Monday, 30 November 2015

Puppet On A String? Has Andrew Little Become The Plaything Of Labour’s Dominant Factions?

Hardly Napoleonic Andrew: Consigning David Cunliffe to the rear of the battlefield, and replacing Nanaia Mahuta with Kelvin Davis do not strike me as the decisions of a wise general. (Although they may be those of a panicky one.) While advancing his Right, a wise general would have taken care to keep his Left strong – just in case his confidence in all these newly promoted commanders proves to be misplaced.
 
CLEARLY I ERRED in likening Andrew Little to Napoleon Bonaparte. Whatever else people may say of Napoleon, no one can fairly accuse him of dissipating his forces on the field of battle.
 
Concentration, concentration, concentration, was Napoleon’s mantra: what the American Civil War General, Nathan Bedford Forrest, later summarised as “getting there firstest, with the mostest”.
 
Consigning David Cunliffe to the rear of the battlefield, and replacing Nanaia Mahuta with Kelvin Davis do not strike me as the decisions of a wise general. (Although they may be those of a panicky one.) While advancing his Right, a wise general would have taken care to keep his Left strong – just in case his confidence in all these newly promoted commanders proves to be misplaced.
 
As a number of right-wing commentators have already pointed out, the treatment of Cunliffe is as wasteful of the man’s talent as it is self-indulgently vindictive. They contrast Little’s demotion of Cunliffe with National’s treatment of Bill English. In spite of leading his party to the worst defeat in its history, English’s colleagues did not consider it appropriate to signal his imminent political demise. On the contrary, his talent was retained and directed, very successfully, against the political enemy.
 
But that’s Labour’s problem, isn’t it? For far too many Labour politicians, the political enemy is seated on their own side of the parliamentary aisle. The Government benches contain only their opponents.
 
It is interesting to speculate about how Cunliffe’s supporters in the broader Labour Party will respond to Little’s brutal treatment of him. Some will recall the statespersonship of Helen Clark, who judiciously divided up the top jobs between her friends – and foes. The result – a “ministry of all the talents” – proved crucial to ending the serious factional strife that had long plagued Labour’s caucus. Others will recall with some bitterness the assurances given to them by the Labour hierarchy at the party’s recent conference.
 
The bitter divisions of the past had been healed, they said. Caucus and party were now working together, they said.
 
Yeah, Right.
 
It is now very clear that the only “peace” secured at Palmerston North was a Carthaginian Peace. Satisfied that their rank-and-file opponents had no more fight left in them, Cunliffe’s enemies immediately prevailed upon Little to order the New Lynn MP’s political demotion.
 
Expressed in the most brutal terms, Little’s reshuffle pushes Grant Robertson’s people (especially Jacinda Ardern) “up”; casts Cunliffe’s people “down”; and raises the very serious question as to whether Little has any “people” at all.
 
Are we looking at a Labour Leader in command of his own caucus, or a Labour Leader dancing to the tune of its dominant faction? A faction characterised by petty spitefulness, and almost completely lacking in the magnanimity so crucial to building and bringing together an effective government.
 
The last time we had a puppet Leader of the Opposition was in the years immediately prior to the 1984 general election. The difference then, of course, was that the public never doubted that David Lange was going defeat Sir Robert Muldoon and bring an end to nine years of divisive National rule.
 
That Andrew Little is about to do the same to John Key is not a bet that many New Zealanders would take. And this reshuffle in no way improves the odds.
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Monday, 30 November 2015.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Window Dressing A Dark Reality: Why I Won’t Be Signing On To “HeForShe” Anytime Soon.

Through A Glass Darkly: Emma Watson's passionate advocacy of Popular Feminism at the UN Women's launch of the "HeForShe" initiative in September 2014 broke with 40 years of feminist process by inviting men and boys to become part of the struggle to end gender inequality. Bitter experience had taught Second Wave feminists that this was a struggle best fought by women, for women, and on women's terms. In the immortal words of Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand."
 
“I AM INVITING YOU to step forward, to be seen to speak up, to be the ‘he’ for ‘she’. And to ask yourself if not me, who? If not now, when?” That was the challenge thrown down to men and boys around the world by the British actor, Emma Watson, at the launch of the HeForShe movement in New York City last year. The brainchild of UN Women, the UN organisation dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, HeForShe openly solicits the support of men in the struggle for gender equality – tacitly acknowledging the success of patriarchal resistance to the further extension of women’s rights internationally.
 
Watson spoke movingly of her own conversion to feminism and of the many “inadvertent feminists” who had made it seem natural for her to be treated as an equal. But she also made reference to the declining influence of feminism as a mobilising ideology.
 
“I was appointed six months ago and the more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.”
 
Watson’s speech thus resurrected the line of argument which some of the early advocates of what came to be known as “Second Wave Feminism” deployed in their quest for male allies.
 
“We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence … Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals.”
 
Subsuming the struggle for women’s rights in a grander battle for the freedom of both sexes did not, however, strike many 1970s feminists as a particularly effective strategy for securing their own liberation. Their personal experiences as political activists told them that any movement for gender equality in which men participated as full and equal partners would inevitably end up being dominated by men, and reflect a masculine view of the world. Women found their own voices much more readily in groups with a “Women Only” membership rule.
 
This herstory is well known to the New Zealand spokeswoman for HeForShe, Sue Kedgely. As one of the Founding Mothers of Second Wave Feminism in New Zealand, she is well aware of the movement’s organisational evolution. All the more surprising, then, that she should be the one inviting all good Kiwi blokes to don their shining armour and ride to the rescue of the world’s damsels.
 
Never backward in coming forward, Kedgely kicked off the New Zealand HeForShe effort, launched in Wellington on Friday (27/11/15) afternoon, by signing up the realm’s leading knight – and Governor-General – Sir Jerry Mateparae. Other high-profile fellas signing on to this noble, global quest to secure gender equality by 2030 include broadcasters Wallace Chapman and Jack Tane; economist and philanthropist, Gareth Morgan; and comedians Te Radar and Jeremy Ellwood.
 
If you’re a bloke and also feel moved to support this new cause of “Popular Feminism”, then simply pay a visit to the website and sign on.
 
Just be aware, though, that not every feminist shares Emma Watson’s views. Responding to her New York speech, feminist columnist, Clementine Ford, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald of 27 September 2014:
 
“It’s true that a person like Watson is very well placed to inspire people who may still be labouring under the weight of stereotypes regarding feminism, and that is undoubtedly cause for celebration. I applaud her for being brave enough to speak out when so many others haven’t. But feminists have been battling these stereotypes for decades and we will almost certainly be battling them for years to come because the unfortunate truth is that gender inequality is about power – who has it, and who wants to retain it. No amount of window dressing (for that is surely what the HeForShe campaign amounts to, given its entire breadth seems to be asking men to click a button and download a twibbon) is going to change the systemic global oppression that results in women’s degradation, subjugation and death in persistently high numbers. And it isn’t, as some have suggested, ‘tearing another woman down’ to want to discuss that reality.”
 
To which, as a “He”, I am happy to stand and say to that particular “She”:
 
“Right-on Sister!”
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Saturday, 28 November 2015.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Build Now - Save Later

Little Edens: These new houses bear testimony to the success of the Waimahia Inlet Special Housing Area in Weymouth, Auckland. At between $350,000 and $540,000 each, however, these houses are still far beyond the resources of those in the most urgent need of accommodation. Houses for the poorest New Zealanders are still in critically short supply. Tackling homelessness now will reap significant social benefits in the years to come.
 
WHY IS THE GOVERNMENT so reluctant to get its hands on the housing crisis? Reviewing its performance over the past seven years, it is clear that John Key is prepared to do just about anything to reduce homelessness – except build the houses that people so desperately need.
 
In Auckland, where the crisis is most acute, Dr Nick Smith keeps announcing the creation of Special Housing Areas (SHAs) to streamline the building consent process. Nine more of these were promulgated by the Minister for Building and Housing on Monday, bringing the tally to 106 SHAs – space for upwards of 48,000 new homes!
 
Dr Smith is inordinately proud of his creation. But, having made space for all these mini-Edens, the Minister, like the Creator God of the Book of Genesis, has simply blessed the property developers, instructed them to “be fruitful and multiply”, and withdrawn from the scene.
 
Actually building houses, in numbers sufficient to significantly reduce homelessness, is not something this government believes the state should be doing. It is the National Party’s firm belief that the actual process of house construction should be left to the market’s “invisible hand”. (Presumably, the one wielding the invisible hammer!)
 
Unfortunately for Dr Smith, the Market has so far displayed minimal interest in constructing homes for poor people. (Or even, it must be said, for tolerably well off people.) According to the Labour Party’s Housing Spokesperson, Phil Twyford, the Auckland City Council has been able to account for only 102 houses completed in Dr Smith’s SHA’s since 2013.
 
“We now officially have more Special Housing Areas than actual houses built in them”, quips Mr Twyford. “The consenting rate still languishes at 4300 below the 13,000 new homes Auckland needs every year just to keep up with population.”
 
It’s important to understand that this exchange between Dr Smith and Mr Twyford is not about homes constructed for the poorest New Zealanders. These two politicians are merely debating the building of homes per se. In some parts of Auckland, the average price of one of these per se homes is fast approaching (or long ago exceeded) $1 million dollars. Hardly the sort of small change your average, poverty-stricken Kiwi family is likely to find down the back of the sofa!
 
Labour’s housing policy (assuming it remains Labour’s policy) is called Kiwibuild. It envisions the construction (by private developers) of 100,000 “modern affordable homes” over ten years for first-home-buyers.
 
Just how the very poorest New Zealanders are supposed to pay for a “modest entry-level home” priced at around $300,000 Labour does not explain. (And that $300,000 figure, cited when the policy was first released back in 2012, has likely inflated to around $500,000 in the current Auckland property market.)
 
Kiwibuild would, however, assist a great many young, middle-class couples into their first home – which is, unquestionably, a good thing. But, it would do little to address the acute shortage of low- and no-cost emergency accommodation which is presently forcing Maori, Pasifika and immigrant families into doubling- or tripling-up with relatives and friends. That’s when they’re not driven to sleep in caravan parks, under bridges, or in their cars.
 
The Finance Minister, Bill English, has, for some time, been arguing for a whole new approach to managing the burgeoning cost of New Zealand’s welfare state. By intervening early, says English, the State can save millions – quite possibly billions – of taxpayer dollars. Children raised in poverty, whose lack of a stable home environment often requires a host of extremely costly state interventions in later life, could, if targeted early for state assistance, end up becoming net contributors to society.
 
The rapid construction by Housing New Zealand of thousands of units of emergency accommodation would not only contribute to the well-being of thousands of New Zealand’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, but would also largely pay for itself. Well-designed, warm, and energy-efficient, such units could be provided free-of-charge – at least initially – while their occupants lives were restored to some sort of order. Once family life had stabilised, regular rental payments could begin.
 
English’s actuarial approach to welfare would require considerable political courage to implement. The trick, electorally speaking, would be to demonstrate the huge potential savings in Vote Health, Vote Education and Vote Corrections. National’s slogan could be: “A tax-cut to every voter who provides a future for every child.”
 
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, 27 November 2015.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Leaving Jiangxi: Tat Loo Marches Out Of The Labour Party.

Despairing Of Reform: Dunedin-based Labour Party dissident, Tat Loo (aka "Colonial Viper") told fellow members of the Anderson's Bay-Peninsula Branch that the Labour Party "is now lost at sea but does not appear to recognise that fact." Their response was a vote to put the branch into recess. Loo advised his comrades that he wanted  "no part of propping up the Thorndon Bubble careerist ‘pretend and extend’ set" and was "moving on to new political projects".
 
TAT LOO, like the ceremonial Chinese lion, is a potent mixture of playfulness and ferocity. Intelligent, articulate, passionate, politically impatient and singularly unwilling to suffer fools gladly, he set his sights on the Dunedin Labour Party about three years ago – and has only just run out of ammunition.
 
At a Special Formal Meeting of the Anderson’s Bay-Peninsula Branch of the Labour Party held in South Dunedin on Sunday afternoon (22/11/15) Loo and about twenty others announced that they were putting their controversially resurrected branch back into the constitutional limbo from which they had called it forth. Loo, himself, relinquished his executive role – but not before using-up all his remaining shot and shells in a scathing farewell to a Labour Party he had, finally, despaired of reforming.
 
“Several of the current officers and LEC delegates of the ABP Branch have become deeply dissatisfied with the performance and direction of the Labour Party both locally and in Wellington and no longer wish to remain in their roles or continue supporting the party.” Loo explained in a posting on the Labour-aligned political blog, The Standard.
 
“Labour’s inability to be consistent in opposing the neoliberal corporation-drafted Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the softening of the stance against the 90-day right to fire, the ethnically divisive and ineffective tactics against Chinese property buyers in Auckland, the voting for National’s inequitable and discriminatory social welfare reform legislation, and the support of National’s spying and anti-terrorism bill,” said Loo, “all point to a Labour Party which is now lost at sea but does not appear to recognise that fact.”
 
Loo’s conclusion was grim. “The palpable sense conveyed has been that apart from minor tinkering, there are no likely or viable prospects for positive, real progressive change coming from the Labour Party in the foreseeable future.”
 
The veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, writing on the POLITIK blog, suggested Loo’s departure was not something over which the Labour hierarchy was likely to lose much sleep: “In fact [President Nigel] Haworth and leader, Andrew Little, might well regard the move as a minor victory in their quest to make the party more relevant to mainstream New Zealand.”
 
According to Harman: “Anderson’s Bay was exactly the kind of left wing Labour branch which enabled Jeremy Corbyn to become leader of the British Labour party, a move which now threatens that party with divisiveness and possible electoral ostracism.”
 
This is nonsense. Corbyn was nominated by a clear plurality of “constituency organisations” – the equivalent of New Zealand Labour’s “LECs” (Labour Electorate Committees). The disaffection in British Labour extended throughout the entire party and its affiliated unions. Had support for Corbyn been restricted to a handful of left-wing branches the 66-year-old backbencher could never have been elected.
 
New Zealand’s “Corbyn Moment” came three years ago at the 2012 annual conference held at Ellerslie in Auckland, when the party rank-and-file rebelled against the parliamentary caucus. It was around this time that Loo’s public profile began to grow, especially after his Standard pseudonym, “Colonial Viper”, was “outed” by Dunedin-based opponents of the Labour Left’s champion, David Cunliffe – of whom Loo was a strong and vocal supporter.
 
Indeed, it is almost certainly the “Peace of Palmerston North” – shorthand for the restoration of more-or-less cordial relations between the party rank-and-file and the parliamentary caucus that was plainly in evidence at the party’s 2015 annual conference held in Palmerston North earlier this month – that accounts for the timing of Loo’s decision to recess the Anderson’s Bay-Peninsula Branch.
 
After the long list of political “sins” detailed in his statement, Loo was clearly devastated by the party’s quiescent response to what he saw as the Caucus’s continuing perfidy. The “revolutionary moment” had clearly passed, and with it any good that the rebel Anderson’s Bay-Peninsula Branch might have hoped to achieve. The curious failure of David Cunliffe to fire in the 2014 election, and the catastrophic defeat it presaged, has reduced the Labour Left to a demoralised and thoroughly chastened rump.
 
Time to go. Loo’s parting shot was delivered with considerable accuracy at the Grant Robertson-led faction of the party, which, he believes, is slowly-but-surely gaining the upper-hand in the Little-led caucus. “We want no part of propping up the Thorndon Bubble careerist ‘pretend and extend’ set any further and will be moving on to new political projects.”
 
Like Mao Zedong, Tat Loo is gathering what remains of his revolutionary army and setting forth on his own “Long March” to Ya’nan.
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Wednesday, 25 November 2015.

Dictatorship Or Chaos? The Only Choice Left In The Middle East.

A Room Full Of Spiders: Shia militiamen training in Iraq. Living with dictators is never easy, but if events in the Middle East since 2003 have taught us anything, it’s that living without them is impossible. The curtailment of civil liberties that characterises dictatorial regimes has often been considered an acceptable trade-off for the peace and stability they bring with them. People living in these circumstances know that the alternative to dictatorship isn’t democracy – it’s chaos.
 
“SADDAM WAS A FAT BLACK SPIDER high up in the corner of the room. You knew where he was, and kept as far away from him as possible.” As a description of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, the metaphor was memorable enough, but what the young Iraqi woman said next was unforgettable. “Now that Saddam has gone the room is full of spiders. You can’t watch them all, and you can’t keep out of their way.”
 
Living with dictators is never easy, but if events in the Middle East since 2003 have taught us anything, it’s that living without them is impossible. There’s a simple reason for this. The conditions that give rise to dictatorship are generally so appalling that the curtailment of civil liberties that inevitably follows their establishment is considered an acceptable trade-off for the peace and stability they bring with them. People living in these circumstances know that the alternative to dictatorship isn’t democracy – it’s chaos.
 
Let us give the West the benefit of the doubt and say that its leaders failed to grasp this obvious truth. Let us assume that when Tony Blair declared Saddam a monster, and insisted the world would be a better place without him, he was being sincere. Let us accord the same honour to President George W. Bush, and assume that he, too, was speaking sincerely when he told the US Congress, in his 2007 State of the Union address: “The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity.” Where does it leave us?
 
It leaves us contemplating a number of brutal truths. The first, and the most brutal, being that, even allowing for Blair and Bush harbouring only the best of intentions, the answer to “the great question of our day” is that America and her allies cannot build free societies in the Middle East. And that the men and women living there will not be sharing the political rights of Westerners any time soon.
 
That being the case, the West’s choice is no longer between dictatorship and democracy; it is between dictatorship and chaos. And, given that chaos is the only thing the West’s intervention in the Middle East has created, there is really only one positive choice to be made, and that is to back those military/political leaders with the best chance of maintaining, and/or restoring, peace and stability.
 
In terms of the present security crises precipitated by the Islamic State, and the deadly chaos of Syria’s civil war (out of which the Islamic State emerged) this can only mean recognising what the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has understood from the very beginning; that the best hope of peace and stability in Syria, and eradicating Islamic State, resides with the Baathist government of President Bashar al-Assad.
 
It is what Emile Simpson, former British Army officer and author of War From the Ground-Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics, is calling the “cold realism” of the  West’s diplomatic and military future. Writing for the conservative American magazine, Foreign Policy, Simpson predicts:
 
“The post-Paris war on terror will affirm the West’s commitment to fighting radical Islamic terrorism, but, in the process, it will reject the idiom of revolutionary, moralizing democratic change inherited from President Bush. Syria was the end of the line for that approach. This new phase will assume that terrorists are nonstate actors, and will take the view that if you have an international system built around strong sovereign states — no matter how brutal or unconcerned with human rights — life becomes much harder for nonstate armed groups, including terrorists. This is simply a reflection of the new realities we face, not a celebration of that shift.”
 
Democrats will stand aghast at this unapologetic re-emergence of Nineteenth Century realpolitik. They would, however, be wise to curb their outrage. The Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Assad family were, indisputably, ruthlessly oppressive in the context of political rights. When viewed from the perspective of the economic and social rights these secular Baathist regimes delivered, however, the picture changes. Modern systems of public education and health opened up the prospect of a more prosperous life for both men and women. Large-scale state interventions generated both jobs and, by Middle Eastern standards, prosperity. Most important, in both Iraq and Syria, the Baathists kept Islamic fanaticism under tight control.
 
All of which raises the worrying question: Was it really dictatorship that the West was determined to eradicate from the Middle East – including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States? Or was it Baathism? Were the men behind Blair and Bush actually betting that their long-term interests would be better served by “a room full of spiders?”
 
If so, then they lost the bet.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 November 2015.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Labour And The Art Of Deckchair Rearrangement: Andrew Little Re-Shuffles His Shadow Cabinet.

Doomed Exercise: The proverbial rearrangement of the Titanic's deckchairs has come to symbolise the sort of activity that serves no useful purpose. Andrew Little's Shadow Cabinet reshuffle comes perilously close to fitting this description. If Jacinda Ardern and Kelvin Davis are the best politicians he has to offer New Zealand, then it is definitely bold new ideas, rather than people, that he needs to start bringing forward.
 
SOMETIME THIS WEEK (the date keeps changing) Andrew Little will announce his Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. The refreshed line-up of senior Opposition spokespeople will be the electorate’s best guide as to who will be doing what in the next Labour-led government. Barring unforeseen circumstances, and unforgiveable cock-ups, Little’s promotions, reappointments and demotions will be the last such exercise before the 2017 General Election.
 
Very few New Zealanders will pay much attention to Little’s final choices. Labour’s ranks, thinned by successive and increasingly severe defeats, contains nobody upon whose shoulders the burden of the electorate’s hopes has yet descended.
 
This is not 1977, when the occasion of the Mangere by-election threw up the gargantuan figure of David Lange. This lawyer-turned-politician was not only larger-than-life but also (and this was the crucial point) larger than the incumbent Labour Leader, Bill Rowling.
 
For the next five years, the big question, both in and out of the Labour Party, wasn’t if Lange would replace Rowling as leader, but when. Observing the deep impression the new Mangere MP’s ebullient personality, vicious wit, and soaring rhetoric was making on the public imagination, those Labour MPs determined to steer their party in a new direction lost no time in recruiting him to their caucus faction.
 
The "B-Team" - aka "The Fish and Chip Brigade". David Lange, Michael Bassett, Roger Douglas, Mike Moore.
 
The Party President of the time, Jim Anderton, referred to this faction, derisively, as the “B-Team”. The truth of the matter, however, was that Roger Douglas, Mike Moore, Michael Bassett, Richard Prebble and, of course, Lange himself, constituted the most creative and dynamic group of politicians to be found within Labour’s parliamentary ranks. Regardless of whether one supported or opposed the ideas they were espousing, there was no disputing that theirs was the team to beat. Everybody understood that when Rowling fell (as he did, eventually, in 1982) things were going to change.
 
That is the way it is supposed to work in parliamentary democracies: Change is supposed to find her champion, and then, through the ballot box, acquire the power to make things happen. For good or ill, Lange guided the country out of the cul-de-sac into which Sir Robert Muldoon had led it, and the policies of Sir Roger Douglas (and his Treasury advisers) went on to change New Zealand fundamentally.
 
Nothing and no one of such prodigious capability lurks in Little’s caucus. Not only has Change failed to encounter a champion among its ranks, but she also struggles to find anyone interested in making much happen at all. Such reforms as Labour promised at the elections of 2011 and 2014 have been ostentatiously wiped from the agenda. And such rhetorical skill as Little is able to summon to Labour’s cause is of the sort that serves only to polish the achievements of the past. Lange’s extraordinary oratorical power; his ability to paint a future in which New Zealanders were eager to take up residence, is nowhere in evidence.
 
Certainly, there is nothing about his finance spokesperson which calls to mind the incandescent passion of Roger Douglas. Grant Robertson is not the sort of person who quotes Neitzsche, writes alternative budgets, or publishes a book entitled There’s Got To Be A Better Way. Although entrusted with heading-up a special party commission dedicated to The Future of Work, there is scant indication that Robertson’s investigation is likely to produce anything that The Listener wouldn’t be proud to publish.
 
The Wellington Central MP could, of course, be hiding his light under a bushel, and the final report of The Future of Work Commission could end up calling for a dramatic reduction in the length of the working week; a radical reformation of the law regulating workplace relations; state-subsidised retraining; and the introduction of a Universal Basic Income. But a Labour caucus willing to embrace economic and social policies of such radicalism is unlikely to look and feel as somnambulant as the one Little leads.
 
The latest public opinion polls in the UK are registering a sharp upward spike in support for the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party among the 18-25 and 26-35 year-old cohorts of voters. Though well behind David Cameron’s Conservatives in overall terms, this surge of support from the young is of enormous importance to British Labour’s future as a viable political party.
 
As Little prepares to lead his re-shuffled shadows into Labour’s centenary year, he needs to consider whether his party’s future is likely to be rescued by people, or policies. If Jacinda Ardern and Kelvin Davis are the best politicians he has to offer New Zealand, then it is definitely bold new ideas that he needs to start bringing forward.
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Monday, 23 November 2015.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

What I Believe - A Social-Democrat's Credo

 

Challenged by the uncompromising content of my latest posting, “Capitalism Kills”, some readers of Bowalley Road have challenged me to state my own beliefs. Accordingly, I have hunted out part of a presentation I delivered to the Labour Party Summer School held near Thames in January 2007. For all those who have been asking me to spell out what I stand for – this is my answer.


I BELIEVE that human societies arise out of need. The need for food and shelter, the need for intimacy, the need for nurturing, and the need for protection – both from natural dangers and the aggression of our own species. To secure these needs human beings must work, individually or collectively, but always with the ultimate purpose of keeping strong those innumerable threads that bind our communities into a functioning wholeness.
 
The source of fulfilment of these human needs is the natural bounty of the planet on which our species dwells. Human beings are but one of the countless life-forms which inhabit the Earth’s surface and we share with them a fundamental dependency on the planet’s life-giving properties.
 
Alone among all the creatures of the Earth, humankind possesses the power to radically alter the fragile environment of its home. Such power bears with it an awesome responsibility. Our own future, and the future of all other living things, depends upon our willingness to accept that what is possible is not always desirable. To ensure its survival, the human species must recognise the limits of its power.
 
In New Zealand, two peoples co-exist in differing states of awareness of the essential collectivism and dependency of human communities. The indigenous people possess a clear and poignant vision of humanity’s place in these islands. But the colonising peoples would not rest until the ideas and institutions of their respective cultures had taken root in New Zealand. To the extent they succeeded, the conflicts and contradictions of their homelands were also transplanted here. Resolving these conflicts and contradictions, and discovering the best means of prospering together, is the historic task of the two peoples fated to share these islands – Maori and Pakeha.
 
As a social-democrat I am dedicated to furthering in all aspects of my country’s social, political and economic organisation the essential equality of human beings. Social-democracy defines equality in terms of the universality of human need. Old or young, male or female, Maori or Pakeha, we are all defined by the human and ecological relationships indispensable to our existence. None of us live but by the bounty of nature and the collective exertion of our fellow human beings.
 
That being so, we must reject all claims hostile to the reality of our interdependence. Individuals and groups who through inherited advantage or simple good fortune are endowed with disproportionate wealth and resources, enjoy their property on the sufferance of that vast majority whose daily labours make possible a functioning society. Only for as long as, in the judgement of the many, the accumulation of property by a fortunate few serves the interests of the community as a whole, will the private control of wealth be permitted to endure. Any attempt by a minority to transform this dispensation into a system of permanent and unchallengeable privilege cannot be deemed just.
 
As a social-democrat I look to the state, as the institutional expression of our interdependence, to secure for all citizens a healthy and abundant life. The provision of gainful employment, education, health, housing, and the guarantee of protection against the arbitrary curtailment of the citizens’ capacity, individually, to determine freely, within the constraints imposed by their interdependence, how best to pursue their own happiness, are rights due to all New Zealanders. Political institutions and the laws they create exist to secure these rights, drawing their authority from the freely given consent of all responsible citizens. Those charged with governing our country, hold in trust the resources – both natural and social – that are the common property of all our people.
 
Being a social-democrat, I cannot countenance the arbitrary dispersal of the New Zealand people’s resources, nor the slow fragmentation and dilution of their rights. Neither will I surrender the sovereignty of my nation to the interests of foreigners. Though the fundamental kinship of all human beings is indisputable, New Zealand’s destiny, finally, must be the enterprise of New Zealanders alone.
 
This essay was posted by The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Sunday, 22 November 2015.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Punishing The Barbarians

Imperialism To The Rescue? United States infantry storm the walls of Beijing as part of the Eight Nation Alliance's successful attempt to put down the "rebellion" of Boxer terrorists and restore "civilised values" to the benighted people of China. But, the actions of the imperialist powers in 1900 are regarded very differently with the hindsight of 115 years. How shall the West's imminent actions in the Middle East be judged in 2130?
 
IT WAS CALLED “The Eight Nation Alliance” and it had but one purpose: to punish the Chinese people. In 1899, the Shandong peasantry had resolved to drive all “foreign devils” out of their country, rising in their thousands under the leadership of a secret society known as the Brotherhood of Righteous and Harmonious Fists. The British, with characteristic disdain, referred to these patriots as “Boxers”, and dubbed their uprising the “Boxer Rebellion”.
 
By 1900 the Boxers were close to achieving their goal. They had shamed the Empress Dowager, Cixi, into supporting their movement and with the assistance of the Chinese army had the “foreign devils” bottled up in Beijing’s diplomatic quarter.
 
It was the unthinkable prospect of these legations being over-run, and their terrified inhabitants slaughtered, that persuaded the world’s leading imperialists: Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, the USA, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Japan; to announce the formation of a joint force to lift the siege and restore the status quo ante.
 
The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, felt obliged to mark the departure of his own nation’s contingent with a speech. If you ever wondered why, in both world wars, the German’s were referred to as “The Hun” – wonder no more:
 
“Should you encounter the enemy,” said the Kaiser, “he will be defeated! No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited. Just as a thousand years ago the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend, may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German.”
 
Confronting the Yellow Peril: The Christian West is enjoined by the archangel Michael to strike down the Asiatic threat from the East.
 
Needless to say, the Eight Nation Alliance – whose forces numbered in excess of 45,000 soldiers and marines – made short work of the poorly armed and inadequately led Chinese forces. Beijing was sacked and the Forbidden City ransacked of its treasures.
 
Never again would the imperial powers of Europe and Japan go to war alongside – as opposed to against – one another. Just 15 years after the subjugation of China, the members of the Eight Nation Alliance were tearing themselves to pieces in the First World War.
 
Of course, had you been reading the newspapers of the period, the foreign intervention in China would have seemed entirely reasonable. In an era when the Christian churches of the West were filled-to-bursting every Sunday, the stories of Christian missionary families being beheaded, burned alive, raped and even crucified by the brutal Boxer mobs, left Europeans feeling stunned and sickened.
 
These were not civilised people to be reasoned with. Indeed, the suicidal tactics of the Boxer “rebels” – many of them armed only with swords and spears – charging headlong into the murderous fire of the allies’ Maxim guns (an early type of machine-gun) struck the “reasonable men” of 1900 as the very antithesis of civilisation. In their ears, the bombastic racism of Kaiser Wilhelm did not sound nearly so shocking as it does in our own.
 
Perhaps the leaders of the world’s great powers should pause to contemplate the difference 115 years can make to way people interpret the behaviour of their forebears. In the minds of Presidents Hollande and Putin, the case for bringing together another Eight Nation Alliance to crush the barbaric Islamic State no doubt seems as strong as the arguments for punishing the murderous Boxers and their treacherous Empress Dowager, Cixi.
 
That the egregious behaviour of the imperial powers made such an uprising inevitable would have been dismissed by the political leaders of 1900 as an outrageous slur. The British Government’s open support for the 19th Century opium trade, and its callous indifference to the enormous suffering it inflicted on the Chinese people, went largely unremarked. With the benefit of 115 years hindsight, however, Britain’s culpability is as obvious as it is detestable.
 
How shall our own generation of political and military leaders appear from the perspective of 115 years in the future? Given the West’s numerous interventions in Middle Eastern affairs since World War II, will the atrocities committed by Islamic State strike our great grandchildren as any more worthy of historical condemnation than the atrocities of the Boxers?
 
As China is today, so may the Islamic world be in 2130. What will its judgement be?
 
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, 20 November 2015.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Capitalism Kills: Why, For The Right, The Left Is Always Wrong.

 

THE IDEA that the Left can do nothing right is central to the Right’s world view. In terms of both competency and morality, leftists are held to be irremediably deficient. All evidence contradicting this proposition is either ignored or denied. But any claim, no matter how absurd, which confirms the Right’s view of the Left’s deficiencies, immediately becomes holy writ. It’s as if even the slightest suggestion that the Right might be wrong has the power, if accepted, to unravel its entire understanding of the world.
 
This hyper-sensitivity to left-wing judgement is entirely understandable. What differentiates the Left from the Right is the former’s fundamental objection to the strongest human-beings’ urge to dominate, coerce and exploit the weakest. Absent this urge, however, none of the economic and social systems elaborated by armed minorities throughout history could have endured. Not the empires of the ancient world; not the feudal structures of the middle ages; and certainly not the capitalist system of the modern era. All of these civilisations were built on the ruthless exploitation of the weak by the strong – exploitation enforced by extreme and unreproved violence.
 
As it was, so it is still. Strip away all the piety, mythology and outright lies about our present, capitalist, civilisation and you will find, at its core, the domination, coercion and exploitation that its political guardians, the Right, recognise as its true essence, and will defend – to the death.
 
One of the Right’s most important misunderstandings of the Left is that it can, somehow, embrace domination, coercion and exploitation – and remain the Left. Notwithstanding its logical absurdity, it is the condemnation one hears most often from the Right: that the Left, in the shape of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or the Communist Party of China, is responsible for upwards of 100 million deaths.
 
They forget, of course, that the vast majority of those killed were individuals who refused to accept the right of either of these parties to impose their will on the people in whose name they had accomplished the overthrow of the old oppressors. Whether it be the rebellious Russian sailors at Kronstadt in 1921, or workers and peasants across the whole of China from 1949 to the present day, whoever, in the name of justice and equity, takes a stand against an oppressive system of domination, coercion and exploitation is, by definition, a leftist.
 
Though the Right’s inability to properly understand this simple truth is astonishing, it is hardly surprising. If they were not able to convince themselves that the Left is an irredeemably evil political phenomenon, driven by greed and envy to confiscate the hard-earned wealth of all who are superior to their neighbours in intelligence, enterprise and skill, then the Right would have to face the true character of the system it has created, operates and defends.
 
That would mean casting its eyes back over history and calculating the human and environmental damage it has done. Even if this exercise is limited to the capitalist era, the results are damning. The slave trade that built the fortunes of so many of Britain’s leading capitalist families. The depredations of the East India Company, whose rapacious pursuit of profit ravaged the entire Indian sub-continent. The opium trade to China, which, under the protection of the British navy, addicted millions. The list could be extended indefinitely for each of the great capitalist powers, and the death toll laboriously calculated, but it would still fall short. Because it would not include the untold millions of lives blighted and shortened by years of economic exploitation and neglect. Capitalism kills. It has done so from its earliest beginnings, and it does so still. The only distinction between the history of capitalism and the history of the Mexican drug cartels, is that the cartels have never pretended to be advancing the progress of humankind. (See here and here for Dr Wayne Hope's analysis of drug-dealing and capitalism.)
 
Oh, how the Right will bridle at that last sentence! How loudly they’ll protest that capitalism has lifted millions – no, billions! – out of poverty. That it was capitalism which boosted incomes, upgraded housing, delivered improved health and education, and generally uplifted and prolonged the lives of the masses.
 
Poor creatures. They have to believe this. Because not to believe it: not to be absolutely certain that the system that sent gun-thugs to break-up strikes; adulterated food; presided over slums; polluted whole regions; and sent entire nations off to war; was (and is) the sole source of all that is wholesome and good in the world raises the awful possibility that something, or someone, else is responsible for making life under capitalism just that little bit happier and more fulfilling for humankind.
 
And who could that possibly be? Surely not the trade unionists, who forced up workers’ wages? Or the social reformers, scientists and doctors, who discovered how to ward off illness and disease? Or the progressive architects and city planners, who designed cheap and sturdy housing for the poor? Or the progressive, social-democratic and labour parties, who gathered together all the agents of economic and social progress, won state power, and fastened a strong regulatory collar around the capitalist beast?
 
Surely, it wasn’t – no, no, it couldn’t possibly have been – the Left?
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Wednesday, 18 November 2015.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Responding To Paris: The Left Must Never Abandon Love For Hate; Justice For Revenge.

Hold Fast To Your Beliefs: We are leftists because, at the very core of our values, lies an unshakeable belief in the worth of every human-being, and in the right of every human-being to live his or her life free from exploitation and violence. That the world is so full of these evils must never daunt us, nor persuade us to abandon love for hate; justice for revenge.
 
TERRORIST ATTACKS – like the one that left 129 Parisians dead on 13 November 2015 – leave many leftists in a quandary. Most of us are only too aware that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom-fighter. We hesitate to join in the outpourings of outrage and sympathy because we are appalled by, and want no part of, the extraordinary hypocrisy in which these events are shrouded.
 
Scores of men, women and children are killed and maimed by terrorist attacks almost every day in the countries of the Middle East and Africa, and yet they merit only a few words in our news bulletins and newspapers. Certainly, nobody thinks them worthy of front-page treatment. Nor do we see significant public buildings lit up in the colours of their nation’s flag.
 
This is because there is an unacknowledged hierarchy of significance at work in the newsrooms of the West. People of colour; followers of non-Christian faiths; citizens of nations with which our governments are not on friendly terms: the violent deaths of such people are almost never accorded the same degree of significance as the deaths of Westerners.
 
If I belonged to one of these “less significant” groups, I would find it extremely difficult not to brand the actions of Western editors racist.
 
Because even the term “terrorist attack” carries blatantly racist overtones. In Western ears, it conjures up images of bloodthirsty organisations with outlandish names like Boko Haram, Janjaweed, Hezbollah and ISIS. It is much less common to hear the term linked to the actions of the armed forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the other Western powers. Terrorists wear turbans and carry Kalashnikovs – not smart uniforms and M-16s.
 
And yet, since the end of the Second World War, the armed forces of the United States, advised and assisted by its intelligence and security agencies, has been responsible for the deaths of millions. The unrelenting air assault on North Korea (over 700,000 sorties between 1950-53) is credited (conservatively) with at least a million civilian deaths. Twice that number of civilians are estimated to have been killed by the American armed forces in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1965-75. US inflicted civilian deaths in Iraq 2003-2014 are put at well over 600,000.
 
In 1996, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Madelaine Albright, was questioned by Lesley Stahl, of CBS’s 60 Minutes, about the human consequences of the sanctions imposed by the US on the regime of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.
 
“We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
 
To which Albright responded,
 
“I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”
 
Those who wonder how a group of young men can fire their automatic weapons into a crowded theatre should, perhaps, contemplate the effect of Ambassador Albright’s words on the parents and siblings of those 500,000 children.
 
The temptation which confronts so many on the Left is to advance these bleak statistics as some form of justification for the actions of non-state terrorists around the world. It is a temptation we must resist. That we learn the fundamental moral precept “two wrongs don’t make a right” at our parents’ knees, does not make it any the less true.
 
The appropriate moral response to the deliberate killing of innocent human-beings can never be the deliberate killing of innocent human-beings. If we are outraged by the callous indifference of Madelaine Albright, we must also be outraged by the pitiless brutality of the Islamic State’s jihadis in the Bataclan Theatre.
 
Nor is it appropriate to downplay the horror and heartache of Parisians who have lost loved ones simply because our news media has failed to highlight the horror and heartache of those who have suffered similar loss in other parts of the world.
 
We are leftists because, at the very core of our values, lies an unshakeable belief in the worth of every human-being, and in the right of every human-being to live his or her life free from exploitation and violence. That the world is so full of these evils must never daunt us, nor persuade us to abandon love for hate; justice for revenge.
 
Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 17 November 2015.

Such Reckless Hate

Dark Lord? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-styled Caliph of the Islamic State, preaches an apocalyptic version of Islam in which the allies and the enemies of God engage in a final, climactic battle, which, his followers believe, will signal the beginning of the end of this world. Through its terrifying use of wanton violence, the Islamic State hopes to draw the armies of the West into its very own version of Armageddon, at Dabiq, on the border of Syria and Turkey.
 
“THE WORLD CHANGES, and all that once was secure now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate?” The sonorous language of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings seems sadly suited to this time of tragedy. When Paris, the City of Light, grows dark with suspicion. And the French people, prime movers and inheritors of the Enlightenment, stand mute with shock before the “reckless hate” of Islamic State.
 
What is it that these killers want? Merely to sow fear and uncertainty among ordinary Frenchmen? To demonstrate their disdain for the fighter-bombers of the French Air Force? To spit in the face of President Fran├žois Hollande and all the other Nato leaders? Are these haters really as reckless as they seem? Are they truly heedless of the reckoning that must surely follow their bloody assault on the commonplace and innocent pleasures of civilised existence: eating at a restaurant; watching a football match; listening to music?
 
Of course not! There’s a ruthless method to Islamic State’s madness. A chilling logic that informs all their deadly deeds. Violence, cruel and obscene, is the Islamic State’s “Ring of Power”. (If I may be forgiven for drawing, yet again, upon the works of Tolkien.)
 
It is the savage allure of violence – religious and political – that locates the Caliphate’s recruits. Terrible images of beheadings, crucifixions, stonings and mass executions, delivered to impressionable young minds via the Internet. Violence as pitiless and unflinching as that allegedly visited upon Muslims by the accursed “Crusaders”. Violence which exerts a malignant magnetism upon the rootless and alienated children of Muslim immigrant communities scattered across the West.
 
Such is the dark magic that enthrals the terror-masters’ recruits and brings them, across thousands of kilometres, to the blood-soaked lands of the Islamic State. It is there that they learn the “rules” of jihad – holy war – and are bound forever to the dark purposes of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed Caliphate.
 
And what purpose might that be? In his article “What does ISIS really want?”, published in the March 2015 issue of Atlantic magazine, journalist Graeme Wood observes that there is a temptation, in the West, to conceptualise jihadists as “modern secular people, with modern secular concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise – and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilisation to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”
 
The apocalypse! Yes. Islam, like Christianity, contains within its ranks a growing number of devout, even fanatical, believers in the “End Times”. According to the Islamic State recruiters interviewed by Wood, these end times will begin when the West launches what proves to be a disastrous intervention in Iraq and Syria. In Woods own words: “The Islamic State awaits the army of ‘Rome,’ whose defeat at Dabiq, Syria, will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.”
 
If Wood is correct (and there have been many challenges to his characterisation of the Islamic State) luring the “Crusaders” to this little town on the border of Syria and Turkey is critical to the unfolding of Allah’s plan for his people. Dabiq may be 300 miles north of Israel’s “Mountain of Megiddo” (Har Meghiddohn in Hebrew) but its theological location is identical. It is held to be the place of the last, decisive, battle between the allies and the enemies of God – Armageddon.
 
But, surely, no rational person could believe that such a battle is anything other than metaphorical? No rational person, certainly. But, in the Islamic State we are not dealing with rational people.
 
Which is not to say that we are dealing with fools.
 
If one’s ultimate objective is to provoke the armies of “Rome” – i.e. the Western powers – into sending an expeditionary force to Syria and Iraq, then what better way than by launching a carefully planned and ruthlessly executed attack which left 132 Parisians dead and more than 350 wounded? President Hollande, anxious to play the role of France’s avenging angel, has already declared “a state of war” to exist between his country and Islamic State. He’s telling the French people that his response to its murderous attack will be “merciless”.
 
The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, whose reputation for ruthlessness and aggression is well-established, is already calling for a combined, Russian-Nato military assault upon the Islamic State. He is determined to avenge not only France’s 132 dead, but also the 224, mostly Russian, individuals who lost their lives when an Islamic State affiliate blasted their airliner to pieces over the Sinai Peninsula.
 
The effectiveness of Islamic State’s strategy of violence is eerily apparent in the current turn of events. As if the “reckless hate” of a real-life Sauron has, indeed, given him the power to rule us all.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 November 2015.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Victimisers On Parade: National Demonstrates Why It’s Unfit To Govern A Decent Country.

Look Who's Talking! Michelle Boag, accuses the Opposition women MPs who staged a walk-out from Parliament, in protest at the Prime Minister accusing them of "backing rapists", of "parading their victimhood". Coming from a former president of New Zealand's victimisers-in-chief - the National Party - this is pretty hard to swallow!
 
“PARADING THEIR VICTIMHOOD” is how PR maven and former National Party President Michelle Boag characterised Wednesday’s walk-out by Opposition women MPs. Justifying her lack of sororal solidarity, Boag, explained that: “Every other woman in New Zealand who’s been the subject of a sexual assault doesn’t get the opportunity to do that. They weren’t saying, ‘Look, if you've had these issues, here are all the people you can go to for help’, they were standing up and saying, ‘Poor me’.”
 
This is, of course, no justification at all, merely an attempt to divert attention from the behaviour of the Prime Minister and the parliamentary protest it inspired. The Green Party and Labour Party women who rose to take offence at John Key’s accusation that they were “backing rapists” – some of whom had their microphones turned off by the Speaker and were ordered from the debating chamber – are members of the House of Representatives. And that is precisely what they were doing. They were representing all those women outraged by the Prime Minister’s willingness to tap into the dreadfulness of rape for no better purpose than to score points off and distract his political opponents.
 
As Boag, herself, reminds us, not every victim of sexual assault gets the opportunity to do that. Or, as Green Party List MP, Jan Logie, put it: “We used what we could as representatives of others in the country to point out that to him, as a leader, he needs to take responsibility for his actions and their consequences on others.”
 
Rather than pouring scorn on the women from the Opposition, Boag should have been upbraiding her sisters in the National Party for not having the courage to join the Opposition women’s protest. Then again, perhaps the National women were happy to go along with their party leader’s cynical exploitation of such emotionally-charged words as “rapist”, “murderer” and “child-molester” to distract the nation from their government’s failure to adequately defend the rights of New Zealanders detained in Australia’s concentration camps.
 
Perhaps, if New Zealand was blessed with a Women’s Minister who was happy to describe herself as a feminist, a mass walk-out of all women MPs might have been the result. Perhaps, if the last two Ministers for Social Development, both of them women, had been willing to educate their male colleagues about the endless, wearing, anxiety of being a woman without resources or influence, with two or three children to house, feed, educate and keep healthy on a Sole Parent Support benefit of $295.37 per week, there would have been no need.
 
Because then, their empathy aroused, those National Party men would not have been willing to countenance any reduction in the monies allocated to Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Refuges. Nor would these compassionate conservatives have tolerated for a moment a Police Commissioner who was unwilling to impress upon his senior officers the unequivocal legal and moral obligation to prosecute any young man who intoxicates, violates, and humiliates on-line, any young woman.
 
Knowing how committed his male colleagues were to addressing New Zealand’s appalling record of domestic and sexual violence, the Prime Minister would then have understood that accusing the men and women of the Opposition of supporting rapists, murderers and child-molesters was tantamount to announcing his intention of instantly surrendering the office of Prime Minister to someone more protective of its worth and dignity.
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Friday, 13 November 2015.

Of Dreams And Nightmares.

Bread-and-Butter-Land: Andrew Little's keynote speech to Labour's 2015 annual conference took "Rebuilding the New Zealand Dream as its theme If this conjures-up an image of a 1960s family; Dad, Mum and the kids; standing in front of Dad’s shiny new Ford station-wagon; with Mum’s spotless suburban bungalow in the background; then Little’s speech-writers have done their job. And yet, for so many, the Dream he seeks to restore was never anything other than a nightmare.
 
SOME VERY STRAIGHT TALKING went on behind closed doors at Labour’s annual conference in Palmerston North. Persons described only as “senior party people” visited the party’s “sector groups” (Women, Youth, Maori, Pasifika, Rainbow) with a very clear message. All reform proposals smacking of what some experts call “identity politics” and others refer to as “social liberalism” are on the down-low. Not forbidden, exactly, but to be kept well away from the media spotlight. In the simplest terms: the days of “man bans” are over.
 
The Party Leader’s stirring keynote speech highlighted in dramatic terms where Labour’s focus has shifted. When Andrew Little was a young industrial lawyer, working for the Engineers Union, his conservative “brothers” would have described Labour’s new stance as “concentrating on the bread-and-butter issues that ordinary people care about”. Other organisers, in more radical unions, would have lamented Labour’s “economism”: a Marxist-Leninist term denoting an exclusive focus on working people’s material (as opposed to their political) advancement.
 
Little, himself, is calling it “rebuilding the New Zealand dream”. In the simplest terms: “Owning a home; having security for the people we love; a chance to enjoy the outdoors and the environment we love and a job that gives us the time and the money to lead a fulfilling life. These are the aspirations that we all share.”
 
Now, if that rather clunky definition conjures-up an image of a 1960s family; Dad, Mum and the kids; standing in front of Dad’s shiny new Ford station-wagon; with Mum’s spotless suburban bungalow in the background; then Little’s speech-writers have done their job. Because if you ask the Baby-Boom generation to describe how the New Zealand Dream looked, back in the days when it seemed within the reach of every Kiwi family, chances are they’ll say it looked like that. And if you ask the younger generation to describe the New Zealand dream, they will likely begin by highlighting how little of their parent’s idyllic ensemble they can expect to replicate.
 
Nostalgia and aspiration are powerful emotions, and when you attach them to a simple set of desired things, then the political effects can be startling. That’s why, in one way or another, the idea of the New Zealand Dream is exploited by every political party. National might substitute a Mercedes Benz for the Holden, and a graceful Arts and Craft mansion for the suburban bungalow. The Greens might add solar panels to the bungalow’s roof and put the whole family on bicycles. NZ First might include Grandma and Grandpa in the family line-up. In essence, however, the dream remains the same.
 
Allowing the Dream to slip away is thus, for most of the electorate, the very definition of political failure. Accordingly, parties will argue endlessly about whether they are succeeding or failing to keep the New Zealand Dream alive. Most will react with alarm, however, if the reality and/or desirability of the Dream itself is challenged.
 
Hence the hard words delivered to Labour’s sector groups last weekend. Those “senior party people” are determined that the discordant notes of feminism, indigenous rights and LGBT activism do not intrude upon the nostalgic and aspirational harmonies of the militantly “normal” New Zealand Dreamers. The memory of 2013’s “man ban” still rankles, but a much deeper psychic wound was inflicted by the “anti-smacking” legislation.
 
Dream - Or Nightmare? (Collage of 50s imagery by Sally Edelstein.)
 
The New Zealand voter did not enjoy being reminded that behind the happy familial images of material prosperity there often lurked horrific stories of child abuse. The idea that they, themselves, might have ventured even a little way along that grim continuum of domestic violence infuriated and repelled them – and Helen Clark became the lightning-rod for their rage.
 
Labour’s leaders are determined that it will not happen again. No rancid additives from the world of identity politics will be permitted to contaminate the bland bread-and-butter promises of Little’s keynote speech.
 
And yet, for so many, the Dream he seeks to restore was never anything other than a nightmare. A horror story made worse by the unrelenting pressure to pretend that the injustices and discrimination endured by women, Maori, gays, lesbians and transgendered persons wasn’t real, and wasn’t happening. Little’s soft-focus rendition of the New Zealand Dream was never more than a sociological version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. A cursed portrait that, with every tortured victim’s revelation, grows increasingly hideous.
 
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, 13 November 2015.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

A Disgraceful Performance: Why John Key And The Speaker Need A Refresher Course In Democracy.

Extraordinary Accusations: John Key accuses the Labour Opposition of "supporting rapists and murderers". The Speaker's failure to require the Prime Minister to withdraw and apologise sparked a rare walk-out from the Chamber and, later, a Vote of No Confidence in the Speaker. That the Prime Minister may have a majority of New Zealanders backing his cruel denigration of Australian Immigration's detainees matters not one whit. Human rights are not the playthings of majorities: they are inherent and inalienable.
 
THE DAILY BLOG’S EDITOR, Martyn Bradbury, believes New Zealand is better than its present Prime Minister and Government. I hope, desperately, that he’s right. But, ours is a representative democracy, and my great fear is that this John Key-led, National Party-dominated, Government is just that – representative.
 
Were a majority of Kiwi voters shocked by the behaviour of the Prime Minister and the Speaker during Question Time, yesterday? (10/11/15) Or did John Key launch his extraordinary attack on the Opposition parties in the confident knowledge that, far from being shocked and disgusted, the New Zealand public was lined-up right behind him?
 
One has only to listen to the talkback radio stations, or hear the comments from listeners read out on RNZ-National’s Morning Report to know that there is a substantial number (quite possibly a majority) of New Zealanders who view the entire Australian immigration scandal from the Prime Minister’s perspective. How likely is it, really, that a politician as shrewd as Key would accuse the Opposition of “supporting rapists and murderers” if he wasn’t quietly confident that most New Zealanders saw things his way?
 
Fairfax Media’s political editor, Tracy Watkins, thinks it most unlikely: “He [did it] knowing he is on the right side of the argument politically – most people would have no argument with Key’s assessment New Zealand should not bother shedding any tears over the plight of the Kiwi detainees.”
 
Coming at it from a slightly different angle, the NZ Herald’s political editor, Audrey Young, was equally confident in her assessment of yesterday’s events: “The suggestions by some Labour MPs on Twitter that democracy was at stake was over-reaction and nonsense. There were plenty of errors in the high drama at Parliament today but there was nothing undemocratic in what occurred.”
 
The high drama and errors Young refers to relate to the behaviour of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, David Carter, and to the decision of about half the Labour Opposition to walk-out of the parliamentary chamber in protest. Against all precedent, Carter had ruled that the PM was under no obligation to withdraw or apologise for his repeated accusations that the Labour MPs were supporting rapists and murderers. When the furious Labour MPs finally returned to the House they moved a symbolic Vote of No-Confidence in the Speaker. Again, this was a most unusual and disquieting response to the Speaker’s behaviour.
 
The independence of the Speaker – most especially his or her independence from the Executive Branch of Government – is a cornerstone of the Westminster System of representative democracy. The tradition dates at least as far back as the 1640s in England.
 
It was in 1642 that King Charles I, accompanied by a company of soldiers, strode into the House of Commons to arrest five Members of Parliament on charges of High Treason. When asked to point out the five traitors, the Speaker, William Lenthall, replied:
 
“May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg Your Majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me.”
 
Speaker Lenthall responds to Charles I: "I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."
 
As our constitution has evolved over the past 300 years, the Executive and Legislative branches of government have, in some respects, become one. The members of the Cabinet are all drawn from the House of Representatives, as is the Chair of Cabinet, the Prime Minister. The contemporary equivalent of King Charles I, the most important political figure in the land, must be a Member of Parliament.
 
This places a very heavy burden on the Speaker’s shoulders. If he or she is to be “Parliament’s Person”: the staunch protector of the legislators’ rights and privileges against the Executive’s natural inclination to make them dance to its tune; then it is vital that there be not the slightest hint of any bias in the Executive’s favour. Most vitally, the Speaker must ensure that the Prime Minister and Cabinet can be held to account for their actions. When questions are put to them by MPs, it is the Speaker’s duty to extract meaningful answers.
 
It is also vital that the Speaker defend the rights of those MPs who form no part of the majority that keeps the Executive in office – the Opposition. Any suggestion that the conduct of the Speaker is regularly failing the test of strict impartiality, and that the Opposition is being thwarted in its duty to hold the Executive to account, is of the most extreme seriousness. If true, then democracy would indeed be at stake. Because a parliament in which the Opposition is prevented from holding the Government to account, is a parliament from which the Executive is free to rule without restraint.
 
It is this absolute obligation on the part of the Speaker – and of our democratic system generally – to protect the rights of the minority against the power of the majority that goes to the heart of the arbitrary incarceration of New Zealand citizens by the Australian state. No matter what these detainees have done, as human-beings they have the right to be treated justly and humanely. That the Prime Minister has a majority of New Zealanders backing his cruel denigration of their characters matters not one whit. Human rights are not the playthings of majorities: they are inherent and inalienable.
 
In and out of Parliament, the protection of the rights of the minority is what allows our democracy to function. It is no over-reaction on the part of an Opposition to call out a Speaker who is failing to provide that protection. And to suggest that, in its absence, our democracy is not threatened, is the most dangerous kind of nonsense.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 11 November 2015.