Friday, 22 September 2017
I know Bill Clinton’s 1992 Campaign got to this song first, but what the Hell!
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
Don’t stop, it'll soon be here
It'll be even better than before,
Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone
Don’t stop, it'll soon be here
It'll be even better than before,
Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone
Don’t Stop – Fleetwood Mac
NOW, GET OUT THERE AND VOTE!
Video courtesy of YouTube
This post is exclusive to Bowalley Road.
Sheer, Red-Baiting Idiocy: Here, just five days out from a general election, was proof that, in this country, there are still places which remain entirely untouched by the sunlight of the twenty-first century.
ON THE EVE of Women’s Suffrage Day, a Waikato cow-cockie was photographed carrying a sign declaring Jacinda Ardern to be “a pretty communist”. In terms of reasons for feeling outraged and affronted, Labour supporters were spoiled for choice. Should they be outraged at the overt sexism of the “pretty”? Or affronted by the sheer, red-baiting idiocy of the “communist”? Then again, a compelling case could be made for being disturbed by the whole extraordinary image. Here, just five days out from a general election, was proof that, in this country, there are still places which remain entirely untouched by the sunlight of the twenty-first century.
So unenlightened are these ideological troglodytes that they have yet to grasp the fact that the milk from their cows; the liquid that gets processed into powder in Fonterra’s factories; the export product that gets loaded onto ships; is bound for a country ruled entirely and exclusively by members of the Communist Party of China. That’s right! The people who keep our cow cockies in their tractors and utes may not be all that pretty, but they are, most emphatically, communists!
Another fact these strange subterranean folks seem to have forgotten (assuming they ever knew it in the first place) is that the comprehensive free-trade agreement between New Zealand and the Peoples Republic of China – the first such document ever signed by the Chinese state and a democratic western nation – was negotiated by the Labour Government of Helen Clark. That’s right! The world’s largest market for milk powder; the market that kept New Zealand’s dairy industry afloat through the dark days of the Global Financial Crisis; had been opened up for them by a left-wing woman – from the Waikato.
Not that the New Zealand Right’s blind hatred of all things Left is anything new. Throughout this country’s history, conservative Kiwis have demonstrated an exaggerated fear – bordering on full-blown paranoia – of “the wrong sort of people” (i.e. those not farmers or businessmen) being able to exercise the slightest measure of control over their lives.
The Right’s fear of being governed by the Left is not born out of strong libertarian principle. It is not as though the very idea of one group of human-beings exercising control over another is anathema to right-wing politicians and their supporters. After all, the Right is only too happy to use the full panoply of state power against those whose economic and social subordination is deemed essential to securing their own social and economic ascendancy. Indeed, the history of New Zealand is little more than the record of the Right’s never-ending struggle to resist and reverse the egalitarian policies and achievements of the Left.
Even when those policies and achievements have been to the obvious benefit of the nation as a whole, the Right has not, for a single moment, relented. On the morning of the 1938 General Election, for example, after three years of extraordinary progress under the First Labour Government, and with the ground-breaking Social Security Act due to come into force on 1 April 1939, this was the editorial warning the capital city’s morning newspaper delivered to its readers:
“Today you will exercise a free vote because you are under this established British form of government. If the socialist government is returned to power, your vote today may be the last free individual vote you will ever be given the opportunity to exercise in New Zealand.”
Over the top? Not according to a 1938 National Party circular to its parliamentary candidates:
“Oppose! Oppose! Oppose! That is the essential duty of Nationalist speakers. Use every possible play of words, every fact you can advance to show that your opponents are fools, political hypocrites, opportunists, seekers of power, despots, traitors to their own class, to their country, or their Empire.”
It was curiously reassuring, following the recent National Party claim that there is an $11.7 billion “hole” in the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Party’s fiscal plan, to discover how little the Right’s strategic approach to fighting general elections has changed.
Be it the democratic nightmares of conservative leader-writers, or the fever-dreams of red-baiting Waikato cow-cockies, the right-wing reflex to “Oppose! Oppose! Oppose!” remains as strong as ever.
What is it the French say? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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, 22 September 2017.
Thursday, 21 September 2017
Let's Do This NOW! Elections are won when the electorate’s general preference for prosperity and stability is overwhelmed by its desire to turn the page and begin something new. When simply restoring the same old faces to the same old places no longer seems enough. When obtaining justice for past wrongs; and securing for themselves, and for their children, a different and better future; calls forth from the nation’s voters an unaccustomed measure of courage and daring. (Photo by JOHN MILLER)
KEITH RANKIN IS WRONG about Jacinda needing to lose this election. If that’s what happens on Saturday: if National somehow hauls itself back onto the Treasury Benches; then it is the purest folly to suppose that the election of 2020 will be a Labour walkover. If the Centre-Left cannot win in 2017, then the question that begs to be answered is: “Can it win at all?”
Presumably, Keith is being guided by the historical precedent of the 1969 “nearly-but-not-quite” election; That was the election which Labour lost by 14,000 votes, only to be swept into office three years later in the “It’s time!” election of 1972. Or, perhaps he’s thinking of the “Springbok Tour Election” of 1981, when National secured a two-seat majority in spite of receiving 4,122 fewer votes than the Labour Party nationwide. As happened in 1969, Labour’s narrow defeat was followed by a unambiguous victory three years later in the watershed snap-election of 1984.
If these are the precedents that Keith has in mind, then they deserve closer scrutiny. Especially since Keith’s reason for identifying the 2017 election as the one Jacinda needs to lose is that, in his opinion: “there will be a financial crisis next year … [which Labour] … is ill-equipped to handle … Further, it may take a major financial crisis (with Labour in Opposition) to drag Labour into the present century, just as the 1930s’ crisis belatedly dragged Labour into the twentieth century.”
Leaving aside the fact that Labour was very much a twentieth century political party (founded in 1916) and, therefore, in no need of being dragged anywhere; its failure to win the 1931 general election after close to three years of the most calamitous economic depression in modern history is highly instructive. Certainly, Labour expected to win and was deeply demoralised by the right-wing United-Reform Coalition’s electoral success.
Now, if we follow Keith’s thesis, Labour’s 1931 defeat merely presaged its inevitable victory of 1935. Except that Labour’s 1935 win was more a matter of good luck than good management. In fact, had the New Zealand Right not fallen into bitter factional strife over the best way to deal with the Great Depression, then there is absolutely no guarantee that Labour would have won. Certainly, if the country had had a proportional electoral system (as it does today) then the Centre-Left’s total of 46.5 percent may not have been enough.
Significant, also, in terms of Keith’s thesis, is the fact that, by 1935, the worst years of the Great Depression were over. The nadir had been reached in 1932, when widespread rioting had broken out in all of New Zealand’s major cities. Over the course of the next three years, however, the rapid spiral into misery and hopelessness had slowed. Although, it must be said, things were still very bad, and working-class hatred for the Coalition Government was palpable. Even so, the chance was there in 1935. Had the Right been united, and led by the moderate former prime-minister, Gordon Coates, Labour could have been run very close – and maybe even defeated.
Certainly, the sharp economic downturn of 1967-68 was insufficient to unseat the National Government of Keith Holyoake in 1969. What’s more, by late November 1972, the New Zealand economy was going gang-busters. There was over-full employment, wages were rising ahead of inflation, and the NZ Dollar was worth more than the US Dollar! And yet, in spite of all this good economic news, the electorate turfed-out Jack Marshall’s National Government with nary a backward glance.
Likewise, in 1984. The loud criticisms of his ideological foes in the finance sector and news media notwithstanding, Rob Muldoon’s two-year Wage & Price Freeze had brought inflation down to low single figures, and his Think Big projects in the regions had kept the unemployment rate well below 10 percent. Most impressive of all, however, was the stunning recovery in per capita GDP growth, which, at close to 6 percent, was an astonishing 8 percentage points higher than the recessionary -2 percent recorded the previous year. Not bad for a Polish shipyard!
None of these figures did Muldoon much good at the ballot-box in 1984, however. Attacked from the right by Bob Jones’s New Zealand Party, and from the left (or so we thought!) by David Lange’s Labour Party, National’s vote fell from 38.8 to 35.8 percent. (A surprisingly modest drop – all things considered!) Labour itself, lifted its vote from 39.0 to 42.9 percent. Another modest result – and well below the 48.4 percent share of the popular vote Labour had attracted in 1972 – the last time it won a general election.
The lesson to be drawn from these historical examples is that misery, alone, is insufficient to propel a left-wing party into power. If it was, then Labour would most certainly have been elected in 1931. Nor is economic success the key determinant of electoral outcomes. If it were, then Muldoon, like Holyoake in 1969, should have been able to fend off Lange’s challenge in 1984. [And, before anybody objects that New Zealand faced an economic crisis in 1984, I would remind them that the run on the $NZ was deliberately engineered by Roger Douglas, who “accidentally” left a position paper indicating Labour’s intention to order a devaluation of 20 percent if it won the election, lying on his chair for journalists to find at an election meeting in Auckland. – C.T.] Clearly, Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential Campaign Team’s oft-quoted quip: “It’s the economy, stupid!”, isn’t always true.
What is true, I think, is that elections are won when the electorate’s general preference for prosperity and stability is overwhelmed by its desire to turn the page and begin something new. When simply restoring the same old faces to the same old places no longer seems enough. When obtaining justice for past wrongs; and securing for themselves, and for their children, a different and better future; calls forth from the nation’s voters an unaccustomed measure of courage and daring.
The trick, of course, is to prevent that courage and daring from fading away. In this respect, it is not the general election of 1935 that changed New Zealand history, but the 1938 election which followed it. In the three years that separated that first Labour victory from the second, the government of Michael Joseph Savage had laid the groundwork for a genuine transformation of New Zealand society. Effectively, he was saying to the New Zealand people: “Three years is not enough to complete the task we have begun on your behalf. Give us your votes so we can finish the job.”
And that’s exactly what the people of New Zealand did. At an astonishing 55.8 percent, Labour’s share of the popular vote was the highest ever recorded at a New Zealand general election.
What I would say to Keith, therefore, is that Jacinda cannot afford to lose in 2017 – any more than Mickey Savage could afford to lose in 1935. The groundwork, for a fairer, smarter and environmentally sustainable New Zealand in the twenty-first century, needs to be laid over the course of the next three years, so that the true, the irreversible, transformation can take place in the years following the 2020 election. Just as there could have been no 1938 without 1935, there will be no 2020 without 2017.
We have to do this NOW.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 September 2017.
Wednesday, 20 September 2017
It’s the terror of knowing
What the world is about
What the world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming ‘Let me out’
Under Pressure - David Bowie/Queen
Video courtesy of YouTube
This posting exclusive to Bowalley Road.
Tuesday, 19 September 2017
Pretty Ugly, Pretty Quickly: That the demographic and cultural divide between rural and urban New Zealand remains a source of deep unease to farmers cannot be doubted. Equally indisputable, historically-speaking, has been the militant, even violent, character of rural New Zealand’s response. In New Zealand history, when the country comes to town, things tend to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly. Morrinsville, New Zealand, 18 September 2017.
YESTERDAY IN MORRINSVILLE farmers rallied against Labour’s proposed “Water Tax”. Why Morrinsville? Because that was the little country town in which Jacinda Ardern grew up. Just think about that for a moment. Think about what it says about the mindset of a distressingly large percentage of New Zealand’s farming community.
The president of the Waikato branch of Federated Farmers, Andrew McGiven, told the NZ Farmer newspaper that farmers were tired of being scapegoated by politicians. Another protest organiser, local farmer Lloyd Downing, complained to the same publication in similar fashion:
“The lack of fairness and consistency in some of the proposed policies, and the laying of blame solely at the feet of rural New Zealand for all of our environmental challenges is what is frustrating farmers – particularly when it is well known that the most polluted waterways are in urban catchments. The water quality issues are a challenge for all New Zealanders. Farmers recognise that, and are spending tens of thousands of dollars each on reducing their environmental impact.”
It was in response to these “continued attacks” on “rural New Zealand” that farmers rallied in their hundreds under Morrinsville’s giant cow statue.
New Zealanders like to think of themselves as people with strong ties to the land. It’s a fallacy which perhaps explains the enduring popularity of the television programme, Country Calendar. Except that, for most of its history, New Zealand has been an urban nation. Certainly, by the early years of the twentieth century most Kiwis resided and worked in towns and cities. In terms of their jobs, lifestyle and political outlook, these “townies” were a very different breed.
That this demographic and cultural divide between rural and urban New Zealand was a source of deep unease to farmers cannot be doubted. Equally indisputable, historically-speaking, has been the militant, even violent, character of rural New Zealand’s response. In New Zealand history, when the country comes to town, things tend to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly.
In 1913, for example, hundreds of armed farmers on horseback (known forever after as “Massey’s Cossacks” after the farmer-friendly Reform Party prime minister, William Massey) were brought into New Zealand’s major cities to crush what would come to be known as “The Great Strike”. According to New Zealand historian, James Belich, exchanges of gunfire between Massey’s Cossacks and the “Red Fed” strikers were common. Many of the trade unionists involved in the Great Strike later became MPs and Ministers in the First Labour Government.
One of those unionists was Peter Fraser. In 1945, as Prime Minister and Labour Party Leader, Fraser presided over the abolition of the infamous “Country Quota”. This was the section of New Zealand’s Electoral Act which, ever since 1881, had added a 25 percent weighting to votes cast in rural electorates.
The reaction of the farming community to Fraser’s long-overdue rectification of what can only be described as a democratic outrage is instructive. In his book, The Quest For Security In New Zealand 1840-1966, W B Sutch describes how Labour’s plans to abolish the Country Quota were met with “country-wide protests from farmers’ organisations, an appeal to the Governor-General asking him to intervene, and threats of direct action.” Quite what the cockies meant by “direct action” remains unclear, but the Dominion Executive of the Farmers’ Union (forerunner of Federated Farmers) was prepared to raise the then quite considerable sum of £250,000 to fund it!
The sort of thing the cockies had in mind only became clear in 1951, when the first farmers’ government since 1935 was willing to shut down New Zealand’s democracy for the 151 days it took Sid Holland’s National Party to replicate its Reform Party predecessor’s success in ruthlessly suppressing militant trade-unionism in the nation’s ports, coal mines, railways and freezing works.
Thirty years later, the reactionary cultural instincts of rural New Zealand were, once again, pitched into a prolonged and violent confrontation with the progressive values of metropolitan New Zealanders. The 1981 Springbok Tour not only bore testimony to the tenacity of rural conservatism, but also to its steady migration into the upper-middle-class suburbs of the largest cities.
When Mike Hosking challenged National’s current leader to name something he would march for, Dipton’s favourite son was at a loss. This was curious, since the photographs of a placard-carrying Bill English, seated jauntily on ‘Myrtle the Tractor’, at the 2003 Federated Farmers’ protest against the so-called “Fart Tax”, in Parliament Grounds, were still in the archives – and easily retrieved.
When Andrew McGiven and Lloyd Downing encouraged their rural brethren to gather under Morrinsville’s giant cow yesterday, they were simply adding another chapter to an already lengthy story of rural antagonism towards the needs and aspirations of New Zealand’s urban majority. The latter looked on, appalled, at the selfishness and ignorance which unfailingly follow the country into town.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 September 2017.
Monday, 18 September 2017
Labour Nearly Did This: It didn’t really seem possible that Labour could have lost. Its 1969 campaign had broken new ground in terms of media sophistication. Labour’s theme-song “Make Things Happen” had topped the local charts, and its television commercial, put together by a hungry young ad-man called Bob Harvey, was slicker than anything New Zealand voters had hitherto encountered.
“WE’VE GOT IT!” Was the triumphant (if incautious) assertion of the supposedly neutral Professor Bob Chapman on the night of the 1969 “nearly-but-not-quite” general election. The worthy professor should perhaps be forgiven for his premature psephological ejaculation. He had marked down the electorate of Eden as the seat Labour was bound to take if it was on-course to becoming the government. On the night, Labour’s candidate, the distinguished New Zealand historian, Professor Keith Sinclair, had taken it. Chapman, whose Labour sympathies were well known to his colleagues (if not to the television audience) had waited nine long years to see the National Government of Keith Holyoake defeated. And, half-way through the election-night telecast, it seemed as though his political patience was being rewarded. That Keith Sinclair was also Chapman’s good friend and colleague, merely slapped a good-sized dollop of icing on the cake.
By the end of the telecast, however, the story had changed. Sinclair’s narrow election-night majority notwithstanding, Labour had fallen four seats short of the 43 needed to win. An industrial dispute involving a ship called the Wainui – culminating in a march up Queen Street by the communist-dominated Seafarers’ Union – had cost the Labour leader, Norman Kirk, the Auckland seats he’d needed (and confidently expected) to secure the prime-minister’s job. Even Eden, after the counting of Special Votes, reverted to National’s John Rae by the wafer-thin margin of 67 votes.
It didn’t really seem possible that Labour could have lost. Its campaign had broken new ground in terms of media sophistication. Labour’s theme-song “Make Things Happen” had topped the local charts, and its television commercial, put together by a hungry young ad-man called Bob Harvey, was slicker than anything New Zealand voters had hitherto encountered. What’s more, between the 1966 and 1969 elections, New Zealand had passed through its sharpest economic downturn since the Second World War. Export prices had collapsed and unemployment had risen to a post-Depression peak. It seemed inconceivable that a nine-year-old government, offering such a lacklustre record, could possibly be re-elected. How was it that Holyoake won?
First-off, there was the rapidity of the country’s economic recovery. Export prices recovered and unemployment fell sharply in the months leading up to the 1969 election. National’s new finance minister, Rob Muldoon, was thus able to project competence and control in equal measure. To many voters, the 1967-68 recession seemed nothing more than a glitch, an aberrant departure from the steady upward trajectory of New Zealand’s post-war economic performance. Certainly, Muldoon’s message to the electorate was unequivocal: “I’ve got this!” His reputation as National’s “economic wizard” dates from this period.
But an improving economy wasn’t the only reason for National’s surprise win in 1969. There may have been growing ferment on the nation’s campuses, and increasing union militancy in the nation’s factories and freezing-works but, at heart, New Zealand remained a deeply conservative society. The events of the previous year: the annus horribilis of 1968; with its tragic list of assassinations (Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy) and its frightening clashes between young protesters and out-of-control police personnel (Paris, Chicago, Mexico City) had culminated not in revolution, but in the election of Richard Nixon as President of the United States. There was “something in the air”, alright – conservative paranoia!
And so, late in the evening of Saturday, 29 November 1969, it was a visibly relieved Keith Holyoake who gently chastised Professor Chapman for his earlier – premature – celebration of a Labour victory. Against all the odds, National’s three-term government had been returned for a fourth. Only the first Labour Government of Mickey Savage and Peter Fraser could boast an equal number of consecutive election victories (1935, 1938, 1943, 1946).
But, Holyoake was no fool. He knew that only “events, dear boy, events” had rescued his party from the jaws of certain defeat on 29 November 1969. Twenty-six months later, on 7 February 1972, just nine months out from the next scheduled general election, Holyoake would step away from the prime-ministership – passing-on a poison-smeared baton to his loyal deputy, Jack Marshall. Similarly, on the night of that agonisingly close contest (National’s 1969 vote, at 605,960, was just 13,905 votes ahead of Labour’s tally of 592,055) “Big Norm” Kirk was quietly confident that, in spite of losing the “nearly-but-not-quite” election of 1969, nothing short of divine intervention was going to prevent him from leading Labour to victory in 1972.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 18 September 2017.
Sunday, 17 September 2017
Let's Do This Now! New Zealand is poised to repeat the circumstances that produced the shock British election result of 2015. Those with a retentive political memory will recall how both the pollsters and the pundits were predicting an extremely close election which could very easily see the Labour Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, moving in to Number 10 Downing Street as Britain’s next prime minister. Didn’t happen.
IF, ON ELECTION NIGHT 2017, you end up staring at the numbers in horrified disbelief. If National proves the people at Reid Research are the best pollsters in the business. If the Jacinda Train runs out of puff several percentage-points short of being able to form a government. If the Greens: the dear, earnest, tree-hugging Greens; fall below the 5 percent MMP threshold. If, after all these calamities, you’re casting about in your anger and your grief for an explanation, then reclaim from the back of your mind this crucial piece of information from Elections New Zealand.
As at 15 September, just over a week out from Election Day, “nearly 20,000 fewer young people under 30 [have] registered compared with 2014”.
Got that? Notwithstanding the fact that the leadership of the Labour Party has passed to a young woman of 37. Notwithstanding the fact that Labour is promising to enact a suite of policies aimed directly at addressing the problems besetting young New Zealanders. Notwithstanding the fact that the most future-focused of all New Zealand political parties, the Greens, are at serious risk of being ushered out of Parliament altogether. Notwithstanding all of these things, fewer citizens under 30 have registered than three years ago!
New Zealand is poised to repeat the circumstances that produced the shock British election result of 2015. Those with a retentive political memory will recall how both the pollsters and the pundits were predicting an extremely close election which could very easily see the Labour Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, moving in to Number 10 Downing Street as Britain’s next prime minister.
As polling stations across the British Isles closed their doors, and the counting began, the BBC released an exit poll indicating a comfortable win for the British Conservative Party. Pundits and Opposition politicians alike were dumbfounded. When all the polls were predicting a close race – and some a Labour win – how could the BBC’s exit poll possibly be true?
The Tories knew the answer. They had cottoned-on to what was happening weeks before. All those young Britons who’d happily told the pollsters that they supported Ed Miliband and Labour were by no means as committed to making their way to a polling-booth and actually voting for them. Older voters, on the other hand, were borderline obsessive when it came to exercising the franchise. And guess what? Around three-quarters of them were Tories.
Two years later, back here in New Zealand, the chances of something very similar unfolding are distressingly high. Just consider these additional stats from Elections New Zealand:
“So far, 97 percent of people over 70 have enrolled to vote, but as the age drops, so does the percentage. Only 75 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 29 enrolled to vote and that proportion dropped to 67 percent for 18 to 24-year-olds.”
Combine that data with the latest Colmar Brunton poll’s finding that 67 percent of voters aged between 18 and 34 told the pollster that they were intending to vote for the Labour Party. 1New’s political editor, Corin Dann, has described this as a “youthquake” – and if 18 to 34-year-olds voted in anything like the same numbers as the over-60s, then he’d be right, and Labour/Green would cruise to a stunning election victory.
But, will they? In 2014 around 200,000 young New Zealanders declined to cast a vote. If that degree of abstention is repeated in 2017, then the same gasps of disbelief that greeted the BBC’s exit poll in 2015 will likely be heard here as the Early Voting figures are released on the evening of 23 September. Youthquakes are not born of young voters’ stated intentions, they only occur when young people get themselves to a polling station, step into a booth, fill out a ballot-paper, and drop it into a ballot-box. Jacinda will not become prime minister by millennials liking her on Facebook. To effect a change of government, it is absolutely necessary that young New Zealanders vote.
Among all this doom and gloom there is, however, some good news.
When the Tory British Prime Minister, Teresa May, called a snap election earlier this year, the pundits and pollsters were determined not to be caught napping a second time. If younger citizens, in spite of declaring their support for a political party, don’t actually make it to the polling booths, reasoned the pollsters, then we must adjust our raw results to take account of the high level of youth abstention.
Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of polls released prior to the June British election showed the Conservatives increasing their parliamentary majority. Many of the British pundits went further – predicting a massive collapse in Labour support across the country.
Young British voters had learned from the experience of 2015. They understood that if Jeremy Corbyn’s “For the Many, Not the Few” manifesto promises were ever to be honoured, then they would have to get out and vote for them. Which is exactly what they did – in numbers far surpassing the youth turnout of 2015. Support for the Labour Party surged. Teresa May lost her parliamentary majority.
The moral of the story is pretty bloody clear: VOTE!
You can enrol, and vote, at your nearest Advance Voting polling station (check out their locations at www.elections.org.nz ) right up until 22 September. It is NOT possible to enrol on Election Day itself (Saturday, 23 September) so – VOTE EARLY.
And once you’ve enrolled and voted, make sure everyone you know, who’s 18 and over, and wants to change the government, GOES OUT AND DOES THE SAME.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 16 September 2017.
Friday, 15 September 2017
Auckland cartoonist Toby Morris has produced this superb pictorial commentary on National's campaign tactics. His chilling adaptation of the Nat's "Winning Runners" television ad exposes the class warfare which, when all the superficialities are stripped away, constitutes the dark matter of every general election.
This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.
Victory Lies Ahead, Comrades! Allowing the Greens to make the case for change; assessing the force and quality of the Right’s objections; and then, following a period of extensive consultation, fashioning a suite of reforms acceptable to a solid majority of New Zealanders. Such is the royal-road to making Labour the dominant force in New Zealand politics.
IT’S NOT OFTEN in electoral politics that a party is given a second chance to get it right. In 1999, Labour and the Alliance (with the Greens more-or-less in tow) were gifted the chance to craft a political relationship that could have grown into a near-permanent lock on New Zealand’s still-new MMP electoral system. That neither partner in the Labour-Alliance coalition had the wit to seize, or even understand, the opportunity before them is a testament to the woeful immaturity of the New Zealand Left.
Perhaps the best way to describe the opportunity missed by Labour and the Alliance (and, after 2002, the Greens) is by deploying a military analogy.
Think of Labour as a large army marching through enemy territory. (The analogy works best if the army you’re imagining is a nineteenth century one – think of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, or Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.) The much smaller army of the Alliance is spread out well ahead of Labour’s line of march. Its role: to reconnoitre the territory into which Labour is marching; noting the disposition of the enemy’s troops; their strongpoints; and the places where their defences are weak and vulnerable to attack. Should the enemy encounter the smaller force, the resulting engagement will give the larger army plenty of time to prepare its defences.
For a while, it looked as though the Labour-Alliance combination had decided to work in precisely this fashion. The radical policies of the Alliance – especially those relating to employer-funded Paid Parental Leave and the rolling-back of the Employment Contracts Act – provoked a vehement backlash from the business community. Labour was, thereby, warned in advance of exactly where and how the enemy would attack these measures if they were adopted as official government policy.
Unfortunately, Labour failed to make good strategic use of this advance warning. When the business community’s counterattack came (in the form of the infamous “Winter of Discontent” of the year 2000) Labour fell back in confusion. The Alliance’s policies were slaughtered. Never again would the centre-left armies of Helen Clark and Jim Anderton engage the forces of the Right across such a broad front.
Indeed, in the General Election of 2002, the forces of the centre-left found themselves fighting each other. Labour and the Greens, at loggerheads over the issue of Genetic Engineering, were unwilling to march together. Abandoned by its natural ally, Helen Clark reluctantly joined forces with Peter Dunne’s United Future Party.
Reassured that there would be no more left-wing offensives, National concentrated on reinvigorating its worn-out fighting machine and prepared to take the fight to Labour. In 2005, Labour just managed to hold them at the border. But, in 2008, National brushed aside Helen’s broken army and occupied huge swathes of Labour territory.
Nine years later, under the command of its Joan-of-Arc-like leader, Jacinda Ardern, Labour is again presented with the opportunity to take the fight to the Right. Once again, they have an opportunity to send their radical allies out ahead of their main force to draw enemy fire and provide Labour with the information required to seize the strategic initiative.
If Ms Ardern and her advisers decline to accept this second chance to put things right – or, in this context, left – then they will, once again, have denied to themselves, their party, and their radical Green allies, the opportunity of making steady progressive reform New Zealand’s political default setting.
Allowing the Greens to make the case for change; assessing the force and quality of the Right’s objections; and then, following a period of extensive and authentic public consultation, fashioning a suite of reforms acceptable to a solid majority of New Zealanders. Such is the royal-road to making Labour the dominant force in New Zealand politics.
The test will be whether or not Ms Ardern is willing to follow the example of her mentor Helen Clark. In 1999, with the Greens under sustained attack from National, Ms Clark tipped the wink to Labour’s Coromandel supporters to give their electorate vote to the Green co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons.
If, next week, the Greens are still at risk of falling below the 5 percent MMP threshold, and Ms Ardern tips the wink to Labour’s Wellington Central voters to back James Shaw, then we can be sure that the forces of Centre-Left are, once again, on the march.
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, 15 September 2017.
Thursday, 14 September 2017
Enough of "Let's do this", Jacinda. It's time to say "Let's do them!" Labour thought it could bluff its way through this election with warm fuzzies and vague promises. They assumed that these would be enough because the electorate has grown weary of the National Government. Well, the Newshub-Reid Research Poll has reminded them in no uncertain terms that this is still a fight.
FIRST OF ALL, it’s just one poll. And, one poll does not a Labour election loss portend. RNZ’s Poll of Polls which averages out the results of the three or four most recent polls, presents a considerably calmer picture. In a nutshell, National and Labour are level-pegging; NZ First and the Greens are drifting dangerously close to the 5 percent MMP threshold; the Maori Party looks set to take two seats; Act just one; and the rest (including The Opportunity Party) simply aren’t in the race.
Even so. The latest Newshub-Reid Research Poll has delivered a pretty solid kidney-punch to the Centre-Left’s morale. What had begun to feel like a smooth escalator ride to certain victory has been brought to a sudden, stomach-lurching halt. The Nat’s are sitting pretty on 47 percent – enough, with the Greens out of the running, to let them govern on their own.
The cynical genius of the Crosby-Textor pairing has armed the National Party with a pretty serviceable baseball bat and they are swinging it hard. Frustratingly, that Nat bat has been carved out of Labour’s errors. In a fine example of Crosby-Textor’s standard operating procedure. National’s fightback strategy zeroes-in on Labour’s point of maximum vulnerability: their MPs’ abiding fear of stating clearly what it is that they intend to do – and how they intend to pay for it.
Instead of responding to National’s “Let’s Tax This” jibe with a resounding “Hell, Yeah!”, Jacinda has been persuaded to double-down on the Little-led Labour Party’s “keep it vague until the election’s safely won” strategy. The Tax Working Group was supposed to save Labour’s blushes by placating voters with the promise of wise and disinterested expertise. Clearly, the party strategists failed to read the Brexit Memo. Had they done so, they would have been alerted to the fact that the electorate’s faith in “expert opinion” has grown rather thin of late. The stock response of 2017 voters to the prospect of having their future decided by a committee of experts is: “Whose experts will they be?” and “Which side will they be working for?”
Forced to rule out more and more of the promised Working Group’s most predictable recommendations, Jacinda has been made to look as if she already knows what her committee’s findings are going to be – but is reluctant to tell us. This merely reinforces the doubts National has been at such pains to sow. Tactically, her position is grim. As Paddy Gower observes:
“Part of Labour’s problem is that it keeps ruling certain tax variations out during heavy interviews. That keeps the story going. And the problem now is there is no way out for Labour – it cannot backtrack on this. It has to take its vague tax policy all the way to the election – and National will hack at it every step of the way. Labour must find a way out of the tax vortex. Suggestions on back of an envelope to J. Ardern of Mt Albert please.”
Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time for snail mail. So, Jacinda, please accept the following as my best shot at describing “a way out of the tax vortex”.
Strategically, Labour’s best bet is to go on the offensive over tax. Not by responding to endless challenges to rule this or that tax out of contention, but by reminding voters why they pay taxes in the first place. Give it to the voters straight. That if they want better health care, better education, more affordable housing, improved mental health services and clean rivers and streams, then they cannot avoid the question of how all these things are to be paid for. Tell them that Labour’s Tax Working Group will be asked to come up with the fairest ways to gather revenue, but also tell them that they should not be in any doubt that gathering-in more revenue is, simply, what her government has to do if it is to fulfil its promises to repair the damage wrought by nine years of National rule.
Jacinda should remind the electorate that the determination of tax policy: how much should be gathered, and from whom; goes to the very heart of the democratic tradition. It’s why Kings were required to summon Parliaments. It provided the rallying cry for the American Revolution: “No taxation without representation!” Taxes are the price we pay for civilisation – and democracy.
And then she should turn her attention to the farmers. Because, with their bare-faced lies and angry demonstrations, they have shown the rest of New Zealand exactly why a Working Group to improve the fairness of our taxation system is needed. The farming sector’s dirty dairying has been subsidised by urban taxpayers for long enough. A reasonable contribution from farmers to the cost of cleaning up the waterways they have so recklessly befouled is only fair. Jacinda should invite all those who believe farmers should pay a water tax to join her and James Shaw outside the headquarters of Federated Farmers in Wellington. The spiteful decision of Waikato cow-cockies to protest in Jacinda’s home-town of Morrinsville should be answered in kind.
Labour thought it could bluff its way through this election with warm fuzzies and vague promises. They assumed that these would be enough because the electorate has grown weary of the National Government. Well, the Newshub-Reid Research Poll has reminded them in no uncertain terms that this is still a fight.
The National Party doesn’t do surrender. It understands what the Centre-Left appears to have forgotten: that every general election involves a deliberate intensification of what Labour’s founders referred to unashamedly as “the class struggle”. Or, in the words of Leonard Cohen: “the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.”
“Sunny Ways” have taken Jacinda a long way, but now it is time for her to unleash a blast of true arctic fury. “Fear and lying” is a good start, but, to put it bluntly, at this point in the campaign Labour’s voters are in need of a much more visceral morale boost. The opportunity is there to deliver a blunt message to all those who believe that taxes are what other people pay.
National’s friends in the countryside have raised their hands against “Let’s do this”. It’s time to show them what it means.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 13 September 2017.
Tuesday, 12 September 2017
“We will not give up. We will not give in. We will not give way, because the hour is too late, the threats are multiplying. The storm is rising and the Green Party is the only party that is ready and willing to meet it.”
James Shaw - Green Party Leader
Video of The Doors Riders On The Storm courtesy of YouTube
This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.
The Politics Of Addition: The objective of all intelligent and compassionate citizens entering the polling-booths between now and 7:00pm on 23 September cannot be as narrow and sectarian as “dragging the neoliberal Labour Party” leftwards. The most important task, at this crucial moment in our country’s history, is for progressives of every ideological persuasion to provide both Labour and the Greens with the votes they need to take New Zealand forwards.
THE BIG QUESTION confronting progressive voters in this election is: how do they elect a genuine centre-left government? Is this best achieved by abandoning the Greens and delivering the entire progressive vote to Labour? Or, should at least some progressive voters step off the Jacinda Train and re-board the Greens – thereby delivering Labour a reliable and ideologically compatible coalition partner? Neither of these options are as politically straightforward as they seem. Predicting the behaviour of our friends can be every bit as difficult as anticipating the actions of our foes.
Perhaps the most reliable barometer of voter intentions is RNZ’s “Poll of Polls” (PoP). The most recent of these puts the Greens on 5.4 percent – perilously close to the 5 percent MMP threshold. Even if all of this support flowed to Labour, currently at 41.8 percent in the PoP, however, the result (47.2 percent) would be insufficient to land it on the Treasury Benches. And, of course, not every last Green voter would abandon their party for Labour, making it even less likely that Labour could form a centre-left government on its own.
The veteran left-wing activist, John Minto, is very clear about how progressive voters should resolve this problem:
“In the current political situation only the Green Party has a realistic chance of dragging the neo-liberal Labour Party significantly to the left in a post-election government. Without the Greens, Labour will tinker here and tinker there, while leaving the free market to run a country bitterly divided by poverty and inequality.”
Putting to one side, John’s bald characterisation of Labour as a “neoliberal” party, his clear preference is for progressive voters to get over their Jacinda-inspired “rush of blood to the head”, and march back into Green Party territory. The problem with this position is that it assumes the voters deciding between Labour and the Greens are engaged in a simple, zero-sum game. Walk back from Labour’s camp to the Greens’ and the level of their voter support will rise in inverse proportion to Labour’s.
But, as we have seen, this will not be enough. Simply churning the Labour/Green vote gets neither party over the line and into government. The brutal truth, which John refuses to face, is that the current “progressive vote” – if it remains static – is not quite big enough to secure a “pure” centre-left government. Once accepted, that admittedly lamentable state of affairs leaves Jacinda with only one choice. If the Left can’t get her over the line, she will have to look to the Right.
In this respect, her predicament is no different to that of Helen Clark’s in both 2002 and 2005. Once again, John’s political judgement is very clear:
“On past evidence, Labour will choose to go with New Zealand First ahead of the Greens. In their three terms from 1999 to 2008 that was the pattern.”
Except, that wasn’t the pattern at all.
In 1999, Labour was committed to forming a centre-left coalition with the Alliance. On election night, it seemed as though the Greens had (just) failed to secure any parliamentary representation at all, prompting Labour and the Alliance to fulfil their promise to the voters by announcing the formation of a clearly-signalled, centre-left government. When the Special Vote Count put the Green Party (just) over the 5 percent threshold, and deposited seven Green MPs in Parliament, they happily agreed to support the new Labour-Alliance Government on all matters of confidence and supply.
In 2002, Labour, Jim Anderton’s Progressives and the Green Party, with 63 seats between them, could very easily have formed a centre-left government. Why this didn’t happen can be explained in just two words: Genetic Engineering. The Greens had made a moratorium on the release of genetically-engineered organisms a bottom-line of any coalition agreement with Labour. But, badly stung electorally by the so-called “Corngate Scandal”, Labour was in no mood to trust the Greens on this issue. Both sides refused to compromise and the negotiations fell through. Clark turned to the “common sense” United Future Party and a deal was Dunne.
In 2005 the numbers were even tighter. The Labour/Progressive/Green seat tally came to just 57 – not enough to form a majority government. With the addition of NZ First’s and United Future’s seats, however, Clark had a comfortable working majority. Had it been up to her, the Greens would have been given at least a couple of seats in a broad coalition Cabinet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up to her. Both Winston Peters and Peter Dunne had made the Greens’ exclusion from the Executive a non-negotiable condition of their support. Had the Greens won 10 seats in 2005, Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons would have become Ministers. That they were able to win only 6 seats, kept them out of the Cabinet Room and, almost literally, broke Rod’s heart.
That’s the history – and the lesson to be drawn from it couldn’t be clearer. The election of a centre-left government only becomes possible when the number of voters prepared to vote for progressive policies grows – as it did in 1999, when, between them, Labour, the Alliance and the Greens accounted for 51.64 percent of the Party Vote.
Jacinda’s ability to form a genuine centre-left government after election day will not be enhanced by swapping votes between Labour and the Greens, but by growing the vote of both parties. John’s imprecations notwithstanding, it should not be a matter of progressives already committed to voting switching their allegiance, but of their encouraging as many good-hearted New Zealanders as possible out of the Non-Vote and into the electoral fray. The objective of all intelligent and compassionate citizens entering the polling-booths between now and 7:00pm on 23 September cannot be as narrow and sectarian as “dragging the neoliberal Labour Party” leftwards. The most important task, at this crucial moment in our country’s history, is for progressives of every ideological persuasion to provide both Labour and the Greens with the votes they need to take New Zealand forwards.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 September 2017.
It's Time! The cumulative effect of New Zealand politicians' twenty-year failure to keep strong a generalised faith in the possibility of a better future, has been to set up an election – this election – in which victory will be claimed by the political leader who convinces a majority of New Zealanders that if they want their country to remain the same, then everything will have to change.
NEW ZEALANDERS REQUIRE a lot of persuading to embrace change. It’s a bitter truth for radicals of every stripe to swallow, but New Zealand is an inherently conservative country. Understanding the reasons why Kiwis are so anxious for things to stay the same is, therefore, the essential first lesson for those seeking to change them.
The most important driver of conservative attitudes is having something to lose. That’s why the cliché, “there’s nothing more dangerous than a person with nothing left to lose”, is wrong. The most dangerous people in the world are not the dispossessed, but those who believe their possessions are about to be taken from them. The defining emotion of human-beings who have lost everything is despair. The emotions that define those who believe they are about to be dispossessed are fear and rage – very often murderous rage. It’s the reason why revolutions almost always descend into civil wars.
Herein lies the paradox for the change-makers. Their best chance of radically reforming society comes when those teetering on the edge of poverty – or even of becoming appreciably less affluent – convince themselves that they’re on the point of falling. It is among those most anxious about slipping down the social hierarchy that the promise of a particular kind of change resonates most strongly. The political movement and/or party that comes up with a programme of change which reassures the economically and socially vulnerable that their lives will stay the same is onto a winner.
One of the quirky aspects of New Zealand’s political culture is the degree to which its citizens factor-in the contribution their country’s eighty-year-old welfare state to the personal calculation of their overall well-being. Most Kiwis understand that without state-provided and (mostly) state-funded health care and education, their standard of living would plummet. The quantum of income required to fund a child’s private education, and pay the insurance premiums required to guarantee comprehensive private health coverage, is only available to a very fortunate minority of New Zealand households – and the rest of the country knows it.
It is this reliance on the welfare state that explains why New Zealand’s conservative party – National – always does best when it guarantees to look after the core components of the welfare state. Health, Education, and, more recently, Working for Families, constitute the foundations upon which the moderately affluent have constructed both a comfortable lifestyle and (which is probably more important politically-speaking) a comforting metric of their social status.
Also expected of National, as the designated driver of New Zealand’s economy, is a housing market capable of satisfying every New Zealander with a proven track record of hard work and thrift (both of which presuppose a buoyant labour market). Indeed, the National Party once fetishized home ownership as the key constituent of what it described, proudly, as New Zealand’s “property-owning democracy”. Nothing demonstrated more conclusively National’s understanding that the more people had to lose, the more likely they were to vote conservatively.
If proof is needed, it is there in the electoral record. Between 1950 and 1990, National was in office for 28 years: their Labour rivals, for twelve.
Notwithstanding its failure to occupy the Treasury Benches for even half of the 40 years between 1950 and 1990, Labour had every reason to feel proud of its achievements. The status quo that National felt bound to defend, on pain of losing office, was the work of its socialist opponents – not itself.
Electorally, the meaning of this arrangement was clear. If National, the conservative guarantor, failed to defend the economic and social institutions brought into being between 1935 and 1949, then their principal architect, the Labour Party, would act with radical dispatch to keep them functioning. Or, to put it more bluntly: only uncompromising reform has preserved the status quo.
The drama and confusion which has characterised the past 30 years of New Zealand’s political history are the product of the failure of both National and Labour to adequately defend the core generators of the New Zealand electorate’s economic, social and political security.
The neoliberal project, introduced by Labour’s Roger Douglas, ostensibly as a means of reconstituting the economic foundations of ordinary New Zealanders’ security, has, since 1984, only succeeded in producing a state of affairs very closely approximating the opposite. Neither Helen Clark’s Labour-led Government, nor the National-led Government of John Key and Bill English, have proved equal to the task of rebuilding a properly functioning welfare state.
The cumulative effect of this twenty-year failure to keep strong a generalised faith in the possibility of a better future, has been to set up an election – this election – in which victory will be claimed by the political leader who convinces a majority of New Zealanders that if they want their country to remain the same, then everything will have to change.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 September 2017.
Saturday, 9 September 2017
A Very Different Proposition: "But surely you see, Grant,”, Prime Minister Ardern is said to have continued, “a tiny group of experts primed to deliver what have already been pretty clearly signalled as the new government’s tax policy objectives, will be met with entirely justified public scepticism."
THE FIRST SIGN that Jacinda Ardern’s would be a very different sort of Labour Government came early.
On the subject of the much-ballyhooed “Tax Working Group”, the near universal assumption had been that it would be comprised almost entirely of the Treasury’s “usual suspects”. The pundits were equally certain that the Group’s terms-of-reference would be exceedingly narrow and its findings untroublingly predictable. A technocratic solution to a political problem born of Labour’s chronic ideological muddle. So far, so conventional.
Quite what the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, thought when Jacinda responded to his short list of reliable experts by presenting him with a much longer list of her own making, he has, so far, kept to himself. Those present in the room all agree that he looked shocked. His definition of a “working group”, and the Prime Minister’s, were clearly a long way apart.
Rather than simply gathering half-a-dozen senior accountants, bank economists and professors of economics, the Prime Minister’s list brought together a much larger, and more representative, group of New Zealanders. Using the “Water Forum” (created by the former National Government to come up with a consensual solution to the vexed question of how to manage New Zealand’s water resources) as her model, Jacinda had nominated groups and individuals with a proven interest in fashioning an equitable taxation system. Business groups and trade unions, churches and charities, academics and activists; the Prime Minister’s Working Group would be tasked with presenting her and the Finance Minister with a set of recommendations based on the broadest possible societal consensus.
The scuttlebutt doing the rounds of the Press Gallery has Robertson objecting in the most direct fashion that the Prime Minister’s version of the Working Group had not been presented to the electorate before the election and represented a radical departure from their expectations about its composition and scope. “What’s more,” he is said to have added acidly, “neither myself nor Treasury have been appraised of your intentions on this matter.”
The Prime Minister’s response was to reassure him that the expanded Working Group she was proposing couldn’t possibly proceed without the endorsement of the Finance Minister. Her Revenue Minister, David Parker, had been adamant on that score.
“But surely you see, Grant,”, the Prime Minister is said to have continued, “a tiny group of experts primed to deliver what have already been pretty clearly signalled as the new government’s tax policy objectives, will be met with entirely justified public scepticism. By radically expanding the Working Group’s membership, and giving them the broadest possible terms-of-reference, we can generate an unprecedented level of public interest and engagement in the project. Instead of a cynical exercise in bog-level perception management, the inquiry I’m proposing will become a full-scale and exciting exercise in participatory democracy. People will know that our ‘Let’s do this’ tagline is something more than just another of those election slogans that last for the duration of the campaign and then get thrown away.”
Robertson warned Jacinda that if she persisted with her plan, her Government would be torn apart by the media for attempting to turn New Zealand into the South Pacific’s very own version of Venezuela.
“Are you really telling me,” the Prime Minister responded, “that the only experts acceptable to our friends in the media are those who haven’t the slightest idea what it’s like to live on the minimum wage, or exist on a benefit? That they simply will not concede that there is more than one type of expertise when it comes to the effect of taxation on ordinary people’s lives? Surely, you’re not suggesting, Grant, that our government’s room-for-manoeuvre politically extends no further than the prejudices of New Zealand’s most reactionary journalists?”
Robertson then demanded to know whether the Greens and NZ First had been involved in the formulation of the policy she was putting forward.
“I have discussed the possibility of using National’s “Water Forum” as the model for our Tax Working Group, yes. And I have to tell you, Grant, that both James and Winston are enthusiastic. Like me, they see this as an excellent way of showing the electorate that their new government is a very different proposition from any of its predecessors. That, when it comes to economic and social policy, this government is determined to take the people with it. That the days of a dangerously isolated, neoliberal political class telling voters what’s good for them are over.”
Robertson is said to have remained silent for what seemed, to all those present, a very long time. Then, signalling his acceptance of his long-time friend and ally’s proposal with a wry grin, he is supposed to have said: “You’re not by any chance hiding a trio of dragons on the Beehive’s Ninth Floor, are you, Jacinda?”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 9 September 2017.
Friday, 8 September 2017
"An Excess Of Democracy": That was the phrase used by the corporate elites on three continents to describe the political crisis besetting the seventh decade of the Twentieth Century. The decade when groups which, for centuries, had suffered in silence: blacks, women, gays and, arguably, the planet itself, found their voice. The history of the past 40 years has been driven by the determination of those same elites to contain, constrain and cynically co-opt the emanicipatory movements of the 1970s.
LONG HAIR, FLARED JEANS AND DISCO: not for nothing were the 1970s dubbed “The Decade That Taste Forgot”. One of the most curious, and little-known facts about the 1970s, however, is how differently the political possibilities of the decade were perceived by Left and Right.
The left-wing revolutionaries of the 1970s took their inspiration from the “liberation movements” of the Third World and openly sneered at the labour movements of the affluent Western nations. Top-heavy, bureaucratic and mired in “reformism”, the working-class parties and unions of Europe, North America and Australasia were written off by leftist ideologues as being either moribund or reactionary.
The view from the Right could hardly have been more different. In the eyes of conservative academics and corporate executives, the steady gains of the enduring centre-left electoral alliances forged during the Great Depression and World War II had whittled away the power of capitalism to the point where the entire economic system of the West was believed to be teetering on the edge of a socialist abyss.
So convinced was the Right that capitalism was facing an existential crisis that they embarked on a full-scale ideological counter-attack against the post-war social-democratic consensus. In his famous 1971 memorandum, Lewis F. Powell, a corporate lawyer, enjoined the leaders of American business to resist what he described as an “assault on the enterprise system” that was “broadly based” and “consistently pursued”.
In the most quoted sentence of what came to be known as “The Powell Manifesto”, the man who President Richard Nixon would later appoint to the US Supreme Court warned corporate America that:
“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.”
It was to counter these “disquieting voices” that Powell’s followers established the multitude of right-wing think tanks that, in the intervening 40 years, would play such a decisive role in transforming the ideological climate of Western societies.
What was it that blinded so many Western leftists to the true extent of post-war social-democracy’s success?
Where better to turn for an answer than the writings of Karl Marx. In what is arguably his finest piece of political writing, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, Marx writes: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Never was this truer than of Western revolutionaries during the 1970s.
Just as the American and French revolutionaries of the late-eighteenth century draped themselves in the costumes of the ancient Roman Republic, the 1970s insurrectionist’s vision of “The Revolution” was typically lit by the crimson glow of Petrograd, 1917. Armed workers and peasants riding through the streets of a capital city festooned with scarlet banners – that’s what “The Revolution” looked like.
That a revolution in one of the affluent welfare states of the West was more likely to be the work of Powell’s “perfectly respectable elements of society”, was an idea that occurred to no one – except the Right. It explains, perhaps, why the neoliberal “counter-revolution” of the 1980s and 90s was rolled out from college campuses, pulpits and the news media: as well by politicians representing all those “moribund” working-class parties the left-wing “revolutionaries” refused to join.
The reason why so many on the Right – especially those from the “New Right” of the 1980s – are so quick to condemn the 1970s should, by now, be obvious. For them, it marks the point of maximum danger. That moment in history when groups which, for centuries, had suffered in silence: blacks, women, gays and, arguably, the planet itself, found their voice. The decade when the Right, confronted by “an excess of democracy” – drove it back.
So, the next time Bill English accuses Jacinda Ardern of wanting to drag New Zealand “back to the seventies”, by reinvigorating the trade unions and reducing our society’s growing inequalities, I sincerely hope she will not, again, airily dismiss his comments as: “So last century!”
Far from being “the decade that taste forgot”, the 1970s are actually the decade the Right would prefer everyone forgot. Yes, there was long hair, flares and disco: but there was also, as Bob Dylan sang in 1975: “Music in the cafés at night, and revolution in the air.”
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, 8 September 2017.
Thursday, 7 September 2017
In Steven Joyce's Dreams: If National can grab the attention of the waverers; all those former Key voters getting ready to board the “Jacinda Train”; and convince them that Labour’s numbers simply don’t add up. If they can make them fearful that, if they’re not very careful, a bunch of so-called “experts” are going to advise Labour to tax their land, their batch, their business, their petrol, their water, their financial transactions – even their inheritance. If enough mistrust can be fueled, and sufficient suspicion inflamed, then – dammit – the Nats just might win.
NOW IT’S CLEAR. Now we know how the next 17 days of the 2017 General Election are going to go. National’s strategy has come down to frightening the electorate into betraying its own hopes for a better future. Distilled from God knows how many focus groups, the two trigger-words National have seized upon are “Tax” and “Trust”.
Yes, it’s pretty thin. But, what else has National got? Nine years of arrogant contempt for the accumulating evidence of New Zealand’s obscene social deficit has left the Government deservedly defenceless in the face of problems that have, to its horror, entered their acute phase at precisely the wrong political moment. Already bereft of their magic man, John Key, they have also been robbed of the other politician upon whose qualities they were planning to capitalise – Andrew Little. With the “Jacinda Train” bearing down on them with terrifying speed, what else could they do?
Clearly, what they did was what the Australian, Canadian and British right-wing parties did when they found themselves staring defeat in the face. They picked up the phone and called Crosby-Textor. A smart move, because if there’s one outfit capable of turning aside the electoral thrusts of a rampant centre-left, it’s the highly successful pairing of Australians Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor.
Their most important talent has always been the ability to tease out of the words, the repeated phrases, and even the facial tics of focus group participants, the bare bones of a political narrative upon which their clients can hang the flesh of a winning electoral campaign.
Presented with the fresh face of Jacinda Ardern their search would have been for the challenges and responses required to expose her most easily exploited vulnerabilities. That the trigger-words extracted from this process turned out to be “Tax” and “Trust” strongly suggests that the focus groups’ collective responses provided the National Party with a working narrative that goes something like this:
Jacinda’s a warm and lovely person, but she’s very young and quite inexperienced. What’s more, when pressured on the big economic issues – especially those having to do with taxation – she comes across as uncertain and ill-prepared. She tells us that Labour has an economic plan, and that its been thoroughly costed by “experts” – whose judgement we are, apparently, expected to take on trust. She is similarly relying on a “working group” of experts when it comes to Labour’s tax policy – which means she can’t tell us what our taxes are going to be until after the election. That strikes us as a bit suspect, a bit dodgy. We like Jacinda, but we’re not sure she knows what she’s talking about economically-speaking. We might be persuaded to trust her. But, the people around Jacinda: the people behind her; we’re not quite ready to trust them. Not yet. There are still too many unanswered questions.
Crafting a campaign strategy out of these sentiments isn’t all that difficult.
First, you go after Jacinda on taxes – all manner of taxes. You expose her uncertainty and you attribute it not simply to her inexperience, but to something more sinister.
Labour’s hiding its true intentions, you say, because it’s got a “hidden agenda” to tax New Zealanders within an inch of their lives. You inform the country that their economic plan has an $11.7 billion “hole” in it. Of course, Labour will wheel out all sorts of “experts” to tell the voters that theirs is a wonderful plan. But, then, experts are ten-a-penny, aren’t they? New Zealanders will only find out how it all works when, in the awful event that Labour wins the election, the membership of its all-important Tax Working Group is announced. (What’s the bet they turn out to be the same people who have just told us that Labour’s plan really does add up!)
This is the narrative that National will build and amplify over the next 17 days. It doesn’t have to be true and it doesn’t matter what the media and their “experts” say. Who trusts the “lying media” and its “fake news” these days? And, seriously, what do “experts” really know about anything?
At this point in the campaign, all that matters to National is that enough voters ask themselves the following two questions: “Is Jacinda really experienced enough to run the country?” And: “Can she truly be trusted to keep her “tax and spend” Labour Party in check?”
If National can grab the attention of the waverers; all those former Key voters getting ready to board the “Jacinda Train”; and convince them that Labour’s numbers simply don’t add up. If they can make them fearful that, if they’re not very careful, a bunch of so-called “experts” are going to advise Labour to tax their land, their batch, their business, their petrol, their water, their financial transactions – even their inheritance. If enough mistrust can be fueled, and sufficient suspicion inflamed, then – dammit – the Nats just might win.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 6 September 2017.