
The Litmus Test for just how right-wing National has always been – and remains – is its treatment of the trade unions. National’s first prime minister, Sid Holland (himself a former member of the far-right New Zealand Legion) lost little time in engineering the infamous lockout of the Waterside Workers Union in 1951. This colossal industrial confrontation, which pitted the National Government against the cream of organised labour, lasted 151 days and was only won by severely curtailing New Zealanders’ civil and political rights for the duration of the dispute.

Foundation Myth: The First National Government blooded itself in the 1951 Waterfront Lockout. Sixty-four years later, the party's hatred of trade unions remains undimmed.
 
Forty years later, National launched an even more extreme assault upon the trade unions. The Employment Contracts Act (1991) reduced the trade union movement to a pale shadow of its former strength. Rights enjoyed by New Zealand workers for close to a century were simply legislated away – entrenching the power of New Zealand’s employers to a degree unprecedented in this country’s history. In less than a decade union density in New Zealand fell from 45 percent to 20 percent. In today’s private sector less than one in ten workers belong to a union.
 
National’s hostility towards even this enfeebled labour movement remains as visceral as ever. No “centrist” government would have connived in the watering-down of the health and safety reforms arising out of the Pike River mining disaster. But National, driven by its far-right supporters in the farming and small-business sectors, was willing to endure both public ridicule and moral censure, rather than rebuff the recklessly self-interested lobbying of its electoral base.
 
At the heart of National’s hatred of the unions lies an even deeper fear of the working class as a whole. Like all right-wing parties, it strives to paint itself as the natural ally of “aspirational” members of both the working and middle classes. Even so, “getting ahead” will never count for as much in National Party circles as looking after those who “got ahead” long, long ago. These people are very clear about the direction in which the nation’s wealth should flow. National’s job is to make sure it keeps flowing their way – forever.
 
It’s why the Welfare State remains the National Party membership’s particular bugbear. Like an enormous dam, it captures wealth that would otherwise come to them. Sid Holland’s original intention was simply to repeal the Social Security Act (1938). But the New Zealand voter repeatedly refused to oblige him; only consenting to a National Government after Holland and his party had pledged to keep the welfare state in place.
 
One only has to listen to Mr Key’s colleagues pronounce on “welfare dependency”, however, or the need for private-sector sourced “social investment”, to understand how unrelenting this pressure from National’s core right-wing constituency remains. With affordable housing in unprecedented demand, would a “centrist” government advocate selling-off thousands of state houses?
 
Thirty years of state-sanctioned selfishness have swollen the ranks of right-wing New Zealand – prising thousands from Labour’s grip in the process. Mr Key rides high because the Left has fallen so low.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 September 2015.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Singing For His Supper: Chris Trotter Recalls Labour In The 1980s.

Ready, Aim, Sing! Bowalley Road's proprietor, with more hair and less weight, singing up a storm at a 1981 anti-tour rally in Dunedin.
 
IN MY LAST CONTRIBUTION to The Daily Blog I described an incident involving myself and two friends drinking coffee in the University of Otago’s student union caf’ way back in 1983.
 
“Naturally we were talking politics and, as the conversation progressed, it turned out that all of us were working on the campaign committees of Labour candidates. That wasn’t so odd in my case, I’ve never been anything other than a democratic socialist. But one of my comrades used to be an anarchist and the other a Trotskyist. It inspired me to pen a little good-natured satire (set to the tune of Cliff Richards “Summer Holiday”).”
 
I even supplied the chorus.
 
We’re all working for a Labour victory,
No more Trotsky, no more Lenin or Mao.
We’re all working for a Labour victory
I’m glad the comrades cannot see us now!
 
It occurred to me that there might be some interest out there in the whole song. Such ephemera often serves to enliven the larger historical picture.
 
Before proceeding, however, I’ll share with you an interesting story connected to this little ditty.
 
The 1983 Otago/Southland regional conference of the Labour Party was held in Invercargill. On the Saturday evening of the conference weekend, seated in a bar (the name of which I cannot now recall) I sang my song to the clutch of left-wing comrades I was getting drunk with. They all seemed to enjoy it, singing along lustily at every chorus. What I did not realise, however, was that the Editor of the National Business Review, Colin James, was also in the bar – listening in.
 
The following Monday, I was back at work at the University Book Shop in Dunedin when who should drop by but the same Colin James. He was there to collect his promised copy of the lyrics – which he proposed to use in his reporting of the conference. (Yes, Labour was such a powerful political force in the early 1980s that even its regional conferences merited serious media attention!) Tucking his copy of the song into his coat pocket, he then informed me that his current ‘By the Left’ columnist, Alf Kirk, having just secured a position with the State Services Commission, would no longer be able to write for the NBR. Would I be interested in the job?
 
Thus did my career as a political columnist begin! Never let anyone tell you that writing and singing satirical songs is a waste of time and energy!
 
Just a few contextual notes before we get going. The “David” mentioned in the song is, of course, David Lange. Elected leader of the Labour Party in 1982, he’d lost little time in warning members against public shows of disunity and dissent. This was intended as a shot across the bow of the Party President, Jim Anderton – who was already sounding warnings about the Caucus’s rightward drift. Undaunted by Lange’s rebuke, Anderton urged Party members to be “ambitious” for Labour’s cause. This, I hope, will make the third verse a little clearer.
 
Anyway, here’s the song in its entirety. Enjoy!
 
 
“We’re All Working For A Labour Victory”
(Sung to the tune of Cliff Richard’s “Summer Holiday”) 

We’re all working for a Labour victory,
No more Trotsky, no more Lenin or Mao.
We’re all working for a Labour victory
I’m glad the comrades cannot see us now!
 
Oh, we all used to carry placards,
We all used to hurl abuse.
But now the Marxist vanguard
Just murmurs, ‘What’s the use?’ 

CHORUS
 
We all used to think that the workers
Would follow our clarion call.
But we’ve given up the Revolution
To go canvassing door-to-door.
 
CHORUS
 
We are told that ambition is a good thing,
But we’re warned that dissension is a sin.
So we’ve learned to turn the rhetoric down
When David’s listening in.
 
CHORUS
 
But it hasn’t all been plain-sailing,
The conservatives shook their heads,
When we forced through a remit requiring
Retirement homes for Reds. 

CHORUS
 
As Mike Hosking would say: “Happy days.”
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 19 September 2015.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Where Loyalty No Longer Counts.

He's Behind You! Malcolm Turnbull rolls Tony Abbott with ruthless efficiency. Ain’t it always the way? Politicians like Abbott and his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, are invaluable in the ruck, kicking and gauging where the ref can’t see their infringements. But they’re not the sort of guys you send up to receive the cup from the Governor-General. Team captains have a certain look – and poor Tony Abbott never had it. Just a little too excitable. Too much the true believer. Unable to compromise. Not really clubbable.
 
YOU CAN’T HELP ADMIRING the Aussies. There’s a raw energy about them that grabs, and holds, your attention. A brutal kind of honesty, too, which is equally compelling.
 
It was all there on display, on Monday night, as Malcolm Turnbull’s faction of the Liberal Party cut down Tony Abbott and his lieutenants with chilling efficiency. Watching Sky News Australia’s seven-hour, live-commentary marathon, I couldn’t help but be impressed.

The way Abbott’s loyal ministers were rotated through the Sky News studio, each one just a little more desperate than the last, seemingly unable to believe that they were in the middle of the very thing they had railed against when the hapless Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were hacking away at each other on prime time – a leadership spill involving a sitting Prime Minister.
 
“Good God! As a country we’re better than this!” Was Abbott’s anguished observation as the realisation that Turnbull was about to remove him from power finally beat its way past his emotional defences and made contact with the rational centre of his brain.
 
Paul Murray, a big, burly, bearded bloke, who makes his living telling Sky’s right-wing viewers “what’s really going on” spent the night acting as Abbott’s emotional proxy.
 
Right-wing Commentator, Paul Murray. Abbott's emotional proxy.
 
Alternately flailing his arms about in a balletic combination of anger and despair, and roaring defiance at a studio full of journalists and commentators who were clearly relishing the slow demise of the “Mad Monk” (as Abbott’s less charitable fellow citizens were wont to call him) Murray more and more came to resemble a baited bear. It seemed inevitable that the smooth young fellow seated well within range of Murray’s agitated paws would offer one acerbic taunt too many and end up smearing claret all over the studio floor.
 
I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor joker. Especially when he blurted out the obviously painful question about whether it was any longer possible for conservative politicians like Tony Abbott to survive in the tolerant culture of twenty-first century Australia. You could read the anguish plainly on his bluff features as he internally answered his own question.
 
Because, of course, the answer is “No, Paul, it’s no longer possible.”
 
Not that his sort of Aussie is easy to convince. Not even when the Irish – yes, the Irish! – vote in favour of Marriage Equality. That’s right, Rome’s most dutiful daughter, snapping her fingers at the Clergy like she just didn’t care anymore about who did what, where, and to whom – just so long as love got a look in there somewhere.
 
Why couldn’t the Liberal Party Right see it? Why didn’t Abbott just declare a free vote on the Marriage Equality issue and save his rapidly diminishing supply of bullets for something that really mattered – like getting the deficit down and keeping all those tailored suits in the high towers of Sydney and Melbourne smiling their special, self-satisfied, squatocratic smiles.
 
Sacking the bloody useless Joe Hockey was the easiest way to do that, but Tony just wouldn’t. Loyal to a fault, poor fella. As Murray put it: “He was loyal in a game where loyalty no longer counts.” Honestly, I thought the guy was going to cry.
 
The other journos in the studio just shrugged. They knew it was all over for Abbott when reports from a weekend corporate shindig started filtering back to the Canberra press gallery. Turnbull had been present and, apparently, he had the more than 400 business leaders present eating out of his hand.
 
Secure in the knowledge that the mood of the boardroom was solidly behind a change at the top, the silver-haired millionaire locked and loaded his supporters for a leadership spill on Monday afternoon.
 
Ain’t it always the way? Politicians like Abbott and Hockey are invaluable in the ruck, kicking and gauging where the ref can’t see their infringements. But they’re not the sort of guys you send up to receive the cup from the Governor-General. Team captains have a certain look – and poor Tony Abbott never had it. Just a little too excitable. Too much the true believer. Unable to compromise. Not really clubbable.
 
Not that anybody’s ever going to say that about Malcolm Turnbull. Like that other Malcolm, the late Malcolm Fraser, he fits right in – a leader in the Menzies tradition.
 
Not a pair of Speedos in sight.
 
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, 18 September 2015.