Known principally for his weekly political columns and his commentaries on radio and television, Chris Trotter has spent most of his adult life either engaging in or writing about politics. He was the founding editor of The New Zealand Political Review (1992-2005) and in 2007 authored No Left Turn, a political history of New Zealand. Living in Auckland with his wife and daughter, Chris describes himself as an “Old New Zealander” – i.e. someone who remembers what the country was like before Rogernomics. He has created this blog as an archive for his published work and an outlet for his more elegiac musings. It takes its name from Bowalley Road, which runs past the North Otago farm where he spent the first nine years of his life. Enjoy.
The blogosphere tends to be a very noisy, and all-too-often a very abusive, place. I intend Bowalley Road to be a much quieter, and certainly a more respectful, place. So, if you wish your comments to survive the moderation process, you will have to follow the Bowalley Road Rules. These are based on two very simple principles: Courtesy and Respect. Comments which are defamatory, vituperative, snide or hurtful will be removed, and the commentators responsible permanently banned. Anonymous comments will not be published. Real names are preferred. If this is not possible, however, commentators are asked to use a consistent pseudonym. Comments which are thoughtful, witty, creative and stimulating will be most welcome, becoming a permanent part of the Bowalley Road discourse. However, I do add this warning. If the blog seems in danger of being over-run by the usual far-Right suspects, I reserve the right to simply disable the Comments function, and will keep it that way until the perpetrators find somewhere more appropriate to vent their collective spleen.
The Finger Of Blame: What seemed to stick in the craw of most voters, however, was the Government’s extraordinary hypocrisy. Through their various agents and mouthpieces, they had viciously denounced an Opposition politician who had admitted to committing a series of relatively minor transgressions in her youth. And yet, even as this Opposition politician was being hounded out of Parliament, the governing party was moving heaven and earth to prevent the much more serious transgressions of one of its own from reaching the ears of the public before polling-day.
THE STORY APPEARED FIRST on an offshore blog. After that,
not even the best legal brains at Crown Law could prevent the voters from
learning about the “Mother of All Scandals”. The Internet, as always, prevailed
over the frantic machinations of desperate politicians.
As details of the scandal spread, the mainstream news media
was obliged to engage in some legal manoeuvring of its own. Lawyers for both
the electronic and print media argued that the legal injunctions preventing
them from broadcasting and/or publishing what was by now a huge story were
contrary to the public interest. With a general election just days away,
matters having a material bearing on the Government’s fitness to go on
governing were unable to be debated in a rational and professional fashion.
Instead, voters were being regaled with rumour, innuendo and the
far-from-reliable outpourings of “citizen journalism”.
The horse having well-and-truly bolted, the judiciary was
disposed to agree with the mainstream media, and the injunctions preventing any
and all reporting of the Mother of All Scandals were lifted.
The Cabinet Minister at the centre of the scandal released a
brief statement announcing his immediate resignation from both the Cabinet and
Parliament and went to ground. It was not enough. The focus of the scandal had
already shifted away from the disgraced Cabinet Minister. All of the
journalists’ investigative powers were now bent on exposing the extraordinary
measures the Government had been willing to countenance in order to kill the
The most damning of these involved the deliberate leaking of
confidential information about a senior politician’s financial affairs as part
of a broader “strategy of distraction”. Equally shocking was the discovery that
an alarming number of public servants had aided and abetted the Government’s
Political scientists debated the ultimate impact of the
scandal on the Government’s electoral fortunes. Some pointed to the
consequences of a series of similar revelations published three years earlier.
On that occasion, they argued, Government supporters had angrily rejected the
accusations of impropriety directed at the Prime Minister and his cabinet
colleagues, and rallied to their defence. It was the contention of these
experts that, far from damaging the Government, the Mother of All Scandals
would actually generate a surge towards the party in power.
Others objected that, in terms of both its scale and
seriousness, the Mother of All Scandals – and its high-level cover-up – posed a
much graver threat to the survival of the Government. For even the most
fanatical supporters of the incumbent party, the behaviour of all those
involved would likely prove very hard to forgive.
What seemed to stick in the craw of most voters, however,
was the Government’s extraordinary hypocrisy. Through their various agents and
mouthpieces, they had viciously denounced an Opposition politician who had
admitted to committing a series of relatively minor transgressions in her
youth. And yet, even as this Opposition politician was being hounded out of
Parliament, the governing party was moving heaven and earth to prevent the much
more serious transgressions of one of its own from reaching the ears of the
public before polling-day.
Some pundits would later discount the Mother of All Scandals
as a major contributor to the governing party’s startling electoral defeat.
They would argue that, after three terms in office, it would have taken a small
miracle to secure their re-election to a fourth. To a great many ordinary
voters, however, the Mother of All Scandals was the small miracle that
ushered in a younger, fresher and ethically far-superior progressive
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Wednesday, 30 August 2017.
Mixed Messages: Now is the time for every electorate-focused Labour candidate to come to the aid of the Party Vote!
LABOUR HQ needs to upgrade its intelligence. Because out
there in the streets there are a host of disturbing signs – most of them their
Sure, the sudden departure of Andrew Little left Labour’s
messaging in a state of considerable confusion. Inevitably, the production and
distribution of new campaign material – especially hoardings – was not
something that could be accomplished overnight. But, more than three weeks have
elapsed since Jacinda Ardern squeezed her syringe-full of adrenaline (to borrow
Rachel Stewart’s arresting metaphor) into Labour’s failing heart. That so much
of Labour’s signage continues to present voters with outdated and, frankly,
embarrassing messages is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a very bad sign.
What on earth is preventing the same groups of Labour Party
activists who erected the Andrew and Jacinda hoardings from taking them down?
More importantly, why are individual Labour candidates insisting on keeping
their personalised hoardings in place?
Frankly, I’m surprised that Labour HQ ever countenanced the
production of these things. How many elections does Labour have to lose before
somebody realises that plastering a candidate’s name and face all over his or
her electorate is an open invitation for voters to split their votes between a
much-liked local Labour MP and some other party altogether? The Party Vote is
the ONLY vote that counts when it comes to changing the government. Anyone who
allows their ego to get in the way of maximising Labour’s Party Vote should be
invited to see how well they do running as an independent.
In 2014 Labour received 25 percent of the Party Vote and
around 35 percent of the votes cast in the electorates. Do you know what Labour
got for that additional 10 percent of support? Nothing. Nada, Zip, Zilch.
Racking up majorities in a multitude of electorate contests advances Labour’s
cause not one iota. Had Labour won 35 percent of the 2014 Party Vote, however,
the history of the past three years might have been very different.
It gets worse.
Every time a potential Labour voter drives past a hoarding
that does not feature Jacinda’s smiling face above the party’s “Let’s do this.”
campaign slogan, the leader’s and the party’s brand suffer.
It’s as though, for some reason, the people running the
local effort don’t want to be associated with Jacinda’s rejuvenated national
campaign. Or, even more damagingly, that they haven’t been able to get their
act together sufficiently to allow the extraordinary change in Labour’s
political fortunes to be given graphic expression in the streets where the
voters actually live.
For Jacindamania to acquire sufficient momentum to carry
Labour all the way to the Beehive, Jacinda’s face and slogan need to be on
display everywhere. On every supporter’s front fence, and at every city
intersection. People driving to work should not be able to complete their
journey without Jacinda silently imploring them to “Let’s do this.” at least
After all, on the same journey, they will have passed at
least that many hoardings from which Bill English has reassured them that he
and National are “Delivering for New Zealanders”. Labour’s candidates urgently
need to get their heads around the idea that, in 2017, there’s only one face on
Labour’s hoardings that matters – and it isn’t theirs.
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Thursday, 24 August 2017.
Divided Future:“Were Trump either to quit in pique and frustration or, worse, be removed by either of the legal means available, the US would risk being plunged into civic unrest on an unknowable scale.” - NZ Listener.
IMPEACH HIM, just try it. You will have a spasm of violence in this country, an
insurrection like you’ve never seen. The people will not stand for impeachment.
A politician that votes for it would be endangering their own life.” That is the
frightening prediction of the American right-wing activist, Roger Stone, one of
US President Donald Trump’s most outspoken supporters.
himself, has many painful personal memories of the impeachment process. He was,
after all, an official in the administration of President Richard Nixon. But, a
lot has changed in 40 years. In 2017, Stone warns, impeaching a sitting
Republican president might not be so easy: “Both sides are heavily armed … This
is not 1974. The people will not stand for impeachment.” Asked if he was
predicting civil war, Stone replied unequivocally: “Yes, that’s what I think
Not according to the editorial writers of New Zealand’s own Listener magazine:
either to quit in pique and frustration or, worse, be removed by either of the
legal means available, the US would risk being plunged into civic unrest on an
their readers’ attention to the “considerable” support which Trump still
commands among “a socially disaffected rump”, the Listener argues that his diehard supporters “might not hesitate to
form militias and try to instigate civil war.”
How has it
come to this? How has the greatest republic the world has ever known been led
to the edge of such a profound political abyss? A more useful line of
questioning might begin with another, albeit related, question: “How has the
American republic avoided dissolution for so long? Because the most astonishing
historical fact about the United States of America is that it is still with us.
nearly wasn’t. Had anyone but Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential
election, it is highly unlikely that the United States as we know it would have
survived. Either, the American South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery would
have obliged its anti-slavery Northern neighbours to undertake a long and painful retreat from
the “self-evident” truths of the American revolution. Or, the North American
continent would have been divided between the “United”, and the “Confederate”,
States of America.
forestalled both of these outcomes – but only at enormous cost. The casualties
inflicted during the American Civil War of 1861-1865 still outnumber all the
casualties sustained by the USA in all subsequent conflicts – including World
Wars One and Two. What’s more, the terrible political wounds opened up by the
Civil War: essentially a conflict about the economic and social role of Race in
American society; have never properly healed.
successors brave attempt to vindicate the sacrifices of the Civil War: the
so-called “Reconstruction Period”; lasted barely a decade. Equality between
Southern blacks and whites could only be enforced by the bayonets of the
occupying Union Army. Its withdrawal, in 1877, was followed by the brutal subjugation
and virtual re-enslavement of the black population by the white. The means
adopted: illegal terror by the Ku Klux Klan, reinforced by the institutional
repression of “Jim Crow” segregation laws, received no early constitutional
reproof from the Supreme Court. The federal government thereby signaled its
willingness to see established, across the South, racist political regimes that
can only be described as “proto-fascist”.
when critics of the Alt-Right demonstrators in Charlottesville denounce their
“fascist” tactics as foreign to American democracy, they’re mistaken. The much
more unpalatable truth is that many of the political motifs we associate with
European fascism were actually borrowed from America. Torchlight parades, for
example, date all the way back to the 1832 campaign of America’s first populist
president, Andrew Jackson. Klansmen’s robes may, similarly, have inspired
Mussolini’s black-shirts and Hitler’s stormtroopers. And anyone who believes
that the Nazi Party invented the mass political rally should take a look at any
American party convention, or the news photographs of 50,000 robed Klansmen
marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925.
American Fascism: Ku Klux Klan marches down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, 1925.
the fascistic trappings that give it political momentum, are as American as
apple-pie. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the Kennedy/Johnson-led
Democratic Administrations’ successful efforts to abolish Jim Crow and end Klan
terror in the early-1960s have been the primary drivers of American politics
ever since. Be it Nixon’s 1968 “Southern Strategy”; Reagan’s upholding of
“State’s Rights” in 1980; or, Trump’s 2016 “Let’s make America GREAT again!”
(i.e. “WHITE” again) campaign slogan; the Republicans have been the party of
race-based politics for nearly fifty years. That President Obama was followed
by President Trump is no historical accident.
the Republican Party has made itself a willing hostage to the political terror
and unconstitutional objectives that have always marched in lock-step with the
advance of America’s white supremacist traditions. Defeating both may well
require a second civil war.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 August 2017.
This is a hit! How strange it is that only Jordan Williams from The Taxpayers’ Union, has felt moved to observe: “Winston Peters has either been the victim of a political hit-job, or there is a serious flaw with the Ministry of Social Development’s systems which saw Mr Peters accidentally overpaid”. Clearly, Mr Williams recognises “dirty politics” when he sees it – so why can’t this country’s leading political journalists?
THIS LATEST POLITICAL “SCANDAL” involving Winston Peters
reminds me of The Godfather. Not the
famous scene in which Sonny Corleone is assassinated at the toll booth, but the
earlier scene in which Michael Corleone realises that there are no staff on
duty in the hospital where his wounded father is being treated. The empty
nurses’ work station, the silent corridors, the overwhelming sense of something
being “off” – all of it communicates a single, unmistakeable message to
Michael. This is a hit.
Unfortunately, New Zealand’s mainstream news media lacks the
instincts of the fictional mafioso. Thrown a large chunk of red meat by … oh,
that’s right, the scandal-mongers have told us nothing about the source of
their accusations other than he/she/they operate “within a concerned public
service apparatus” … the media dogs have all, as intended, started baying for
more of Mr Peters’ blood.
How strange it is that, at the time of writing, only Jordan
Williams from The Taxpayers’ Union, has felt moved to observe: “Winston Peters
has either been the victim of a political hit-job, or there is a serious flaw
with the Ministry of Social Development’s systems which saw Mr Peters
accidentally overpaid”. Clearly, Mr Williams recognises “dirty politics” when
he sees it – so why can’t this country’s leading political journalists?
We must hope that the answer to that question is not the
same in 2017 as it was in 2008. Nine years ago, when Mr Peters was similarly
under fire for alleged financial irregularities, there was open collusion
between the NZ First leader’s political opponents and members of the
Parliamentary Press Gallery. Politicians on the Right wanted Winston and his
party out of Parliament. Political journalists were desperate for the sort of
information that keeps the punters coming back for more. A biologist would call
it a “symbiotic relationship”.
Is the need to preserve and nurture that symbiotic
relationship the reason why our leading political journalists have not reacted
to the inflammatory “Co-habiting Peters billed $18,000” headline, by demanding
to know from which “concerned public service apparatus” that $18,000 figure
originated? Is that why the two most obvious suspects: The Ministry of Social
Development, which administers NZ Superannuation; and the Inland Revenue
Department, which processes New Zealanders’ superannuation payments; have not been
pressured for answers?
Because, for those of us with no skin in this game, that is
the question that must not only be asked, but answered. If the information
comes from MSD, then a scandalous breach of a citizen’s privacy has occurred. But,
if Mr Peters’ communications with Inland Revenue have been leaked by someone
working inside that particular “public service apparatus”, then whoever
received the information has made themselves party to a serious criminal
Always, the critical journalistic question arising out of
this sort of political hit is: “Cui bono?” (Who benefits?) Which political
party would benefit the most by embarrassing Mr Peters and driving down his
Richard Harman, proprietor of the Politik website, has (almost certainly unwittingly) identified one
possible beneficiary in his latest posting, “National Sees Path To Power”
(28/8/17) in which he states: “National is now going to target Winston Peters
and NZ First in the hope of winning one or two per cent of his vote back off
him. They believe that will be enough to hold on to power.”
If it is even remotely possible that the so-called “scandal”
of Mr Peters’ superannuation overpayments could have been set in motion by
persons either within, or aligned to, the National Party (which is certainly,
as the party in government, best placed to organise such a “hit”) then why
isn’t that the story?
After all, no one is disputing that, upon learning of the
MSD’s overpayment of his pension, Mr Peters’ responded by repaying the sum of
the overpayment (plus interest) immediately. Also undisputed is the claim that
Mr Peters and his partner visited the MSD together in 2010, and that Mr Peters’
details were entered into its database by a senior MSD staff-member. It
stretches credulity to suggest that the de facto relationship between the NZ
First leader and his partner could somehow have been missed – except by accident.
Certainly, Mr Peters is clear that any such “accident” was the MSD’s – not his.
What we have, therefore, is the story of a senior politician
who, as a simple citizen (Mr Peters was not an MP in 2010) and accompanied by
his partner, registered for NZ Superannuation in person at the Auckland offices
of the MSD, and soon thereafter began receiving his pension. Seven years later,
that same senior politician is informed by MSD that he has been incorrectly
designated and, therefore, overpaid his pension. Immediately, the senior
politician makes good the overpaid amount.
And yet, we see the same media dogs who tore Metiria Turei
to pieces, now bounding after Mr Peters. They are demanding that he release to
them all personal financial records pertaining to his pension. His comfortable
personal circumstances are being waved before the public, as if he was some
sort of latter-day Marie Antoinette. Once again, Mr Peters is being showered
with mud by politicians and journalists bound together in what can only be
described as an ethically deficient political symbiosis. And, as we all know,
In the movie, Don Corleone survives because his son
convinces the hit-men sent to kill him that he is under the protection of men
who will not hesitate to fight back. If Winston is looking for a way to both
relax and rearm himself in the midst of this politically-motivated and
media-driven “scandal”, then he should, perhaps, sit down in front of the
nearest TV, with a decent-sized measure of single malt, and take some lessons
from The Godfather.
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Monday, 28 August 2017.
Let's Do What, Jacinda? You are only too aware, Jacinda, of what needs to be done to heal the harms inflicted on New Zealanders these past nine years. You also know they cannot be healed on the cheap. Strict adherence to the Labour/Green “Budget Responsibility Rules” will force your government to break its promises – to break your promises.
IT’S NOT TOO LATE, JACINDA. Not yet. But it soon will be. If
you keep following the economic and fiscal track you’re on, then the campaign
that started with such promise will end in some sort of tawdry compromise with
an already discredited status-quo. Or, even worse, in yet another electoral
failure. If you begin your career as Labour’s leader by deferring to the Powers
That Be, then you will spend the rest of your political life living in fear of
“Let’s do this”, your own brilliant slogan, works because it
communicates fierce personal determination and raw political urgency in equal
measure. But, the person who says “let’s do this” doesn’t immediately add “but
only if my colleagues concur”, or, “providing the business community doesn’t
object”. The power of the slogan lies in the reassurance it offers that Jacinda
Ardern knows what needs to be done – and is not about to let anyone stop her
from doing it. Labour has already endured four equivocal leaders, it absolutely
does not need a fifth.
But that is what you have begun to do, Jacinda: equivocate.
On the subject of taxation, in particular, there is a growing sense that you’re
not being straight with the electorate.
You could have looked your fellow New Zealanders squarely in
the eye and asked them to tell you, honestly, whether they believe that enough
has been spent on housing the homeless, improving mental health care, upgrading
our hospitals and schools, expanding public transport and cleaning up the environment.
And, when they said “No”, you could have asked them if they were willing to pay
just a little bit more in tax to make good New Zealand’s shocking social
deficit. And, when they said “Yes”, you could have nodded decisively and said:
“Right. Good. Let’s do this!”
Instead, you have waffled-on about handing over the
re-design of New Zealand’s taxation system to a “working group” of “experts”.
Telling your inquisitors at the NZ Herald
that you were being forthrightly “transparent” about being frustratingly opaque
– as if that was a good thing!
One of those inquisitors, the business journalist Fran
O’Sullivan, was speaking no more than the truth when she told “Morning Report”
listeners that a party which has been in Opposition for nine years has had more
than enough time to sort out exactly what they want to do and how they intend
to pay for it. Because, if the people we pay $170,000 per annum to sit in the
House of Representatives aren’t “experts”, then who the hell are? A bunch of
bank economists and corporate tax accountants? Are you seriously going to ask
people like this to design your Labour government an equitable system of
progressive taxation? Really, Jacinda? Really!
A week or so ago I urged you to reach back into Labour’s
past for inspiration about how to pay for your promise to build enough houses
to accommodate all those New Zealanders in need of a place to call their own.
This week I’m recommending you take a look at the “working group” of “experts”
who designed Labour’s social welfare reform “package” back in the 1930s. The
artist and author, Bob Kerr, called them “The Three Wise Men of Kurow”.
Arnold Nordmeyer, Andrew Davidson and Gervan McMillan rough-out New Zealand's future social welfare system around McMillan's dining-room table. Watercolour by Bob Kerr
Kurow is a tiny town in North Otago situated above the
Waitaki River. In the grim years of the Great Depression it was a place of
considerable privation and distress. Determined to relieve that distress were
the local doctor, Gervan McMillan; the local Presbyterian minister, Arnold
Nordmeyer; and the local schoolmaster, Andrew Davidson. Between them, these men
devised a scheme to take care of the workers on the nearby hydro-electric
project and their families. Working around McMillan’s dining-room table they
went on to rough-out a way of scaling-up their highly successful local effort
into a nationwide welfare scheme. McMillan and Nordmeyer, who were Labour
members, presented their ideas to the Party’s 1934 Annual Conference – which
seized upon their plan with eager hands. Four years later, the First Labour
Government passed the Social Security Act.
Nobody paid these men for their nights around Gervan McMillan’s
dining-room table. No one supplied them with detailed Terms of Reference. No
public relations firm was engaged to “sell” their ideas to the voters. “Let’s
do this!”, said the three wise men of Kurow, for no better reason than “this”
needed to be done – and Labour was willing to do it.
You are only too aware, Jacinda, of what needs to be done to
heal the harms inflicted on New Zealanders these past nine years. You also know
they cannot be healed on the cheap. Strict adherence to the Labour/Green “Budget
Responsibility Rules” will force your government to break its promises – to
break your promises.
The increased public spending New Zealand so urgently needs
can only be funded in two ways. Either it is paid for out of an expanded
revenue base, or, out of an increased deficit. Unfortunately, Jacinda, you
appear to be ruling out the former, and the Budget Responsibility Rules are
ruling out the latter.
So, Jacinda, when you say “Let’s do this”, what, exactly, do
you mean? Don’t you think it’s time for you to be completely transparent about
what “this” is – and to whom it is done?
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Saturday, 26 August 2017.
"People Are More Important Than Progress": The Values Party's 1972 "guerrilla" TV Commercial electrified younger voters. To re-energise their 2017 campaign, the Greens need to dig deep into the bedrock of environmentalist ideology and produce an equally uncompromising political testament for the voters of the twenty-first century.
THE COLLAPSE in Green Party support – down to 4.3 percent in
the latest Colmar Brunton poll – can be reversed. But, halting the slide, and
building the Green Vote back up to its 1999-2014 average of 7.65 percent, will
require James Shaw and his campaign team to dig deep into the bedrock of green
ideology. They will have to reach back through time to the very first stirrings
of the post-industrial political project in the early 1970s and rediscover what
it was that so captured the imagination of that young and turbulent generation
of voters. Then they will have to distil it into campaign propaganda powerful
enough to snatch their party from the jaws of electoral death.
They will be sorely tempted to resist this advice. To
re-tool their propaganda at this late stage is not only a very big ask, it is
also a very expensive one. They have a re-cycled slogan, re-designed signage,
and a re-edited TVC (television commercial) in their campaign kit-bag. The urge
to just run with what they’ve got will be very strong. It will also see them
bundled out of Parliament.
What they need to absorb is that the “core vote” of any
political party is zero. (The Alliance used to tell people that its core vote
was 10 percent – what is it now?) Once the belief takes hold that: ‘A vote for
the Greens is a wasted vote’; the party is doomed. With the “Jacinda Affect” at
full-throttle, and Labour ruthlessly stripping the Greens’ of their most
valuable policy assets, the party’s current pitch to the voters: “Love New
Zealand”, and a TVC describing Green New Zealand as “a place where businesses
are booming in a thriving green economy”; simply isn’t enough to stop the slide.
Right now, what all those deserting voters need is a clear
and compelling restatement of what the Green Party stands for and why, now,
more than ever before, it needs to be represented in Parliament. The Greens
current TVC doesn’t do that. It has the look and flavour of an ice-cream
commercial. Oh sure, all the milk is sourced from free-range cows, grazing
freely on organic farms, but, when all the selling-points are laid to one side,
what we’re looking at is still just another item of confectionary.
James Shaw and his campaign team’s No. 1 priority,
therefore, should be to settle themselves comfortably in front of the nearest
computer screen and watch the Values Party TVC from 1972 – fear not, it’s on
The script is 45 years old, but it still possesses the sort
of intellectual toughness that makes you stop, listen, and think:
Economic growth equals
more productivity, more people, more pollution.
It also means more
money – so we’re told.
IMAGES OF 1970s
CONSUMER SOCIETY FLASH ACROSS THE SCREEN IN RAPID SUCCESSION.
Can money buy us a new
Economic expansion is
not the answer. The world’s wealthiest nations can attest to that.
IMAGES OF CIVIL
STRIFE, POVERTY AND INDUSTRIAL POLLUTION DISSOLVE INTO IMAGES OF CHILDREN’S
New Zealand twice led
the world in social reform – it can again.
Are we to have a quantity
of life – or a quality of life?
Let’s preserve the
good things we still have.
People are more
important than progress.
CUT TO VALUES PARTY
“Wow!”, I hear you say, “Which ad agency made that? It’s
Yes, it is, but it wasn’t the work of a paid copywriter or
an ad agency. The whole thing was thrown together in a few days by Hugh
Macdonald and Rob Ritchie, a couple of young cinematographers working at the
National Film Unit (a state-owned movie studio based in the Wellington suburb
of Miramar). In a strictly undercover and emphatically unofficial effort, these
two “guerrilla” filmmakers captured to perfection the core message of the
Values Party founder, Tony Brunt. Broadcast on the country’s single television
channel at the commencement of the 1972 election campaign, it’s effect on young
voters was electrifying.
Co-director of the Values Party TVC, Rob Ritchie (centre) with two of his National Film Unit colleagues, circa 1972.
If the Greens are to come back, it is a message of this
quality, simplicity and audacity that James Shaw and his colleagues need to
craft – and quickly. They must reach out beyond the formulaic offerings of the
advertising industry to the vast pool of talented Kiwi film and video makers.
They must appeal for the help of people like Darren Watson and Jeremy Jones –
the guys who created the extraordinary “Planet Key” music video. Not only do
they need to ask for the help of Robyn Malcolm, but of every other progressive
artist in the country. Beg them to activate their networks, punch their
speed-dials and rustle-up the talent required to create a Greens campaign TVC
every bit as good – if not better – than the Values Party TVC of 1972.
The most important lesson to draw from that historic 1972
Values ad’ is how little a message dates when its content is both real and
relevant. Forty-five years on, and confronted by the looming catastrophe of
global warming, the reality and relevance of the pivotal question located at
its heart: “Can money buy us a new planet?” is as undeniable as it is urgent.
What’s also clear, is that a world dominated by the philosophy of “More!” is,
indeed, a doomed world.
New Zealand needs the Greens in Parliament. Not to turn New
Zealand into a “thriving green economy” filled with “booming businesses”, but
to remind us, at every possible opportunity, that “people are more important
than progress”, and that a better world is possible.
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Saturday, 19 August 2017.
Smile For The Camera: Call me a cynic, but the carefully staged photograph of Federated Farmers’ new president, Katie Milne (the first woman ever to hold the post) resplendent in boots and Swandri, kneeling at the side of the Ngaruroro River, while a grinning line of gumbooted corporate cockies look on admiringly, strikes me as too good to be true.
IT WAS MAUDE ROYDEN, the English suffragette, who admonished
the Anglican Church to “go forward along the path of progress and be no longer
satisfied only to represent the Conservative Party at prayer.” Royden’s
oft-quoted quip was irresistible to a wit of Sir Michael Cullen’s acerbity. His
wicked paraphrase: that Federated Farmers represented “the National Party in
gumboots” has always struck me as at least as memorable as the original. The
Labour Party would, therefore, be wise to keep Sir Michael’s witticism at the
front of their minds as they congratulate Federated Farmers and other “farming
leaders” for their pledge to make all New Zealand’s rivers swimmable.
And before said “farming leaders” admonish me for failing to
do the same, I will concede that, on the face of it, their
better-late-than-never embrace of Labour/Green policy just might constitute
evidence of a hitherto unnoticed willingness to “go forward along the path of
The operative phrase in this case is, of course, “on the
face of it”. Call me a cynic, but the carefully staged photograph of Federated
Farmers’ new president, Katie Milne (the first woman ever to hold the post)
resplendent in boots and Swandri, kneeling at the side of the Ngaruroro River,
while a grinning line of gumbooted corporate cockies look on admiringly,
strikes me as just a wee bit too good to be true.
First of all, there’s the timing. Surely it is no
coincidence that this happy little announcement and artfully composed
photo-opportunity have been arranged just four weeks out from a general
election? And not just any old general election, either, but one in which the
“Water Issue” has featured prominently. When New Zealanders go to the polling
stations of 23 September, the appalling state of this country’s lakes, rivers
and streams will have persuaded more than a few of them to vote for those
parties pledged to do something about it.
If Sir Michael Cullen is right about Federated Farmers and
the National Party, it is quite impossible to avoid the conclusion that these
gumbooted farming leaders’ last-minute conversion to the religion of Gaia – as
elucidated in the Gospel of Dr Mike Joy – has been undertaken purely in the
interests of protecting the Government’s exposed flank.
Presumably, the argument in favour of hauling all these
characters out to the banks of the Ngaruroro runs something like this. “If we
appear to be conceding the Greens’ and the Labour Party’s points on water
quality, and if Nick Smith joins in the inevitable chorus of congratulation,
then an issue currently causing the Government a lot of grief will be taken off
And, who knows, it just might work. If the voters fail to
notice that there is precious little in the farming leaders’ announcement
relating to HOW they, and their respective organisations, intend to go about
making our lakes, streams and rivers swimmable; and even less about WHEN this
happy state will be achieved.
Personally, I’m betting they will notice those rather large
holes in Federated Farmers’ cunning plan. Why? Because Greenpeace, Forest &
Bird, Fish & Game and every other NGO fighting for swimmable rivers will
tell them. I’m especially confident that Russel Norman, the guy who, when he
was the Greens’ co-leader, introduced the expression “dirty dairying” into
everyday Kiwi conversation, and who is currently the boss of Greenpeace in New
Zealand, will find these cockies-come-lately to the clean water party as bogus
as I do.
Because talk is cheap – especially in the run-up to general
elections. And because what I’m being shown in this latest photo-opportunity is
just one more image in the lengthy sequence of images presented to New
Zealanders as part of a concerted PR campaign to undo the damage caused by the
success of the Dirty Dairying project.
Cast your mind back over the past 18 months and recall the
expensive advertising campaign on behalf of New Zealand’s hard-working,
dairy-farming families (along with the big corporations who actually dominate
today’s dairy industry, but whose agribusiness systems curiously do not feature
in the ad campaign’s soft-focus vision of the Kiwi heartland) and ask yourself
“How can Federated Farmers and their allies possibly
guarantee to make our rivers swimmable once again, without drastically reducing
the size of New Zealand’s dairy herd?”
Then ask yourself: “Am I really that gullible?”
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 August 2017.
The House That Jack Built: A Labour Party campaign advertisement for the 1938 General Election contrasts the National Party's approach to housing the people before Labour came to power in 1935, with John A. (Jack) Lee's internationally acclaimed state housing programme.
“THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT GREED BUILT.” The house in question
– a tumbledown shack – is the first in a series of five images. The others
depict a working man down on his luck, a bloated capitalist, and the “Tory
Press” (presented, delightfully, as a bellowing cow). The series ends with John
A. (Jack) Lee.
Dressed as a carpenter, and positioned in front of one of
his new “State Houses”, Lee’s caricature beams out of the pages of the 11 March
1937 edition of the Labour Party newspaper, The
Standard. The caption beneath the caricature reads:
“This is the man with the housing plan who’s queered the
pitch of the man who waxed rich by fleecing the man who lived in the shack now
pulled down by Jack and replaced by the house that Jack built.”
Left-wing nostalgia? Of course. But The Standard cartoon tells us a lot about the first great
state-driven effort to accommodate ill-housed and homeless New Zealanders, and
raises some very thorny questions about the reluctant half-measures of 2017.
As unquestionably the biggest voter motivator of this year’s
general election, “Housing” should be driving National and Labour towards ever
greater competitive efforts. Their respective plans for housing the homeless
and helping young people into their first home should be as imaginative as they
are comprehensive. After all, as The
Standard cartoon attests, New Zealand has done it before. What’s stopping
us doing it again?
The short answer is: The Market.
When Jack Lee was “queering the pitch” of rack-renting slum
landlords, the New Zealand economy was still struggling off its knees. Years of
economic contraction had harmed every sector of the economy and the
construction industry was no exception. People were living in shacks because
nobody was willing to build new houses for anyone except the most wealthy. The
houses that Jack built were possible only because there was an abundance of
both labour and materials just waiting for the capital investment to put them
to profitable use.
That is certainly not the case in 2017. The combined effects
of very high immigration and the catastrophic Christchurch earthquakes have
mobilised men and materials to the point where the availability and cost of
both has now become quite inelastic.
Labour’s Kiwibuild programme will struggle to assemble the
thousands of construction workers needed to erect the 100,000 houses it
promises. The competition with private construction firms, into which the state
will be forced to enter for land and building materials, will be intense and
eye-wateringly costly. Keeping these structures “affordable” for young,
first-home-buyers will be a mighty logistical challenge.
It’s a conundrum which calls to mind another housing
cartoon. This one depicts a lanky “Manpower Officer” [a reference to strict
wartime controls over labour] whip in hand, overseeing a hive of state house
construction in Auckland while, behind the gate he’s seated on, privately-owned
green fields stretch away unexploited. Published by Building Progress in the late-1940s, the cartoon offers a vivid
illustration of the way “excessively high” levels of state activity in the
economy are said to “crowd out” the opportunities for private investment. (The
inclusion of the “Wellington Express”, carrying decision-makers away from
Auckland, strikes a thoroughly contemporary note!)
The concerns of private construction firms in the late-1940s
were well justified. Had Labour won the 1949 election, Auckland would have been
a very different city. Compact, with state-designed and constructed houses and
apartment blocks, the whole isthmus would have been bound together by an
intricate, state-owned and run public rail network. A city constructed on the
North European model. Instead, under National, New Zealand built its very own
The best way to come to grips with the Housing Issue is to
conceive of it as a key battleground in the class struggle. It’s all there in
that Standard cartoon: “The House
That Greed Built” versus “The House
That Jack Built”.
Housing the disadvantaged in dwellings which guarantee them
comfort and dignity is not something the private sector will ever do uncoerced.
That’s why a genuine “people’s government” will unashamedly apply its thumb to
the scales of supply and demand: deliberately distorting the market in favour
of the tenant and the first-home-buyer; forcing down rents and house prices by
“queering the pitch” of speculators and slumlords.
A pity, then, that 2017’s “House of Cards” contains no
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, 23 June 2017.
Riding The Wave: A dark and glowering Winston Peters hurling rhetorical thunderbolts at all and sundry will find himself very poorly placed to participate positively in creative change. But, a wise and benevolent Winston Peters, determined to render every possible assistance to New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in more than a century, will leave behind a political legacy of no small significance.
IMAGINE HOW GALLING Jacinda Ardern’s Auckland Town Hall
love-fest must have been for Winston Peters. Just one tumultuous month ago,
that sort of spectacle had been his for the making. NZ First was on a roll:
effortlessly rising on the swell of an electoral wave that had the pundits
making serious predictions about Peters becoming New Zealand’s next prime
minister. Not anymore.
It is only fair to note at this point that the NZ First
surge was no figment of the pundits’ imagination. A month ago, Peters’
understanding of the political mood seemed altogether more profound than any of
his rivals. His appeal to what he perceived to be a simmering anger, roiling
just below the surface of New Zealand politics, was borne out by his party’s
steady rise in the polls.
Political historians looked at those numbers and, recalling
Peters’ ability to nearly double his party’s level of support over the course
of the formal election campaign period, began speculating that the final NZ
First vote might actually equal (or even outstrip!) that of the ailing, Andrew
Little-led Labour Party. In those circumstances, the precariously placed, Party
List-only candidate, Little, could, conceivably, have lost his seat in the
House of Representatives, putting the post of prime minister well-and-truly in
The rise and rise of NZ First proved equally unsettling for
the Greens. Their Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Labour Party
should have been a source of political reassurance, but the fact that it
expired on Election Day made it a constant source of worry. With NZ First
nipping at their heels in the polls, and their own history of losing support
over the course of the formal campaign period, what guarantee did they have
that Labour would not pull another “2005” on them by striking a deal with
Recklessly, the Green Party co-leader, Metiria Turei, lashed
out at Peters; castigating him and his party for their “racist” policies. Then,
even more recklessly, Turei seized the opportunity of her party’s AGM to
declare the Greens’ determination to legislate a “preferential option for the
poor”. The signal to Labour was unmistakable: MoU, or no MoU, the Greens had
lost faith in their putative coalition partner. Labour was sinking and the Greens
were standing by to pick up all of those Labour voters sensible enough to
abandon ship. A five-point surge in the polls suggested that this just might
prove to be a winning strategy.
Labour’s answer was Jacinda Ardern – and it was devastating!
As her first, astonishingly accomplished, media conference drew to a close, it
was clear to every political observer in New Zealand that the game had changed.
How seriously it had changed for the Greens was made clear
by their catastrophic slide in the One News/Colmar Brunton poll of 17 August.
Amidst all the smoke and flames of Turei’s and the Greens auto-da-fé, however, it was easy to miss the less dramatic, but
equally important, decline in the fortunes of Peters and NZ First.
The outcome of the 2017 General Election may now turn on
whether or not Peters is able to discern the full strategic significance of
On his multiple tours of the provinces, Peters had
registered a great deal of anger and resentment: feelings which, like Donald
Trump, he believed he could distil into a winning brew of electoral moonshine.
But, anger and resentment aren’t the only emotions out there in the electorate.
As the heart-breaking responses to Turei’s turn towards the poor made clear, so
are desperation and despair.
‘The Wave’ is not, however, generated by anger and
resentment; nor is it impelled by desperation and despair. These raw emotions
are just the foam at the Wave’s crest. Driving the Wave is a massive tide of
dissatisfaction with the way New Zealand society is evolving. The voters want
change, yes, but not for the purposes of punishing their fellow citizens and/or
destroying the things they hold dear. The change they are seeking is creative
and constructive; change to usher-in a fairer, more inclusive and more joyous
A dark and glowering Winston Peters hurling rhetorical
thunderbolts at all and sundry will find himself very poorly placed to
participate positively in such creative change. But, a wise and benevolent
Winston Peters, determined to render every possible assistance to New Zealand’s
youngest prime minister in more than a century (think Winston Churchill and the
young Queen Elizabeth) will leave behind a political legacy of no small
All the great historical changes contain a blending of
radical and conservative impulses: a determination to construct a better future
on the solid foundations of a cherished past. If Peters draws the correct
strategic lesson from Jacindamania, he will make himself the champion for all
that made New Zealand great – and can make it great again.
This essay was
originally published by The Press of Tuesday,
22 August 2017.
Magic-Woman: The mantle of success has already been draped over Jacinda’s shoulders. Victory advances towards her with arms outstretched. Her followers are convinced they know how this year’s election is going to end. She has filled them to the brim with hope. That’s the Magic – that’s the trick. Photo by JOHN MILLER
THAT JACINDA ARDERN has the “Magic” is not now in dispute.
Labour’s campaign launch proved it many times over. Not only in terms of the
200m-long queue stretching back from the Auckland Town Hall doors. Not only
because the whole event went off without a hitch. Not only because Jacinda’s
speech was an absolute blinder. The Magic resides in the fact that everyone
involved in the launch: the organisers, the media, the audience itself; had
turned up anticipating a triumph.
The mantle of success has already been draped over Jacinda’s
shoulders. Victory advances towards her with arms outstretched. Her followers
are convinced they know how this year’s election is going to end. She has
filled them to the brim with hope. That’s the Magic – that’s the trick.
The enormous significance of political magic is made clear
principally by its absence. None of Jacinda’s four male predecessors had it.
Contact lenses and a new haircut couldn’t make it appear. Speechwriters working
in shifts couldn’t summon it. Focus groups couldn’t even tell the party where
to look for it. But no Labour member; no Labour voter; had the slightest
difficulty understanding that the Magic was passing them by.
Because, without the Magic, the party’s leaders were just so
many talking heads; and its policies just so many (so many!) words on paper.
They could be wheeled out in front of the public, but the public couldn’t be
persuaded to notice them. Promises to do good things could be announced,
re-announced, and then announced all over again – and, still, nobody believed
them. Absent the Magic, why should they? The party was never going to be in a
position to make them happen.
But, oh, what a difference, when the Magic finally appears!
First, there’s the shock of recognition. In Jacinda’s case, that came just a
few seconds into her first media conference as Leader. No one had addressed the
Press Gallery with such effortless authority since the departure of Helen Clark
in 2008. The journalists all thought they knew Jacinda Ardern, but they were
wrong. The Jacinda Ardern with power was a very different person from the
Jacinda Ardern without it. That mysterious and indefinable “gift of grace” – kharisma in Ancient Greek – had taken up
residence in Jacinda Ardern, and she was changed.
No call now for tedious recitations of party policy. When
the Magic is with you people don’t want to know the details of any particular
reform, they want to know its purpose. And that’s what this sudden infusion of
charisma has done for Jacinda. It has enabled her to communicate the passion
and the urgency of her intentions with striking clarity – as when she declared
Climate Change to be her generation’s “nuclear-free moment”.
Page after page of earnest policy proposals could never have
achieved the political impact of that single sentence. Like David Lange’s
in/famous quip that “you can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard”, Jacinda’s
“my generation’s nuclear-free moment” political marker discloses a potent
combination of emotion and aspiration. Not the least of which is her clear
determination to not only participate in History, but to shape it.
This essay was
originally posted on The Daily Blog
of Monday, 21 August 2017.
Oi! Jacinda! No!If Jacinda Ardern follows the advice of her advisers to scale back voter expectations and re-commit to the Labour/Green "Budget Responsibility Rules", then she will endanger everything she has achieved to date.
“DON’T YOU DARE, Jacinda Ardern. Don’t you dare!” That’s
what I shouted at the television screen as she started hosing-down the
political prairie fire she’d so spectacularly ignited barely a fortnight
before. Someone, somewhere, had impressed upon her the importance of
walking-back the expectations that “Jacindamania” is raising – especially among
Someone, somewhere, has drawn her attention to Labour’s
longstanding commitment to fiscal rectitude. Rapidly rising voter expectations
of increased government spending on education, health and welfare are
threatening to make a bonfire of the party’s much-vaunted “Budget
Responsibility Rules” and, clearly, her advisers are insisting that she dampen
But, if she heeds this advice, Ardern will endanger
everything she has achieved to date. Instead of being hailed as Labour’s
political saviour: the woman whose sunny ways have thrown her four dismal
predecessors into shadow; she will begin to look like a front-person. A phoney.
All that promise; all that thrilling sense of now, at last,
Labour has a leader equal to the challenges New Zealand faces; will dissipate.
The radiance of “The Jacinda Affect” will fade. And, in the ensuing gloom, we
will see only a smiley-face puppet whose strings are being pulled by the same
grey men who gave us Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew
Little. Those “leaders” who failed us by making promises, and then, almost
immediately, taking them back again.
According to her Wikipedia entry, Ardern has a BA in
communications. So, I’m betting there’s a little voice telling her not to
listen to her over-cautious advisers. A little voice demanding to know why she
is putting her dream-run to the Ninth Floor of the Beehive at risk.
She should listen to that little voice, and ignore the
voices of all those telling her that the sky will fall if an Ardern-led Labour
Government deviates even a smidgen from the numbers set down in the
Labour/Green Budget Responsibility Rules. Because it won’t.
No need to take my word for it, however. This is what Aussie
economist, Professor Bill Mitchell, from the University of Newcastle, NSW, said
when asked to comment on the rigid fiscal parameters set down in Labour’s and
the Greens’ budget rules. He described them as “the height of economic
Responding to RNZ’s Wallace Chapman on the Sunday Morning programme of 30 July,
Mitchell went on to argue that, since roughly 1 in 8 New Zealanders are either
underemployed or unemployed; a third of our children live in poverty; and we
have record levels of household debt – “so you’ve got consumption expenditure
being driven by debt which is an unsustainable process” – and since we have an
external sector that’s draining spending through current account deficits; the
very idea of running a fiscal surplus is, in Mitchell’s own words,
“irresponsible in the extreme.”
Of course all those grey men whispering in her ear will tell
Ardern that Bill Mitchell is a crank whose views should, on no account, be
heeded. But that is what the advisers to the British Labour Party’s tragic
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Snowden, said about John Maynard Keynes
in 1929. And it is also, I’m guessing, what all the people she got to know in
Tony Blair’s office said about Jeremy Corbyn’s “For the Many, Not the Few”
manifesto. Grey, cautious men will always tender grey, cautious advice.
But if she really means to be New Zealand’s Justin Trudeau,
then Ardern should follow his campaign strategy. Trudeau saw the New Democratic
Party (Canada’s Labour Party) doing everything it could to be “responsible” –
to the point where Canadians found it difficult to distinguish Thomas Mulcair’s
NDP from Steven Harper’s Conservatives. Seeing the political opening before him
Trudeau said something along the lines of “Let’s do this!” – and won.
Don’t hose down the expectations you have raised, Jacinda.
Be guided, instead, by Bill Mitchell:
“[W]hat you’ve got in New Zealand is similar to many other
countries in the advanced world. You’ve got the so-called “progressive parties”
– the Greens and the Labour Party, who have abandoned [their traditional
roles]. The Greens are sort of neoliberals on bikes. And the Labour Party are
Neoliberal-Lite. They say, we’ll do austerity – but we’ll do it fairer.”
Except: “There’s no such thing as fair austerity when a
third of your children are living in poverty.”
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 August 2017.
Worth Protecting? The threat to the nation’s water is real and it demands action. What’s more, the Water Issue comes with a whole cast of ready-made villains: someone to take the blame. Farmers.
WHO CAN FORGET that magic childhood moment when you first
opened your eyes underwater? I remember mine like it was yesterday. I was
splashing about in the Waianakarua River in North Otago. The first thing I saw
when I put my head under the water and opened my eyes was a red and green “Pure
New Zealand Honey” tin. So clear was the water that I could easily make out the
bees and clover-heads printed on its surface. (Quite why the tin was in the
river, which was otherwise blissfully free of litter, I never discovered!)
We all have memories like this of New Zealand’s rivers and
streams. Those deep, clear swimming holes that family and friends frequented
during the long, hot days of summer. It may be years since we visited them, but
they feature prominently in our mental and emotional landscapes. They are
places of the heart.
Which is why, when we hear about the extent to which New
Zealand’s rivers and streams have become unswimmable, the impact is
devastating. Whatever it is that’s polluting and degrading our waterways, it is
also befouling our memories.
Understandably, these sort of emotional connections are
tremendously concerning to the politicians on whose watch our waterways are
being polluted. Be they central, regional or local government representatives,
all are acutely aware that the “Water Issue” is not only one of the big Voter
Motivators of 2017, but that it has also become a symbol of New Zealand’s
entire beleaguered environment.
The devastations of global warming loom ahead of humanity – and
that’s the problem. As a species we are notoriously prone to ignoring all but
the most immediate threats. All of the measures which New Zealand (and a great
many other countries) refuse to countenance when it comes to mitigating the
effects of climate change would be adopted in an instant if we found ourselves
at war. Indeed, “Victory Gardens”, compulsory re-cycling, and the strict
rationing of fossil fuels were an accepted part of people’s everyday lives
during World War II.
The threat to the nation’s water, however, is very much in
the here and now. It’s real and it demands action. What’s more, the Water Issue
comes with a whole cast of ready-made villains: someone to take the blame.
And don’t they know it! The dairy industry is spending millions
of dollars on public relations and advertising in an attempt to repair the
damage done to the reputation of New Zealand farmers by the Green Party. The
latter’s “Dirty Dairying” campaign, spearheaded by Russel Norman in the run-up
to the 2014 election, turned urban New Zealanders off farmers in droves.
Justified or unjustified, the connection between the vast expansion of this
country’s dairy herd and the degradation of its waterways has been made. And
all the beautifully shot images of salt-of-the-earth farming families walking
their cows to milking in the dawn’s early light are not going to break it.
It gets worse. The National Party, which Labour’s Michael
Cullen once described as “Federated Farmers at prayer”, is increasingly being
identified as Dirty Dairying’s prime protectors and enablers. More and more
voters are noticing that while the Department of Conservation has been wantonly
downsized and cruelly starved of funding, the National-led Government has
lavished hundreds-of-millions of dollars on irrigation schemes designed to
further expand New Zealand’s dairy industry.
Put all of the above together with National’s refusal to
enlist farmers in the war against global warming and the picture that emerges
is not a pretty one. Clearly, the befouled state of our rivers and streams is
merely the most visible and shocking evidence of an industry which has for
decades traded environmental degradation for profit. It is just the tip of New
Zealand’s rapidly melting environmental iceberg.
The real wonder of this year’s election is that the Greens
have not made more of their former leader’s extraordinary political gift. It’s
almost as if the party’s new co-leader, James Shaw, is frightened by the sheer
intensity of public feeling against the role played by farmers in the ruin of
our waterways. (Not to mention the giving away of New Zealand’s pristine
springwater to foreign bottling companies!)
If future generations of young New Zealanders are to
experience the joy and wonder of their wild water heritage, then today’s voters
need to open their eyes.
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, 30 June. 2017.
"Hell, Yeah!" - Labour must not retreat before National’s “Let’s Tax This!” counter-attack. Not when a majority of New Zealanders are ready to rescue their ailing public services from further deterioration. When National hurls the “tax and spend” accusation at Labour candidates they should respond instantly with a hearty “Hell, yeah!”
‘LET’S TAX THIS!’ Looks like being the National Party’s
strategic rejoinder to Jacinda Ardern’s “Let’s Do This!” campaign slogan. If it
is, then it deserves to be as ineffective as it is unoriginal. National’s campaign
manager, Steven Joyce, is experienced enough to know that making the Left’s
alleged propensity to “tax and spend” the central feature of a National Party
election campaign only works when Labour is in power.
The reason for this is obvious. One of the main reasons
National governments fall is because they are ideologically allergic to both
taxing and spending. As the years pass, and the necessary investments in
health, education, housing and infrastructure are withheld, the public starts
to notice a worrying decline in the quality and quantity of essential social
Urgent surgical operations are routinely deferred, or, worse
still, declined. School classrooms become overcrowded. The recruitment and
retention of qualified teachers becomes impossible. Demand for affordable
housing outstrips supply. Homelessness reaches crisis levels. Rivers and
streams become unswimmable. To all but the greedy and the cruel, the moral case
for increased taxation, to enable long-deferred public expenditure, is
Where New Zealand now stands, the need of a “tax and spend”
government is palpable. Voters convinced of this need are, therefore, unlikely
to run screaming for the hills at the prospect of a Labour government taking
office. That National is defaulting to such a tired old attack-line is a sign
not of strategic confidence – it actually signals something pretty close to
Why then is Mr Joyce rolling the dice so recklessly?
The most likely answer is that he believes Labour’s leaders
– most particularly its finance spokesperson, Grant Robertson – are
incorrigibly risk averse, and that they will recoil from National’s “Let’s Tax
This!” counter-attack in confusion and dismay.
On the strength of Labour’s performance under Andrew Little,
Mr Joyce’s gamble is not unreasonable. It was, after all, Mr Little who
nixed Labour’s 2011-2014 policy of introducing a capital gains tax. Nor was he
willing to countenance a sharp rise in the progressivity of the Income Tax. His
preference for a “working group” of “experts” to write his party’s tax policies
– but only after Labour has been safely elected – betrayed the Opposition’s
extraordinary sensitivity towards these issues.
Mr Joyce is hoping that the more pressure the National Party
is able to heap upon Labour in relation to tax, the more confused and equivocal
its spokespeople will become. This would be of enormous assistance to National;
not least because it would spike the Opposition’s rhetorical guns on at least
two issues where the Government is acutely vulnerable: Auckland’s escalating
traffic woes; and the appalling condition of New Zealand’s waterways.
Ms Ardern’s bold policy announcements on both of these
issues have included unabashed references to such fiscal instruments as
regional fuel taxes, resource-use royalties and irrigation levies. Had she not
included these references, National’s charge would have been that Labour has no
idea how its promises will be paid for. By anticipating this criticism,
however, and countering it, Ms Ardern handed Mr Joyce the “Let’s Tax This!”
attack-line he was looking for.
For a day or two, Mr Joyce’s strategy appeared to be
working. Interviewed by Lisa Owen on the Three network’s current affairs
programme, “The Nation”, Mr Robertson’s confidence visibly faded when asked
whether or not Labour would be putting a capital gains tax back on the agenda.
As his opponent floundered, the wolfish grin on Finance Minister Joyce’s face
told the viewers everything they needed to know!
By the following day, however, Labour had developed an
attack-line of its own. Interviewed on TVNZ’s “Q+A”, Labour’s environment
spokesperson, David Parker, hit back against criticism of his party’s water
policies by turning the disparagement back on its originators. Mr Parker simply
demanded to know whether or not the Government, Federated Farmers,
horticulturalists and vintners were suggesting that the biggest contributors to
New Zealand’s water problems should be exempted entirely from making a
reasonable contribution to their solution?
That Mr Parker rebuked his critics while wearing an
expression that positively shouted: “You have got to be kidding me!”, made his
challenge even more persuasive. Television is an ideal medium for this sort of
non-verbal communication – As Mr Joyce had proved the day before.
Labour should not, therefore, retreat before National’s
“Let’s Tax This!” counter-attack. Not when a majority of New Zealanders are
ready to rescue their ailing public services from further deterioration. That
“taxation is the price we pay for civilisation” has become increasingly clear
over the nine years of Bill English’s undeclared, but unmistakeable, austerity
campaign against the public sector. When National hurls the “tax and spend”
accusation at Labour candidates they should respond instantly with a hearty
“Let’s Do This!” and “Let’s Tax This!” are simply different
ways of saying the same thing.
This essay was
originally published in The Press of
Tuesday, 15 August 2017.